Some days when everything seems to be going just right, some little thing comes along that throws a wrench into the end of a perfect day. That’s what happened to the husband of the timekeeper at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma. Vance Shiever had spent the day baling hay into large bails in a pasture outside Morrison Oklahoma. All day while he worked, off in the distance he could see the plant where his wife Linda spent her week days.
Linda Shiever was one of the first two employees hired at the Coal-fired plant along with Sonny Karcher. She was hired on May 30, 1978, just 10 days after her marriage to Vance. During the 20 years I worked at the Power Plant, I heard Linda talk about Vance often. So, when Ray Eberle began telling me a story about him, I already had a picture of Vance in my head much like Paul Bunyan (having never met him in person):
Ray Eberle said that he had stopped to visit Vance this particular Saturday afternoon when Vance was just finishing up loading the bales of hay onto a large flat bed semi-truck trailer.
About that time, Walt Oswalt drove by and saw his best buddy Ray standing out in the pasture talking with Vance, so he pulled off the road to visit Vance and Ray. This is the same Walt Oswalt that I wrote about last month (see the post: “Mr. Frog’s Wild Power Plant Ride“). Ray’s nickname for Walt was Frog. Even today when I talk to Ray, he refers to him as Frog.
While Ray, Walt and Vance stood there talking, Vance looked off in the distance toward the Power Plant looming in the distance.
He mentioned that even though his wife has worked there for 20 years (at that time), he had never actually been to the plant. Ray said that he would be glad to give him a tour of the plant right then and there if he wanted to see it. This was a tempting proposition for Vance, who had been curious for many years about what actually went on there.
Vance said that it would be great if he could have a tour of the plant, but unfortunately, he still had to tie down all the bales of hay on the truck before he headed off to Muskogee to deliver his load by morning. At this point Walt spoke up and said that Vance should go with Ray on a tour of the plant. Walt said he would tie down the bales. Vance replied that he wanted to make sure the bales of hay were properly secured before he took his trip down the turnpike to Muskogee.
Walt was insistent that Vance should go take a tour of the Power Plant and that he would tie down the bales of hay. He knew how to do it. Vance gave Walt some instructions about how to make sure the bales were securely tied down, and Walt kept reassuring Vance that he knew what he was doing.
Walt finally convinced Vance that he could handle the hay bales, and Vance went with Ray Eberle to tour the Power Plant. Ray said that Vance was so excited to finally be able to see the plant up close. Ray gave Vance the full Power Plant Tour, which can take a few hours, especially with a professional story teller such as Ray Eberle:
It was dark when Ray and Vance returned to the pasture where the large semi-truck was parked. Walt was taking a nap in his car waiting for them to return.
Vance asked Walt if he had tied down the bales of hay, as it was too dark to tell for sure. Walt assured Vance that the bales of hay were securely tied down to the bed of the trailer. He had no need to worry. Now it was time for a second favor…
Ray had given Vance a long desired tour of the Power Plant, so Ray asked Vance if he would do a favor for him. Ray had never had the opportunity to ride in a “Big Rig” Semi Truck, so he asked Vance if he would let him ride with him to Muskogee and back. Walt would follow along behind them to bring Ray back home when they arrived in Muskogee.
Vance was glad to return the favor. Ray climbed into the truck and it pulled out of the pasture and onto the dark highway 64, then the Cimarron Turnpike that ran next to Morrison. Walt, following along behind. The traffic on this particular stretch of the Cimarron was always light, especially on a Saturday night.
This was a perfect day for Vance. He had spent the day doing what he loved. Baling Hay and loading it on the trailer. The first class tour of the Power Plant with the best tour guide in Oklahoma and the surrounding states (since Mark Twain is no longer with us). Now, driving down the highway with a load of hay with a good friend sitting shotgun. What could be better?
Ray was thinking that there was something in the air that just wasn’t quite right. The few other cars that were driving down the highway seemed to be driving a little more erratic than usual. Well, it was Saturday night…. Maybe that was the reason a couple of cars swerved around the truck honking their horns before speeding off into the night.
Eventually, one car pulled up alongside the truck so that Vance could see the person in the passenger side. They were frantically pointing back behind them. Oh No! Yeah. That’s right. If you have been reading this post with more than a simple glance, you have already surmised what was happening. Vance quickly pulled off the side of the road and came to a stop.
Ray finally realized what was happening at that point… As they were travelling down the highway, the bales of hay had been flying off the truck into the middle of the dark highway. Vance jumped out of the truck yelling, “I’m going to kill him! I’m going to kill him!” He stood in the middle of the highway, fists out at his side, waiting for Walt to show up… after all, he was following the semi when they left the pasture.
Ray could see Vance standing in the middle of the highway like Paul Bunyan, with the red glow of the tail lights dimly lighting the back of the truck. Waiting for Walt to arrive… but Walt didn’t show up.
Ray and Vance spent the next hour or so walking down the highway pushing the large round bales off the side of the turnpike. Luckily, few cars were travelling on the Cimarron Turnpike that night and no one was hurt (yet). After walking a couple of miles back to the truck both Ray and Vance were worn out. They were beat. All the rage that Vance had felt when he realized that Walt had not tied down the bales was gone. He was too tired at that point.
About that time, Walt Oswalt came driving down the highway and saw the truck pulled over. He pulled up behind the truck. Vance was too tired to confront him for his failure to secure the bales. Where had Walt been for the last hour and a half while Ray and Vance had been rolling bales of hay off of the road? That’s what they really wanted to know.
Walt said that when they left the pasture he suddenly realized that he was hungry, so he went down to the diner in Morrison and ate some supper. When Ray was relaying this story to me, he said, “Walt’s stomach probably saved his life. By the time he showed up, Vance was too worn out to kill him. Besides… that really wasn’t Vance’s nature. But there for a moment, I thought if Walt had showed up right away, his life may have been in danger.”
Of all the Walt Oswalt Stories, this is my favorite. When I sat down to write my post this morning, this story was on my mind, so I thought for a moment what would be a good title. I thought of the game of Frogger where the frog jumps across the road dodging the cars. In this case, of course, it was the cars that were dodging the round bales of hay that were placed there because of the actions of a man whose best friend calls him “Frog”. So, I wrote: “Power Plant Trip Leads to Game of Frogger”.
Then I thought, I have pictures of Ray and Walt. Let me see if I can find a picture of Vance on the Internet. So, I did what I usually do in this instance. I opened up Google and searched. I typed Vance Shiever, Morrison Oklahoma. The link at the top of the page said, “Vance Lee Shiever – Stillwater News Press: Obituaries”. Oh No! What?!?!
I quickly clicked the link and my heart fell. There was a picture of a man smiling back at me… Vance Lee Shiever.
Vance died this past Tuesday from pancreatic cancer. I had no idea! I have been so busy this past week that I haven’t even logged into Facebook since last weekend. If the dates are right, (because I know that Stillwater News Press often misspells names and dates), then Vance is having his funeral service this very afternoon. I don’t believe for a moment that this is just a coincidence.
I have found that the members of the Power Plant Family in which I was a member for 20 years keep in touch in various ways. Sometimes it is by e-mail. Sometimes it is through Facebook. Other times, we just think about each other, and we just seem to know that something is up, even when we aren’t sure what. I believe that is what happened this morning.
This past month three people have died in the Power Plant Family. Walt Oswalt, Vance Shiever, and Ray Eberle’s wife Barbara. I have often heard it said at the Power Plant that things always seem to happen in 3’s. This Power Plant Post was one story about those three.
I thought that I should find a better picture of Vance, so I logged into Facebook, and the first picture that came up was this picture of Vance, the photo that was used by the New Press:
I can now picture Vance watching over his family from Heaven. By the way that Linda always spoke of Vance, I know that he was one of those rare people full of kindness. I also picture him going through the videos of his life with Saint Peter. All those happy days he spent with Linda, and their children Beau and Lindsey….
Then as Saint Peter works the remote, he pulls up the video of Vance out in the field loading the round bales on the trailer as Ray pulls up in his truck. As they watch this story unfold, they both break out in laughter as they watch Vance standing like Paul Bunyan in the middle of the highway waiting for Walt. Saint Peter puts his arm around Vance, as they turn and enter the gates of Heaven. Saint Peter mentions one last thing to Vance, “Yeah. It is like Ray said…. Walt’s stomach saved his life.”
Addendum to this story:
After posting this last week, Ray Eberle contacted me and pointed out that Vance had died one year ago to the day from the date I created this post on November 7, 2015. He actually died November 7, 2014. No one had told me about Vance’s death, and when I pulled up Facebook, the first picture I saw was a picture of Vance, which further enforced my thought that he had died this past week. The family was remembering his funeral service from the previous year. — This would explain why the Stillwater NewsPress said that he died on a Monday, when the date was on a Tuesday.
Whenever I walked into the Control Room at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw Jim Cave manning the helm, I couldn’t help but smile. I would do the same thing when Gene Day was standing there, but for a different reason. Jim just seemed to make everyone feel at ease. There is something special about his personality that rubs everyone the right way.
Jim worked for the company the first summer in 1979 when I was working as a summer help in the maintenance shop. I really didn’t know him until he became a control room operator and I was in the electric shop. He was always one of the brighter bulbs in the box.
When I first met Jim Cave, the first thing that came to mind was that he reminds me of a News reporter. He looks like someone that you would think would be telling you the daily news on TV. He has that likeable face that you would trust to tell you the news each day. Everyone wanted to have their picture taken with Jim because he automatically brightened up the photograph. Thanks to Jim’s Facebook page, I have some pictures to show you.
Actually, I think all of the pictures of operators that I have used in my posts over the years have come from Jim Cave’s Facebook photos. You can see from the picture above that Jim Cave seems to stand out as someone who might be a reporter on the nightly news.
Before I tell you about how Jim Cave has his own story pertaining to the Life of Pi, let me show you a couple of more photos of Operators who couldn’t resist posing with Jim Cave:
You can see that no matter the situation, Jim is always smiling. I can’t think of any time that I saw Jim that he wasn’t smiling a genuine smile.
Now that I have embarrassed Gene Day by showing him wearing short shorts (which was the full intent of this post. The rest about Jim Cave is just to put it in some sort of context), I will begin the actual story…
A new computer was installed one day that was called a VAX system. Instead of being a large mainframe computer in cabinets, this one sat out in the middle of the floor.
This allowed the control room to monitor readings from most of the power plant systems right there on a computer monitor. This was a new thing at the time. A few years after it was installed, a new program was installed on a computer on the counter behind the Control Room operator’s desk. The software was called PI.
As a side note: This software was being used by Koch Industry to control oil pipelines across the country. I’ll tell you how I know below.
When a program like this is first installed, it isn’t of much use. The reason is that in order to monitor everything, the screens have to be setup. You can see by the screenshots above that each graph, icon and connecting line has to be defined and setup in order to show you a full picture of what is happening.
If a lot of effort is put into building the screens, then this application not only becomes a great benefit to the control room operators, it also benefits the entire operation of the plant.
We had the same situation with SAP. We had installed SAP in 1997 at the Electric Company, but the real benefit comes when an effort is made up front to put in all the expert data to make it useful. While Ray Eberle and I were working to put the expert data into SAP, this new PI system was installed in the Control Room. In order to make it useful, screens needed to be built.
Notice the alarm panels are still there in the picture in 2005.
Some operators weren’t too keen on the computer since they had been staring at these alarm panels all their adult life, and they were just in tune with the power plant as they could be. Paper recorders, gauges that you might have to tap every now and then to take an accurate reading… colored red, yellow, blue and red lights. Red Level gauges, Counters, Knobs to turn, Switches to toggle. Buttons to push. All of these things gave the operator a physical connection to the power plant system. Who needs a computer?
Jim Cave saw the benefit right away. He took the Pi Manual out and began reading it. He learned how to create new screens and add components. Then he began the work of giving “Life to Pi”.
Each time Jim added a new system to Pi, the operators saw the benefit of using this tool more and more (like Allen Moore).
In 2000, Jim Cave had built a complete set of screens, releasing the Power of PI upon the Control Room Operators making their jobs easier and giving them much more insight into the operation of the plant that they never would have dreamed 5 years earlier. (except for Bill Rivers who had predicted this day 17 years earlier when no one would believe him).
Jim Cave’s Shift Supervisor, Gary Wright wanted to recognize Jim Cave for the tremendous effort he put forth to build the PI system into every Power Plant Operator’s dream. So, he went to Bill Green the Plant Manager and told him that he would like to do something special for Jim to recognize all the effort he put into the Pi system.
Bill replied to Gary by asking if Jim did this while he was on the job, or did he come in during his own time to work on it. Gary replied that Jim had done this while still performing his job of Control Room operator through his own initiative. It wasn’t part of his regular job. Bill clarified, “But this work was done while Jim was on the clock?” “Yes”, Gary answered. “Then Jim was just doing his job”, Bill replied.
At this same time, I was having a conflict of my own that I was trying to work through. I will go into more detail in a later post, but here it is in a nutshell….
I had been going to the university to get a degree called “Management Information Systems” or MIS from the business college at Oklahoma State University. I had been applying for jobs in the IT department in our company, but for reasons I will discuss later, I was not allowed to move to the IT department, even when I had only one semester left before graduating with the degree.
My problem was that I was being offered jobs from various companies when I graduated in May. Boeing in Wichita even gave me a job offer and wanted me to leave school and to work for them on the spot for having a computer and an electrical background to work on military jets, (which sounded real cool). The electric company had been paying all of my tuition and fees and 75% of the cost of the books. So, my education had been paid by the company. I told Boeing that above all, I wanted to finish my degree before I began my career in IT.
I felt as if I owed the electric company my allegiance and that I would stay with them, and that is why I kept applying for jobs within the company. I felt that way until the day I heard this story about Gary Wright trying to recognize Jim Cave for his extra effort.
When I heard Bill’s response was, “He was just doing his job…”, it suddenly hit me…. The company paying for my tuition was one of my benefits. I didn’t owe the company anything in return for that. I had already given them what was due. I had been their employee and had done my job. I no longer felt the need to “pay back” the company by staying. I had already paid them with my service. I actually remember saying that out loud to Ray Eberle. “The company paying for my education is my benefit.”
This was a turning point in my job search. I felt perfectly free after that to accept a job from another company. Bill’s response to Gary Wright had opened my eyes. I felt perfectly at ease accepting the job offer from Dell the following month. It’s too bad that it took snubbing Jim Cave’s extraordinary effort by the plant manager to put my understanding of my situation in the proper light.
During that time, I had a job offer that I had turned down from Koch Industry in Wichita because they didn’t offer me as much pay as some of the other job offers I had received. A month later they called me back and asked me to go for another interview in a different department.
When I showed up for the interview, it was with the SCADA department. SCADA stands for Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition. That is what the electric company called the system that opens and closes breakers remotely. Koch Industries uses the same type of system to control the pipelines across the country from their one location in Wichita.
After the interview, they showed me around the office. When we walked into the lab, one person showed me the computer system they were using to control all the pipelines, and lo and behold…. it was the PI system. The same one that Jim Cave had learned in the control room at our Power Plant. They offered me a job in that department as well for a little more.
I thought to myself that if I accepted the job with Koch, then I would ask Jim to teach me what he had learned about the Pi software. This would come in real handy. It turned out that the offer from Dell was even better than Koch, which was my second choice if I hadn’t accepted the job at Dell.
Things have changed at the plant since the picture in 2005. I believe it was in 2006 that the alarm panels were removed from the control room and everything was put on the computers. The control room operators no longer have to stand in front of panels of lights and gauges and knobs and buttons and switches. It is all viewed on computer screens.
Here is a picture of Jim sitting in front of some of those computer screens…
I see eleven computer monitors on the counter behind the old control panel and we can’t even see the other half of the counter. It looks like Jim built so many screens they just kept having to add more and more monitors to show them all. — Oh. I know that Jim didn’t create all these screens, but he did help acclimate the Control Room operators to using computers so that when the evolution to a completely computerized system did arrive, they were ready for it.
Great work Jim Cave! Thank you for all you have done for the Electric Company in Oklahoma. You have made a lasting difference that will carry forward to the next generation of Control Room Operators. I don’t just mean by giving Life to PI. Your positive attitude in times of stress to the times of boredom have blessed everyone that ever knew you.
I for one am grateful to have met and worked with a True Power Plant Man such as yourself.
Sometimes when something is written on paper, it becomes carved in stone (I should copyright that phrase — oh. as soon as I click “Publish” I will). I saw a flaw in Power Plant logic one day in November 1994. Corporate Headquarters for the Electric Company in Oklahoma had decided that they needed very clear job descriptions for their Job Announcement program. We had just completed a downsizing a few months earlier and two electricians were asked to determine what prerequisites someone would need to be able to do their jobs. My first thought was… “Is that really a smart way to go about this?” Just think about it…. You are asking someone who just survived a downsizing to determine what it would take to replace that person with someone else…. Can you see the flaw in this logic?
It was decided that in order to be hired as an electrician, you had to have the following prerequisites: A technical degree in an electrical field. A minimum of five years experience as an industrial electrician. Have a technical knowledge of how to walk on water. Able to swing from tall buildings using four size 2 conductor cable. Have extensive experience bending conduit. Able to work in confined space manholes. Can bend a one inch diameter stainless steel rod with bare hands. Black Belt in Six Sigma. Able to explain the meaning of each color on a resistor. Not afraid of heights. Willing to shovel coal. — Yep. that’s what it requires to do my job.
I knew right away this wasn’t going to be good. We would never find someone who can both walk on water and was willing to shovel coal. If we ever had to replace an electrician, it would be darn impossible. This wasn’t only true for electricians. Every type of job in the company was given similar treatment. I had been an electrician for 11 years at that point, and I didn’t even meet the minimum qualifications. If I had left the company and tried to apply for a job at our plant as an electrician, I would have been turned away at the door.
Whatever minimum requirements were written down did not only apply to outside applicants. This was required of employees applying through the internal Career Announcement Program (CAP) as well. In other words, I never would have been able to join the electric shop from the Labor Crew as I did in 1983, with only a scant understanding of what it takes to be an electrician. It wasn’t until a few years later that this occurred to anyone. The minimum requirements were relaxed a little. That was when the training program was put in place to take High School graduates and above and allow them to train at the plant for a particular skill as I described in the post: “Power Plant Train Wreck“. The rest of the company had to live with their own minimum requirements.
The results of asking the employees what the minimum requirements should be for their own jobs, HR had painted themselves into a corner. I knew why they did this. It was because they had lawsuits in the past where someone was hired over someone else, and they thought they were more qualified for the job. So, specific requirements for each job needed to be created…. Actually…. I think this is the opposite of what should have been done.
If I had my druthers, I would have approached this from the opposite direction… let me continue with my story and you will see why.
I started getting my degree in Management Information Systems (MIS) in 1997 at Oklahoma State University. I was going to graduate from the business school in May 2001. In the fall of 2000, I had only 6 credit hours (or two more classes) left. I had started in 1999 applying for IT jobs in our company. Many times I was asked by people in the IT department to apply for specific job openings. I had worked with a lot of them, and they would have liked for me to work for them.
Unfortunately, at that time, here was the minimum requirements for a Software Developer: You had to have one or more of the following: A Bachelor Degree in Computer Science… OR Bachelor Degree in MIS with at least 9 hours of computer languages (I had the 9 hours of computer languages)… OR Bachelor Degree in a business or technically related field with 18 hours of computer science courses including 9 hours of computer languages…. OR Associate Degree in Computer Science with 9 hours of computer languages and 2 years of software development experience….. OR 8 years of directly related experience such as development in C, C++, ABAP, Visual Basic or Cobol.
It was that last requirement that I thought I could use. Especially since I was well on my way to earning the degree. I had many years writing code in Visual Basic and C. I had taken a Cobol class already, and studied ABAP (which is used in SAP) on my own. So, along with almost having my degree and working with IT for more than 8 years, I applied for these jobs. Every time I did, HR would kick the application back to me and explain that I didn’t meet the minimum requirements so I was not able to be considered for the position. Not until I had my degree in my hands. The HR Director said that all the work I had done with IT didn’t count because I was doing it as an electrician. She said her hands were tied.
In November 2000 the University had a career fair for students applying for IT or business careers. So, I attended it. It was in a large room where each of the companies had setup a booth and you walked around to each booth as the various companies explained why it would be nice to go work for their company. They explained their benefits, and when they were done, they asked you for your resume (prounounced “rez U May” in case you’re wondering) if you were interested.
Before the career fair, I had gone to lectures on how to go through the interview process, and I had read books about how to create a good resume. I had bought books on these subjects and read them after having gone to a lecture by the author Martin Yate. Here are three books that came in useful in my job hunt:
So, here I was at a job fair dressed in a nice suit I had bought in Oklahoma City at a high end Suit store. I had studied what color shoes, belt and tie to wear. I had a stack of my carefully designed resumes in hand. My wife Kelly had given me a professional haircut the night before, and I had even washed behind my ears.
I had quickly changed into my suit in the bathroom in the office area at the Power Plant. I quickly took the elevator down to the ground floor and stole out to the parking lot to drive the 30 miles to the Job Fair. No one saw me leave, except Denise Anson, the receptionist.
I made my way around each aisle of booths, carefully considering each company. I was not really interested in working as a consultant where I had to do a lot of travelling. After all, I had a family. I gave my resume to many companies that day, and later I had interviews with many of them. It felt very strange as a 40 year old acting as a kid in school handing resumes to companies. I really just wanted to stay at the Electric Company where I had worked for the past 19 years.
Then I spied the booth I was really curious to visit. It was the Electric Companies booth. The company where I worked. I saw a group of students walk up to the booth and the young man from HR began his speech about why it would be great to work for the Electric Company. I stood toward the back of the small crowd and listened. It was weird hearing him tell us about the benefits of working for the company.
The Director of HR was standing next to him. She was the person that kept rejecting all of my job applications through the internal job announcement program. I waited patiently thinking… I could come up with better reasons for working for the best Electric Company in the world. He never mentioned once that the best employees you would ever find in the entire world worked just 30 miles north on Hwy 177 at the big Power Plant on the hill. That would have been the first thing I would have mentioned.
I waited until the young man completed his speech and then asked the students if they would like to give him their resumes. I stood there, not moving, but smiling at the young man from HR. After everyone else left, the man turned to me and asked me if I would like to give him my resume. I replied as I handed him my resume by saying, “I’ll give you my resume, but I don’t think you can hire me.”
He replied, “Sure we can.” as he glanced down at my resume. I continued, “See… I already work for the company.” The young man brightened up and said, “I thought I recognized you! You work at the Power Plant just north of here!” I said, “Yeah. You were the leader at my table during the Money Matters class.” “Yeah! I remember that!” He replied.
“Sure, we can hire you!” He replied. I said, “No. I don’t think you can. You see. I don’t meet the minimum requirements.” Then I turned my gaze to the Director of HR who was now staring off into space… The gaping hole in logic had suddenly become very apparent. She replied very slowly…. “No… I don’t think we can hire you.” The young man (I think his name is Ben), looked confused, so I explained….
“You see Ben… you can take resumes from all of these college students and offer them a job for when they graduate, but since I already work for the company, I have to have my degree already in my hand before I meet the requirements. I can go to any other booth in this room and have an interview and be offered a job, but I can’t find an IT job in the company where I work because I don’t meet the minimum requirements. Seems kind of odd. Doesn’t it?”
I continued…. “Not only that, but the Electric Company has paid for all my classes to get my degree and 75% of my books. I have only 6 more hours after December, and I can’t find a job with my own company. I will probably have to go to another company that is guaranteeing a job when I graduate. Does that make sense?”
The HR Director was still staring off into space. She knew as soon as I opened my mouth who I was. She had personally signed each rejection letter to me.
So, what had happened? It had happened a few years earlier when the employees were asked what the minimum requirements should be for someone to be hired for their jobs. That led them down a path of closed doors instead of opening up opportunities.
Here is what I would have done instead… I would have done what other companies do… Minimum Requirements: “Team Player. Able to work well with others. Demonstrated an ability to learn new skills.” — Who wouldn’t want an employee like that? Sure. Add some “Desired attributes” on the end like: Able to bend conduit. Able Walk on Water, etc.
I had spent about an hour at the career fair handing my resume to potential employers before I left. I drove back to the plant. On the way back to the plant I was having this sinking feeling that I was not going to be able to stay with the Electric Company. I can’t describe how sad I was at this thought.
I couldn’t just stick around at the plant hoping that once I had a degree in my hands that I would be able to move into the IT department. For all I knew, our own plant manager could have been telling HR that I couldn’t leave the plant because I was the only person that worked inside the precipitator. I had been flown around the country to interview with different companies who were now offering me jobs. Those offers wouldn’t still be there if I waited until I graduated, so I had to make a decision soon.
I knew that the Plant Manager Bill Green kept asking the Supervisor over Maintenance about my degree because Jim Arnold would ask me from time-to-time, “What’s that degree you’re getting again?” I would say, “Management Information Systems” in the Business College. Jim would go back to Bill and say, “Oh. You don’t have to worry about Kevin leaving. No one wants someone with that degree” (Yeah. Heard that from someone that heard it first hand).
When I arrived back at the plant, I walked in the entrance and hurried to the elevator. I waved at Denise as I quickly walked by the receptionist window and quickly went into the men’s room to change back into my jeans and tee-shirt and work boots. No one else saw me. I returned to work with Ray Eberle in the Print Room to work on SAP. Ray asked me how it went…
I told Ray about my adventure and my encounter at the Electric Company booth. Ray came to the same realization that I had on the way back to the plant… I wasn’t going to be able to stay with the company. I was going to have to move on…
I suppose most people remember where they were New Year’s Eve at midnight on Saturday, January 1, 2000. That is a night I will never forget. Some people were hiding in self-made bunkers waiting for the end of the world which never came, others were celebrating at home with their families and friends. I suppose some people went on with their lives as if nothing was different that night. Not my family. My wife and two children spent the night at the Power Plant waiting to see if all of the testing we had performed the last two years had covered all possible failures of the Y2K scare.
A small group of Power Plant Men had been chosen to attend a party with our families in the main conference room at the Power Plant. All the food and drinks were supplied by the company. Our Plant Manager, Bill Green was there. Children were given the opportunity to rest in some other room as it reached their bedtimes.
Two years before this fateful night, the company was in full swing preparing for the Y2K computer disaster that had been foretold by those who knew that many computer systems only used two digits for the year instead of all four. so, when the year 2000 rolled around, it would suddenly show up in the computer as 00, which didn’t compute as a year in some systems. After all, you can’t divide something by 00. Suddenly, the time between events that just happened before midnight and those that happen just after midnight are 100 years apart in the wrong direction.
The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma was completed in 1979 and 1980, so, my first thought was that by that time, computers were far enough along to know better. The Instrument and Controls Power Plant Men along with the Plant Engineers decided that the best way to check their systems was to change the clocks on the computers one at a time to just before midnight on New Year’s Eve and see what happens.
I thought that was a pretty ingenious way to go about testing the computer systems. By changing the clock on each system one at a time to New Year’s Eve and watching it roll over to the new Millennium, you learn right away if you have a problem, and you have contained the disaster to one system at a time while you test it. By doing this, it turned out that there was a problem with one system at the Co-Generation plant at the Continental Oil Refinery 20 miles north of the plant.
I wrote a post about the Co-Generation Plant in a previous post: “What Coal-fired Power Plant Electricians Are Doing at an Oil Refinery“. When it was discovered that the computer at the Conoco Oil Refinery Power Plant would crash on New Year’s Eve, it was decided that we would just roll the clock back to 1950 (or so), and we wouldn’t have to worry about it for another 50 years. The thought was that by that time, this computer would be replaced.
This was the original thought which caused the Y2K problem in the first place. No one thought in the 1960’s that their computer systems would still be operating when the year 2000 came around, so they didn’t bother to use four digits for the year. Disk space was expensive at that time, and anything that could save a few bytes was considered an improvement instead of a bug.
My wife wasn’t too pleased when I told her where we were going to spend New Year’s Eve when Y2K rolled around, but then again, where would you rather be if a worldwide disaster happened and the electricity shutdown across the country? I would think the Power Plant would be the best place. You could at least say, “I was in the actual Control Room at a Power Plant watching them throw the switch and light up Oklahoma City!” Besides, we usually spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home with our kids.
Even though we were fairly certain everything had been accounted for, it was the unknown computer system sitting out there that no one had thought about that might shut everything down. Some system in a relay house in a substation, or some terrorist attack. So, there we sat watching the New Year roll in on a big screen TV at one end of the break room. Children’s movies were being shown most of the evening to keep the young occupied while we waited.
I thought that Jim Arnold, the Supervisor over the Maintenance Department, wanted me in the break room at the Power Plant so that he could keep an eye on me to make sure I wasn’t going to be causing trouble that night. Jim never really trusted me…. I suppose that was because strange things would happen when I was around. Of course, I would never do anything that would jeopardize the operation of the Power Plant, but that didn’t stop me from keeping Jim guessing.
No. Not really. I was there because I had a way with computers. I was the computer go to person at the plant, and if anything happened to any of them, I would probably be the person that could whisper it back into service. Also, if for some reason the Generators tripped, I was a switchman that could open and close switches in the substation and start the precipitator back up and run up to the top of the boiler if the boiler elevator broke down and get it started back up.
Except for my natural affinity for computers, any of the electricians in the Power Plant could do all those other things. I think there was just a little “prejudice” left over about me from when Bill Bennett our past A foreman used to say, “Let Kevin do it. He doesn’t mind getting dirty” (or…. he likes to climb the boiler, or…. he likes confined spaces, or… Kevin likes to stay up at all hours of the night working on things… I could go on… that was Bill’s response when someone asked him who should do the really grimy jobs — of course… to some degree…. he was usually right).
I was actually a little proud to be told that I was going to have to spend New Year’s Eve at the Power Plant. I had almost 17 years of experience as a Power Plant Electrician at that time, and I felt very comfortable working on any piece of equipment in the plant. If it was something I had never worked on before, then I would quickly learn how it worked… As I said, all the electricians in the plant were the same way. It was our way of life.
At 11:00 pm Central Time, we watched as the ball dropped in Time Square in New York City. The 10 or so Power Plant Men with their families sat in anticipation waiting…. and waiting… to see if the lights went out in New York…. Of course you know now that nothing happened, but we were ready to jump into a crisis mode if there were any reports of power failures across the country.
You see…. The electric grid on the east side of the Rocky Mountains is all connected together. If the power grid were to go down in one area, it could try dragging down the rest of the country. If protective relays in substations across the country don’t operate flawlessly, then a blackout occurs in a larger area than just one particular area covered by one electric company.
When relays operate properly, a blackout is contained in the smallest area possible. There was only one problem…. Breakers in substations are now controlled by remote computer systems. If those systems began to act erratic, then the country could have a problem. This did not happen that night.
There was a contract worker in the engineering department at our plant who was at his home in the country during this time hunkered down in a bunker waiting for the end of the world as was foretold by the minister of his church. He had purchased a large supply of food and water and had piled them up in his shelter along with a portable generator. He and his family waited out the end of the world that night waiting for the rapture. He told me about that a few months later. He was rather disappointed that the world hadn’t ended like it was supposed to. He was so prepared for it.
After 11 pm rolled around and there was no disaster on the east coast, things lightened up a bit. I decided to take my son and daughter on a night tour of the plant. So, we walked over to the control room where they could look at the control panels with all of the the lights and alarms. Here is a picture of Jim Cave and Allen Moore standing in front of the Unit 1 Control Panel:
Then I took each of them up to the top of the Boiler where you could look out over the lake at night from a view 250 feet high. The Power Plant becomes a magical world at night, with the rumbling sounds from the boiler, the quiet hissing of steam muffled by the night. The lights shining through the metal structure and open grating floors.
From the top of the boiler, you could look south and see the night lights from Stillwater, Pawnee and Perry. Looking north, you could see Ponca City and the Oil Refinery at Conoco (later Phillips). The only structure taller than the boilers are the smoke stacks. There was always a special quality about the plant at night that is hard to put your finger on. A sort of silence in a world of noise. It is like a large ship on the ocean. In a world of its own.
We returned to the break room 20 minutes before midnight, where our plant manager Bill Green and Jim Arnold tested their radios with the Control Room to make sure we were all in contact with each other. I had carried my tool bucket up to the break room in case I needed to dash off somewhere in a hurry.
We felt confident by this time that a disaster was not going to happen when the clock rolled over to midnight. When the countdown happened, and the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 counted down, We cheered “Happy New Year!” and hugged one another. I think both of my children had dozed off by this point.
Bill Green called the control room. The word came back that everything was business as usual. Nothing out of the ordinary. We waited around another hour just to make sure that nothing had shutdown. By 1:00 am on January 1, 2000, Bill Green gave us the (Bill) Green Light. We were all free to return to our homes.
I gathered up my two children and my wife Kelly, and we drove the 25 miles back home to the comfort of our own beds. When we went to bed early that morning after I had climbed into bed, I reached over and turned off the light on my nightstand. When the light went out, it was because I had decided to turn it off. Not because the world had suddenly come to an end. A new Millennium had just begun.
I was considered the one that “got away”. Power Plant Men don’t normally leave the Power Plant to go work somewhere else unless they are retiring, being laid off, or for some other compelling reason. I freely walked away of my own accord August 16, 2001. I left a job where I could have worked until the day I retired to step out into the unknown. But… that was the way I had arrived on May 7, 1979, 22 years earlier.
Just as I had driven onto the plant grounds those many years ago, unsure what I was going to encounter, I was now leaving the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma to change my career and become an IT programmer for Dell Computers in Round Rock Texas. When I arrived my first day at the plant, I had no idea what I was stepping into… The day I left I was in the exact same boat.
So far, I have gone through my life accepting whatever happens as something that happens for a reason. With that in mind, I have the belief that whatever the future holds, I just need to hang in there and everything will work out for the best, even though it may not seem like it at the time. Let me tell you about this experience….
I had accepted the job offer from Dell early in January. My start date had been set for June 4, 2001. They were giving me $3,000 for moving expenses to move down to Round Rock when I finished college in May. I was being hired as an undergraduate college hire. I would be starting at a slightly smaller salary than my base salary as an electrician.
I was taking a considerable cut in salary when you consider the overtime that a Power Plant electrician racked up in a year. I figured I was starting at the bottom of the ladder in my new job, where I was pretty well topped out at the plant with no opportunity to advance in sight. Maybe in a few years my salary would catch up and surpass what I made as an electrician.
For about 10 weeks, we drove down to the Austin area and look for a house on the weekends. It became apparent soon after our house hunting began that the cost of houses was somewhat higher than they were in Stillwater Oklahoma. We finally had a contract on a house in Round Rock, just 10 minutes away from the main Dell campus.
While we were looking for a house in the Round Rock area, we kept hearing on the radio that Dell was laying off thousands of employees. The Internet bubble had burst and the drop in sales of computers was taking a toll on the company. Every time I called the recruiter, I would find that they had been laid off and I had been assigned a different recruiter. This was disheartening to say the least.
Here I was in a perfectly secure job as an electrician at the Power Plant and I was leaving it to go work for a company that was in the middle of laying off employees. My wife Kelly and I had been saying one Novena after the other that we make the correct decision about what we should do, and we had chosen Dell Computer. It just seemed like the right place to go. So, we decided to just go along with it.
We prayed the Infant Of Prague Novena every day that we made the right choice.
I gave the plant a 3 month notice that I would be leaving in June. We had timed the purchase of the house in Round Rock for Friday, June 1. I would start work the following Monday. Dell was going to send me my moving expenses on May 4th, one month before my job would begin.
On the morning of Thursday, May 3rd, our realtor in Stillwater called and said she had a contract to sell our home in Stillwater and was going to head out to our house for us to sign. I had stayed home from work that morning for that reason. We were expecting her to arrive at 9:00 am.
At 8:30 I received a call from Dell computers that went something like this….. “Kevin, I am calling to inform you that your offer for employment has changed. Your first day will no longer be June 4, but will be August 20 (2-1/2 months later). The good news is that you still have a job with Dell, it just doesn’t start until August.”
Since I was expecting the moving expenses the following day on May 4, I asked the recruiter about that. He said that since my start date was moved to August, I wouldn’t receive the moving expenses until July. I told him that I was in the middle of buying a house in Round Rock and that I was counting on that money. He said he would see what he could do about that.
I hung up the phone and looked at Kelly who was standing there watching my face go from a normal tan to a red glow, then an ashen color all in the matter of 20 seconds. I explained to her that Dell said I still had a job, but it wouldn’t start until August.
The Realtor was going to be arriving in about 20 minutes for us to sign to sell our house. Everything was in motion. It took Kelly and I about 5 minutes to discuss our options before we decided that since we had been praying to make the right choice, we were going to go with this new development.
I called Louise Kalicki, our HR supervisor at the plant and told her that Dell had moved my start date from June 4 to August 20, and I wondered if I could stay on the extra two and a half months. I was surprised that she had an answer for me so quickly, but here is what she said, “We can keep you on until August 17, but after that date, we will no longer have a job for you.” I thanked her, and hung up the phone.
Our realtor arrived with the contract for us to sign to sell our house with five acres. When she walked in the kitchen, I told her what had just happened 1/2 hour earlier. I could see the sick look on her face after she had worked so hard for so many months to find a buyer for our house. Here I was telling her that Dell was postponing my hire date.
When I came to the part about where we decided to go ahead with our plans and sell the house and move to Round Rock, I could see all the tension that had been building up behind her ever increasing bulging eyes suddenly ease off. We signed the papers and our house was set to be sold on June 29. I had to swing a loan for the month where I bought the house in Round Rock and I sold my house in Stillwater (and hoped that the house was actually sold on time).
A few hours later I received a call from the Dell recruiter saying that he had pulled a few strings and I was going to receive my moving expenses the following day. The following week after that, the recruiter that had helped me had been laid off as well.
When my final day had arrived on August 16 (I was working 4 -10s, and my last work day that week was Thursday), I was given a going away party (see the post “Power Plant Final Presentation“). The party was over around 1:30 and I was free to leave.
I said my goodbye’s to my friends in the office area and went down to the electric shop to gather up the rest of my things and leave. Scott Hubbard asked me if he could trade his Multimeter with me since I had a fancy True RMS Multimeter and he was still using an older version. So, I traded him, and picked up my tool bucket and headed for the parking lot.
As I approached my car, I could see that Diana Brien was out there waiting for me to leave. She gave me a Chocolate Chip Cookie the size of a pizza and said she wanted to say goodbye to me and tell me that she had enjoyed being my bucket buddy all those years. I told her I was going to miss her and everyone else in the shop.
With that I climbed in my car and drove away.
When I was selling my house outside Stillwater, I thought that the thing I was going to miss the most was the wide open spaces where we lived. Our house was on a hill in the country overlooking the city of Stillwater. We had an Atrium in the living room where you could sit and look at the city lights at night and watch thunderstorms as they blasted transformers around the town.
I was moving into a neighborhood where the house next to ours was no more than 15 feet away. I thought I’m really going to miss this house…. I thought that until the moment I drove out of the parking lot at the Power Plant.
Then it suddenly hit me…. What about my family? What about all those people I have just left behind? When am I ever going to see them? The thought of missing my house never entered my mind from that moment on. It was replaced by the great pain one feels when they pack up and walk away from their family not knowing if you will ever see them again.
My heart was still back there with the Power Plant Men and Women I left behind.
The seven hour drive from the plant to Round Rock Texas was a blur. I knew that I had just closed one door and stepped into an entirely new world. I didn’t even know if I would like being a programmer when it came down to it. I had always just been a hacker and I knew I had a lot of holes in my knowledge. I wasn’t sure if I was going to be any good at my job.
To make that long story short, I have never regretted my move to Round Rock Texas. I have just gone with the flow knowing that whatever happens, it happens for a reason. After 12 1/2 years working at Dell, I changed jobs again to work for General Motors in their IT department where I am currently working with the Onstar team (and now working on Kronos).
My friends at Dell asked me the past few years… “Are you going to write about us like you do with the Power Plant Men?” My reply to that question was “I don’t know… Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
That was the same thing I told Sonny Karcher the first day I arrived at the Power Plant and he asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated college. I told him. “I don’t know. I was thinking about becoming a writer.” His next question was, “Are you going to write about us?” I replied, “Maybe I will. I haven’t thought about it.”
This is a revised version of a post that was originally posted on 1/14/2012:
What sets power plant men apart from your regular mechanic, lineman or men of other occupations is that they are a semi-captive group of people with a lot of freedom to move about the plant and the plant grounds. This provides for the opportunity to play jokes on each other without resorting to “horseplay”. There is no room for horseplay at a power plant. The power plant man lives among dangerous equipment, poisonous chemicals, carcinogenic dust, asbestos gloves and purely evil plant managers who would love to catch one of his minions engaging in horseplay.
The more elaborate yet simple joke seems to have the best effect on those who find themselves the victim. First of all, the joke must be essentially harmless. That is, no one is left injured (this rule seems to be more of a suggestion since I seemed to end up on the short end of the stick a few times). Secondly, the longer the joke takes to completion, the better.
If the joke goes on for a week or longer, then the final impact of the joke is much greater. For instance. A person that you are going to play a joke on sits in a chair that is raised and lowered by turning the chair upside down and twisting the wheel bracket around (which is how you lowered office chairs before the fancier spring and air cushioned chairs arrived). Say you were to gradually lower a person’s chair each day by 1/8 of an inch or so.
Eventually, in a couple of weeks, the person will be sitting lower and lower at their desk until one day they get frustrated at sitting so low that they turn their chair over and raise the chair higher. But each day, you keep lowering the chair by just a little bit until they are sitting so low again that they complain about it again and raise the chair up. This can go on indefinitely. The more people that know the joke is being played, the better in this instance.
The first time I met Gene Day, I knew that he was someone that would be fun to play jokes on. I don’t know what it was about him exactly. It wasn’t that he appeared to have a lower IQ. On the contrary. He seemed to be very knowledgeable as Control Room operators go. Maybe it was because he seemed like a happy person that took most things rather lightly.
He wouldn’t be the type of person that would hold something against you just because you made him look foolish in front of his peers (or you posted it on a blog for the entire world to see. — Right Gene?). It seemed like the first time I noticed Gene Day, he was standing in the Control Room and I gave him a look like I was suspicious of him and he returned the look with one that said that he knew that I might be the type of person that would play a joke on him. This surprised me, because I thought I had masked that look pretty well.
Throughout my 20 years of power plant life I played many jokes on Gene Day, and each time it seems that I was throttled to the edge of extinction, which meant that I had executed the joke perfectly. It seemed that each person had a different way of expressing their joy of finding out that they have been the victim of a power plant joke. Gene’s general reaction was to place his hands carefully around your neck and start rapidly shaking your head back and forth.
My favorite Gene Day joke was not one that took a long time to execute, and from the time that I conceived the idea to the time that I was being strangled by Gene Day was a mere 15 hours.
It began when I was driving home from work one day on my way down Sixth Street in Stillwater Oklahoma where I lived on the west end of town at the time. Gene Day was an operator and their shift was over an hour and a half before the rest of the plant. As I drove down Sixth Street about a block ahead of me, I saw Gene Day’s truck pull away from the Rock House Gym travelling in the same direction. Gene had a black pickup with flames on the side…. Something left over from High School I think… The only one in town like it.
I kept an eye on his truck to see where he went, and as he passed the Stillwater Hospital he pulled into an Eye Clinic and parked in the parking lot. I drove on past and pulled into my driveway about 3 blocks further on. As I checked my mail I decided to go to the bank to deposit some checks I had received. I returned to my car and pulled my car out of the driveway and headed back into town.
Gene Day just happened to turn onto Sixth Street in front of me again as he left the Eye Clinic and proceeded to go down Sixth street in front of me. So again I watched him to see where he went.
Just as I came to Duck Street, I saw Gene Day pull his truck into the Simon’s Gas Station on the corner of Duck and Sixth. He had pulled his truck up to the garage instead of the pumps, so I figured that he was getting his truck inspected. I turned on Duck street to go to the bank drive-thru about a block away from the gas station.
After taking care of my banking business, I left the bank and headed back home toward Sixth Street. I arrived at the corner of Sixth Street just in time to see Gene Day pulling out of the gas station and heading off in the opposite direction toward his house. I thought that he hadn’t been at the gas station very long so he probably had just had his truck inspected.
The next morning when I arrived at the plant I walked by Gene Day’s truck on the way to the electric shop and I looked to see if he had a new Safety Inspection sticker. He didn’t have any Safety Inspection sticker which meant that his truck had failed the inspection.
Armed with this information when I arrived in the electric shop I took out a yellow pad of paper and proceeded to write the following:
Private Investigator’s Notes for Gene Day:
3:05 Gene Day leaves work.
3:45 Gene Day arrives at Rockhouse Gym where he works out with a young college coed named Bunny.
5:05 Gene Day leaves Rockhouse Gym.
5:07 Gene Day arrives at Cockrell Eye Care Center where he meets with a nurse in his pickup truck in the parking lot.
5:20 Gene Day leaves Eye Care Center.
5:25 Gene Day arrives at Simon’s Garage at the corner of Sixth and Duck and has them clean his pickup seats to remove the perfume scent. While he was there, he tried to have his pickup inspected, but it didn’t pass inspection.
5:33 Gene Day leaves Simon’s Garage and goes home.
I folded the paper in half and after I began work, I headed to the Control Room to see how the Electrostatic Precipitator was doing. I sat at the computer by the Control Room door that opened up to the Turbine Generator room. After a while Gene Day walked by on his way to pick up the mail from the front office.
I waited about 30 seconds and followed him out onto the Turbine Generator (T-G) floor. The T-G floor at Sooner Plant is painted bright red and the floor is kept clean so that the lights overhead reflect off of the floor.
The Control Room is halfway across this large room about 200 yards long. The office area is at one end. I walked over to the door that leads to the Office area and laid the half folded paper in the middle of the floor.
I figured that Gene wouldn’t be able to resist picking it up to see what it said. Then I went back to the Control Room and leaned against one of the big blue monitors used by the Control Room Operators to view alarms.
After a few minutes, Gene Day walked into the Control room. In one arm he carried various parcels of mail. In the other hand, he was carrying the yellow paper I had left for him to find. He was violently shaking it at me yelling, “How did you do this?!?!”
I acted surprised as if I didn’t know what he was talking about. Somehow he figured I was behind this, but for the life of me I don’t know why…. He tried to explain to me that he had stopped to see his wife who is a nurse at the Cockrell Eye Care Clinic, and that there wasn’t any girl named Bunny. He couldn’t figure out how I would know that he tried to get his truck inspected and it failed inspection….
I insisted that I didn’t know what he was talking about. About that time, the room became blurry as my head was shaking back and forth, and I came to the realization that this joke had been performed perfectly.
Originally Posted March 2, 2012:
The first day I showed up at the Power plant to report to work as a new employee, it took me a little while to find the parking lot where I was supposed to park. There were construction people all over the place, large equipment being moved, and I had somehow turned my directions around 90 degrees when I came through the construction gate. I started heading up to the coal yard before I told myself that the little green shack I had past back by the main plant was probably where I needed to go (I never recovered from my perception of which way was north. I always felt like west was north, so I constantly had to stop and tell myself that the coal yard was north).
So, having arrived in the parking lot about five minutes late, I was just in time to meet Steve Higginbotham the only other summer help during the summer of 1979. Well, there was one other guy, but he quickly joined a Brown and Root construction crew because he was a welder and they were getting paid a lot more than the $3.89 per hour the summer helps were blessed to receive.
So Higginbotham and I walked together into the main office that morning. He was about 35 years old with red hair, freckles and sort of reminded you of Margaret Thatcher only shorter with a more prominent forehead and wider chin and he had a Georgia accent.
He had worked as a Pinkerton guard at the plant before advancing to summer help. He explained it to me like this: “If I get my foot in the door by being a summer help, they will be more likely to hire me as a permanent employee.” (somehow, I began to think that this probably wasn’t the best strategy for Steve to take. I thought perhaps a surprise attack would be more effective, where they don’t know you at all when they hire you).
The company hired summer helps because there was a tax write-off for hiring college kids during the summer to give them a real life experience (I guess). Steve explained to me later that he really wasn’t going to college, but told them that he was going to go back to school to finish a degree so that they would hire him, but he really wasn’t going to do that.
He drove an old Ford Ranchero (which is what inspired the El Camino). It was all beat up, and had the manual gear shift on the steering column, to give you an idea of how old it was. Below is a picture of one in good condition. His car however had dents, rust, and an assortment of trash in the back, and it squeaked when it hit a pothole as the car bounced on the springs.
I didn’t own a car and had just borrowed my family’s car to drive to the plant that day, so when Steve asked me if I would like to ride with him to work each day I jumped at the opportunity. I told him where I lived and he said that he would be by to pick me up in the morning.
I am the kind of person that likes to arrive at work at least 10 or 15 minutes early, so I was getting a little anxious the next morning when Steve didn’t show up. Finally, when I was about ready to ask my parents if I could borrow the car again, his beat up old car came puttering down the street… It turned out that Steve was the kind of person that likes to show up at least 5 minutes late each day…. Something I was going to have to get used to that summer. This is an important point in the story because those 5 minutes on one particular morning made all the difference in my outlook on what it meant to be working at a “Power” plant.
First, let me tell you a little more about Steve Higginbotham, just so you can appreciate his unusual character the way that I did. As an 18 year old summer help, not having had my encounter with Ramblin’ Ann until later, where I learned the fine art of rambling (see the post: “Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann“), I was amazed by the way Steve Higginbotham could talk and chew gum or sunflower seeds at the same time — all the time — non-stop. His open mouth would move in a circular motion while chewing and talking.
From the time he picked me up in the morning to the 25 mile ride to the plant, and until I arrived home in the afternoon, Steve Higginbotham was talking about something to someone and chewing either sunflower seeds or gum the entire time. It wouldn’t have been so bad if I had been learning something, but I can’t think of one thing that he told me that was useful all summer. I think I paid him $15.00 each week for the privilege. Gas at the time was around 89 cents a gallon.
Twice each week we would sweep the entire maintenance shop from one end to the other. I would start going down one half, Usually the north side that has all the machine shop equipment, and Steve would start down the south side where the welders were. Invariably, he would catch an unsuspecting welder off his guard and start talking to him, and before you knew it, I had finished my side of the shop and was starting back the other way up the other side, where I would meet up with Steve and a half-dazed welder somewhere around the Welder’s lunch table, which was about 50 feet from the spot where Steve had started (I would say the shop is about 75 yards long) I didn’t mind, because I liked working and it felt good to look around at the clean floor and see that I had done something noticeable.
I had worked in a Hilton Inn restaurant as the night janitor when I was in High School, and the kitchen was almost as long as the maintenance shop. I would spend six hours each night sweeping and mopping the kitchen, and vacuuming the restaurant and bar. So, I always enjoyed sweeping the floor.
Mondays and Fridays were days where we would go to the soon-to-be park and pick up trash. The rest of the time I was able to work with the maintenance crews. For more information about picking up trash at the park, read the post: “Mud, Maggots and Motor Vehicles with Dee Ball“.
All the company employees at the power plant were fitted for a special set of earplugs that were made out of a Silly Putty looking material because there was going to be a “Boiler Blowdown” on Unit 1 (which was just finishing construction). I suppose that most people (except the old timers) at the plant today have not experienced a boiler blowdown like the one that is done on a new power plant, since a new base unit hadn’t been built in a long time. We were told that when you hear the 2 minute warning make sure you put your earplugs in, because it is going to be real loud. We were reminded the day before to have our earplugs handy the following morning because that was when the blowdowns were going to start.
A boiler blowdown is when they run a big steam pipe right off of the high pressure section of the boiler and point it out off the side of the boiler and after they have built up the pressure as high as they can go without blowing the place apart, they flop open the valve and the steam is released quickly blowing out any unwanted material from the steam tubes, such as welding rods, tin cans, shoes, lunch boxes, a lost construction foreman, or anything else that was accidentally left in the steam pipes when they were assembled. I remember someone saying that they had a come-along go flying out of one once during a blowdown. The first blowdown was the loudest, and then after that they were slightly less forceful each time.
The next morning on the way to the plant, I could see steam shooting out of the boiler from about 10 miles away. As we pulled into the parking lot, the steam was shooting out about 100 yards from the big pipe on the side of the boiler creating a very loud rumbling sound that made your body shake all over. This is exactly how I remember what happened next…..
I climbed out of the car and looked up at the large plume of steam shooting out of the boiler and I said to Steve, “Well, that’s pretty loud, but it’s not THAT loud!” Just at the exact moment that I finished that sentence, the ground started to shake, and my lunch box and hardhat went flying as my hands went to my head to cover my ears!
I hit the ground and rolled sideways to see that the plume of steam that had been blowing out of the boiler had grown into a huge white roaring demon about 500 yards long as it reached directly over my head to the point where the condenser discharges water back into the lake behind me! The sound was so loud my whole body was shaking from the force, as we were directly in line with the steam pipe. It continued for about a minute or less and then abruptly shutdown back to the much smaller quieter plume of steam that had been there before.
I stood up, but my legs were all wobbly. I picked up my hard hat and lunch box and wobbled my way into the maintenance shop. My ears were ringing and I remember that I couldn’t hear very good and I was pretty upset about my possible loss of hearing.
Then I wondered to myself why I hadn’t heard the two minute warning, and in my muted state I looked around at the mechanics standing around and my eyes settled on one person who was chewing on sunflower seeds or gum, and was talking to someone, though I couldn’t hear his voice — and I knew why! I couldn’t hear the 2 minute warning because we were 5 minutes late getting to work! We were always 5 minutes late!
This bummed me out the rest of the day. As the day went by my hearing was returning, and by the time we were heading home, I could hear Higginbotham talking very clearly all the way to the house. Maybe this would have been a good time for the earplugs.
That night as I lay in bed, I could hear the boiler blowdown continuing 25 miles away every half hour or so. I thought about how much power it took to create that much force. It gave me a great respect for the power harnessed in the power plant and how it takes all that power and turns the majority of it into electricity to serve the state of Oklahoma.
Originally Posted on April 7, 2012:
My wife came home from work one night in the early 90’s. She was a charge nurse at the Stillwater Oklahoma Medical Center at the time. She said that she was taking care of a patient that was one of the mostly saintly people she had ever met. He was going to die soon and she thought I might know who he was because he used to work at the Power Plant.
When she gave me his name I was surprised to learn that he was on his deathbed, and yes. I did know him. I agreed with her. He is and always had been a saintly person. The funny thing was that I felt that very few people really knew him as I did. Many people knew him enough to not think he would be classified in the “Saint” category, and I knew why this was also. I knew him so well quite by chance when I first came to the plant, and I made a decision about how to answer a common question that was being asked of me at the time.
As a summer help it was known that I was a college student, so the obvious question was, why was I going to school, and what did I want to be when I graduated. I could tell this was a rowdy bunch of men that enjoyed their day at work, and so I told them that I wasn’t sure yet what my degree would be, but I thought I might like to become a writer. I told them this hoping that they would bite where I could set the hook (in a fisherman sort of way), and they did.
The first person that asked me that question was Sonny Karcher, and when I told him that I thought I might be a writer, he took the bait and asked, “Are you going to write about us?” At the time, I had no plans about doing that, but I thought if they thought so, then they might fill my ears with the unique wisdom each of them seemed to have. So I answered, “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it, but I suppose I might.”
That’s all it took. After that, every time Sonny introduced me to somebody, he would say, “This is Kevin. He’s our new summer help. He’s going to college to be a writer, and he’s going to write all about us!” This produced the behavior I was hoping it would. That was that a number of Power Plant Men took me “under their wing” and bestowed upon me their own particular wisdom. For hours on end, as I worked with various men, they would tell me how things are in the world and how I should respond to them. Their own particular Philosophy Of Life.
At the time I really had not considered writing about my experiences at the power plant, but now that I am much older and the wisdom of these great men seem to be dying away, I thought that it would be a good idea to put these out there on the Internet where nothing ever really goes away.
I have refrained from mentioning the name of this Unlikely Saint until now because I think that if I mentioned it up front some Power Plant Men would read it and think I was just tremendously off my rocker and not read any further. So I prefaced my story with how I came to know this particular Power Plant Man enough to understand what my wife was saying when she told me about this Saint on the general medical (3rd) floor of the hospital.
Maybe I will refrain just a little while longer to tell you a few things that this man told me. It was obvious that he felt as if he was talking to me as a father would talk to a son. He was only two years younger than my own father. The one thing that sticks in my mind most is when he told me, “Kev, some day you may be a foreman or a supervisor running this plant, but always remember this…. Never forget where you came from. Never forget that there was a time when you first began and knew nothing. Don’t ever forget your friends. Don’t forget who you really are.” I have reminded myself of this often and made it part of my own “Philosophy of Life”. Years later when I became an electrician, he stopped by the electric shop and reminded me once again.
As an Aside comment, my mother tried to help me with this by referring to me as “My Son, The Janitor” when introducing me to someone for years after I had become an electrician. I was always proud to be called a janitor, and I would not try to correct her, because even though I was an electrician, I knew inside that I was also still a janitor. Today, even though my title may be “Business Systems Analyst” working for Dell (and now Senior Software Engineer working for General Motors), I also still carry around in the back of my head the title of “Janitor”.
I wish I had a picture to share of this Power Plant Man (I have one somewhere, but I am not able to find it just now), because if you could see him, you would think… this guy?
His skin was darkened from smoking so heavily all his life. Emphysema is what killed him while he was still relatively young. His belly grew over the years to become larger than his stocky barrel chest. His head nodded while he listened to you and especially when managers were talking as if he was laughing to himself because he knew what they were really saying. His clothes were always clean, which left everyone with the impression that he never did any work.
I remember one day while we were inspecting the dumper (where the coal is dumped out of the railway cars), as it had not been in-service for very long and everything needed to be inspected. I followed him down the stairway into the dumper going down into the darkness. There were lights down there, but they didn’t give off much light because the coal dust absorbs the light instead of reflecting it. So, you can shine a flashlight and it doesn’t fill the room with its glow as it might in a room painted with white paint. To me the place was eerily unreal until I had been down there enough times to keep my bearings on where we were going.
Anyway, I followed him down into the dark damp dumper where every handrail, every light fixture and every step was covered with coal dust. We had some wrenches and we were tight checking the rollers on the conveyors. When we were finished we found ourselves at the ground level exit of #2 Conveyor. I looked at this Power Plant Man and he didn’t have spot of coal on him. I, on the other hand, was black from top to bottom. My hardhat was black, my arms, my face, my jeans. All black.
Then this Power Plant Man told me some more words from the wise…. “When you get to be good, you will remain as clean as I am.” This had as much impact on me as when Master Po told Kwai Chang Caine (In the Kung Fu TV series) that when he can walk on the rice paper and not leave a trace, then he will be a Shaolin Monk.
It seemed impossible to me that he could have worked right alongside me, actually doing more work than I was doing, and he came out pristine while I came out looking like a bat out of hell (or Pigpen times ten). But there it was.
So, for years whenever I worked in a coal handling area, his words always rang in my mind. I considered it a challenge. I realized that there were times when it would be impossible to come out clean, like when you are sandblasting a tank, or working inside the Precipitator wading through fly ash up to your waist. But when doing my regular job, I made a real effort to remain as clean as possible.
It made me happy to think that others might think that I wasn’t working hard enough to be in the True Power Plant Man League because my clothes were clean, because to me, it was a tribute to my own Shaolin Master…. Jerry Mitchell. Yes. Power Plant Men…. Jerry Mitchell.
Before Jerry came to work at the power plant, he used to work on jet engines. Like many genuine Power Plant Men, he was a leader in the field of mechanics. I have a list as long as my arm of great men that work as Power Plant Men that are each near the top of the list of experts in their fields of knowledge. Jerry was one of them.
He built the engine in the blue corvette that he used to drive to work each day. He machined the parts himself. It could go from 0 to 80 and back to 0 from the main gate to the highway — how many yards is that? 200 yards maybe 300 He demonstrated it once to me. He was wondering if I was interested in buying it because he knew I didn’t own a car.
I think that I realized the true character of Power Plant Men from Jerry, because he had very little tolerance for those imposters that hung around Power Plant Men looking for a way to belittle them, or spread rumors to hurt their reputations, etc. because nothing bothers a pseudo-Heman like a True Power Plant Man, because it is like turning on a bright light and watching the roaches scurry away. Jerry could tell their character a mile away.
I will give you a “for instance”… One day as we pulled the truck up to the Maintenance Shop, Jerry told me to follow him and not say anything, just listen, because I was going to be shocked by the conversation that was about to take place. I wondered how he knew as I walked up to an older foreman approaching a lady who was a Brown and Root construction hand (you could tell by the hardhat).
So I stood next to the man and listened. He asked her how her night was last night and she began by describing the time she spent in a bar and she repeated the conversation she had with a man that was trying to pick her up. Without going into too much detail, I will say that she ended the conversation with the man in the bar by saying that she was looking for a meal, not a snack, and proceeded to talk about another man in the bar and how she could tell that he was the kind of man she was looking for in more than descriptive terms.
She finished by telling the older man that the man she left with and her had a “Jolly good time” (my words, not hers) for at least 4 hours non-stop with more than enough details thrown in. The older man was amused and hee-hawed about it slapping his knee in amusement.
Jerry nodded to me and we left. We walked outside of the shop and Jerry asked me, “Have you ever heard anyone talk like that before, let alone a lady?” I admitted that I hadn’t. Then he said, “That man that she was talking to is her father.”
I was thoroughly shocked and greatly disturbed. I had just heard a flowing river of filth spew from this person’s mouth as she was talking to her own father, and his response was to be amused by it. When Jerry told me this I looked at him in shock, and he looked back at me with his head nodding as it did often. His face had the regular straight poker face he usually wore, but his eyes told me that he was very saddened by this. He said he felt it was important for me to know.
I have often kept that poor old man and his lost soul of a daughter in my prayers. This man worked in the plant until the 1987-88 downsizing. Whenever I would see him working in the coalyard, I would remember that I needed to add him and his daughter to my prayers.
So in ending I will say this about Jerry Mitchell, as I say with all the True Power Plant Men I know. I have always considered Jerry a good friend. Jerry was always a good friend to me, and I know that he is a Saint in Heaven today. He never spoke a religious word in the years that I knew him, but I know that his large barrel chest held a tremendous heart.
When I think of Jerry today, I remember riding to Stillwater with him in his blue Corvette. As we drove by a row of trees in a creek bottom he suddenly said, “What is that noise? Do I hear Cicadas?” I said, “Yeah, sounds like it.” He replied, “I haven’t heard Cicada in years! After working around Jet engines for so long I could no longer hear the sound of bugs. My hearing is returning!” That was the only time I saw Jerry’s expression change from his constant straight face to a smile of satisfaction. I am 100% sure by the time Jerry made it to Heaven he was able to hear the harps very clearly.
Originally posted May 11, 2012:
The Power Plant sits on a hill where you can see it 20 miles away looming in the distance. The lake that provides cooling water for the plant is also built on a hill. If the Electric Company had waited for the rain to fill up the lake we would still be waiting 34 years later. Fortunately the Arkansas River flows near the plant below the Kaw Lake dam near Ponca City and before it runs into the Keystone Lake near Tulsa. There are 4 large pumps alongside the river in a fenced in area that draws water from the river and sends it a mile up a hill where it pours into the lake. It is a beautiful lake and most of the area around the lake is a wildlife preserve. A part of the area around the lake is reserved for hunting.
Bald Eagles and Pelicans make this lake their home in the winter. During the winter months you can watch a web cam of a bald eagle’s nest on the lake. http://www.suttoncenter.org/pages/live_eagle_camera
I have included this map so that you can see the layout. the wide blue line in the upper right corner is the Arkansas river.
The River Pump station is just off the edge of this map.
During my second summer as a summer help at the Power Plant I was assigned to be the “gopher” for a maintenance crew that was going to be working down by the river for a week. Being a “gopher” means that you drive back and forth between the plant and the river bringing (in other words: “go for”) tools, supplies, food, water, and anything else that the Power Plant Men may need while they were working at the river.
At first I wasn’t aware of what job the Power Plant Men crew were assigned. I just knew it was down by the river. I towed a large air compressor behind the flatbed truck and a lot of air hoses and air powered tools. Then I watched as the men began to setup the equipment. At one point Ray Butler who was overseeing the job asked me to go back to the plant and get a Y-connector for the air hoses and some more hose.
I drove back to the plant and when I returned I was standing there with the Y-coupling in my hand watching the men dragging air hoses down into the river, someone asked me to help them move something. So I laid the Y-connector on the top of the Air Compressor. Thinking that would be a safe out of the way place for it. When I did that, it fell down into a cavity that was about 6 inches wide and 5 feet deep where there was the air intake for the compressor. It was too deep to reach it. You can see the air intake section on the front of this air compressor:
After trying to figure out how to take off the front grill of the compressor to retrieve the connector and not seeing an easy way, I told Dale Hull what I had done. He just smiled (well… Dale Hull had a perpetual smile or grin on his face anyway), and he went over to a tool box and pulled out a spool of wire. After cutting some off and fashioning a hook on the end, he quickly snagged the connector and pulled it right out.
Honestly when I saw him start fishing for that coupling I thought to myself that this wasn’t going to work and I was resigned to driving back to the plant again for another one and being humiliated by my failure. It’s too hard to hook something that far down with that flimsy wire. I was surprised and relieved when he quickly pulled it out with little effort.
Maybe he had a lot of practice doing this. In True Power Plant Man fashion, there was no ridicule. From the moment I told him I had dropped the connector, he went to work as if it was his job, not doing anything to attract attention. Until this moment, Dale Hull and I were the only two that knew that I had dropped that connector into the compressor housing. Even though I already had, I marked him down again in my book as a True Power Plant man.
Dale Hull was one of those surprise mechanics that had a lot more skill than you would think by looking at him. He reminded me of John Ritter. The actor on “Three’s Company”. I carpooled with him a lot during the first and second summer and one thing that stood out in my mind was that he had over 100,000 miles on his car and still had the original tires. He did his own wheel alignments. I spent many hours alongside Dale on weekends doing coal cleanup. I helped him move one time from one apartment to another. I remember that he had his own set of precision machining tools.
When I carpooled with him and Ricky Daniels, we would go to the gas station just north of the plant where Dale and Ricky would purchase some beer to drink on the way home. At this time, the place was crowded with construction hands that were still building the plant. I would sit in the back seat and watch the back of the heads of Ricky and Dale who, after a long hot day at work were relaxing by drinking beer and trying to stay awake until they reached Stillwater. I would see Dale’s head bobbing up and down as he would struggle to stay awake. Every day it was the same. We always made it safely home. I don’t know if it was the Novena to St. Jude that I was saying in the back seat or it was Dale’s ability to drive while nodding off to sleep or both.
Anyway. Back to the river.
In the river just below the surface of the water next to the River Pump Forebay there are 4 “coffin houses” where the water can flow into the pump forebay. From there it is pumped up to the lake. The 4 coffin houses (which get their name because they are rectangular shaped boxes that put you in mind of coffins) are mounted on one large concrete slab. The Power Plant Men were setting everything up so that they could drill holes in the concrete slab which was about 4 feet under water.
Why were they drilling holes in the concrete slab? (you might wonder). According to the EPA, it was required that the Electric Company continuously monitor the temperature of the water in the river at the point where the water enters the intake into the forebay area (As if the electric company was somehow going to be able to change the temperature of the water). So they were mounting a thermometer out in the middle on the concrete slab at the bottom of the river.
Hence the use of Air powered tools. It wouldn’t have worked well with electric tools. I remember Power Plant He-men like Bill Gibson standing out in the river (the water had been lowered by lowering the output of Kaw Dam about 20 miles upstream) taking a deep breath, and dropping down into the water. A few moments later a rush of bubbles would come blasting out of the water as he operated the air operated power drill. Each time someone went under the water, they had to find the hole they were drilling, put the bit back in it, and try to drill some more of the hole all while holding their breath. A lot of times they came up laughing because once they started drilling they couldn’t see anything because bubbles were flying in their face. Needless to say, the 10 or so holes they had to drill took almost an entire week.
Of course, they had to take time out for cookouts and swimming in the river. Fortunately there were no Power Plant Women down there at the time, because when it came time for lunch, a group of men in nothing but their skivvies would take a dip in the river.
When they were through there was a thermocouple mounted at the bottom of the river with a cable that led up the bank and into a small galvanized metal building that housed a recorder that took one month to make a full revolution recording the temperature of the water.
There was one other time when I worked for a week at the river. It was when I was on labor crew and we had to shovel the sand out of the river pump forebay. This is a concrete pit about 30 feet deep. Animals would fall in there from time to time and drown, so usually there was a rotting dead possum and a dead bird or two floating in the murky water when the pumps weren’t running.
A P&H crane would lower a large bucket into the pit and a couple of us would shovel sand into it until it was full, then the crane would take it up and dump it out, then lower it back down again for some more sand. We would be standing in the water or on a pile of sand shoveling sand all day. I remember my first day doing that, after a while I looked down to see that there were little tiny bugs crawling all over under the hair on my arms. I called them weevils because they weeved around the hairs on my arms. I quickly realized that my entire body was covered with these little crawling bugs. From the hair on my head down to my ankles. They really weren’t weevils, because those are much bigger than the tiny bugs that were crawling all over me. They put me in the mind of flea larva.
My first reaction was to panic, run around in circles screaming like a little girl. Instead I resigned myself to these bugs and just kept on working. They weren’t biting me. I think they were just looking for a way out of the pit. You climbed in and out of the pit using a ladder permanently mounted on the concrete wall. When it was lunch time I would take a dip in the river, clothes and all to wash them all off.
It’s a funny thought now to think that after I became an electrician a trip to the river pumps always felt like a vacation. Maybe because we were outside of the normal plant grounds. There usually weren’t any supervisors around. There was wildlife. There was a river you could play in if you felt the need. I never found myself working less while I was there, it just seemed enjoyable to have a change in scenery.
Anyway. I don’t think the EPA every really cared what the temperature of the river was, they just wanted us to go through the exercise of measuring it. But that is how the lake ended up on the top of that hill. The water is used to cool the steam in the condenser in the Power Plant. The fish and the birds also enjoy it and all the wildlife around the lake. All made possible by the diligent maintenance of the Power Plant Men.
Comments from the original post:
rjdawarrior May 17, 2012 at 5:10 pm
Loved it! The pictures really brought the whole story to life. You have a way with words that in trigs me.
My favorite part was the flea larva, I could just see you out there in a field full of testosterone, running around in a panic screaming like a little girl…..
Thanks for the enjoyment of the employment RJPlant Electrician May 17, 2012, at 5:21 pm
Thanks RJ, No matter how I try to forget it… I still remember it all too well.
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