Originally posted September 20, 2014.
I remember the moment when it dawned on me that I may be witnessing an incredible Coal-fired Power Plant Conspiracy! I had just walked into the Control Room one morning in 1990 at the plant in North Central Oklahoma and saw the Shift Supervisor Jack Maloy and Merl Wright in a state of high concentration.
I always knew something was up when Jack Maloy was standing behind the large blue monitors near the Unit 1 Main Electric Board watching the big picture while the Control Room Operator Merl Wright was at the Main Control Panel turning knobs, tapping indicators to make sure they had the correct readings, twisting switches, holding them until red lights turned green…
Where had I seen this before? Something was telling me that everything wasn’t as it seemed. Sure… there was an emergency going on. There was no doubt about that. I knew that between Jack Maloy and Merl Wright, the current problem of the main boiler drum losing water was quickly going to be solved. I knew that Oklahoma City wasn’t going to experience any blackouts that day. This was a Cracker Jack team! But I couldn’t help thinking I had seen this somewhere before, and it was gnawing at my common sense.
Here is a picture of Jack Maloy’s team at the time:
I backed off in a corner to observe the situation while a crowd of operators began to grow to watch the master Shift Supervisor and his faithful Control Room Operator divert a disaster. Merl picked up the walkie talkie from the desk and called Larry Tapp ( Larry is the man in the light blue shirt in the front row in the middle. He’s the only one in the front row that is actually standing, while the rest are down on their knees while the picture is being taken).
Larry was on the boiler opening and closing valves. John Belusko, the Unit Supervisor was out there with him. I can’t tell you what magic they were performing, since I think that’s top secret. I figured that, because the operators seemed to be talking in code. Merl would key the microphone on the walkie talkie and say something like, “Larry, 45”. Larry would reply with something like “Quarter Turn”. “Position?”, “18 as far as I can tell”.
I translated the coded words to say: “….crawling under the path of the boom, whipped hold of a rope, secured one end to the bulwarks and then flinging the other like a lasso, caught it around the boom as it swept over his head, and at the next jerk, the spar was that way trapped and all was safe.” (Something I had read in Moby Dick, by Herman Melville).
Jack paced back and forth behind the counter with the monitors. Then he stopped and read the paper that was streaming out of the alarm printer as it continued humming as the paper piled up on the floor in front of him. Jack was a heavy smoker, and I could tell that right then he would rather be standing out on the T-G floor having a smoke at that moment. Before cigarettes were banned in the control room, Jack would have been pointing at that board with the cigarette.
When the water level began rising in the Boiler Drum, I could see the relieve on everyone’s face. I supposed it meant that a major catastrophe had been avoided due to the intricate knowledge that each operator possessed and their ability to quickly respond to any situation. This made the uneasy feeling I was having even worse. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had seen this before. Just like Deja Vu.
It wasn’t till about a week later when my mom asked me if I knew someone at work named Jack Maloy. She had been talking to a friend of hers from Church named Louise and she mentioned that her husband worked at the Power Plant north of town. I replied by saying that I knew Jack Maloy well. He is a Shift Supervisor. She said that his wife Louise told her that Jack was a real nice person, but she wished that he would go to Church more. She hoped he would come around to that some day.
Then my mom mentioned something that brought back that feeling of uneasiness again. She said that the Maloys had moved to Oklahoma in 1979 from California. I thought that was odd that Jack had only arrived in Oklahoma in 1979, as he was a Shift Supervisor for as long as I could remember. Maybe even as far back as 1979 when I first worked at the plant as a summer help.
In that case, he would have been hired as a Shift Supervisor straight from California. — That seemed odd, since the majority of Shift Supervisors had worked their way up from Auxiliary Operator to Control Room Operator to Unit Supervisor, then finally to Shift Supervisor. Why would Jack be hired fresh from California? And how did Jack know so much about being a Shift Supervisor at our plant so quickly?
Then it dawned on me. You see…. It all went back to a lunch break about a year earlier when Charles Foster, an Electric Foreman and I were eating lunch in the Electric Shop office. When we didn’t know what to talk about, our favorite past time was to talk about movies and TV shows we had watched. We would describe the movie in detail to each other. On this particular day, Charles was doing the talking, and he was telling me about a movie that had to do with a Power Plant in California (yeah. California).
As Charles described the story, he told me that there was this Shift Supervisor named Jack (yeah… like our Shift Supervisor… Jack Maloy), and he was such a good Shift Supervisor that he could tell that there was something wrong with the Boiler Feed Pumps just by the way the coffee in his coffee cup would vibrate. Yeah. He was that good.
Charles went on to tell me about how at one part of the movie the water level was dropping in a tank and it was imperative that they raise the water level or some big disaster was going to happen. — Now you see where I’m going with this? Yeah. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? At that time, the incident in the Control Room hadn’t happened yet with Jack Maloy.
The movie sounded interesting so, when I had the opportunity, we rented the VHS tape from the video store and I watched it. Sure enough. This is what I saw….
Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:
Very similar don’t you think? Two Shift Supervisors named Jack from California with the exact same hairstyle. Two Control Room Operators that look like Wilford Brimley. Coincidence?
Even Wilford Brimley’s hairline is the same as Merl Wright’s hairline!
For those of you who don’t know yet. The name of the movie is: The China Syndrome. It is about a nuclear Power Plant that has a near meltdown:
Need more? Ok. — hey this is fun….. So…. This movie came out in 1979. The same year that Jack Maloy shows up in Oklahoma from California. Obviously an experienced Power Plant Shift Supervisor. Merl Wright went to work 10 months earlier in 1978 at an older power plant just down the road (The old Osage plant), and then shortly after, was transferred to the same plant with Jack Maloy, only to end up working for Jack.
Need more? The China Syndrome Movie came out on March 16, 1979. Jack Maloy began working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma February 26, 1979, just two and a half weeks earlier.
I mentioned this coincidence to Charles Foster one day, but as far as I know, I never mentioned it again to anyone else… Maybe Scott Hubbard, since he was my best friend as well…
So, here are my thoughts about this….
What if Jack Maloy was the Shift Supervisor being portrayed in the movie “The China Syndrome”? He needed to move out of California just before the movie came out just in case someone found out his true identity. Being a Shift Supervisor at a Nuclear Power Plant, he would surely be in high demand at any Electric Company. Our particular Power Plant was in an out-of-the-way location. Sort of like a “witness protection program”.
I don’t know Merl’s earlier background, so I can still think that he moved to Oklahoma from California and began working for the Electric Company on April 24, 1978 just two weeks before I moved to Oklahoma from Columbia, Missouri. Since I don’t know any better, I can continue thinking this. It makes it more fun that way. — Of course, Merl, who may on occasion read this blog, may correct me in the comment section below…
So, what was it that I was experiencing that morning when I walked in the control room? I mean… What was I “really” experiencing? If, suppose, Jack and Merl really are the two that were in the control room when the “China Syndrome” almost occurred? Was it just an innocent crisis where the water level somehow decided to drop to a dangerously low level all by itself because of a faulty valve that was supposed to be closed, but was really open?
Was Jack and Merl trying to relive the excitement they had felt years earlier when they worked in a nuclear plant and they almost melted a hole all the way from there to China? Was this what experienced bored Power Plant Heroes do during downtime? I suppose it’s possible. It could have been a drill drummed up to test the acuity of the operators. To keep them on their toes. All “Shipshape and Bristol Fashion” just like on the Pequod in Moby Dick.
Something to think about.
Today Merl still lives in Ponca City, Oklahoma. Jack Maloy has moved to Cape Carol, Florida with his wife Louise. I suppose now that he has more time on his hand, hopefully he has given up smoking and is now making his wife happy by attending Church regularly. We can only hope he is at peace, on the opposite side of the United States from California so he doesn’t accidentally run into his old cohorts.
We are all glad that on his way to Florida from California that Jack decided to stop for 25 or so years in Oklahoma to Supervise the Coal-fired Power Plant out in the middle of the countryside…. As Charles Champlin from the Los Angeles Times said of the movie “The China Syndrome” — “Stunning and Skillfully Executed!” — Yeah. That describes Merl and Jack. Either way… Conspiracy or not. These two men are my heroes!
I wish Merl and Jack the best rest of their lives!
Comments from the original post: (one of my most commented posts)
I don’t know if they called them “Black Ops” in 1994, but when the control room operator David Evans answered the phone that day in October, I don’t think he ever expected to have the person on the other end of the line tell him that a military special forces unit was going to stage a mock raid on the coal-fired power plant in North Central Oklahoma some time that night. I’m sure Jack Maloy, the shift supervisor, was equally surprised when David told him about the phone call. I heard later that Jack was pretty upset to find out that a military force was going to be attacking our plant in the middle of the night without his permission!
The first we heard about the call was when Jasper Christensen called a meeting of the entire maintenance department on the spur of the moment in the main break room. He told us about the phone call. He said we didn’t have any more information than that. Though the maintenance department shouldn’t be working that night, Jasper said that just in case we were called out for something, we should know that a group of commandos were going to be performing some sort of mock raid on our plant. If we encountered any soldiers sneaking around the plant in the middle of the night in full military gear, not to be alarmed. Just go on doing what you’re doing and don’t bother them.
Now that it is 21 years later (well, almost) the truth can finally come out…. Isn’t that how it goes? When we are sworn to secrecy, isn’t it 21 years before we can finally speak out? (That’s what Shadow Warriors always told me). I don’t remember us taking an oath or anything, but that’s the way it is with Power Plant Men. They just assume that if the military is staging a mock raid on our plant, it is a matter of national security. It seemed as if our plant sort of matched the layout of a power plant somewhere in Central America where the real raid was going to take place.
The main difference between our Power Plant and the one in Honduras, or wherever it was, is that our plant had recently gone through a downsizing. So, our operators at night now had to perform the duties that had before been done by the labor crew. They had to do coal cleanup throughout the conveyor system.
This meant that if one of our auxiliary operators happened to run across someone dressed in the outfit above, they would have naturally handed him either a water hose or a shovel and pointed to the nearest conveyor and said something like, “I’ll start on this end, and you can start over there.” After all. He would already be wearing his respirator.
That day on the way home, Scott Hubbard and I discussed the significance of such a raid on our Power Plant. A year and a half earlier, Janet Reno had really messed up the raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas when it burned down and burned everyone to death including women and children. So, it would be good to go into a situation like this more prepared.
I had often thought about the steps that could covertly be taken to single-handed destroy the power plant without using any kind of explosives. Those who understood how all the systems worked together could do it if they really wanted to. Of course, that was just how I might occupy my mind when I was doing a repetitive job, like sweeping out the main switchgear. What better place for those thoughts to drift into your mind.
Actually, now that I think about it, instead of sending in the Special Forces, just send in a few Plant Operators, Electricians and Instrument and Controls guys and they could totally destroy the plant in a matter of hours if that was their intent. The same thing could be said about putting a few incompetent people in upper management even if it isn’t their intent, only it takes longer than a couple of hours to destroy the plant in that case.
The next morning when we arrived at the plant, our foreman Alan Kramer told us the stories about the raid that happened the night before. This is what I can remember about it (if any Power Plant Men want to correct me, or add some more stories, please do in the comments below).
First he said that it appeared as if the commandos had landed in some kind of stealth helicopter out on the north side of the intake because later when the power plant men had investigated the site they could see where two wheels on the helicopter had left an impression in the mud. Dan Landes had been keeping a lookout from the top of the Unit 1 boiler, and he thought for a moment that he saw the flash of a red light…. which… thinking about it now, could have been one of those laser sites taking aim at him and mock assassinating him by shooting him in the eye from about 1/2 mile. You know how good American Snipers can be (my plug for the new movie). Good thing he was wearing his auto-tinting safety glasses.
We also heard that one of the operators, Maybe Charles Peavler (Charles is standing next to Dan wearing the pink shirt and carrying something in his lower lip) had stepped out of the office elevator on the ground floor only to come face-to-face with a soldier. When the soldier was seen by the operator, he just turned around and walked out of the door… he evidently was considered a casualty if he was seen by anyone. Either that, or he had to go do coal cleanup the rest of the night.
I think it was Jeff Meyers (front row, left in the picture above) who told us later that the Special Ops forces had left a present for the operators on the Turbine-Generator Room floor. Tracked across the clean shiny red T-G floor were muddy boot prints leading from the Unit 1 boiler entrance to the door to the control room. The tracks ended at the control room door.
The tracks were extra muddy as if someone had intentionally wanted us to see that someone had walked right up to the control room door. The tracks did not lead away from the door. They just ended right there.
So, we did have proof that the commandos had actually visited our plant that night, only because one of the operators had come face-to-face with one in the main lobby. If that hadn’t happened, then they would have come and gone and we would have been none-the-wiser… other than wondering about the strange muddy footprints and the impression left in the mud by the stealth helicopter.
I suppose it was easy for the Power Plant operators to ignore the commandos since for the most part, they never saw them coming or going. The Power Plant Men were happy to play their part in the mock raid. Of all that has been asked of these Power Plant Men over the years, this was one of the more “unique” events. How many Power Plant Men across the country can say that they took part in a Special Ops Commando Raid on their Power Plant?
All I can say is that the commandos sure picked a great bunch of Power Plant Men and Women to attack. We were all honored (even those of us who were at home in bed asleep at the time) to be able to help out the military any way we could.
Sometimes we unknowingly end up worshiping things we never intend. It isn’t until those things are destroyed before we realize what has happened. We have a natural tendency to worship something. It’s built into our DNA to worship God just as sure as the God Particle converts energy into matter and subsequently atoms into earth and water. I’m not sure when my obsession began, but I definitely know the day when it was destroyed. August 5, 1996.
The day of realization began as a normal day, as Scott Hubbard and I were driving to the plant. It seemed like an extra dark morning considering it was the middle of the summer. Perhaps it was because by this time we were working four tens, which meant we arrived at the plant before 7:00 am so we left Stillwater, Oklahoma at 6:15 to drive to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma.
When we topped the overpass to the turnpike at 6:32 we thought we could see something strange at the Power Plant off in the distance. The sun was going to rise in the next few minutes (at 6:42), yet, the sky seemed darker than usual. It must have been a cloudy morning.
We thought we could see red and blue flashing lights coming from one end of the plant. It was only momentary, because once over the overpass, we were too low to see that section of the plant. We weren’t really sure what we had seen. It became even more confusing as we approached the entrance to the plant.
There seemed to be a little more activity happening at the front gate than usual. there was a guard or an operator standing out there. He waved us through the gate. about 300 yards past the main gate, we had a clear view of the plant grounds laying before us as we made our way to the parking lot. It was here that the significance of the flashing lights suddenly caused us to gasp. We were stunned into silence.
The area around the Unit 1 main power transformer was flashing with the red and blue lights of several fire trucks. They seemed to be pulling away just about that time. Some of the siding on the Turbine-Generator room was missing, some was blackened from smoke as it had poured out of the windows along the turbine room floor. The real shock to me came as we approached the parking lot and I looked up through where a window used to be and I could see the sky. I could see the sky where the T-G roof should have been.
We were directed to go into the maintenance garage to avoid the fire trucks who that were backing away. We met with our team and Alan Kramer told us that there had been an explosion during the night when an overspeed test was being performed on the Unit 1 Boiler Feed Pump Turbine (BFPT). The number one question we all wanted answered was quickly given to us…. No one was hurt in the explosion.
Alan mentioned that in our recent fire fighter training, we had learned that a large percentage of companies that have a major fire (such as ours) goes out of business within the next year. That was not going to happen to us even though the damage was extensive. Our job was to put everything back to the way it was before the fire.
Here is the story as it happened, as much as I know:
The explosion occurred when an operator (I’ll let one of the operators remind me who it was) was running an overspeed test on the BFPT. Suddenly he heard a loud pop and then the turbine winding up out of control. He took off running and was around the corner of a concrete pillar when the turbine exploded. The turning gear shot out like a top and flew across the mezzanine floor, hit the corner of the north stairway, and still spinning like a top, tore up the stairway as it made the turn halfway down and ended up in middle of the the T-G basement where it finally came to rest. This turning gear weighs somewhere in the ballpark of a thousand pounds (I’m guessing).
At this point steam was shooting out of the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine. The oil pumps that keep the bearings lubricated were spraying oil into the steam which burst into flames. The flames shot up to the concrete floor 40 feet above. The fire was so hot that it melted the metal structure holding up the floor and the rebar in the concrete. The Turbine Room Floor literally melted away as the oil fire shot the flames up toward the roof another 80 feet above the turbine room floor melting the roof as if it was butter. The asbestos siding on the T-G floor was falling off because the bolts that held them to the brackets literally melted away.
The same reservoir that feeds the oil to the the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine bearings also fed the Main Turbine Generator. This is the same generator that makes the electricity that causes the light bulb to glow in your house when you turn it on. The Main Turbine Generator tripped when the explosion occurred, as it should. As it slowed down to a stop, the oil for the bearings was all gone. It had been creating the large fire ball that was melting down the T-G floor.
Normally, when the Turbine-Generator comes to a stop, it is put on a turning gear while the shaft cools down otherwise the shaft will become warped under it’s own weight. The Turning gear slowing rotates the turbine for a day or so while it cools. Without bearing oil, the turning gear would not be able to turn the turbine generator. The bearings require a layer of oil to function properly.
Charles Patton, one of the Maintenance foremen was called out, and he took cans of STP Oil Treatment and for hours poured them onto the bearings and manually rotated the 50 ton turbine generator (Ray, help me out with the actual weights). Through the heroic efforts of Charles and others that were there to help, the Turbine Generator was spared from even more damage.
By the time we arrived that morning, the fire was out, things were cooling down. Unit 2 was still running, and it was our job to keep it going.
As I walked out onto the T-G floor everything went into slow motion. I don’t know if that has ever happened to you before. There have been a few times in my life when I was in a near death situation where my surroundings all seem to switch into a slow motion mode. I think it happens because your brain kicks into high gear in order to process what is happening and to put as much effort forward as possible to avoid danger.
The first time I think that happened to me was when I was with some friends climbing around on some cliffs by the Missouri River. One boy was falling back after the ledge he was on gave way and was going to fall most likely to his death when everything switched into slow motion even before I realized what was wrong. I was able to make quick decisions that allowed me to push him back onto the ledge and grab onto a branch that luckily kept me from the same fate.
When I walked onto the T-G floor and saw the devastation, I think my mind was trying to take everything in all at once. The Turbine Generator was covered in soot and debris. I flashed back to the days when I was a janitor and used to keep the turbines waxed so that they would shine. It was at this moment that I realized I actually worshiped the Turbine Generators in a way similar to the way the religious cult worshiped the alpha-omega doomsday bomb in “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”.
The near destruction of the Turbine Generator made me realize the importance I had placed on it. I felt as if I had almost lost my close friend like the boy climbing on the cliff. I used to stand on the sides of the Turbines when I was a janitor with my dust mop and after spraying furniture polish on the mop, I would caress the turbines as if I was running my fingers through someone’s hair.
We began the clean up by taking fire hoses and washing down the siding on the Unit 2 side to try to bring some normalcy back to a surreal situation. The soot didn’t just wash off. Not long after we had dragged out the fire hoses and were blasting away at the siding, Alan Kramer asked Charles Foster and I to look at the air duct to the Instrument room on the north side of the Turbine room. The room was getting too hot and the air conditioner seemed to have frozen.
We climbed into the air duct on the roof of the instrument room and replaced the filters that were packed with soot stopping the air flow for the Air Conditioner. This seemed like one task in 100,000 that would need to be done to put this puzzle back together again. All the electric cables that ran through the Unit 1 Mezzanine had melted away, everything had been utterly destroyed.
The thought was too overwhelming. I felt like Scarlet O’Hara in “Gone With the Wind” when she said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.”
With everything on the T-G floor covered in soot, everyone was quickly black from head to toe. Are clothes were now black. We looked like Johnny Cash impersonators
literally with Al Jolsen Black Face as the soot was pitch black.
We had just climbed out of the air duct and were making our way to the electric shop when Glenn Rowland approached me and said, “You Lucky Dog!” I thought he must be making a comment about my appearance seeing how I was covered in soot. Then he explained. “For the next 10 weeks you have to report to Oklahoma City to work on an SAP project. You’re a lucky dog because you are going to miss all the fun of cleaning up this mess.”
Did I ever mention that I’m one of the luckiest people in the world? Well. I am. I had just come to grips with my false God, and now I had been rescued from two and a half months of working in soot and grime to go work in an air conditioned office building in Oklahoma City.
Here is a post about how lucky I am: Power Plant Men’s Club Prizes and a Story of Luck.
Now for the hard part of the story to write about:
So, why did the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine fail the overspeed test? What happened to cause the explosion?
The first attempt to place the blame where it didn’t belong was to blame Sonny Kendrick who had worked on the controls during the last outage. The same person that would accuse me of purposely causing any little opacity problem on the precipitator even when I was on vacation, was now blaming Sonny Kendrick for the multi-million dollar destruction of the Turbine Room Floor.
Sonny Kendrick must have looked like an easy target. A soft-spoken man that works alone most of the time. No one really understands some of the things he works on. Maybe they thought he wouldn’t be able to explain the changes he had made to the controls in enough detail in order to blame him for the explosion. I use the word “target” because someone else had to be “blamed” for the explosion instead of the person responsible. The person they picked as the “fall guy” was Sonny Kendrick:
You see… someone was directly responsible for the explosion. Someone who continuously used “Risk Management” as an excuse to cut corners. I wonder if everything was completely on the unconscious level, or did this person ever realize the impact of his decisions. You see, I haven’t completely decided.
There appears to have been a conspiracy to cover up the truth about the explosion that took three months to recover. The first clue was to try to blame Sonny Kendrick without any proof. I don’t know if Sonny was eventually cleared as the fall guy because he was able to clearly show how all of his wiring changes had no impact on an overspeed test, or someone who knew about the actual cause threatened to come out with the truth if they continued to pursue Sonny as the fall guy. You see… there was more to this equipment failure than met the eye.
The turbine exploded because the coupling to the pump shattered. That’s the part that connects the steam turbine to the boiler feed pump. When the coupling broke the turbine, no longer having any resistance, began to rotate at a rate much faster than it was ever designed to rotate until it flew apart.
It was known at the end of the last outage that the coupling was damaged. It would have delayed bringing the unit online another 2 or 3 days in order change out the coupling. In the name of “Risk Management” it was decided to “risk it” until the next outage. The decision was made without using any type of risk assessment tool… obviously.
I know about the conversations that took place because one of the people involved confided in me. The person that told me the details of the conversations said that even under oath he would never tell anyone else the truth. This is the second clue that made me think that a concerted effort was made to cover up the knowledge that it was known that a faulty coupling was operating on the Boiler Feed Pump Turbine and it had been decided to leave it in place. You see… everyone who was on the team that found the damage knew about it.
The third clue this was a “conspiracy to cover up the truth” was that when an investigation was performed to look into the cause of the explosion, the person responsible for keeping the bad coupling in place played a major role in the investigation. Like the Fox guarding the Hen House.
Because the truth about the coupling never came to light, the insurance company ended up paying the entire bill for the outage. It was ruled as “equipment failure”. Our plant manager Bill Green remarked one day that we actually came out ahead when the insurance company paid for the outage, because they paid our lost revenue without taking all the operating costs into account.
I know sometimes that things just happen and sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes when everything is done correctly, something still goes wrong. I know that. That is why when this explosion first happened it made me step back and think twice about the dangers lurking around a Power Plant. A tremendously large amount of energy is being converted from coal into electricity. Somewhere, some time, something is going to go wrong and someone is going to be hurt or killed.
That is also why when this explosion happened, it never occurred to me to place the blame on anyone. To me it was just one of those things that happens every now and then. My bubble of innocence was burst the day I heard about the decision to keep a defective coupling in place on such an important piece of equipment.
On one hand I was angry that someone would make a decision that could have ended with the death of an operator, on the other hand, I was relieved to know that accidents like this don’t just happen. It was only when someone decided to cut corners that this explosion occurred. It gave me a little of my faith back in the system. When things are done right, we can work safely without the fear that something is likely to explode in our face.
All right, so I never really worshiped the Turbine Generator. I just exaggerated that part a bit. But let me ask this question… Who in this story did? Who was it that was willing to sacrifice the life of an operator to keep from delaying the “go-live”? Who thought that having the Generator produce electricity two or three days sooner than it should have been was more important? That is the person that really needs to re-evaluate their priorities and take another look at which God they worship.
The question is never, “Is there a God?” The real question is “Which God do you worship?”
originally posted on June 30, 2012:
Somewhere today there is a young man named Cameron Powell whose grandmother has recently died and who has a Great Grandmother named Dolores. A kind and gentle lady. If this young man were able to ask his great grandmother about his great grandfather he would hear the tale about a peaceful and kind man that made those who worked with him smile and enjoy their day. He lived his life in love with Dolores and his daughter and the very people that he worked with each day. All you had to do was walk in the same room as Howard Chumbley and a smile would come across your face instantly.
You see. While I was in my first years as a summer help at the Coal Fired Power Plant learning from the True Power Plant men of my day, 15 miles north of the plant along the Arkansas River was another plant. This plant was being operated by the Power Plant Pioneers of an earlier time. While we had the latest technological advancements that were available in 1974 when our plant was designed, the Osage plant was using old mechanical instruments that measured actual pressures and temperatures. What this meant was that when the pressure gauge registered 1000 pounds of pressure, it was because the pipe that was connected to the back or bottom of the gauge had 1000 lbs of pressure on it. I don’t know. They may have had a regulator on there that cut the pressure down to a safer range. That would seem crazy to anyone today to think that behind the Control Panel in the Control Room were pipes that ran from different steam pipes all over the plant to the gauges on the Control board, so that the Control Room operators could operate the plant correctly.
The Power Plant Men that worked in these early Generating Stations were subjected to dangerous chemicals and conditions though it was the best they knew at the time. Asbestos insulation covered the steam pipes. Turbine oil with PCBs were used to clean their tools. Howard Chumbley explained to me one day that they used to wash their tools in Turbine oil up to their elbows in what was now known to contain the dangerous chemical PCB (Polychlorinated Biphenyls). A funny fact I found out later was that there was a temperature probe in the river just downstream from the plant taking the temperature of the water just like Sooner Plant (See the Post about Power Plant Men Taking the Temperature Down by the River).
When the old Osage Plant closed in the early 1980s, that was when I first learned about it. This was because some of the pioneer power plant men came to work at our plant. Howard Chumbley became an Electical foreman and Gilbert Schwarz came to our plant as the superintendent of operations. Two gray haired men, both with a kind of slow peaceful look on their face. Howard had a smaller build with soft wavy gray hair. He could have been a professor at Harvard if you put a pipe in his mouth and a turtleneck sweater. Of course, that would not have been fitting for Howard. Gilbert was tall and had the look of a cowboy or a farm hand. I understand that he enjoyed working on the farm.
One year after I became an electrician in November 1984, Howard Chumbley became my foreman. It was less than a year after that when Howard retired. During the short time he was my foreman we took a trip up to the Osage Plant. It was named Osage because the Osage Indian Nation Territorial boundary is directly across the river from the plant. The plant itself actually sat adjacent to the Ponca Indian Tribe just outside of Ponca City. The day we went to the plant, Diana Lucas (later Diana Brien). a Power Plant Electrician and I loaded a special hazardous material containment barrel into the truck and I was given a special suit that I was to wear that would cover me from head to toe while I cleaned up a PCB spill. A smaller plant transformer had been removed from the old plant and there had been a slow leak under it that left a tar like substance on the concrete where the transformer had stood. As Howard, Diana and I approached the plant and I spied it for the first time. This is what I saw:
As we drove closer I had a better look at the plant as we drove around the other side:
It was definitely an old abandoned power plant. We took the barrel out of the back of the truck and hauled it inside on a two wheel dolly (or two-wheel hand truck, as it is often called). When we entered the abandoned plant we walked across the turbine room floor:
I could see where equipment used to stand that had been sold for scrap or stolen by vandals.
When we arrived at the oil spill I was surprised by how small of a spot it was. It couldn’t have been more than one square foot. I put on the rubber suit with it’s rubber hat, rubber boots and a full face respirator and rubber gloves. I took a putty knife and scraped up the tar-like substance and placed it in special bag that had a special seal on it.
When I had scraped up the thick stuff, I poured trichloroethane 1.1.1 solvent (which is no longer used due to the dangerous fumes that damages your liver) on the spot and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I took a Scotch Brite pad and scrubbed the floor until the spot was much cleaner than the concrete around it. Everything I had used went into the special barrel. The bags of tar, the Scotch Brite pad, the wire brush the putty knife and the rags I had used to wipe everything up. Then as I took off my suit, every piece of the rubber suit including the full face respirator went into the barrel. Once everything was in the barrel, the special lid was placed on top and it was bolted shut. A Hazardous Waste sticker was placed on the barrel and the time and date and what was in the container was written on it.
We took the barrel back to the plant and it was placed in a hazardous waste Conex Box that was later buried when it was full of different types of hazardous waste from all over Oklahoma.
A few years after Howard Chumbley retired, so did Gilbert Schwartz. Gilbert was the Superintendent over the Operators so I didn’t work around Gilbert and I knew very little about him. However, later when I was married and living in Ponca City, I would see him at the Catholic Church in Ponca City where he was a member of the Knights of Columbus. He would nod and say hi whenever he saw me.
Both Howard and Gilbert were in the military. I know that Howard Chumbley was in the Navy during World War II and that Gilbert Schwarz was in the Korean War. Growing up I noticed that older men that had served in the armed forces seemed to have light gray hair. Especially if they had been in the Navy. I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence. Aubrey Cargill was that way also (See the post about Painting Lessons with Aubrey Cargill).
In 1998, Howard Chumbley died unexpectedly when he was admitted to the hospital in Ponca City with a broken arm. The hospital in Ponca City had a bad reputation (or Mortality Rate, as some might say). People didn’t want to go there if there was anyway to avoid it. The hospital in Stillwater was the preferred hospital in this area of Oklahoma.
I only met Dolores Chumbley on two occasions and they were both at Christmas or Award banquets. She seemed the perfect spouse for Howard as she appeared kind and peaceful as well. I’m sure they had a happy life together. I do not have a picture of Howard. I wish I did. His demeanor reminds me of my Mother-In-Law. We have a picture of her in our hallway and the words below the picture says: “Be Kind”. I would say that this is what Howard was all about. Everything about Howard was kindness. I was glad to have known him.
This past week on June 24, 2012 Gilbert Schwarz died at the age of 83. He lived a long and happy life as did Howard. There was something about these Power Plant Pioneers that gave them a strange sort of peace.
I never found the source of this peace for sure. I suppose it was their long and happy marriages with their loving and supportive wives. Howard had a daughter that he was always very proud to discuss. She was a teacher somewhere close to Tulsa. She recently died of Cancer on January 4. That was 2 days after I wrote my first Power Plant Man post (Why Santa Visits Power Plant Men) at the beginning of this year.
Gilbert never had a child of his own, but his nieces and nephews meant a lot to him throughout his life and he was active in their lives as they grew up. I suppose if the Power Plant Pioneers were anything like the True Power Plant Men of my day, then they found a lot of peace in the friendships that they had with their fellow Power Plant Men locked away behind the Main Gate that they had to drive through each day on the way to work. Once you drive through that gate and enter into the Power Plant Kingdom, there is a certain peace that you feel knowing that what you will do that day will directly affect the lives of millions of people in the state of Oklahoma.
These Pioneers of the early days willingly put themselves at risk working around equipment that did not have the safeties and guards that we have today to supply the electricity to the State. I don’t know if there are a few of these brave Pioneers left from the Osage Plant. Gilbert was the last of the older men that I knew about. If you happen to find one of these men some day, don’t miss the opportunity to talk to him. I am sure they would be proud to tell you of the days that they spent being Pioneers of the Power Plant World. You should be able to recognize them. You can pick them out in a crowd. They are the mild peaceful looking old men treating the people around them with respect.
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Originally posted on July 6, 2012:
I suppose that many parents while raising their children would hear them say, “Dad, can you read that story to us again about the pirates that go to the island to find the treasure but Jim Hawkins fights them single-handed?” Or their children might say to their mother, “Will you tell us the story again about how you met daddy?” In my household, my children would say, “Dad, tell us another story about how you played a joke on Gene Day when you were working at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma? Those are always the best!”
As I pointed out in my third post this year called “Power Plant Humor And Joking With Gene Day” the first time I met Gene Day, I could tell that he was the type of person that would take a joke well, or so I thought…. One of the favorite stories my daughter would like for me to tell her as she was growing up was the one where I had created a Psychological Profile of Gene Day, who at that time was an Auxiliary Operator.
It began one day when I was leaving the electric shop through the Turbine Generator (T-G) building ground floor. A very noisy location as large steam pipes wound around under the Turbines where the steam caused a rumbling or whining sound. It was normal when walking through this area to reach up to the ear plugs that were draped over your shoulders and put them in your ears because the decibels were dangerously high if you were exposed earplugless too long.
I stepped from the landing leading from the electric shop and started toward number 1 boiler when I spied Gene Day making his way around the first floor of the T-G building inspecting equipment and marking his documents indicating that they were operating correctly. As I saw him turn toward my direction I quickly dodged behind the nearest metal pillar (I-Beam). I peaked my head out from behind the pillar and took out the notepad that was in my back pocket, and the pen from my vest pocket pocket protector.
Gene saw me and gave me a suspicious look as I began feverishly writing in my notepad while looking from my notepad back to Gene and then back to what I was writing. After I had done this for about 10 seconds or so, I put my pad away, my pen back in the pocket protector and strolled away toward unit 1 to continue my work.
It happened that this particular week was Gene’s week to monitor the equipment in the T-G building, so throughout the week he would be making his way somewhere around the T-G building with his clipboard in hand. Each time I encountered him I would do the same thing. I would visibly hide behind a beam and write notes in my notepad. I saw Gene rather frequently during the week because the majority of the time, I left the electric shop by going through the T-G room to one of the boilers and then to the precipitators, where I spent most of my time working at this time in my career (but that is another story for a later time).
Each time, Gene would watch me suspiciously knowing that I was just messing with him, but not exactly sure what I was “up to”. At the time, I wasn’t sure either. So I just wrote down what I saw Gene doing, that way, if he ran over and grabbed my notepad from me, it wouldn’t say anything other than what I saw.
It had happened at the plant a few years earlier when I was a janitor that the company had hired an efficiency expert to monitor the employees at the plant. He would walk around the plant with a stopwatch observing the employees. When he saw them he would write notes on his clipboard. It became very unnerving because you would walk around the corner and there he would be standing writing something down about you.
I went to the Assistant Plant Manager Bill Moler and told him that this creepy guy keeps showing up in the main switchgear by the janitors closet. And every time he sees me, he writes something down. I told Bill that it really bothered me. He explained that he is an efficiency expert and he has a certain path that he takes throughout the day and takes a snapshot of what the workers are doing at that moment and writes it down. By doing that he calculates how efficient we are. It seemed pretty silly to me, because most mechanics when they saw him coming put their tools down and did nothing while he walked by until he was out of sight again.
When I was on the labor crew a few weeks later, and I was blowing coal dust off of all the I-Beams above the bowl mills with a high pressure air hose, I looked down, and through my fogged up goggles I could see this guy standing directly under me. I was about 50 feet above him crawling across an I-Beam with the air hose blowing black dust everywhere. He had crossed my barrier tape to go into the bowl mill area to see how efficient I was being.
I was so mad I turned off my air hose, climbed down the wall Spiderman-like (no. not head first) and went straight into the A-Foreman’s office and told Marlin McDaniel that the Efficiency Expert had crossed my barrier tape and was standing directly under me as I was blowing down the beams with air.
It turned out that the Efficiency Expert had gone upstairs to complain that some guy in the bowl mill had dumped a bunch of coal dust on him while he was monitoring him from below. Evidently, he wasn’t expert enough to know you weren’t supposed to cross someone’s barrier tape without permission, as was indicated on the caution tags that were tied to the barrier tape. From that point on, the efficiency expert (now in lowercase) had to be accompanied by someone from the plant to make sure he wasn’t breaking any safety rules and putting himself at harm.
To make a long side story short, we turned out to be so efficient, people came from all over the world to study us. Somebody downtown hired the efficiency expert full time, but later he was laid off during the first downsizing.
He reminds me of a person on an episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where this guy Lieutenant Commander Remmick comes aboard the Enterprise and he walks around inspecting everything and asking everyone questions that make them uncomfortable and at the end asks Picard if he could come work on the Enterprise. He looked so much like him, that I thought maybe our efficiency expert went to Hollywood to become an actor.
Back to Gene Day. I suppose the thought of the efficiency expert may have been going through my mind as I was taking notes about Gene Day at work. Like I said, at the time, I didn’t know what I was going to do with it.
It finally came to me on Thursday morning. This was the last day that Gene was going to be on the day shift, so I figured I might as well do something about it. So when I entered the shop that morning, I sat down at the desk of my foreman Andy Tubbs and began to write. The title at the top of the page was: “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”.
Using the notes I had taken during the week, I wrote things like the following: “Gene Day walks around the Turbine Generator building with a clipboard in his hand trying desperately to look like he’s doing something important. He constantly hopes that someone is watching him because he dislikes doing so much work to act busy for no reason.
At times Gene Day gets paranoid and believes that he sees people spying on him from behind every corner (especially I-Beams). Sometimes Gene Day stands in the middle of the T-G floor staring up into space as if he forgot what he was supposed to be doing.” I’m sure I wrote more, but I don’t remember everything… but I do remember the second from the last sentence. I will save that for a couple of paragraphs from now.
I took my Psychological Profile of Gene Day and went up to the Control Room. I noticed out of the corner of my eye that Gene had just walked over toward the break room behind the Auxiliary Control Panel so I walked over by the Shift Supervisor’s office and I leaned against the top of the large Blue Monitor and placed the Psychological Profile on the top of the monitor in front of me.
Less than a minute later Gene came walking around behind me and seeing the paper on the top of the monitor came up behind me and looked over my shoulder and began to read….. He wasn’t trying to hide the fact that he was reading the paper, and I obviously knew he was there, and the title in large bold letters did say, “The Psychological Profile of Gene Day”. So, he read on.
I heard a few chuckles as he read through my interpretation of what he had done during the week. Then he came to the “Second from the Last Sentence”, as I could hear him reading quietly in my ear… The sentence read, “Gene Day sneaks up behind people and reads their private material over their shoulder!” — Bingo! I had him!
When he read that he grabbed me by the throat and started to Throttle me! Shaking me back and forth. This would have been a humdinger of a joke at that point, but I had one more sentence up my sleeve… ur… I mean on the paper….
As I was waivering (is that a word?) back and forth between life and death I managed to eke out something like: “Wait! There’s More!”…. Gene Day let up on me a little and looked down at the page and read the last sentence…… It read….. “Gene Day tries to strangle people who are only trying to help him by creating his Psychological Profile.”
That was all it took. Another perfect joke played on Gene Day, and I was able to live to tell about it. When Gene read that he was stunned into dismay. Giggling as hard as he could he retreated shaking his head in defeat.
Now, I know that Gene reads these posts, and he may remember this story a little differently, and I’ll give him that because Gene is older than dirt and his memory isn’t that good. But I was the one that was being strangled, and I still have a vivid image of those few moments. Not only do I, but so do my children, who will one day tell their children, who will say, “Mommy, will you tell us that story again about how Grandpa was strangled by Gene Day that time in the Control Room at the Coal-Fired Power Plant in Oklahoma?”
Orignally Posted on October 12, 2012:
Two years before the movie Karate Kid came out at the movies in 1984, I had learned the secret of “Wax On, Wax Off”. One that made a significant difference to my Power Plant Janitorial Powers!
My Janitorial Master was Pat Braden. He is the same age as my father. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Pat Braden reminded me of a rounder version of Red Skelton:
Pat was one of the kindest people you would ever meet. He was the head janitor when I became a janitor at the Coal-Fired Power Plant. I had worked with him off and on during the 4 summers when I had worked as a summer help. So I was glad to actually be on his crew as one of the team.
When we had a big waxing job to do, we would schedule a weekend to come in and do it. That way we could wax an entire area without interruption. We could strip off the old wax with the stripping chemicals, then neutralize it, then add the sealer, and finally end up with waxing the floors with the best wax we could buy. As I mentioned in the post “How Many Power Plant Men Can You Put in a 1982 Honda Civic“, we used Johnson Wax’s best wax: Showplace.
We had been “certified” by Johnson and Johnson to wax floors properly. This included the proper buffing techniques once the wax had been applied and had properly dried. A properly waxed and buffed floor is shiny but not a slippery floor.
We decided to spend one weekend waxing the Engineering shack. It was a tin building like a Metal Butler Building that the inspectors from Corporate Headquarters would use when they had projects at the plant. In 1982, that was pretty well all of the time, as John Blake and Gene Titus were permanent residents of the Engineers Shack.
The floor in this building had a regular tile floor like you would see in an office building in the 1960’s. Just the plain square tiles. It looked like it had never been waxed before, and was probably built on the plant grounds long before the power plant existed. The floor had been worn out by the traffic over the years. This was one building that I was expected to keep swept and mopped as part of my daily janitorial responsibilities.
Our Janitor crew consisted of Pat Braden, Doris Voss, James Kanelakos, Ronnie Banks and Curtis Love (and myself of course). We had decided a couple of days before that for lunch we would eat baked onions. “Ok”, I thought. I knew we didn’t get paid much as janitors and we had to be frugal, but I didn’t really think that we were so bad off that we had to resort to eating onions for lunch. But since no one really asked me for my vote (which would have been to bring in some pizza from Ponca City), we were having baked onions for lunch.
We spent the morning removing all the furniture from the building, and then stripping the floor (even though it looked like it had never been waxed before). Then we mopped it a couple of times. By that time it was lunch time, and we headed up to the plant break room where Doris was just finishing up baking our um…. er….. onions. Yeah.. Baked Onions….
It turned out that these were Purple Onions. The ends had been cut off of them and butter and salt and pepper had been put on each end as they were wrapped up in tinfoil like a baked potato, and then baked in the oven just as if they were baked potatoes.
Well. I was never one to complain about food, and I was determined not to show my lack of enthusiasm at the thought of eating an onion for lunch, so I sat down and put on my eager hungry expression as I waited for our (uh) feast. — Well. The joke was on me. As I began to eat the baked onion, I realized right away that it didn’t taste like any onion I had ever eaten. It was kind of sweet and…. well…. it was rather tasty! Power Plant Culture never ceases to amaze me.
Anyway, after I had eaten my share of onions, we were ready to go back to work waxing the engineers shack. We spent the rest of the day doing that (and burping onions) and when we had decided that the wax had dried enough, we carefully brought the furniture back in and put everything back in order.
So, why am I boring you with all this detail about waxing the floor in a metal building that doesn’t even exist today? Well. I have told you now about the “Wax On” part. Now comes the “Wax Off” part. The second part of my training to becoming a Jedi Janitor (hmm… snuck in a Star Wars reference I see).
Here is what happened the next Monday when I wheeled the buffing machine out of the janitor closet in the Engineer’s shack. Gene Titus (who always reminded me of Jerry Reed):
and John Blake, both were very pleased with their new shiny floor. They looked like they were anxious to show it off to someone… anyone that would come by. I was about to really impress them (I thought) with my fine buffing skills that was “really” going to make their floor shine. So, they watched closely as I attached the red buffing pad on the bottom of the buffer:
I began at the far end of the room from the doors and began buffing…. The first thing I noticed was that the buffer was literally removing the wax from the floor. Yep. It was taking it right off. Wax On…. Wax Off….. I realized that for all our stripping and neutralizing, we hadn’t taken into account the years of dirt and grime that was embedded in the tiles.
Normally John Blake was a likable sensible person. I had carpooled with him for two summers when I was a summer help. But when he saw me removing the wax from the floor he had a very concerned expression, and well, I perceived that a sort of extreme hatred was rising up in his demeanor…. I was glad that John was a quiet mild-mannered sort of person, otherwise, I think he would have walloped me one for ruining the floor that he was so proud of minutes before.
I began thinking to myself what I should do. After all. The floor really did need buffing, and buffing the floor was removing the wax. So as the buffer moved back and forth erasing the shine and bringing back the dull tiles, I thought as hard as I could muster my brain what I should do next….
I figured I would go ahead and buff the entire main room, as if I knew exactly what I was doing, not looking concerned. I don’t know if the confidence that I exhibited while removing the wax relaxed John just enough so that he could leave the building and continue his job, or if he actually stormed out in distress hoping to drown his sorrows in his morning cup of coffee…
When I finished the room with the red pad… I did what I would have done if the wax had buffed up correctly and had actually still existed on the floor…. I put the white pad on the buffer. I thought in my mind that the floor was probably so infiltrated with dust that we hadn’t done a proper job (if it was even possible) to clean the floor before applying the wax on Saturday.
So I thought I would try something that they hadn’t taught us in waxing class… I took a spray bottle and filled it with wax. Then I started in the same corner where I had begun removing the pride and glory of John Blake’s newly waxed dreams. I sprayed some wax and buffed it into the floor. As I guided the buffer back and forth with one hand, I sprayed the floor with the other. To my surprise, not only did it start to leave a shiny polished floor, but it left a polish that was much more clear than before. One that was almost like a mirror.
As I buffed the room from one end to the next, the entire room became brighter as the lights from the ceiling reflected from the hard polished wax. I was nearly finished with the room when John walked back in. He was immediately stunned by the brightly polished floor.
I could see his uncharacteristic desire to kill me melt away and his pleasure with his new Shangri-La abode become immediately evident. John Blake from that moment on viewed me with the respect that most Power Plant janitors normally deserve.
I was so impressed with how well the floor looked when I was done, that I went to the Brown and Root building next door and did the same thing there.
I began to wonder what other uses I could make out of this discovery… Spraying wax on the floor and buffing it right in. It finally occurred to me that the floor cleaning machine that I used to clean the Turbine room floor might benefit by adding some wax to the mixture. It had the same type of red buffer pads on it.
So, after I had scrubbed the Turbine Generator floor using the regular detergent. I cleaned out the scrubber and put just water in there and about 1/2 gallon of wax. Then I went to try out my experiment. Sure enough…. The bright red Turbine Room floor began to glow. The bright lights overhead were clearly reflected off the floor. This was very successful.
So, my next test was to sweep off the turbine-Generators themselves with a red dust mop. Then spray watered down Johnson Wax directly on the dust mop and mop away on the turbine generators:
The Turbine Generators took on the same polished shine.
I distinctly remember one Power Plant Operator that gave me a very nice complement one day for keeping the T-G floor so nicely polished. His name was Michael Hurst. He was a True Power Plant Operator.
As a lowly janitor in a plant of heroes, I found that I was treated with the same respect as everyone else. I would never forget that complement from him because I could see his earnest sincerity.
A few years ago on December 19, 2008 Michael Hurst died in Oklahoma City. What was said about Michael after his death was this: “He had a great sense of humor and a big heart… Many have been blessed with his generosity and his genuine love for people.”
I can include myself in this statement. I know that everyone shown in the picture above from Joe Gallahar (on the left) to Doris Voss (in the middle) to Pat Quiring (on the right) would agree with that testament about Michael.
There was another sentence after this one that stands on it’s own. One that is a sign of a True Power Plant Man. It was also said of Michael Hurst: “Above all else, the most important thing to him was his family.” Though I don’t have a picture of Michael’s immediately family. I believe that I have included a picture above of at least some of his extended family.
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Originally posted: April 15, 2013:
“Something is in the water in Muskogee.” That is what I used to say. Something that makes people feel invulnerable. That was what I attributed to David Stewart’s belief that he could jump up in a falling elevator just before it crashed into the ground and he would be saved (see After Effects of Power Plant Drop Tests).
There was another story at the Muskogee Coal-fired Power Plant where this one mechanic believed that he could stick his finger in a running lawnmower and pull it out so fast that it wouldn’t cut his finger off. Of course, True Power Plant Men tried to reason with him to convince him that it was impossible…. Then there were others who said… “Ok. Prove it.”
Think about it. A lawnmower spins at the same rate that a Turbine Generator spins when it makes electricity. 3,600 time a minute. Or 60 times each second. Since the blade in a lawnmower extends in both directions, a blade would fly by your finger 120 times each second. Twice as fast as the electric current in your house cycles positive and negative.
This means that the person will have to stick their finger in the path of the lawnmower blade and pull it out within 8/1000th of a second…. IF they were able to time it so that they put their finger in the path at the precise moment that the blade passed by. Meaning that on average, the person only has 4/1000th of a second (or 0.004 seconds) to perform this feat (on average… could be a little more, could be less).
Unfortunately for this person, he was not convinced by the logicians that it was impossible, and therefore proceeded to prove his case. If you walked over and met this person in the maintenance shop at Muskogee, you would find that he was missing not only one finger, but two. Why? Because after failing the first time and having his finger chopped off, he was still so stubborn to think that he could have been wrong, so later he tried it again. Hence the reason why two of his fingers were missing.
Upon hearing this story, I came to the conclusion that there must be something in the water at Muskogee. I drank soft drinks as much as possible while I was there on overhaul during the fall of 1984.
As I mentioned in the post Power Plant Rags to Riches, in 1984 I was on overhaul at Muskogee with Ben Davis. An overhaul is when a unit is taken offline for a number of weeks so that maintenance can be performed on equipment that is only possible when the unit is offline. During this particular overhaul, Unit 6 at Muskogee was offline.
Ben and I were working out of the Unit 6 Electric shop. Ben was staying with his friend Don Burnett, a machinist that used to work at our plant when I was a summer help. Before Don worked for the electric company, he worked in a Zinc Smelting plant by Tonkawa, Oklahoma. Not only was Don an expert machinist, he was also one of the kindest people you would run across. Especially at Muskogee.
I was staying in a “trailer down by the river” by the old plant. Units one, two and three. They were older gas-fired units. I think at the time, only Unit 3 was still operational. The first 2 weeks of the overhaul, I stayed in a rectory with the Catholic priests in town. Then David Stewart offered to let me stay in his trailer down by the river for only $50 a week.
After the first couple of weeks it was decided that the 4 week overhaul had turned into a 9 week overhaul because of some complications that they found when inspecting something on the turbine. So, I ended up staying another month.
When they found out that they were going to be down for an extra 5 weeks, they called in for reinforcements, and that is when I met my new “roomie”, Steven Trammell from the plant in Midwest City. He shared the trailer for the last 4 weeks of the overhaul. From that time on, Steven and I were good friends. To this day (and I know Steven reads this blog) we refer to each other as “roomie”, even though it has been 28 years since we bunked together in a trailer…..down by the river.
I have one main story that I would like to tell with this post that I am saving until the end. It was what happened to me the day I think I accidentally drank some of the water…. (sounds like Mexico doesn’t it?). Before I tell that story, I want to introduce you to a couple of other True Power Plant Men that lived next door to “roomie” and me in another trailer down by the river (this was the Arkansas River by the way…. Yeah… The Arkansas river that flowed from Kansas into Oklahoma… — go figure. The same river that we used at our plant to fill our lake. See the post Power Plant Men taking the Temperature Down By The River).
Joe Flannery was from Seminole Plant and I believe that Chet Turner was from Horseshoe Plant, though I could be mistaken about Chet. I know he was living in south Oklahoma City at the time, so he could have been working at Seminole as well. These were two electricians that were very great guys. Joe Flannery had a nickname. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I think it was “Bam Bam”.
Joe was very strong, like Bam Bam. He also reminded me of Goober on the Andy Griffith Show, though Gary Lyons at our plant even resembled Goober more:
Chet was older than Joe by quite a lot, but I could tell that my Roomie and Joe held him in high esteem… So much so, that I might just wait on the story I was going to tell you about the time that I drank the water in Muskogee to focus more on Chet Turner… otherwise known as Chester A Turner.
I first met Chet when my roomie asked me if I wanted to go out and eat with him and our two trailer neighbors. On the way to dinner, we had to stop by a used car lot to look at what was available because Chet loved looking at cars. He had gray hair and was 60 years old at the time.
During the next 5 weeks, we went out to eat almost every night during the week with Chet and Joe. We explored Muskogee as best we could. That means that we visited about every car lot in the town. We also ate at a really good BBQ place where you sat at a picnic table and ate the BBQ on a piece of wax paper.
One night we were invited by another electrician (I think his name was Kevin Davis) to meet him at a Wal-Mart (or some other similar store) parking lot where his son was trying to win a car by being the last person to keep his hand on the car. He had already been doing it for about 4 days, and was exhausted. It would have reminded me of the times I had spent adjusting the precipitator controls after a fouled start-up, only, I hadn’t done that yet.
I was usually hungry when we were on our way to dinner, and I was slightly annoyed by the many visits to car lots when my stomach was set on “growl” mode. I never said anything about it, because I could tell that Chet was having a lot of fun looking at cars.
If only I had known Chet’s story when I met him, I would have treated him with the respect that he deserved. If I had known his history, I would have paid for his meals. It was only much later that I learned the true nature of Chet, a humble small gray-haired man that seemed happy all the time, and just went with the flow.
You know… It is sometimes amazing to me that I can work next to someone for a long time only to find out that they are one of the nation’s greatest heroes. I never actually worked with Chet, but I did sit next to him while we ate our supper only to return to the trailers down by the river exhausted from the long work days.
Let me start by saying that Chet’s father was a carpenter. Like another friend of mine, and Jesus Christ himself, Chester had a father that made furniture by hand. During World War II, Chester’s mother helped assemble aircraft for the United States Air Force.
While Chet’s mother was working building planes for the Air Force, Chet had joined the Navy and learned to be an electrician. He went to work on a ship in the Pacific called the USS Salt Lake City. It was in need of repairs, so he was assigned to work on the repairs.
While working on the ship, it was called to service, and Chet went to war. After a couple of battles where the ship was damaged from Japanese shelling it went to Hawaii to be repaired. After that, it was sent to the battle at Iwo Jima. That’s right. The Iwo Jima that we all know about. Chet was actually there to see the flag being raised by the Marines on Mount Suribachi:
Chet fought valiantly in the battle at Iwo Jima and was able to recall stories of specific attacks against targets that would make your hair stand on end to listen to. After it was all said and done, Chet was awarded the Victory Medal,
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal,
and the Philippine Liberation Campaign Ribbon.
As well as others….
At the time that I knew Chet, I didn’t know any of this about him. Isn’t that the case so many times in our lives. Think twice about that Wal-Mart Greeter when you go to the store. When you see an elderly old man or woman struggling with her cart to put her groceries in her car…. You may be looking at a hero.
I was looking at Chet thinking, “boy. This guy sure enjoys looking at cars…. I’m hungry.” This past week I was thinking about writing tonight about an event that took place while Ben and I were on overhaul at Muskogee. I thought it would be a funny story that you would enjoy. So, I asked my roomie, “What was the name of the guy that was staying with Joe Flannery in the trailer? The one with the gray hair?”
He reminded me that his name was Chet Turner. Steven told me that Chet had died a while back (on January 12, 2013, less than two weeks after I started writing about Power Plant Men) and that he was a good friend. So much so, that Steven found it hard to think about him being gone without bringing tears to his eyes. This got me thinking…. I knew Chet for a brief time. I wondered what was his story. I knew from my own experience that most True Power Plant Men are Heroes of some kind, so I looked him up.
Now you know what I found. What I have told you is only a small portion of the wonderful life of a great man. I encourage everyone to go and read about Chet Turner. The Story of Chester A. Turner
Notice the humble beginning of this man who’s father was a carpenter. Who’s mother worked in the same effort that her son did during the war to fight against tyranny. How he became an electrician at a young age, not to rule the world, but to serve mankind.
Looking at cars has taken on an entirely new meaning to me. I am honored today to have Chet forever in my memory.
Comment from Original Post:
Originally Posted on May 11, 2013:
If you crossed Walter Matthau with Howdy Doody you would come out with someone that would remind you of Bob Kennedy. All right. Bob Kennedy looked more like Walter Matthau than he did Howdy Doody, but I could tell that when Bob was younger, even though he didn’t have red hair and freckles, I could picture him as a little boy playing with his stick horse wearing a cowboy hat, and to me he would have looked a lot like Howdy Doody…
The day I first met Bob Kennedy I instantly fell in love with him. He was an electrician at the Power Plant in Midwest City and I was there on overhaul for three months during the fall of 1985. Bob was assigned to be our acting foreman while Arthur Hammond and I were there for a major overhaul on Unit 5. — Yeah. Five. They actually had 7, but all of them weren’t operational at the time.
Actually, I think it was Unit 4 that was a small generator that came from a submarine. — Half of the plant was like a museum. I used to park at the far end of the plant just so that I could walk through the museum each morning on my way to the electric shop. I think years later they may have torn that part of the plant down, which should have been illegal since to me it easily was a historical monument.
I called this post “Bobbin’ Along with Bob Kennedy” because Bob was tall and when he walked he sort of lunged forward and walked as if he was a giant walking through a forest that was only knee deep to himself. Bob had been an electrician for over 35 years. I know this because one of the phrases he would often say was, “I’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years!”
He had some other phrases, that I will probably mention in a few minutes. First I want to tell you about the relationship I had with Bob…. So, often in the morning after the morning steam horn would go off signalling that it was time to go to work (yeah… .isn’t that cool? A horn powered by steam would go off when it was time to go to work! My gosh… That horn alone was a monument of the 1930’s each morning when I heard it!),
Bob would come out of the office to where I was standing in the shop and say, “Kev. Follow me. I’ll show you what you’re goin’ ta be workin’ on today. Then he would head for the door. I would follow along behind him. I could tell that he preferred that I walk behind him. When I would walk faster, he would spread his lanky legs even farther to keep me one step behind him… so I quickly assumed my place two paces behind Bob.
He would have these large strides when he walked that would cause his body to move in a left and right motion where his arms were swinging at his side. I loved everything about Bob. I loved the way he talked… I loved the way he walked… I wished that I could be a miniature Bob. So, I started to imitate him.
As Bob would walk across the Turbine-Generator floor toward Unit 5 from Unit 7 (where the electric shop was located)), I would follow along two paces behind him trying my best to walk just like him. I would make very long strides to match Bob’s. I would swing my arms and lean left and right as I walked just like Bob. Bob was my hero and I wanted to let everyone know that I loved Bob and I wanted to be as much like Bob as I possibly could. So, as I walked I had a tremendous grin on my face. My expression was full of the satisfaction of knowing that I was literally following in Bob’s footsteps!
Operators and other maintenance workers that would see us instantly understood my intentions as they would grin, or laugh, or fall down in a total convulsion of uncontrollable laughter, sharing in my elation of being a miniature Bob.
I wish I could say that my time with Bob was one of total contentment and joy at being a miniature Bob that had “done it this way for 35 years”, but there were some setbacks. The first problem was that Arthur Hammond was with me on overhaul, and there was one major flaw in this combination….. Arthur liked to argue. See my post from two weeks ago called “Power Plant Arguments With Arthur Hammond“.
Before I go into the contention part, I want to first tell you about my second best Bob Kennedy Phrase. It is…. “I have a tool for that.”. You see. At this older gas plant where Bob Kennedy had spent the greater portion of his life, he had created a tool for just about every difficult job at the plant to make it easier.
Often in the morning when Bob would show me the job that I was going to be performing for the day, he would qualify it by saying, “I have a special tool for this.” Then he would take me back to the shop, reach under one of the work benches and pull out a work of art that comprised of chains, levers, pulleys and specialized cables that would make a seemingly impossible job, possible. He had a tool for everything.
So, when Arthur and I realized that Bob had a tool for everything we came up with a song for Bob that went to the tune of Big John. And old song about a guy named Big John that worked in a mine that collapsed one day. If you are older than I am (52), then you may have heard it before.
In case you haven’t, here is a YouTube version of Big John sung by Jimmy Dean:
Now that you have listened to the song about Big John, here is the song that Arthur and I devised about Bob Kennedy:
Big Bob…. Big Bob….
Every morning when he showed up at the plant, You could see him arrive.
He was 6 foot 6, and weighed more than than 145.
Wore a chip on his shoulder
And kinda wobbly at the hip.
Everyone knew he didn’t give a flip… That was Bob….
Big Bo ahh… ob… Big Bad Bob. Big Bob….
Bob didn’t say much ’cause he was quiet and shy,
He hummed and we hawed and we didn’t know why.
That was Bo ahh…. ob…. Big Bad Bob….
When he would say, “I’ve gotta job… for the two of you…
Follow me… and I’ll show you what to do…
” That was Bob…. Bahhh….ob… Big Bad Bob….
When somethin’ didn’t work, he would say real quick,
Just spit in the back and give it a kick,
That was Bob…. Baaahhh…ob…. Big Bad Bob.
When you’ve been doin’ it this way for 35 years,
It doesn’t matter what problem you’ve got sittin’ right here’s….
‘Cause I’m Bob…. Baaaah….ob…. Big Bad Bob…..
You see, I have a tool to fix it up just right,
Let me show you how it’s done. I’ll show you the light….
That was Bob….. Baaaah…..ob… Big Bad Bob!
Arthur and I would sing or hum this song as we worked. It made the day go by so fast that we wondered if Bob himself wasn’t warping time using some tool he kept under a workbench in the electric shop.
Like I said…. I love Bob, and I have since the day I met him, and I always will. There came a day when there was contention in the ranks…. I saw it beginning when Arthur was arguing each day with Bob. I think it had to do with the fact that Bob liked to argue also… and neither of them liked to lose an argument. So, each morning, either Arthur or Bob would win the argument (which sounds a lot like a Dilbert moment today)….
My two friends whom I love dearly (to this day) quickly were at each other’s throats. I didn’t realize how much until the morning of December 18, 1985, just before I left the shop and Bob Kennedy said to me… “That Arthur Hammond…. He sure can dish it out, but he just can’t take it”. I walked straight from that conversation down to the the mezzanine level of unit 5 where Art was working on a motor. The first thing he said to me was, “Bob sure can dish it out but he just can’t take it.”
At that point I told Art to just wait a minute. There was something I had to do…. I went back to the shop and told Bob that there was something at the motor where we needed his help. As I was walking with Bob across the mezzanine and down to the motor, my heart was split in two. Here were two of my friends at odds with each other….. Two people whom I would spend the rest of my life praying for their happiness. Yet they viewed each other as mortal enemies…
I had to figure that both of them were right in their own way, yet both of them were wrong about each other. So when Bob arrived at the motor I told them both (as if I had suddenly turned into their mother)…. A little while ago, Bob told me that ‘Art can sure dish it out, but he just can’t take it.’. Then I walked down here and Art tells me the exact same thing about Bob. Now…. what is going on here? Bob?
Bob looked at the two of us like the time had finally come to let it all out…. he said, “Every time we have an argument about anything Art here runs to Ellis Rook complaining about me. If he has something to say, he should come straight to me. Not run to our supervisor!”
Art said, “Now wait a minute! It isn’t me that is running to Ellis Rook! Ellis just spoke with me this morning about sending me back to the plant because I don’t get along with you (meaning Bob). Each time we have an argument, you run to Ellis Rook. Ellis has been telling me that he is thinking of sending me home because you can’t get along with me! Bob had a shocked look on his face.
Playing the facilitator role, I asked Bob… “Is this so?” Because I remembered that one day before (on December 17, 1985) when I had to leave for part of the day to get my blood test because I was going to be married (and in Oklahoma you still needed a blood test to be married)…. when I had returned, I met Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) in the elevator, he had asked me about Arthur Hammond.
As a side note, because of the new changes in overtime rules, if I left the plant in the middle of the day, I wasn’t supposed to stay long enough to collect overtime. Ellis Rook started to tell me that I shouldn’t have come back to work after getting my blood test, because I wasn’t eligible to work overtime after taking off part of the day. After apologizing to him (humbly and profusely), he said, that it would be all right just this once… I figured it was because I was going to be married that Saturday on December 21, 1985. Ellis said that he had heard some bad things about Arthur and he was considering sending him back to our plant.
This would have been a terrible disgrace for Arthur and would have been on his permanent record as someone that wouldn’t be able to go on overhaul anymore. I assured Ellis that Arthur Hammond was the most upright of employees and that there wasn’t any reason to send him home.
So, I asked Arthur…. was it true that he had been going to Ellis Rook (the electrical supervisor) to complain about Bob each time they had an argument… Arthur assured the both of us that not only wasn’t it him, but that it was Bob that had been complaining to Ellis Rook about him each time they had an argument. That was why he said Bob could dish it out, but he just couldn’t take it.
Bob replied, “It wasn’t me! It was Arthur! Every time we had an argument Ellis Rook would come to me and ask me about it. That is how I know that Art has been running to Ellis complaining about me. I would never tell Ellis about it! I would deal with it directly with Art.” Art said, “Ellis Rook was asking me the same thing!”
So, I asked…. How would Ellis know if neither of you went to him to complain? I wouldn’t have told him…. This led us to the third person that was present during every argument….
You see, there was another electrician from the plant across town that was there every time Ellis came to Bob asking about Arthur after an argument… Let’s call it Mustang Plant (since that was the name). In order not to embarrass him, I won’t tell you his name, but his initials are “Randy Oxley”. Randy Oxley desperately wanted to move from Mustang Plant to the plant in Midwest City… (all right… since I’m already naming names of plants, I might as well say “Horseshoe Plant”)…
For a time during this overhaul I spent a great deal of time in the electric shop working on motors. Each day I would stand at a workbench disassembling motors, cleaning out their sleeve bearings (yeah. these old motors at the old plant had sleeve bearings) and measuring them, and re-assembling them. During that time there were two things that I listened to. The first thing was the radio…. At that time in history… the leading rock radio stations would play the top 20 songs only. That meant that after listening to the top 20 songs, the only thing left to listen to was the top 20 songs all over again…. To me… It was like a nightmare.
The songs I listened to 100 times were songs like
“Say you Say Me” by Lionel Riche,
One More Night by Phil Collins:
Every Time you Go away by Paul Young:
We Built This City by Jefferson Starship:
Something in the Air Tonight by Phil Collins:
I’m sorry to do this to you, but this last song I know I must have listened to about 50 times as the top 20 played over and over again about every two hours as it has been drilled into my head. I know. I can feel the pity from every one of you who have just read this post.
Today I have “Something In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins on my iPod only because when I listen to it once each week it reminds me of the time I spent in the electric shop at Horseshoe plant working on those motors working around Reggie Deloney, Steven Trammell (otherwise known as ‘Roomie’), Paul Lucy, and the others that were there during that overhaul.
The second thing that I listened to while I was working on the motors in the electric shop was Randy Oxley. Randy was much like Steven Higginbotham, the summer help that I had worked with the first summer I had worked at our plant. See…. “Steve Higginbotham’s Junky Jalopy Late for the Boiler Blowdown“. He liked to talk.
Randy didn’t consider me as an important asset, so he didn’t talk much to me. He did, however, talk to one of the Maintenance Supervisors, who happened to be his uncle. You see… Randy wanted desperately to move from Mustang Plant to Horseshoe Plant. There was an opening for the B Foreman at Horseshoe plant, and he figured that one of the men in the electric shop would surely get the new foreman opening, which would leave an opening for an electrician.
So Randy would try to butter up his uncle (His uncle was called “Balkenbush”). He didn’t seem to care that I was standing right there carefully honing a sleeve bearing for an old GE motor. He openly expressed his opinion. It is only because of his blatant disregard for discretion that I don’t feel any guilt to pass on the conversation.
The one phrase that sticks in my mind is that Randy, while trying to convince his uncle that they should hire him in the electric shop at Horseshoe lake, said, “I am the best electrician at Mustang Plant. The only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it!”
I’m not kidding…. “I am the best electrician at the plant… the problem is that I’m the only one that knows it….”
This became one of my favorite phrases of all time. I couldn’t wait to share it with Arthur…. I told him… “I am the best darn BS’er of all time… the only problem is that I’m the only one that knows it…” Art would say…. “I’m the best <bleeping> goof ball of all time… only I’m the only one that knows it…” I know I had tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.
Actually, I use this phrase to also remind me to never get such a big head that I really think that I’m better at something than others think I am… because they usually know better than I do.
So, this brings us back to the Art and Bob Cage Fight….
It became obvious that both of them had become snookered. Every time Art and Bob had argued about something and Randy Oxley was around, Randy would run up to Ellis’s office and tell him that Art and Bob were at each other’s throats.
Randy was trying to butter himself up to Ellis so that he would hire him when there was an opening in the electric shop (which one was supposed to be coming up on the horizon). Art and Bob each thought the other had run to Ellis complaining about the other….
That was when the other shoe dropped….
Many years before, when I was still a summer help, and when I was a janitor, there was an electrician at our plant named Mel Woodring. Mel had decided that he didn’t have a future at our plant so he applied for a job at Muskogee. Of course, Bill Bennett and Leroy Godfrey (or was it Jackie Smith?) were glad to give him a glowing recommendation because they thought that when Mel left, it gave them an opportunity to hire someone that would…. let us say… fit their culture in a more effective manner.
Because I was a janitor at this time, I was not eligible to apply for an Electrical job, even though Charles Foster had become my mentor and had me begin taking electrical courses through the company.
I had worked the year before I was working with Bob Kennedy at the plant in Midwest City, Oklahoma at Muskogee plant around Mel Woodring. I never worked directly with him, so I will just say that he met the expectations that had been set by my bucket buddy back home, Diana Brien.
Fast forward a year later to when I am on overhaul at Horseshoe plant….. Steven Trammell, Bob Kennedy and a few other electricians that had spent many years at the plant, all thought they would be possible contenders for new foreman’s job. Any of them would have been excellent candidates.
To their stunned surprise… Mel Woodring from Muskogee was given the job! To me, this was an obvious case of the “promote someone in order to get him out of the shop” syndrome.
It turned out that the foremen at Muskogee (John Manning), including our illustrious Don Spears, that I had the momentary lap dance with the year before (see, “Lap O’ Luxury at the Muskogee Power Plant“), had decided to give Mel the highest rating possible so that he would get the job at Midwest City, thus relieving Muskogee from the burden that our plant had placed on them by suggesting that Muskogee transfer him from our plant.
Not only was the Horseshoe plant in a state of shock, but so was Randy Oxley. This meant that there wasn’t going to be an opening in the electric shop, and all of his “schmoozing” had been for naught.
The last day of the overhaul was December 20, 1985, the day before my wedding. I remember that Paul Lucy wanted me to go to a “gentleman’s club”(quite the oxymoron if you ask me) to celebrate and have a sort of a bachelor’s party…. I remember looking straight at Art Hammond right after Paul asked me, and Art shook his head and said…. “Don’t listen to him. Do what is right.” I assured Art that I had no intention of ruining the rest of my life the day before my wedding.
I went directly home.
The next day, Art Hammond was at my wedding with his wife. It was, and still is, the most blessed day of my life. Partly because Art was there at the reception dancing alongside me. I was lucky that I didn’t have a black eye… (which is another story)… and lucky that Art and Sonny Kendrick (who sang at my wedding) were there. Of all of my friends at the power plant, they were the ones that came to my wedding reception of all the people my mom had invited from the plant.
Years later, I traveled with Bob Kennedy on a bus from his plant to Oklahoma City to visit the new Transmission Control Room and back. We sat together and it was just like we had never been apart. Bob talked… and I wished in my mind that I could be a miniature Bob walking behind him every step of the way.
Today any time I have to take a big step for whatever reason…. Bob Kennedy immediately comes to mind. I think about when Bob climbed out of that bus… These words come to my mind….
Through the dust and the smoke of this manmade hell walked a giant of a man that ‘lectricians knew well…. Like a Giant Oak Tree, he just stood there all alone….Big Baaah…. ob…. Big Bad Bob…. Big Bob….. Everyone knew it was the end of line for Big Bob…. Big Bad Bob…. An Electrician from this Plant was a Big Big Man… He was Big Bob! Big Bad Bob! Big Bob!
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 monitors 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 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 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 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.