Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
At a Power Plant, three things are certain: Death, Taxes and Quittin’ Time. Nothing can stand in the way of any of these three activities. The only time Quittin’ time might change is on a Friday afternoon just before it is time to go home and you hear the Shift Supervisor paging one of the foremen or the Maintenance Supervisor. Then you know that Quittin’ time is likely to change at the spur of the moment. Not eliminated, but only delayed. I suppose we try doing that with Death as well. I have never tried delaying Taxes before.
After the downsizing at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma in 1994, a lot of things had changed. As an electrician, I was now working on a cross-functional team with Charles Foster as my electrical bucket buddy.
The rest of my team had different skills. Some were Instrument and Controls, others were Welders, Machinists, Mechanics and then there was Alan Kramer, our foreman.
The new way we received work orders (we called them Maintenance Orders or MOs) was from our new Planners. There were two people responsible for figuring out our work for the week. That was Ben Davis and Tony Mena. I don’t have a photo of Tony, but here is Ben.
I have talked about Ben Davis in a number of past posts, as he was my mentor when I first became an electrician. I always looked up to him as a big brother. And, well, he treated me as a younger brother… but always with more respect than I deserved. Tony on the other hand was originally hired to be on the Testing Team when I was on the Labor Crew.
I still remember Monday, July 18, 1983 watching Tony Mena and the rest of the new Testers walking around the plant following Keith Hodges around like baby quail following their mother (at least that was the way Ron Luckey described them as we watched them from the back seat of the crew cab as we drove past them).
The men and woman on Labor Crew had felt passed over when the new testing team had been formed because no one on the labor crew had been considered for the new jobs even when we met the minimum requirements (which was to have any kind of college degree). So, even though it wasn’t fair to the new testing team, we had an immediate animosity toward them.
After the first downsizing in 1988, Scott Hubbard had moved to the electric shop and I quickly learned that not all testers were rotten, job stealing chumps. Actually, none of them were. They never had anything to do with who was chosen for the Testing team. That came from above. If you are interested, you can read the post: “‘Take a Note Jan’ Said the Supervisor of Power Production“. Scott and I became like brothers when he joined our team.
After the first downsizing, the testing team was reduced down to three people, Tony Mena, Richard Allen and Doug Black. I don’t have a picture of the first two, but I do have one of Doug:
After the second downsizing, the Testing team was eliminated. Scott had become an electrician seven year earlier, Doug Black moved into the Engineering Department. Richard Allen became an Instrument and Controls person and Tony Mena became a Planner along with Ben Davis. We had two other planners Glenn Rowland and Mark Fielder (who later traded with Mike Vogle to become a foreman). Glenn and Mark spent their time planning major outages, where Tony and Ben did more of the day-to-day stuff.
Tony Mena no longer had anyone to carpool with, so he asked me if he could carpool with Scott and I. So, we agreed. We told Tony that it was important to be on time, because we didn’t want to be late arriving at the plant, and we definitely didn’t want to be late going home (which was much more important). Tony agreed that he would be on time.
Quittin’ Time at the plant is a very important and orchestrated event. It begins a half hour earlier when everyone returns to the shop and cleans up and puts their tools away. Then they go into the foremen’s office and fills out their timecards for the day. This includes adding each of the maintenance orders we have worked on during the day and how many hours on each.
The next step is to grab your lunch box and go stand by the door to wait until the exact second that it is time to leave. When that happens, a steady stream of Power Plant Men pour into the parking lot, into their pickup trucks (and other vehicles) and head either north or south down Highway 177 toward their homes. Some stopping along the way for a beverage at the corner convenience store.
The Power Plant Men have Quittin’ Time down to a honed art form. Each stroke of the brush is carefully orchestrated. Scott and I went to perform our part of the ballet where the vehicles all backed out of their parking spaces in chaotic unison and quickly perform the three lines out the end of the single lane on the south side of the parking lot.
However, when we arrived in our car, Tony was no where to be found. As we received concerned looks from Randy Dailey and Jerry Day, as they pirouetted around us, wondering why we weren’t taking our turn in the Parking Lot Tango, all we could do was shrug our shoulders and watch as the dance went on without us.
Finally about 10 minutes past Quittin’ Time, Tony came walking out of the shop apologizing for being late. We told him that was all right as long as he didn’t make a habit out of it. We were pretty peeved that day because this meant that we had 10 less minutes that day to spend with our families.
We were even more peeved when the same thing happened the next day. We didn’t wait 10 minutes. After 5 minutes we went into the maintenance foremen’s office and found Tony still working away on his computer trying to finish up his work. We told him he had to leave right now! He said he hadn’t realized it was time to go.
Nothing is worse than a delayed Quittin’ Time when it isn’t for a legitimate reason. Tony didn’t have a wife and children at home so he didn’t feel the urgency that Scott and I felt. So, I figured I was going to have to do something about this. We weren’t going to tell Tony that he could no longer ride with us, because we knew he needed the company as much as we did, so I came up with a different plan.
The next day at lunch I wrote a program on the computer called “Quittin’ Time!” Here is how it worked:
It would load up on Tony’s computer when he booted it up, so he didn’t have a choice whether it ran or not. It showed up in the Task Bar at the bottom. It said: “Quittin’ Time in: 7:45:35” for example and it would count down each second. Then it would count down all day until Quittin’ Time. There was no visible way to turn it off (Power Plant Men had yet to learn about the Task Manager as this was Windows 3.1).
You could click on Quittin Time in the Task Bar and it would open up a small box in the middle of your computer with the time ticking down, but there was no red X in the corner to shut it down. There was only a minimize underscore that would put it back in the task bar.
I had added a small feature in the dialog window. In the lower right corner, there was a little slash sort of hidden in the corner. If you clicked on that, it opened another dialog box that let you set the actual time of day for “Quittin’ Time”. So, if you had to leave early, or later, you could adjust your Quittin’ Time.
Here was the clincher with the Quittin’ Time program. It was not enough to just show Tony that it was Quittin’ Time. This program had to force Tony to shut down and go home. So, when it was 15 minutes before Quittin’ Time, a Big Yellow Window would open up on top of any other work and would flash on and off that it was “15 minutes before Quittin’ Time! Time to Finish your Work!” Tony could close this window.
Then when it was 5 minutes to Quittin’ Time, another big yellow window would open up flashing 5 minutes before Quittin’ Time! Finish your work now!” and it would beep at you 5 times. Tony could close this window.
At one minute until Quittin’ Time, all heck broke loose on the computer. A big red window would open up and the computer would start beeping continually. The flashing Window could not be closed. It would say: “Less than One Minute To Quittin’ Time! Save all your Work!” The words would continually flash as well at the red background while counting down the seconds and it could not be stopped.
At “Quittin’ Time” The Red Box would say “QUITTIN’ TIME!” and the computer would lock up beeping continuously as loud as that little beeper(the internal speaker) could beep (this was a 386 PC). At that point, the only thing you could do was hit the power button and shut your computer off. I wish I had some screen shots to show you. Maybe I’ll find my old code and recreate it and take some and add them to this post later.
Needless to say, the first day I added this program to Tony’s computer, he didn’t heed the warnings. When the computer went crazy, he tried saving his work, but ended up losing a little of it before the computer completely locked up on him. He came out to the parking lot on time, however, he wasn’t in the greatest mood. We were. Scott and I were smiling. We were going to be home on time, and best yet, that day, we were included in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” being performed by the pickup trucks that day in the Parking Lot.
The best part of the Quittin’ Time program came later. After about a week, Tony (who now left work on time every day) asked me if I could add something to the Quittin’ Time program. He wanted to know if I could make it so that he would remember to eat lunch. He would get so involved in work that he would miss his lunch entirely. So, I added a “Lunch Time” Feature to the program as well. He could adjust his lunch time using the same option window that opened when you clicked on the little slash in the lower corner of the Quittin’ Time window.
When I added the Lunch Time feature, I also added an Internet Feature that would go out to Yahoo Stock Quotes and get the Daily Stock Quotes for all of our 401k Mutual Funds and our company stock and at 3:40pm CST would pop up a window with the day’s stocks, so you could see how the Mutual funds in your 401k did that day. — Nothing better than watching your retirement plan grow each day. Yahoo posted the Mutual Fund updates for the day around 3:30pm, so Tony would be the first person each day to get the latest Stock news for our Mutual Funds.
Tony Mena was known as Planner 4 later when we moved to SAP because that was the username he used. Ray Eberle used to say to me, “We always want to keep Planner 4 happy!” Later this year, I will go into various ways we kept Tony happy, or confused… or well… on his toes anyway.
Originally posted July 27, 2012:
There were two distinct times in my life at the Power Plant Kingdom where I went Head-to-Head (or tête-à-tête as they say in France) with a horde of spiders. The second time I fought side-by-side with my trusty friend Scott Hubbard, that I knew wouldn’t desert me when things went from bad-to-worse (for some reason I find myself using a lot of hyphens-to-day). The first battle, however, I had to face alone, armed only with a push broom and a shovel.
It all started a few months after I became a janitor at the power plant (in 1982). I had received my Psychology degree at the University of Missouri and I was well on my way to becoming a certified “sanitation engineer” (as my Grandmother corrected me after I told her I was a janitor).
It actually came in handy having a Psychology degree. Power Plant men would sometimes approach me when I was working by myself to stop and have a conversation that usually started like this: “So, someone told me you are a Psychiatrist.” I would correct them and tell them that I am a janitor and I only have a bachelor’s degree in Psychology which makes me a properly trained janitor able to sweep the floor in confidence knowing that “I’m OK, and You’re OK.” (which was a joke lost on everyone at the plant except for Jim Kanelakos, who was also a janitor with a Masters in Psychology).
Then they would usually want to talk about problems they were having. I would lean on my broom and listen. Nodding my head slightly to show I was listening. After a while the person would finish and thank me for listening and go on back to work.
The most important thing I learned while obtaining a Bachelors of Arts in Psychology was that Psychology is an art, not a science. Though certain scientific methods are used in many areas, especially in Behavioral Psychology. Being an art, means that the person must possess the talent for being a Psychologist. This is as important as being properly trained. So I never assumed the role of a real Psychologist, I rather tried my best to just be a friend. I found that worked well.
As I mentioned, James Kanelakos was also a janitor at the Power Plant. Which meant that between the 5 janitors and our leader Pat Braden, two of us not only had degrees, but both of them were in Psychology (with James having the Masters degree, and I as his pupil with the Bachelors).
Before I proceed with my battle with the spiders, I should mention a little about the dynamics of our Janitorial crew.
James Kanelakos was obviously Greek. With a name like Kanelakos, it was rather obvious. He looked the part also, with a graying moustache that made him look like a Greek sailor. He never was a “True Power Plant Man” and he would be glad to hear me say that. Instead he was a person that at the time acted as if he was biding his time at the plant waiting for something else to happen.
Though he never mentioned it, I know that he was also part Irish, and every now and then I would see the Irish come out. He was a family man, and in that sense he reminded me of my own father (who was also part Irish). He was only 35 years old at the time, but he acted as if he had lived longer. He smoked a pipe like my father did. As far as I know, he always remained married to his wife Sandy, and together they raised two children, a daughter and a son. That was where his heart really was.
He made no secret that his family came before anything else. Not that he would say it straight out to your face, but you could tell it in the way he interacted with others. Like I said, Jim was there “biding his time”, changing his career at a time when he needed something… else. Maybe to strengthen his priorities. He said once that he left the office to go work outside.
Then there was Doris Voss. She was an unlikely site to see in the Power Plant Palace (especially later when she became an operator). She was a “Church-going Fundamentalist” who made it clear to me that Catholics, such as myself, were doomed to hell for various reasons. I always enjoyed our… um… discussions.
I thought it was quite appropriate during Christmas when the janitors drew names from Jim’s Greek Sailor’s hat and I drew Doris’s name to give her a very nice leather-bound Catholic Version of the Family Bible. I later heard her talking to Curtis Love about it in the kitchen. He was telling her that she shouldn’t read it and she told him that it looked pretty much the same as hers and she didn’t see anything wrong with it. Needless-to-say, I was rarely condemned to a regular Catholic’s fate after that.
Curtis Love, as I explained in the post called “Power Plant Safety as Interpreted by Curtis Love“, was very gullible. It was easy to play a joke on Curtis. Too easy. He didn’t take them well, because he would rather believe what you were joking about before believing that you were joking at all. Because of this, it never occurred to me to play a joke on Curtis. Some how, though, it is hard to explain, Curtis reminded me of Tweedledee. Or was it Tweedledum?
Then there was Ronnie Banks. I talked about Ronnie Banks before in the post where Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost. He was like a likable young bear standing up on his hind legs. You could joke around with him and he was fun to be around. He acted like he enjoyed your company. Interestingly though, none of the people on our team would ever be classified as “True Power Plant Men”. We were more like an odd assortment of Misfits.
Pat Braden was our lead Janitor. He was by far the nicest person one could ever work for. He constantly had a smile on his face. He smiled when he talked, he smiled when he walked, and he especially smiled when he stood up from a chair and became dizzy from his blood pressure medicine. He had a daughter at home that he really loved. He reminded me of the goodhearted Red Skelton.
Now back to the Spider Wars and the bugs in the basement.
When I first became a janitor, I was assigned to clean the Control room and to sweep half of the turbine room floor and the Control room elevator landings and stairs. I always enjoyed being a janitor. I first became a janitor when I was 15 years old Sophomore in High School working the night shift (from 11pm to 6am) at a Hilton Inn in Columbia, Missouri.
To me it was a dream job. Sure, I couldn’t keep my own room cleaned, but put a push broom in my hand and pay me $2.50 an hour and I could clean all night. When I began as a janitor at the power plant, I was making $5.15 an hour. Double what I was making at the hotel cleaning the kitchen, the restaurant and the bar in the wee hours of the morning.
Anyway. I went to work cleaning the control room like there was no tomorrow. I would shampoo the carpet once each week. I would clean on the top and the back of the Alarm Panel. I know I made Ted Holdge (Supervisor of Operations) real nervous once when I laid a vacuum cleaner on the top of the Main Electric Panel (That’s what I call it. it was the Control panel where you synced up the unit when it was coming online) and I started vacuuming the top of it. He actually jumped out of his chair in the Shift Supervisor’s office and stood there and watched me closely. It obviously had never been cleaned before. I was trying to get rid of a strange odor in the control room that eventually, I found out was years of burned coffee in the coffee maker in the break room. I even had to scrub the walls in the kitchen to remove the odor from the entire control room.
Anyway. I was getting to know the Control Room operators, and I was thinking that maybe someday when I had progressed past janitor and labor crew that one day I may become an operator also.
One day Pat Braden came to me and told me that I was going to have to move down to be the janitor of the Electric Shop. There were many reasons. The first was that Curtis wanted to be an operator and he thought that if he worked around them that they would get to know him and would want him to join their ranks and he had more seniority than I did, so he had first pick. The second reason was that for some reason, since Curtis had been the janitor of the Electric Shop he had been bitten twice by a brown recluse spider, which had invaded the janitor closet downstairs. If he were to be bitten again, he might lose his job for being unsafe.
I didn’t mind. Cleaning the Electric shop meant that I also was able to clean the Engineers Shack and the Brown and Root Building next to it. I also decided that the main switchgear which was where the Janitor closet was located needed to be kept clean to cut down on the onslaught of the poisonous brown recluse spiders (which in Oklahoma is a regular house spider).
My first day as a Janitor in the Electric Shop as soon as I opened the door to the janitor closet, I could see why Curtis had been bitten by a Brown Recluse (not twice, but three times — the last time he didn’t tell Pat. He showed me, but just went straight to the doctor for the required shots to counteract the poison. Not wanting to lose his job). The janitor closet was full of them. They were all over the little 4 foot by 6 foot closet.
Thus began the first war on spiders at the coal fired power plant. The closet was also being used to store Freon and other air conditioning equipment used by Jim Stevenson the Air Conditioning expert in the Electric Shop. I decided then and there to move all the equipment out of the closet. The spiders were practicing “Duck and Cover” drills all over this equipment so it had to go.
My main weapon against the spiders were my boots. When I spied a spider, I stomped on it quickly. I asked Pat Braden to order a case of insecticide to help me combat the spiders. The next day he pulled a two-wheeler up to the closet with two cases and said, “Here is your order sir!” (picture Red Skelton saying that).
I had cleaned the shelves, the cabinet and the floor of the janitor closet, and there was no place for spiders to hide in there anymore. Each morning when I arrived, there was always more spiders there. 3 or 4 at least waiting for me in the closet. All Brown Recluse.
I surveyed the combat zone and realized that spiders were all over the main switchgear. So I decided I was going to sweep the switchgear regularly and kill every spider I saw to wipe them out for good.
So I laid down floor sweep (cedar chips with red oil) to keep the dust down, and began at one corner and worked my way across the switchgear sweeping and killing spiders. I kept a body count. I taped a paper in the janitor closet to keep track of my daily kill. My first day I killed over 200 spiders.
I thought surely in a short time, I will have wiped out the spider population. After sweeping the switchgear I laid down a blanket of Insecticide (equivalent to Agent Orange in Vietnam). If I could kill any bugs that are around, the spiders would leave. The insecticide didn’t kill the spiders. they would just duck under the switchgear and then come out an hour later to be standing where I left them before. So I kept stomping them out.
Every day, my body count was around 25 to 30 spiders and this number wasn’t going down. That was when I discovered the Cable Spreader room… I had been involved in mere child’s play before I walked down some steps at the tail end of the switchgear and opened one of the two doors at the bottom.
I cannot describe to you exactly what I saw, because nothing I say can put into words what was there. I guess the best thing I can say is: Armageddon.
There were two rooms. One on each side at the bottom of some concrete steps. They are called Cable Spreader rooms and are directly beneath the switchgear. One side was unit one, the other was unit 2. They are large rooms with cable trays lining the walls and across the room at regular intervals. The floor was damp, and it was black, and it was alive. There was a small path through the room where the operator would pass through “the gauntlet” once each shift as they muttered prayers that they not be eaten alive by the black oozing mass of bugs spiders and an occasional snake.
The can of bug spray in my hand seemed completely useless. I knew what I had to do. These two rooms and the cable tunnels that ran from there underneath the T-G building were the source of my daily trouncing of the meager few spiders that decided to explore the world above to see what was happening in the switchgear. The real battle was down here in the trenches. Each room was full of thousands of spiders.
I started with a large box of Plastic Contractor bags, a box of floor sweep, a shovel and a push broom. I attacked the room the same way I used to clean my own bedroom at home when I was growing up. I started in one corner and fanned out. Not letting anything past me. always keeping a clear supply line back to the steps that led up to freedom and fresh air up above.
At first I just took a large scoop shovel and scooped up the black mass of crawling and dead bugs and dumped them in a bag, until I had enough space to sweep the dust into a pile. Then I attacked it again. Occasionally a small snake would appear upset that I had invaded his space, and into the bag it would go. Everything went in the bags. The snakes, the bugs, the spiders and the grime. There was actually a constant battle taking place down there that I was interrupting. it was bug eat bug, spider eat bug and snake eat bugs and spiders wars. Everything went in the bags.
I carefully hauled the bags out to the dumpster and out they went. It took an entire day to clean one room. Then the next day when I went back I completely cleaned it again. This time paying more attention to making it livable. I wanted these two rooms to be so clean that people could go down into these cool damp rooms in the hot summer and have a picnic down there and feel safe. — No one ever did though, but such is the life of a cable spreader room. Years later Tom Gibson setup a sort of a greenhouse down there.
After that, each day I made my rounds of the switchgear, the cable spreader rooms and the cable tunnels killing any spider that showed it’s legs. After the main battle in the two rooms and tunnels was over of countless spiders and bugs, I recorded about 230 spiders the next day by making my rounds. The next day that dropped to around 150. then 80, then 50 and on down. Finally, when I was down to 3 or 4 spiders each day, I felt like the war was over and a weekly sweeping and daily walk-through would suffice to keep the switchgear safe. This left the small janitor closet virtually free of spiders from that point.
The interesting twist of the entire battle against the spiders was that the electricians had seen my skills at “Battle Sweeping” and some of them had become impressed. They told me that I didn’t have to sweep their shop and the main switchgear because they took turns doing it. I still felt that as the janitor, with my battle hardened push broom, by paying a little more attention to detail would do a slightly better job.
The electricians didn’t really volunteer to clean the shop. Whoever was the truck driver for that week was supposed to clean the shop at least one time during the week. At $5.15 an hour, I was more of a volunteer than someone that was hired to do this chore, and I enjoyed it. So, eventually, Charles Foster (An Electrical Foreman) popped the question to me one day…. He didn’t get down on one knee when he asked me, but either way, he asked me if I would think about becoming an Electrician.
That was something I hadn’t even considered until that moment. The Electricians to me were the elite squad of Power Plant Maintenance. Like the Results guys, but with a wider range of skills it seemed. But that is a story for another time.
Since I originally posted this, I have written the post about the second war with spiders with Scott Hubbard by my side. So, if this post wasn’t enough for you… read this one: “Power Plant Spider Wars II The Phantom Menace“. For a more tame story about spiders try this one: “Power Plant Spider in the Eye“.
Originally posted January 25, 2013:
When is the appropriate time to call 911? Calling 911 in the Power Plant is when you call the Shift Supervisor to report something important. As Randy Dailey, our Safety Trainer extraordinaire, always taught us, first tap the person on the shoulder and say, “Are you all right?” Then you point your finger at someone and say, “Call 911!” That’s called “Activating the EMS” (Emergency Medical System). Besides medical emergencies, there are other reasons to call the Shift Supervisor.
I learned early on to ‘fess up when you have done something wrong.” People appreciate it when you tell them up front that you goofed. That way the problem can be dealt with directly. Dee Ball was that way. Any time he wrecked a truck, he didn’t hesitate to tell his boss. So, even as a summer help I had developed this philosophy. Never be afraid to expose your blunders. It works out better in the long run.
One example of someone not following this philosoply was Curtis Love. As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement, Curtis didn’t want to tell anyone that he had been bitten by a brown recluse for the third time because he was afraid of losing his job.
His philosophy came back to bite him a year and a half later when he was on the labor crew when he was the designated truck driver. I had moved on to the electric shop by this time.
He was backing up the crew cab around a corner under the Fly Ash hoppers up at the coalyard when the side of the crew cab came into contact with one of those yellow poles designed to protect the structure from rogue vehicles. Unfortunately. This created a dent in the side of the truck.
Curtis, already on probation. worried that he would be fired if he told anyone about this mishap, failed to tell Larry Riley about this incident. Larry, on the other hand, was standing in front of the Coalyard Maintenance shop (the labor crew home), and saw the entire incident. At that moment, he turned to one of the labor crew hands and said, “I hope Curtis comes over here and tells me about that.” Unfortunately, Curtis decided to act as if nothing had happened. This resulted in his termination. As much as I cared about Curtis, I must admit that the Power Plant scene was probably not the best location for his vocation.
I had seen Dee Ball do the same thing over and over again, and he always reported his accidents immediately. He was never punished for an accident, though, for a number of years, he was banned from driving a truck. You can read more about this in the post: Experiencing Maggots, Mud and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball.
One day during the summer of 1984 just after lunch, 1A PA fan tripped (PA stands for Primary Air). When this happened, number one unit had to lower it’s output from over 500 Megawatts down to around 200. The trip indicator on the 6900 volt breaker said that it had been grounded. Being grounded means that one of the three phases of the motor or cable had made a circuit with the ground (or something that was grounded). The trip circuits shut the fan down so fast that it prevents an explosion and saves the fan from being destroyed.
Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien), Andy Tubbs and I were given the task of finding the ground and seeing what we could do to fix it. We unwired the motor, which was no easy task, because the motor is about the size of a large van, and about 10 times heavier.
So, we spent the rest of the day unwiring the motor (in the rain), and unwiring the cable to the motor from the breaker in the main switchgear and testing both the motor and the cable with various instruments looking for the grounded wire or coil that caused the motor to trip. We used a large “Megger” on the motor. It’s called a Megger because it measures Mega-Ohms. So, it’s technically called a Mega-Ohm meter. Ohms is a measurement of resistance in an electrical circuit. We usually use a small hand cranked megger, that is similar to an old hand crank telephone that generates a high voltage (good for shocking fish in a lake to make them rise to the surface). In the case of the hand cranked Megger, it would generate 1,000 volts.
The Megger this size would have been useless with this large motor. Instead we used one that was electric, and you ran the voltage up over 10,000 volts and watched the mega-ohms over a period of 1/2 hour or so.
For the cables, we hooked up a Hypot (or Hipot). This stands for High Potential. Potential in this case is another word for “Voltage”. It would charge up and then you pressed a button and it would send a high voltage pulse down the cable, and if there is a weak spot in the insulation,The Hypot will find it. So, we hooked a Hypot up to the cable and tried to find the grounded wire. No luck.
After spending 4 hours looking for the grounded cable or motor, we found nothing. We spent another hour and a half putting the motor and the breaker back in service. The Fan was put back into operation and we went home. As I was walking out to the car with Bill Rivers, he told me, “I knew they weren’t going to find anything wrong with that fan.” He had a big grin on his face.
At first I thought he was just making an educated guess as Rivers was apt to do on many occasions (daily). It was raining and I could see where water may have been sucked into the motor or something and had momentarily grounded the motor. Just because we didn’t find anything didn’t mean that the breaker didn’t trip for no reason.
When we were in the car and on our way to Stillwater, Oklahoma with Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, Bill explained that he knew why the motor tripped. He had been walking through the main switchgear with Mike Rose, and Mike, for no apparent reason other than curiosity, had opened up the bottom door to the breaker for 1A PA fan. He looked at it for a moment and then slammed the door shut. When he did this, the breaker tripped.
So, the ground relay happened to be the one that tripped. It might as well been an over-current or a low voltage trip. It just happened to trip the ground trip. Bill said that he told Mike that he should call the Shift Supervisor and let him know so they could restart the motor. Mike on the other hand told Bill that he was already on probation and was afraid of losing his job if he reported that he had slammed the door on the breaker and tripped the fan.
If there was ever a reason to call 911, it was then. All he had to do was tell them, “I accidentally tripped the PA fan when I bumped the breaker cabinet.” They would have told him to reset the flag, and they would have started the fan right back up. No questions asked… I’m sure of it. And they wouldn’t have lost their generating capacity for the remainder of the afternoon and we wouldn’t have spent 4 hours unwiring, testing and rewiring the motor in the rain with a plastic umbrella over our head.
Bill wasn’t about to tell on Mike. If Mike didn’t want to report it, Bill wasn’t going to say anything, and I understand that. I probably would have kept it to myself at the time if I was in Bill’s shoes (I’m just glad I wasn’t because I probably wouldn’t have been able to sleep soundly for the next year). But 30 years later, I might write about it in a Blog. Even though I wouldn’t have looked to Mike to teach me much about being an electrician (he was more of an Air Condition man anyway), I still loved the guy.
Mike died almost two years ago on May 29, 2011. He was from England and had lived in Canada for a time. He used to work on trains. Trains, even though they are diesel, are really electric. The Diesel engine really runs a generator that generates electricity that runs the train. I know that Mike was a good man at heart. He loved his family with all his heart. Here is a picture of the Limey:
Ok. So I know what you are thinking…. There must be a story about myself in here somewhere. Well, you would be right. First of all. I always ‘fessed up to my mistakes, as my current manager at Dell knows well (yes. I still mess up after all these years). I told my current manager the other day that CLM was my middle name. (CLM means “Career Limiting Move”). So here is my power plant “mess up” story (well one of them):
In January 1986, I returned from my Honeymoon with my new wife Kelly when I found that we had hired a new electrician. Gary Wehunt was replacing Jim Stephenson who had left the plant on February 15, 1985, which is a story all it’s own. We had just started an overhaul on Unit 1.
I remember the first Monday I spent with Gary. It was January 6, 1986 and we were working on cleaning out the exciter house on the end of the main power generator with Diana Brien (formerly Diana Lucas). We were discussing salaries and Gary was surprised to find out that I was making more than he was. Well… I had been an electrician for over 2 years and had been promoted regularly…. so I didn’t think there was anything strange about it, except that I still looked like I was only about 18 years old (even though I was 25) and Gary was about 34. I had already been promoted 4 times and my salary had gone from $7.15 to over $12 an hour.
Anyway, when that first Friday rolled around, Gary and I were assigned to Substation Inspection. Some later time I may go into the details of what “Substation Inspection” entails, but for now, let’s just stick with my “911 call.” It is enough to say that we were in the main plant substation relay house on Friday January 10, 1986 at 9:00 am. One of our jobs was to call other substations and perform a test called a “Transfer Trip and Carrier Test”. We had called Woodring Substation (Woodring is a town in Oklahoma and we had a 345 KV line going there), and I was talking to the man in the substation on the other end of the phone line.
At the same time I was showing Gary just how experienced I was at being an electrician. People had told me that you had to be a plant electrician for 5 years before you really became a “first class” electrician. Well. Here I was at 2 years, and I thought I was so good that I could do anything by now…. — Yeah… right. I told the guy on the other end of the line as I turned a switch…. Amber light… Back to Blue…. and I wrote down the value on the meter (paperwork… oh yes…. it’s that important. Like A-1 sauce).
Then I reached for the second switch. I said, “Carrier test”, then turned the switch. The lights in the relay house went out and we were in the dark. I told the guy on the other end of the line….. “Well. That’s not supposed to happen.” Then as I let go of the switch and it returned to it’s normal position, the lights turned back on. Okay……
I wrote the numbers down from the meter and said goodbye to the other faceless substation man on the other end of the line that I talked to over 100 times, but never met in person. He sounded like a nice guy. Then I headed for the gray phone. I heard the Shift Supervisor paging Leroy Godfrey (The Electrical Supervisor) on line 2 (we had 5 Gray phone lines. The Gray Phone was our PA system).
When I picked up the line I heard Leroy pick up the phone and the Shift Supervisor tell Leroy that we just lost station power in the main substation and it had switched over to Auxiliary power. I immediately jumped in and said, “Jim (for Jim Padgett, the Shift Supervisor), I did that. I was performing a Carrier test with Woodring and the moment I performed the carrier test the lights went out.” Leroy chimed in by saying, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.”
Well, in my ‘inexperienced’ plant electrician way, I responded, “Well. All I know is that when I turned the switch to perform the carrier test, the lights went out, and when I let go of the switch, the lights came back on.” Leroy reiterated, “That wouldn’t cause you to lose station power.” I replied with, “I’m just saying….” and left it at that. I had done my job. They knew I was out here. They knew I had called 911 right away. I explained what I was doing…. they could take it from there.
I had hoped that I had showed Gary upfront that it doesn’t hurt to report your mistakes (even though I hadn’t made one as far as I could tell), but I was 100% sure I had done something to cause the relay house to lose power. Though, I couldn’t figure out why.
After lunch, Bill Bennett, our A foreman came down to the shop to tell me that they figured out how the substation lost station power. He said that a road grader had been grating the road down by the Otoe-Missouri reservation (which is actually called “Windmill road” I guess because there is a windmill down that road somewhere), and had hit an electric pole and knocked it over and had killed the power to the substation.
It turned out that the substation relay house was fed by a substation down that road where we have a radio tower. So, think about this. The exact time that I turned that switch in the substation, a road grater 2 1/2 miles away hits a telephone pole accidentally and knocks it to the ground and kills the power to the substation at the exact same time that I am performing a transfer-trip and Carrier test with Woodring Substation, and the time it takes to switch to auxiliary power is the exact time it took me to let go of the switch.
Don’t tell me that was by accident. I will never believe it. I think it was for the soul purpose of teaching me a useful lesson or two. First….. don’t be afraid to tell someone when you do something wrong. Second…. If you think you have control over the things that happen to you in your life… well, think again…… Third….. God watches you every moment, and if you let him, he will guide you to do the right thing when the time comes.
God bless you all.
COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:
Monty Hansen January 26, 2013
I had a similar thing happen to me, I was upgrading to shift foreman & system called to remove a tag in the switchyard & put the switch back to auto. The tag on the pistol grip was attached with a plastic zip tie & the previous operator had put it on real tight, as I was wrestling it off with my leatherman, the pliers slipped & I banged my elbow into the control panel, at that very instant there was a loud BANG as several 345 KV breakers opened simultaniously in the swithyard, I had the phone pinched between my shoulder & ear as I was wrestling with this switch & talking to the system control operator, he said a few bad words – gotta go – & hung up. The power plant lost all power & went in the black, I, of course was just sick in the pit of my stomach, after we got power restored, the plant back on etc. I called system back to see if they found the cause & fess up to causing the trip (I figured I must have caused a trip relay to close when I hit the panel) – anyway a crane at a plant down the road had got it’s boom tangled in the power line & went to ground – AT PRECISELY THE INSTANT MY ELBOW SLIPPED & HIT THE PANEL!!
Plant Electrician January 26, 2013
That’s a Great Story Monty!
Ron Kilman January 26, 2013
Some great illustrations of the truth in Proverbs 28:13 “He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion”.
justturnright January 28, 2013
CLM: I can relate.
My first boss 30 years ago once told me he was going to officially nickname me “I’m sorry” (and make me wear it for a name badge) if I said it one more time.
Hey, there’s worse things.
Roomy January 29, 2013
I had not thought about Mike Rose in years. He was a good guy to work with, now Rivers was a different story!!!
Sub checks, I used to love to do sub checks. I performed pilot wire & transfer trip checks for years. I hated it when they went to being done by automation.
Thanks for bringing back old memories.
Originally Posted July 12, 2013:
All safe electricians worth their salt know about OSHA regulation 1910.147(c)(3). Only Power Plant electricians have learned more about OSHA regulation 1910.147(a)(1)(ii)(C). Section 147 has to do with locking out and tagging a power source in order to protect the employees working on the circuit. 147(a)(1)(ii) says that Power plants are exempt from section 147. In other words, if you are working in a power plant it is all right to have a less stringent lock-out/tag-out procedure in place than if you didn’t work in a power plant.
One of the first things I learned from Charles Foster, my foreman when I became an electrician was how to remove the “heaters” from a breaker relay in order to protect myself from an “unauthorized” operation of the breaker. That means…. in case someone accidentally turned on the breaker and started up the motor or whatever else I was working on. “Heaters” are what we called the overloads that trip a 480 volt breaker when the circuit uses more power than it is supposed to be using. They are called heaters, because they literally “heat up” in order to trip the breaker.
Charles Foster told me the following story about my bucket buddy Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien):
Dee was wiring up a sump pump at the bottom of the coal dumper. The motor had been taken out while the pump had been repaired. Once back in place Dee was sent to wire it back up. The proper clearance had been taken to work on the motor. That is, she had gone to the Shift Supervisor’s office in the Control Room to request a clearance on the motor. Then later she had witnessed the operator opening the 480 volt breaker and place the clearance tag on the breaker.
The tag is signed by the Shift Supervisor and is only to be removed by an operator sent by the Shift Supervisor. It is placed through a slot in the handle on the breaker that keeps the breaker from closing unless the tag is removed first…. well… that’s the theory anyway.
Dee had just finished hooking the three leads in the junction box together with the cable coming into the box using two wrenches. She reached down into her tool bucket that she was using as her stool to get some rubber tape to begin wrapping the connections. The three bare connections were sticking out in front of her face.
The Junction box is the box on the right side of this motor. At this point the cover would be off and the wires would be sticking straight out. As she reached into the bucket, the motor turned on and began running.
Startled, Dee stopped what she was doing. I suppose she also pinched herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose she checked her diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose she may have said a few choice words whether anyone was around to hear them or not. Maybe not all in that order.
For those of you who don’t realize what this meant. It meant that if the motor had started running about 5 to 10 seconds later, someone, some time later may have made their way down to the west end of the dumper sump only to find one charred Diana Lucas (who never would have later become Diana Brien). They might not have recognized her at first. I can assure you. It wouldn’t have been pretty.
You see… someone had removed the Hold Tag and purposely started up the motor totally disregarding the clearance. I won’t mention any names, but his initials were Jerry Osborn.
So, after Charles told me this story, he showed me what to do to prevent this from ever happening to me.
Charles and I went to the Shift Supervisor’s office to take a clearance on a motor. Then we followed the operator to the breaker and watched him open the breaker and put the tag on the handle. Then we signed something and the operator left.
After the operator left, Charles told me to open the breaker and slip the hold tag through the slot in the door so that the door could open without removing the tag. I followed his directions.
Once the door was open, he told me to remove the three heaters on the bottom of the relay and hide them at the bottom of the breaker box.
You see… with the heaters removed, even if someone were to close the breaker and try to start the motor, the electricity would never leave the breaker box because I had just created an open circuit between the relay and the wires going to the motor.
Well… If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and start talking about making it illegal to own guns.
Anyway, there is always a chance for something to go wrong. The Peter Principle demands it. So, at one point, someone forgot to replace the heaters in the relay before returning their clearance. When the motor was tested for rotation, it didn’t work. At that point the electrician knew that they had forgotten to re-insert the heaters. So, they had to return to the breaker to install the heaters before the motor would run.
This didn’t set well with the Shift Supervisor, who has supreme power at the power plant…. well… besides the janitor who had total control over the toilet paper supply.
Technically we were not going around the hold tag by removing the heaters because they were downstream from the breaker handle which cut off the power to the relay. The Shift Supervisor on the other hand believed that the hold tag included everything in the breaker box, including the relay and heaters (which really was stretching it).
An argument ensued that pitted the shift supervisors and the supervisor of operations, Ted Holdges with the electricians. Ted argued that we should not be removing the heaters to keep ourselves from becoming electrocuted accidentally when someone inadvertently removes a hold tag and turns the breaker on and starts up a motor. Electricians on the other hand argued that if we were going to be exposed to the possibility of being electrocuted, we would rather not work on any circuit. Without being completely assured that we would not occasionally be blown to pieces when someone or something accidentally caused the circuit to become hot, we concluded it wasn’t worth it.
So, a compromise was reached. We could remove the heaters, but they had to be put in a plastic bag and attached to the hold tag on the outside of the breaker. That way, when the clearance was returned, not only were the heaters readily available the operator would know to contact the electrician to re-install the heaters. The electricians didn’t really like this alternative, but we agreed. We were assured that there wasn’t any way that a breaker was going to be turned on and operated with the heaters in them when someone was actually working on a circuit.
Fast forward three years. 1992.
Bill Ennis and Ted Riddle were working on replacing a large electric junction box on the stack out tower. The Stack Out Tower is the tower that pours the coal out on the coal pile. Halfway up this tower there is a large junction box where most of the electric cables passed through going to the top of the tower. Bill Ennis had taken a clearance on a number of motor and control breakers.
Bill returned from lunch one day to work on the junction box, removing the old cables. Putting new lugs on them and placing them in the new junction box. As he began working, he decided to take out his multimeter and check the wires he was about to work on….
Bill was surprised to find that one set of cables were hot. They had 480 volts on them. Everything in this box should have been dead. I suppose he pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming. Then I suppose he checked his diaper to make sure it was still dry. Then I suppose he said a few choice words that Ted may have heard if he was standing close by.
What had happened was that there had been two clearances on this one particular motor. One of the electricians had returned his clearance, and had installed the heaters that were in the plastic bag on the front of the breaker and the motor had been tested for rotation and put back in service. The operator had taken both clearances off of the breaker by mistake.
Ok. It was time for another meeting. Something had gone wrong. If it had not been for the guardian angels of both Diana Brien and Bill Ennis, at this point we would have had at least two dead electricians, and believe me…. I know that when an operator had later climbed the stack out tower to check the equipment, if he had run across the body of Bill Ennis… it definitely wouldn’t have been pretty (even on a good day).
I attended this meeting with Ted Holdges as did most of the electricians. I began by telling Ted that when we had met three years earlier I was newly married and wouldn’t have minded so much if I was killed by being electrocuted because I was young and only had a wife who knew how to take care of herself. But now it was different. I had a little girl at home and I need to be around to help her grow up.
Ted looked surprised by my remark. I had just told him the way I felt about this whole situation. The argument that we were making was that we should be able to place locks on the breakers just like OSHA demanded from the other industries. We had demonstrated that we didn’t have a system that would protect us from human error. We needed something that definitely kept us safe.
We told Ted that even if we had locks, and for some reason the breaker just had to be closed and the electrician had forgotten to remove his lock, the shift supervisor could keep a master key in his office to remove the lock. He finally agreed. His problem was a loss of control. The thought was that the Shift Supervisor had ultimate power.
If you don’t learn from history you are bound to repeat it. No. I’m not going to change subjects and talk about socialized healthcare and how it destroys all concepts of quality and privacy.
So, as electricians, we weren’t really happy with this situation. We had a secret weapon against human error. Sure we would place a lock on the breaker. But after the operator would leave, before we placed our lock on the breaker, we might just open up the breaker box and remove the entire face off of the relay. It was similar to removing the heaters only it was bigger. It completely opened the circuit no matter what.
I hadn’t really planned on talking about this next story for a couple more years, but I’ll tell it now because it fits with this story.
In the month of May, 2001. I had already given my notice to leave the plant to work for Dell as a software developer. I was asked to work on a job with my old bucket buddy Diana Brien.
The problem was that there was a grounded three phase circuit up on the Surge Bin tower. It had been tracked down to the dust collectors located below the surge bin conveyor floor.
Dee and I walked up to the Gravimetric feeder deck to look at the breaker to make sure it was turned off. It had a Danger tag on it that had been placed by the Shift Supervisor.
The breaker was open and the message on the tag said “Do not close this breaker. The circuit is grounded”.
Ok. We walked up to the surge bin tower through the counter weight room for belts 18 and 19. We opened up the big junction box that fed the power to the two large dust collector motors on the landing behind us. After taking the cover off of the box, I took out my multimeter and checked the circuit.
The big copper bus was dead (that means, there was no electricity present).
So, Dee and I worked on locating the grounded circuit. I had just removed the cover to the junction box on one of the motors while Dee was removing some wires from the control panel when Larry Tapp arrived on the landing through the same route we had taken from the gravimetric feeder deck.
Larry asked us what we were doing. We told him we were tracking down the ground on the Dust Collectors. Larry looked surprised.
You see… Larry explained that he had just come from the Gravimetric feeder deck where he had just closed the breaker for the dust collectors. This particular breaker didn’t have a relay, as it was controlled by the control panel where Dee had been working.
So, I rechecked the copper bus with my multimeter and it was hot. 480 volts hot.
I had just been looking through my tool bucket for two wrenches to remove a piece of the bus work just to make sure the ground wasn’t in the box itself when Larry had arrived. In other words, if Larry had arrived 5 to 10 seconds later, he would have probably arrived to find Dee looking down at my body, stunned that I had just been electrocuted by a circuit that we had just tested and found dead.
If you don’t learn by history you are bound to repeat it.
You see… there is a difference between a Hold Tag and a Danger Tag. A hold tag is placed on a breaker after someone has requested a clearance by signing a form in the Shift Supervisor’s office in the control room. A Danger tag can be placed and removed at anytime by the person that placed the tag on the breaker.
So, I personally wrote this up as a “near” accident. We could have wiped our brow, pinched ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming. We could have checked our diaper to make sure it was still dry and then Dee could have said a few choice words that Larry Tapp would have agreed with (I have always had a mental block against expressing myself in that manner…. I found other ways). And we could have left this incident as a secret between Larry, Dee and I.
I thought it was a good time to remind the electricians throughout power production to follow the clearance procedures when working on high voltage circuits. Sure. Dee, Bill Ennis and I have powerful guardian Angels looking out for us…. but gee… I think we should be expected to look out for ourselves. So, I wrote up this incident to warn the rest of the team….. If we don’t learn from history, we are bound to repeat it.
I met with my roomie Steven Trammell, a month and a half later in Perkins Restaurant in Stillwater, Oklahoma to discuss his performance plan. I was a 360 Degree Assessment Counselor and my favorite roommate from 17 years earlier had chosen me to review his performance appraisal. During this meeting I asked Steven, who had driven from Harrah, Oklahoma from another power plant to meet with me, if he had read the near accident report about the dust collector at our plant.
My roomie told me that he had, and that he thought it seemed to unduly blame the electrician. I told him I was the electrician and that I wrote the report. After 18 years of being an electrician, I had become so relaxed in my job that I had become dangerous to myself and others. So, after I did a cause-effect analysis of the near accident, most of the cause had come from my own belief that I could circumvent clearance procedures and save time and still believe that I was being safe.
On my drive back to the plant after the meeting with my favorite roomie of all time, I had time to think about this…. I was going to be leaving the power plant in a little over a month to work for Dell as a programmer. I knew this when I had been negligent with the Danger tag. I could have caused the death of both Dee and I. I will sure be glad to be in Texas. — Only.. I will miss my friends most of all.
I leave the Power Plant with this one thought…. If you don’t learn from history, you are bound to repeat it. I mean it… This time I really do.
Comments from the previous posts:
Originally posted on January 11, 2014:
Up front, I would like to clarify the title so that those who are quickly perusing articles looking for something salacious won’t have to read too far before they realize this isn’t what they are seeking. The word “Boner” in this headline refers to a “joke” played on a Plant Engineer by the name of George Bohn at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. When I was a boy we had a joke book called the “Omnibus Book of Boners”. Most of my life I never thought about the word “Boner” as having another meaning. Which, after this joke was played might have explained the expression on George’s face.
In an earlier Post “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” I explained that when playing a Power Plant joke, the longer it takes to play a simple joke, the better the effect. I think the reason for this is that when the person realizes that a joke has been played on them by a fellow Power Plant Man and even though it was simple, the person went through the effort over a long period of time, just to make you smile for a moment. Then you know that this person must truly be a good friend. Who else would waste countless hours on someone over days, weeks, or even months, just to make someone smile once?
Well…. Bohn’s Boner lasted for over six months! Yeah. Six months, at least.
I saw the opportunity arise one day after we had received a new hard drive for precipitator computer for Unit 2. We had the computers for a couple of years after we went to digital controls in the precipitator before the hard drive crashed. This happened to be a project that George Bohn had managed. He was the project manager and had overseen the installation of the precipitator controls, which included the two precipitator computers in the control room. One for each unit. They sat around behind the big control panel that you see when you watch an older movie about a Power Plant Control Room, like the China Syndrome.
Anyway, each of the computers had 30 Megabyte hard drives. Yeah. You heard that right! 30 Megabytes. That’s not a typo. Not Gigabytes… nope. Megabytes. Just this morning at Dell, I received an e-mail with a file attached that was over 30 Megabytes in size (Thanks Norma). I’m talking about an IBM AT computer:
Well, the Unit 2 precipitator computer was used to monitor all of the 84 control cabinets in the Precipitator control room. It indicated how much voltage and amperage were on each cabinet, as well as the spark rate, and the setting on each cabinet. It was really a great step up. I’m sure today you can probably do that from your phone while you are sitting in a movie theater just before they tell you to silence your “Cell Phone Now” and stop texting your neighbor. Back then, it was amazing.
All the operator had to do was go over to the computer, pull up the screen (this was before Windows, but the program was running by default), and type the keyboard command to tell it to print and “voila”, it would print out all that information. The operator could look at it to see if there was a problem, and if not, he just saved it with all the other reports he was supposed to create during his shift.
Believe it or not. Before this time, the operator actually walked up to all of the 84 cabinets on each unit and looking at meters on the cabinet wrote down the voltage and amperage of each cabinet on a form. You can imagine how much happier they were to be able to print it all out in the control room. Hours and hours saved each week.
So, when the 30 Megabyte hard drive crashed George Bohn ordered a new hard drive from the IT department in Oklahoma City. A couple of weeks later, we received the new hard drive from the city. George gave it to me and asked me to install it in the computer.
When I installed the hard drive, I found that it had already been formatted. All I had to do was install the program and we were good to go. I backed up the program from the Unit 1 computer and copied it onto the new hard drive using a floppy disk. Yeah. Programs were a lot smaller then. A 360 Kilobyte floppy disk was all that was needed to hold the entire Precipitator program.
I noticed right away that instead of being the 30 Megabytes we had expected, there was only 20 Megabytes on the drive. That was all right with me. 20 Megabytes would be enough so that we didn’t have to back anything up very often.
As I was installing the program and testing it, and going through the code figuring out how to change Unit 1 to Unit 2, I had an idea…. At the command prompt, I typed “D:” and hit enter. You know what I was checking, right? D colon, and enter…..
sure enough. there was a D drive on this hard drive. Another 20 Megabytes were on this partition. You see. This was actually a 40 Megabyte hard drive that had been partitioned as two 20 megabyte drives.
It was at this point that I thought I would play a little joke on George. I figured he would come and look at this computer and at first he would find that the new hard drive was only a 20 Megabyte drive instead of the 30 Megabyte drive that he had ordered. I also figured that like me, he would think about it for a minute and then check to see if there was an extra partition and would find the extra drive.
So I thought I would leave him a little present. I went to D Drive and at the command prompt (gee… the only thing you had was a command prompt. You didn’t even call it a command prompt then. You called it a DOS prompt) that looked like this: D:> I typed – “label d: Bohns Boner” For all you older DOS people, you know what this did, right? It labeled the D drive volume name “Bohns Boner”. At the time I think we were on DOS 4.0 or something close to that. The volume length was limited to 11 characters and Bohns Boner took exactly 11 characters. The label couldn’t be longer than that.
Now, all I had to do was call up George Bohn, tell him I had installed the hard drive in the precipitator computer and it was up and running and go to the electric shop and wait for him to come down with a smile on his face over the name of the second drive on the computer. So I did. I told Charles Foster and Terry Blevins.
After the reorganization, Tom Gibson, our Electric Supervisor had decided that Terry Blevins would maintain the precipitator on Unit 2, and I would maintain Unit 1, which was great for me, because I was no longer working on both of them by myself. So, Charles and I were waiting for George to arrive in the electric shop office. It didn’t take long.
George came in the office and said, “Did you see that they only gave us a 20 Megabyte hard drive instead of a 30 Megabyte drive. (Oh. So, he hadn’t found the second partition). I replied, “Yeah. I noticed that.” George was a little perturbed that he didn’t get what he ordered. He said he was going to contact them and have them send us a 30 Megabyte drive. We had paid for it. I told him that he should. Especially since we had paid for it (keeping a straight concerned look on my face).
Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and there was no new hard drive, and George hadn’t said anything more about it. I thought he might have eventually found the second drive, but then he would say something like “I can’t believe they didn’t send us the right hard drive” and I would know that he still hadn’t figured it out.
One day the operators came to me and pulled me aside and asked me if there was some way when they were on the night shift if they could use the precipitator computer to create documents. At this time PCs were pretty sparse. The only good computers in the control room were these two precipitator computers and the Shift Supervisor’s office. the Precipitator computers just sat there monitoring the precipitator all the time, even when no one cared.
The plant had purchased so many licenses to use Word Perfect, a word processor that was the “in thing” before Windows and Word came around. So, I installed Word Perfect for them on the extra drive on the Unit 2 precipitator computer. That is, Bohns Boner. I explained to them that they could only use it when George Bohn was not around, because he didn’t know the drive existed and I wanted him to find it himself someday.
Everyone agreed. All the Control Room operators that were at all interested in creating documents, like Jim Cave and Dave Tarver and others, knew about Bohns Boner, and knew that it was a secret.
The Control room had a laser printer installed next to the Shift Supervisor’s office so they could print out Clearances and have them look nice. They had some new Clearance system they installed, and this came with it. So, the next question was… Is there a way we can print our documents out using the Laser Printer instead of the clunky Dot Matrix printer tied to the Precipitator computer?
I ordered a 50 foot Printer cable (I paid for it out of my own pocket) and kept it coiled up under the small desk where the precipitator computer sat and explained that they could just disconnect the dot matrix printer on the back of the computer and plug the other end into the Laser Printer and they could print out nice neat looking documents. But… They had to do it at night or when they were sure that George Bohn was not around because he still didn’t know the extra drive existed. Everyone agreed. They would have to string the printer cable across the Control Room floor to reach the laser printer.
Like I said earlier. this went on for well over 6 months. It seemed like almost a year. Then one day, George Bohn came down to the Electric Shop office while Charles and I were sitting there for lunch. He said that he had asked Oklahoma City about the hard drive again, and they had insisted that they had sent the correct hard drive to our plant. Then we could see a light go on in his head. He said, “Do you suppose that they partitioned the disk into two drives?” (Bingo! He had figured it out). I said, “Could be.”
Charles and I sat there and looked at him while we ate our lunch. The cherry tomatoes Charles had given me tasted especially good with my ham and cheese sandwich that day. I knew that we were finally only minutes away from the end of the joke we had been playing on George for the past so many months. George leaned back in the chair with his thin long legs stretched out and his hands behind his head. I could tell he was thinking about it.
Then he rose from his chair and headed out the door. Charles and I smiled at each other. We both waited. A few minutes later George came back in the office. He had found Bohns Boner. You see. When you went to a drive back then on the command prompt, the first thing you would see was the volume name. So as soon as he typed the D colon and enter, it would have said “Bohns Boner”.
George sat down in a chair. He didn’t say anything. He just sat there with a straight face as if he didn’t know what to think. I thought…. well, he is an Engineer. Maybe he doesn’t know what to do when Power Plant Men play jokes on them. He looked like he couldn’t decide whether to be upset or glad that we had an even bigger hard drive than he ordered. I don’t know if he ever figured out that the longer the joke takes, the more we liked him.
I guess George felt foolish that it took him so long to find that extra drive. I suppose he might have thought he knew me well enough that if there had been an extra drive on the computer, when he first mentioned it, I would have told him that it was partitioned into two drives, so he didn’t give it a second thought. I guess he didn’t know me as well as he thought.
Anyway, after that, he never said anything about the operators using the computer for other uses than monitoring the precipitator, which was always a problem before. George never mentioned the hard drive again. I don’t remember now if I later changed the volume name on the drive. It seemed like not long after the computers were upgraded from the IBM AT to something like a XT 286.
Oh. I had another joke I played on George. The other one lasted for years, and he never figured it. I will write about that one later. That one wasn’t so much of a joke as it was out of necessity. I won’t say anymore about it now. You’ll have to wait at least another week or two.
Originally posted April 5, 2014:
Today, work ended in a strange way. I was working away at Dell when I had a call with a business partner to go over some configuration of our timekeeping application. When I joined the call, the person on the other end of the line, who usually sounded like a normal woman with a slightly Hispanic accent sounded more like an insect alien with a very nervous tic.
I tried several quick remedies on my computer to resolve the audio issues I was experiencing. You see, at Dell, when we use the telephone, we are actually using our computer with a headset attached. After shutting down a few processes that I knew were not necessary in the hope of clearing up our communication, I thought that maybe rebooting my computer would be the simple solution. That was the lesson I had learned back at the gas-powered power plant in Harrah Oklahona in 1985.
Ellis Rook had told me back then that he didn’t mess with trying to figure out why the phone system wasn’t working. Whenever there was a problem, he preferred to just reload the program from disk, which took about a half an hour. No worries that all the phones in the plant would be down for a half an hour as the Rolm Phone computer was rebooting. So, I rebooted my system, since restarting the communication program didn’t work.
When my computer rebooted and I attempted to log in, when the screen would go blank just before the moment when you would expect the wallpaper to show up, my computer would indicate that it was logging me off and then would shutdown only to restart again…. Drats! …and I had this important call with my coworker that I was sure had not really changed into the alien that had been talking to me moments before.
I tried this a couple more times, and each time the computer would shutdown and restart. So, I swiveled around in my chair and turned to my current manager who was sitting across the bullpen cube from me and I said, “My computer has crashed.” It just keep restarting. She replied, “Go take it down to the computer clinic and have them fix it. They are great! They will fix you up right away.
On a side note, I just want to add that my current manager at Dell has been the absolute most influential manager I have ever met next to Charles Foster. She has perfected the art of “Expanding her bubble”. Charles taught me this technique many years ago.
So, on a side note of a side note, let me just tell you what my former foreman Charles Foster at the Power Plant did once. He ordered some equipment for everyone in the electric shop which ran into a few “extra” dollars. When he was called on the carpet to explain why he thought he had the authority to make this purchase, he explained it this way:
“When I went to ‘manager training’ they told me that during your career you will have times where it will be necessary to perform activities that you are not sure you are able to perform, so you should go ahead and try them. If you get your hand slapped, you just pull back and don’t do that again.’ This is called ‘Expanding your bubble’. I was just expanding my bubble.” He said Ben Brandt, the assistant plant manager, looked at him with a blank stare for a moment, and then told him that he was free to go. Evidently, according to the listening devices that we had hidden in his office, Ben turned to Tom Gibson, the Electric Supervisor, and said, “That’s a pretty good explanation.”
I bring this encounter up, because my current manager, Ali Levin, of whom I also have the greatest respect, just recently had an opportunity to expand her bubble. She was so successful that those around her that know what she has accomplished just stare in awe at her. I predict that within the next decade this young lady will have become the CIO (Chief Information Officer) of a Fortune 500 company (mark my word).
So, what does this all have to do with Charles Peavler and Power Plant Pilfering? Well. The final verdict from the super technicians down in our computer repair lab, said that since it was Friday afternoon, I wouldn’t be able to have my computer back in working order until Monday morning. Which meant that I would have to go all weekend without being able to log in and perform feats of magic on my laptop.
Ok. I was resigned to go home early and wait patiently until Monday morning when I could begin popping up various applications and flipping between them and the multiple Instant Message windows talking to various business customers throughout the day as I performed the satisfying dance of my day-to-day job. So. I left work early.
This evening as I sat down to create a post about Power Plant Men and my previous life working as an electrician at a Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahama, the sudden loss of my computer flashed me back to a time when someone that was working with me experienced a similar loss. Instead of a laptop. This electrician had lost a set of “Jumpers”.
Ok. These jumpers don’t look like much, I know. But jumpers are almost as important to a plant electrician as a laptop is to an IT developer at Dell. That is, you just can’t get your work done without it.
So, it was either Donald Relf or Bob Eno who was working with me on Friday, March 29, 1993. During overhaul, we had been calibrating precipitator control cabinets all day. Much like today, April 5, 2014 when my computer died. At the end of the day as we were packing up our equipment Bob or Donald, I don’t remember, saw me leave my tool bucket next to the old typewriter stand that we were using as a portable workbench. He asked me if it was safe to leave our tool buckets there over the weekend.
I assured him that the coal-fired plant in North Central Oklahoma hired only “top-notch” Power Plant Men. His tools would be perfectly safe sitting out in the Precipitator control room over the weekend. I was so confident because I had always left my tools where I was working in the precipitator during overhaul and I had never had anything stolen. If anything, someone may have left me a present of chocolate behind only because they knew that I always did favors for chocolate.
You can imagine my surprise when we returned to the Precipitator Control Room on Unit 1 on Monday morning only to find that Bob (or Donald) had their jumpers missing from their tool bucket. We each used 5 gallon buckets to carry our tools. Mine had been untouched. No extra chocolate that day, but no unsavory fingerprints were detected.
As it turned out, we relied on Bob’s (or Donald’s) jumpers to do our job, so we actually had to return to the electric shop and create a new set of jumpers for him. I felt so ashamed. After all, I had so proudly explained that only those with the greatest integrity worked at our plant, and he didn’t have to worry about leaving his tools, and here I was having to cover for his losses. This was the only time in the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant where someone had stolen something from a tool bucket when they weren’t purposely playing a joke on me.
When I found time that day, I went to the control room and asked the Shift Supervisor if he could tell me who worked as the Unit 1 auxiliary operator over the weekend. I knew that this would narrow the culprit down to three people. He looked through his logs and said that Darrell Low, Charles Peavler and Jim Kanelakos had Unit 1 over the weekend.
Knowing how the shifts worked, I knew that each of these people had walked through the Unit 1 precipitator exactly 3 times over the weekend, before we returned on Monday morning. I also knew that no one else would have ventured to stroll through the Precipitator control room who was working over the weekend on overhaul. I knew this because of all the hundreds of hours I had already spent in this control room over the weekend, only one operator per shift ever visited. It was usually my reminder to take a break and go to the bathroom and buy something from a vending machine before returning.
I studied this list. Hmmm….. Darrell Low…. A person with impeccable character. Would love to play a good joke when given the change, but honest as the day is long. Jim Kanelakos…. Devious at times, but personally a very good friend. A person so dear to me that I him kept personally in my daily prayers. Charles Peavler… well… by the title of this post…. you already know the rest of the story.
I eliminated Darrell immediately since I knew his character and I would trust him with my life (which I actually would at times when he would place clearances for me). I suspected Peavler right off, but I thought I would make sure that Jim Kanelakos wasn’t just playing a joke on me first. So, I approached him and asked him if he had taken a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket in the Precipitator control room over the weekend.
At first Jim looked at me with a hurt feeling that I thought might be a perfect expression if he was playing a joke on me. He was holding the look of sorrow and hurt that I would actually accuse him vaguely of stealing a pair of jumpers from a tool bucket. When I pressed him on the issue. The hurt look changed to a look of resolve and he said directly, “No. I didn’t take them.”
I knew immediately that he was telling me the truth. Jim and I had worked together with Charles Peavler on the labor crew together. We actually used to analyse his behavior as sort of a joke, and kind of a refresher of our Psychology background. Jim Kanelakos had earned a Masters Of Arts in Psychology, while I had a bachelors in the same field. So, we used to have fun joking around together about the unusual behavior of Peavler.
Charles Peavler looked like the Sergeant on Gomer Pyle. Except that he had chewed tobacco so long that his lower lip was permanently curled so that he looked like Popeye. I say that because they had the same lower jaw and the same amount of hair on his head:
Once I was certain that Charles Peavler had taken the Jumpers from Bob’s (or Donald’s – I’m relying on one of you telling me which one) tool bucket, I approached him with the attitude that I already knew it was him. I came up to him in the Control room and said, “Charles! You know that pair of jumpers that you took from that tool bucket over the weekend? I need those back!”
I explained to him that I had told the visiting electrician that it was safe to leave his tools there because no one would touch his stuff. So, I felt personally responsible to get the jumpers back. Charles immediately denied that he had taken the jumpers. He said that he didn’t know what I was talking about. I told him that I had checked, and he was the only person over the weekend that would have taken them. So, I needed them back. He continued to deny that he had taken them.
As the overhaul was lasting a few weeks longer, I continually approached Charles in the middle of the control room where the Control Room operators were within earshot asking him to give the jumpers back to me. I would tell him how I need them so that we could continue our work. Also I would explain each time that the reputation of our Power Plant was at stake.
Finally one day he said, “Well. I don’t have them here. I took them home.” — That was a great relief to me. I had been continually accusing him day after day of taking those jumpers. I was finally glad to find out I hadn’t been accusing someone falsely, which was always a vague thought in the back of my mind. The moment he told me he had taken the jumpers home, I jumped on him (not literally – though the thought occurred to me). I said, “I need those jumpers back!”
It took about a week. Each day whether he was on the day shift or the night shift or the evening shift, since we were on overhaul working a lot of overtime, he was not able to escape me. I would go up to him and ask him, “Did you bring those jumpers today? ” Each time in the middle of the control room, quite loudly.
Finally, about a week after he admitted having the jumpers when I asked him about it in the middle of the control room, he went into the locker room and soon returned with the pair of jumpers and handed them to me. I quickly returned them to Bob (or Donald), and apologized profusely for the inconvenience. I didn’t tell him exactly what had happened to the jumpers, only that I had finally tracked them down.
I guess, he didn’t know that I knew him so well. So well in fact that to this day, I have kept Charles Peavler also in my prayers every day. When he lost his mother in on April 1, 2000 (fourteen years this week), I felt his loss also. He left the plant on July 29, 1994 during the last (and the worst) downsizing the Power Plant ever experienced. To this day, though I was peeved with Peavler back then, I still care for him deeply. I don’t think he was a “True Power Plant Man”, but neither was Jim Kanelakos or myself.
Some day Charles will meet our maker. When he does, he will be able to say, “Yeah. I did steal a pair of jumpers once. But I ended up by giving them back.” I clearly remember the look of relief that day when Charles placed those jumpers in my hand. It was if a heavy burden had been lifted. Actually, by that time I had decided that it was as important for Charles to give back those jumpers as it was for Bob (or Donald) to get them back. Something had compelled him to lift that pair of jumpers, I think it was an opportunity for him to face reality. I thought that he was having a “Come to Jesus” moment when he confessed.
I often wondered what Charles’ mother Opal Peavler would have thought of Charles. I suppose she finally found out. I suspect that by the time she found out, that Charles had mended his ways. After all, he was on his way when we had danced this dance in the middle of the control room that week in 1992. He did finally admit that he had stolen something. I’m sure he thought at the time that an electrician could easily make a new pair of first class jumpers. We wouldn’t care that someone had come along and taken one measly pair of jumpers.
Actually, if Charles had ever come to the electric shop and asked any electrician for a pair of jumpers, any one of the electricians would have been glad to whip up a pair as if by magic. I think it was just that one moment when he was alone with a tool bucket staring at him and a perfectly prepared pair of jumpers were gleaming up at him that in a moment of weakness, he decided he could pilfer this pair without anyone knowing.
To tell you the truth. I was very proud of Charles Peavler the day he placed those jumpers in my hand. Geez. I didn’t realize until after I finished this post that I have a picture of Peavler:
Originally posted April 12, 2014:
In an earlier post titled “Power Plant We’ve Got the Power Program” I explained how in 1990 we broke up into teams at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to find ways to save the Electric Company money. Before we were actually able to turn in our first set of ideas, we had a month or more to prepare those ideas and to turn them into proposals. During this time, and throughout the entire “We’ve Got the Power” program, teams who wanted to succeed and outdo the other teams became very secretive. Our team was definitely that way. We had secret experiments going on throughout the plant, and we didn’t want other teams to even know what areas we were investigating.
As the program progressed, a certain level of stress developed between teams. In a later post I will tell a story about how this level of stress led to a situation of suspicion and eventually even animosity. This post will not go into that situation. Instead I want to explain what our team did to try to alleviate some of the stress by devising a special “Power Plant Joke” that we played on the rest of the Power Plant Men (and Women).
There were some teams that had setup some experiments that they were running to see if their ideas may save the company money. Our team had several experiments running throughout the beginning months. All of which we carefully hid from prying eyes. We were proud of our stealthiness. Sneaking around, making sure we weren’t being followed when we went to take readings from our carefully hidden recorders and other devices.
Charles Foster, Scott Hubbard and I were sitting in the electric shop office discussing the stress level that had permeated the plant, and we thought we could take advantage of the stress by setting up a “We’ve Got The Power” Experiment out in the open that would be obvious to anyone that walked by. Only it would be a fake experiment designed to play a joke on the unsuspecting Power Plant Man.
Here is what we did….
Right outside the electric shop in the Turbine Generator basement there is a water fountain. We placed a hazard waste barrel a few feet away from the water fountain. Like this:
Then we mounted a junction box on the wall a few feet above the chemical waste barrel and a little to the right.
We turned the junction box so that the hinge was on the top, allowing the door to fall closed naturally. This was an important part of the setup to allow for the joke to automatically reset each time it was operated.
We ran some copper tubing from the water fountain water line over to the box. Then another copper line came out the bottom of the box and into the barrel. Next to that copper tube, another smaller copper tube came out of the bottom of the box and just bent toward the front of the box. It was not noticeable. We had a plastic hose coming out of the barrel and over to the drain next to the water fountain. Then we put Yellow Barrier Tape around the entire setup.
We tied Caution tags to the Barrier tape that said “We’ve Got the Power Experiment” Do not enter! I signed the tags.
There was an electric conduit running up from the junction box, that went up and into the wall about 6 feet above the junction box. So, this looked like a legitimate experiment going on, but for the life of anyone, no one would be able to tell what it was doing. — Mainly because it wasn’t doing anything….. At least not until someone went to investigate it.
So. Here is what would happen….
Employees would walk by and see the barrier tape with the hazardous waste barrel and the hoses and water lines coming from the back of the water fountain, with a junction box above it that was not completely closed. The door to the junction box was down, but not screwed closed. Conduit was going into the box, which meant that something electrical was probably inside Maybe a solenoid or something that was controlling the experiment.
They would read the Caution Tag that explained that this was a “We’ve Got the Power” experiment, and it would pique (pronounced “peak”) their curiosity enough that they couldn’t help but investigate it to see what was really going on.
So, what would invariably happen, was that someone would enter the area that was barrier taped off, and open the junction box to see what was inside. When they lifted the lid, they would find that they were instantly being soaked with water that would spray out of a small copper line pointing right at them directly under the junction box. At the same time, an alarm would go off above them behind the wall right above the electric shop office. It was very loud. A counter inside the junction box would register an “intruder’ had just opened the box.
So, as we would be sitting there during lunch, we would suddenly hear the alarm go off, and we could dart out the door to the Turbine Generator basement to find a drenched Power Plant Man. They were usually amused that they had fallen into the trap. I say usually, because I have the feeling that one particular person who found himself violating the barrier tape and getting soaked didn’t act too cordial about it. I’ll get to him later.
As I said, inside the box was a counter. It counted how many times the box had been opened and sprayed someone with water. So, we could go inspect it in the morning and we would know if anyone had looked at it while we were gone.
After the experiment had been there about a week, an overhaul began where Power Plant Men from different plants came to our plant to perform the overhaul. The plant would shut off one of the units and we would take it apart, and put it back together again fixing problems along the way (well. maybe not quite that drastic. It was a time to fix things that couldn’t be maintained or repaired while the unit was running).
So, the Power Plant Men at our plant, who by that time all knew about the bogus experiment just outside the electric shop, would bring unsuspecting Power Plant Men from other plants over to the see the “We’ve Got the Power” experiment going on in the hopes of seeing them get sprayed with water. So, a new round of alarms were going off during that time.
Eventually, when people had heard about the experiment, and knew that it was spraying people, they would approach the experiment with caution. When they opened the lid of the junction box, they would stand next to it against the wall in order to not get wet. The spray pattern from the crimped copper line was fairly wide, so you would have to stand practically against the wall next to the box in order to stay dry.
So, this was when we implemented Phase 2 of the experiment. — Yeah. It’s the second phase of many Power Plant Jokes that usually make the joke a much bigger success than the first phase. For instance, I have written a post about the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator” in which I had played a joke on Gene Day, where after a week of preparing him for the final joke, I had coaxed him to look over my shoulder, only to have him read that according to his psychological profile, he was the type of person that would look over your shoulder and read your private material.
That would be a good joke in itself, but when Gene Day read that and began choking the life out of me, I pointed out to him the final statement in Gene Day’s profile which stated that he tends to choke people who try to help him by creating Psychological profiles of him. This second part of the joke is what really completes the joke and makes it a real success. The first part just makes it funny.
So, here is how we modified the experiment for Phase 2…. The nozzle that sprayed the employee actually came out the bottom of the box and elbowed to point toward the front of the box. So, what we did was we took a file and filed a tiny notch in the side of the copper tubing just below the junction box just above the elbow. The notch was on the side of the copper tube, and it was deep enough of a notch to make a little hole in the side of the copper line.
So, then, if someone was standing to the only side they could stand next to the box and the barrel and they opened up the lid of the Junction Box to show someone how the experiment worked, they wouldn’t notice right away, but a small stream of water would be spraying on their pants in just the appropriate location to make it look like the person had just pee’ed their pants.
Right when we had finished modifying the experiment for Phase 2, Howard Chumbley walked into the electric shop. He was a retired Electric Foreman, that I have written about in the post “Pioneers of Power Plant Fame Finally Find Peace“. He had come to visit the plant that day because there was going to be a Men’s Club lunch and he wanted to come and see some other old codgers that he used to work with that liked to attend the Men’s Club dinners. He always wanted to see us of course as well.
So, we told him about the “We’ve Got The Power” Joke Experiment just outside the electric shop that sprayed water on people. Of course, he wanted to see it, so we took him out and let him observe it. We explained that when you open the lid, an alarm goes off, the counter toggles and water sprays out of that little nozzle sticking out at the bottom. We told him he could try it if he wanted to see how it worked.
So, he climbed under the barrier tape and walked around the side of the junction box that didn’t have the barrel, and reached over and lifted the lid. The alarm when off, water sprayed out, and Howard laughed with glee to see how we had devised such a nice trick. After watching the water spray for about 3 or 4 seconds, he suddenly realized that something was wrong. He dropped the lid and looked down, only to find that it looked like he had just pee’ed his pants.
That was it! That was icing on the cake. Howard laughed even more when he realized what had happened.
The next morning when we came in the shop, we went to look at the experiment, it had been disassembled, or shutdown in some manner. I think some caution tag had been placed there by Gary Wright, the Shift Supervisor stating something like this was a safety hazard, or some such thing.
Anyway, when I went up to the Control Room to ask him why he shutdown our experiment he was adamant that it constituted Horseplay and someone could get hurt. Maybe when the water sprayed on them, they might jerk back and fall down and get hurt. Ok….
I suppose. Though, by the time he took it down, everyone at the plant already knew about it, and we were just in the Phase 2 part of the experiment. In this phase anyone who was looking at the experiment was doing it by opening up the door from the side, and peeing their pants and they wouldn’t jerk back……—- Oh….. I see…. Shift Supervisors don’t usually like to walk into the control room looking like they have just pee’ed their pants.
I will say that I hadn’t expected that type of reaction from Gary Wright, because up to that time, he seemed more mild-mannered than the rest of the Shift Supervisors. We just took it that the more upset Gary was with us about it, the more successful the joke had been implemented. The joke had played out by that time, and we were good with it either way.
After it was all said and done. We thought it did help to reduce the overall tension that was permeating the plant due to the “We’ve Got the Power Program”.
Originally posted April 25, 2014:
Later in life, thinking back to when I was young, I sometimes wonder at how my first real friend, Mark Schlemper remained my friend throughout my childhood. I remember as a boy, there were times when I wasn’t the friendliest friend. Sometimes I was downright selfish. Mark, on the other hand, was always considerate. Not in an Eddie Haskell way, but in a sincere way. I learned a lot about being a kinder person from Mark, and I’m forever grateful.
I think if Mark had not been my friend during my childhood, then this story would have a very different ending.
Last Friday (April 18, 2014), I posted a story called “Vertan or Sand and Making Enemies of a Power Plant Man“. At the end of that post I explained that I had become the enemy of a team leader during the “We’ve Got The Power” program. I explained this program in the post: “Power Plant ‘We’ve Got The Power’ Program“. With all that said, here is the story:
I was a plant electrician at a coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma when we took part in the “We’ve Got The Power” program. At the time, I was in charge of maintaining the Unit 1 precipitator. The precipitator is what takes the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler, so that you don’t normally see smoke coming out of a Power Plant Smokestack.
My bucket buddy in the Electric Shop, Diana Brien was on a team that tried an experiment on the Unit 1 precipitator by injecting sand into the intake duct in the hope that it would increase the performance. I didn’t put much faith in the experiment, because it was based on something that had happened almost a year earlier when sand was burned in the boiler in order to burn off the oil that had been soaked into the sand.
I hadn’t seen any sand build up in front of the precipitator during the next overhaul, and didn’t believe that any of it had been able to make it’s way through the economizer and the air preheaters to the precipitator.
When Ron Kilman asked me about it, I said that I didn’t think it would do any good, but also, it wouldn’t do any harm either, so I told Ron that I couldn’t see any reason not to do the experiment. Who knows. Maybe something unexpected would happen. — Something did, but not quite in the way anyone would have expected.
On the day of the experiment, sand was blown into the intake duct of the precipitator. When the experiment was taking place, Diana Brien sat at the precipitator computer behind the Unit 1 Alarm Panel in the Control Room. She was printing out readings every so many minutes as the experiment progressed.
At times, I walked by and checked on her to see how it was going. One time when I was standing there watching the readings on the computer, all of the sudden the Opacity shot up. Opacity is used to measure how much smoke is going out of the smoke stack. Something definitely happened to cause a large puff of smoke.
I switched screens to look at the power on each of the control cabinets. After a few seconds I found that cabinet 1A10 had zero Volts on the secondary side of the transformer. It should have been somewhere above 40 Kilovolts. The cabinet hadn’t tripped, but it wasn’t charging up the plates. Cabinet 1A10 was in the very back row of the precipitator, and when the power shuts off on the cabinet it readily lets go of the ash that had built up on it when the rappers on the roof strike the plates.
When I saw the puff occur, I knew where to go look, because this happened whenever one of the back cabinets was turned off. I told Dee that it looked like a fuse had blown on the cabinet. The ash was going to continue billowing out of the precipitator for a couple of hours if I didn’t go do something about it. So, I told Dee that I was going to go to the Precipitator Control Room and replace the fuse.
I passed through the electric shop to grab my tool bucket and headed out to the precipitator. When I arrived, I found the cabinet just as it had indicated on the computer. The fuse had obviously failed. Interesting timing. Coincidence? I thought it was. The fuses controlling the back cabinets were usually the ones that blew because we ran them at a much higher voltage than the rest of the cabinets (at the time).
I quickly replaced the fuse (after attaching grounding cables to the leads, and using a pair of high voltage gloves). Then I powered the cabinet back on.
I returned to the Control Room and told Dee that I replaced the fuse on cabinet 1A10. The opacity had returned to normal. I watched a few more minutes to make sure everything had stabilized, and then I left.
When Ron Kilman was evaluating the results of the experiment, he could plainly see that something strange had happened. Smoke had been pouring out of the smoke stack in the middle of the experiment. So, he asked me what I thought about it.
First of all, as a disclaimer, our team had our own experiments we had been conducting on the precipitator in hopes of coming up with money savings ideas. So, when I told Ron what had happened with the fuse blowing, I wondered if he would trust me to tell the truth, since I had my own skin in the game.
I explained in detail to Ron how the fuse had blown and that I was standing next to Dee watching the computer when the smoke started blowing out of the stack. I could tell that a fuse had blown by looking at the readings, so I went out and replaced the fuse. I told him that fuses do blow periodically in the back of the precipitator, but I couldn’t explain why it happened to fail at that particular time. After I gave him my explanation, he seemed satisfied that I was telling the truth.
I think a token amount of points were awarded to the team because something obviously had happened during the experiment, though it wasn’t clear that sand had anything to do with it. On the other hand, our team was awarded a large amount of points for increasing the precipitator performance using a different method that I may bring up in a later post. To the team that burned the sand, this looked a lot like foul play.
The leader of the team was the Shift Supervisor Jim Padgett. He became very upset when he found out that I had gone to the precipitator control room during the experiment and worked on the equipment. Our team had been awarded a lot of points that was enough to purchase the dining room table set that I have in my dining room today:
It became known throughout the control room and the electric shop that Jim Padgett viewed me as his enemy. The other electricians would jokingly refer to Jim as my “friend”, knowing that Jim had basically declared “war” on me. Any time someone in the shop would have something to say about Jim, they would say, “Kevin’s friend” Jim Padgett….”
When I first became aware that Jim was upset with me, I understood why. If I had been in his shoes I would probably feel the same way. It’s a rotten feeling when you believe that someone has cheated you out of something important. So, I decided up front that I was going to become Jim’s best friend. This is where I think my memory of Mark Schlemper with his patience for me as a boy helped me with this decision.
I had determined that any time Jim asked me to do something I wouldn’t hesitate to help him. It took about a year before Jim could look at me without grimacing. Finally, one day, he asked me if I would go look at something for him to see if we needed a clearance, or if it was something that could be fixed right away. It was something minor, but I knew that this was an indicator that the ice was finally beginning to melt. I was able to fix the problem on the spot, and returned to let him know.
Once we were on semi-speaking terms again, I took an opportunity one day to ask Jim if he would like to join our Computer Club. I had started a Computer Club in the Electric Shop. Anyone could join it for a one time fee of $5.00 that was used to buy shareware and disk cases. For a while I also published a newsletter letting the members of the club know what games and such we had that could be checked out.
Once Jim Padgett joined the Computer Club, it was much easier to have a regular conversation outside of the normal daily business. I had put the thought in my mind when I decided that Jim was going to become my best friend that nothing would make me happier than to be able to do something for Jim. That way, no matter what I was doing at the time, if Jim asked me to do something for him, I would drop whatever I was doing and do my best to help.
I could go on and on explaining how gradually over time, not only was Jim my friend, but Jim acted more and more as if I was his friend as well. Let me just say that the entire process took almost exactly ten years. I can remember the exact moment when Jim indicated to me that I had become his friend.
Here is what happened:
The phone next to my bed rang at 2:15 in the morning on Thursday February 17, 2000. I instantly knew what it meant when the phone rang in the middle of the night. It meant that someone at the plant was calling because there was a problem. Who else would be up on in the middle of the night? The night shift of course.
When I answered the phone, Jim Padgett said, “I hate to wake you up buddy.” I replied, “No. That’s okay. What’s up?” Jim explained that the dumper was down and a train was about halfway through dumping the coal and everything was dead in the water. I said, “Ok. I’ll be right out.”
I turned to Kelly and told her that I had to go fix the dumper. She already knew of course. I pulled on a pair of jeans, a flannel shirt, and on the way out the door, I slipped on my work boots and laced them up. Then I drove the 30 miles out to the plant.
It was just before 3:00 am when I arrived. I grabbed my hardhat from the electric shop and took the elevator up to the Control Room. Jim apologized again and told me that how the dumper acted when it shutdown. I went back down the elevator to the electric shop where I grabbed the key to the pickup truck and my tool bucket and left the electric shop into the cool night air.
Power Plants at night take on magical properties. It’s hard to explain. Lights shining from the 25 story boilers, noises from steam pipes. Hums from motors and transformers. Night Hawks screeching.
When I arrived at the coalyard, I went straight into the Dumper Switchgear where the relays that controlled the dumper were mounted. Having worked on the dumper for the past 17 years, I could troubleshoot the circuits in my sleep. — Actually, I may have done just that. It didn’t take long, and I had replaced a contact on a relay that had broken and had the Coalyard Operator test the dumper long enough to know it was going to work.
When I returned back to Control Room Jim was sitting in the Shift Supervisor’s office. I walked in and showed him the small relay contact that had caused the failure. Jim, looked at me and said something that I thought only a friend would say so casually. I won’t use his exact words, though I remember not only the exact words, I remember his exact expression. He indicated to me that he had passed some gas, and he was apologizing about it. I replied, “Well. That happens.” (No. Not the other thing that happens). I told him I was going to go home. It was about 3:40 by that time.
Jim wished me a good night, and smiling with gratitude, thanked me again for coming out. As I was going back to the parking lot, and on the way home driving through the dark, tired from being woken up in the middle of the night, I had a great feeling of peace. That brief conversation with Jim just before I left was so pleasant in an odd way that I knew we had become friends. This was such a long way from where we had been 10 years earlier when Jim had literally wanted to kill me (well, not that he actually would…).
When I arrived home, I peeled my clothes off in the utility room to keep from tracking coal all over the house. I set the small broken relay contact on the kitchen table as a token to my wife, so she could see why I was called out when she wakes up in the morning. I climbed back into bed around 4:15 to sleep for another two hours.
That morning when I arrived at the plant, the first thing I learned was that about the time that my alarm had woken me up that morning, Jim Padgett had left his shift and driven to his home in Ponca City. When he walked in the door to his house, he collapsed and died instantly of a heart attack. That would have been about 3 hours after the moment that we had said goodbye.
I grieved for Jim’s wife Jane, who had worked for a while at the plant before marrying Jim, but I didn’t grieve for Jim. Something told me, and maybe it was Jim, that he was at peace. In the moment that I heard about Jim’s death, I burned the conversation we had just had that morning into my mind so that I would never forget it.
To this day whenever I know that someone is upset with me for something that I have done to them personally (which still happens occasionally), I am determined that they will become one of my best friends. I will do anything for that person if they ask (unless, of course it is to “not be their friend”). I have my childhood friend Mark Schlemper to thank for the attitude that helped me decide to reach out to Jim Padgett. Without that experience while growing up, Jim and I would never have become friends.
I would like to leave you with a song that reminds me of Jim whenever I hear it. It is called “Bright Eyes” from the movie “Watership Down”. Art Garfunkel sings it:
Note: If you are not able to watch the video above, try clicking this link: Bright Eyes, Art Garfunkel