Tag Archives: Sonny Kendrick

How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?

Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:

Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees.  An Electrician, Bill Rivers.  A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer.  With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.

Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician.  How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results.  Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws.  Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.

Me?  Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?”  that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices.  Not the fancy tile like they have these days.  If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school  like the one I used to attend.

The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them.  The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.

Anyway, I digress.  Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find).  Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.

When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think).  Maybe more.  He told me once that even he lost count.  Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.

He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize.  He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?”  Come to find out, it was one of his own children.

Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it.  Mainly because he worked so much overtime.  That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant.  Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.

Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else.  He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist.  Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible.  Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him.  So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head.  —  Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it.  Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.

Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant.  I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position.  His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick.  I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.

People would call him “Baby Huey”.  Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny.  So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet).  I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:

I didn’t really get the connection, unless it had something to do with the diaper or the facial expression

Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that my brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra.  The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.

When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now – well, that’s not too surprising considering even Bill Rivers forgot his name once), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles.  I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.

Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist.  I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket.  Because that would probably be him.

The Dental Symbol. it would probably look good on a Harley Jacket, don’t you think?

Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor.  Now, I like Yvonne Taylor.  I liked her a lot.  But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.

Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second.  I finally just decided this would be a great time to read.  So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world.  With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.

I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife).  And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.

In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….”  She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow.  Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work.  Especially if it is any distance away.

I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work.  Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down.  So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer.  My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer.  So there was that as well.

Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse.  I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling….  So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch.  Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is.  Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard.  I can’t hardly Stand it!!”  Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy.  And Well…  who knows for sure.  I think the Electricians knew for sure.

Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious.  Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.

Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner.  That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago (now 16 years).

At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however,  I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.

Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends.  To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.

I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne.  Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick.  I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her.  I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.

Yvonne Taylor’s husband the past 52 years, Patrick Taylor

Comment from Previous Post:

  1. Ron  September 25, 2013:

    Great story, Kevin! I’ll bet you didn’t know I used to run a floor scrubber-/polisher. Yep – at the big TG&Y store in Shepherd Mall (OKC). I helped in opening the store in 1964 and continued working there for a couple of years as a “Stock Boy”.

Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick

Originally posted January 11, 2013:

Today I sit quietly in a cubicle with a group of other people on my team. We each type away throughout the day, or we are on calls in our own meetings listening to conversations where we offer input where it is necessary. I may listen to music on my computer to help me get into the rhythm of my work as I type away creating documents or sending IMs to other employees as they ask me questions throughout the day.

That was not how it was before the PC made inroads into our lives. We used to sit around and talk to each other. We did things to pass the time while we worked on tedious jobs. We talked about our families. We talked about movies and shows we had seen. We asked each other how their family was doing. Sometimes, we even sang.

I was sitting on the Precipitator Roof installing a new Rapper circuit board in the Rapper Vibrator cabinet while one of my Precipitator Mentors sat behind me making sure that I was learning the fine art of Precipitator Maintenance on one of the first actual jobs I worked on when I became an Electrician.

The day was growing long, and Sonny had taken over for me and was installing the second circuit board while I was sitting on a Tension house box where Sonny had previously been sitting. Suddenly I felt this sudden urge to burst out in song. It was not known before this moment that I was sort of a professional singer. Actually. I had grown up with a family of singers.

My mother and my sister used to break out into song at random times throughout my childhood when a song would come over the radio on the easy listening station that was constantly on. So naturally, it would be natural for me to want to break out into song when the moment was right.

So, I just let loose singing one of my favorite songs. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t an accompaniment. I didn’t need the orchestra behind me on the radio to help me keep time. I had the orchestra playing in my mind…. I didn’t need the tuning fork that Sister Maureen used to use at Catholic School when I was a kid as she would bang it on the desk and then hum with a wavering hum until she came in tune with her tuning fork. No. The tuning fork came from years of listening to my favorite songs.

Yes. Even before the iPod was invented and the VCR had come around, there were two places where a person could hear a song over and over and over again. One place was the radio. Back in the 70’s when your favorite song was in the top 20’s you could hear it play over and over again every two hours on the radio.

So, I burst out with one of my favorite songs and started to serenade my new found friend, Sonny Kendrick. I began quietly and worked my way up to a crescendo. The song I sang began thus: “Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls….”

I continued with great confidence in my singing ability, knowing that I was impressing my fellow electrician with my fantastic singing ability: “all of them had hair of gold, like their mother….the youngest one in curls!” Even louder I bellowed out: “Here’s the story of a man named Brady who was living with three boys of his own. They were four men living all together, yet they were all alone!”

Now I was in full form with my hand on my chest, standing at attention with all the full emotion I could draw out as I sang the final verse: “Till the one day when the lady met this fellow. And they knew that it was much more than a hunch, That this group must somehow form a family, That’s the way we all became the Brady bunch!”

Then as if I was playing an air guitar on stage, I was able to dramatically complete my short opera with the shaking of my head as I sang the final words: “The Brady bunch, the Brady bunch. That’s the way we became the Brady bunch bunch bunch…..” (now you know the second place where you could hear a song over and over).

Acting rather proud of my accomplishment I relieved Sonny as I was going to install the third of the four Rapper cards in the cabinet…. I began connecting the wires to the circuit board one at a time when all of the sudden I was struck with some strange form of electricity!

Had we forgotten to turn off the electrical disconnect to the 480 Volts to the cabinet? My fingers were shaking from the sudden impulse of electricity. My knees were buckling so that I stumbled back and sat against rappers behind me. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t tell if my ears were actually picking up sound or I had suddenly died and was on my way to heaven because I had just electrocuted myself in the cabinet.

My head was spinning. Thoughts entered my head like, “Great. I have just been electrocuted! I have only been an electrician for less than a month and already I have killed myself. I hope my parents and my girlfriend don’t think I suffered when I died.”

Gradually, I realized that the sounds of harps and the humming of angels were all just an accompaniment that were being added by heaven itself to the song that was emanating from Sonny Kendrick! Sonny Kendrick, while he was taking his repose while I had proceeded to install my circuit board had suddenly had a similar urge to break out into song.

Only, unlike my feeble attempt at doing justice to the Brady Bunch Song, Sonny Kendrick was singing as if God himself had come down and suddenly transformed him into an Opera Singer. I couldn’t tell if he was singing something from Wagner’s immortal Opera “The Ring” or if he was singing La Boheme by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

It didn’t matter to me. All I could do was sit there on a tension house in stunned amazement. Tears were rolling down my face. Here was a guy that people referred to as Baby Huey because of his build ( I guess):

I didn't really get the connection, unless it had something to do with the diaper.

This is Baby Huey. I didn’t really get the connection.

Suddenly his lower build had moved up to the chest area and Sonny Kendrick had transformed into Franklin Floyd Kendrick! The magnificent opera singer!

When my friend and sudden Opera singing hero had finished, he stepped over the conduits and went to work to add the last rapper circuit board on the rack with the other three.

Still sitting on the tension house coming to my senses. Realizing that my transformation to heaven was only a temporary visit. I asked Sonny…. “What was that?” — That was all I could think of saying. What else could I say? “Can I have your Autograph?” I suppose I could have said that. No. All I could say was, “What was that?”

Sonny as he is today

Sonny as he is today

Here is a picture of Sonny. He didn’t have a beard then, but he has the exact same smile today that he had that day! He gave me this exact same smile when I asked him “What was that?” Exactly!

I said, “Sonny. What are you doing here? Why are you an electrician when you have a voice like that?” He replied by telling me that he had a family and he had to provide for them and he couldn’t do it by being a singer. So I asked him how he became an electrician.

You see. At the time, Sonny had the distinction of being the Electrical Specialist. He was the only one. He had gone to Oklahoma State Tech in Okmulgee and received a technical degree there in electronics. This gave him the ability to become the electrical specialist at the plant.

His real dream was to become an Opera Singer. Being an electrician was something to pay the bills. His heart was in his song. Sonny has a tremendous heart. I know. I have seen and heard it beating.

There is a part of Sonny’s story that is a tragedy. Isn’t that usually true with great artists? I suppose that is where their passion for their creativity comes from. This was true with Sonny, and in the next few months, I learned more and more about the burden that had been put on Sonny’s shoulders.

You see. One day. Sonny had said something to Leroy Godfrey to the effect that Sonny was a electrical specialist. He should be doing something more than spending all his time working on the precipitator. What his exact words were doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leroy Godfrey had decided that day that Sonny Kendrick was to be banished to the precipitator. Never to work on anything but the precipitator.

In order to understand what this means… you have to understand the conditions someone has to work in when they work on the precipitator… First of all. No one wants to work with you, because it means working in the midst of pigeon dung, insulation, fly ash, and dust. Along with that, when the unit is online, the roof of the precipitator is one of the loudest places at the plant. Rappers and Vibrators going off constantly. Buzzing and Banging! Very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.

As time went by, and Bill Rivers and Sonny filled in the blanks I came to understand just how burned out Sonny Kendrick was with working on the precipitator. I could see how he literally had to drag himself to the precipitator roof to work on the cabinets or fix a transformer knife switch. He would rather being doing anything else.  The precipitator had become like Van Gogh’s ear.  He just wanted to cut it off.

It had occurred to me at the time that the units had only been online for about 3 and 4 years and Sonny was already completely burned out on this job. It made perfect sense to me when I understood that this was a punishment for trying to stand up to an Old School Power Plant Supervisor. In order to understand Leroy Godfrey read the post:

The Death of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey

A little less than two years later, Sonny Kendrick sang at my wedding. He was up in the balcony singing a list of songs that had been given to him by my mom. Bill Moler, the Evil Assistant Plant Manager who was serving as a Deacon at my wedding came in the front door dressed in his robes and ready to go into the church. I was standing there greeting people as they came in.

Bill suddenly stopped and stood still for a moment. Then he said, “Who is that singing? Where did you find someone with such a wonderful voice?” I proudly told him, “That’s Sonny.” Bill leaned forward and said, “Our Sonny?” I replied, “Yep. Sonny Kendrick. Our Sonny Kendrick.”

I had decided early on that I was going to do whatever I could to pull Sonny off of that Precipitator so that he could use his talents as they were meant to be used. So, every time I was asked to help out on the precipitator, I was glad to help Sonny.

Years later, when Sonny was finally able to be free of the precipitator, he went kicking and screaming, because I had turned precipitator maintenance on it’s head and it was hard for Sonny to see his work all turned Topsy-turvy. I knew that like myself, Sonny had a personal relationship with his work and that when someone else was tinkering with it it was a kind of “insult”.

I knew for Sonny it was best. It didn’t take him long to step out into the open air and take a deep breathe. Once he realized it was no longer his worry, he was a much happier man. I am pleased to see that Sonny Kendrick today wears the same smile that he did that day when he had broken out in song and serenaded me on top of the Precipitator.

It means that he still has the peace that he is due. I can’t help it. I have to end this post by posting his picture again. Just look into his eyes and see his joy. I’ll bet this picture was taken just after he had finished an aria of La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi:

Sonny as he is today

Sonny after gracing the world with an Aria

In a way. Sonny’s life has been a Aria. I have been blessed to have been able to call him “Friend”.

 

COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:

Ron Kilman January 12, 2013

The best job I ever had with OG&E was as a Results Engineer at Seminole. I helped start up all 3 units, design, purchase and install a water induction prevention system for unit 2, balance turbines, fans, etc., became “Plant Photographer”, designed all the racks and supports for turbine/generator rotors and diaphragms, ran performance tests on the boiler/turbine units, and lots of other fun stuff. But in 1975 I was promoted to “Senior Results Engineer”.

OG&E saw people with an Engineering degree as automatically anointed for management. I didn’t agree with that, but I was stuck in that culture. That promotion made me “Supervisor” of Montie Adams. I first began working with Montie (Old Power Plant Man) in 1967 at Mustang as a summer student in the Results department. (That’s where I got to know Leroy Godfrey too).

Montie had taught me a lot, had tons of knowledge and experience, and was much more qualified than I was. But he didn’t have the degree so he couldn’t even apply for the job. I never did become comfortable supervising people with more knowledge and experience than me just because I had the magic degree. From 1975 on, my job focus was no longer on the equipment used in generating electrical power, but on the people who used and maintained that equipment. I never understood how an engineering degree equipped me for that.

  1. Plant Electrician January 12, 2013

    Ron,

    It’s funny how cultures change over time. You described the old power plant culture perfectly.

    Today in my profession, it is perfectly sensible to manage employees that have more knowledge about their work than you have. The trick is knowing that. I currently have a terrific manager that would hardly know how to do what I do. That really isn’t his job though. He relies on his people to know what they are doing. It is being a good leader that makes one a good supervisor. Not trying to find or pretend to know all the answers yourself. Somehow that was lost on the Old Power Plant Man culture.

    I think that was why we were so stunned when you arrived at the plant and you had a personality beyond “slave driver”. I know I’ll write more about this in the future, but there were a number of times where I was pleasantly surprised to find that you listened to me and even asked for my advice.

    Kev

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singing’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension house on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers (now I work for General Motors).  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost irreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….

Relay Tests and Radio Quizzes with Ben Davis

Originally posted January 24, 2014:

Reorganizations naturally shuffle things around.  People are generally resistant to change and don’t like to find that their routine has been changed without having their input on how to make things better.  When the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma went through a downsizing and reorganization in the latter part of 1987, my job changed slightly.  Personally, I was grateful for the changes.

Before the reorganization, I had inherited both the precipitators (the large boxes at a power plant that take the ash out of the exhaust from the boiler).  This meant that every overhaul, I knew what I was doing.  I was working on and in the precipitator.  This was generally a dirty and thankless job.

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only it is twice as long

The plant has a similar electrostatic precipitator, only it is twice as long

After the reorganization, however, Terry Blevins was assigned to work on the Unit 2 precipitator, while I worked on Unit 1.  I will go into this in more detail later, but for this post, I’ll just point out that this meant that when Unit 2 was on an overhaul (that means the unit is taken offline for one to three months in order to fix and repair things that can only be done while it is offline) I wasn’t automatically assigned to the precipitator.  So, I could work on other things.

Before the reorganization, Sonny Kendrick had the title “Electric Specialist”.  After the reorganization we no longer had a specialist.  I’m not sure exactly why.  I know that at Muskogee, they still had a specialist in the electric shop.  — I will talk about him next year (the specialist at Muskogee).  Anyway, I know that Sonny, at the time, was not too happy about his change in job title.  I don’t blame him.  I would be too.

One of the things that the Electric Specialist did during overhauls was test tripping relays.  Now that we no longer had a specialist, that was left up to whomever…. The first electricians, besides Sonny, that were assigned to relay testing was Ben Davis and myself.  I had started doing it on my own and after about a week, Ben Davis was assigned to help me out.

Ben Davis

Ben Davis

We were on a major overhaul on Unit 2 and it had been decided that we were not only going to test the regular super-high voltage breaker relays, we were also going to test all the 480 volt switchgear relays for Unit 2, as well as the intake and coalyard switchgears.  I don’t remember if we made it to the river pump switchgear, but I wouldn’t be surprised.  Once we started, there was no stopping us.

When I first was told to test the relays, Bill Bennett (our A foreman) told me to have Sonny tell me how to do them.  So, I walked into the lab and told Sonny that Bill had told me to ask him to help me learn how to test the protective relays on the switchgear.  Sonny, not looking too happy, grabbed a small stack of manuals, walked out into the main switchgear with me, and said, “Here is the relay test set.  Here are the manuals that tell you how to hook up the test set and test them.”  He turned and walked away…. I was sort of hoping for a more intimate lesson…

I knew the reason Sonny was so upset.  Later I learned why he would be as upset as he was to not be able to test the protective relays.  It was because when you test, clean and adjust protective relays you have an immediate rush of satisfaction that you have just done something very important.  Let me just say quickly (because in another post I will expound upon this), a protective relay is what keeps motors from blowing up.  It is what prevents blackouts from happening across the nation.  Without properly calibrated protective relays, a power company is just asking for a disaster (or… well….. their insurance company is, because they are the ones that usually end up paying for the damage — which I will also talk about in a later post).

I thought the relay test set that Sonny showed me was the neatest thing I had seen so far in the electric shop.  There were two boxes that hooked together with an umbilical cord.  They had dials, switches, connectors, meters and a digital readout down to the millisecond.  That is, you can read the time to trip a relay down to the one thousandth of a second.

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

AVO Multi-Amp SR-76 Relay Test Set

I only wish that I had a bigger picture of this relay test set so that you could admire it as much as I did.  Even today it gives me goosebumps!  Ok.  I can imagine those relay technicians that read this blog are looking at this and thinking…. “What kind of piece of junk is this?”  Hey (as Mark Fielder used to say), this was my “baby” (only he was referring to the precipitator).

So, back to the story at hand…

Even though I was having a heck of a fun time trying to figure out how to perform these relay tests by reading these manuals about the different kinds of relays, I was glad when Ben Davis was assigned to work with me.  I don’t know if he had worked on relays before, but he seemed to know just what to do to hook up the test set and make things easier.

A panel of Protective Relays

A panel of Protective Relays

The best suggestion that Ben had right off the bat was that we should be listening to the radio while we were working.  This might have been a preventative measure after the first couple of days to prevent the same situation from occurring that happened to Ed Shiever when he and I were trapped inside a confined space for a couple of weeks (See the post:  “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“).  Either way, it was a great idea.

You wouldn’t think that inside a switchgear 20 miles from the nearest town with a radio station, that we would have any reception on a little transistor radio, but we were able to manage.  It seemed that we had to be a little creative at times with the antenna in certain locations, but, like I said.  We managed.

My perception of Ben Davis up to this point was that he was a “Good-ol’ boy”.  That is, a country music type Oklahoman that had grown up in Shidler, Oklahoma where the major attraction in the town was the High School.  To my surprise, I quickly found out that he was a connoisseur of Rock and Roll.

It wasn’t until I was in college before I realized that the easy listening station I had been listening to on our family radio at home while I was growing up was playing rock and roll songs using an orchestra with violins and clarinets instead of electric guitars.  I learned from my dorm mates all about groups like Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles (yeah… can you believe it?  I mean.  I knew “Hey Jude”, “Let it Be” and a few others, but most of the Beatles I thought were instrumentals normally played on violins with a man waving a wand) and many others.  When I found out about “Rock and Roll”, I had to go out and buy dozens of 8-track tapes, as fast as I could find them.

A stack of 8 Track Tapes

A stack of 8 Track Tapes

So, here was Ben Davis.  Even better than the “Good Ol’ Boy” that I already thought he was.  And he loved classical rock and roll.  I can only say that the next month and a half while we tested relays all over the plant, were one of the best times I have ever spent in my life!  He knew all the 60’s and 70’s rock and roll bands.

As each song would come on the radio, we would guess (well, I was guessing most of the time…. most of the time Ben already knew), what the name of the song was and the name of the band.  So, not only were we doing one of the most satisfying jobs at a power plant, but I was also have a lot of fun with Ben listening to the radio!  Who would have thought it?  No wonder Sonny was upset he wasn’t testing relays this overhaul.

I could go on about all the different bands and their backgrounds that I learned from Ben during that overhaul, but (unlike me), you probably already know all that stuff.  It never ceases to amaze me how many holes I have in my education until one is staring at me in the face.

This reminds me of a side story, and I apologize if I have told this before…. I don’t think I have….

After the Reorganization, and after I moved to Stillwater from Ponca City, Scott Hubbard (and Toby O’Brien) and I began carpooling.  One morning as we were listening to NPR, Scott Hubbard mentioned something about a “cur”.  I asked him, “What’s a cur?”  Well, he had the exact same reaction when 11 years earlier I had asked my friends in college at Oklahoma University, Tim Flowers and Kirby Davis, “What’s an orgasm?”  —  See how little holes in your education can make a big impact?

Just so you don’t get caught in the same predicament…  A “Cur” is a mongrel dog.  Scott Hubbard couldn’t believe that someone that read the dictionary for fun wouldn’t know what a “cur” was.  What the heck?  I didn’t grow up in Oklahoma!  — end of side story… which really isn’t a side story, since it was about a Power Plant Man — Scott Hubbard.  He probably knew what a “cur” was before he could walk.  — I know I haven’t told that story before!  I would have remembered that.

I’m not going to go on about all the fun that I had with Ben Davis testing protective relays.  I enjoy my memories, but I’m sure you don’t want to hear all about how much I looked up to this Power Plant Hero.  The only thing I will add is that the time I spent with Ben during that overhaul has been etched into my memory as one of the most enjoyable times of my life.  So, I’ll go onto the next step in our Protective Relay story….

A few years later, in 1993, Sonny Kendrick and Ben Davis and I were sent to “Advanced Protective Relay Maintenance” training in Dallas, Texas.  I remember this time so well, I remember the address where we were went.  It was at 4271 Bronze Way, Dallas, Texas.  It was hosted by the same company that made that wonderful test set I pictured above.  The AVO Multi-Amp Corporation.

I brought my wife Kelly and my three year old daughter Elizabeth with me.  They stayed at the hotel during the day and played in the swimming pool, while I went to class.

The classes lasted four days, Monday through Thursday.  That was where I learned that even though I thought our relay test set was the coolest piece of equipment in the electric shop, it turned out to be archaic by “Protective Relay Maintenance” standards.  Not that it didn’t do the job….   So, in order to train us properly, they let us use our own old test set during the training so that we could see how to properly test really advanced relays such as Distant Relays, Syncro-verifier relays, Negative Sequence Relays,directional distance relays and Pilot Wire relays.  — These are relays that are found in a large substation that trips high voltage lines that run long distances across the country.  — I can tell you’re jealous.  — Well.. I imagine it anyway.  Knowing what I know now.

This is the book we used in class

So, why drag you all the way to Dallas for this story?  There’s a reason.

time for a second side story:

You see. Tim Flowers, whom I mentioned above, knew not too long after he met me that I have the knack of running into people that I know (or should have known in this case), would love this story.  You see, I met Tim and Kirby at Oklahoma University and they drove with me to Columbia Missouri in 1979 (along with my brother Greg) when I went to register for classes at Missouri University when I decided to go back to school in my home town.

When we arrived in the town, we were hungry after driving for 8 hours straight from Stillwater, Oklahoma to Columbia, Missouri… so we stopped at Godfather’s Pizza.  As we walked in, there was a girl and a guy standing at the counter ordering a pizza.  The pretty girl (Pamela Ramsey) with long red hair turned and saw me.  She immediately came toward me saying “Kevin Breazile!!!!  You owe Me!!!  Slightly shocked and pleased, I said, “What for?” She reminded me that I never gave her the pictures that were taken during the Senior Prom.  You see.  I had taken her to the Senior Prom.

Later I explained that this happens to me a lot.  I meet people that I know in the oddest places (even though this wasn’t so odd, since I had grown up in Columbia). It was just that this was the first person we had seen since we entered town.  From that point on, Tim (who later worked as a summer help at the power plant) expected that everywhere we went we would run into someone I knew….

End of the second side story.  I’m sorry that this is making the post a little longer than usual.  I know you have to get back to work….

So, back to the relay training course in 1993 that Ben Davis, Sonny Kendrick and I were taking in Dallas…. On Wednesday night during the training there was a dinner held in a small banquet room in the hotel.  Well… of course I had to take my wife and my daughter.   So here we were sitting around this table at dinner with the rest of the class of about 10 other non-Sooner Plant employees….

I decided to talk to the guy next to me.  He said something back and my wife Kelly asked him, “Where in New Jersey are you from?”  She had picked up on a New Jersey accent.  He said, Well..  I work in the east for a company called Ebasco, but I’m really from the Midwest.  (oh.  That was my territory).  So I asked a follow-up question.  “Where in the Midwest are you from?”  He said, “From Missouri.”  — Oh.  I thought.   This is interesting. So was I.

I asked a follow-up question.  “Where in Missouri are you from?”  He answered…. “Columbia, Missouri.”  (What?   Where I had grown up?)….  So, I asked a second follow-up Question…. “What High School did you go to?”  With a curious look the man answered….. “Rockbridge High School…”   (Man!!!  the same one as me!!!)…. The third follow-up question….. “What year did you graduate?”  Now, looking really suspicious… he said, “1978”.   Trying to contain my excitement… I replied….. “Oh… so, you graduated from Rockbridge High School the same year I did….”

What are the odds?  There were 254 students in our graduating class.  This guy who currently lived somewhere in the east is sitting next to me at a dinner of about 10 people attending Advanced Protective Relay Training in Dallas, Texas where neither of us are from, and we both graduated from the same school back in Columbia, Missouri 15 years earlier!  His name is Randy Loesing.  He was working for a company called Ebasco at the time.  He said, “I thought I recognized you!  I just wasn’t sure.”  I didn’t recognize him at all until I went back home and looked in my yearbook.

It turned out that he kept in touch with two of my oldest friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper and Brent Stewart.   So we talked about them.  What an incredible coincidence.   Like I may have mentioned before.   It happens to me all the time.  It turns out that an old friend of mine from the 3rd grade in Columbia, Missouri that I used to go to his house when we were stamp collectors and had a stamp collecting club, lives 5 miles south of me today in Round Rock Texas (He’s in Pflugerville).

Russell Somers lives in the  same direction and just about the same number of miles as when we were kids.  Not only that, but he worked at Dell while I was working at Dell (though I didn’t know it at the time).  He has an older daughter and a younger son, just like me only younger.  The same is true for another 3rd grade friend that I  graduated from Rockbridge Highschool and the University of Missouri with, Caryn Lile (now Caryn Iber) who lives in Wisconsin.  She has a daughter and a son the same age as my kids.  She was living in Tulsa when I was living in Stillwater, Oklahoma.  — Like I said… happens to me all the time.

Tim Flowers realized this odd phenomenon  in college.  I had told him earlier that my father told me that if I was every stranded somewhere that I could look up the local Veterinarian and tell him that I was the son of Dr. James Edward Breazile, and they would help me.  So, when we were hiking in the mountains in Colorado and we met a man walking along a trail in the middle of nowhere above Estes Park near the Great Divide, when I told him who I was, he gave us a curious look…. then divulged his most intimate secrets of his life and where he had stashed his most values possessions, Tim told me later.  “I really thought he was going to know who you were when he gave us that funny look.”  I replied.  “I think he did..”

I again apologize for the length of this post.  It is rare that I ramble on this long.  I can thank Ramblin’ Ann for the ability to Ramble so well.  I can thank Ben Davis for recognizing a rambling situation and replacing it with a rock and roll learning opportunity.  As I said earlier.   One of the most enjoyable times I have spent in my entire life is the time I spent with Ben Davis testing Protective Relays!  Bless you Ben and I pray for you, your wife, your son and your daughter on the way to work each morning.

Today when I hear any of the hundreds of rock and roll songs come on the radio that we listened to that month and a half, I can see us testing the relays, looking off into space saying, “Rolling Stones?”  “No.   Steve Miller Band?”  Really?  I thought Browneyed Girl was sung by the Rolling Stone!  It turned out that the version that we listened to was from the creator of the song, Van Morrison. Who would have thought that he would sound so much like Mick Jagger.  I can see Ben saying… I see what you mean…  it kind of sounds like Mick Jagger.

As an add on to this story…

I now work at General Motors in Austin Texas.  My best friend in High School was a guy named Jesse Cheng (I have mentioned him in other posts, especially in reference to the phrase “Jesse!  Come get your Chili!).  He was two years older than me, and throughout the years we would lose track of each other and then reconnect.  He went to Yale to become an Engineer, then to the University of Missouri to become a Medical Doctor, then to Harvard to earn a Masters in Public Health and Epidemiology.

It turns out that we both now work at General Motors where he works in Arlington Texas as a Medical Director and I work in IT in Austin.  We can IM (Instant Message) each other whenever we want, and we talk now at least once every week.

Back to Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain

Does anyone know where the phrase, “Step on a Crack, Break Your Mother’s Back” came from? I’m sure there is a story behind that one. Maybe even a lot of different origins. I can distinctly remember a day in the Power Plant when a Power Plant Man stepped on a crack and broke his own back.

I remember looking out of the seventh floor window of my friends dorm room when I was a freshman in college watching students returning from classes about 6 months before the Power Plant Man broke his back. I was watching closely to see if any of them were purposely missing the cracks as they walked down the sidewalk toward the entrance. Out of about 20 people two of them purposely stepped over every crack in the sidewalk.

In the post “Power Plant Safety is Job Number One” I told the story about four of us were carrying a very long extension ladder through the maintenance shop at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma one summer morning in 1979 when Tom Dean stepped on a crack (well, it was a cracked piece of plywood that had been placed over a floor drain because the floor grate was missing), and when as he stepped on it, he lost his balance enough to twist himself around. By the time he stopped twirling, he was in immense pain as he had destroyed any chance for comfort for the next 6 months.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover was missing from the drain

So, I could understand the dangers of stepping on cracks even when they appear to be insignificant. What that has to do with my mom I’m not sure. However, one day when my sister was walking with my mom on the campus of Oklahoma State University, my sister may have stepped on a crack at that time, as well as my mom, which sent her plummeting the five feet to the ground resulting in a broken hip.

This makes me wonder that since the times have changed, it may be time to change the saying to something else. Maybe something like “Smoke some crack, break your parent’s piggy bank” would be more appropriate for these times. Oh well, I’ve never been much of a poet.

Anyway, back to the subject of back pain.

The number one favorite topic during Safety Meetings at the Power Plant was Back Safety. We were told (and rightly so) that accidents where the back is injured cost the company and the employee more than any other injury. Once you really hurt your back, you can expect to have back pain the rest of your life. It only takes one time. — Times may have changed since 1979, so that now you can have some excellent back surgeries to help correct your back injuries. Even with these, you will never be completely free from back pain.

In the Power Plant Post, “When Power Plant Competition Turns Terribly Safe” I told a story about how our team came up with hundreds of safety slogans in an attempt to win the coveted Power Plant Safety Award Pizza at the end of the year. A Pizza that continued to allude us for 2 and a half years. During our meetings to invent the most catchy safety slogans, Andy Tubbs (or was it Ben Davis) came up with a slogan that said, “Lift with your legs, not your back. Or you may hear a lumbar crack”. — See. I wish I could come up with doozies like that! This takes the idea of a crack and a back and turns it around, if you think about it. Now instead of a crack hurting your back, its about a strain on your back creating a crack. — I know… probably just a coincidence….

Lumbars don't really crack. The discs indicated in blue become damaged

Lumbars don’t really crack. The discs indicated in blue become damaged

One morning Sonny Kendrick, our electric specialist at the time, while sitting in the electric lab during break, let out a whopper of a sneeze. When he did, he suddenly knew what it felt like to experience tremendous back pain. One sneeze and he was out of commission for many weeks.

Sonny as he is today

Sonny Kendrick as he is today or… yesterday…

One day, when Charles Foster, my very close friend, and electric foreman, were talking about back pain, I realized that a good portion of Power Plant Men suffered with back pain. — At the risk of sounding like Randy Dailey teaching our Safety Class, I’m going to repeat myself, “You only have to hurt your back one time to have a lifetime of back pain.”

The company would focus a lot of their safety training around the importance of proper lifting techniques in order to prevent back accidents (not to be confused with backing accidents which is when you back out of a parking space — which is also a common accident — though usually less severe — unless you happen to be a Ford Truck). We would learn how to lift with our legs and not with our back.

You see, it wasn’t just that one sneeze that caused Sonny’s plunge into Back Pain Hell, and it wasn’t just stepping on the cracked plywood floor drain cover that broke Tom’s back (I know “Broke Back” is a misnomer since the back isn’t exactly broke). The problem is more systemic than that. This is just the final result of maybe years of neglecting your back through various unsafe activities.

The two important points I remember from watching the safety videos during our monthly safety meetings was that when you slouch while sitting, you put a needless strain on your lower back. So, by sitting with good posture, you help prevent a future of pain. The second point I remember is that you need to keep your stomach muscles strong. Strong stomach muscles take the weight off of your back when you’re just doing your regular job.

The big problem that finally causes the disc in your lumbar region of your spine to break after neglecting it through these other means is to lift a heavy object by bending over to pick it up instead of lifting the load with your legs. So, the phrase that we always heard was “Lift with your Legs. Not your Back”. You do this by bending your knees instead of just your hips.

Ok. I know you are all thinking the same thing I am thinking (right? Yeah. You are). Bending both your knees and hips saves your back. Isn’t there another word for when you bend your knees and hips at the same time? — Yeah. Yet, I don’t remember hearing it during any of our Safety Videos. — Oh. It was implied, they just never came out and said it…. What they really mean to say is, “Squat”. Yeah. “Squat”. When you bend your knees and hips, isn’t that “Squatting?”

Times have changed…. I mean….. Doesn’t everyone today have a “Squatty Potty”?

The Squatty Potty Logo

The Squatty Potty Logo

Don’t we all have “I ‘heart’ 2 Squat” tee-shirts?

See how happy you can be to Squat?

See how happy you can be to Squat?

To learn more, you can watch this video:

This doesn’t just work with the Squatty Potty to help you drop your loads, it also works when lifting heavy loads. So, remember the next time you are going to bend over to pick something up…. Squat instead.

Other lifting tips include keeping the load close to your body and not holding your breath but tightening your stomach muscles, and don’t lift something too bulky by yourself. Don’t twist your body when picking something up, face the load directly. A weightlifter once told me that when you lift, feel the weight on the heel of your feet, not on the balls of your feet.

Randy Dailey, the Safety Guru of our Power Plant, and an expert machinist invented a pen that you could put in your pocket protector in your shirt pocket that would alert you by beeping if you leaned over too far. It was an ingenious device to remind you to lift with your legs instead of your back.

In one of the safety videos we watched about back safety, there was a short stalky scientist that explained the dynamics of lifting and how easy it was to put a tremendous strain on your back by leaning over and picking something up. He said that “People choose the more simple way to pick something up. Not the easiest way.”

Doesn’t that sound like the same thing? Isn’t the simplest way the easiest way? Well. You would think so, but it isn’t always the case. This Doctor of Back-ology went on to explain his statement. He explained that the simplest way to pick up an object on the floor is to bend at the hip. It is one movement. Bend at the hip. — However…. The easiest way to pick up the object is to bend both your knees and your hips to pick up the object. Since you keep your back straight and you lift with your leg muscles that are the most powerful muscles in your body. He avoided using the word, “Squat”, but that’s what he meant.

In order to reduce back injuries at the plant, the company made back belts available at the plant.

A Back Support Belt

A Back Support Belt

Note that this picture not only shows a Power Plant Man wearing a Back Support Belt, but he also is wearing the right kind of Tee-Shirt. It has a vest pocket where you can put a Pocket Protector for your little screwdriver and your Back Alert Pen created by Randy Dailey.

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

Our Pocket Protectors were freebies given to us by vendors so they would have advertisements on them like these

The use of back belts was new around the late 1980’s. Even though we had them available through the tool room when we wanted them, few people wore them. The warehouse team wore them a lot. I suppose that is because they were lifting and moving things all day long.

In the warehouse Bob Ringwall, Darlene Mitchell and Dick Dale used to have back belts on when I would visit the warehouse to pick up a part, or to visit my friends. I don’t remember if Bud Schoonover would wear a back belt. How’s this for a slogan…. “Be a Safety Black Belt…. When Lifting, wear your Back Belt.” I know. I should stop when I’m ahead, only I’m so far behind now I may never catch up.

There was a question about whether wearing a back belt was really a good idea. It was thought that people might tend to substitute using their stomach muscles while lifting with the back belt, resulting in weaker stomach muscles. So we were cautioned not to go around wearing back belts all day long. Only when we were going to be doing a job where we had to do a lot of lifting. I suppose now, after years of research, there is a lot more data to tell us one way or the other. I haven’t heard what the latest injury jury has said on this subject.

Even though I titled this post “…Plain Ol’ Power Plant Back Pain”, there is nothing plain about back pain. I just thought it sounded like a catchy title.

I was lucky enough that during the 20 years I spent working at the Power Plant, I never really hurt my back. To this day, I have been able to avoid living with perpetual pain in my back. — I have been accused of causing pain in other people’s necks. Also, I don’t think the many times that people told me I was a pain in their back side, they were referring to the Lumbar region. I think they meant an area just below the tailbone. I hope that by bringing to their attention the benefits of the Squatty Potty that I have been able to relieve (or prevent) a little of that lower lumbar pain.

Now when someone says, “You don’t know Squat”, you can correct them!

Comments from the original post:

    1. tellthetruth1 Ocotber 18, 2014

      I can remember getting into a taxi whilst in my late teens, turning in the seat to sling a bag in the back seat, only to pull something in my back. The pain lasted for ages.

      These days, it’s arthritis being the culprit. Back pain is as bad as everybody says it is.

      Good page 🙂

  1. Scott Hubbard October 21, 2014

    Wasn’t the back alert pen given to someone in the garage to try out. Rumor is they didn’t like it because it kept going off all day every time they bent over.
    Hmmmmmm

Power Plant Birthday Phantom

Long before Facebook ever graced the pages of our browsers, Power Plant Birthday reminders began appearing in the Outlook E-mail Inboxes of Power Plant men at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.  Today it seems commonplace to be reminded of your friends birthdays as your smartphone pops up a message to remind you.  In 1997, a strange event began happening at the plant.  It sent some scurrying about to find the culprit.  Others found it funny.  Some worried that their secrets were about to be revealed.  One person was totally surprised by the response (me).

January 3, 1997 Charles Foster and I went to our morning meeting with our team in the main break room where we would meet every morning to go over the work for the day.  Alan Kramer began the meeting by asking me a direct question.  He said something like, “Kevin.  Do you know anything about emails from the Birthday Phantom?”  I asked him what he meant, and he went on to explain.

Alan Kramer

Our Foreman Alan Kramer

Alan said that when someone opened up Outlook to check their e-mail that morning, shortly after they opened it up, an e-mail appeared in their inbox that was from themselves.  So, when Alan had logged in that morning, he received an e-mail from Alan Kramer.  When he opened it, it had a subject of “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday”.  The body of the e-mail said, “Today is Wayne Cranford’s Birthday.  He is 48 years old today.  Please wish him a Happy Birthday.  The Birthday Phantom.”

Jim Kanelakos in in the middle in the back (third from the left) with the red plaid shirt standing behind Vonzell Lynn

Wayne Cranford is front and center on one knee between David Evans and John Costello

It happened that when Wayne Cranford opened his own e-mail, the subject said, “Happy Birthday Wayne Cranford!”  and the body of the email had the happy birthday song,  “Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday to you.  Happy Birthday dear Wayne.  Happy Birthday to you.  The Birthday Phantom.

So, after Alan explained this to me, he looked at me again with a rather stern look and said, “Kevin.  Did you do this?”  What could I say?  So, I said, “Why is it that whenever something like this happens, I’m always the first one to be blamed for it?”  I knew at that point that Alan’s next response was going to mean the difference between night and day, so I put on the most indignant look I could.

Alan said, “Well.  I just had to ask.”  I shrugged like I understood and glanced over at Charles Foster who had a stunned look hidden behind his best poker face.  Something like this:

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

You see…. about a year earlier, before we were using Microsoft Outlook, we were using Novell’s Groupwise for email.  Alan Kramer had come to me and asked me if I had done something “wrong” in regard to emails.  It turned out that I was innocent of any “wrongdoing” in that instance (well, almost).  Charles Foster was my witness.

What had happened was that one day, Danny Cain, who was the Instrument and Controls person on our team had come into the electric shop office to make a phone call to someone at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.  I think it was Ed Mayberry.  Email was a new idea for most people at the plant.

Danny Cain

Danny Cain

While Danny was on the phone, I turned to the computer sitting on the desk across the room from Danny and wrote an e-mail to the person that Danny was talking to telling him not to believe a word Danny was saying… whatever it was…. it wasn’t important.  I just thought it would be funny to send an email to Ed about Danny while he was talking to Danny on the phone.

The subject of the email was “Danny Cain”.  As Danny was talking on the phone, he happened to turn around just as I was clicking “Send”, and he saw his name in the subject line.  Charles was sitting there next to me, as we were on break at the time.  Danny quickly asked what I was doing and why did he see his name on an e-mail.  I put on the guiltiest look I could and said, “Oh.  Nothing.  Nothing at all.”  Rolling my eyes with obvious guilt.

I didn’t know how much this bugged Danny until a couple of days later Alan came into the electric shop office and said he needed to ask me a serious question.  I could tell he was upset with me.  He asked, “Have you been reading other people’s emails?”  I was confused by the question, because I didn’t relate it to Danny from the other day.  So both Charles and I looked confused.

I told Alan that not only had I not read other people’s emails, but even if I could, I wouldn’t because I considered other people’s emails private.  Then I explained to him that Novell’s Groupwise email was very secure, and I wouldn’t know how to hack into their email if I had a desire.  Which I didn’t.

 

Novell's Groupwise

Novell’s Groupwise

Still confused by why Alan would ask the question both Charles and I asked Alan what this was all about.  He didn’t want to say who it was that told him they thought I was reading their emails, but after we pressed him, he told us that Danny Cain said he saw me reading his email when he was in the office.  Then both Charles and I knew what this was all about.

I explained to Alan that I was just joking around with Danny at the time.  I reasoned with Alan that I would have to be pretty stupid to wait until Danny was standing a few feet away from me before I decided to read his emails.  Alan accepted my explanation.  Especially since it was backed by one of the most honest people at the plant, Charles Foster.

So, fast forward to November 6, 1996.  We were now using Outlook.  That was about as secure as a bag of Oreo cookies in a kindergarten classroom.

I was sitting in the electric shop office with Charles during lunch, and I had just finished writing some fun little programs that automated pulling stock prices from the Internet and putting them in Excel each day.  I asked Charles, “What shall I do next?”

Charles thought for a few moments and said, “You know when we were still all in the electric shop before the downsizing, how when it was someone’s birthday we used to celebrate it by bringing a cake and having a lunch or something for that person?  Well.  We don’t do anything now.  Can you come up with something that will help celebrate birthdays?”

After brainstorming ideas, we settled on sending emails and the “Birthday Phantom” was born.  I thought it would be neat to learn how to write programs that used the Outlook API, sending emails, and stuff like that.  So, I went to work during my lunch breaks writing the program.

It only took a week or so to get it working, and then we ran a bunch of tests on it until we settled on having the emails be sent by the same person that is receiving the email when they log on the computer.  Each time a person logs on the computer, the program would be kicked off.

The first thing it would do was check to see if the person had already logged on that day.  If they had logged on before, then it would shutdown because I didn’t want it to send more than one email for the same day, even if the person used a different computer.

The next thing it would check was if the person was on an exception list.  We had decided that it was best to keep the plant manager and his cronies… um… I mean, his staff from receiving emails, as we didn’t think they would appreciate it since they didn’t have much use for such things.  If the person logging on was on the exceptions list, the application would shutdown.

Then, it would check to see if it was anyone’s birthday that day.  If it was, then it would send an email from the person logged on, to the person logged on.  If it was the birthday of the person logging on, then it would modify the email so that it was personalized to say happy birthday to them.

There were little tweeks I made while testing the application before we went live with it.  First, I added little things like making sure the gender was correct.  So, if it was a woman’s birthday, then it would say “…wish her a happy birthday”.

Charles and I decided that the application would start running on January 1, 1997.  So, during December, I made sure it was setup on all the computers in the plant except those belonging to the staff.  This brings us to January 3, 1997, when Wayne Cranford was the first Power Plant Man to have a birthday.

As I hinted above, Alan’s response to my indignation at being accused of creating the Birthday Phantom would have determined how short-lived the Birthday Phantom would have been.  Since Alan didn’t pursue the inquiry I didn’t offer any more information.

For instance.  A few minutes after the meeting was over, I walked over the control room, and the control room operators were all standing around talking about the Birthday Phantom.  David Evans asked me if I was the Birthday Phantom.  I responded the same way I did with Alan, I said, “Why is it that when something like this happens, I am always the first person to be accused?”  David responded with, “Yeah, but are you the Birthday Phantom?”  Well.  I wasn’t the type of person to blatantly lie, so I had to admit that “Yes.  I’m the Birthday Phantom, but don’t tell anyone.”  The Control room operators said they would all keep it to themselves (yeah.  right).

Though some people thought the Birthday Phantom was a nuisance, others thought that their personal emails were at risk, and that the Birthday Phantom could be stealing their emails.  Whenever I heard that anyone was upset (such as Alan) with the Birthday Phantom, I just added them to the exceptions list and they never received another Birthday Phantom email.

Jim Padgett, a Shift Supervisor, had received a Birthday Phantom email one day, and called IT to report it as they were trying to track down the program to figure out where it was coming from.  Jim Cave told me that  Padgett had the IT guy on the phone and he was logged into his computer to watch what happened when he logged on and opened up Outlook to try and find what was sending the emails.

Jim Padgett is on the far left along with his crew of True Power Plant Men

Jim Padgett is on the far left standing next to Jim Cave in the Jean Jacket.

Jim Cave said that the IT guy was sounding hopeful that he was going to finally be able to catch the Birthday Phantom when all of the sudden he said, “Oh!  That’s a Wiley One!”  I came to understand that in Oklahoma City, the IT department was taking this so seriously that they assigned two people full time for two weeks to try and find the culprit (I added Jim Padgett to the exception list, so he didn’t receive any more emails).

I hadn’t thought about it when I was writing the application, but back at Corporate Headquarters, they thought that the application had somehow gained access to the HR system in order to find the birthdays of each employee.  Even though, things like Birthdays and Social Security Numbers were not as sensitive in 1997 (for instance, the plant manager’s Social Security Number was 430-68-….  You really didn’t think I would put his Social Security number here did you?), if someone was accessing the HR database, that would have been serious.

Even though the IT department was taking this very seriously, there was one timekeeper at the Power Plant that was just about climbing the walls over the Birthday Phantom.  She was so concerned that I was afraid she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  I was not surprised by this at all, and had actually anticipated her anxiety.  Actually, the Birthday Phantom was designed for just this reason.  You see, this particular timekeeper was going to be turning 40 years old one week after the first Birthday Phantom email showed up.

After the second Birthday Phantom email arrived the next Monday on January 6, announcing that Jerry Potter had just turned 36, Linda Shiever called me and asked me if I could find out how to stop the Birthday Phantom.  I told her I would look into it.  I did look into it for about one second.  Linda was turning 40 on Friday.

Linda Shiever

Linda Shiever

On Wednesday, January 8, not only did Elvis Presley turn 62 (if he had been alive… or…. um…well, you know…) but the Birthday Phantom informed everyone at the plant that Sonny Kendrick (who was only 5 days younger than Wayne Cranford) had also turned 48 years old.  Linda Shiever was thinking about calling in sick on Friday.

Linda knew that when she came to work the morning of January 10, that her cube would be full of black balloons with the number 40 on them.  She had resigned herself to this a while before when she helped blow up the balloons for Louise Kalicki’s cube the previous August 23, less than 5 months earlier.  The appearance of the Birthday Phantom, however, had thrown in a new element of recognition.

The morning of January 10, 1997 finally arrived, and the Birthday Phantom email notified everyone that it was not only Linda Shiever’s birthday, but it was also Gene Day’s birthday as well.  Yeah.  The application could handle multiple birthdays on the same day.  Linda Shiever was happy to find out that the Birthday Phantom had informed the entire Power Plant that she had just turned 29.  In fact, that year, every woman at the plant was turning 29 years old according to the Birthday Phantom. — That was another one of those tweeks that came out of our testing.

Gene Day, on the other hand, according to the Birthday Phantom had just turned 100 years old…. Well.. Everyone knew he was ancient (See the post: “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day” and the “Psychological Profile of a Control Room Operator“).  Needless to say, there was a lot less stress in the office area after that day.

The following week, when I went to the tool room to get some supplies, Darlene Mitchell stopped me and asked me if the Birthday Phantom would do her a favor.  She was turning 45 years old on January 28, and she didn’t want the Birthday Phantom to tell everyone she was 29.  She wanted it to say, “Today is Darlene Mitchell’s Birthday, She is 45 years old and Lovin’ it!  Please wish her a Happy Birthday!”  I told her I would have a talk with the Birthday Phantom and it shouldn’t be a problem.

Darlene Mitchell another dear friend

Darlene Mitchell, a dear friend of the Birthday Phantom

After a month, when I was in the Control Room, Jim Cave, who was now referring to me regularly as “The Wiley One” said that the IT department had told Jack Maloy that they were no longer looking for the Birthday Phantom.  They were not able to find it.  The person that did it would just have to tell them who it was.

I still have the computer code I used when I wrote the program.  Sometimes I take it out and read it and I remember that year when the Birthday Phantom visited the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to remind everyone that we were all growing older and as a family, we should take the time to stop and say “Happy Birthday” to each other on that one day each year when we are special.

Birthday Phantom Code

Page 1 of the Birthday Phantom Code

Destruction of a Power Plant God

Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend.  It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened.  We have a natural tendency to worship something.  It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water.  I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed.  August 5, 1996.

The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant.  It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer.  Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.

When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance.  The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual.  It must have been a cloudy morning.

Power Plant at sunset

Power Plant at sunset (only we were arriving before sunrise)

We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant.  It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant.  We weren’t really sure what we had seen.  It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.

There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual.  there was a guard or an operator standing out there.  He waved us through the gate.  about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot.  It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.

The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks.  They seemed to be pulling away just about that time.  Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor.  The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky.  I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.

We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away.  We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT).  The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.

Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year.  That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive.  Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.

Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:

The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT.  Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control.  He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded.  The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest.  This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).

Turning Gear

Turning Gear

At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine.  The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames.  The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above.  The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete.  The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor  melting the roof as if it was butter.  The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.

The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator.  This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on.  The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should.  As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone.  It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.

Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight.  The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools.  Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator.  The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Unit 1 Turbine-Generator

Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights).  Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.

Charles Patton

Charles Patton

By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down.  Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion.  I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before.  There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode.  I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.

The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River.  One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong.  I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.

When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once.  The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris.  I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine.  It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Bomb Worshipers in Beneath the Planet of the Apes

The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it.  I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff.  I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.

Like this only with a mop handle

Like this only with a mop handle

We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation.  The soot didn’t just wash off.  Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room.  The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.

We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner.  This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again.  All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.

The thought was too overwhelming.  I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now.  If I do, I’ll go crazy.  I’ll think about that tomorrow.”

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind

Vivian Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind

With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe.  Are clothes were now black.  We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators

Johnny Cash Man in Black

Johnny Cash Man in Black

literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face

Al Jolson dressed in Black Face (Google Image)

We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!”  I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot.  Then he explained.  “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project.  You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”

Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world?  Well.  I am.  I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.

Here is a post about how lucky I am:  Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.

Now for the hard part of the story to write about:

So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test?  What happened to cause the explosion?

The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage.   The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.

Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target.  A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time.  No one really understands some of the things he works on.  Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion.  I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible.  The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion.  Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners.  I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions.  You see, I haven’t completely decided.

There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover.  The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof.  I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy.  You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.

The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered.  That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump.  When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.

A large coupling

A large coupling

It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged.  It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling.  In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage.  The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.

I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me.  The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth.  This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place.  You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.

The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation.  Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.

Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage.  It was ruled as “equipment failure”.  Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.

I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen.  Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong.  I know that.  That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant.  A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity.  Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.

That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone.  To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then.  My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.

On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen.  It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred.  It gave me a little of my faith back in the system.  When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.

All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator.  I just exaggerated that part a bit.  But let me ask this question… Who in this story did?  Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”?  Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important?  That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.

The question is never, “Is there a God?”  The real question is “Which God do you worship?”

How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic?

Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:

Not long after I became a full time Power Plant employee after I had moved from being a janitor to the labor crew in 1983, I began carpooling with 3 other Power Plant employees.  An Electrician, Bill Rivers.  A Chemist, Yvonne Taylor, and one of the new members of the Testing team, Rich Litzer.  With such a diverse group, you can only imagine the types of topics that were discussed driving to and from work each day.

Bill Rivers usually talked about different absurdities that he encountered during his day as an electrician.  How one hand doesn’t know what the other hand is doing, leading sometimes to very funny results.  Yvonne Taylor would talk about her farm and something called School Land Lease that she farmed, and how she had to deal with the bureaucracy and the constantly changing laws.  Rich Litzer would discuss how their newly formed team were learning new things at the plant and often had funny things to say about his encounters during the day.

Me?  Occasionally I would lift up my head from the book I was reading (if I wasn’t the driver), and ask, “Would anyone like to hear about the training that we received from Johnson & Johnson about how to properly wax a floor using their top of the line wax, ShowPlace?”  that didn’t usually jump to the top of the list of most interesting stories.

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

We did use ShowPlace wax by Johnson and Johnson, and they did send a representative to our plant to teach us backward Oklahoma hick janitors how to properly care for our plain tile hallways and offices.  Not the fancy tile like they have these days.  If you are over 50 years old, then it is probably the same type of tile that you had on the floors of your school if you went to the standard brick public elementary school  like the one I used to attend.

The office area floors were sure shiny after we applied a healthy dose of ShowPlace on them.  The Johnson and Johnson rep. taught us how to properly buff the floor and showed us how a properly buffed floor that was really shiny was actually less slick than a badly waxed floor.

Anyway, I digress.  Waxing floors is usually something that I tend to ramble about when I have an audience that shows interest in it (which I’m still trying to find).  Since I can’t see your expression, I can only suspect that you would like to hear more about Power Plant floor waxing techniques, so I just might indulge you later on in this post after I have talked about the three other people in the car.

When it was my turn to drive to work, everyone had to climb into my 1982 Honda Civic:

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

Bill Rivers was about 10 years younger than my father and I know he had at least 6 children (I think).  Maybe more.  He told me once that even he lost count.  Before he came to work at the Power Plant, he lived in Columbia, Missouri (while I had lived there, coincidentally), and worked at a Tool and Die manufacturing plant.

He worked so much overtime that one day he came home and sat down to eat dinner and sitting across from him at the table was a young boy that he didn’t recognize.  He figured that he was a friend one of his own kids had invited to supper, so he asked him, “What’s your name?”  Come to find out, it was one of his own children.

Bill had spent so little time at home that he didn’t even recognize his own child because his children were growing up and he was missing it.  Mainly because he worked so much overtime.  That was when Bill decided to move to Oklahoma and go to work at the power plant.  Probably at the same time when I had moved to work there also, and was still going back to Columbia to finish college before becoming a full fledged bona-fide Power plant Janitor.

Bill Rivers always seemed to be having fun, and usually at the expense of someone else.  He was constantly playing jokes on someone, and his most common target was Sonny Kendrick, the Electrical Specialist.  Sonny was somewhat gullible, and so, Bill would weave some very complicated stories together to draw Sonny’s attention and string it along until Sonny was totally believing something preposterous.

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny wasn’t gullible like Curtis Love was gullible.  Sonny knew that Bill Rivers was always trying to pull something over on him.  So, Bill would just see how far along he could string Sonny until Sonny realized that everything Bill was saying was just made up in his head.  —  Then Bill Rivers would spend the rest of the week chuckling about it.  Which usually aggravated Sonny to no end.

Sonny Kendrick was the only Electrical Specialist at the plant.  I suppose he had some electronics training that allowed him to hold that honored position.  His real name is Franklin Floyd Kendrick.  I first met Sonny when I was the janitor for the Electric Shop.

People would call him “Baby Huey”.  Since I didn’t know who Baby Huey was, I just figured that it was some character that reminded them of Sonny.  So, when I had the opportunity, I looked up Baby Huey (this was a number of years before the Internet).  I still wasn’t sure why, unless they were talking about a different Baby Huey:

I didn’t really get the connection, unless it had something to do with the diaper or the facial expression

Bill Rivers had a son that was in High School at the time, and he had the same Algebra teacher that by brother Greg had when he was trying to learn Algebra.  The teacher had a real problem teaching algebra to high school students, and Bill asked me if I would tutor his son in Algebra.

When I first met Bill’s son, (I think his name was either Jerard or Bryan, I don’t remember now), his life ambition was to graduate from High School and work as a mechanic in an auto garage and drive motorcycles.  I tried to show him how interesting and fun Algebra and Math in general could be, so each time I went to meet with him, I would bring him either a math puzzle or a book with a story about a mathematician, or a neat Mathematical oddity… such as imaginary numbers, and things like that.

Later, long after Bill had moved to another Power Plant in Konawa, Oklahoma, I saw Bill, and he told me that he his son was working toward becoming a dentist.  I don’t know if he was ever able to fulfill his dream, but when I visit Oklahoma, I keep my eye out for a guy on a motorcycle with a Dentist symbol on the back of his Harley Davidson jacket.  Because that would probably be him.

The Dental Symbol. it would probably look good on a Harley Jacket, don’t you think?

Anyway, while the four of us were carpooling together, the person that did the most talking was Yvonne Taylor.  Now, I like Yvonne Taylor.  I liked her a lot.  But she was the main reason why I was never able to practice my Ramblin’ Ann rambles (See the post “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space With a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“) because she was usually in the midst of exercising her right to ramble as well.

Since she was my elder, (almost my mother’s age), I always let her go first, which usually meant there wasn’t much of a chance for anyone to go second.  I finally just decided this would be a great time to read.  So I started reading books about different sorts of religions around the world.  With the Bhagavad Gita being one of my favorite ones.

I always had a certain attraction to Yvonne, because she had a son named Kevin (which is my name), and a daughter named Kelley (My girlfirend’s name at the time was Kelly, now she is my wife).  And her son and daughter were about the same age as my future wife and I were.

In the midst of rambles emanating from Yvonne, I would look up every time I would hear, “Kelley said this, or Kevin said that….”  She did say one thing one time that I have always remembered and I have tried to follow.  Yvonne said that you never want to buy a house that is West of the place where you work.  Especially if it is any distance away.

I believe it was when she lived in Michigan, she had to drive a long way East every day, and the sun was glaring in her eyes all the way to work.  Then when she had to drive home going West in the evening, the sun was glaring in her eyes as it was going down.  So, when you live West of your workplace, you have to drive with the sun in your eyes every day, both ways, and you just pray and pray for rain or at least a cloudy day.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Yvonne’s husband, Pat, had a dad with last name Taylor (obviously), and his mom’s Maiden Name was Songer.  My Grandmother’s last name is Taylor (by marriage), and my wife Kelly has a Grandmother who’s maiden name was Songer.  So there was that as well.

Unfortunately for Yvonne, was that by the time we arrived at the plant in the morning, she was usually slightly hoarse.  I don’t know if it was the morning air… or maybe… it could have possibly been the rambling….  So, when she would have to page someone on the PA system (The Gaitronics Gray Phone), she sounded a little bit like the wicked witch.  Just like some clothes can cause someone to look fatter than other clothes, the Gray Phone system had a tendency to make one’s voice more “tinny” than it actually is.  Especially if your voice is hoarse, and high pitched already.

Gaitronics Gray Phone

So, whenever I heard Yvonne paging someone and I was in the Electric shop or with the janitor crew, I would say, “Yvonne just has the sexiest voice I’ve ever heard.  I can’t hardly Stand it!!”  Those who were hearing me for the first time would give me a look like I must be crazy.  And Well…  who knows for sure.  I think the Electricians knew for sure.

Rich Litzer lived just up the street from me, so I would drive by his house and pick him up, or I would park my car at his house and we would take his car, and we would meet Bill Rivers and Yvonne Taylor at the local Bowling Alley, since it was on the main drag out of town on Washington Street in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

Rich was a great guy to carpool with because he usually had a lighthearted story to tell about something that happened at home, or we would talk about something else equally not serious.  Later he was relocated downtown in Corporate Headquarters, and I didn’t see him for a long time.

Then one day, Rich and Ron Madron came down to Austin, Texas (where I live now) after I had moved down to work for Dell, to go to a school or conference, and I was able to meet them for dinner.  That was the last time I saw Rich or Ron, and that was about 9 or 10 years ago.

At this point I was going to rambl… I mean…. talk more about how we used to wax the floor when I was a janitor, however,  I have decided to leave that for another post “Wax On, Wax Off and other Power Plant Janitorial Secrets“.

Today when I finally found out that the post I was going to write was about my carpooling with Bill Rivers, Yvonne Taylor and Rich Litzer, I went to the Internet and looked up the latest news on my old friends.  To my surprise, I found that Yvonne’s husband Patrick, died on September 12, just 9 days ago.

I don’t think I ever met Patrick in person, however, I used to hear about his daily activities for the 2 1/2 years from October 1982 through December 1985 when I used to carpool with Yvonne.  Learning about Patrick’s death has saddened me because I know how much Yvonne loved and cared for Patrick.  I know she has four sons and two daughters that are there to comfort her.  I offer Yvonne my condolences and I wish her all the best.

Yvonne Taylor’s husband the past 52 years, Patrick Taylor

Comment from Previous Post:

  1. Ron  September 25, 2013:

    Great story, Kevin! I’ll bet you didn’t know I used to run a floor scrubber-/polisher. Yep – at the big TG&Y store in Shepherd Mall (OKC). I helped in opening the store in 1964 and continued working there for a couple of years as a “Stock Boy”.

Singing Along with Sonny Kendrick

Originally posted January 11, 2013:

Today I sit quietly in a cubicle with a group of other people on my team. We each type away throughout the day, or we are on calls in our own meetings listening to conversations where we offer input where it is necessary. I may listen to music on my computer to help me get into the rhythm of my work as I type away creating documents or sending IMs to other employees as they ask me questions throughout the day.

That was not how it was before the PC made inroads into our lives. We used to sit around and talk to each other. We did things to pass the time while we worked on tedious jobs. We talked about our families. We talked about movies and shows we had seen. We asked each other how their family was doing. Sometimes, we even sang.

I was sitting on the Precipitator Roof installing a new Rapper circuit board in the Rapper Vibrator cabinet while one of my Precipitator Mentors sat behind me making sure that I was learning the fine art of Precipitator Maintenance on one of the first actual jobs I worked on when I became an Electrician.

The day was growing long, and Sonny had taken over for me and was installing the second circuit board while I was sitting on a Tension house box where Sonny had previously been sitting. Suddenly I felt this sudden urge to burst out in song. It was not known before this moment that I was sort of a professional singer. Actually. I had grown up with a family of singers.

My mother and my sister used to break out into song at random times throughout my childhood when a song would come over the radio on the easy listening station that was constantly on. So naturally, it would be natural for me to want to break out into song when the moment was right.

So, I just let loose singing one of my favorite songs. It didn’t matter that there wasn’t an accompaniment. I didn’t need the orchestra behind me on the radio to help me keep time. I had the orchestra playing in my mind…. I didn’t need the tuning fork that Sister Maureen used to use at Catholic School when I was a kid as she would bang it on the desk and then hum with a wavering hum until she came in tune with her tuning fork. No. The tuning fork came from years of listening to my favorite songs.

Yes. Even before the iPod was invented and the VCR had come around, there were two places where a person could hear a song over and over and over again. One place was the radio. Back in the 70’s when your favorite song was in the top 20’s you could hear it play over and over again every two hours on the radio.

So, I burst out with one of my favorite songs and started to serenade my new found friend, Sonny Kendrick. I began quietly and worked my way up to a crescendo. The song I sang began thus: “Here’s the story of a lovely lady, who was bringing up three very lovely girls….”

I continued with great confidence in my singing ability, knowing that I was impressing my fellow electrician with my fantastic singing ability: “all of them had hair of gold, like their mother….the youngest one in curls!” Even louder I bellowed out: “Here’s the story of a man named Brady who was living with three boys of his own. They were four men living all together, yet they were all alone!”

Now I was in full form with my hand on my chest, standing at attention with all the full emotion I could draw out as I sang the final verse: “Till the one day when the lady met this fellow. And they knew that it was much more than a hunch, That this group must somehow form a family, That’s the way we all became the Brady bunch!”

Then as if I was playing an air guitar on stage, I was able to dramatically complete my short opera with the shaking of my head as I sang the final words: “The Brady bunch, the Brady bunch. That’s the way we became the Brady bunch bunch bunch…..” (now you know the second place where you could hear a song over and over).

Acting rather proud of my accomplishment I relieved Sonny as I was going to install the third of the four Rapper cards in the cabinet…. I began connecting the wires to the circuit board one at a time when all of the sudden I was struck with some strange form of electricity!

Had we forgotten to turn off the electrical disconnect to the 480 Volts to the cabinet? My fingers were shaking from the sudden impulse of electricity. My knees were buckling so that I stumbled back and sat against rappers behind me. I was completely stunned. I couldn’t tell if my ears were actually picking up sound or I had suddenly died and was on my way to heaven because I had just electrocuted myself in the cabinet.

My head was spinning. Thoughts entered my head like, “Great. I have just been electrocuted! I have only been an electrician for less than a month and already I have killed myself. I hope my parents and my girlfriend don’t think I suffered when I died.”

Gradually, I realized that the sounds of harps and the humming of angels were all just an accompaniment that were being added by heaven itself to the song that was emanating from Sonny Kendrick! Sonny Kendrick, while he was taking his repose while I had proceeded to install my circuit board had suddenly had a similar urge to break out into song.

Only, unlike my feeble attempt at doing justice to the Brady Bunch Song, Sonny Kendrick was singing as if God himself had come down and suddenly transformed him into an Opera Singer. I couldn’t tell if he was singing something from Wagner’s immortal Opera “The Ring” or if he was singing La Boheme by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

It didn’t matter to me. All I could do was sit there on a tension house in stunned amazement. Tears were rolling down my face. Here was a guy that people referred to as Baby Huey because of his build ( I guess):

I didn't really get the connection, unless it had something to do with the diaper.

This is Baby Huey. I didn’t really get the connection.

Suddenly his lower build had moved up to the chest area and Sonny Kendrick had transformed into Franklin Floyd Kendrick! The magnificent opera singer!

When my friend and sudden Opera singing hero had finished, he stepped over the conduits and went to work to add the last rapper circuit board on the rack with the other three.

Still sitting on the tension house coming to my senses. Realizing that my transformation to heaven was only a temporary visit. I asked Sonny…. “What was that?” — That was all I could think of saying. What else could I say? “Can I have your Autograph?” I suppose I could have said that. No. All I could say was, “What was that?”

Sonny as he is today

Sonny as he is today

Here is a picture of Sonny. He didn’t have a beard then, but he has the exact same smile today that he had that day! He gave me this exact same smile when I asked him “What was that?” Exactly!

I said, “Sonny. What are you doing here? Why are you an electrician when you have a voice like that?” He replied by telling me that he had a family and he had to provide for them and he couldn’t do it by being a singer. So I asked him how he became an electrician.

You see. At the time, Sonny had the distinction of being the Electrical Specialist. He was the only one. He had gone to Oklahoma State Tech in Okmulgee and received a technical degree there in electronics. This gave him the ability to become the electrical specialist at the plant.

His real dream was to become an Opera Singer. Being an electrician was something to pay the bills. His heart was in his song. Sonny has a tremendous heart. I know. I have seen and heard it beating.

There is a part of Sonny’s story that is a tragedy. Isn’t that usually true with great artists? I suppose that is where their passion for their creativity comes from. This was true with Sonny, and in the next few months, I learned more and more about the burden that had been put on Sonny’s shoulders.

You see. One day. Sonny had said something to Leroy Godfrey to the effect that Sonny was a electrical specialist. He should be doing something more than spending all his time working on the precipitator. What his exact words were doesn’t really matter. What matters is that Leroy Godfrey had decided that day that Sonny Kendrick was to be banished to the precipitator. Never to work on anything but the precipitator.

In order to understand what this means… you have to understand the conditions someone has to work in when they work on the precipitator… First of all. No one wants to work with you, because it means working in the midst of pigeon dung, insulation, fly ash, and dust. Along with that, when the unit is online, the roof of the precipitator is one of the loudest places at the plant. Rappers and Vibrators going off constantly. Buzzing and Banging! Very hot in the summer and freezing in the winter.

As time went by, and Bill Rivers and Sonny filled in the blanks I came to understand just how burned out Sonny Kendrick was with working on the precipitator. I could see how he literally had to drag himself to the precipitator roof to work on the cabinets or fix a transformer knife switch. He would rather being doing anything else.  The precipitator had become like Van Gogh’s ear.  He just wanted to cut it off.

It had occurred to me at the time that the units had only been online for about 3 and 4 years and Sonny was already completely burned out on this job. It made perfect sense to me when I understood that this was a punishment for trying to stand up to an Old School Power Plant Supervisor. In order to understand Leroy Godfrey read the post:

The Death of an Old School Power Plant Man — Leroy Godfrey

A little less than two years later, Sonny Kendrick sang at my wedding. He was up in the balcony singing a list of songs that had been given to him by my mom. Bill Moler, the Evil Assistant Plant Manager who was serving as a Deacon at my wedding came in the front door dressed in his robes and ready to go into the church. I was standing there greeting people as they came in.

Bill suddenly stopped and stood still for a moment. Then he said, “Who is that singing? Where did you find someone with such a wonderful voice?” I proudly told him, “That’s Sonny.” Bill leaned forward and said, “Our Sonny?” I replied, “Yep. Sonny Kendrick. Our Sonny Kendrick.”

I had decided early on that I was going to do whatever I could to pull Sonny off of that Precipitator so that he could use his talents as they were meant to be used. So, every time I was asked to help out on the precipitator, I was glad to help Sonny.

Years later, when Sonny was finally able to be free of the precipitator, he went kicking and screaming, because I had turned precipitator maintenance on it’s head and it was hard for Sonny to see his work all turned topsy turvy. I knew that like myself, Sonny had a personal relationship with his work and that when someone else was tinkering with it it was a kind of “insult”.

I knew for Sonny it was best. It didn’t take him long to step out into the open air and take a deep breathe. Once he realized it was no longer his worry, he was a much happier man. I am pleased to see that Sonny Kendrick today wears the same smile that he did that day when he had broken out in song and serenaded me on top of the Precipitator.

It means that he still has the peace that he is due. I can’t help it. I have to end this post by posting his picture again. Just look into his eyes and see his joy. I’ll bet this picture was taken just after he had finished an aria of La Traviata by Guiseppe Verdi:

Sonny as he is today

Sonny after gracing the world with an Aria

In a way. Sonny’s life has been a Aria. I have been blessed to have been able to call him “Friend”.

 

COMMENTS FROM THE ORIGINAL POST:

Ron Kilman January 12, 2013

The best job I ever had with OG&E was as a Results Engineer at Seminole. I helped start up all 3 units, design, purchase and install a water induction prevention system for unit 2, balance turbines, fans, etc., became “Plant Photographer”, designed all the racks and supports for turbine/generator rotors and diaphragms, ran performance tests on the boiler/turbine units, and lots of other fun stuff. But in 1975 I was promoted to “Senior Results Engineer”.

OG&E saw people with an Engineering degree as automatically anointed for management. I didn’t agree with that, but I was stuck in that culture. That promotion made me “Supervisor” of Montie Adams. I first began working with Montie (Old Power Plant Man) in 1967 at Mustang as a summer student in the Results department. (That’s where I got to know Leroy Godfrey too).

Montie had taught me a lot, had tons of knowledge and experience, and was much more qualified than I was. But he didn’t have the degree so he couldn’t even apply for the job. I never did become comfortable supervising people with more knowledge and experience than me just because I had the magic degree. From 1975 on, my job focus was no longer on the equipment used in generating electrical power, but on the people who used and maintained that equipment. I never understood how an engineering degree equipped me for that.

  1. Plant Electrician January 12, 2013

    Ron,

    It’s funny how cultures change over time. You described the old power plant culture perfectly.

    Today in my profession, it is perfectly sensible to manage employees that have more knowledge about their work than you have. The trick is knowing that. I currently have a terrific manager that would hardly know how to do what I do. That really isn’t his job though. He relies on his people to know what they are doing. It is being a good leader that makes one a good supervisor. Not trying to find or pretend to know all the answers yourself. Somehow that was lost on the Old Power Plant Man culture.

    I think that was why we were so stunned when you arrived at the plant and you had a personality beyond “slave driver”. I know I’ll write more about this in the future, but there were a number of times where I was pleasantly surprised to find that you listened to me and even asked for my advice.

    Kev

Moon Walk in a Power Plant Precipitator

Originally Posted May 25, 2013;

Just because there isn’t any smoke pouring out of the smoke stacks at a Coal-fired Power Plant, it doesn’t mean that the plant is offline.  The power plant where I worked as an electrician in north central Oklahoma had two large Buell (later GE) electrostatic precipitators.  This is what takes the smoke out of the exhaust.  The smoke is referred to as “Fly Ash”.  The electrostatic precipitator when running efficiently should take out 99.98% of the ash in the exhaust.  When running with excellent efficiency, the exhaust can have less ash than dust in the air (or 99.999%).

Sonny Kendrick, the electric specialist and Bill Rivers an electronics whiz were my mentors when I joined the electric shop.  These two Power Plant Men taught me how to maintain the precipitator.  I wrote about the interaction between these two men in the post:  Resistance in a Coal-Fired Power Plant.  It is funny to think, 30 years later that the skills they were teaching me would determine my career for the next 18 years.  You see….. I later became the Precipitator guru of the power plant.  I once thought it was sort of a curse to become good at one thing, because then you were kind of expected to do that the rest of your life.

When I first joined the electric shop and they were deciding who was going to fix all the manhole pumps, the electrical A Foreman replied by saying, “Let Kevin do it.  He likes to get dirty.”  At that point… I think I understood why they really wanted me in the electric shop.  Charles Foster had mentioned to me when I was a janitor and he had asked me if I would consider being an electrician because I cleaned things so well, and a lot of being a Power Plant electrician involved cleaning…  Now those words took on their full meaning.

I knew I was destined to work on the precipitator from the beginning.  Sonny had been banished to work on only the precipitator, as Bill Rivers had made clear to me when I was still a janitor (see the power plant post:  Singin’ Along with Sonny Kendrick).  I was his chance to be lifted from the curse that had been placed on him by our Electrical Supervisor, Leroy Godfrey.  I had accepted that.  I knew that I would eventually be the one to maintain the precipitators from day one.

So, here I was…  One month before becoming an electrician, I had a near death experience inside the precipitator (See the post:  Angel of Death Passes by the Precipitator Door).  Now I was going into the precipitator again with Bill Rivers.  I think at that time we were just wearing half-faced respirators and no fly ash suit.  Just a rain suit.

A man wearing a half faced respirator -- not me... just an image I found on Google Images

A man wearing a half faced respirator — not me… just an image I found on Google Images

Not a lot of protection….

I followed Bill Rivers into the precipitator while it was offline for overhaul.  I had my flashlight securely strapped around my neck with a string.  I had  a small notepad with a pen tied to it also around my neck for taking notes.

A notepad like this

A notepad like this

So, as Bill entered the dark cavern of the precipitator, I found that we had just entered a new world.  It was dark… Like the dark side of the moon.  We were at the intake of the precipitator and we were walking on top of the ash as it was more like sand at this point.  We just left footprints where we only sank about 2 inches into the pile of ash that had built up there.

Bill took his flashlight and shined it up between two sets of plates that are exactly 9 inches apart.  He swung the light up toward the top of the precipitator 70 feet above.  At first as the light was reflecting on all the white ash, I was blinded to the detail that Bill was trying to show me.  Eventually I realized that he was pointing his flashlight at a clip.  There was some kind of a clip that held one plate in line with the next.

Once I had confirmed to Bill that I saw where he was looking, he lowered the flashlight to about 45 feet above us, where there was another clip.  Then even lower.  About 10 feet above us.  A third clip.  — Now at this point… I was almost ready to resign myself to another lesson like the one I had learned from Ken Conrad as he had poured his heart and soul into his description of how to lay the irrigation hose and position the water gun 3 years earlier (See, “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It pays to Listen“),  then I remembered…. “I know this is boring… but you have to learn it….”  A Phrase that I made good use of 15 years later when I was teaching switching to a group of True Power Plant Men that would find themselves equally bored with the necessary material they had to learn.

Bill explained….. Each clip must (and he emphasized “Must’) be aligned with the next plate.  Every clip must be in their place.  Don’t start up this precipitator until this is so.  Ok.  I understood…. Let’s see… there are three clips between each of the four plates… or 9 clips per row…. and there were 44 rows of plates for each section…. and there were 6 sections across the precipitator, and  7 sections…. hmmm… that added up to oh… only 16,632 clips that I needed to check during each overhaul… ok… I took a note on my notepad…

Bill explained….. Clean each insulator.  there is one on the side of each bottle rack holding all the wires in place.There were only 4 for each 2 hoppers.  there were 84 hoppers,   Great.  Only 168 insulators on the bottle racks….  Then he pointed out that there were also insulators on the precipitator roof.  two on each section over each pair of hoppers… One on the tension hosue on one connected to the transformer, or 336 more… making a total of 504 insulators that need to be inspected and cleaned during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. you need to check each of the wires to make sure they aren’t caught on a clip or broken.  Let’s see…. there were 44 rows of wires in each section… with 16 wires in each row…. and there were 6 sections across each set of hoppers…. that came out to exactly 29568 wires that needed to be inspected during each overhaul.

Bill explained…. each rapper on the roof needs to be tested to make sure they are rapping with the correct force.  That meant that they each needed to lift at least 6 inches before they dropped the 15 pound slug (to knock the ash off of the plates into the hoppers below.  Hmm… For each 4 hoppers, there were 6 rows of 12 rappers each.  There were two sets across the precipitator and there were 7 sets of rappers.  In other words…. there were 672 rappers on the roof of the precipitator.

Bill explained…. each vibrator on the roof needs to be calibrated to provide the maximum vibration to the wires inside the precipitator in order to make sure they cleaned the wires of any ash buildup as they are responsible for delivering the static electricity to the precipitator that collects the ash on the plates.  In order to calibrate them, you had to adjust the gap between the main bracket and the magnetic coil to within a few thousands of an inch… I don’t remember the exact setting now… but we used a set of shims to set them correctly.  There were 12 vibrators for each of the two sides of each of the seven sections of hoppers.   This came out to 168 vibrators that need to be adjusted during each overhaul.  Oh.  And each vibrator had an insulator connected to the wire rack…adding 168 more insulators.

So, we had 16,632 clips, 672 insulators, 29568 wires, 672 rappers and 168 vibrators that all needed to be in good working order at the end of each overhaul (on each of the two units).  Throughout the years that I worked inspecting, adjusting and wrestling with plates, clips and wires, I became personally attached to each wire, insulator, clip, rapper and vibrator. For a number of my 18 years as an electrician, I was the only person that entered the precipitator to inspect the plates, wires, clips and internal insulators.  Some of my closest friends were precipitator components.  Each diligently performing their tasks of cleaning the environment so that millions of people wouldn’t have to breathe the toxins embedded in the ash particles.

We hired contractors to go into the precipitator to help me.  I would spend an entire day teaching them how to wear their full face respirator and fly ash suit…. How to inspect the clips and wires…. how to walk along the narrow beams along the edge of each row of 84 hoppers on each unit to find and repair the things that were not in proper alignment.  I would check out all their equipment and give them their safety training only to have them not show up for work the next day.

Contractors would gladly be paid to weld in the boiler hanging from a sky climber in the middle of space 200 feet above the bottom ash hopper, but give them one day in the precipitator and they would rather be thumbing a ride to Texas….  I should have felt insulted… after all this was my home…. Mark Fielder the head of the welders once called it my “baby”.  I knew he had never had to endure the walk on the moon when you entered the tail end of the precipitator and found yourself buried waste deep in light fly ash.  I told Mark Fielder to not call the precipitator my baby…  Not until he could find a contractor that was willing to work alongside me inside it.  He apologized.  He explained that he meant it with affection.

At the back end of the precipitator, you just sank to the bottom of a pile of fly ash when you stepped into it.  The fly ash particles there are less than 2 microns in diameter.  That meant that they would infiltrate your filter and bounce around inside your respirator on their way down into your lungs.  Building up a permanent wall of silicon in your innards that will be there until the day you die.

I noticed that after a few days of working in the precipitator that I would feel like I had the flu.  This would happen after I would smell this certain scent in the precipitator that would develop after the unit had been offline for a week or so.  I noticed that when I burped, I could taste that smell in my mouth.  I also noticed that if I had to pass some gas, that the smell would also include the smell that I was experiencing in the precipitator.

I didn’t think much about it until one day when I went to the tool room and Bud Schoonover told me that they were out of the regular hepa-filters for my respirator.  So, instead he gave me a pair of organic filters.  They had a different carbon filter that absorbed organic particles.  I said, “Thanks Bud.” and I headed out to climb into the precipitator to continue my inspection of some 30,000 wires, and 16,000 clips.

To my astonishment, when I used the carbon filters right away, I didn’t smell the acrid smell.  The flu symptoms went away, as well as the smelly burping flavors.  Not to mention (oh.. but I am) the passing of gas without the additional smell of precipitator internals….  Crazy as these seems… I became obsessed with finding out why.

You see… at the same time that this particular smell arose in the precipitator, any ash that was built up on the plates would clump up and with a simple bang on the plates with a rubber mallet would cause all the ash to fall off leaving a perfectly clean plate.  Before this smell was there, you could bang on the plates all day, and the ash would remain stuck to the plates like chalk on a chalkboard.

I had our famous chemist (well…. he was famous to me… see the post:  A Power Plant Doctor Does a Jig in a Puddle of Acid), come out to the precipitator to give it a whiff.  He said it had some kind of  a sewer smell to it…. I didn’t expand on my personal sewer experience I had had with it, though I did tell him about the burping….

He encouraged me to have the safety department come out and test it to see if they could identify the chemical that was causing this smell.  You see…. It was important to me because if we could pin this down, then we might be able to inject a substance into the precipitator while it was online to clean it without having to bring the unit offline if the precipitator was to become fouled up.

There was a young lady from the safety department (I think her name was Julia, but I can’t remember her full name).  She came from Oklahoma City and gave me some monitors to put in the precipitator while the smell was present to try to track down the chemical.  Unfortunately, we never found out what it was.  In the meantime, I had learned all I could about Van Der Waals forces.  This is the week molecular force that would cause the ash to stick to the plate.

I studied the chemical makeup of the ash to see if I could identify what chemical reactions could take place… Unfortunately, though I knew the chemical makeup of the ash, the chemicals were bound in such a way from the high temperatures of the boiler, that I couldn’t tell exactly how they were arranged without the use of  an electron microscope.  I wasn’t about to go to Ron Kilman (who was the plant manager at the time) and ask him for one.  I had already upset him with another matter as you will learn in a much later post.

So, I just continued wearing the organic filters.  This gave me the strength to continue my inspections without the flu-like symptoms.  Later on, I taught Charles Foster and Scott Hubbard how to maintain the precipitator.  When I finally left in 2001, I know I left the precipitators in competent hands.  They knew everything I did.

One main lesson I learned from my experience as the precipitator guru is this….. You can be a genius like Bill Rivers or Sonny Kendrick….. when you are given a particular job to do and you do it well, you are usually pigeon-holed into that job.  One of the main reasons I write about Power Plant Men is because they are for the most part a group of geniuses. At least they were at the plant where I worked in North Central Oklahoma.  They just happened to stumble onto the jobs that they had.  They would probably spend the rest of their working career doing what they did best…. never moving onto something where their genius would shine and others would know about them… That is why I write about them.

Do a job well, and you will be doing it until the day you die…. that’s what it seemed to be.  I didn’t feel like I was banished to the precipitator as Sonny Kendrick was by Leroy Godfrey, who did it consciously.  No.  I was “banished” to the precipitator for the next 18 years because I was good at it.  I loved it.   I may have mentioned before, but I had a personal relationship with the 168 precipitator control cabinets.

I had carefully re-written the programs on each of the eprom chips on the Central Processing Unit in each cabinet to fit the personality of each section of the precipitator.  I had spend hours and hours standing in front of each cabinet talking to them.  Coaxing them.  Telling them that they could do it with my handheld programmer in hand…. helping them along by adjusting their programming ever so slightly to give them the freedom that they needed to do their job.  If they had been human……. I would have given them names like “Mark”, or “Thomas”, or “Millie”.  Instead, I knew them as 2E11 or 1B7.  But they were each my friends in their own way.

You see… I look at friends like this…. It’s not what they can do for me…. It’s “what can I do for them?”  I have had some precipitator cabinets that I have given extra attention because they seemed to need it more than the others, only to have them crap out on me.  I wouldn’t have done anything different if I had known all along that they wouldn’t pull through.

I have my own understanding of who I should be.  My wife may call it “stubbornness”, and that may be what it is.  I would try and try to coax a control cabinet to do what it was created to do, only to have it fail over and over again….  What was I going to do?  Give up?  How could I do that to a friend?  I would tell the cabinets that were especially difficult (when I was alone with them – which was usually), “You create your own Karma.  That isn’t going to change who I am.”

Today I am called an IT Business Analyst.  I work for Dell  Computers.  It is an honor to work for a company that serves the entire world.  I see the same pattern.  When you do something well, when you love your work and become attached to it, you become pigeon-holed into a particular job.  You become invaluable.  Almost unreplaceable.  People look to you for answers.  They are comforted to know that someone who cares is taking care of business.  I am glad to be able to serve them.

Weeks before I left the power plant, Bill Green, the plant manager asked Jim Arnold (the supervisor over maintenance) again….. “What degree is Kevin getting again?”  Arnold replied, “Oh.  nothing anyone wants.”  (an MIS degree from the college of business at Oklahoma State University). Bill was concerned that if I left they wouldn’t have anyone to take care of the precipitators.  No.  I wouldn’t do that.  Like I said… Each of the 168 precipitator control cabinets were my friends…. I had given them the best guardians I could find… Scott Hubbard and Charles Foster.

Scott Hubbard

Charles Foster

Recently Charles Foster has retired from the plant, and his health is not good.  His son, Tim Foster has taken his place.  One of the last things Tim has told me recently was that he was going with Scott Hubbard to work on the precipitator.  I wanted to reply back to his e-mail… take care of my friends Tim….  I know Scott understands….

Each clip, each wire… I often dream about them….  Row after row….. looking 70 feet up, then down… swinging my flashlight in the darkness.   Betty, Tom, Martin…. all the clips on this plate are in their place…. Sandy, David, Sarah… lined up correctly…  Fred, Chuck, Bill…. good… good…  next row….