Tag Archives: walkie talkie

Power Plant Trouble With Angels

Okay, so, no one ever called me an Angel unless it was one of the fallen type.  I suppose the closest was when Bill Bennett, our A Foreman at the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma would call me a scamp.  I don’t know why, but I always seemed to be in trouble over one thing or another.  Well… maybe I do know why.

Not long after Bill Bennett left during the downsizing in 1994, when our Supervisor over Maintenance was Jasper Christensen, we had received newer computers all around the plant.  That is, except for the Electric Shop, because we had acquired one a year or so before so that we could program Eeprom Chips.

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

An Eeprom Chip used in the preicpiitator controls

I helped install the computers all around the plant.  I had run the Ethernet cables and installed the jacks so they could be connected to the plant computer network.  I had become the computer person for the plant by default, since I had learned how everything worked on my own.

When we received all the new computers, we were told that we had to keep an inventory of all the computer programs that we were using on each computer to make sure that we weren’t using pirated software.  So, when we installed any program on a computer we were supposed to notify our Supervisor, who in this case was Jasper Christensen.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

I sort of felt sorry for Jasper at times, because, it’s sort of like when you don’t get to choose your parents…. Jasper didn’t get to choose who was working for him exactly.  So, he was stuck with me.

I’m not saying that I was a bad person, or that I wasn’t good at being an electrician.  I was just annoying.  I was always up to some sort of something that no one really told me to do.

One example of this was that I had a CompuServe account, and I would use it to access stock quotes at the end of the day.  I would save them to a file, and then each week, I would pin up charts of our 401k stocks on the bulletin board in the electric shop.  Power Plant Men would come into the shop to see how their stocks were doing.  At this time, the “Internet” hadn’t been introduced to the plant and people didn’t really know much about it.  I would connect to CompuServe through a dial up modem.

 

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

A screenshot of the CompuServe Program I was using.

I had a 14,400 baud modem with compression that made it more like 104,000 baud which was really fast for that time.   However, when the World Wide Web became available to CompuServe users, I found that even at that speed, it took a long time just to load one web page if it had a picture on it.  The Internet was just around the corner.  I’ll write a post about how it was introduced at the plant next week.

I diligently kept a log of all the software we had on our company computer.  Whenever I would upgrade CompuServe to the latest version, I would send a form to Jasper letting him know that I now had that version of software on the electric shop computer.  We also had installed other software, such as Reflex, which was sort of a hybrid between Excel and Access.  This was still a DOS based computer.  Windows 3.1 was on it, but a lot of our programs were still run in the DOS mode.

About 6 months after all the new computers arrived, we requested that the computer in the electric shop be replaced, because it was older, and we were using it for more and more things.  The computer arrived about a month after it was approved.

This time, an IT guy from Oklahoma City brought the computer to the plant.  This computer was better than all the other computers in the plant, mainly because it was newer.  At that time, computers were quickly improving.  If you waited six months more it would have even been a better computer.  While the IT guy was in the neighborhood, he installed some software on all the computers.

I was working on the Unit 2 Precipitator with Charles Foster the day that the Electric Shop received the new computer.  Alan Kramer, our Foreman, called me on the radio (walkie talkie)…  He did this because we were using radios a lot more, and were talking about shutting down the Gray Phone PA system all together.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

Alan said that Jasper wanted to use the new Electric Shop computer at the Conoco Cogen (which stands for Cogeneration) plant in Ponca City.  We needed to take it to Ponca City and use the computer that was there for the electric shop. — Before I tell you my response…. let me tell you about the computer at the Cogen plant.

First, let me explain what a Cogeneration plant is…. This is a small power plant that uses waste gases from the Conoco (Continental Oil) Oil Refinery to create steam to turn the generator to produce electricity.  In exchange for using the waste gases from the refinery, the Power Plant gave any left over steam back to the refinery so they could use it in their refinery.  Plus, we would give the refinery the electricity that we produced.  Any electricity left over, we sold to our customers.

So, there was a desktop computer sitting on a desk in a small control room that allowed the control room at our power plant to dial into it and monitor the plant to see how it was working.  The connection was rather slow even though it had a dedicated phone line to connect to the plant.

The computer itself, even though it was somewhat older than the new computer we received for the electric shop, was sitting idle most of the time.  Even when it was working, it was never processing much.  The problem with the computer being slow wasn’t the computer itself, it was the Network connection back to the plant.

So, when Jasper had said that he was going to replace that computer with our much faster one that we had ordered, I was a little perturbed.  This meant that the nice new fast computer was going to be sitting idle in Ponca City collecting dust doing next to nothing and it wasn’t going to make anything faster as far as the control room was concerned.

So, in the most smarmy voice I could muster I replied over the radio, “Oh Great!  Another one of Jasper’s ‘Scathingly Brilliant Ideas’!”  I knew the phrase “Scathingly Brilliant Idea” from the movie “Trouble With Angels”.  It seemed like an appropriate remark at the time.

Trouble With Angels

Trouble With Angels

I knew that Jasper would be listening, because he had his walkie talkie set on scan so that he could hear everything we were saying.  Alan Kramer came right back after my remark and said, “Watch it Kevin.  You know who might be listening.”  I said, “Oh.  I know who’s listening.”

Approximately five minutes later, Jasper Christensen called me on the radio and asked me to meet him in his office.  “Okay.  Here it comes,” I thought.  On my way down from the roof of the precipitator I was formulating my argument as to why it was a terrible idea to take the best computer at the plant and send it to Ponca City to sit idle in a room by itself when I could easily put it to a lot of use.  I never really was able to present my arguments.

When I arrived at Jasper’s office, he told me that he wanted me to take CompuServe off of the computer in the electric shop.  I knew why.  I thought I knew why.  I figured it was because I had just insulted him on the radio.  I’m sure that was part of it, but it wasn’t the only reason.

I pressed Jasper on the issue and told him that I used CompuServe to download the stock prices for our 401k so that everyone can see how their stocks are doing and I post them on the bulletin board.  Jasper came back with “That has nothing to do with your job.”  I replied with, “I’m providing a service for our teams, just like the candy and coke machines.  I’m paying for the service myself.  I’m not charging anything.”  Jasper disagreed that I was providing a useful service.

Then Jasper said that the IT guy found a virus on one of the computers and since I was the only person at the plant that had connected to anything like CompuServe, the virus must have come from me.  When I asked him which computer had the virus, he didn’t know.  I told Jasper I better go find out, because if there was a virus on one of the computers, we need to clean it up right away.

This was at a time when McAfee’s Viruscan software was freeware.  I always had an updated copy of it that I would run on the computers.  I had checked all the computers at the plant recently, so I was surprised to hear that one of them had a virus.  Jasper told me that the IT guy was up in Bill Green’s office.  Bill Green was the plant manager.

Bill Green

Bill Green

As I was leaving Jasper’s office, I paused and turned around and asked Jasper one last question….. “Do you want me to only remove the CompuServe application, or do you want me to stop accessing CompuServe? Because I can access CompuServe without the application on the computer.  The application just makes it easier to navigate around.”  This question puzzled Jasper.  He said he would have to get back at me on that.  — So, at that point (I thought to myself), I’ll wait until Jasper gets back to me on that before I remove the software.

I knew that he knew nothing about computers, and I knew that this would confuse him.  That’s why I asked it.  I wanted him to know that if he made me remove CompuServe because he was mad at me for making my smartaleck remark about moving the computer to Ponca City it wasn’t going to make much difference to me anyway.

So, I walked back up to him as he was sitting at his desk, and I said, “Jasper.  I know that I’m the only person in this plant that has given you a list of all the programs on the computer I use.  I let you know every time I even upgrade to a new version.  I am the only person in the plant that follows the rules when it comes to what is on the computers.  I know that there has been personal software added to just about every computer at this plant.  I am the only person that has told you what software I am using.  So, just keep it mind that you are trying to punish the only person that is following the rules.”  Then I left.

I went upstairs to Bill Green’s office where I found the IT guy running a scan on Bill’s computer.  I asked him about the virus he found.  He said that he was running a Microsoft virus scanner on the computers and on the one in the chemists lab, there was one file that was questionable.  The scan said it was a possible virus, but couldn’t tell what virus it was.

I asked the IT guy what the name of the file was.  He handed me a posted note with the file name on it.  I recognized it right away.  It was a GLink file.  GLink is the application that we used to access the mainframe computer in order to work on our Maintenance Orders, or to look up parts, and any other computer related activities.

This is GLink today.  Back then it was for Windows 3.1

This is GLink today. Back then it was for Windows 3.1

I had been given a beta test version of GLink that I installed on the Chemists computer for Toby O’Brien about a year earlier when he asked me to help him find a way to connect to the Prime computer downtown so that he could work on CAD drawings from the plant.  IT had sent this Beta version of GLink to me because it could connect to the switch twice as fast as the current GLink and they were glad to let us try it out.

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend - Toby O'Brien

Power Plant Engineer and Good Friend – Toby O’Brien

About that time, Bill Green came into the office and I told him that the “supposed” virus on the Chemist computer was given to us by IT and that it probably wasn’t a virus anyway, it just acted like one because it connected to a switch a certain way which was unusual.  The IT guy was still standing there and he agreed that it just indicated that it might be a virus and probably wasn’t really one.

Then I told Bill Green that Jasper had told me to remove CompuServe from the computer in our shop.  He said that he and Jasper had talked about it and were concerned that I might download a virus from CompuServe.  I assured him that I only downloaded stock prices and MSDS sheets (Material Safety Data Sheets) from OSHA.  Everything I downloaded was in text format and would not contain a virus.

The IT guy agreed that at that time, CompuServe was very careful about viruses as they had been hit with one about 6 months earlier.  Now they scanned everything they let you download.  Bill said, “Well, that’s between you and Jasper.”  —  That’s all I needed to hear.  I knew that Jasper would forget about it and never “get back with me” on it.

As you can tell, if you’ve been reading the posts this year, I am constantly becoming more involved in computers at this point in my career.  For good or bad, it was a concern for people like Jasper and Bill.  I knew a lot more than they did to the point that they would call me to help them learn how to use their computers.  They didn’t know if they could trust me.  Luckily for them, even though I was mischievous, I wouldn’t do anything to invade someone’s privacy, or hurt plant operations.

It did seem like I was always in trouble over one thing or another.  It was often brought on by someone’s misunderstanding about what the problem really was, and their feeble incorrect attempt to fix it…. and… well….(let’s face it) my big mouth.

Power Plant Conspiracy Theory

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…

I love this picture!

I love this picture! — not our plant but may be part of the conspiracy

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:

Helen Robinson is third from the left in the back row.

Jack Maloy is standing on the far right with the vertically striped shirt (like bars in a jail) directly behind Merl Wright – Coincidence?  I think not.

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”.

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

A Motorola Walkie Talkie like this

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).

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

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 the Shift Supervisor in California working with his Control Room operator trying to divert a disaster

Here is Jack the Shift Supervisor in California working with his Control Room operator trying to divert a disaster

Here is Jack Maloy and Merl Wright from the team picture above:

Jack Maloy and Merl Wright

Jack Maloy and Merl Wright

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.

Wilford Brimley in the movie playing the same job as Merl Wright

Wilford Brimley in the movie playing the same job as Merl Wright

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:

The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome

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.

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?

Or…

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.

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!