Tag Archives: toolroom

Power Plant Safety is Job Number One — Repost

Originally posted September 14, 2012:

I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One.  I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back.  I thought the hard hat made me look really cool.  Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s.  Dark and square.

The first safety glasses we had didn’t have side shields

I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school.  When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).

A hat just like this.  An Inspector Clouseau hat.

That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent.  Anyway…. I diverse.  I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.

The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class.  Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head.  You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.

See? The hardhat looks like it is floating above this man’s head

This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head.  I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.

Ok. Not this big, but pretty large

While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground.  At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast.  It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.

I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat.  I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt.  I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working.  The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.

Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere.  Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.

During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back.  I mean… really hurt their back.  I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder.  There were four of us.  Each on one corner.  I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end.  I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.

As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office.  The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this was missing

Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.

When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder.  By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain.  Back pain.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant.  He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.

The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room.  Obviously a step down from being a mechanic.  He was also very unhappy.  You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.

I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that.  I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth.  Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting.  It is definitely a life changing event.

There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work.  One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room.  His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred.  I didn’t remember his name in the original post).  The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind.  It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes.  The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.

Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis.  He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.”  He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind.  So, what he said was actually true.

It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt.  Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.

One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse.  While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.

An example of a PTO shaft on a brush hog

I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened.  His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help.  When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air.  They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.

It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do.  This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew.  I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins.  Mickey would know for sure.  I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.

I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One.  The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was.  They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.

Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting.  Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched.  Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques.  Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.

The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course.  The course was being given by Nancy Brien (I think that was her last name) and Ken Couri.  We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?”  “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time).  “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….

My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them.  Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.

That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time.  Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts.  They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world.  Especially since they would get lost inside the seat.  I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver.  There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.

There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head.  Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses.  When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.

During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me.  Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head.  I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat.  Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.

You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life,  you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas.  — Yeah.  I thought you would remember that one.  Well.  I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses.  I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.

2 Comment from previous post:

Jack Curtis January 22, 2014:

The safety meetings, Defensive Driving, safety glasses… it was the same way for telephone men, too. And they jumped in whenever there were problems as well. It is striking to me, to see the differences in attitudes from one generation to another…

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012.  Added a picture of Larry Riley:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

I finally found a picture of Larry taken a couple of decades later… Here he is:

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him.  He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

Larry Riley 20 years after I first met him. He has a much newer hardhat in this picture

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

In Memory of Sonny Karcher – Power Plant Man — repost

this was originally posted on January 7, 2012:

When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral.  I did observe some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny.  All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something.  Here are some of the first and last things I remember:

When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with.  They taught me how things were at the plant at that time.  Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.

The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).  It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us.  So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour.  When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time).  We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.

We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running.  So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck.  We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.

About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize):   Two ¾ box ends, One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate).  – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.  So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large  tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get it over with…).  Well.  Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time).  So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things).  Well, you know the rest of this part of the story.  These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools.  I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.

So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair.  When we returned, we went to lunch.  During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.  He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property.  So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked  him if he was looking for a job.  Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then.  Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant.  The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.

After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know….  There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open.  We cleaned it up and put it back together.  When we were finished, we took our afternoon break.  After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe.  When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards.  A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.

I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out.  I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.  But the second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve.  This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short time three months I worked that summer.

I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else.   He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there.  So he left.  He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind.  He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass?  Well, that’s what I want to do.  Mow grass.  So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”

After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.

I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now…..  The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval.

Power Plant Safety is Job Number One — Repost

Originally posted September 14, 2012:

I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One.  I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back.  I thought the hard hat made me look really cool.  Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s.  Dark and square.

The first safety glasses we had didn’t have side shields

I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school.  When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).

A hat just like this.  An Inspector Clouseau hat.

That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent.  Anyway…. I diverse.  I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.

The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class.  Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head.  You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.

See? The hardhat looks like it is floating above this man’s head

This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head.  I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.

Ok. Not this big, but pretty large

While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground.  At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast.  It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.

I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat.  I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt.  I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working.  The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.

Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere.  Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.

During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back.  I mean… really hurt their back.  I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder.  There were four of us.  Each on one corner.  I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end.  I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.

As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office.  The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this was missing

Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.

When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder.  By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain.  Back pain.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant.  He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.

The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room.  Obviously a step down from being a mechanic.  He was also very unhappy.  You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.

I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that.  I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth.  Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting.  It is definitely a life changing event.

There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work.  One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room.  His name was Bill Engleking (thanks Fred.  I didn’t remember his name in the original post).  The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind.  It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes.  The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.

Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis.  He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.”  He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind.  So, what he said was actually true.

It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt.  Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.

One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse.  While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.

An example of a PTO shaft on a brush hog

I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened.  His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help.  When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air.  They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.

It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do.  This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew.  I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins.  Mickey would know for sure.  I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.

I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One.  The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was.  They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.

Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting.  Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched.  Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques.  Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.

The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course.  The course was being given by Nancy Brien (I think that was her last name) and Ken Couri.  We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?”  “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time).  “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….

My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them.  Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.

That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time.  Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts.  They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world.  Especially since they would get lost inside the seat.  I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver.  There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.

There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head.  Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses.  When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.

During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me.  Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head.  I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat.  Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.

You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life,  you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas.  — Yeah.  I thought you would remember that one.  Well.  I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses.  I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew — Repost

Originally Posted on August 11, 2012:

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy.  You can see the house on the hill in the background

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bif Johnson to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump” (try saying that with a lisp).  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that work on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe (for the next 10 years).

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me while I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew, the plant had a going-away party for Chuck Ross.  He was leaving our plant to go work at another one in Muskogee.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look, like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Questions from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to everyone who had already made that decision.

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher — Repost

Originally Posted on June 16, 2012:

I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man).  I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.

Soon after I had arrived at the plant Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on.  Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.  As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand.  To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar.  I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels.  Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up.  Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.  When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do.  He asked me what I meant.  I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.  So he told me.   “I was just waving goodbye.”  He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again.  Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand.  Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger.  Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers.  Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers.  Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute.  Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.

That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds.  There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked.  Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face.  They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds.  These were seeds still in their shells.

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

Power Plant Sunflower Seeds

So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor.  There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.

Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.

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

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

Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time.  Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.

But anyway, back to Sonny.  I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was.  It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have.  I replied,  “Well S–t the bed!”  With a heavy emphasis on each word.  That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising.  Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post.  It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time.  If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase.  It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time used following an obvious insult.

In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”.  I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money.  But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher.  He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.

One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal.  Is that true?”  I told him it was.  Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”

Dirt Mover full of coal

I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond.  So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it.  Would it make a diamond then?  I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond.  He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.

Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps.  These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each.  Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped.  Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity.  It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers.  Why don’t we do something like that?”  I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water.  He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.

One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box.  It was an Igloo Little Playmate.

One exactly like this.  These were a new kind of lunch box at the time.

Sonny immediately went out and bought one.  The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box.  I admit.  I went and bought one myself a few weeks later.  But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny.  I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself.  Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.  At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis.  When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough.  Someone close by would have one.  Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way.  His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.

Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment.  It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired.  Sonny had a small yellow orange Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it.  It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling are way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant.  It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck.  It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.

Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while.  I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating.  Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than another and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.  I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.

Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice.  There was no mistake.  That had to be the person.  I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect.  So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.

There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story.  Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library.  So, I stopped and watched.  This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat.  He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.  This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller.  When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify.  Finally.  I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself.  I could see why Sonny admired him so much.  He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.

This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979).  This heavier set person was still working at the plant when I first posted this story last year, but has since retired. He was one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else.  He is no longer as heavy.  He is rather thin in comparison.  He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.  I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine.  I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray.  Not that he was that much older.  No.  He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age.  There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.

Power Plant Safety is Job Number One

I found out soon after I arrived at the Coal-fired power plant in Oklahoma the first summer I worked as a summer help that Safety was Job Number One.  I was given a hard hat and safety glasses the first day I was there, and I watched a safety film on how to lift with my legs and not with my back.  I thought the hard hat made me look really cool.  Especially with the safety glasses that looked like someone wore as a scientist during the 1950s.  Dark and square.

The first safety glasses we had didn’t have side shields

I used to keep a pair with me when I went back to school.  When I was a senior at the University of Missouri, Columbia, while working at the Bakery on Broadway, I kept a pair with me at all times, along with a hat that I had stol…um…. borrowed from my dad and always forgot to return. (In fact, I still have that hat to this day).

A hat just like this.  An Inspector Clouseau hat.

That way, whenever someone suspected who I was, I would put on my glasses and hat and people would think I was Clark Kent.  Anyway…. I diverse.  I never thought about it being an Inspector Clouseau hat until one winter morning in the parking lot at the plant Louise Gates (later Louise Kalicki) called me Inspector Clouseau.

The yellow hard hat made me confident that I was part of the blue collar working class.  Hard hats have a suspension system in them that make them look like it is riding too high on your head.  You soon get used to it, but for the first couple of weeks I kept bumping into things because my hardhat made me taller than I was used to being.

See? The hardhat looks like it is floating above this man’s head

This is this because of this great suspension system that causes the hat to ride so high on someone’s head.  I learned about this not long after I arrived and Marlin McDaniel the A Foreman at the time told me to sort out of bunch of large steel chokers (or slings) in a wooden shack just inside the Maintenance shop by the door to the office elevator.

Ok. Not this big, but pretty large

While I was bending over picking up the chokers (I mean…. While I was lifting with my legs and not my back…) and hanging them on pegs I suddenly found myself laying on the ground.  At first I wasn’t sure what had happened because I hadn’t felt anything and it happened so fast.  It seemed that my legs had just buckled under me.

I soon realized that one of the large chokers that I had just hung on a peg a couple of feet above my head had fallen off and struck me square in the middle of the hard hat.  I was surprised by the force of the cable and how little I had felt.  I became a true believer in wearing my hardhat whenever I was working.  The steel rope had left a small gash across the hardhat that remained as a reminder to me of the importance of wearing my hardhat at all times.

Larry Riley used to comment to me that I didn’t need to wear it when we were in the truck driving somewhere.  Especially when I was sitting in the middle in the back seat of the crew cab and it made it hard for him to see anything through the rear view mirror other than a yellow hard hat sticking up to the top of the cab.

During my first summer at the plant (1979), I did witness how easy it was for someone to hurt their back.  I mean… really hurt their back.  I was helping to carry a very large 30 foot long section of a wooden extension ladder.  There were four of us.  Each on one corner.  I know that Tom Dean was behind me carrying one side of the back end.  I believe that Ben Hutchinson and Aubrey Cargill were on the other side of the ladder.

As we were walking through the shop, Tom stepped on the floor drain just outside of the A Foreman’s office.  The drain cover was missing and a wooden piece of plywood had been put in its place to cover the hole.

A Cast Iron Floor drain cover similar to this was missing

Large equipment had driven over the plywood and it was smashed down into the drain making a slight indention in the middle of the floor.

When Tom stepped on the piece of wood, he lost his balance, and ended up spinning himself around as he tried to remain holding onto the ladder.  By doing this, he became slightly twisted, and at once he was in terrible pain.  Back pain.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but this one event was a critical turning point in Tom Dean’s career at the power plant.  He was pretty well out the rest of the summer recuperating from the back injury.

The next summer when I returned to the plant, Tom was working in the tool room.  Obviously a step down from being a mechanic.  He was also very unhappy.  You could tell by looking at him that he had lost the proud expression that he had wore the summer before.

I don’t remember how long Tom worked at the plant after that.  I just know that it really made me sad to see someone’s life deteriorate during the snapshots that I had in my mind from the summer before to when I returned to see a man tortured not only by back pain, but by a feeling of inadequate self worth.  Hurting your back is one of the most common and most serious injuries in an industrial setting.  It is definitely a life changing event.

There were other tragedies during my time as a summer help and they didn’t necessarily have to do with something dangerous at work.  One summer there was a young man working in the warehouse and tool room.  I don’t remember his name.  The next summer I asked where he had gone, and I learned that one morning he had woke up and found that he had become completely blind.  It turned out that he had a very serious case of diabetes.  The sugar levels in his blood had reached such dangerous levels that it destroyed his optic nerves overnight.

Then there was one of the Electricians, Bill Ennis.  He would say that he was “Blind in one eye and couldn’t see out of the other one.”  He was actually blind in one eye completely, and the other eye he was color blind.  So, what he said was actually true.

It happened on occasion that people visiting the plant would be seriously hurt.  Everyone at the plant was trained in first aid, and Power Plant Men, being the way that they are, are always willing to do whatever it takes to help someone out in time of trouble.

One day during lunch, a man came to the plant to fill the unleaded gas tank on the side of the garage in front of the warehouse.  While he was reaching over the PTO (Power Take Off), His shirt sleeve caught in the spinning PTO shaft and broke his arm.

An example of a PTO shaft on a brush hog

I remember Mickey Postman explaining what happened.  His crew was eating lunch in the garage when they heard someone yelling for help.  When they ran out to see what had happened, they found the man tied up in the PTO with one bone from his arm sticking straight out in the air.  They quickly took care of him and treated him for shock as they waited for the Ambulance from Ponca City to arrive.

It is times like this that you wish would never happen, but you are glad that you had first aid training and you know what to do.  This person could easily have died from this injury if not for the quick action of Mickey Postman and the rest of his crew.  I believe other Power Plant Men that were there to help was Dale Mitchell, George Alley, Don Timmons and Preston Jenkins.  Mickey would know for sure.  I’ll leave it up to him to remind me.

I have illustrated these tragic events to demonstrate the importance of making Safety Job Number One.  The Power Plant Men didn’t have to be told by a safety video to know how important it was.  They all knew examples of tragedies such as these.

Each month the plant would have the Monthly Safety Meeting, and every Monday morning each crew would have their own safety meeting.  Safety pamphlets would be read, safety videos would be watched.  Campaigns would be waged to re-emphasize the importance of proper lifting techniques.  Everyone in the plant had to take the Defensive Driving course.

The last summer I worked as a summer help in 1982 was the first summer that everyone was required to take the Defensive Driving course.  The course was being given by Nancy Brien (I think that was her last name) and Ken Couri.  We learned a lot of defensive driving slogans like, “Is the Pass really necessary?”  “Slow down, ride to the right, ride off the road” (when an emergency vehicle is approaching), “Use the Two Second Rule” (Only, I think it was 3 seconds at that time).  “Do a Circle For Safety” etc….

My friend Tim Flowers and another summer help were carpooling during that time and we made signs with those slogans on them.  Then when we were driving home in my little Honda Civic, we would hold one of those signs up in the back window so that the Power Plant person that was following us home (Usually Dick Dale and Mike Gibbs) would wonder what it said, and would pull up closer to read the sign, and it would say, “Use the 3 second rule”, or “If you can read this, you are too close”.

That was when I began wearing my seat belt all the time.  Before that, it was not common for people to wear seat belts.  They only had the lap belt before that, and those weren’t the safest things in the world.  Especially since they would get lost inside the seat.  I attribute the Defensive Driving Course that I took while I was a summer help at the plant for my safe record as a driver.  There were a number of tips that I learned then, that I still use all the time today.

There is one advantage to wearing a hardhat that I didn’t realize until I left the power plant in 2001. It is that you never have to worry about hair loss on the top of your head.  Whenever you are outside at the plant, you always wear your hardhat and safety glasses.  When I changed jobs to become a software developer at Dell, I would find that just by walking down the street in the neighborhood in Texas, I would quickly develop a sunburn on the top of my head.

During the years of wearing a hardhat, I may have been losing my hair, but it never occurred to me.  Not until I had a sunburn on the top of my head.  I wondered at times if people would look at me funny if I showed up for work in my cubicle at Dell (when we had cubicles) wearing a yellow hardhat.  Oh, and a pair of super stylish safety glasses like those shown at the top of this post.

You know when you are young, and I’m sure this has happened to all of you at one point in your life,  you dream that you get off of the school bus at your school in the morning only to find that you are still wearing your pajamas.  — Yeah.  I thought you would remember that one.  Well.  I still have dreams of showing up at my desk job wearing a hardhat and safety glasses.  I don’t realize it until I lift my hardhat up to wipe the sweat off of my brow, then I quickly look around to see if anyone noticed as I stuff the hardhat under the desk.

Luxuries and Amenities of a Power Plant Labor Crew

When I was a janitor at the Power Plant there were times when we were christened by being allowed to work with the Labor Crew on jobs that needed to be done in a hurry.  Larry Riley was the foreman of the Labor Crew.  I had worked with Larry Riley during the summers when I was a summer help, and I always held him in high esteem.  I think he knew that, and he said he was glad to have me working for him whenever they were in a pinch to complete a job in a hurry.  I have described Larry as reminding me of the Marlboro Man, as he had a moustache that looked like his.

Yep. That’s the Marlboro Man

The wonderful thing about working in a Power Plant is that when you drive through the gate in the morning, you never know what you might be doing that day.   Even after 20 years at the plant, I was still amazed by the diversity of jobs a person could do there.  Anyone who spent those 20 years actually working instead of doing a desk job, would know a lot about all kinds of equipment and instruments, and temperatures.

When I was young I was able to go to Minnesota to visit my cousins in a place called “Phelp’s Mill”.  Named after an old mill along a river that was a “self service” museum.  Across the road and on the hill loomed a big foreboding house where my cousins lived during the summers.  We would play hide-and-seek in that mill, which was mainly made out of wood.  It was 4 stories high if you include the basement and had a lot of places to hide.

Phelps Mill, MN where we played as a boy

This is a picture of the inside of Phelps Mill by Shawn Turner: http://www.flickr.com/photos/32364049@N04/7174048516/

When I began working in the Power Plant, I realized one day that this was like that old mill only on a much bigger scale.  You could spend half of a live time wandering around that plant before you actually knew where everything was.  So, each day brought something new.  My first years as a summer help, most of the “emergencies” that I would take part in had to do with cleaning up coal.  When I was able to work with the Labor Crew, things became a lot more interesting.

One day in the spring of 1983 when I arrived at work ready to mop the floor and sweep and dust the Turbine Generators, I was told that I needed to get with Chuck Ross an A foreman over the Labor Crew at the time, because I was going to work with the Labor Crew that day.  I was told to bring my respirator… Which usually had meant it was time to shovel coal.  This day was different.

Chuck brought me to the Tool room and asked Bud Schoonover to give me a new Rubber Mallet.

New Rubber Mallet just like this

I went with the labor crew up on #1 Boiler just above the Air Preheater Baskets that I didn’t know existed at the time…  The Boiler had been shutdown over night because there was a problem with the airflow through the boiler and we had to go in the duct and clean the Slag Screen.

“Slag Screen,” I thought… That sounds like a fancy word for something that was  probably just some kind of filter or something….  I knew that Power Plant Engineers liked to give fancy words to make the Plant sound more like a Palace.  As I mentioned before… there are places like:  The Tripper Gallery.  Hopper Nozzle Booster Pump. Generator Bathtub.  The Gravimetric Feeder Deck — I liked that one, it sounded like you were on a ship.  Travelling Water Screens.  There were long names for some, like “Force Draft Fan Inboard Bearing Lube Oil Pump”.  Anyway, I could go on and on.

Larry Riley explained to us that we needed to work as fast as we could to clean the slag screen because they wanted to bring this unit back on in the evening.  We couldn’t wait for the unit to cool down much, so we were only allowed to go in the hot air duct for 10 minutes at a time.

So, in I went.  The first thing I noticed as I stuck my head in the door was that there wasn’t any immediate place to stand.  There was only a hole below me that went down into the darkness.  So I looked around for something to grab onto to pull myself in.  Once my body was in the door I was able to walk along a beam next to this big screen.  It looked similar to a screen on a window at home only the wires were about 1/2 inch apart.  Something like this:

A picture of a similar slag screen

Oh, and there was one more thing that I noticed…. It was incredibly HOT.  I was wearing leather gloves so I could grab onto the structure to hold myself up, but if I leaned against the screen with my arm, it would burn it.  I was just wearing a t-shirt.  I don’t know the exact temperature, but I have worked in similar heat at other times, and I would say that it was around 150 degrees.  I was not wearing my  hard hat because there was a strong wind blowing to try and cool the boiler down.

The problem is that we were on the tail end of the air flowing out of the boiler, and it was carrying all that heat right onto us.  At 160 degrees your hard hat will become soft so that you can squish it like a ball cap.  I was wearing Goggles as well, and that helped keep my eyes from drying out since everything else went dry the moment I stuck my head in there.

Anyway, I threw my lanyard around a pipe that ran diagonal across my path, and held onto it with one hand while with my other hand I began pounding on the screen with the rubber mallet.  I had to breathe very shallow because the air was so hot.  It gave the air time to cool off a bit before it went down into my throat.

This was a new adventure for me.  There are some Brave Power Plant Men that are on the “Bowl Mill” crew that have worked in these conditions for weeks at a time.  I suppose you grow used to it after a while.  Kind of like when you eat something with Habenero Sauce.  The first time it just very painful.  Then a few weeks later, you’re piling it on your tortilla chips.

After my first 10 minutes were over, someone at the door, (which was hard to see) hollered for me, so I made my way back to the door and emerged into the cool air of the morning.  I noticed that Larry Riley gave me a slightly worried look and I wondered what it meant.  I realized what it was moments later when I went to remove the respirator off of my face.  I only had one filter cartridge in the respirator.

Half-face respirator

The other one was missing.  I thought that was silly of me to go in there with only one filter.  No wonder it seemed like I was breathing a lot of dust.  Then I thought…. No.  I know I had both filters when I went in the duct.  I must have lost one while I was in there.  Maybe with all that banging I knocked it off.

Anyway, 10 minutes later it was time for me to go back in there, and this time I made sure my filters were securely screwed onto the respirator.  I worried in the back of my mind that I may have ruined my lungs for life by breathing all that silicon based fly ash because I was feeling a little out of breathe.

Anyway, halfway through my 10 minutes in the duct I reached up with my hand to make sure my filters were still tightly screwed in place, and to my astonishment, they weren’t tight.  I couldn’t screw them tight.  The respirator itself had become soft in the heat and the plastic was no longer stiff enough to keep the filter tight.  It made sense then why I had lost my filter the first time.  It must have fallen down into the abyss of darkness that was right behind me the entire time I was banging on that slag screen.

After working on the screen for an hour or so, we took a break.  When we returned the temperature in the boiler had dropped considerably, and I was able to stay in the duct the rest of the day without having to climb in and out all the time.

Larry had an air powered needle gun brought up there and someone used that for a while cleaning the screen.  It is what it sounds like.  It has rods sticking out the end of a gun looking tool that vibrate wildly when you pull the trigger.  I don’t know what the real name is for it, but it cleaned slag screens a lot faster than my beating the screen with the rubber mallet all day.

Needle Gun

I did beat that screen all day.  When it was time to leave I brought the mallet back to the tool room, and it looked like this:

Rubber Mallet after banging on a slag screen all day

I had worn the rubber off of the  mallet.  When I brought the mallet back to the tool room, Bif said, “What is this?”  I said I was just returning the mallet that I had borrowed that morning.  He said something about how I must be some kind of a he-man or crazy.   I was too worried about my lungs to think about how much my wrists were aching from taking that pounding all day.

A couple of months later I was promoted to the Labor Crew.  Chuck Ross had kept saying that he couldn’t wait for me to go to the Labor Crew because he wanted me to work for him.  The very day that I started on the Labor Crew the plant had a going away party for Chuck Ross, because he was leaving our plant to go work at another one.

During the party Chuck presented me with the rubber mallet that I had used that day cleaning the slag screen.  He said he had never seen anything like that before.  He was sorry he was going to leave without having the opportunity to have me working for him.  I felt the same way about Chuck.  I have always kept that rubber mallet laying around the house since 1983 when I received it.  My wife sometimes picks it up when she is cleaning somewhere and says, “Do you still want this?” With a hopeful look like someday I may say that it is all right if she throws it away.

Of course I want to keep it.  It reminds me of the days when I was able to work with True Power Plant Men in their natural environment.  The slag screen was later deemed unnecessary and was removed from the boiler.

It also reminds me of other things.  Like how quickly something can happen that changes your life forever.

Question from that day have always remained with me.

How much ash did I breathe in?  I couldn’t see much more than a few feet in front of me as I banged on that screen knocking ash down all over me.  What did it do to my lungs?

What if I had taken a step back or slipped off of that beam before I had walked to the other end to secure my safety lanyard?  I know now what was below me then.  I would have fallen about 20 feet down to some fins, and then down another 20 feet onto the air preheater baskets.  It would have taken a while to retrieve me, once someone figured out that I was missing.

What does that much heat do to your body… or your brain?

I know these are things that go through the minds of True Power Plant Men.  I worked with them for years improving the safety of the power plant.  All-in-all, no one ever died when I was there, though some came close.  The Slogan over the Shift Supervisor’s Office said, “Safety is job #1”.  That wasn’t there to try to convince us that Safety was important.  It was there as a testimony to the everyone who had already made that decision.

Power Plant Invocations and Imitations of Sonny Karcher

I have mentioned before that Sonny Karcher was one of the first Power Plant Men that taught me how to work my way up the ladder of Power Plant Ingenuity (In the post titled, In Memory of Sonny Karcher A True Power Plant Man).  I used to come home from work after Steve Higginbotham dropped me off at the duplex where we were living at the time, and my family couldn’t wait to hear what Sonny Karcher had said or done that day.

Soon after I had arrived at the plant Sonny had just dropped me off at the front of the Maintenance shop where I was going to the tool room to get some tools for something we were going to work on.  Sonny was going to drive around behind the tool room in a yellow Cushman cart to pick up some larger equipment, and I was going to meet him there.  As he was backing out of the shop he suddenly made a motion with his left hand.  To me it looked like he was making the movement that someone would make if they were taking the lid off of a jar.  I thought this meant that he wanted me to do something, but I couldn’t figure out what it was.

Various things went through my head, such as, I should get something to help remove lids from barrels.  Or I needed to look inside of a jar to find one of the parts I was going to pick up.  Nothing made much sense to me, so I waved for him to come back.  When he did, I asked him what he wanted me to do.  He asked me what I meant.  I told him that when he made that motion to open a jar, I couldn’t figure out what he wanted.  So he told me.   “I was just waving goodbye.”  He gave me a big smile and backed out of the shop again.  Each time Sonny Karcher waved goodbye, he used a different motion with his hand.  Sometimes he would look like he was twirling something on his finger.  Sometimes it seemed like he was trying to get something sticky off of his fingers.  Sometimes he just drew circles in the air with a couple of fingers.  Other times he looked like he was giving an awkward kind of salute.  Sonny made an art out of simple things like a wave goodbye.

That first summer it seemed like everyone was always munching on Sunflower seeds.  There were bags of sunflower seeds everywhere you looked.  Sonny already looked somewhat like a chipmunk with puffy round cheeks that formed from years of wearing a grin on his face.  They were extra prominent when his cheeks were full of sunflower seeds.  These were seeds still in their shells.  So, it was normal to see someone take a step back while standing around talking, turn their head and drop a few sunflower seed shells from their mouth into the floor drains that were spaced evenly across the maintenance shop floor.  There came a time when those drains had to be cleaned out because it seemed that every drain was packed solid full of sunflower seed shells.

Sunflowers weren’t the only items found in the drains, since chewing (or dipping) tobacco (such as Skoal) was used by a lot of the men in the Power Plant.  Cleaning out a drain full of sunflower seeds, dipping tobacco and spit was a job that might cause a lot of people to gag, and I know I had to fight it back at the time.  Most of the time I felt like I was having too much fun to get paid for working at the plant, but when it came time for cleaning out those drains, I felt like I was really working very hard for the $3.89 an hour that I was getting paid my first summer (1979) as a summer help.

But anyway, back to Sonny.  I remember one evening when I came home after working with Sonny during the day, and we were sitting around the dinner table eating supper when my dad said something surprising.  I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I remember what my response was.  It came out before I thought what I was saying, and I said it with the same surprised smile Sonny would have.  I replied,  “Well S–t the bed!”  With a heavy emphasis on each word.  That was a common phrase that Sonny used, and it was his response to anything surprising.  Needless to say, I don’t normally use four letter words that have to be edited out of a post.  It was just the matter of fact way that Sonny would use that phrase that made it seem all right to say at the time.  If I remember correctly, both my mom and my dad stared at me for a second in disbelief, then broke out laughing as they had never heard that particular phrase.  It was kind of like hearing “…Bless his heart” for the first time used following an obvious insult.

In the year 1990 the Power Plant had a program that they called, “We’ve Got the Power”.  I will talk more about this in a later post, so I will just say that it was a program where we broke up into teams and tried to find ways to save the company money.  But long before “We’ve Got the Power”, there was Sonny Karcher.  He was often trying to figure out how we could make electricity cheaper, or even come up with other ways of making a profit.

One day Sonny asked me this, “Kev, your smart because you learn things from all those books at school so tell me this… someone said the other day that diamonds are made out of coal.  Is that true?”  I told him it was.  Then he said, “Well, what if we had one of those big dirt movers full of coal drive over some coal a bunch of times, would we be able to make diamonds?”

Dirt Mover full of coal

I told him that wouldn’t work because it takes a lot more pressure to make a diamond.  So, he asked me if it would work if we put some coal on the railroad track and we let an entire train full of coal run over it.  Would it make a diamond then?  I assured him that even that wouldn’t make a diamond.  He accepted it and just said, “Well, it’s too bad since we have that big pile of coal there, we ought to be able to come up with some way of making them into diamonds.

Another time when we were cleaning out the fish baskets at the intake (a job as smelly as it sounds) next to the 4 big intake pumps.  These are the pumps that pump around 189,000 gallons of water per minute each.  Sonny told me how big those pumps were and how much water they pumped.  Then he said, “You know, that entire boiler is there just to make steam to turn the turbine to make electricity.  It seems to me that we could just take these four pumps and have them pump water through the turbine and have it turn the turbines, then we wouldn’t need those big boilers.  Why don’t we do something like that?”  I assured Sonny that we would never be able to make enough electricity to make up for the electricity it took to turn the pumps that were pumping the water.  He shook his head and said that it just seemed to him that those pumps could turn that turbine pretty fast.

One day I watched as Sonny watched another Power Plant man walk into the shop with a new type of lunch box.  It was an Igloo Little Playmate.

One exactly like this

Sonny immediately went out and bought one.  The next week he came to work with his shiny new Little Playmate lunch box.  I admit.  I went and bought one myself a few weeks later.  But this was the beginning of a trend that I noticed with Sonny.  I began to notice that Sonny seemed to pick one item from each of the people he admired, and went and bought one for himself.  Or he would pick up a phrase that someone else would say, and would start using that.  At first I thought it might just be a coincidence, so I started to test my hypothesis.  When I would see something new that Sonny brought to work, I would look around to see who else had one of those, and sure enough.  Someone close by would have one.  Then I would hear Sonny talk a certain way.  His accent would change and he would say something like he was imitating someone else, and usually I could tell right away who talked like that and knew that Sonny had borrowed that phrase from that person.

Some may think that this would be annoying, but I think with Sonny it was an act of endearment.  It was his way of connecting with those people that he admired.  Sonny had a small yellow Ford truck and I figured that someone else must have a truck like that, so I started looking all around for one like it.  It took me a couple of weeks, but one morning while we were carpooling are way to the power plant, we came up behind the same kind of truck that Sonny had on its way to the plant.  It was green instead of yellow, but it was undoubtedly the same model of truck.  It was owned by Ken Reece, who was the manager over the tool room and warehouse.

Sonny imitated a voice that had me puzzled for a while.  I had checked out all the Power Plant Men around trying to figure out who Sonny was imitating.  Every once in a while Sonny would change his way of talking when he was making a point where he would let his lower lip come forward and work its way left and right as he talked, and he would close one eye more than another and talk in a strange sort of a southern drawl.  I just knew he was imitating someone because it was so different than just the regular Sonny.

Finally, one day when I was walking through the shop I heard someone in the welding area talking just like Sonny would talk when he used that voice.  There was no mistake.  That had to be the person.  I could hear every inflection in his voice and it had to be the voice that Sonny was imitating because it had been much more honed and refined to give just the right effect.  So, I changed the course I was travelling so that I could make my way around to the welders to see who it was that was talking like that.

There in the middle of the welding shop was a heavier set man standing in the middle of a group of welders telling a story.  Everyone was listening to him quietly just as if it was story time at the library.  So, I stopped and watched.  This man wasn’t wearing an Electric Company hard hat.  He was wearing a Brown and Root hard hat, which indicated that he worked for the construction company that was building the plant.  This guy was undoubtedly a master storyteller.  When it came to the climactic part of the story, the bottom of his mouth would stick out with his lip moving left and right and left again, and one eye was partially closed to show the intensity of the situation and the drawl would intensify.  Finally.  I had found the man that Sonny Karcher had admired enough to take one of his favorite traits and connect it to himself.  I could see why Sonny admired him so much.  He had everyone within listening distance captivated by his story.

This Brown and Root hand soon became an employee of the Electric Company within a couple of weeks after I left at the end of the summer (on September 9, 1979).  This heavier set person is still working at the plant today and is one of this country’s leading Turbine mechanics and he can still tell a story like no one else.  He is no longer heavy.  He is rather thin.  He improved his health after realizing that if he really loved his family, he needed to take better care of himself.  I consider this True Power Plant Man, Ray Eberle, to be a dear friend of mine.  I have never met anyone that looked more like my own grandfather than Ray.  Not that he was that much older.  No.  He looked almost exactly like my grandfather looked when he was Ray’s age.  There was no nicer man than my dad’s dad, and there is no nicer Power Plant Man than Ray Eberle.

In Memory of Sonny Karcher – A True Power Plant Man

When I heard the sad news of the death of Sonny Karcher on 11/11/11, I wished I had been able to attend his funeral.  I did observe some amount of time that night when I heard about his death to remember the times I have spent with Sonny.  All of them good, as Sonny was always pleasant to be with even when he was mad about something.  Here are some of the first and last things I remember:

When I first worked at the Sooner power plant the summer of 1979, Sonny and Larry Riley were the first two mechanics I was assigned to work with.  They taught me how things were at the plant at that time.  Both of the units were still under construction, so there was no electricity being generated.

The first job we were to work on (my second day at the plant, since the first day was taking a safety class, and getting my hard hat and safety glasses and getting fitted for ear plugs) was a stuck check valve in the dumper sump pump pit (Not only did I not know what a check valve was, I wasn’t too sure what was meant by a dumper sump, though I did know “pump”).  It took us about an hour to take the truck to the coal yard, as a coal yard foreman Richard Nix had the key and wasn’t going to give it to us until one of his hands was ready to go with us.  So we sat in the truck parked in the north entrance of the maintenance shop for almost an hour.  When the guy was finally ready, and he had climbed in the back of the pickup, it turned out that he only needed to go as far as the parking lot… about 200 yards away (as the parking lot was at the Engineer’s shack at the time).  We dropped him off and drove up to the coal yard, and made our way down belt 2 to the sump pump pit at the tail end of the belt.

We tested the pump and saw that the water would run back into the sump once the pump stopped running.  So, it was determined that the check valve was stuck.  We drove back to the plant and took the morning break.

About an hour later, Sonny told me to go to the tool room and get the following items (which I thought was a joke, because he gave me such a strange list of tools that I didn’t recognize):   Two ¾ box ends, One four foot soft choker, a ¾ come-along, a ¾ shackle, a two foot steel choker a flat bastard file, a large channel lock, and two pry bars (I did recognize Pry Bars and shackle, which I believed was thrown in there just to make it sound legitimate).  – I wrote down the list, because I recognized right away that a joke was being played on me and I was going to play right along.  So, I went to the tool room and I asked Bud Schoonover (a very large  tall and easy going man at the time), “I need a ¾ come-along (I thought I would choose the most ridiculous item on the list first, just to get it over with…).  Well.  Bud turned around, walked to the back wall, took a come-along off the top of a pallet full of what appeared to be a bunch of junk, and laid it across the tool room gate window (The tool room was still being “organized” at the time.  So, I asked for two ¾ box ends (this was before anyone had been issued toolboxes by the way, that’s why we had to go to the tool room for these things).  Well, you know the rest of this part of the story.  These are all legitimate items, and I learned a lot that day and the next few weeks about the names of various tools.  I kept that list in my wallet for over 10 years as a reminder to myself of when I first came to the plant, and how much I didn’t know then.

So, Larry, Sonny and I went up to the coal yard, and went down to the tail end of #2 belt and removed the check valve from the discharge pipe and brought it back to the maintenance shop to repair.  When we returned, we went to lunch.  During lunch Sonny told me about how he was hired at Sooner plant.  He said he lived a few miles down the road and had heard that someone was building a lake up on top of the hill he could see from his property.  So, he went on over to see who was dumb enough to build a lake on top of a hill, and while he was looking around Orville Ferguson came up to him and asked  him if he was looking for a job.  Sonny said that he liked to mow grass, and Orville said that he would hire him to mow grass then.  Sonny said, if I remember correctly, that he was hired at the same time that Linda Shiever, the timekeeper, was hired and that they were the first two new hires at the plant.  The rest were already company employees that had transferred there.

After lunch we went down to the shop and took the check valve apart and what do you know….  There was a piece of coal stuck in the check valve keeping it open.  We cleaned it up and put it back together.  When we were finished, we took our afternoon break.  After break we drove back up to the coal yard and went down to the tail end of #2 Conveyor belt and put the check valve back in the discharge pipe.  When we returned to the maintenance shop, we returned the tools to the tool room and filled out our time cards.  A day’s worth of work cleaning a check valve.

I did many other things that first summer, since Sooner Plant didn’t have a yard crew yet, I worked most of the time in the maintenance shop bouncing around from crew to crew helping out.  I also did a lot of coal cleanup (especially on weekends), since the conveyor system didn’t work correctly when they started it up when they were starting to fire up unit 1.  But the second day before I left at the end of the summer to go back to school, I worked again with Larry Riley and Sonny Karcher to fix the exact same check valve.  This time we jumped in a truck (we had a lot more trucks now…. Which is another story), went to the coal yard, went down #2 tunnel to the tail end of #2 Conveyor, pulled out the check valve, removed the piece of coal, put the check valve back in, went back up to the truck and back to the maintenance shop just in time for morning break. Sooner Plant had improved a lot in the short time three months I worked that summer.

I worked many years with Sonny Karcher in the garage, and fixing coal handling equipment, and just about anything else.   He finally left the plant to go mow grass, when after a battle to move to the garage from coal yard maintenance to mow grass, he was told that he was going to have to go back to the coal yard to be a coal yard mechanic, because he was real good at that and they just needed him up there.  So he left.  He talked to me about it before he went, that’s how I know what was on his mind.  He said, “Kev, you remember when you first came here and I told you how they hired me to mow grass?  Well, that’s what I want to do.  Mow grass.  So I’m going to have to go back home and do just that.”

After that, the only times I remember seeing Sonny was when he was mowing grass down at Bill’s corner, with a smile on his face waving at the Sooner plant employees on their way home from work.

I can see Sonny talking to St. Peter at the gates of heaven now…..  The only words I can hear Sonny saying is, “I like to mow grass”… and St. Peter nodding with approval.