Tag Archives: Stillwater

Power Plant Humor and Joking with Gene Day

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.

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

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.  See what I mean about he has a face that says it would be great to play a joke on him?  Actually, everyone else smiling in this picture are doing so because they are in the middle of playing a joke on Gene, only he doesn’t know it yet.

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.

Gene Day's truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and a newer type of truck

Gene Day’s truck was similar to this only different, with a different pattern of flames and a newer type of truck

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:

Date:  5/14/91

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.

Unit 2 Turbine-Generator

This picture by Jim Cave shows the Unit 2 Turbine-Generator, The Office is in the opposite direction but just as far as to the wall at the end of the Generator

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.

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Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown

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.

Steve Higginbotham had an uncanny resemblence to Margaret Thatcher

Steve Higginbotham had an uncanny resemblence to Margaret Thatcher

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.

Like this only more beat up

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.

Food of choice in the Power Plant Maintenance Shop

Food of choice in the Power Plant Maintenance Shop

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.

A Power Plant Man Becomes An Unlikely Saint

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?

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn't look anything like him

This Power Plant Man brings Hercules to mind, though, he didn’t look anything like him

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.

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

Master Po teaches Kwai Chang Caine about the ways of the force

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.

Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River

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.

The lake on the hill with the Power Plant in the distance at sunset

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.

Map of the Power Plant Lake

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.

Air Hose Y-Connector

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:

This is the exact size and type of 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.

John Ritter looking like Dale Hull in 1980

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.

Thermocouple – detects temperature using the voltage between two different types of metal

Temperature Recorder

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.

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:

  1. 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 RJ

    Plant 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. :)

    Comment from last Repost:

    1. Dan Antion May 13, 2014

      I love using air tools but I’m very glad to have only ever had to use them on land. I’ve used them in the rain, but I was always able to breath :)

Spending Long Weekends with Power Plant Men Shoveling Coal

Originally posted on:  June 1, 2012

The first couple of years while I worked as a summer help at the Coal-Fired Power Plant Coal Cleanup was performed on weekends by volunteer He-Men that wanted to make a few extra dollars.  As a summer help, I needed all the extra money I could get.  My wages during the first year (1979) were $3.89 an hour.

This jumped to $5.84 an hour when I worked on the weekend, so you can imagine the thrill I had at receiving a paycheck that included the extra money made by doing “Coal Cleanup”.  Another great advantage to doing coal cleanup on the weekends was that I was able to carpool with different people.  So, during the first summer instead of just riding to work with Steve Higginbotham (See the post “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy late for the Boiler Blowdown“), I caught a lot of rides with real Power Plant Men like Dale Hull, David Hankins, Jerry Mitchell, Preston Jenkins and Marlin McDaniel (Yeah.  Marlin McDaniel as an A Foreman would volunteer for coal cleanup some times.  Maybe it was when we were short a few people).

Coal Cleanup really became important during the second half of the first summer because Unit 1 was getting ready to go online.  There was a major flaw in the Coal Conveyor logic when the conveyors first started conveying coal from the coal pile to the coal silos just above the bowl mills.  What would happen was the same thing that happens if someone were to fall down at the top of a crowded escalator going up.  Everyone behind that person would be shoved right on top of them if there wasn’t an emergency stop button to stop the escalator.

Escalator

All the conveyors had a safety cord alongside the entire length that could be pulled to stop the conveyor in an emergency, but this was something different.

To give you an idea… once the coal on the coal pile has been fed onto either Belts 4, 5, 6 or 7, from there the coal is dropped onto either belt 8 or 9.  That carries the coal up to the coal Crusher which has a bin above the crusher that can be filled with coal.  If the bin gets too full, then conveyor 8 and/or 9 would stop.  When that happens, belts 4, 5, 6 or 7 should stop also…. only they didn’t.  Belts 8 and 9 continued dumping coal into the crusher bin until it filled up and then coal fell out all over the top of the crusher tower around belts 8 and 9 until the coal tripped the belt by hitting the safety cord on the side of the belt.  Belts 4, 5, 6 and 7 continued dumping coal onto belts 8 and 9, which caused the coal to backup and spill out all over the floor until the coal piled up high enough to trip the safety cord on the side of the belt.

In the picture of the power plant on the side of this post, there is one long conveyor that goes from the coalyard to the plant.  It is about 1/2 mile long.  This is where belts 10 and 11 carry the coal from the crusher, which crushes the coal down from big pieces the size of baseballs down to the size of walnuts.

The long belts 10 and 11 were like these only they are in a metal enclosure so the coal didn’t spill out on the ground.

At the top of the Transfer tower the coal from belts 10 and 11 are dumped onto belts 12 and 13 which carry the coal up to the Surge Bin Tower where the coal is dumped into the Surge bin.  Now when the Surge Bin fills up, it stops belts 12 and/or 13 and it should also stop belts 10 and 11 and the feeders that feed the coal into the crusher at the bottom of the crusher bin… only they didn’t.

They continued dumping coal into the Surge bin, which filled up and spilled coal all over the surge bin until belts 12 and 13 tripped, at which point, coal began spilling out all over the transfer tower filling up both floors of the transfer tower with tons of coal.  The same thing would happen at the bottom of Belt 10 and 11, where the crusher feeders kept feeding coal down to belts 10 and 11, which spilled out all over the bottom floor of the crusher tower.

I have worked in the transfer tower where the coal was higher than the windows and you had to bend over because your head would hit the ceiling on the floor at the foot of belt 12 and 13.  It was almost dangerous enough to picture yourself sliding down the pile of coal and slipping right out one of the windows (which had been broken out by the pile of coal).  To give you an idea of what this felt like, it was then a straight drop of 150 feet to the concrete below.

If that doesn’t seem like enough coal spills, then picture this…  The coal from the Surge Bin tower fed onto belts 14, 15, 18 and 19 which in turn fed onto belts 16 and 17, 20 and 21.  These last 4 belts were in what was called the “Tripper Gallery”.  These 4 belts would dump coal into 12 coal silos (6 on each unit) that would feed the bowl mills. These are big silos about 5 stories tall.

The same thing would happen to these belts leaving piles of coal at the bottom of the surge bin in the surge bin tower and all along the tripper gallery because when the coal silos were full, the tripper was supposed to move to the next silo and dump coal until it was full, and keep moving until all the silos were full.  Only, the tripper wasn’t working correctly, so it wouldn’t detect that the silo was full so the belt would keep dumping coal and would end up spilling coal all over the entire tripper gallery which runs about 100 feet or so.

So, our first experience with doing coal cleanup was like being on a chain gang where we shoveled coal from morning until night trying to clean up these 15 or so major coal spills by shoveling the coal back onto the conveyor while it was running.  In some cases, we had to shovel the coal away from the belt before the belt could even run (as was the case with belts 12 and 13).  So, you can imagine how shoveling coal one scoop at a time made it seem like you were not getting anywhere fast.  3 or 4 men could all be shoveling on one pile of coal for 30 minutes and not even make a noticeable dent in the pile.  That is why when I went to the tool room to choose a shovel, instead of picking a regular shovel, I picked a large scoop shovel used to scoop grain.

Scoop Shovel

Regular Shovel

Even though each scoop of coal was heavier, it seemed more satisfying to see the bigger dent in the pile of coal with each shovelful.  I remember one day after we had shoveled coal all day from morning until late at night only to come back into work the next morning to the new piles of coal just as big as the ones we had shoveled the day before.

After 2 years of volunteer coal cleanup which was becoming less volunteer and more rotational since the list of volunteers was growing smaller, Ray Butler pointed out that it didn’t make much sense to pay a first class machinist overtime to shovel coal when you could create a labor crew and pay them bottom dollar to do coal cleanup all the time, as well as other dirty jobs that no one really wanted to do (such as suck out sewage pits and other sump pits around the plant).

That was when the Labor crew was formed.  While I was in my 3rd year as a summer help (1981).  Bill Cook was a summer help then that stayed on as a labor crew hand at the end of the summer.  By the 4th summer as summer help, the only time we did coal cleanup was when there was a major spill, which was only a couple of times all summer.

I will write later about coal cleanup with Dale Hull.  I also remember doing coal-cleanup with Preston Jenkins one weekend.  I hadn’t carpooled with him to work, but I caught a ride back to Stillwater with him because my ride left at the end of a full day, and I decided to stay behind to add a few extra dollars to my bank account.  We left a couple of hours later around seven o’clock.

I climbed into the back of Preston’s Camaro.  I apologized for being so dirty, as I was covered from head-to-toe in coal-dust and my clothes were soaked with coal-dust permeated sweat.  Preston said that he didn’t mind.  I soon found out why.

When I climbed into the backseat of his car, I noticed that the upholstery that covered the seat back of the back seat was stained with some blackish-brownish um…. something.  Anyway.  I decided to sit on the passenger side of the back seat instead of behind the driver side because that side wasn’t nearly as stained.  As we drove down the highway toward home, I quickly learned why the seat back was so stained.

Being the “good-ol’ boy” that Preston was, when he climbed into the car, he took out his can of Skoal and put a pinch between his cheek and gums:

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums.... Never tried it myself.

Just a pinch between your cheek and gums…. Never tried it myself.

As we flew down the highway like a Texan heading for Stillwater, Preston would lean his head out the window and squirt out a wad of spit.  It would dance in the air like a little fairy just before it would be sucked into the back window of his car and splat against the seat back of the back seat.  Yep that explained it all right.  I always wondered if he knew, never having to sit in the back seat of his own car.

During the first summer when I was able to catch a ride with David Hankins a couple of times.  He was the crane operator at the time and drove a black Trans Am.  He was a black man with a very broad chest that never seemed to tire while doing coal cleanup.  From the first day he always treated me with great respect which in turn gave me a great respect for him.  I had him classified as a true Power Plant Man.

The second summer when I had been back at the plant for a couple of weeks, one day when Jim Heflin and I were going somewhere in a yellow Cushman cart, I asked Jim why I hadn’t seen David Hankins around.

A Cushman Cart Like this only Yellow

Jim (who hadn’t been at the plant the first summer) stopped the cart in the middle of the road and looked at me very solemnly and told me that David Hankins had died in a car accident in the spring.  He had been going home from a Men’s Club event when he was killed.  Because of this, alcoholic beverages were no longer allowed at Men’s Club events.  As with all the people I have worked with at the power plant, I keep David Hankins in my memory and I often think about him to this day.  David Hankins was a True Power Plant Man.

Comments from the original Post:

  1. neenergyobserver June 1, 2012 as 6:28 pm

    We’ve lost so many friends over the years, in the plants and on the line, especially when they were relaxing on their way home. You, and David’s family have my very belated condolences.

    Somebody, somewhere, needs to teach engineers a course on Conveyor Logic 101, I’ve seen the same thing happen in nearly every plant (from automotive, rarely, to meat packing, often) I’ve been in. Or they could, just for once in their life, shut their pie-hole and listen to people like you and me.

    1. Plant Electrician June 1, 2012 at 11:39 pm

      Thanks Nebraska.

      We were often exhausted while driving home from work when we had been working a lot of overtime. It was a wonder sometimes that we were able to keep the car on the road.

      My uncle Bill Breazile worked for the Utility company in Nebraska City where someone closed a breaker while he was working on a line. He was in the hospital for about 6 months healing from his burns. This was about 30 years ago. He has since passed away. It takes a special person to be a lineman. Putting their life on the line every time they reach out to do their job.

      1. neenergyobserver June 2, 2012 at 10:42 am

        Not that different from you. It’s all about planning your work, and doing it right, and safely. You and I know that 480 will kill you just as quick as 7200 if you get careless. That’s why almost all (old) linemen and electricians are in some sense stolid and unexcitable.

  2. jackcurtis July 14, 2012 at 12:59 pm

    Industrial America returns in stories and comments in places like this, from the only place it still exists: the minds of those who were part of it. Industrial America was a giant; those who manned it were giant tamers and it seems to me, very much the special breed illuminated in these posts…

    Comment from last repost:

    1. Dan Antion June 3, 2014

      I remember a time when I would have chose the bigger shovel, perhaps in the early 70’s. I was moving steel in a manufacturing plant. Carrying three bars on each shoulder seemed better than the two they suggested. We finished earlier, had to do other work, but somehow it felt better. Thanks for another interesting story and a wake-up call to younger days. Thanks also for the explanations. I love mechanical things and I get the impression that these plants are one big mechanical adventure.

A Day in the Life of Power Plant Man and the Sign Hangin’ Chain Gang

Originally Posted July 21, 2012:

No one knows more about having to put up with the antics of Summer Help than the Power Plant Man Jim Heflin.  Though Jim wasn’t completely a True Power Plant Man, he was nevertheless certified as a Bonafide Caretaker of Summer Help Helpers.

I understood after a couple of years of being a Summer Help myself that the reason that Summer Help were called by that name was because they really did indeed need help.  Though some may think that this help could best be found in the company of a licensed Therapist, most of the time what they really needed was a good dose of Summer Help chores to keep them out of trouble and to teach them the fine art of labor in its most tedious and repetitious form.

Though I’m not sure, it could have been Jim Heflin that talked Stanley Elmore into allowing the summer help to attach the signs to the barbed wire fence that surrounded the Electric Company property that enclosed the Power Plant itself as well as the lake that was built to be used as cooling water in the condenser.  I say that because it didn’t seem like it was a long time after I had answered the phone one day in the garage and I found Jim Heflin’s wife on the other end of the line calling to talk to Jim, that we were assigned to the task of installing the signs.

Jim wasn’t in the shop at the time so she told me to tell Jim that his wife Brenda had called.

It just so happened that my girlfriend at the time (who I later married and lived happily ever after) and I had a joke character that we would talk about named “Brenda Bulldog”.  It is a long story to tell about Brenda Bulldog, so I’ll just say that it has to do with “Otto” in the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip, and his girlfriend “Polly Bulldog” who is always suspicious of another bulldog named “Brenda Bulldog”.  I’m sure that you all have the same sort of characters that you talk about in your family… um… don’t you?

Otto from the Beetle Bailey Comic Strip

So, obviously, when she told me that her name was Brenda, I just had to respond as Otto would respond.  So I said in a gruff but excited voice (rolling the “R” in the word Brenda in my throat), “Brenda Bulldog?!?”  Jim’s Wife responded by asking what I had said, so I responded back exactly as I had the first time, “Brenda Bulldog?!?”

I guess she misunderstood my intentions because she sounded obviously disgruntled as she explained to me in no uncertain terms that she was not a bulldog.  I answered back by insisting that this was, “Brenda Bulldog!” She repeated again that she was not a bulldog and told me to just tell Jim to call her at home when he returned to the garage.

When Jim came back from the Maintenance Shop I told him that his wife had called, and I added, “By the way.  I called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  I explained to him that I just couldn’t help it when I heard her name was Brenda, I just had to say “Brenda Bulldog”.  I couldn’t help it.  It just came out.  He looked a little mystified by my explanation and quickly went into the office to call home.

I guess in hindsight, after having met Brenda in person it probably wasn’t a good idea to have called her “Brenda Bulldog”.  First of all, not only did Jim Heflin have the face that reminded you of a likable Basset hound, but Brenda really did kind of remind you of a bulldog (a slight underbite).  If I had known that earlier, I am sure I would have insisted that she was Brenda Poodle.  That would be the most logical response given the circumstance.

Kind of like this

A couple of days later a pickup truck was backed up to the garage and in the back were bundles of thin metal signs.  Each sign was about the size of a piece of paper.  the sign was white and had red lettering.  There were two different signs.  One that indicated that this was the Property of the Electric company and that a person should only enter at designated areas.  The other had a set of warnings or rules, which I can’t remember anymore.

There were 4,500 of each type of sign.  It was our job to take the signs and to bolt them together with small nuts and bolts that were supplied in buckets.  As we bolted them together we placed them in boxes and put them in the back of the truck, where we went around the fence line surrounding the lake and the plant and every third section of fence (about 30 feet) we would mount the sign onto the barbed wire fence.  It would take about 4,500 of each of the signs to completely cover the perimeter of the property.

In the back of my mind I could hear Jim Heflin say to Stanley Elmore after he hung up the call with his wife, “Stanley.  Wouldn’t it be a good chore for the summer help to hang all those signs around the 25 mile perimeter of the electric company property?”  And Stanley replying, “Jim!  That’s a brilliant idea!”

So began the long trek of hanging signs.  We had a small blue Mitsubishi Tractor that we used to travel around the fence line in areas where the truck couldn’t easily go.

A tractor just like this

It had a small trailer on the back of it that we would pile a bunch of sign assemblies (the two signs bolted together).  Then we would walk or ride behind the tractor as we went from fence post to fence post mounting the signs evenly between the posts every third section.

This was a brilliant way to teach the young and inexperienced summer help the art of patience as well as the art of subservience.  This way, later in life when the summer help became a Power Plant Man-in-Training, or even a mechanic or electrician and was asked to do something that may seem boring to the average citizen, all the summer help had to do was remember the time they had to hang 4,500 signs on barbed wire fences and even the most boring tasks seemed like an exciting ride on a roller coaster in comparison.

For those power plant men who knew me as a janitor, now maybe they can understand how I could find so much enjoyment sweeping the turbine room floor (about the size of a football field) over and over with a red dust mop.

Like this only with a mop handle

Anyway, during our time while traversing the wilds along the fence line, it gave the summer help time to think.  I was working with a good friend of mine by the name of Tim Flowers.  We had become friends while I had attended Oklahoma University in Norman my first year in college (before going to Missouri University in Columbia for my last 3 years).  So, my fourth year as a summer help, Tim came to work alongside me.

Jim Heflin and Ken Conrad (as well as Opal Ward — or was it Opal Brien at the time) used to take turns shuffling us around the fence line.  When we were with Jim Heflin we would spend our time in the intellectual pursuit of inventing new “Burning Cat” jokes.

This was a skill I had picked up from my father who was a Veterinary Professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.  He had come home one day from work with the latest copy of a Veterinary journal.  In the journal was a set of “Burning Cat” jokes that he read to me.  I’m sure you must already know them.

There were jokes like, “Why did the Burning Cat cross the road?” “So that it could burn on the other side.”  Or “Knock, Knock”  “Who’s there?”  “Burning”, “Burning who?”  “Burning Cat.”  Or “What did one burning cat say to the other burning cat when he met him in a bar?”  “That’s silly.  Everyone knows that a burning cat can’t talk when they’re on fire.”

We made it a goal to come up with at least one new burning cat joke every day.  This came in handy later on when I was in my last year in college and I became known as the “Burning Cat Man” in Columbia, Missouri as I would tell burning cat jokes to the workers at the Subway every time my friend Ben Cox and I would go there to eat a sub sandwich.  I would be introduced as “The Burning Cat Man” when customers would come in while we were there.

When we were with Ken Conrad we would think about more esoteric subjects like, “What does a cow think about while it is chewing it’s cud?”

Hmmm…. What does he think about?

We would go on and on speculating “Maybe the cow is meditating about the full meaning of life and whether or not the self is the center of his being or is it somewhere else, or is it just that he’s thinking that his ear itches and he can’t reach it with his tail.  He can only twitch it”

We would think about these things as we would be passing some cows standing opposite across the fence.   We would wonder if they stood around trying to think up jokes that would entertain themselves since they had to stand out in the hot sun all day.  Maybe they thought about burning cats, or even chickens crossing the road.

At first we couldn’t tell if Ken was even listening to us until one time, the tractor started to swerve a bit and he pulled it to a stop so that he could turn around and tell us that we were the strangest bunch of kids he had ever run across.  But I could tell that we had started him thinking about it.  I’m pretty sure that it was on his mind for quite a while.  “What is that cow thinking about?”

Every once in a while I knew that Ken Conrad had gained some enlightenment because he would suddenly turn to me and say, “Hey Sweet Pea!”  And then he would grin real big.  Yep.  He knew.  The meaning of life was within his grasp.

Anyway, long story short, before all the signs were hung by the barbed wire with care (as if it was Christmas in July), I went up to the main office and asked Eldon Waugh if I could talk to him.  He was the plant manager.  The one I often have referred to as the “Evil Plant Manager”.  Mostly because I think he would have liked that title.  He worked so hard to obtain it.

I asked him if he had an opening at the plant because I would like to go to work there permanently.  He said there was a janitor position opening up and if it was all right with Ken Scott he would hire me.  So he paged Ken and asked him to come up to his office.

When he arrived, Eldon asked Ken if he thought they ought to hire me because I wanted to work at the plant full time.  Ken said that he would be happy to hire me on as a janitor.

I don’t know if Ken realized at the time how much trouble I would cause in the years that followed, because I always had come across as a fairly decent person up to that point.  I don’t know if he ever regretted his decision.  I’m pretty sure that Eldon did and I know that Bill Moler regretted it when he returned from his summer vacation to find me standing in the janitor closet across from his office.

He was none too happy about it.  Especially since he considered it his job to do the hiring for people in the maintenance shop.  Bill knew that I had already expressed my willingness to open my mouth and reveal my innermost thoughts right to someone’s face at the most inappropriate moments.  I used to explain that I took after my Italian Mother who always spoke twice before thinking.

That was how I was able to escape the sign hangin’ chain gang and became the Janitor that I was always meant to be!  Years later the words had worn off of the signs, but the white signs were still hanging from those barbed wire fences for as long as I can remember.  Now that I think about it, I wonder what Jim Heflin was thinking when I became a janitor and he still had to tote babbling summer helps around the wilderness in the hot sun with an endless supply of Burning Cat Jokes.

Was he wishing that he had thought twice before he spoke about having us hang the signs?  Or maybe he didn’t and I just imagined that he was slightly upset all because I had said those two impulsive words….. “Brenda Bulldog!”

Jim Heflin

Jim Heflin

 

Comment from previous Repost

  1. Ron   July 24, 2013:

    Good Story!
    I still remember my first job as a “Summer Student” at the Mustang Plant (1967). Ben Snow and I worked from the top of the turbine room crane and changed out all the burned-out light bulbs (1,000 watt incandescent). Boy – that was one HOT job!

“I Think I Can, I Think I Can” and Other Power Plant Chants

Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):

The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage.  It wasn’t finished during the first summer.  The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House  and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts.  A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.

I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“).  The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies).  The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself.  Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise.  This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.

Tractor Weights that fit on the front of the tractor

I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.

The dam had a slope this steep but  much was taller

It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep.  I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to.  It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.

That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over.  So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

The Little Power Plant Coal Train that Could

In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope.  That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over.  It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over.  The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.

Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri.  This greatly effected my father.  He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today.  As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death.  Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.

It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt.  Every plant must have at least one person like Walt.  He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it.  I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own.  Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.

Walt reminded me of Jackie Wright only with more hair

I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….

Walt Oswalt

Walt Oswalt — See the resemblence?  not much more hair

One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11.  These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant.  You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post.  Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.

I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt.  He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt.  Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down.  It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while.  We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time.  This looked like it was going to be a fun job.

Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt.  Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also.  So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns.  it is a big loop.

Directly underneath this conveyor is the return for the belt

So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11.  Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower.  During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know…  Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt).  The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).

Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Mining

At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller.  After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.

Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it.  We could see that the roller was bad.  For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant.  The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers.  We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.

I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind.  He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did.  When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside.  When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning.  Now it was dark.  We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11.  I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom.  Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.

We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building.  This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before.  This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.

A Conex Box

We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews.  In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it.  Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly.  We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt.  I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.

When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work.  We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later.  See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).

Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway.   We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller.  At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.

Socket Wrench with extension

I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt.  I think it was around 10pm.  We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night.  Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.

We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on.  I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.

I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator.  The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.

First Impression of Charles Buchanan

Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet.  There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant.  Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck.  If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”

That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like.  Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes.  Something we take for granted until the power goes out.

Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:

A convoy of Electric Company Trucks on their way from Oklahoma to Indiana to help return power to millions of Americans in the dark

Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor.  See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.

If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.

Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.

You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.

Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:

If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link:  “You’ve got a Friend

Why Stanley Elmore and Other Power Plant Questions

Originally posted September 7, 2012:

Why Stanley Elmore?  I suppose that was on the mind of a few Power Plant Men when the foreman for the new Automotive Garage and Yard crew was chosen in 1980.  What did Stanley have that the rest of the Power Plant Men lacked?  Why did Stanley accept such a position in a power plant out in the middle of nowhere in the plains of Oklahoma?  I have some thoughts about these questions and others that I will share with the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom.

When I returned to the Power Plant for my second summer as a summer help in 1980, I found that the Automotive Garage had been finished and a new crew had been assigned to work from this shop.  Doug House, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley and Ken Conrad were there to welcome me.  I had only known Larry from the year before and when he saw that I was returning, he actually said he was glad to see me.  It was usually hard to tell what Larry was thinking because he kept a straight face even when he was chuckling under his breath.  So, I never really knew what he thought about me until he told the others that he was glad that I would be working there this summer.

Then the new foreman walked in.  He was a medium height stocky man that had obviously come from another plant and was well seasoned in the ways of Power Plant etiquette.  This required him to act as if I had just walked into a snake pit and my summer was going to be a living Hell working under him.   Of course I accepted this well knowing that this merely meant that he had a lot for us to do during the summer and I should enjoy myself.

There was another summer help there, David Foster.  He had been hired because he had experience driving a Tractor, and he would spend a lot of the time that summer mowing grass.  That is, until he wrecked a new brush hog while going perpendicular across a ditch at too high rate of speed.

brushhog

Almost Like this without the safety guards and just about as new

(Boy, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that one picture of a Brush Hog).  At that point, he started working on watering the grass, as I did (and you can read about that in the post “When Power Plant Men Talk, It Pays to Listen“).

A short time after I had been there I realized that there was another resident of the garage.  It was Don Pierce that came from Construction to operate the P&H Crane used by the Plant.  Here is a Picture of the same kind of P&H Crane that Don Pierce operated for at least two of the summers that I was working out of the Garage.

A P&H Crane, just like the one at the plant

Don Pierce was a tall person with a moustache and tinted glasses.  He was chewing something often that he spit into a cup or a Coke can, that made a squeaky squirty sound each time he spit.  He always looked to me like he wore the same size jeans that he wore when he graduated from High School, even though the rest of him had filled out some.  Making him look like his upper body had been squeezed some out of his jeans.  Like Hank Hill in King of the Hill:

Don had too tight jeans like this only his belt buckle was much bigger

It didn’t take long to figure out that Stanley Elmore loved to play jokes on people.  He would get the biggest laugh from causing someone a moment of confusion.  He would shake his head and laugh and say, “oooooohhh weeee” (or something similar).  I always had a bigger kick out of watching Stanley’s reaction to someone encountering his joke than I did from the joke itself.  As you may have learned from an earlier post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“, that I was the target of at least some of his jokes.  It would make me laugh to know that Stanley was playing a joke on me.

Actually, anytime during my time at the plant it made me laugh to find that someone was playing a joke on me.  I remember while I was a janitor that one day while I was cleaning out the bathroom in the Electric Shop, I would first Sweep out the bathroom and then mop it.  Many times I turned around to pick up something that was sitting just outside the door of the bathroom I found that it had moved.

Like the mop bucket had moved down to the door by the lab.  Everyone in the shop was just doing their normal job.  But when I walked out of the bathroom to find the handle missing from the push broom and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis sitting at the break table acting like nothing was wrong, I had to walk back into the bathroom in order to keep them from seeing how hard I was laughing.

For some reason that was the funniest joke I encountered.  To turn around in one moment and have the broom handle gone and the broom itself just sitting on the floor with no handle and the obvious culprit Andy Tubbs trying his best to keep a straight face and act like he wasn’t noticing anything.  I still laugh when I think about it 30 years later.

Stanley’s jokes were of that caliber.  When Don Pierce drove to work one day on his new Harley Davidson Motorcycle,  Stanley just couldn’t resist.  He started out by asking him if he noticed that it leaked oil.  Don said it better not, because he just bought it brand new.  Stanley answered by saying that Harley Davidsons always leaked oil.

A Harley Davidson similar to the one Don Pierce had

So, while Don was out operating the P&H Crane, Stanley took a small cup of oil and poured a little oil spot under his motorcycle, just as a reminder to Don that all Harleys in 1980 leaked oil.  Then Stanley watched and waited for Don to stroll by his motorcycle in the parking lot during lunch to see what his reaction would be.  Of course, Don had been an Electric Company Construction worker long enough to spot a snow job when he saw a grease spot.  But it did make him smile to know that Stanley had gone through the trouble of putting an oil spot under his motorcycle.  —  That’s one way to know that someone really cares about you.  They are willing to take the time out of their busy day to play a little power plant joke on you.

I was able to work one-on-one with Don Pierce for about a week that summer when we had to go to the laydown yard by the main gate and organize all the spare cable, rebar, piping, et cetera into neat rows and in some kind of order like from largest to smallest.  In order to put the large reels of cable into neat rows, we would line up two rows of very large telephone poles close to each other, and then place the reels on the poles to keep them off of the ground so they would last longer, and not sink into the ground when it rained.

To give you an idea. Some of the wooden reels were taller than me

Don was operating the crane and I was doing my best to use the newly learned hand signals to direct him where to go and what to do.  There was a hand signal for everything, and I was afraid that if I stopped to itch my nose, Don would cut the engine and leave for lunch.

I had been studying this chart during break before we went to the laydown yard

We were picking up wooden telephone poles and carefully placing them in a line, and I was standing there guiding the poles into place as they were lowered to the ground.  At one point, I had signaled Don to lower the pole all the way to the ground and as I turned to undo the chokers from under the poles, I realized that the pole had been placed right on top of my feet, and I couldn’t move.  It was at times like that when I was glad that I was wearing Steel Toed Boots.  —  A must when you are working in a power plant.

Steel Toed Boots

So, finding myself stuck, I straightened myself up and signaled to Don that I wanted him to raise the pole up.  He looked a little confused as if he thought I had given him the wrong signal (again…).  But when I didn’t change my signal, he succumbed and raised the pole off the ground.  At that point, I took one step backward and with the straightest face I could muster, I signaled for Don to lower the pole back to the ground.  I saw the smile go across Don’s face when he finally realized that I had been held captive by the pole, and I smiled back because at that point, I couldn’t look serious, and what would be the point anyway.

During the first summer that Stanley was my foreman, I carpooled with him and 5 others.  We would all pile into Stanley’s station wagon and head home at the end of the day.  I would be dropped off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview Dr. in Stillwater and would walk the rest of the way home, about a mile down the road and across a field to my parent’s house.  We each paid Stanley $5.00 each week for the ride, and we didn’t have to worry about the gas and the driving.  It was left up to Stanley.

So, why Stanley?  That was the question I was going to answer when I started this post.  Well.  I think I have a good reason.  All during the summer, Stanley was studying different types of weed killers that could be used around the lake without causing harm to the lake itself.  He was very conscious about keeping the lake pristine and free from poisonous chemicals.

He finally found a weed killer that was approved by the department of Agriculture at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater to be used around lakes.  By Stanley’s conscientious view of the Power Plant Property, I could see that he was a good choice for supervising the yard crew.  We did spend many hours driving down the roadways spraying the newly mowed and chopped weeds with weed killer with the knowledge that we weren’t causing more harm than good.

But that wasn’t the only reason.  I think Stanley was put over the garage crew because he took such great care with his own vehicles.  I had the opportunity to see the engine in the station wagon that ferried us to work and home each day, and when I first saw it, I was astounded.  The entire engine was cleaned and polished and even waxed!

Shiny like this engine is shiny

Even though the engine had over 100,000 miles on it, it looked brand new.  Stanley said that he keeps his engine spotless so that at the first sign of any kind of leak, he takes the steps necessary to fix it before it becomes a real problem.

I remember one Monday morning while we were on the way to work, and the Power Plant Men in the car, which included John Blake and another inspector, were talking about what they did over the weekend.  Stanley said that he spent all day Saturday cleaning his car.  I knew what he meant.  That included waxing his engine.

I had the opportunity to go to Stanley’s house one day to drop something off or pick something up, I don’t remember, but what I do remember is that when I arrived at his humble abode, the front yard, as small and normal as the rest of the neighborhood, was so well groomed.  It looked like someone had taken a scissors and carefully clipped all of the blades of grass just the right height.  The various rocks and bird bath, and other yard ornaments were placed so perfectly that it had transformed this normal little yard into a complete work of art.

A yard not near as perfect as Stanley’s

So, why was Stanley chosen to be the foreman over the yard crew and the Automotive garage?  I believe it was because he had demonstrated by the way he took care of his own property that those in the Electric Company who knew that, knew that he was a man that would take care of their property equally as well.  So, I salute Stanley for being a great foreman to work for, and never letting the work seem dull.  He treated everyone in the shop with respect (except maybe in the middle of a joke).  I wish I had a picture to show you, because I was unable to think of any actor or historical figure that reminds me of him.  There just isn’t anyone else quite like Stanley.

Comments from the original Post:

Monty Hansen:

Powerplant jokes are the greatest! I remember one time I was going on vacation (as a Control Room Operator) and my assistant was filling in for me for the first time (let’s call him “Dave”) well, anyway the Shift Supervisor asked me if I felt Dave was up to the task (Dave is an excellant operator). I told the Supervisor I had faith in Dave, but he should keep a close eye on him, so the whole time I was on vacation, the Supervisor hovered over Dave’s shoulder like a buzzing mosquito! And to add icing to the cake, on Dave’s performance appraisal the Supervisor wrote “Dave is a competent operator…but needs a little too much personal supervision!!

This is the kind of fun powerplant men have with each other, no one is closer than a CO and his assistant, and Dave was, and always will be a great friend. We’ve been to each others weddings & helped each other through divorces. He’s a Control Room Operator of his own crew now, but we still get a kick out of laughing over the good times we had working together.

Fred:

A book could/should be written on all the classic power plant jokes over the years. Some of the oldest I’ve heard from the Osage and Belle Isle vintage power plant men.

Jack Curtis:

Something that comes through these stories: There existed in those days a very different attitude toward both one’s work and one’s coworkers, at least in industrial settings. I found it in both aircraft manufacturing and the telephone business.

It doesn’t seem to exist today or at least, isn’t obvious and I think that represents an unfortunate loss to our society…

Ron:

Steel toed boots are a great safety idea around a power plant. One of the employee benefits I enjoyed while working at the WFEC Hugo power plant was a new pair of steel toed boots every year. I’ve still got a pair of them. I wore them last May while clearing tornado debris in Moore, OK. And I gave a pair to my grandson. He wears them everywhere (even to church!).

Thanks for these memories, Kevin. They’re great!

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

Originally Posted on September 21, 2012:

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

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

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

The Best Floor Wax money can buy!

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

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

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

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

A 1982 Honda Civic

A 1982 Honda Civic

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

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

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

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

Sonny Kendrick

Sonny Kendrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaitronics Gray Phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comment from Previous Post:

  1. Ron  September 25, 2013:

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

What Does a Hard Hat Sticker Tell You about a Power Plant Man?

Originally Posted September 28, 2012:

I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen.  Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless?

They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

The Defensive Driving Course we took when I was a summer help

In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark.

During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

Paul Harvey was one of a kind radio personality. No one will ever fill his shoes.

I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.

Now that I am about the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant.

The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.

When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen.

I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.

The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”.

So I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.

Certified Forklift Drivers had these on their hardhats

So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.”

I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.

I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. Being Circumcised to drive the forklift was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.

Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.

Kerry Lewallen

Kerry Lewallen

As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that her husband worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.

Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.

I worked 20 years without an accident

I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck.

The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.

Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors.

One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”.  You can watch it here on YouTube:

This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.

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

Darrel Low is the tall man in the far back left with the white shirt between two shifty looking characters

When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a near fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident.

When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.

The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:

See the Yellow Flag Before the Accident Happens

At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:

A Patriotic Customized Safety Sticker from the Safety Task Force

I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant.

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey, known as Mr. Safety to Real Power Plant Men

Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:

The phrase was: ‘Cause I Love You Man!

That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”

That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.

So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.

NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:

Ron Kilman's Hard Hat

Ron Kilman’s Hard Hat

Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see. 24 years of working safely.