Originally Posted: May 4, 2012. I added some comments from the original post at the end of this post:
I wrote an earlier post about days some people would have liked to take back. There was one day that I would like to take back. It was the day Ken Conrad was teaching me how to setup and operate the two large water cannons that we used to irrigate the plant grounds.
During my second summer as a summer help (1980), when I had about 6 weeks left of the summer, I was asked to take over the watering of the plant grounds because Ken Conrad was needed to do other jobs and this was taking too much of his time.
The first summer I worked as a summer help, whenever it rained, by the time you had walked from the Engineer’s Shack parking lot to the Welding Shop entrance, you felt like someone 10 feet tall. Because the entire distance would turn into a pool of red mud and as you took each step, you grew taller and taller as the mud stuck to your feet. Just before you entered the maintenance shop, you could scrape your feet on a Boot Scraper to whittle you down to size so that you would fit through the doorway.
The entire main plant grounds would be nothing but mud because there wasn’t any grass. It had all been scraped or trampled away while building the plant and now we were trying to grow grass in places where only weeds had dared to trod before. When trucks drove into the maintenance garage, they dropped mud all over the floor. It was the summer help’s job the first summer to sweep up the shop twice each week. If it had been raining, I usually started with a shovel scraping up piles of mud. So, I recognized the importance of quickly growing grass.
The day that Ken Conrad was explaining to me how to setup and operate the water cannons, I was only half paying attention. “I got it. Roll out the plastic fiber fire hose, unhook the water cannon from the tractor, let out the cable. turn it on the fire hydrant… Done….” That was all I heard. What Ken was saying to me was a lot different. it had to do with all the warnings about doing it the correct way. I think in my mind I wasn’t listening because I was thinking that it really wasn’t all that difficult. I was really just eager to have the opportunity to finally drive a tractor.
So, here is what happened the next morning when I went to setup the first water cannon to water the field just north of the water treatment plant up to the Million Gallon #2 Diesel Oil Tanks berms. I thought… ok… Step one: roll out the hose… Hmmm… hook it up to the fire hydrant, and then just pull the water gun forward with the tractor and it should unroll the hose….
Well. my first mistake was that I hadn’t disengaged the spool so that it would turn freely, so when I pulled the tractor forward, off popped the connector on the end of the hose attached to the fire hydrant. That’s when I remembered Ken telling me not to forget to disengage the spool before letting out the hose. That’s ok. Ken showed me how to fix that.
I beat on it with a hammer to knock out the clamp and put it back on the end of the hose after I had cut off a piece with my pocket knife to have a clean end. Disengaged the spool, and tried it again… Nope. Pulled the end off again… I was letting it out too fast. That’s when I remembered Ken Conrad telling me not to let the hose out too fast or it would pull the end off. I repaired the connector on the hose again.
After finally laying the hose out and hooking it up to the water cannon, I disconnected the water cannon from the tractor and hooked up the hose and began pulling the steel cable out of the cable spool by pulling the tractor forward. Well, at first the water cannon wanted to follow me because you had to disengage that spool also, (as Ken had showed me).
So I thought I could just drag the water cannon back around to where it started, but that wasn’t a good idea because I ended up pulling off the connector on the fire hose again, only on the other end than before. Anyway, after repairing the hose at least three times and getting everything in position twice, I was finally ready to turn on the water.
That was when things turned from bad to worse. The first thing I did was turned on the fire hydrant using a large wrench where the water pressure instantly blew the hose out of the connector and water poured out into a big mud puddle by the time I could turn it off. then I remembered that Ken had told me to remember to make sure the screw valve was closed when you turned on the fire hydrant or else you will blow the end off of the hose….
So, I repaired the hose again, and reconnected it (standing in mud now). Closed the screw-type valve and turned on the fire hydrant. Then I opened the screw-type valve and the end of the hose blew off again… Then I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me to make sure I open the valve very slowly otherwise I would blow the connector off of the hose. So I repaired the hose again and hooked everything up (while standing in a bigger mud puddle) and tried it again.
I opened the valve slowly and the water cannon began shooting water out as I opened the valve up further and further… until a hole blew out in the middle of the hose shooting water all over the tractor. So I turned off the water again as I remembered that Ken Conrad had told me not to open the valve very far or it would start to blow out holes in the hose. I went and patched the hole the way that Ken Conrad has showed me and went back to try it again… walking through mud over to the fire hydrant, where there was an increasingly larger puddle.
I remember that it was around lunch time when I was standing in the middle of that field covered with mud standing in what looked like a mud hole that pigs would just love, trying to repair a hole in the hose for the 3rd or 4th time that it dawned on me how different my morning would have been if I had only paid more attention to Ken when he was explaining everything to me the day before.
I skipped lunch that day. Finally around 1 o’clock the water cannon was on and it was shooting water out about 40 yards in either direction. I spent that entire day making one mistake after the other. I was beat by the time to go home.
After sleeping on it I was determined not to let the experience from the day before intimidate me. I had learned from my mistakes and was ready to tackle the job of watering the mud in hopes that the sprigs of grass would somehow survive the 100 degree heat. As a matter of fact, the rest of the next 6 weeks the temperature was over 100 degrees every day. This was Oklahoma.
When I first took over for Ken, the watering was being done in three shifts. I watered during the day, the other summer help watered in the evening and a fairly new guy named Ron Hunt watered during the late night shift (not the Ron Hunt of Power Plant Man Fame, but a guy that eventually moved to the plant in Midwest City and became an operator). After two weeks, they did away with the night shift and I was put on 7 – 12s. that is 7 days a week, 12 hour days.
I didn’t own a car so, I had to catch a ride with someone in the morning in order to be at the plant by 6am. Then I had to catch a ride back to Stillwater in the evening when I left at 6:30pm each day of the week. The Operators and the security guards worked out good for this. I would ride to work in the morning with whichever operator was kind enough to pick me up at the corner of Washington and Lakeview (where I had walked from my parent’s house) and whichever security guard that was going that way in the evening.
I found out after a few days on this job that Colonel Sneed whose office was in the Engineer’s Shack was in charge of this job. So he would drive by and see how things were going. After a while I had a routine of where I would put the water cannons and where I would lay the Irrigation pipes. He seemed to be well pleased and even said that I could go to work for him when I was done with this job.
I told him that I was going to go back to school in a few weeks and he said that he would be waiting for me the next summer. Only Colonel Sneed, who was an older man with silver hair wasn’t there when I returned the next summer. He had either retired or died, or both. I never was sure which. I did learn a few years later that he had died, but I didn’t know when.
Besides the first day on that job, the only other memorable day I had was on a Sunday when there wasn’t anyone in the maintenance shop, I remember parking the yellow Cushman cart out in the shade of 10 and 11 belts (That is the big long belt that you see in the power plant picture on the right side of this post) where I could see both water cannons and the irrigation pipes.
I was watching dirt devils dance across the coal pile. This was one of those days when the wind is just right to make dirt devils, and there was one after the other travelling from east to west across the coal pile.
The Security guard was on his way back from checking the dam when he stopped along the road, got out of his jeep and sat on the hood and watched them for 5 or 10 minutes. For those of you who might not know, a dirt devil looks like a miniature tornado-in-training as it kicks up the dirt from the ground. These dirt devils were actually “coal devils” and they were black. They were lined up one after the other blowing across the the huge black pile of coal. You can see the size of the coal pile from this Google Image:
Then as the security guard on the hill and I were watching the coal pile, this long black finger came flying up from the coal pile reaching higher and higher into the sky twirling itself into one huge coal devil 1,000 feet tall! It traveled toward me from the coalyard and across the intake coming straight toward where I was. It ended up going directly between the two smoke stacks which are each 500 feet tall. This coal devil was easily twice the size of the smoke stacks. Tall and Black. After it went between the smoke stacks it just faded like dust devils do and it was gone.
As the monstrous black coal devil was coming toward the plant, the security guard had jumped in his jeep and headed down to where I was parked. He was all excited and asked me if I had seen how big that was. We talked about the dust devils for a few minutes, then he left and I went back to watching the water cannons and irrigation pipes.
I had to wonder if that big coal devil had been created just for our benefit. It seemed at the time that God had been entertaining us that Sunday by sending small dust devils across the coal pile, and just as they do in Fireworks shows, he had ended this one with the big grand Finale by sending the monster-sized coal devil down directly between the smoke stacks.
Some times you just know when you have been blessed by a unique experience. We didn’t have cameras on cell phones in those days, and I’m not too quick with a camera anyway, but at least the guard and I were able to share that moment.
I began this post by explaining why it is important to listen to a Power Plant Man when he speaks and ended it with the dust devil story. How are these two things related? As I pointed out, I felt as if I had been given a special gift that day. Especially the minute it took for the monster coal devil to travel almost 1/2 mile from the coal yard through the smoke stacks.
It may be that one moment when a Power Plant Man speaks that he exposes his hidden wisdom. If you aren’t paying close attention, you may miss it. I did Ken Conrad an injustice the day he explained how to run the irrigation equipment and it cost me a day of pure frustration, but the real marvel was that as I made each mistake I could remember Ken telling me about that.
Ken had given me a full tutorial of the job I was about to do. How many people would do that? If I had only been listening, I would have heard Ken telling me much more than how to do the job. I would have seen clearly how Ken cared enough about me to spend all the time it took to thoroughly teach me what he knew.
That is the way it is with True Power Plant Men. Ken could have said, “roll out the hose, pull out the cable,, turn the water on … and good luck…”, but he didn’t. he went through every detail of how to make my job easier. I may have felt blessed when the monster coal devil flew between the stacks, but it was that day a couple of weeks earlier when Ken had taken the time and showed his concern that I had really been blessed.
I didn’t recognize it at the time. But as time goes by and you grow older, the importance of simple moments in your life come to light. My regret is that I didn’t realize it in time to say “Thank You Ken.” If I could take back that day, I would not only listen, I would appreciate that someone else was giving me their time for my sake. If I had done that. I’m sure I would have ended the day by saying, “Thank you Ken.”
Ken reminds me of my dad, who, though not a power plant man per se (he was an electrical engineer, that’s pretty close,right?), would give us way more details than we thought we needed. And now I see myself doing it to my grandson (age 11), who is likely to roll his eyes and say, “I already know that!”, when I know darn well he doesn’t. Then I try to resist doing the “I told you so” dance when he finds out he doesn’t already know that. Unfortunately, he does not resist doing the dance when we find out that he did, in fact, already know it!
zensouth May 5, 2012
I like your blog because the stories are always substantial. It takes a while to take in all the flavor of it, like sampling a fine meal or a rich pastry. I do dislike the visual theme, but I think it forces me to concentrate on the content of the story.
Plant Electrician May 5, 2012
Thanks Zen, I understand your feelings. A coal-fired power plant is hardly a normal setting. It was built way out in the country because no one really wants one in their backyard. It was the place I called home for many years. I know that when I left I took with me silicon-based ash, a couple of pounds of coal dust and asbestos particles in my lungs. I will not be surprised the day the doctor tells me that I have mesothelioma. I realized after I left, that it wasn’t the place, it was the people that were so dear to me that I called “home”.
jackcurtis May 13, 2012
I’ve served time with similar folk, people who had more time for a kid learning a job than the kid had for them. Two things stuck besides an entirely different evaluation of those people over time…first one was the old (now): “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you know that ain’t so.” And the other was, remembering the old guys who had patience with you along the way, it’s always like remembering your parents and you pay it forward…(and I still think you have a book in you)
Originally Posted on August 3, 2012 (I added a picture of Walt Oswalt):
The second summer as Summer Help at the Coal-fired Power Plant, was when I first worked out of the Automotive garage. It wasn’t finished during the first summer. The second summer when I began working in the garage, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley, Doug House and Ken Conrad were the regular workers that mowed the fields using tractors with brush hogs, as I have explained in previous posts. A summer help that also worked with us from Ponca City named David Foster was also able to mow grass using one of the new Ford tractors that we painted Orange to easily identify them as belonging to the Electric Company in Oklahoma.
I learned to drive the tractors later in the summer when I worked irrigating the fields in our attempt to grow grass (as told in the post “When a Power Plant Man Talks, It Pays To Listen“). The next summer I was able to mow grass using a Brush Hog pulled behind a tractor:
It didn’t take long before I had to mow grass on the side of the dam (and other levies). The side of the dam has a very sharp incline, so while mowing grass on the side of the dam you sat more on the side of the tractor seat than on the seat itself. Heavy weights were put on the front of the tractor and the back tires on the tractor were turned around so that they were farther apart than they would be otherwise. This gave the tractor a lower, wider profile and a lower center of gravity helping to keep it from rolling over sideways down the slope.
I had watched Jim, Larry, Ken and David mow grass along some very steep inclines the summer before without any tractors tumbling over, so I felt like it must be safe, even though looking at the tractors they still seemed a little “top heavy”.
It was quite an eerie feeling the first time I actually mowed a slope this steep. I experienced the same feeling as you have on a roller coaster when it hits the top of the hill and flings you down real fast when the tractor tire on the downhill side of the tractor rolls into a washed out spot on the dam causing the tractor to roll over just a little farther than you are used to. It was definitely an adrenaline rush each time this happened, because it felt like the tractor was going to roll over.
That is when I remembered the story about the little engine that was trying to pull the train over the steep mountain, and he kept chanting, “I think I can, I think I can” over and over. So, between each decade of the Rosary that I was saying while counting Hail Mary’s on my fingers, I added in an “I Think I can…” as an added prayer before the next “Our Father”.
In the time that I worked as a summer help we never turned over a tractor while mowing on a slope. That isn’t to say that the tractors didn’t start to tip over. It’s just that if you realize that the large back tractor tire has left the ground and is spinning freely, you could quickly turn the steering wheel downhill so that the tractor would turn downhill preventing it from rolling completely over. The weight of the brush hog on the back helped to keep the tractor snug against the sloping dam.
Years later, after I left the Power Plant, in 2006, my father’s best friend, Tom Houghton, a Veterinarian in Lakeland, Florida was killed in a tractor accident at his family’s farm in Polo, Missouri. This greatly effected my father. He has not recovered from the loss of his friend still today. As I was mowing grass and picturing my sudden demise if a tractor were to roll down the hill, my main concern was the sorrow my family would have felt by my death. Needless to say… I never toppled a tractor.
It was during that same summer in 1981 that I first worked with the Power Plant Icon Walt Oswalt. Every plant must have at least one person like Walt. He is the type of person that once he has something in his mind about how to do something, nothing is going to change it. I know many different stories about Walt Oswalt that have been shared with me, but this is one of my own. Walt is a sandy-haired Irish-looking man that always reminded me of the little old man, Jackie Wright, on the Benny Hill Show.
I now have an actual picture of Walt that I found laying around….
One Saturday while I had caught a ride to the Power Plant to do “coal cleanup” the crew was asked who would like to wash down belts 10 and 11. These are the 1/2 mile long belts that go from the coalyard all the way up to the plant. You can see them on the left side of the picture of the plant on the side of this post. Finding the opportunity for a challenge, I volunteered.
I made my way up to the top of the Transfer tower where I found Walt Oswalt. He was working out of the coalyard at the time and was helping us wash down 10 and 11 belt. Wearing rainsuits and rubber boots we began at the top and worked our way down. It didn’t look like this belt had been washed down for a while. We could blast the tin enclosure with the high pressure hoses we were using to completely wash off all the coal dust that had built up over time. This looked like it was going to be a fun job.
Then Walt pointed out to me that most of our work was under the belt where the coal had built up almost solid up to the belt itself so that the coal was rubbing on the rubber Uniroyal conveyor belt. Remember, if the conveyor belt goes up, it has to go back down also. So underneath the conveyor is where the belt returns. it is a big loop.
So, Walt Oswalt and I spent the rest of the day laying on the grating so we could see under the belts washing the coal down the slope of belt 10 and 11. Under the conveyor is another set of rollers that the rubber conveyor belt rides on it’s return trip to the Crusher Tower. During this time there were two chants that came to my mind…. One was, “Whistle While you Work”, since we seemed to be in some kind of coal mine working away like the Seven Dwarfs (you know… Walt Disney… Walt Oswalt). The other one was the song, “Workin’ In a Coal Mine” (…goin’ down down).
At one particular spot the coal had built up and packed itself in there so much that one of the rollers wasn’t able to turn and the belt was just rubbing on the roller. After we had washed the coal away we could see that the roller was not able to turn still because the belt had worn it flat on one side.
Walt called the Control Room to shutdown the belt so that we could look at it. We could see that the roller was bad. For some reason the other belt (11) was out of commission so without this belt running, no coal was being sent up to the plant. The coal silos and the surge bin hold enough coal for a while but not for too long during the summer when the units need to run at their maximum rate to supply the electricity needed by the customers. We could have the belt shutdown for a while, but not for too long.
I followed Walt down the belt to the Crusher Tower wondering what he had in mind. He didn’t tell me what we were going to do, so I just gathered my clues by watching what he did. When we came out of the belt and left the Crusher I was surprised that it was already dark outside. When I had left the Maintenance Shop it had been morning. Now it was dark. We had spent the entire day (12 hours at this point) in Belt 10 and 11. I didn’t remember ever taking a break or eating lunch or even going to the bathroom. Just holding the high pressure water hose, directing the stream down under the belt… all day.
We walked over to a new building that was still being built called the Coalyard Maintenance Building. This was the new building that was going to be used by the new Labor Crew in a few months. Outside the building to one side was a Conex Box, as I have described before. This is the kind of large box that you see on the CSX train commercials that are being transported by trains.
We used them to store equipment used for specific jobs or crews. In this case, the Conex box had conveyor equipment in it. Walt found a long straight roller that is used under the Number 10 and 11 belts and tied it to a 2 wheel dolly. We rolled it back to the Crusher Tower and began the long trek back up the belt. I was pulling the dolly and Walt was carrying some large wrenches.
When we arrived at the spot where the roller had been worn, Walt called the control room to let them know we were beginning to work. We pulled the safety cords on the side of the conveyor to ensure that the belt would not start, even though we were assured that a Clearance had been placed on the breaker in the Main Switchgear (where I began my first war with the spiders a year later. See the post “Power Plant Spider Wars and Bugs in the Basement“).
Walt climbed over the belt and I stayed on the main walkway. We worked upside down for a while unbolting the roller. At one point we decided we needed some more suitable tools and headed back down the belt to the Coalyard Garage where the heavy equipment is serviced and brought back some large ratchet wrenches and sockets with an extension.
I think the chant, “I think I can, I think I can” was running through my head on our second trip back up the conveyor belt. I think it was around 10pm. We finished changing the roller and decided to leave the old one laying in the walkway for the night. Walt said he would bring it back to the coalyard on Monday morning.
We made our way back to the Maintenance shop where I took off the rain suit and rubber boots that I had been wearing all day and put my regular boots back on. I went up to the control room and asked if anyone could give me a ride to Stillwater since the evening shift of operators were just getting off at 11pm. I believe it was Charles Buchanan that gave me a ride home that night in his little beat up pickup truck.
I never worked directly with Charles Buchanan since he was an operator. The first impression that one may have is that he looks like a caricature of a construction worker in a comic strip.
Charles reaffirmed my belief that Power Plant Men are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. There were a few times when I caught a ride with Charles to or from the plant. Each time I felt honored to ride in his truck. If I think about what chant was running through my mind as we were on our way home at night, I think it would be something like the song “You’ve Got a Friend”: “Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend….”
That is what all real Power Plant men and linemen are like. Wherever you look in the United States, these great men and women work tirelessly to keep you safe by providing electricity to your homes. Something we take for granted until the power goes out.
Recently when the power went out in the east, the linemen from this electric company drove with pride, eager to help those in need:
Below I have included the lyrics for the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King and her husband James Taylor. See how well it fits those people that work around the clock bringing the power to your home:
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend.
If the sky above you should turn dark and full of clouds
and that old north wind should begin to blow,
keep your head together and call my name out loud.
Soon I will be knocking upon your door.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call and I’ll be there.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend? People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you. Well, they’ll take your soul if you let them,
oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you have to do is call, Lord, I’ll be there, yeah, yeah,
you’ve got a friend. You’ve got a friend.
Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend. Ain’t it good to know you’ve got a friend.
Oh, yeah, yeah, you’ve got a friend.
Here is a YouTube video of James Taylor singing this song:
If your aren’t able to play youtube videos directly from the picture… here is the link: “You’ve got a Friend“
Originally posted August 31, 2012:
I have often mentioned Jim Heflin in many of my posts. One might think from the attitude that Jim had toward me in a few of those posts was that we didn’t get along. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jim and I were best of friends during the time that we worked together and when we carpooled together back and forth from Ponca City to the Power Plant Kingdom in the midst of North Central Oklahoma.
I have mentioned before that Jim gave me the impression of a friendly hound that was happy to see you.
That’s him all right, except he had a happier expression. I also mentioned that the first time I talked to his wife Brenda on the phone I made the mistake of calling her “Brenda Bulldog” because of a character that my wife and I used as a point of contention between us. As I mentioned before, I should have chosen something more becoming since there was a slight resemblance of Brenda Sue and a Bulldog….
Besides that Faux Pas, Jim and I remained friends.
Jim was fun to be around because you could joke around with him, and you could tell that he was happy to be there. You could also tell that Jim was a very kind person. He didn’t like to see animals hurt, and felt bad when he knew he had accidentally mowed over even a field mouse with the Brush Hog. He was the kind of person you could put in a carnival in a tent and have people pay 50 cents to go see a happy lovable person, and people would come out feeling like they received their money’s worth.
Unlike most posts where I start out talking about a person, I usually end up telling you that they have died. Jim is still alive and well. Jim Heflin is living in Moore, Oklahoma with Brenda to this day. I was just remembering all the fun times that I had with Jim and thought I would share some with you to give you a flavor of the man.
So, here is a moment that I often think about when I think about Jim. He was driving to work one morning and I was in the front seat next to him. He kept looking at his side window and lifting up his nose at the window like he was sniffing it. It reminded me of a hound dog in a car that was trying to tell you that they wanted the window rolled down so they could stick their head out. He would do that for a few seconds, then he would look back at the road and pay attention to his driving. A little while later he would be back to sniffing the window with his nose pointing up to the top of the window.
Finally I couldn’t take it anymore, so I asked him, “Jim… what’s up? Why do you keep sniffing at that window?” He looked at me like he had forgotten I was in the car and just realized that I had been watching him. “Oh!” he said, “I’m trying to sneeze.” Thoughts flashed through my mind like, “Maybe he’s allergic to windows…” or “I hope that Jim hasn’t lost his mind, or I’m going to have to find another ride back to town in the evening…” or “Yeah, that’s right. Why didn’t I think of that?” Finally the thought came to my mind to ask him how that was going to help him sneeze, so I said, “Huh?”
That was when I learned something that I suppose I should have known by then, but no one ever told me… Jim was pointing his face at the rising sun, and the sunlight was helping him sneeze. That’s right. Some people have this uncanny “allergy” or “gift” or “talent” that causes them to sneeze when they look up at the sun. Especially, I figured, if they sniff a lot like a dog sniffing a window. I do remember that Jim gave it up, and we made it to the plant without a single sneeze.
Now unfortunately, whenever I hear a sneeze, I look around to see if the sun is shining on their face, just so that I can catch someone having a “Sun Sneeze”. Years later, my wife confirmed that, yes, some people sneeze when looking at the sun. I may have even been doing that before and didn’t realize it.
I have even become some what of a pseudo expert on the subject and can now tell you that since my son sneezes as he steps out into the sunlight that, “Yes… It is a known fact that some people sneeze because of the sunlight shining on their face.” You just don’t know when moments of life-changing education is going to come along and raise your IQ. Like that morning riding alongside Jim Heflin on the way to work.
Another time I often think about when thinking about Jim Heflin was in 1982 when we were dropped off below the dam when the floodgates had been open so the lake level could be lowered in order for EPA, or whatever department could inspect our dam and dikes. Evidently, after the lake had been full for 3 years, it had to be inspected, and repaired where it was deemed necessary. Because a large amount of water was being released, the Electric Company wanted to make sure that we weren’t accidentally flooding anyone’s land beyond the foot of the dam down to the Arkansas River. So Jim Heflin and I were commissioned for that job.
We were dropped off at the foot of the dam and we were to follow the creek as it wound through the countryside down to the river. Instead of the creek just heading straight toward the river, it ended up turning south for a while, and winding back and forth a bit, and what would have been about 1/2 mile straight to the river seemed like more than 2 or 3 miles. Anyway, we didn’t find the creek running over it’s banks, and everything was fine. We didn’t have any great adventures where we were chased by wild animals, or we saw Bambi or anything like that. We just spent a couple of hours walking through fields and trees and brush, and we talked. We had a great time talking about nothing in particular.
I’m afraid that this was shortly after I had learned how to ramble from Ramblin’ Ann, so I was doing most of the talking (You can read more about that in the post about Ed Shiever Trapped in a Confined Space with a Disciple of Ramblin’ Ann). But anyway, I had a great time with Jim just walking out in the woods talking about whatever came up.
I have found that there are times in life where I am sharing an experience with someone when I realize all of the sudden that I truly care for this person and I would do anything to help them if they needed it. I tend to imagine all sorts of scenarios when I’m in a situation and I remember that I was thinking about what I would do if a wild animal were to come charging through the woods toward us, and my main concern was how I could protect Jim. Jim was the kind of guy that looked like he needed protecting. I even looked around and found a good sized walking stick just in case the need should arise.
When we returned to the road where we had been dropped off, we still had about 1/2 hour before anyone was going to come pick us up and it started to rain really hard. At that spot there was a little hut that I would call a “monitoring hut”. It was the same kind of hut that was at the River Pump station that had the temperature recorder that was used to monitor the temperature of the Arkansas river (see the post, Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River). So, we stood in the little hut until the rain stopped.
You may remember that it was Jim Heflin that had driven the Backhoe through a muddy patch and became stuck in the mud down at the park when Larry Riley came and showed us his magic (see the post Power Plant Genius of Larry Riley). Also, it was Jim Heflin that informed me that David Hankins had died a few months before, while I was away at school. I spent days chopping weeds along roadways while Jim Heflin was mowing the fields all around me. It was Jim Heflin that first flushed out the Bobcat at the Otoe-Missouria Indian Reservation as I was watching from the back of the truck (see the post Ken Conrad Dances With a Wild Bobcat).
If I were to sum up the three summers as a summer help working in the Garage, I would call them my “Adventures with Jim Heflin”. It was Jim that I worked with most of the time. We cleaned the park twice each week. Mowed grass. changed oil in the trucks. Washed trucks in the special truck washing bay behind the garage. Picked up rocks from the fields so the mowers could mow without tearing up the equipment. Changed and repaired flat tires.
Throughout all of this I was keenly aware that as nice a guy that Jim was, he wasn’t a True Power Plant Man. Like Sonny Karcher, he longed for a more simple life. Power Plant Men rarely have a simple life. It is filled with one crazy adventure after the other. When you drive through the gate, you have no idea what you might be doing that day. Like Sonny, Jim would have loved to have mowed grass clear across the country until the day he died.
So, I wasn’t too surprised when Jim and I were driving home one evening and Jim told me that he was going to leave the plant. He tried to explain it to me by coming up with various reasons why he was unhappy with his job; which was no longer in the garage. He didn’t really have to convince me. I knew. The Power Plant Life was not for Jim. He was sad about it, but at the same time I could tell he had already made up his mind.
After Jim left, I never saw him again. I never ran into him in town or heard from him. I had heard that he had moved to Oklahoma City, and I believe now that he lives in Moore, Oklahoma as I mentioned before. I have another friend from my childhood that lives in Moore, Oklahoma that may have an occasion to read this blog. His name is Dr. Bryan Treacy (Well, since my original post Bryan has moved back to Columbia Missouri now to the town where we grew up as children – so this next paragraph probably isn’t ever going to happen).
So, I would just like to say to Bryan, that if you are walking down the street in Moore someday and you see a couple coming out of a Sirloin Stockade, or Wendy’s and one of them looks like a bloodhound and the other sort of like a bulldog, just walk up to them and tell them that Kevin Breazile says Hello. And then just before you go, say, “Oh, and Otto says that Brenda bulldog sure has a cute wiggle.” — Now I’m really going to get it… and not from Brenda….
Here is a picture of Jim Heflin today, 33 years after our adventures in the forest:
Originally posted September 7, 2012:
Why Stanley Elmore? I suppose that was on the mind of a few Power Plant Men when the foreman for the new Automotive Garage and Yard crew was chosen in 1980. What did Stanley have that the rest of the Power Plant Men lacked? Why did Stanley accept such a position in a power plant out in the middle of nowhere in the plains of Oklahoma? I have some thoughts about these questions and others that I will share with the rest of the Power Plant Kingdom.
When I returned to the Power Plant for my second summer as a summer help in 1980, I found that the Automotive Garage had been finished and a new crew had been assigned to work from this shop. Doug House, Jim Heflin, Larry Riley and Ken Conrad were there to welcome me. I had only known Larry from the year before and when he saw that I was returning, he actually said he was glad to see me. It was usually hard to tell what Larry was thinking because he kept a straight face even when he was chuckling under his breath. So, I never really knew what he thought about me until he told the others that he was glad that I would be working there this summer.
Then the new foreman walked in. He was a medium height stocky man that had obviously come from another plant and was well seasoned in the ways of Power Plant etiquette. This required him to act as if I had just walked into a snake pit and my summer was going to be a living Hell working under him. Of course I accepted this well knowing that this merely meant that he had a lot for us to do during the summer and I should enjoy myself.
There was another summer help there, David Foster. He had been hired because he had experience driving a Tractor, and he would spend a lot of the time that summer mowing grass. That is, until he wrecked a new brush hog while going perpendicular across a ditch at too high rate of speed.
(Boy, I’m getting a lot of mileage out of that one picture of a Brush Hog). At that point, he started working on watering the grass, as I did (and you can read about that in the post “When Power Plant Men Talk, It Pays to Listen“).
A short time after I had been there I realized that there was another resident of the garage. It was Don Pierce that came from Construction to operate the P&H Crane used by the Plant. Here is a Picture of the same kind of P&H Crane that Don Pierce operated for at least two of the summers that I was working out of the Garage.
Don Pierce was a tall person with a moustache and tinted glasses. He was chewing something often that he spit into a cup or a Coke can, that made a squeaky squirty sound each time he spit. He always looked to me like he wore the same size jeans that he wore when he graduated from High School, even though the rest of him had filled out some. Making him look like his upper body had been squeezed some out of his jeans. Like Hank Hill in King of the Hill:
It didn’t take long to figure out that Stanley Elmore loved to play jokes on people. He would get the biggest laugh from causing someone a moment of confusion. He would shake his head and laugh and say, “oooooohhh weeee” (or something similar). I always had a bigger kick out of watching Stanley’s reaction to someone encountering his joke than I did from the joke itself. As you may have learned from an earlier post “Power Plant Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill“, that I was the target of at least some of his jokes. It would make me laugh to know that Stanley was playing a joke on me.
Actually, anytime during my time at the plant it made me laugh to find that someone was playing a joke on me. I remember while I was a janitor that one day while I was cleaning out the bathroom in the Electric Shop, I would first Sweep out the bathroom and then mop it. Many times I turned around to pick up something that was sitting just outside the door of the bathroom I found that it had moved.
Like the mop bucket had moved down to the door by the lab. Everyone in the shop was just doing their normal job. But when I walked out of the bathroom to find the handle missing from the push broom and Andy Tubbs and Ben Davis sitting at the break table acting like nothing was wrong, I had to walk back into the bathroom in order to keep them from seeing how hard I was laughing.
For some reason that was the funniest joke I encountered. To turn around in one moment and have the broom handle gone and the broom itself just sitting on the floor with no handle and the obvious culprit Andy Tubbs trying his best to keep a straight face and act like he wasn’t noticing anything. I still laugh when I think about it 30 years later.
Stanley’s jokes were of that caliber. When Don Pierce drove to work one day on his new Harley Davidson Motorcycle, Stanley just couldn’t resist. He started out by asking him if he noticed that it leaked oil. Don said it better not, because he just bought it brand new. Stanley answered by saying that Harley Davidsons always leaked oil.
So, while Don was out operating the P&H Crane, Stanley took a small cup of oil and poured a little oil spot under his motorcycle, just as a reminder to Don that all Harleys in 1980 leaked oil. Then Stanley watched and waited for Don to stroll by his motorcycle in the parking lot during lunch to see what his reaction would be. Of course, Don had been an Electric Company Construction worker long enough to spot a snow job when he saw a grease spot. But it did make him smile to know that Stanley had gone through the trouble of putting an oil spot under his motorcycle. — That’s one way to know that someone really cares about you. They are willing to take the time out of their busy day to play a little power plant joke on you.
I was able to work one-on-one with Don Pierce for about a week that summer when we had to go to the laydown yard by the main gate and organize all the spare cable, rebar, piping, et cetera into neat rows and in some kind of order like from largest to smallest. In order to put the large reels of cable into neat rows, we would line up two rows of very large telephone poles close to each other, and then place the reels on the poles to keep them off of the ground so they would last longer, and not sink into the ground when it rained.
Don was operating the crane and I was doing my best to use the newly learned hand signals to direct him where to go and what to do. There was a hand signal for everything, and I was afraid that if I stopped to itch my nose, Don would cut the engine and leave for lunch.
We were picking up wooden telephone poles and carefully placing them in a line, and I was standing there guiding the poles into place as they were lowered to the ground. At one point, I had signaled Don to lower the pole all the way to the ground and as I turned to undo the chokers from under the poles, I realized that the pole had been placed right on top of my feet, and I couldn’t move. It was at times like that when I was glad that I was wearing Steel Toed Boots. — A must when you are working in a power plant.
So, finding myself stuck, I straightened myself up and signaled to Don that I wanted him to raise the pole up. He looked a little confused as if he thought I had given him the wrong signal (again…). But when I didn’t change my signal, he succumbed and raised the pole off the ground. At that point, I took one step backward and with the straightest face I could muster, I signaled for Don to lower the pole back to the ground. I saw the smile go across Don’s face when he finally realized that I had been held captive by the pole, and I smiled back because at that point, I couldn’t look serious, and what would be the point anyway.
During the first summer that Stanley was my foreman, I carpooled with him and 5 others. We would all pile into Stanley’s station wagon and head home at the end of the day. I would be dropped off at the corner of Washington and Lakeview Dr. in Stillwater and would walk the rest of the way home, about a mile down the road and across a field to my parent’s house. We each paid Stanley $5.00 each week for the ride, and we didn’t have to worry about the gas and the driving. It was left up to Stanley.
So, why Stanley? That was the question I was going to answer when I started this post. Well. I think I have a good reason. All during the summer, Stanley was studying different types of weed killers that could be used around the lake without causing harm to the lake itself. He was very conscious about keeping the lake pristine and free from poisonous chemicals.
He finally found a weed killer that was approved by the department of Agriculture at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater to be used around lakes. By Stanley’s conscientious view of the Power Plant Property, I could see that he was a good choice for supervising the yard crew. We did spend many hours driving down the roadways spraying the newly mowed and chopped weeds with weed killer with the knowledge that we weren’t causing more harm than good.
But that wasn’t the only reason. I think Stanley was put over the garage crew because he took such great care with his own vehicles. I had the opportunity to see the engine in the station wagon that ferried us to work and home each day, and when I first saw it, I was astounded. The entire engine was cleaned and polished and even waxed!
Even though the engine had over 100,000 miles on it, it looked brand new. Stanley said that he keeps his engine spotless so that at the first sign of any kind of leak, he takes the steps necessary to fix it before it becomes a real problem.
I remember one Monday morning while we were on the way to work, and the Power Plant Men in the car, which included John Blake and another inspector, were talking about what they did over the weekend. Stanley said that he spent all day Saturday cleaning his car. I knew what he meant. That included waxing his engine.
I had the opportunity to go to Stanley’s house one day to drop something off or pick something up, I don’t remember, but what I do remember is that when I arrived at his humble abode, the front yard, as small and normal as the rest of the neighborhood, was so well groomed. It looked like someone had taken a scissors and carefully clipped all of the blades of grass just the right height. The various rocks and bird bath, and other yard ornaments were placed so perfectly that it had transformed this normal little yard into a complete work of art.
So, why was Stanley chosen to be the foreman over the yard crew and the Automotive garage? I believe it was because he had demonstrated by the way he took care of his own property that those in the Electric Company who knew that, knew that he was a man that would take care of their property equally as well. So, I salute Stanley for being a great foreman to work for, and never letting the work seem dull. He treated everyone in the shop with respect (except maybe in the middle of a joke). I wish I had a picture to show you, because I was unable to think of any actor or historical figure that reminds me of him. There just isn’t anyone else quite like Stanley.
Stanley died at too young of an age.
Comments from the original Post:
Power plant jokes are the greatest! I remember one time I was going on vacation (as a Control Room Operator) and my assistant was filling in for me for the first time (let’s call him “Dave”) well, anyway the Shift Supervisor asked me if I felt Dave was up to the task (Dave is an excellent operator). I told the Supervisor I had faith in Dave, but he should keep a close eye on him, so the whole time I was on vacation, the Supervisor hovered over Dave’s shoulder like a buzzing mosquito! And to add icing to the cake, on Dave’s performance appraisal the Supervisor wrote “Dave is a competent operator…but needs a little too much personal supervision!!
This is the kind of fun power plant men have with each other, no one is closer than a CO and his assistant, and Dave was, and always will be a great friend. We’ve been to each others weddings & helped each other through divorces. He’s a Control Room Operator of his own crew now, but we still get a kick out of laughing over the good times we had working together.
A book could/should be written on all the classic power plant jokes over the years. Some of the oldest I’ve heard from the Osage and Belle Isle vintage power plant men.
Something that comes through these stories: There existed in those days a very different attitude toward both one’s work and one’s coworkers, at least in industrial settings. I found it in both aircraft manufacturing and the telephone business.
It doesn’t seem to exist today or at least, isn’t obvious and I think that represents an unfortunate loss to our society…
Originally Posted September 28, 2012:
I have learned one thing from Power Plant Men, and the Power Plant Safety Process is that, when you become comfortable doing a dangerous job, that is when an accident is most likely to happen. Isn’t that when a young driver seems to become careless?
They drive carefully for the first couple of months when they have just learned how to drive, and then when they feel confident about their driving ability, they begin to cut safety corners, and the next thing you know an accident occurs. That was one lesson we learned in our Defensive Driving Course.
In the spring of 1986, while I was an electrician at the Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma, I went with another electrician, Ted Riddle, to work on a Major Overhaul for three months in Oklahoma City at a Power Plant just North of Mustang. While we worked there, we would eat lunch with a man well into his 50’s that was our acting foreman for the overhaul. His name was Willard Stark.
During lunch we would listen to Paul Harvey on the radio. When Paul would mention a date 20 years in the past, Willard would be able to tell us what he was doing on that day, many years earlier.
I was fascinated by his ability. I will probably talk about Willard more in a later post, but today, I mention him only because of his ability to remember what happened on dates long gone by.
Now that I am about the same age as Willard was then, I am beginning to see that certain dates hold a special significance. The more memorable the experience, either for the good or the bad, and I seem to remember what day it happened. That leads me to one of the memorable dates in my past life at the Power Plant.
The particular date was July 15, 1980. I was working at the power plant during my second summer when I was normally working out of the garage. But Stanley Elmore had told me to go to the Maintenance Shop and get with Ray Butler, because he was going to have me do some cleaning up around the shop.
When I arrived, Ray told me to go over and wait with this new hand that they had just hired the day before, and he would be over there in a few minutes when he finished what he was doing. I walked over to the young man (I say young, but he was 6 years older than I was. He was 25) named Kerry Lewallen.
I introduced myself to him, and we waited together for a few minutes until Ray came over and told us to get a forklift and move some crates that were nearby over to the Warehouse, and then meet him there to help build some shelves in the warehouse to store the larger material on pallets.
The reason I remember this day so well was because of what happened right after Ray walked away. Kerry looked at me and asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Well. I really did want to drive the forklift, because I thought it would be fun, but from my experience at the plant, I noticed that people like Larry Riley had a Hard Hat Sticker that said: “Certified Operator Industrial Powered Trucks”.
So I explained to Kerry that I wasn’t Certified to drive a forklift. Kerry had only worked there one day before that day, and even though he probably had a lot of experience driving a forklift (as most Power Plant Men did), he didn’t feel comfortable driving the forklift either.
So, we waited for Ray to come back and Ray asked if we were going to go get the forklift. Then Kerry said something that I have never forgotten, and that I have used repeatedly throughout my career at the Power Plant, as well as my current career. He explained to Ray, “I would like to, but I haven’t been circumcised to drive the forklift.”
I watched Ray as he listened, and I noticed a very faint smile as he realized what Kerry meant to say. Ray agreed, and said he would take care of it. I believe that was the day he took us to the warehouse and circumcised both of us to drive the forklift right then and there.
I couldn’t wait to get home and show my parents. As you can see, I was so proud of my new hardhat sticker, I didn’t put it on my hardhat, I just brought it home and framed it and hung it on the wall. That was July 15, 1980. Being Circumcised to drive the forklift was kind of like my “Come to Jesus” moment in my Power Plant journey.
Kerry Lewallen, as it turned out was a great welder, as were all the True Power Plant Welders. He stayed on at the plant to become one of the True Power Plant Men that worked side-by-side with the other great welders in the boilers welding boiler tubes, or in the bowl mill welding inside them in the tremendous heat that mere mortals like myself found totally unbearable.
As with Jerry Mitchell, my wife came home one day and told me about this very nice person that she worked with as a Nurse in the Stillwater Medical Center. She described her as being a very honest and pleasant person to work with. She also told me that her husband worked at the Power Plant. Her name was Vicki Lewallen, Kerry’s wife.
Through the years, there were many opportunities where we received Hardhat stickers. Most of them were safety related. Each year we would receive a safety sticker, if we hadn’t had an accident. It would indicate how many years in a row it has been that we have been accident free. I received my last safety sticker the last day I worked at the Power Plant during my going away party.
I didn’t place this on a hardhat either. Well. I was walking out the door leaving my hardhat behind (so to speak). I don’t remember how long the Plant Manager Eldon Waugh had worked for the electric company, (about 40 years) but just a couple of months before he retired, while driving back to the plant from Oklahoma City, he took an exit off of I-35 behind a semi-truck.
The truck stopped on the ramp realizing that he had taken the wrong exit and proceeded to back up. He ran into the company truck that Eldon was driving causing an accident. This was enough to ruin Eldon’s perfect safety record just months before he retired. The thought was that Eldon should not have pulled up so close to the truck, or have kept the truck in line with the driver’s side mirror so that he knew he was there.
Throughout the years that I worked at the plant we would have different Safety programs or initiatives that would help to drive our safe behavior. Since back injuries were a major concerned, we would watch films about lifting properly. Since we worked with heavy equipment we would watch videos about people being injured while working with dozers, and other big tractors.
One video that we watched was called: “Shake Hands With Danger”. You can watch it here on YouTube:
This is a classic Safety film shown at the Power Plant periodically. I always thought we should have been provided with popcorn when we watched these. Harry in this film reminds me of a cross between Ken Conrad and Darrell Low. The “Old timer” reminds me of Mike Lafoe. I could go on.
When our new plant manager Ron Kilman arrived after Eldon Waugh, he had us watch a film where there was a near fatal race car accident. When they looked more closely at the accident, it turned out that there were many things that had to happen wrong that led up to the accident.
When an accident occurs on the race track, a Yellow Flag is raised, and everyone gets in line and takes it slow around the track until the accident is cleared. In the movie, the thought was that it would have been helpful if the yellow flag had come out each time someone was about to do something wrong “Before” the accident happened.
The foremen at the plant were given yellow flags to put on their desks as a reminder to see yellow flags whenever you see something that has the potential to be dangerous. We were even given yellow flag stickers to put on our hardhat. — By now, you probably know what I did with mine. Yep. I have it right here. I keep it by my bedside as a reminder:
At one point during the years at the plant, we created a Safety Task Force. When Bill Gibson was the head of the Task Force, he used his Safety imagination to come up with some customized Hardhat Safety Stickers that people at our plant would appreciate. One of the more patriotic Hardhat Safety Stickers looked like this:
I didn’t receive one of the stickers that he came up with that I really liked because I was away at the time on an overhaul when they were being handed out. Many years later, when I mentioned it to the guys at the plant in an e-mail, I was given a stack of them by Randy Dailey the next time I visited the plant.
Randy Dailey the Plant Machinist that was known as “Mister Safety” himself. Thanks to Randy Dailey I am able to show you a hardhat safety sticker that was created based on a particular phrase that was going around the plant at the time:
That really says it all doesn’t it. The real truth about Power Plant Men. They really do care about each other. The close bond between the Power Plant Men is what kept us safe. In the “Shake Hands with Danger” at one point, it mentions that each person should “Watch out for the other guy.”
That is how our plant remained as safe as it did throughout the years that I was there. When I received the Hardhat Safety Sticker for working 20 years without an accident, it wasn’t because I was always being safe in every job I was doing, because that wasn’t always true. It was because there were enough Power Plant Men and Women looking out for me that decreased my odds of being injured by decreasing the number of times that I would end up doing something stupid and getting myself hurt or killed.
So, not only do I thank all the True Power Plant Men and Women that I worked with throughout those years, but so does my wife and my two children. One little mistake at the wrong time. One extra time of Shaking Hands with Danger, and I might not have come home one day from work. It was more than luck that kept me safe. I thank each and everyone of the Power Plant People that I worked with throughout my career for watching out for the other guy.
NOTE: After posting this last year, Ron Kilman, the plant manager at our plant from 1988 to 1994 sent me a picture of his Hard hat. I thought I would post it here so you can see it:
Ron said he stacked his Yearly safety stickers on top of each other as you can see. 24 years of working safely.
Originally Posted December 7, 2012:
What happens to a million dollar forest when left to the fate of two Power Plant Summer Help? I can tell you; the result is not good. Before I explain this statement, let me introduce some summer help to you so that you will have a deeper understanding of my summer help career. It spanned 4 summers for a total of 12 months.
I would like to start out by saying that there were a few summer help that I thought were very intelligent and goodhearted people. A dear friend of mine named Tim Flowers, who was a friend that I met while attending Oklahoma University my first year in school, was one of the smartest people you might run across in your lifetime. He was also a very hard worker who didn’t mind putting his entire effort into his work.
Blake Tucker from Pawnee also had a brilliant mind and had an honorable work ethic. He was fresh out of High School when he first went to work as a summer help at the coal-fired power plant in north central Oklahoma. During his years as a summer help, I spent a lot of time with him working on mathematical calculations and on programming feats of magic.
Bill Cook, though he didn’t put his back into his work the way some would have liked to see, he did go on to work at the power plant on the labor crew a year and a half before I finally made it onto that team of singularly distinguished characters. Bill confided in me, and I consider him a friend, though I haven’t seen him in 30 years.
David Foster became a friend of mine the second summer when we were were summer help together. He only worked at the plant that one summer, but I talked to him a few times during the years when he was in college and I would run into him coming out of church or on campus. His father was a dentist in Ponca City.
This leaves me with all the rest of the summer help that worked with me during those 4 summers. I wrote a post about the first summer help I worked with that really didn’t fit the requirements, since you were supposed to be going to school in order to be a summer help. That was Steve Higginbotham. He was 34 at the time and not planning on attending school in the fall. You can read more about him in the post: Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown
Steve was a less than energetic person, but I could understand his lack of enthusiasm. He had been dealt a shorthand in his life and he was making the best out of his situation. What I found hard to understand were summer help that were fresh out of High School that were given the opportunity to work at an illustrious palace of a Power Plant, and they just didn’t want to work.
When I was leaving the house at age 14 to go to my first job where I was working for someone other than myself (I began selling tomatoes from my garden door-to-door at age 8), my dad told me something that became the core of my work ethic. He said, “Son.” Well, I don’t remember if he actually said “Son.” but it was something like that. Maybe he said “Kevin, before you go, I want to tell you something.” He said that I should do my best at whatever job they give me. I should do a job that I would be proud to show others. He never wanted to hear anything that would make him ashamed of me.
It was a thrill to go work at a German Restaurant as a dishwasher making $1.50 an hour. I worked my tail off each night. I didn’t know there was anything called “breaks”, and I focused on keeping ahead of the work so that I wouldn’t become swamped.
So, it was hard for me, by the time I was 20, to see summer help come to the plant and work real hard at not working. Young football players from Pawnee, who you would think would be able to put their best foot forward, were usually standing around talking smack about that one doofus of a summer help that wanted to get to work right away. That one guy that liked wearing his face shield and ear muffs hanging down from his hard hat swinging the industrial weedeater to-and-fro all day long.
This one group of summer help that were hired that summer all seemed to have the same bug, except for Bill Cook. Bill didn’t get along with them because he wasn’t from the same bully class that they graduated. At one point during the summer the tension between them and Bill rose to such a level that they had to handle it the only way left.
Bill had to meet one of them outside the gate after quittin’ time to settle matters. The truth of the matter was that Bill had done nothing to stir up their ire. They just didn’t like him. It seemed to be a personality issue with them. From what I understand, the cowards received what was coming to them as usually happens when they have mistook someone to be a weakling and easy pickings.
To illustrate the intelligence of this particular group of summer help (there were 3 of them), let me describe an instance where they were struggling real hard to keep from working. I didn’t understand their desire to keep doing what they were doing in the first place, so I wasn’t about to stay in the situation all afternoon.
Stanley Elmore had told us to mow the area around the main parking lot. This included the area by the main entrance. At that time there were sections of grass on all sides of the parking lot including the side by the garage (which is not there today). Stanley sent me and the 3 of them (not Bill Cook. I think he knew the tension between them and tried to work it so that Bill could be doing other things) out to mow this area with regular push mowers.
It was just after lunch when we started. I knew right away that the three amigos wanted to make this job last all afternoon. I think they were afraid that when they finished they would be sent to the park to empty the trash cans of the foul rotten fish guts and soiled baby diapers. A job that would make most summer help puke and even bring water to the eyes of a True Power Plant Man.
Well. I grabbed one of the lawn mowers and headed out across the drive to the grass and started mowing around and around one stretch of grass. By the time the others had dragged their mowers out and took their time starting them, I had finished one stretch of grass and went around to the other side of the parking lot to work on that side as well.
The grass on the far side of the parking lot wrapped around by the welding shop and over to the front entrance. So, once this entire section was done, we would be finished. It really wasn’t that much grass to mow. Not when you had 4 lawn mowers all going around in a counter clockwise direction.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the three huddle together to have a quick discussion. I knew they were going to try to thwart my efforts to quickly finish this job so they didn’t have to move on to the next adventure. I also knew that there wasn’t anyway they were going to be able to stop me.
They had tried to stop me before earlier when we were going out to cut weeds down a long right-of-way. One of them had let his weedeater string out real far so that the strings were sticking out about 2 feet. He started his weedeater up so that the strings were whining and turned around so that the strings grabbed my leg and before I knew it I was flat on my back with a stabbing pain in my knee. My kneecap had been knocked out of the socket, which I quickly hit with the palm of my hand to knock it back over from the side of my knee.
I could see that this had been pre-planned by their reaction. I think they thought it would take me out of commission or make me angry so they could watch me lose my top. The guy that did it apologized in a half sarcastic way and I told him it was all right. I wiped the dust off of my pants and grabbed my weedeater and went to work. I could see them at the back of the truck standing there wondering where their plan had failed.
Anyway, back to mowing the grass around the parking lot. I was able to tell immediately what they had planned. Their idea was to hem me in and mow very slowly so that I would have no where to go but to follow along behind one of them travelling at a snails pace. They were so slow they would take one step, wait a second, then take another step, etc.
So, as I came up behind one of them I suddenly took a left turn and cut a new path through the grass without even slowing down. I quickly came to the other side of the curb, and I turned left again and was heading back in the direction I came from just as if nothing was wrong.
I knew the law of physics. Newton’s First Law of Physics. If a body is in motion it tends to stay in motion unless it is acted on by another force. Well. The mind of the weak have little force. Newton was not only one of my favorite Physicist, he was one of my favorite Mathematicians as well.
Well. He did like sitting in the park under an apple tree. — So how did they keep the grass mowed back in 1642? Maybe they trained the grass just to stay small. Why don’t we have grass that just stays short? We could do that easy enough.
Because of the laws of motion and the size of my lawn mower and the speed in which I was mowing, I had calculated that I should be able to finish mowing the entire area in about 15 more minutes (or 900 seconds) if I were to do it all myself. — Funny how things run through your mind when you are mowing grass. No wonder Sonny Karcher loved mowing grass so much.
Anyway. That little story illustrates my point about how some summer help put all their brain power into thinking about how to stay out of work that they couldn’t even conceive of someone thinking outside the box. How difficult was it for me to just turn and mow a patch of grass out in the middle of the stretch of grass we were mowing?
Once they realized that there wasn’t anyway to stop me, they went ahead and finished their job. I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to stand out in the sun in 100 degree temperature anyway pretending to mow grass. Didn’t they know that just made the day seem longer?
It was during that summer that the plant manager was sold on the idea of planting a forest around the coal yard to prevent the wind from blowing all the coal away (Oklahoma is windy). So, a million dollars was spent to hire a company to plant a number of rows of trees along the south road next to the coal yard. When the trees were planted, they were sickly little sticks. The summer help were sent to go water them from time-to-time using the small Mitsubishi tractor pulling a trailer with a tank of water on it.
I have to admit that I never gave the idea much hope. The ground where the trees were planted was hard clay. The company that received the million dollars hardly even put any real usable tree-growing dirt in the hole when they planted the trees.
The trees were planted very close together so that you couldn’t mow around them on a tractor. So, when the weeds started growing tall (…as tall as the trees) and the field had been mowed, Stanley sent a couple of the lazy summer help up there to weed eat around the trees.
I had been told some time in my childhood that one of the fastest ways to kill a tree was to strip the bark off all the way around the tree. Not just strip the bark, but cut a little into the tree itself around the base of the tree. If you did this, the tree would die. The only actual living part of the tree is the outside section. Here is a link to a site that describes the part of a tree and a picture from that site:
So, do I need to go on? That’s right. When the summer help had finished trimming the verge around the trees their fate had been sealed. Two summer help in a matter of an hour totally wiped out the million dollar tree experiment. They had stripped the bark clean around every tree.
Not to be outdone. The Plant Manager spent 2 million dollars to have larger trees installed with plenty of good soil around the embankments on the north side of the coal pile. These were good healthy trees.There was even an irrigation system installed to make sure they were properly watered. This worked at least a year or two. Long enough for a lot of the trees to catch hold. The only problem is that the wind almost always blows from the west or the south defeating the purpose of the “windbreak” on the north side of the coal pile.
Ok. One more summer help story before I go. A friend of mine named Ben Cox became a summer help for a summer the fourth summer I worked as a summer help (how many times can I use the word summer in one sentence?). I had worked with him at the Bakery in Columbia, Missouri and he had followed me home that summer to try his hand at summer helping at the power plant. Tim Flowers and I had tried to dissuade him, but to no avail. I have mentioned Ben Cox before in the story about Ramblin’ Ann. He and I used to tag team Ramblin’ Ann just to keep our sanity. See the link below as a refresher on Ramblin’ Ann:
Ben wasn’t the most physically fit, and we didn’t want to see him have a heart attack at such an early age. Ben, however, held his own as best he could and survived a summer of working outdoors. He actually did better than Tim and I expected.
One day when we were driving to the coal yard Ben asked me why there were large hills of sand piled up across the road from the intake. Instead of telling him that the sand had been dredged out of the intake channel when they were filling the lake and sand was being pumped from the river up to the lake with the water, I told him something else…
I told Ben that they kept the large piles of sand there in case they ran out of coal. They would burn the sand as a last resort. I explained that they didn’t like to burn sand because it burned hotter than coal and it turned into glass in the boiler and really messed things up. But if there was a long coal strike and they totally ran out of coal, they would have to burn sand in order to keep producing electricity.
Tim and I watched closely as Ben mulled this over in his mind. At first he didn’t believe me, but after I explained why we didn’t burn sand all the time, you could start to see the wheels turning in his mind. Burning sand…. wow! There is sand all over the place! I never told him differently. I’m sure if he tried to sell the idea to someone, he would have found out quick enough.
Comment from the original post:
Your stories are so good! They bring back memories I hadn’t thought of for years. The part about “burning sand” reminded me of the Brown & Root engineer that was looking for an easy way to put holes in a thick set of blueprints. “Someone” (Kenneth Palmer or John Blake might have been involved) convinced him that shooting them with a 22 would be the easiest way to do the job. He then proceeded to take a new set of prints and totally destroy them!
Originally posted February 1, 2013:
It is vitally important that a manhole cover be round. By just being square or even oval, it could mean death to some unsuspecting electrician. You see, only a perfectly round manhole cover will never be able to fall down into a manhole. No matter how hard you try, you just can’t fit a bigger circle through a smaller circle. An oval or square cover could fall through the hole when turned just right but not a round one. A typical cast iron manhole can weigh up to 500 pounds.
Not long after becoming an electrician, and shortly after the Rivers and the Rose story that I mentioned last week (see the Post “Rivers and Rose in the Power Plant Palace“), we had a cable really go to ground between the main plant and the coalyard. The cable that went to ground was called a 500 MCM cable. What this means is that 500,000 circles of 1 mil (or one milli-inch) in diameter can be put in a circle that is 500 MCM in diameter. A typical 500 MCM cable is good for a 400 amp load at 6900 volts.
For large industrial circuits, 3 phases of electricity are used instead of just one like you have in your house. With three phases of electricity, you have a constant amount of power being applied to the entire circuit at all times. With a one phase circuit, you have zero power 120 times every second. So with any “decent” power circuit, you have 3 phases of electricity.
The cable that went to ground was the coalyard station power cable. Not only were there three phases of power, but for each phase there were two 500 MCM cables. That means that this circuit was good for 800 amps of power at 6,900 volts. Giving you a capacity of 5.5 Megawatts (or 5 million, 500 thousand watts) of power. These cables were so big that a typical industrial Wire cable chart doesn’t even go this high:
In a Coal-fired power plant, you have a redundant system for everything. So, the coalyard wasn’t completely in the dark. It had just swapped over to the redundant circuit. — This always amused me. In my English and Poetry classes in College I would have points taken off for being “redundant”, but in the power plant this was necessary to keep the plant running at all times.
As I said many times 15 years later, when I was training operators and electricians to be certified substation switchmen, “I know this is boring, but you have to learn it…” (but that is another story).
So, to make a rather boring lecture shorter, I will skip the part about how we had a hypot from the T&D (Transmission and Distribution) department brought in so big that it had to come in a van. They attached it to the cables to find where the short to ground was located. I’ll skip the part about how it was decided to replace the faulty cables going to the coalyard 1/2 mile away. I’ll also skip the part about how Charles Foster was able to finagle the use of Stanley Elmore’s precious blue Mitsubishi mini-tractor to try to pull the cables from one manhole to the next (the first time anyone outside the garage was able to operate his most beloved tractor…..).
Oh, and I’ll skip the part about how 1000 feet of this cable cost about $10,000 and we had six cable to replace for a cost of about $320,000 just for the cable… I’ll also skip the part about how this little tractor was too small to pull the cables through the manholes from manhole to manhole up to the coalyard, so we sent in for the big guns from the T&D department to use their equipment that pulled the cables through the manholes as easy as pulling the wool over Gene Day’s eyes while playing a joke on him. (Don’t get me wrong…. I know in his heart, Gene Day really appreciated a good joke. Gene Day is one of the best men I have ever been able to call “Friend” — which I would do shortly after playing a joke on him, after I returned to consciousness).
Anyway, after this episode was all over it was decided that something needed to be done about how all the manholes from the plant to the coalyard were always full of water. You see, the manholes were easily deeper than the lake level so water naturally leaked into them. Each of them had a pump in them that was supposed to keep them dry, but somewhere along the line, in the 5 years the plant had been in operation, each manhole pump had failed at one time or other… When pumping out the first manhole, it took days, because as you pumped out that first manhole, water would run from one manhole to the other as you actually ended up pumping out all the manholes down to the point where the cables went from one manhole to the other.
So, none other than the “newbie” was appointed as the keeper of the Manhole pumps. Yep. That would be me. So, for the next few months I spent almost all my times pumping out manholes and repairing all the pumps that had been submerged in water for years. This was my first real job.
This was my real introduction to becoming a real plant electrician (You can see how I really like using the word “real”). The most common job of an electrician was to take a motor that had failed or was scheduled to be overhauled and repair it and put it back in place to continue on it’s “tour of duty”. It’s amazing how you can take a motor that has failed, and you can “rebuild” it and put it back in operation. — This has come in handy at home as the cooling fan motor on the air conditioner unit on your house goes out every few years. I have yet to call an air conditioner man to my current house where I have lived for 11 1/2 years (now 18 years).
I remember that Charles Foster had told me that “paperwork” was very important when it came to motors. A history had to be kept. Certain steps had to be performed before, during and after repairing a motor. It had to be meggared properly (see the post from last week to learn more about meggars: Rivers and a Rose of the Power Plant Palace).
So, I asked Ben Davis if he could show me what I needed to do to fix a motor. His immediate indignant response was, “What? You don’t know how to fix a motor?” My response was, “No, I don’t know. Would you show me?” Ben, who up to that point had presented himself with displeasure at my presence in the shop, suddenly smiled and said, “Sure! Let me show you what you need to do!”
Ben showed me all the steps you go through to repair and “document” a motor repair in great detail. I was glad that I had found that Ben was just putting on a front of disgust at my presence in the Electric shop only to show me at the “proper” time that I had been “misjudging” him as being a grumpy person when he wasn’t really. There is a certain art to this which I describe in detail in this post: “Power Plant Art of Making a Bad First Impression“.
I had figured, before this time, that Ben really had a kind heart because I figured that if Diane Lucas and Andy Tubbs, who I both admired greatly considered Ben as a good friend, then he must really be a good guy underneath, even though he was keeping this hidden from me.
I knew the moment he smiled at my response when I told him I really didn’t know anything, that Ben had a kind heart. He couldn’t hide it any longer. If I had asked the same thing to OD McGaha, one of the other B Foremen in the shop, for instance, he would have told me to go to hell. But not Ben.
I have more to tell you about Ben, but I’ll save that for a later post. For now, I’ll just say that though Ben may not have known it during the time I spent as an electrician, he has always been close to my heart. I have always had Ben and his family in my daily prayers from the day that he smiled at me and explained to me how to repair a motor.
So, how does a lone newbie electrician pull a 500 pound lid off of a manhole by himself? Well. He uses a Manhole cover puller of course.
Ok. Our manhole cover puller wasn’t blue like this, but it had a similar shape. With a simple tool like this a 500 pound manhole cover could be popped out of the hole and dragged away. So, I used this tool as my one man crew (myself) went from manhole to manhole, where I pumped each out and lowered a ladder into each hole and disconnecting the drenched motor and brought it back to the shop where I dried it out (using the hot box in the shop that doubled as a heater for lunches), and repaired it and re-installed it.
We had all the manholes in the plant identified. I painted the numbers on each lid with orange paint. It was while I was working in the manholes 15 feet below ground that I appreciated the round manhole. I knew that as long as that manhole cover was round, it couldn’t accidentally be knocked into the hole only to crush me to death below.
Other things were of concern in the manholes where I worked… For instance, many of these holes had been underwater for at least a couple of years, and the entire manhole was covered with a kind of slime. there were also high voltage cables that had splices in some of the manholes, and I remember Gene Roget telling me that he had seen sparks flying off of some of them when they were hypoting the cables looking for the ground. The dank smell of the manholes made you think that there were probably some kind of “swamp gases” in there.
Nevertheless, when I grew weary of dragging the heavy shellacked wooden ladder from hole to hole, I devised a way to climb down into the manholes using the drain pipe from the motor. This was before OSHA had implemented all the confined spaces rules in 1994 that would have prevented me from entering a manhole alone. I was improvising and taking a risk of falling and hurting myself each time I entered a manhole.
I ran into one of the reasons for not leaving a person in a manhole alone one time when I was working in a manhole near the intake house and another crew drove up and parked their truck near the hole I was working in. I remember that while I was working there, I suddenly became nauseous. Not sure why, I climbed out of the hole.
The truck that had been left idling nearby had been emitting toxic fumes that had looked for the lowest place they could settle, and that happened to be in the manhole where I was working. After that, I always kept an ear out for any motor vehicles nearby when I was in a manhole.
Ten years later, in 1994, OHSA added some new laws to the books that made it mandatory to have a “hole watch” stand outside a hole watching you while you worked in a manhole. You even had to have a safety harness tied to a safety hoist so that if you passed out while in a manhole the hole watch could pull you out without having to enter the hole.
Needless to say. I got my feet wet as an electrician popping in and out of manholes like the gopher in the arcade that you try to bop on the head.
One interesting story that happened during this time happened when Blake Tucker, who had been a summer help with me in the garage, and then later became a summer help in the electric shop, was sitting with me while we were going to fix a pump in manhole 215 (I believe this is the number of the manhole next to the intake where the fly ash pipes go over the intake).
The hole was full of water, and the pump had naturally tripped the breaker….. For some reason I decided to go into the intake switchgear and reset the 120 volt breaker to the pump in the Distribution Panel. When I did. I returned to the hole where Blake was waiting for me. I reached down into the hole with my foot and I kicked the drain pipe that rose from the pump and made a 90 degree turn up close to the entrance.
When I kicked the pipe, the motor actually began running. We could see it 15 feet below us in the clear water running. It was an open face motor, meaning that it wasn’t sealed and made to be a submersible pump, yet it was running under water. A year later we decided that it made more sense to replace all the open motors with submersible pumps.
Blake Tucker and I watched for 1/2 hour as the pump sucked out the water from the manhole. When the level of the water reached the top of the motor, the outboard fan that had been slowly rotating all of the sudden kicked into high gear and we could see that the pump had been running at full speed all along.
This fascinated me. I figured the water must have been pure enough not to be too conductive (pure water is a natural insulator…. oddly enough). We could easily see this pump through 15 feet of water, so it must have been pretty clean. That was the only time I have ever seen an open motor happily running submersed in water… It is not something you see every day….. for instance…. It is not every day that you see a janitor with a Psychology major acting like an electrician sitting beside a manhole staring down into the darkness in a power plant either. But there you are…
Originally Posted June 14, 2013:
When I first watched the movie “The Goonies”, I recognized right away that the script was inspired from another Pirate treasure movie I had watched when I was a child. I have never seen the movie again, and it was probably a made for TV movie or something that has been lost in the archives years ago. I’m sure that Steven Spielberg when he was growing up must have been inspired by this movie when he wrote the script to Goonies, because this was a movie that had inspired us when we were young.
You see… In the movie I had watched as a kid, some children that were trying to save their family or an old house or something similar to the Goonies story, found a clue to where a Pirate treasure was buried. The clue had something to do with a “crow’s nest”. It turned out that the model of a ship that had been sitting on the mantle piece in the old house had another clue in the pole holding the crow’s nest. This clue had holes in the paper, and when held up to a certain page in a certain book, it gave them another clue to where there was a hidden passageway. Which led them one step closer to the treasure.
Anyway. As a child, this inspired us (and I’m sure a million other kids) to play a game called “Treasure Hunt”. It was where you placed clues all around the house, or the yard, or the neighborhood (depending on how ambitious of a treasure hunt you were after), with each clue leading to the other clue, and eventually some prize at the end.
Why am I telling you this story about this movie that I watched when I was a child? Well, because I felt this same way all over again when I became an electrician at a coal-fired power plant out in the country in north central Oklahoma. Here is why.
I used to carpool to work from Stillwater, Oklahoma to the power plant 25 miles north of town with another electrician named Bill Rivers. He had kept urging me to become an electrician along with Charles Foster, who had suggested that I take some electric courses to prepare for the job. Once I became an electrician, Charles Foster, my foreman, would often send me with Bill Rivers to repair anything that had to do with electronics. Bill Rivers was good at troubleshooting electronic equipment, and well, he was generally a good troubleshooter when he wasn’t getting himself into trouble.
I remember the morning when Charles told me to go with Bill to go fix the incessant humming that was coming over the PA system…. “What?” I asked him. “I can’t hear you over the loud hum coming over the PA system.” — No not really… We called the Gai-tronics PA system the “Gray Phone” because the phones all over the plant where you could page people and talk on 5 different lines was gray.
I walked into the electric lab where Bill Rivers was usually hanging out causing Sonny Kendrick grief. I hadn’t been in the electric shop very long at this point. I think it was before the time when I went to work on the Manhole pumps (see the post Power Plant Manhole Mania). In the lab there was an electric cord going from a plug-in on the counter up into the cabinet above as if something inside the cabinet was plugged in…. which was true. I asked Bill what was plugged in the cabinet and he explained that it was the coffee maker.
You see, our industrious plant manager had decided that all coffee at the plant had to come from the authorized coffee machines where a dime had to be inserted before dispensing the cup of coffee. This way the “Canteen committee” could raise enough money to…. uh…. pay for the coffee. So, all rogue coffee machines had to go. There was to be no free coffee at the plant.
So, of course, the most logical result of this mandate was to hide the coffee maker in the cabinet in case a wandering plant manager or one of his undercover coffee monitor minions were to enter the lab unexpectedly. Maintaining the free flow of coffee to those electricians that just had to silently protest the strong arm tactics of the Power Plant Coffee Tax by having a sort of… “Tea Party” or was it a “Coffee Party”.
I told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him fix the hum on the gray phones. Bill Rivers said, “Great! Then let us play a game. let’s call it, ‘Treasure Hunt’.”
Bill reached up in one of the cabinets and pulled out a blue telephone test set. I’m sure you must have seen a telephone repairman with one of these hanging from his hip. ” Oh boy.” I thought. “A new toy!”
I grabbed my tool bucket from the shop and followed Bill Rivers out into the T-G basement. This is a loud area where the steam pipes carry the steam to the Turbine to spin the Generator. It is called T-G for Turbine Generator. Bill walked over to a junction box mounted near the north exit going to unit 1. He explained that except for the gray phones in the Control-room section of the plant, all the other gray phones go through this one junction box.
Bill said that the game was to find the Gray Phone ghost. Where is the hum coming from? He showed me how the different cables coming into this one box led to Unit 1, Unit 2, the office area and the coal yard. I just had to figure out which way the hum came from. So, I went to work lifting wires off of the terminal blocks. We could hear the hum over the gray phone speakers near us, so if I were to lift the right wires, we should know right away that I had isolated the problem.
We determined that the noise was coming from Unit 1. So we took the elevator halfway up the boiler to another junction box, and then another where we traced the problem to a gray phone under the surge bin tower. It took 4 screws to remove the phone from the box. When I did, I could clearly see the problem. The box was full of water. Water had run down the conduit and into the phone box.
Bill Rivers told me that now that we found the problem, we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, so we drilled a small weep hole in the bottom of the box, and we took plumbers putty and stuffed it into the top of the conduit where it opened into a cable tray.
The box would fill with water when the labor crew would do coal cleanup. On labor crew we would spray the entire surge bin tower down with high powered water hoses to wash off all the coal dust. Each time, some water would end up going down the conduit into the gray phone until it grounded the circuit enough to cause a hum.
Bill and I continued searching throughout the plant for phones that were causing a hum. Most were caused by water in the box. Some were caused by circuits that had gone bad (most likely because they had water in them at some point). Those we took to the electric shop lab where we played a different kind of treasure hunt. — Let’s call it…. Finding the bad component. It reminded me of an old video game I had bought for my brother for Christmas in 1983 that winter when I gave him an Intellivision (so I could play with it). It was the latest greatest video game console at the time.
I had given my brother a game called “Bomb Squad”. Where you had a certain amount of time to diffuse a bomb by going through a circuit board cutting out components with some snippers. If you cut the wrong connection, you had to hurry up and solder it back on before the bomb blew up.
That’s what we were doing with the Gray Phones. We were testing the different components until we found one that wasn’t working correctly. Then we would replace that transistor, or capacitor, or resistor, or diode, and then test the phone by plugging it in the switchgear gray phone box and calling each other.
I have a story later about someone using this technique while fixing gray phones, only he would call himself on the gray phone where I would call Bill and Bill would call me. Someone misinterpreted this and thought the person was trying to make everyone think he was more important because he was always being paged, when he was only paging himself. He was removed from fixing gray phones for this reason, even though he was only person at the plant in Mustang Oklahoma that knew a transistor from a capacitor.
So, why am I going on about a seemingly boring story about fixing a hum on a PA system? I think it’s because to me it was like a game. It was like playing a treasure hunt. From the day I started as an electrician, we would receive trouble tickets where we needed to go figure something out. We had to track down a problem and then find a solution on how to fix it. As I said in previous posts, it was like solving a puzzle.
Each time we would fix something, someone was grateful. Either the operator or a mechanic, or the Shift Supervisor, or the person at home vacuuming their carpet, because the electricity was still flowing through their house. How many people in the world can say that they work on something that impacts so many people?
Well… I used to feel like I was in a unique position. I was able to play in a labyrinth of mechanical and electrical equipment finding hidden treasures in the form of some malfunction. As I grew older, I came to realize that the uniqueness was limited only to the novelty of my situation. If you took all the power plant men in the country, they could probably all fit in one large football stadium. But the impact on others was another thing altogether.
The point I am trying to make is that it was obvious to me that I was impacting a large portion of people in the state of Oklahoma by helping to keep the plant running smoothly by chasing down the boiler ghosts and exorcising the Coalyard demons from the coal handling equipment. Even though it isn’t so obvious to others, like the janitor, or the laborer or the person that fills the vending machine. Everyone in some way helps to support everyone else.
A cook in a restaurant is able to cook the food because the electricity and the natural gas is pumped into the restaurant by others. Then the cook feeds the mailman, who delivers that mail, that brings the check to the person waiting to go to the grocery store so they can buy food that was grown by some farmer who plowed his field on a tractor made in a huge tractor factory by a machinist after driving there in a car made by a manufacturer in Detroit who learned how to use a lathe in a Vocational school taught by a teacher who had a degree from a university where each day this person would walk to class during the winter snow wearing boots that came from a clothes store where the student had bought them from a store clerk that greeted people by saying “Good Morning! How are you today?” Cheering up all the people that they met.
I could have walked into the lab and told Bill Rivers that Charles wanted me to help him find the hum in the PA system and he could have responded by saying, “Oh really? Good luck with that!” Instead he said, “Let’s go play a game. ‘Treasure Hunt!” This attitude had set the stage for me as a Power Plant Electrician: “Let’s go have some fun and fix something today!” Where would that cook have been today if the power had gone out in his restaurant that morning all because an attitude had gotten in the way….. I wonder…
Comments from the original post:
The very last thing I ever learned in High School was the importance of Backup Battery Preventative Maintenance. In fact, the entire senior class of 1978 at Rockbridge High School in Columbia, Missouri learned this lesson at the same time. It was during the graduation ceremony in May while the students were walking across the stage to receive their diplomas.
I had already received mine and I was back in my seat sitting between Tracy Brandecker and Patrick Brier (we were sitting alphabetically. My last name is Breazile). Pat was sitting on my left and Tracy was on my right. We were grinning from ear-to-ear to be graduating. My friends from the second grade, Mark Schlemper, Russell Somers and Brent Stewart had just walked across the stage in the gymnasium while a storm raged outside. As my friend from the fifth grade forward, Matt Tapley was walking across the stage there was a loud crack of thunder and the sound of an explosion as the lights went out.
Matt Tapley has albinism, giving him white hair and skin. In his black robe, the entire class witnessed Matt’s head bobbing up and down in the faint light given off from the emergency lights to either side of the stage as he was bowing to his classmates. We all clapped. The clapping soon turned to laughter as the emergency lights quickly dimmed and went entirely out within a minute.
As we sat in total darkness waiting for some resourceful faculty member to make their way to the hidden fallout shelter in the basement of the school to retrieve the portable generator and a spotlight, I was amazed by how quickly the emergency lighting had failed. The transformer to the school had been destroyed by the lightning strike so we finished the ceremony by the light of the large spotlight from the back of gym. My thought was that the school is only 4 years old and already the emergency lighting is too old to stay lit long enough to even begin evacuating the building, if that was what we had intended to do.
Fast forward to the spring of 1984. I had become an electrician a few months earlier. As I was learning the electrical ropes, I learned the importance of Preventative Maintenance in a power plant setting. The majority of an electrician’s job when I first joined the electric shop was doing “Preventative Maintenance”. I have some horror stories of bad preventative maintenance that I will share much later. I will point out now that most Americans know of some stories themselves, they just don’t realize that the root cause of these major failures were from a lack of preventative maintenance.
A power plant, like the emergency lights in the High School, has a battery backup system, only it is on a grand scale. There are backup batteries for every system that needs to remain online when there is a total blackout of power. These batteries needed to be inspected regularly. We inspected them monthly.
At first, I had done battery inspections with various electricians. Some people didn’t seem to take this task very seriously. I remember that when I did the inspections with Mike Rose, he usually finished by taking a gallon of soda water (a gallon of water with a box of baking soda dissolved into it) and pouring it all over the batteries.
My bucket buddy, Diana Lucas (Dee), on the other hand, took a different approach. We carefully filled each cell with just the right amount of distilled water. Then she showed me how to meticulously clean any corrosion from the battery posts using a rag soaked in the soda water, and then she would paint the area on the post where the corrosion was with No-Ox grease.
When I say batteries, you may think that I’m talking about batteries like you have in your car, or even in a large piece of equipment like a big dirt mover. Some of the batteries were the size of a battery used in a large dozer or dirt mover:
Some of the batteries that we inspected were of this type. They were usually hooked up to generators that could be started up in case all the power was out and we needed to start up a diesel generator. However, this was just the puppies when it came to the Station Power Batteries. These were some serious batteries:
As big as these batteries are, it takes 58 of them for each system to come up with a 130 volt circuit. That’s right. 58 of these batteries all in a series. The station batteries are all in rooms by themselves known as…. “Unit 1 and Unit 2 Battery rooms”. Smaller station battery sets are found at different locations. Today, those places include the relay house in the main substation, the Microwave room on the roof of #1 boiler. The River pumps, the radio tower building, the coalyard switchgear, Enid Turbine Generators and the Co-Generation plant in Ponca City. I’m sure I’m leaving some out. Maybe a current electrician at the plant can remind me of the others in a comment below. Each of these locations have approximately 58 station batteries.
While I was still a novice electrician, one morning in May I was told that I was going with Dee and Ben Davis to Enid to a Battery training class at an electric company office where the manufacturer (C&D) was going to go over the proper maintenance of the station batteries. Ben drove the pickup. I remember sitting in the middle between Dee and Ben both going and coming back from our lesson on Battery Preventative Maintenance….
Interesting that Ben was sitting to my left and Dee to my right that day… just like Pat and Tracy during the graduation ceremony 6 years earlier to the month when we first learned the impact of bad preventative maintenance on backup batteries. This time we were learning how to prevent the problem I had witnessed years before. I don’t know why I draw parallels like that. It just seem to make life a little neater when that happens. I don’t remember Ben and Dee grinning ear-to-ear like Pat and Tracy were the night we graduated from High School, but I can assure you, I was grinning the entire 45 minutes going to Enid and the 45 minutes going back to the plant.
Since I had been trained for battery maintenance, I suppose it was like Andy Griffith becoming the Permanent Latrine Orderly (PLO) in the movie “No Time For Sergeants”. I was able to go to town inspecting all kinds of backup batteries.
Gene Roget (pronounced with a french accent as “Row Jay” with a soft J) was a contract electrician when I first became an electrician in the shop. I wrote about him in the post New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop. He was a great mentor that taught me a lot about how to be an electrician. He taught me how to use all the different tools in my tool bucket. He taught me how to bend conduit and make it come out the right length on both ends…
He especially taught me the importance of doing a “pretty” job when running wire or conduit or just rewiring a motor. I remember Gene stopping one day when we were walking to the precipitator and he paused to look up at the transfer tower. I asked him where he was looking. He said, “I’m just admiring the wonderful job someone did bending that set of conduit. that’s a perfect job! Just perfect!”
Anyway, Gene and I were given the task of checking all the batteries in the emergency lights throughout the plant. It happened that the emergency lights at the plant were all about 5 years old. Probably about the same age as the lights were in the high school the night of our graduation. The lights in the plant had wet cells. Which meant that you had to add distilled water to them like you do in your car, or in the station batteries. This amounted to a pretty large task as there were emergency lights stationed throughout the plant.
We found many of the lights that would never have been able to light up enough to cause a cockroach to run for cover. We took the bad ones back to the shop to work on them. A lot of the batteries had gone bad because they had never been checked. They have a built-in battery charger, and some of the chargers were not working. I drew a wiring diagram of the charger so that we could troubleshoot them and replace components that had gone bad.
All of this was like a dream to me. At the time I couldn’t think of any other place I would rather be. I loved taking things that were broken and fixing them and putting them back into operation. Eventually we decided to change the emergency light batteries to dry batteries. Those didn’t need water. We could pull out the six wet cells from each emergency light box and just plug the new batteries in place. This made a lot more sense. Who has time to go around regularly and check 50 or 60 emergency lights every 3 months? Not us. Not when we were trying to save the world.
Back to the Station Batteries:
Just to give you an idea of how important these batteries are, let me tell you what they are used for…. Suppose the power plant is just humming along at full power, and all of the sudden, the power goes out. It doesn’t matter the reason. When there is a blackout in a city, or a state, be assured, the power plant itself is in a blackout state as well. After all, the power plant is where the electricity is being created.
In the plant there is large equipment running. The largest and most valuable piece of equipment by far in a power plant is the Turbine Generator. The entire plant exists to spin this machine. As big as it is, it spins at 3600 revolutions per minute, or 60 times each second. In order to do that, oil has to be flowing through the bearings otherwise they would burn up almost instantly. This would cause the generator to come to a screeching halt — and I mean “screeching!”
So, in order to stop a turbine generator properly, when a unit is taken offline, once it has coasted to a smooth stop, the turbine has to be engaged to something called a “Turning Gear” which slowly rotates the turbine generator. This is turned off only when the shaft has cooled down. Without this, you might as well call General Electric and order a new one.
So, one of the most important things the station batteries do is run emergency oil pumps that engage immediately when the power is cutoff from the plant. This allows the turbine generator and other important equipment throughout the plant to slowdown and come to a stop gracefully in case the power is instantly gone.
I will write a story later about a day when this happened at our plant. The moments of confusion, and the quick decisions that had to be made to keep the unit 1 boiler from melting to the ground. Rest assured that throughout this time, the emergency oil pumps had kicked in. The station batteries did their job when they were called upon. While the control room operators were performing their emergency tasks to the letter and the electricians were scrambling to come up with a workable solution to an unforeseen problem, the turbine-generator, the PA (Primary Air) fans, the FD (Forced Draft) Fans, the ID (Induction) fans were all coasting down as the groundwork was being laid to quickly restore power.
Someone in an office in the middle of Oklahoma City may have noticed their lights flicker for a moment. Maybe they dimmed slightly…
If not for the proper maintenance of the power plant station batteries, the lights would have possibly gone dark. Someone would have had to go looking for the portable generator and the spotlight. Ceremonies in progress may have to continued under candlelight.