Tag Archives: Welders

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where John Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as I fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Power Plant Harbinger of D-Day on the Horizon

During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again. The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real. We had painted ourselves into a corner. The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day). The reason was that we had been very successful. The outcome was ironic.

I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks. In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce. I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.

Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.

At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers. At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west. It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think). This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.

The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes. We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue). The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel. It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.

An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date. They could leave with full retirement benefits. The rest? Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).

This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“). The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).

So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden? We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity. This was controlled by the government. We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest. So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country? Were we really that good?

I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation. The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.

Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60 Though revenue had gone up by $29 million. This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue. The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.

A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers. We had instituted the “Quality Process”. I explained this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies. Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.

When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss. So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:

For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link: “Always On My Mind

As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing. We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant. After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around. In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha). Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring. So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department. I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.

As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line. It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should. This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.

I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package. Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed. It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most. I will list some here. I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.

Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood. Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most. I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.

Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude. One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help. Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us. We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177. Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car. For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).

Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“). He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.

We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone. I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank. Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.

The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go. Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994: Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”) See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“. Mike Grayson was let go. I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help. He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).

Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma. Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.

The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.

A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason? Someone can correct me). One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa. They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car. Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car. So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there. It was. So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.

Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go. He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing. The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over. He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.

I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any. Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post). — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below). Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.

I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package. Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him. So, he stayed around for many years.

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

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt. Sure. He looks young here, but when this picture was taken, he was probably 85 years old. That’s Dave Tarver in the middle in the back row standing next to Darrell Low and Jim Mullin with the blue checkered shirt.

One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired. When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved. Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.

About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated. I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up. The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat. Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.

Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out). Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken. He had been drinking. This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).

I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home. I was sorry to see him go. He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic. I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating. A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil. The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once. It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact. Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Ron Kilman December 6, 2014

      Yep, it was painful. At my exit meeting (where you signed all the paperwork) I asked Bill Green (in-coming Plant Manager) if I could come back to the plant to just visit with the remaining employees from time to time. Bill said “Only if you have official business”. Needless to say, I never returned.

 

    1. Dave Tarver December 8, 2014

      Most of the operators retired the two and one of the best operators that was let go was Jack Delaney during Jack’s tenure and said at his funeral this year, in his time at OG&E he never used one day of sick leave, he was let go for being reliable and dependable and for working overtime. Jim Kanelakos was also let go, Jim had come up clear from Janitor to be a very good operator he served as a startup operator at Conoco-Cogen facility as well. The Coal Yard was hit hard I cannot remember all their names but one whole crew Ferguson’s and Jack and Jim were on Vonzell Lynn’s crew that was the parallel crew to Ferguson’s down in the plant. Yes sir a very difficult thing.

      Before I left in 2012 – it was believed they wanted all those who were there in 94 to leave, as that is all that the new management heard and were tried of hearing it. I mean watching your friends escorted out by off duty law enforcement armed, their lives forever shaken to the core its a horrible thing! We were family before that fateful day!  Once the trust was violated you will never be able to return to that setting ever. Buffett loves a family style business, buys everyone he can find! our leaders threw it out the window and under the bus, gut em like Jack Welch unreal.

Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing.  Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees.  With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.

Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder.  I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing).  I knew we weren’t going to be working harder.  — What does that really mean anyway.  I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”.  Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one.  After all, he never really took a course in motivational speaking.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other.  They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals.  I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.

I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input.  For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team.  That was disbanded immediately.  We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work).  The Safety Task Force did survive.

We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone.  It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out.  This was actually a good idea.  I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections.  Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.

It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.

We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections.  That was not our responsibility.  It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead.  I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”.  The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less.  The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work.  We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do).  Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”.  I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.

We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop.  We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop.  We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional.  We are all Maintenance now.  No longer specialized (sort of).

We were going to have four Maintenance teams.  Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people.  Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.

An electrician will learn how to tack weld.  A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire.  An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe.  We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.

When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet.  Actually, this was just a first pass.  The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done.  I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.

One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster.  We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post:  “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“).  We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work.  We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us.  They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).

As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes.  First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics.  We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.

Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks.  Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies.  The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.

Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message.  I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone.  I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone.  The Phone number by the way is:  (405) 553-29??.  Oh.  I can’t remember the last two digits.  🙂

Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well.  I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great.  The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.

Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared to the old conventional way we used to work.  I will start by describing how we used to do things….  Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…

Horizontal pump

Horizontal pump

— start here —

An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.).  It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics.  (start the clock here).  When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem.  Yep.  The pump is not working.  They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.

A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor.  The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it.  They finally assign it to a team to go work on it.  Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O.  The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump.  The next day the electrician unwires the motor.  They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.

The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired.  When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump.  At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.

The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.

A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both.  So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain — Machinist Extraordinaire

The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready.  When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back.  Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.

The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.

During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back.  So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.

The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.

George Clouse

George Clouse – Welding Wizard

They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.

The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up.  After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction.  An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor.  The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor.  Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.

The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service.  The M.O.s are completed.

—  End here.  The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —

Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).

— Start here —

The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard.  A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired.  He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump.  The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.

The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance.  When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor.  While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside.  The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on.  If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump.  It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump.  Any machinist work is done at that time.

When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on.  The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor.  The operators are called to bump test the motor.  As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed.  The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.

— End here.  The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks.  Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —

The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority.  We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work.  This was a fantastic change from working in silos.

This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”.  Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase.  To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”.  Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams.  I have seen them work successfully.  There was only one catch which I will talk about later.  This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet!  So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when I was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where john Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as i fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Power Plant Harbinger of D-Day on the Horizon

During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again. The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real. We had painted ourselves into a corner. The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day). The reason was that we had been very successful. The outcome was ironic.

I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks. In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce. I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.

Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.

At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers. At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west. It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think). This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.

The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes. We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue). The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel. It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.

An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date. They could leave with full retirement benefits. The rest? Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).

This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“). The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).

So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden? We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity. This was controlled by the government. We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest. So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country? Were we really that good?

I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation. The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.

Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60 Though revenue had gone up by $29 million. This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue. The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.

A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers. We had instituted the “Quality Process”. I explained this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies. Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.

When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss. So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:

For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link: “Always On My Mind

As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing. We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant. After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around. In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha). Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring. So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department. I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.

As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line. It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should. This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.

I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package. Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed. It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most. I will list some here. I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.

Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood. Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most. I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.

Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude. One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help. Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us. We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177. Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car. For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).

Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“). He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.

We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone. I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank. Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.

The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go. Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994: Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”) See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“. Mike Grayson was let go. I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help. He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).

Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma. Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.

The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.

A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason? Someone can correct me). One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa. They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car. Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car. So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there. It was. So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.

Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go. He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing. The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over. He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.

I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any. Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post). — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below). Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.

I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package. Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him. So, he stayed around for many years.

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

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt. Sure. He looks young here, but when this picture was taken, he was probably 85 years old. That’s Dave Tarver in the middle in the back row standing next to Darrell Low and Jim Mullin with the blue checkered shirt.

One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired. When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved. Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.

About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated. I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up. The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat. Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.

Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out). Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken. He had been drinking. This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).

I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home. I was sorry to see him go. He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic. I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating. A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil. The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once. It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact. Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Ron Kilman December 6, 2014

      Yep, it was painful. At my exit meeting (where you signed all the paperwork) I asked Bill Green (in-coming Plant Manager) if I could come back to the plant to just visit with the remaining employees from time to time. Bill said “Only if you have official business”. Needless to say, I never returned.

 

    1. Dave Tarver December 8, 2014

      Most of the operators retired the two and one of the best operators that was let go was Jack Delaney during Jack’s tenure and said at his funeral this year, in his time at OG&E he never used one day of sick leave, he was let go for being reliable and dependable and for working overtime. Jim Kanelakos was also let go, Jim had come up clear from Janitor to be a very good operator he served as a startup operator at Conoco-Cogen facility as well. The Coal Yard was hit hard I cannot remember all their names but one whole crew Fergusons and Jack and Jim were on Vonzell Lynns crew that was the parallel crew to fergusons down in the plant. Yes sir a very difficult thing.

      Before I left in 2012 – it was believed they wanted all those who were there in 94 to leave, as that is all that the new management heard and were tried of hearing it. I mean watching your friends escorted out by off duty law enforcement armed, their lives forever shaken to the core its a horrible thing! We were family before that fateful day!  Once the trust was violated you will never be able to return to that setting ever. Buffett loves a family style business, buys everyone he can find! our leaders threw it out the window and under the bus gut em like Jack Welch unreal.

Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing.  Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees.  With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.

Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder.  I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing).  I knew we weren’t going to be working harder.  — What does that really mean anyway.  I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”.  Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other.  They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals.  I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.

I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input.  For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team.  That was disbanded immediately.  We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work).  The Safety Task Force did survive.

We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone.  It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out.  This was actually a good idea.  I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections.  Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.

It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.

We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections.  That was not our responsibility.  It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead.  I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”.  The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less.  The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work.  We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do).  Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”.  I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.

We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop.  We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop.  We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional.  We are all Maintenance now.  No longer specialized (sort of).

We were going to have four Maintenance teams.  Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people.  Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.

An electrician will learn how to tack weld.  A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire.  An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe.  We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.

When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet.  Actually, this was just a first pass.  The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done.  I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.

One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster.  We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post:  “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“).  We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work.  We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us.  They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).

As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes.  First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics.  We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.

Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks.  Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies.  The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.

Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message.  I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone.  I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone.  The Phone number by the way is:  (405) 553-29??.  Oh.  I can’t remember the last two digits.  🙂

Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well.  I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great.  The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.

Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared to the old conventional way we used to work.  I will start by describing how we used to do things….  Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…

Horizontal pump

Horizontal pump

— start here —

An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.).  It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics.  (start the clock here).  When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem.  Yep.  The pump is not working.  They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.

A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor.  The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it.  They finally assign it to a team to go work on it.  Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O.  The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump.  The next day the electrician unwires the motor.  They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.

The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired.  When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump.  At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.

The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.

A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both.  So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain — Machinist Extraordinaire

The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready.  When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back.  Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.

The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.

During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back.  So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.

The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.

George Clouse

George Clouse – Welding Wizard

They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.

The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up.  After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction.  An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor.  The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor.  Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.

The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service.  The M.O.s are completed.

—  End here.  The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —

Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).

— Start here —

The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard.  A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired.  He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump.  The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.

The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance.  When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor.  While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside.  The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on.  If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump.  It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump.  Any machinist work is done at that time.

When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on.  The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor.  The operators are called to bump test the motor.  As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed.  The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.

— End here.  The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks.  Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —

The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority.  We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work.  This was a fantastic change from working in silos.

This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”.  Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase.  To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”.  Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams.  I have seen them work successfully.  There was only one catch which I will talk about later.  This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet!  So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.

Power Plant Harbinger of D-Day on the Horizon

During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again. The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real. We had painted ourselves into a corner. The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day). The reason was that we had been very successful. The outcome was ironic.

I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks. In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce. I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.

Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.

At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers. At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west. It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think). This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.

The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes. We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue). The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel. It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.

An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date. They could leave with full retirement benefits. The rest? Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).

This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“). The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).

So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden? We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity. This was controlled by the government. We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest. So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country? Were we really that good?

I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation. The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.

Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60 Though revenue had gone up by $29 million. This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue. The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.

A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers. We had instituted the “Quality Process”. I explained this in the post: “A Change for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“. One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies. Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.

When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss. So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:

For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link: “Always On My Mind

As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing. We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant. After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around. In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha). Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring. So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department. I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.

As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line. It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should. This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.

I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package. Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed. It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most. I will list some here. I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.

Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood. Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most. I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.

Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude. One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help. Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us. We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177. Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car. For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).

Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“). He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.

We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone. I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank. Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.

The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go. Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994: Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”) See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“. Mike Grayson was let go. I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help. He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).

Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma. Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.

The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.

A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason? Someone can correct me). One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa. They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car. Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car. So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there. It was. So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.

Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go. He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing. The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over. He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.

I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any. Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post). — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below). Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.

I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package. Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him. So, he stayed around for many years.

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

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt. Sure. He looks young here, but when this picture was taken, he was probably 85 years old. That’s Dave Tarver in the middle in the back row standing next to Darrell Low and Jim Mullin with the blue checkered shirt.

One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired. When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved. Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.

About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated. I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up. The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat. Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.

Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out). Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken. He had been drinking. This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).

I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home. I was sorry to see him go. He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic. I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating. A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil. The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once. It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact. Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.

Comments from the original post:

    1. Ron Kilman December 6, 2014

      Yep, it was painful. At my exit meeting (where you signed all the paperwork) I asked Bill Green (in-coming Plant Manager) if I could come back to the plant to just visit with the remaining employees from time to time. Bill said “Only if you have official business”. Needless to say, I never returned.

 

    1. Dave Tarver December 8, 2014

      Most of the operators retired the two and one of the best operators that was let go was Jack Delaney during Jack’s tenure and said at his funeral this year, in his time at OG&E he never used one day of sick leave, he was let go for being reliable and dependable and for working overtime. Jim Kanelakos was also let go, Jim had come up clear from Janitor to be a very good operator he served as a startup operator at Conoco-Cogen facility as well. The Coal Yard was hit hard I cannot remember all their names but one whole crew Fergusons and Jack and Jim were on Vonzell Lynns crew that was the parallel crew to fergusons down in the plant. Yes sir a very difficult thing.

      Before I left in 2012 – it was believed they wanted all those who were there in 94 to leave, as that is all that the new management heard and were tried of hearing it. I mean watching your friends escorted out by off duty law enforcement armed, their lives forever shaken to the core its a horrible thing! We were family before that fateful day!  Once the trust was violated you will never be able to return to that setting ever. Buffett loves a family style business, buys everyone he can find! our leaders threw it out the window and under the bus gut em like Jack Welch unreal.

Sky Climbing in the Dark with Power Plant Boiler Rats

Originally Posted July 26, 2013:

I suppose everyone at some point in their life wishes they could work at Disney World or some other place where there is one wonder after another throughout their day. Working in the Power Plant was a lot like that…. sometimes….. I have mentioned a few times that when you drove through the gate to the coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma each morning, you never knew what was in store for that day. It was often a surprise. Sometimes the surprise was a wonder. Sometimes it was well…. surreal.

This is a story about one day in October 1986 during an overhaul while I was a plant electrician, where I entered a world totally foreign to just about anything I had encountered before. You may think this is an odd statement if you have read some of my other posts where I have found myself in oddly dangerous situations and my life was in the balance. Well…. this is one of those stories, with a new twist.

As I said, we were on overhaul. This meant that one of the two units was offline and major repairs were taking place to fix things that can only be done when the unit isn’t running. The two major areas of repair are the Turbine Generator and the Boiler. People come from the other plants to help out and get paid a lot of overtime working long hours to complete this feat.

At this time I was working on motors in the electric shop. I had been removing the fan motors from the large General Electric Transformer for Unit 1. Changing their bearings and testing them. Then putting them back in place. The transformer had 24 of these motors, so after the first few, the work was becoming pretty routine.

A Main Power Transformer

A Main Power Transformer

Somewhere between the 11th or 12th motor David McClure came into the shop. I think he may have been on the labor crew at the time. He had only been working at the plant for about 8 months. He was a welder, so I think if he had been on labor crew, they had quickly moved him into the welding shop because anybody with welding skills were always in high demand.

David told me that Bill Bennett had told him to ask me to help out with a problem in the boiler. Now. when i was on the labor crew, I had been in the boiler during an overhaul. I had worked on shaking tubes in the reheat section and cleaning the clinkers out of the economizer section. You can read about these moments of mania in the posts: “Bob Lillibridge Meets the Boiler Ghost” and “Cracking a Boiled Egg in the Boiler and Other Days You Wish You Could Take Back“.

During those times I knew that something was taking place in the superheat section of the boiler, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it was. You see, even when I was in the bottom ash hopper when it was being sandblasted, there was a wooden floor that had been put in above the hopper so that you couldn’t see the boiler overhead. This was the first time I was going to go into the boiler to actually work on something other than laying down the floor (which I had been lucky enough to do once when I was working on the labor crew).

Diagram of a boiler

Diagram of a boiler

So, I grabbed my tool bucket and David took me up to the main entrance into the boiler which was next to the door where Chuck Ross and Cleve Smith had been blown off of the landing by the Boiler Dragon six years earlier when I was a summer help (see the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past go to Fight Dragons Today?“). About 40 feet up from the concrete floor we climbed into the boiler.

This is where I first came face to face with Boiler Rats. These rats live in a boiler when it is taken offline. Shortly after the boiler is cooled down, these “boiler rats” move in and they spend the next 4 or 10 weeks (depending on the length of the overhaul), roaming around the boiler sniffing out boiler tubes that are in need of repair.

Some lights had been placed around the bottom of the boiler to shine up the 200 feet to the top of the boiler. That is the height of a 20 story building. Yes. That’s right. The inside of the boiler is as tall as a 20 story building. I couldn’t really see what was going on up there toward the top, but there was a boiler rat standing right there in the middle of the wooden floor staring at me with the grin (or snarl) that is typical of a rat. Not a cute rat like this:

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Rat from the Movie Ratatouille

Or even a normal rat like this:

Normal looking rat

Normal looking rat

No. These rats looked like Ron Hunt wearing his hillbilly teeth. More like this:

rat from kootation

rat picture taken from kootation.com

Yep. Red eyes and all, only the whiskers were longer. I would go into how the boiler rats smelled, but I didn’t want to get too personal….

Anyway, this one boiler rat that had been waiting for me said that he had just finished rigging up this sky climber so that he could take me up into the upper reaches of the dark to work on a sky climber that was stuck. He had rigged this sky climber up so that it would pull up next to the one that was hung up by the bottom of the high pressure boiler tubes that were hanging out over the top of the boiler.

If you have ever seen Window washers going up and down the side of a building washing windows, then you know what a sky climber is.

A sky climber

A sky climber

You see, the boiler rats would ride these sky climbers up from the wooden floor to the boiler tubes hanging down from the ceiling of the boiler. One had stopped working and they needed an electrician to go up and fix it so that they could continue working. That was my job…. I carry a badge…. oh… wait… that’s Sergeant Friday on Dragnet… I carry a tool bucket that doubles as a trash can and triples as a stool.

So, I climbed into the sky climber and up we went. I could see faint lights up above me where boiler rats were working away cutting and welding boiler tubes. As we took off, one of the boiler rats said that a little while just before I had arrived, someone from above had dropped a tool that came flying down and stuck right into the wooden plank floor. It had landed about 10 feet from another boiler rat. This answered a question that I had for some time…. it turned out to be true… Boiler Rats do have Guardian Angels too.

Anyway, Up into the darkness we went. The boiler rat (I believe this one was called Rodney… as in Rodney Meeks) operated the sky climber as I just enjoyed the ride. Looking down, I saw the spot lights getting smaller and dimmer. Looking up, I saw us approaching a group of hanging boiler rats, all doing their stuff. Some were resting. Some were welding. Some were looking off into space in a daze after having been in the boiler for so long they had forgotten their name.

There were names for these rats. One was called T-Bone. Another was called ET. There was a guy there called Goosman. Another boiler rat was called Frazier. I think it was John Brien that was staring off into space at the time, or was it Butch Ellis. Oh. Now I remember. Butch was on one sky climber staring off into space at the other sky climber where john Brien was staring back at him.

There were many other boiler rats there from other plants. They were all hanging down from the top of the boiler on these sky climbers like fruit hanging from a tree in the dark. Most of them paid no attention to my arrival.

We pulled up to the sky climber that was broken. I swung over the couple of feet from the one climber to the other, with a straight drop of about 160 feet down to the floor. I looked below so that I could calculate that in case I slipped and fell, how I would try to swing my body just as i fell so as to miss any boiler rats below. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset any boiler rat families by falling on their boiler rat breadwinners.

By Swinging my tool bucket toward the other sky climber, I followed the momentum so that it carried me over to the other platform, where I swung my bucket over the railing and climbed in. Once settled, I took out my flashlight so that I could look around my new six or eight foot world.

I tried the controls, and sure enough… nothing happened. Remembering my dropped flashlight almost exactly three years earlier that had almost cost me my life (see post: “Angel of Death Passes By The Precipitator Door“), I took extra care not to drop any tools on some unsuspecting souls below.

I took out my multimeter and checked the voltage coming into the main junction box and found that the problem was in the connect where the cable came into the box. So, this turned out to be a fairly easy fix. The cord had been pulled by something (geez. It was only hanging down 200 feet. I don’t know what might have been pulling on it) and had worked its way out of the connections.

I told Rod that I would be able to fix this quickly and went to work removing the connector from the cable, cutting off the end and preparing it to be reconnected to the connector. It was about that time that I became aware of something that had been going on since I had arrived, I just hadn’t noticed it. Maybe it was a remark one of the boiler rats had said. I think it was Goosman talking to Opal. He said something like “That George Jones can sure sing.”

That was it. That was the extra amount of strangeness that I had been experiencing since I had arrived. Someone had a radio that was playing country music. The music was echoing throughout the boiler so that all the hanging boiler rats could listen to it. I realized that Butch and Brien weren’t just staring off into space at each other. They were experiencing a moment of country music meditational bliss. The moment the current song was over someone off in the distance that I couldn’t see in the dark or because they were stuck up inside a rack of boiler tubes, let out a hoot of satisfaction. Butch and Brien rose and went back to work.

I have heard that it takes a village to raise a child…. Hillary Clinton even wrote a children’s book with that title once. I experienced something similar but strangely different that day in October 1986. A village of raised boiler rats, who for a moment, it seemed, some had stopped to sit by the welder’s campfire to listen to the tales being woven by the country music singer on the radio.

There was a sincere camaraderie between these individual boiler rats. A culture had grown inside this boiler that was completely foreign to me. I suppose the same thing happens to soldiers who put their lives on the line to protect our country. When you are in a position where one wrong step and someone dies. You bond to those around you in a unique way.

I am grateful for my brief encounter with the boiler rats that day. They had invited me into their lair because they needed my help. I was glad to have been able to fix there problem and be quickly on my way.

Though I never had a desire to become a boiler rat myself, during the many years where I walked alone throughout the inside of the precipitator I would sometimes hear the sounds coming down through the economizer from the Superheat section of the boiler. Maybe a faint hint of country music. I knew that the boiler rat village had come together again like a group of nomads that meet every winter to share stories. Sometimes I would take the plate straightening tool I carried and banged on the plates wondering if any of them would hear me way back up in the boiler. I doubt anyone ever did.

Comment from previous post:

  1. A.D. Everard August 3, 2014

    You tell a wonderful story and keep the reader spellbound. I love this sort of inside information!
    Coming to your blog has given me the same rush of excitement I get when I’m researching something and find a gem! Now I want to write about boiler rats! 🙂

Crossfunctional Power Plant Dysfunction

The coal-fired Power Plant in North Central Oklahoma had gone from 360 employees in 1987 down to 124 employees on August 1, 1994 after the second downsizing.  Monday morning when we arrived at work, the maintenance department met in the main break room to be told how we were going to survive the loss of 100 employees.  With only 7 electricians left, I kept trying to add up on my fingers how we could possibly keep up with all the work we had to do.

Jasper Christensen stood up and after saying that he understood how we must feel about our present situation, he told us that we will have to each work harder.  I shook my head in disbelief (inside my head only… I didn’t really shake my head, as it was frozen with the same blank stare everyone else was wearing).  I knew we weren’t going to be working harder.  — What does that really mean anyway.  I thought he should have said, “We will each have to work “smarter” because we can’t really work “harder”.  Jasper was a nice person, but he never really was much for words so I gave him a pass on this one.

Jasper Christensen

Jasper Christensen

Interestingly, the three people in charge at the plant, Jasper, Jim Arnold and Bill Green were all 53 years old, and only within 4 months in age from each other.  They all belonged to the “old school way of doing things” (see the post:  “From Pioneers to Power Plant Managers“).  As Jasper continued in his speech I noticed that gone was any talk of working together to achieve our goals.  I immediately felt that we had just rolled back our management to a time before our first downsizing in 1987 when the Evil Plant Manager used to rule the plant with an iron fist.

I felt this way because we were being told how we were going to change everything we do without giving any of our own input.  For instance, we would no longer have a Quality Action Team.  That was disbanded immediately.  We would no longer hold Quality Team meetings (we were also told that the Quality process was not going away, though we couldn’t see how it was going to work).  The Safety Task Force did survive.

We were also told that we would no longer fill out any forms unless they are requested by someone.  It seems that we had over 1,300 forms that were being filled out at the plant and most of them were never being used for anything, so, unless someone requested a form, we wouldn’t just fill them out for the sake of filling them out.  This was actually a good idea.  I know we filled out forms in triplicate each week when we did transformer and substation inspections.  Most of those were never looked at, I’m sure.

It turned out later that we needed only about 400 of the 1300 forms our plant was churning out each month.

We were told we wouldn’t be doing Substation inspections.  That was not our responsibility.  It would be done by the Transmission and Distribution division instead.  I was beginning to see how management was trying to figure out how 7 electricians were going to “work harder”.  The answer at the moment was that we were going to do less.  The purpose of the Substation and Transformer checks each week was to look for problems while they were minor instead of waiting for a catastrophe to happen.

We were told that we were not going to “Gold Plate” our work.  We were going to just do what it took to complete the task without worrying about polishing it up to make it “perfect” (which is what real Power Plant Men do).  Instead we were going to “Farm Fix it”.  I’ll go more into this subject with a separate post.

We were then told that we would no longer have an Electric Shop and an Instrument and Controls shop.  We would from then on all meet in the Mechanical Maintenance shop.  We were not supposed to go to the Electric Shop or the Instrument and Controls shops for breaks because we were all going to be cross-functional.  We are all Maintenance now.  No longer specialized (sort of).

We were going to have four Maintenance teams.  Each one will have mechanics, welders, machinists, electricians and Instrument and controls people.  Each member on each team would learn to do each other’s jobs to a degree.

An electrician will learn how to tack weld.  A mechanic will learn how to run conduit and pull wire.  An instrument and controls person will learn how to use the lathe.  We would each learn enough about each job in order to perform minor tasks in each area without having to call the expert in that skill.

When the meeting was over, we each met with our own foremen.  Alan Kramer was my new foreman.  He used to be a foreman in the Instrument and Controls shop.

Alan Kramer

Alan Kramer

It became apparent that even though Jasper had come across as if everything had already been decided and that this was the way it was going to be, things hadn’t really been ironed out yet.  Actually, this was just a first pass.  The main goal was for us to figure out how to get all the work done that needed to be done.  I was still an electrician and I was still responsible for working on electrical jobs.

One really good part of the new situation was that I was now on the same team as Charles Foster.  We had always been very good friends, but I hadn’t worked on the same team as Charles since my first year as an electrician in 1984, ten years earlier when he was my first foreman in the electric shop (See the post:  “New Home in the Power Plant Electric Shop“).  We were the two electricians on Alan Kramer’s team.

Charles Foster

Charles Foster

Besides the fact that everyone was very bitter over the despicable treatment of our fellow Power Plant Men that were laid off the previous Friday (see the post: “Power Plant Downsizing Disaster and the Left Behinds“), we knew that we had to figure out how to make this new arrangement work.  We knew our upper management was using the old tyrannical style of management, but we also knew that at this point, they needed every one of us.  They couldn’t go around firing us just because we spoke our mind (which was good for me, because, I was still in the process of learning how to keep my mouth shut when that was the most beneficial course of action).

As Dysfunctional as our upper management seemed to be at the moment, our new teams embraced the idea of our new Cross-Functional teams with some minor changes.  First, we still needed to see ourselves as electricians, instrument and controls, machinists, welders and mechanics.  We each had our own “certifications” and expertise that only a person with that trade could perform.

Charles and I would still go to the electric shop in the morning before work began, and during lunch and breaks.  Our electric equipment to perform our job was there, and we still needed to maintain a stock of electric supplies.  The same was true for the Instrument and Controls crew members.

Even today, after having been gone from the Power Plant for 13 1/2 years, the electric shop office phone still has my voice on the voice mail message.  I know, because a couple of years ago, when it was accidentally erased, Tim Foster (Charles Foster’s son), asked me to record a new message so they could put it back on the phone.  I considered that a great honor to be asked by True Power Plant Men to record their voice mail message on the electric shop phone.  The Phone number by the way is:  (405) 553-29??.  Oh.  I can’t remember the last two digits.  🙂

Once the kinks were worked out of the cross-functional team structure, it worked really well.  I just kept thinking…. Boy, if we only had a group of supportive upper management that put their plant first over their own personal power needs, this would be great.  The True Power Plant Men figured out how to work around them, so that in spite of the obstacles, within about 4 years, we had hit our stride.

Let me give you an example of how well the cross-functional teams worked compared the old conventional way we used to work.  I will start by describing how we used to do things….  Let’s say that a pump breaks down at the coal yard…

Horizontal pump

Horizontal pump

— start here —

An operator creates the Maintenance Order (M.O.).  It is eventually assigned to a crew of mechanics.  (start the clock here).  When they have time, they go to the coal yard to look over the problem.  Yep.  The pump is not working.  They will have to take it back to the shop to fix it.

A Maintenance Order is created for the electricians to unwire the motor.  The electricians receive the maintenance order and prioritize it.  They finally assign it to a team to go work on it.  Say, in one week from the time they received the M.O.  The electrician goes to the control room to request a clearance on the pump.  The next day the electrician unwires the motor.  They complete the maintenance order at the end of the day and send it back up to the A Foreman.

The completed electric maintenance order is sent back to the mechanics letting them know that the motor for the pump has been unwired.  When they receive it, a couple of days later, they schedule some time that week to go work on the pump.  At that time, they bring the motor to the electric shop so that it can be worked on at the same time.

The motor and the pump is worked on some time during the next week.

A machinist is needed to re-sleeve a bearing housing on either the motor or the pump or both.  So, an M.O. is created for the machinist to work on creating a sleeve in an end bell of the motor or the pump.

Gary (Stick) McCain

Gary (Stick) McCain — Machinist Extraordinaire

The electricians inform the mechanics when the motor is ready.  When they are done with the pump, and they have put it back in place, they put the motor back.  Then they create an M.O. for the Machinist to line up the motor and the pump before the coupling is installed.

The Machinists prioritize their work and at some point, let’s say a couple of days, they make it up to the motor and work on aligning the pump and the motor.

During the re-installation, it is decided that a bracket that has worn out needs to be welded back.  So, an M.O. is created for the welders to replace the bracket before the motor can be rewired.

The welders prioritize their work, and in a week (or two) they finally have time to go weld the bracket.

George Clouse

George Clouse – Welding Wizard

They return their M.O. completed to the mechanics who then tell the electricians that they can re-wire the motor.

The electricians prioritize their work and when they have time to go re-wire the motor, they wire it up.  After wiring it, they go to the control room to have the operators help them bump test the motor to make sure it runs in the right direction.  An entire day goes by until the electrician receives a call saying that the operator is ready to bump test the motor.  The electrician and/or mechanic meets the operator at the pump to bump test the motor.  Once this test is performed, the mechanic re-couples the motor.

The electrician then removes his clearance on the pump and it is put back into service.  The M.O.s are completed.

—  End here.  The time it took to repair the pump and put it back in service would commonly take one month —

Now see what happens when you have a cross-functional team working on it….(and be amazed).

— Start here —

The maintenance team receives a ticket (M.O.) from the planner that a pump is broken at the coal yard.  A mechanic goes and looks at it and determines it needs to be repaired.  He calls his Electrician Teammate and tells him that the motor needs to be unwired in order to fix the pump.  The electrician goes to the control room and takes a clearance on the pump.

The electrician then goes to the switchgear and waits for the operator to place the clearance.  When that is completed, the electrician goes to the pump and unwires the motor.  While there, he helps the mechanic pull the motor and put it aside.  The electrician determines there if the motor needs to be worked on.  If possible, it is repaired in place, or the motor is brought to the electric shop at the same time as the pump.  It is determined that the pump needs to be worked on, so they work together to bring it to the shop where the mechanics work on the pump.  Any machinist work is done at that time.

When the pump is being put back in place, the bracket is found broken, so they call the welder on their team who comes up and welds it back on.  The machinist comes with the electrician and the mechanic to align the motor.  The operators are called to bump test the motor.  As soon as the test is over, the coupling is installed.  The clearance is removed and the pump is put back in place.

— End here.  The pump can now be repaired within one week instead of four weeks.  Often the pump can be repaired in days instead of weeks. —

The reason why the cross-functional teams worked so well is that we all had the same priority.  We all had the same job and we had all the skills on our team to do all the work.  This was a fantastic change from working in silos.

This was “Working Smarter”, not “Working Harder”.  Ever since that day when we first learned that we had to “Work Harder” I always cringe when I hear that phrase.  To me, “Working Harder” means, “Working Dumber”.  Today I am a big advocate of Cross-Functional Teams.  I have seen them work successfully.  There was only one catch which I will talk about later.  This worked beautifully, but keep in mind… We had cross-functional teams made of the best Power Plant Men on the planet!  So, I may have a lopsided view of how successful they really work in the general public.

Power Plant Harbinger of D-Day on the Horizon

During the major overhaul on Unit 1 during the spring of 1994 in retrospect, there were signs that something similar to the downsizing at the Oklahoma Electric company that had happened in 1988 was coming around again.  The reason the company had to downsize was a little hard to swallow, but they were real.  We had painted ourselves into a corner.  The punishment was a downsizing (D-Day).  The reason was that we had been very successful.  The outcome was ironic.

I will save the details of the 1994 downsizing for a post in a few weeks.  In this post, I want to talk about the Power Plant Men, and how we all played an important part in bringing the demise of 50% of our own workforce.  I will also mention some of the True Power Plant Men that were let go because of the tremendous accomplishments achieved by those very same men.

Let me give you the rundown on the downsizing first before I list those Power Plant Men and Women who were “let go”.

At some point during the major overhaul we were led into the main break room and it was explained to us that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission had decided to lower the electric rates for our customers.  At that time, we were selling electricity just about as cheap as anyone in the mid-west.  It was explained to us that the Corporation Commission had studied our operation costs (using outdated data) and had decided that we no longer required the 5 cents per kilowatthour we were charging our customers and we would only be able to charge 4 cents from now on (I’m rounding I think).  This was a 20 percent reduction in our revenue.

The majority of our costs were fuel and taxes.  We couldn’t really reduce these costs (except for the obvious reduction in taxes that result from a lower revenue).  The only place we really could cut costs was in personnel.  It was a drop in the bucket compared to our other costs, but in order to produce electricity, we couldn’t really do without things like fuel, and transmission costs, etc. and the government wasn’t going to lower our taxes.

An early retirement package was presented to anyone 50 years old and older by a certain date.  They could leave with full retirement benefits.  The rest?  Well, we had to wait our fate which was to take place on August 1, 1994 (or more precisely, the previous Friday, July 29).

This was the major overhaul where the man had been engulfed in ash in the precipitator hopper (see the post: “Tragedy Occurs During Power Plant Safety Meeting“) and I had to meet with the man from OSHA (see the post: “The OSHA Man Cometh“).  The meeting in the break room took place about two weeks after our meeting with the Department of Labor in Oklahoma City (see the post: “Power Plant Men Summoned by Department of Labor“).

So, why do you think that the Oklahoma Corporation Commission thought that we were able to reduce our cost so drastically all of the sudden?  We were guaranteed by law a 10% profit as we could not set the cost for our own electricity.  This was controlled by the government.  We just presented to them our operating costs and they figured out the rest.  So, why did they think we could suddenly produce electricity cheaper than any other electric company in the country?  Were we really that good?

I could point out that there was an election coming up for one of the members on the Corporation Commission, and this would be something under his belt that he could use to win re-election, but that would only be speculation.  The truth was, we couldn’t maintain a 10% profit for our shareholders if we could only charge our customers 4 cents per kilowatthour.

Just as an example, in 1993, the electric company had made $2.72 per share for the shareholders, while by May 1994, we had only made $2.60  Though revenue had gone up by $29 million.  This was only a 7% profit based on the revenue.  The quarter after the first rate reduction (yeah, there were two) lowered the shareholder return to $2.12.

A year before the downsizing was announced the company had attempted to change their culture so that we could compete in a world where we didn’t have protected areas where we were guaranteed customers.  We had instituted the “Quality Process”.  I explained this in the post: “A Chance for Power Plant Men to Show Their Quality“.  One of the major goals for this change in “attitude” was to make us more competitive with other electric companies.  Well, even though we didn’t really like that the cost reduction was coming before we were ready, one way or the other, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission was going to hold us to that goal.

When describing some of the events that took place during this time, and discuss some of those Power Plant Men that were lost from our view, I feel like I should have some appropriate music playing in the background to express some sorrow for our own loss.  So, take a few minutes and listen to this song before proceeding, because, it sets the mood for what I am about to say:

For those who can’t view the youtube link, here is a direct link:  “Always On My Mind

As could be expected, all the Power Plant Men were on edge since we were getting ready for another downsizing.  We didn’t know how far down we were downsizing at the time, so we thought that by early retiring everyone 50 years and older, that this would take care of our plant.  After all, we had a lot of old fogies wandering around.  In the electric shop alone we had four who took the early retirement package (Mike Rose, Bill Ennis, Ted Riddle and O.D. McGaha).  Bill Bennett, our A foreman and Tom Gibson our Electric Supervisor were also retiring.  So, we were already losing 6 of the 16 people in our department.  I’m sure each group was doing their own calculations.

As I mentioned above, I will not dwell so much on the actual downsizing here other than to mention that it became clear that every attempt to help the company out by reducing cost through the quality process was not going to be applied to our bottom line.  It was going straight into the customer’s pocket, and maybe it should.  This did lower the incentive to be efficient if our company didn’t see a direct Return On Investment, but at this point, it was a matter of surviving.

I wasn’t so concerned about my friends that were taking the early retirement package.  Even though their long term plans were suddenly changed, they still were not left empty handed.  It was those Power Plant Men that were let go that were too young to retire that I missed the most.  I will list some here.  I regret that I don’t have their pictures, because, well, this was just at the start of the World Wide Web, and people didn’t take digital pictures back then.

Some of the welders that I missed the most were Duane Gray, Opal Ward (previously Brien), Jim Grant, J.D. Elwood and Donnie Wood.  Mike Crisp was the one Machinist that I missed the most.  I don’t remember if Jerry Dale was old enough to take the retirement package.

Jerry Dale always seemed to have a positive attitude.  One of the phrases I remember when thinking of Jerry was when he was driving me home when I was a summer help.  Sonny Kendrick was in the truck with us.  We had come upon a car that was travelling rather slow in Hwy 177.  Jerry grabbed the handle to shift into a different gear and asked me if he should put it into overdrive and just drive over the car.  For some reason, the look of total satisfaction when he said that has always stuck in my mind (or as Willie Nelson says, “You were always on my mind”).

Wayne Griffith was a dear friend that was on the Labor Crew (see the post: “Wayne Griffith and the Power Plant Computer Club“).  He was let go along with Gail Mudgett.

We lost both janitors, John Fry (a friend to everyone.  I recently wrote a post about John, “Power Plant Janitor John Fry Standing Guard as Floors Dry“) and Deanna Frank.  Charlotte Smith from the warehouse found a job at Corporate Headquarters in Oklahoma City.

The mechanics lost the most, because there were more of them, A few of these were able to transfer to other areas in the company but most of them were let go.  Here is the list of mechanics that were gone after August 1, 1994:  Two Toms, Tom Flanagan and Tom Rieman, I think they both found jobs in other areas, as did Preston Jenkins and Ken Conrad (who used to call me “Sweet Pea”)  See the post “Ken Conrad Dances with a Wild Bobcat“.  Mike Grayson was let go.  I still remember the first day Mike arrived when I was a summer help.  He was there when we were fighting the dragon (See the post: “Where Do Knights of the Past Go to Fight Dragons Today“).

Two other mechanics who were greatly missed were Martin Prigmore (because without him, we didn’t have a certified P&H crane operator… kind of overlooked that one), and Tony Talbott who was the kindest Power Plant Man from Perry, Oklahoma.  Martin Prigmore was later shot to death in Morrison Oklahoma in an encounter with his wife’s former husband.

The Instrument and Controls department lost Bill Gregory and Glen Morgan.

A side story about Glen Morgan (or was it Nick Gleason?  Someone can correct me).  One day, someone at the plant was listening to a Tulsa Radio Station when the news came on and said that the police were looking for Glen Morgan because he had just robbed a bank in Tulsa.  They said that he was from Stillwater, Oklahoma, and they described his car.  Whoever heard the radio told Glen that he was wanted for robbing a bank in his red car.  So, he called home and asked his wife to look in the garage to see if his car was still there.  It was.  So, he quickly called the Tulsa police department and let them know that they had the wrong man.

Gary Wehunt was the one electrician that was let go.  He had thought he was going to be picked 7 years earlier at the first downsizing.  The one accomplishment that he was most proud of when he left was that he didn’t have any sick leave left over.  He always made sure to take it as soon as he had accumulated a day.

I won’t list the operators that were downsized because I couldn’t tell which ones were old enough to retire or not and who was actually let go, if any.  Maybe Dave Tarver can add that as a comment below (I will discuss Gerald Ferguson’s crew in an upcoming post).  — Thanks Dave (see Dave’s comment below).  Jim Kanelakos (which I remembered vividly) and Jack Delaney.

I do know that this was the second downsizing that Gene Day was old enough to retire, but he never took the package.  Everyone knew he was as old as dirt, but for the obvious reason that everyone wanted to have him around for comic relief, no one ever considered the Power Plant could function without him.  So, he stayed around for many years.

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

Gene Day is the one standing on the right with the Orange shirt.  Sure.  He looks young here, but when this picture was taken, he was probably 85 years old.  That’s Dave Tarver in the middle in the back  row standing next to Darrell Low and Jim Mullin with the blue checkered shirt.

One thing about working in the Power Plant was that people were rarely fired.  When it did happen, alcohol was usually involved.  Sometimes a disability, such as was the case with Yvonne Taylor and Don Hardin.

About a year and a half before the downsizing one of the welders, Randy Schultz was let go because he repeatedly showed up to work intoxicated.  I don’t remember the details, but it did seem that he spent a lot of time sleeping in one of the old Brown and Root warehouses in order to sober up.  The company had to special order a hardhat for Randy because his head was too big for a standard hardhat.  Randy was later wounded by a gun shot in Stillwater Oklahoma during a fight in the middle of the night.

Doug Link showed up one night a couple of months before the downsizing for a “Condenser Party” (when one of the condensers is open while the unit is still online, and it is cleaned out).  Doug was ordering the workers to go into the condenser before all the safety precautions had been taken.  He had been drinking.  This was the night that I took Ray Eberle out to the Substation to light up the fluorescent bulbs (“See the post: “Switching in the Power Plant Substation Switchyard“).

I knew at the time that Doug was going through some hard times at home.  I was sorry to see him go.  He was one of the few engineers that took the time to listen to my incessant ramblings on just about any topic.  I was glad to learn that after a very difficult time, Doug picked himself back up and regained his integrity.

Doug Link

Doug Link

Whether a person is laid off or fired, the results can be devastating.  A person’s self-worth is suddenly shaken which throws the family into turmoil.  The Power Plant Men and Women that were left at the plant after the downsizing knew this, and we were forever changed by the loss of such a large number of friends that we considered family all at once.  It took us a couple of years to deal with the emotional impact.  Even to this day, I do my best to keep them on “always on my mind”.