Tag Archives: Stanley Robbins

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.

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Power Plant Train Wreck

I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph.  When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck.  The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.

The original chart I made was in pencil.  Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Now study this chart for a minute….  The youngest person in the plant was 31.  There was one.  The oldest were four who were 56.  If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or  58% of the entire Power Plant population.  So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement.  35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.

How did this happen?  How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years?  This happened because of two situations.

The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare.  The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired.  Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired.  So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.

There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee.  I went through all of them.  Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer.  None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore.  This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life.  It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.

I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road.  Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation.  I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.

The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed.  Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more.  A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.

As a side note:

When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80.  That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service….  That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Sure.  Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire.  He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress…  Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind.  I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).

Back to the story:

The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls.  There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department.  He was 31 years old when he was hired.  I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience.  The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company.  In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring.  In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.

The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant.  They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts.  Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance.  A training program to head off an impending train wreck.

I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked.  Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training.  All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.

Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997.  I was ready for this one.  I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education.  I was the computer whiz at the plant.  I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants.  I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree.  If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.

Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it.  My education could wait.  I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults.  I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“).  I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.

I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver.  I just added the colors to it.

Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job.  I was custom designed for it.  When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved.  This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree.  The job was given to Stanley Robbins.  Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.

One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you.  They were chosen by someone else.  Through no fault of their own.  This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.

So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard.  Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints.  I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.

About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out.  He wanted Stanley to read it.  I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.

I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic.  I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew.  What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn.  I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books.  I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books.  — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.

Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that.  I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.

With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor.  He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position.  He stated that to me over and over.  I was glad for Stanley.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility.  I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001.  That is another story for a later time.

Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000.  With additional cost for each module that was added.  Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant.  So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc.  Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.

Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them.  The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.

I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information.  We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.

After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.

The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant.  I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not.  I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner  It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over the hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.

Power Plant Train Wreck

I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph.  When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck.  The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.

The original chart I made was in pencil.  Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Now study this chart for a minute….  The youngest person in the plant was 31.  There was one.  The oldest were four who were 56.  If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or  58% of the entire Power Plant population.  So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement.  35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.

How did this happen?  How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years?  This happened because of two situations.

The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare.  The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired.  Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired.  So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.

There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee.  I went through all of them.  Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer.  None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore.  This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life.  It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.

I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road.  Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation.  I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.

The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed.  Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more.  A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.

As a side note:

When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80.  That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service….  That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Sure.  Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire.  He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress…  Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind.  I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).

Back to the story:

The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls.  There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department.  He was 31 years old when he was hired.  I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience.  The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company.  In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring.  In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.

The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant.  They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts.  Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance.  A training program to head off an impending train wreck.

I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked.  Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training.  All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.

Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997.  I was ready for this one.  I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education.  I was the computer whiz at the plant.  I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants.  I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree.  If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.

Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it.  My education could wait.  I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults.  I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“).  I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.

I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver.  I just added the colors to it.

Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job.  I was custom designed for it.  When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved.  This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree.  The job was given to Stanley Robbins.  Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.

One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you.  They were chosen by someone else.  Through no fault of their own.  This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.

So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard.  Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints.  I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.

About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out.  He wanted Stanley to read it.  I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.

I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic.  I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew.  What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn.  I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books.  I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books.  — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.

Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that.  I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.

With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor.  He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position.  He stated that to me over and over.  I was glad for Stanley.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility.  I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001.  That is another story for a later time.

Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000.  With additional cost for each module that was added.  Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant.  So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc.  Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.

Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them.  The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.

I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information.  We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.

After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.

The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant.  I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not.  I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.

Power Plant Train Wreck

I always loved playing with numbers, and thanks to the Birthday Phantom at the Coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I knew everyone’s birthdays. so in 1996 I decided that I would chart them all on a graph.  When I compiled them all, I found that the Power Plant was in for one heck of a train wreck.  The entire basis that enabled the plant the size of a small city to run with a total of 121 employees was going to start crumbling within the next 13 years.

The original chart I made was in pencil.  Here is a simple column chart of the employee ages from Excel:

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Age of the employees at the Power Plant in 1996

Now study this chart for a minute….  The youngest person in the plant was 31.  There was one.  The oldest were four who were 56.  If you take everyone from age 40 to 49, you have 70 employees, or  58% of the entire Power Plant population.  So, in a 10 year period, the plant was going to lose a majority of their employees due to retirement.  35% were going to be retired within a 5 year period.

How did this happen?  How is it that the youngest Power Plant Man was 31 years old and the age between the oldest and the youngest was only 26 years?  This happened because of two situations.

The first one is that people rarely ever left the Power Plant, so new hires were rare.  The second situation was that we had a downsizing in 1988 when the employees 55 and older were early retired.  Then in 1994, we had another downsizing where everyone over 50 years old were early retired.  So, we kept lopping off the older employees, without a need to hire anyone new.

There were three entry level jobs when I first hired on as a full time employee.  I went through all of them.  Summer Help, Janitor and Laborer.  None of these jobs existed at the plant anymore.  This had given new employees an introduction into Power Plant Life.  It also gave the foremen an opportunity to pick those employees that had the natural “Power Plant Man” quality that was needed to work in this particular environment.

I brought my chart to the team and showed them how a train wreck was just down the road.  Someone at Corporate Headquarters must have figured this out, so a couple of things were done to try and combat this situation.  I’m sure the same problem must have existed at all of the power plants.

The first thing that was done was that the retirement policy was changed.  Instead of having to wait until you were 60 to retire with full benefits, you could retire with full benefits when your age and your years of service added up to 80 or more.  A couple of years after that policy went into effect, we calculated that Jim Arnold had 100 points when you added his age and his years of service.

As a side note:

When we added up Gene Day’s years of Service and his age it added up to 80.  That’s because, even though he was 80 years old, no one could remember whether he ever did any service….  That’s why I didn’t include him in the chart above.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.

Sure.  Gene had been hanging around at the Power Plants since they discovered electricity, but it never occurred to him to retire.  He just walked around with his orange stapler (an Oklahoma State University fan). Anyway… I digress…  Somehow, whenever I talk about being old, Gene Day always seems to pop up in my mind.  I can see him waving his finger at me now (In case you’re wondering… read this post:  “Power Plant Humor and Joking With Gene Day“, or “Psychological Profile of a Power Plant Control Room Operator“).

Back to the story:

The idea was that we should have people begin to leave the plant now instead of all waiting until they were the regular retirement age, so they could be replaced with younger souls.  There was only one catch and the reason why a Power Plant this size could be run with only 121 employees…. well… it had grown to 122 by this time since Brent Kautzman had been hired in the Instrument and Controls department.  He was 31 years old when he was hired.  I remember his birthday since it was the same date as my parent’s anniversary.

Brent Kautzman

Brent Kautzman

The reason that the Power Plant could operate with so few employees was because the majority of the employees at the plant had many years of experience.  The majority of the employees had over 20 years or more with the company.  In fact, I had another chart that I had made at the time that showed how many years of experience we would lose each year that we had a large number of people retiring.  In just one year we would have lost over 220 years of experience if something hadn’t been done soon.

The company decided to hire young inexperienced employees fresh out of vo-tech and begin training them to work at a power plant.  They opened a new position at each of the plants to lead the training efforts.  Someone that had some computer skills and could work with employees to help teach them in the ways of Power Plant Maintenance.  A training program to head off an impending train wreck.

I won’t go into too much detail about how this worked but it consisted of building a training room where new hires would take computer courses then would work part time in the plant learning how things worked.  Then they would take tests and if they passed them, they could move forward with the next part of their training.  All they needed were people willing to give it a try with the understanding that if they didn’t pass their tests, they would lose their jobs by a certain time period.

Training Supervisor…. I think that was the name of the job opening that came out in October, 1997.  I was ready for this one.  I had a Masters in Religious Education from Loyola University in New Orleans, with an emphasis on Adult Education.  I was the computer whiz at the plant.  I could even write the entire training software from scratch with the help and knowledge of the Power Plant Men and Women.

The only problem with this job was that it was understood that at first the new training supervisor was going to have to be spending a lot of time going between the different plants with the training supervisors at each of the plants.  I had just started going back to school at Oklahoma State University to work toward a Computer Science degree.  If I had to travel a lot right away, my studies were going to have to be put on hold.

Even though I was looking forward to earning a Computer Science degree in the next four years, I thought that the Training Supervisor job would be a dream job for me, so I applied for it.  My education could wait.  I interviewed for it with Bill Green, the plant manager, who was the reporting manager for the job.

Bill Green

Bill Green

I explained to him that 50% of the work that I did when studying for my Masters in Religious Education (MRE) was learning techniques on how to teach adults.  I had already shown my ability to do this using the computer when I taught the Switchman Training (see the post: “Power Plant Men Learn to Cope with ‘Boring’“).  I had also taught almost the entire plant how to use Windows when it first came out.

I had created my own little Windows Manual that stepped people through opening up Microsoft Applications and how to maneuver around.

My instruction manual on how to use Windows

Here is my instruction manual on how to use Windows

The Windows Icon was actually the Window Wingding character used for the Flying Windows Screensaver.  I just added the colors to it.

Most of the people at the plant thought that I was a shoe-in for this job.  I was custom designed for it.  When the job was given to someone else, I was a little disappointed, but I was also relieved.  This meant that I could go on with my work toward my degree.  The job was given to Stanley Robbins.  Stanley was a coal yard operator, and a very nice person.

One thing I had learned a long time ago with Scott Hubbard was that when someone is given a job that you really want, it isn’t the person who receives the job that should upset you.  They were chosen by someone else.  Through no fault of their own.  This was a terrific opportunity for Stanley.

So, the day that Stanley began his new job, Bill Green was seen showing him around the plant, since he had spent most of his 18 year career up the hill at the coal yard.  Stanley and Bill entered the electric shop and Bill asked where we kept the Electric Shop copy of the electrical blueprints.  I showed him the cabinets where they were kept. Then they left.

About an hour later, Bill and Stanley returned to the shop and Bill came up to me and said that he had talked to Jerry McCurry in the training department in Oklahoma City (that is Corporate Headquarters), and he was looking for an audio book by Tom Peters, but Jerry said that I had checked it out.  He wanted Stanley to read it.  I told him that I had returned that audio book a couple of months ago, and now had a different audio book checked out at the time.

I took Bill and Stanley into the Electric Shop office and showed them a copy of a Tom Peters audio book that was my own personal copy “In Search of Excellence”, and gave it to Stanley and told him he was free to borrow it, as well as any of the other “motivational” business books I had, including a textbook on Organizational Behavior that I kept on the top of the filing cabinet to read during lunch when we couldn’t think of a fitting lunch time topic.  I had another Tom Peters book on the bookshelf Stanley was free to read, “Thriving on Chaos”:

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

Thriving on Chaos by Tom Peters

And a book left over from our “Quality Process” days that I had rushed out to buy the day I first heard about it from our Quality instructor:

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Out of the Crisis by W. Edward Deming

Bill Green, our Plant Manager, who had never spent much time in the electric shop quickly learned a lot about me in those few minutes that he never knew.  What he learned was that I was an avid student of just about anything I could learn.  I had read every book in the Electric Company library and was now going through their list of Audio Books.  I showed him the library catalog and explained to Stanley how to check out books.  — Everything was still done through Intra-Company mail in 1997.

Even though I was intent on being as helpful as I could to Stanley (and I think Stanley would back me up on that.  I always supported Stanley any way I could), at the same time I wanted to impress upon Bill Green that if he was really serious about making the Training Supervisor job a real success, he didn’t really pick the most qualified candidate.

With that said, I think Stanley became a great Training Supervisor.  He was forever grateful for the opportunity for this position.  He stated that to me over and over.  I was glad for Stanley.

Stanley Robbins

Stanley Robbins

I was also relieved for myself, because my dream of becoming a “real” programmer was still a possibility.  I continued with my school and was able to graduate in 2001.  That is another story for a later time.

Six months after the training team had been chosen, and the trainers had settled into their positions, we heard that the company had purchased a specialized “Training Package” for about $400,000.  With additional cost for each module that was added.  Ray Eberle can tell me the price for each module, but it ran somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000 for each one.

Ray Eberle

Ray Eberle

The training modules included one for each type of equipment in the plant.  So, for instance, there was a module for a large vertical pump, and there was one for a large horizontal pump, and one for a small one, etc.  Ray knew the prices because he was evaluating the course material for them to see if they were correct.

Ray came up to me one day and said he was embarrassed for the company who was creating the modules, because between a set of modules, they were nothing more than copying and pasting the same incorrect material in each one of them.  The set of modules he was reviewing added up to $120,000, and they were all wrong.

I had looked at the application that we had bought and I could easily see that I could have written a much better program with the help of people like Ray and the other Power Plant Men to give me information.  We were going to be spending over $750,000 for a computer training program that we could have created ourselves and then the company could have marketed it to other electric companies who were looking for a training program.

After I received my Computer Science degree I spent years working for Dell creating computer applications that performed any sort of feat that was required.

The train wreck finally hit the plant a few years ago, as a mass exodus of retirees left the plant.  I wasn’t there to see it, so I don’t know if the plant ended up with a larger group of employees or not.  I know that Stanley has retired, but I still picture him at the plant training new hires to become Power Plant Men.

Power Plant Spider in the Eye

If you have been following my posts for very long, you may have the idea that I just like to write posts about spiders.  After writing two posts about Spider Wars (see posts:  “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement” and “Power Plant Spider Wars II – The Phantom Menace“), another post about spiders just seems like a bit much.  Even though there is a spider in this story, another appropriate title could be something like “Another night in the Life of a Power Plant Electrician”.  Without further ado, here is the story.

Ninety nine times out of a hundred, when the phone rang in the middle of the night, it was the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma calling.  I don’t remember a time when the Shift Supervisor on the other end of the phone wasn’t very polite.  They knew they were waking someone from their sleep to ask them to drive 30 miles out to the plant in the wee hours of the morning.

The Shift Supervisor, whether it was Joe Gallahar, Jim Padgett, Jack Maloy, or Gary Wright, they would all start out with something like, “Hey, sorry to wake you buddy…”.  After such an apologetic introduction, how could you be upset that your sleep had just been interrupted?  Then they would proceed to tell you why they needed your assistance.  For me, it was usually because the coal dumper had stopped working while a train was dumping their coal.  This meant that 110 cars tied to three or four engines was sitting idle unable to move.

Each car on the train would be dumped one at a time as it was pulled through the rotary dumper.  The process was automated so that the operator in the control room watching out of the window only had to push one switch to dump each car.

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

A rotary dumper much like the one that was at our Power Plant

The train would move forward to the next car automatically as a large arm on a machine called a Positioner would come down on the coupling between the cars and pull the entire train forward to the next car.

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner  It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

The piece of equipment with the large wheels is the positioner It can pull a coal train full of coal forward to precisely the proper position

There were so many moving parts involved in positioning the car in place and rolling it over to dump the coal, that it was common for something to go wrong.  When that happened the entire process would come to a halt and the train would just have to sit there until someone came to fix it.  That was usually an electrician since the dumper and the positioner was all controlled by relays much like the elevator controls, only more complicated.

This particular night, Joe Gallahar had called me.  It seemed that there was an intermittent problem with the dumper that didn’t seem to make much sense and they couldn’t figure out why it was acting so strange.  One of the train cars had actually been damaged as the positioner arm would start coming up from the coupling to the point where the holding arm on the other end of the dumper had come up, then the positioner arm began going back down, causing the train to move on it’s own only to have the arm on the positioner scrape the side of the train car as it rolled backward uncontrolled.

Though it was less frequent, it was not so strange to have a train damaged by erratic dumper controls.  I have seen the side of a train car smashed in by the positioner arm when it decided to inappropriately come down.  This night, the problem was acting like that.  So, instead of damaging the train further, they decided to call me out to have a look at it.

I always had the philosophy when being called out in the middle of the night to be just as polite back to the Shift Supervisor when I answered the phone.  I had a Marketing professor at Oklahoma State University named Dr. Lee Manzer, who explained this one day.

Here is a short side story about Dr. Manzer —

Dr. Manzer told a story in class one day about how he was travelling home one day from a long and difficult trip where everything had gone wrong.  It was very late at night when he arrived at his house (which, incidentally was just down the street from my parent’s house), he was really beat.  He went into his bedroom and began preparing for bed.

About the time he was taking off his tie, his wife rolled over in bed and welcomed him home.  Then she said, “Oh, by the way.  I forgot to buy milk (or maybe it was ice cream).  Do you think you could run down to the store and buy some?”

Dr. Manzer explained his decision making process at that point like this:  “I could either go on a rant and tell my wife what a long and tiring day I had just had and now you are asking me to go buy milk? , and then I would go get the milk.  Or I could say, ‘Of course Dear.  I would be glad to go buy some milk.’  Either way, I was going to go buy the milk.  So, I could do it one of two ways.  I could complain about it or I could be positive.  I could either score points or lose them…. hmm…. Let’s see…. what did I do?  I said, ‘Of course Dear.'”

— End of the side story about Dr. Lee Manzer who by the way was a terrific Marketing Professor.  I understand he still teaches to this day.

So, when Joe Gallahar called me that night, and explained that the dumper was acting all erratic, Instead of saying “Yes Dear.”  as that wouldn’t have been appropriate, I told him, “No problem.  I’ll be there as soon as I can.”  My wife Kelly knew who was on the other end of the phone when she heard my answer.  She had heard it many times before.  I usually only had to say one word after hanging up the phone, “Dumper”, and she knew what that meant.

A Power Plant Electrician’s spouse knows that this is part of the job.  As I pulled on the jeans that I had laid out before I went to bed, Kelly would usually say something in her sleep like, “Be careful”.  I would give her a hug and tell her I’ll be back in a while, even though, sometimes I would be gone for two days working on the precipitator during a start up or some major catastrophe.  Usually, it was just a couple of hours before I came crawling back in bed.

This particular night I drove to work in silence with the window open so that the cool air would keep me awake.  Normally I had the radio on some rock station so that I would be singing along (in my terribly off-key singing voice) in order to stay awake.  Sometimes I would just take the 25 minutes of silence to just think.

My thought that night was that it was nice to be wanted.  There is some comfort in knowing that the Shift Supervisor could call me with enough confidence to know that I would be able to come out on my own and fix a problem that was costing the company a large amount of money each hour the dumper was offline.  Some might think that I would be annoyed to be wakened in the middle of the night to go fix something at the plant.  That night, as most nights I was feeling honored.

That wasn’t always the case, and I’ll soon write a post about another call out in the middle of the night where Scott Hubbard and I wondered exactly why they called us… but that’s another story.

When I arrived at the plant, I rolled my car up to the speaker at the front gate and said, “Hello” with an arrogant English accent.  I don’t know why, but I always liked doing that.  I think it was Billy Epperson who answered back.  I told him I was here to work on the dumper.  He thanked me and opened the gate and I drove the 1/2 mile down the hill to the plant parking lot.  As I went over hill, in the moonlight I could see the train up at the coal yard looking like a long silver snake.

I walked into the maintenance shop and grabbed a truck key off of the hook and drove around to the electric shop to pick up my hard hat and tool bucket.

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

This is an actual picture of my tool bucket

I took the long way around to the coal yard since the train blocked the shortest route.  We had a tunnel on the west end of the coal yard that went under the tracks for just this occasion.

When I arrived at the dumper, Stanley Robbins explained that he had tried troubleshooting this problem himself, but he couldn’t find anything that would explain the strange behavior.  Since the last downsizing, we were all able to sort of mix our skills so that an operator could do simple electric tasks if they felt comfortable with it.  Stanley knew enough to fix your normal minor dumper issues.  This one was a little different.

Since I had been an electrician for the past 15 years at this point, I felt pretty confident that I would quickly find the problem and be heading back home soon.  So, I walked into the dumper switchgear where the dumper controls are found.  I asked Stanley to go turn on the power to the dumper so that I could watch the relays.  When the power was on, I began tracing the circuits looking for the point of failure.

The problem was intermittent, and when Stanley started the dumper back up, everything seemed to be working just fine.  Stanley explained that this was why they couldn’t use the dumper because they couldn’t be sure when it was going to malfunction.  They had even uncoupled the train and pulled it apart right where the positioner arm was so that I could see what was happening.

Using radios (walkie talkies), I asked Stanley to move the positioner arm up and down while I checked it.  He lowered it and raised it back up without any problem.  When he began lowering it the second time, it suddenly stopped halfway down.  Watching the controls, I could see that it indicated that it had come all the way down.  It would be this case that would tell the holding arm on the far side of the dumper to go back up, which is what happened when the train rolled back earlier that night.

Then the relays rattled like they were picking up and dropping out rapidly.  Then the problem cleared up again.  Somehow the positioner arm had thought it had come down on the car clamps when it was still up in the air.  That was not likely to happen because when something fails it usually doesn’t see what it’s supposed to see, not the other way around.  It doesn’t usually see something that isn’t there.

So, I had Stanley lower the positioner arm down so that it was level with the ground, so that I could check the connections to the electric eye that was on the positioner clamp that detected the train car clamp when it came down.  I couldn’t find any lose connections or anything that would explain it.

So I told Stanley that I was going to look up from under the car clamp to look at the electric eye.  So, I asked him to kill the power to the positioner so that it wouldn’t move while I was doing that and crush me like a bug.  Kneeling on the train track, I took my flashlight and looked up at the electric eye from under the car clamp, and this is what I saw:

A spider almost like this

A spider almost like this

This spider had built a spider web in front of the electric eye on the positioner and was sitting right in the middle causing the positioner to think it was down on the car clamp when it wasn’t.  Stanley was watching me from the window of the dumper control room when he saw me stand up quickly and look up at him with a big grin on my face.  I gave him a thumbs up.

You know the phrase, “Everyone has 10 minutes of fame….”  It indicates that some time in most people’s lives they are famous for a brief moment.  It may or may not define the rest of their life.  Well.  This was that spiders claim to fame.  This one spider had successfully stranded a coal train with 110 cars of coal.  A train crew, a coal yard operator, and one lone electrician that had traveled 30 miles to watch it act out it’s drama of catching gnats on it’s web being constantly watched by one large electric eye.

I did not drive home in silence that early morning.  I laughed out loud all the way home.  I still laugh to myself to this day when I think about this night.  Phrases like, “Isn’t life wonderful” comes to my mind.  Or “Even Spiders desire attention every now and then.”  Could there have been a better malfunction than to have a spider dancing in front of an electric eye out in the plains of Oklahoma saying, “Look at me!  Look at me!”  and by golly.  Someone did!  I’m just glad it was me.