Building Power Plants for America

After spending six months with my mother in Puerto Rico*, then a year with her  in Albuquerque, which she never really took to, and then helping her move to Manitou Springs in Colorado, I was finally free to relocate my own path in life and to follow it wherever it led.  I had started practicing the Transcendental Meditation program in 1970 and not long afterwards I decided that what I really wanted to do was to learn to be a teacher of the technique. So there I was, several years later with the desire still smoldering in my breast. I think that’s what it was. Or else it was the longest-lasting case of heartburn in medical history.

In order to become a TM Teacher you had to attend and pass a three-month Teacher Training Course. They were held in Europe. Between course fees, plane fares, and other expenses, I would need about $2000 which was $1995 more than I had to my name. I was going to have to look for a job.

I asked around and found out that a couple of my friends, Dave and Randy, were working on the Jim Bridger Power Plant which was under construction 35 miles east of Rock Springs, Wyoming. I called them up and they explained not only that the project was hiring and how to apply for work, but offered to share a house trailer they were renting in the little hamlet of Superior not far from the plant. All I had to do was make my way to Rock Springs, find the Laborers’ Union Hall and sign up. After that was done, Randy would meet me and give me a ride out to Superior.

I went to see the Old Man to ask if he could give me $30 to cover my bus fare and a few days’ living expenses until my first paycheck. He and I had not been on the best of terms when I left town two years before, but I thought that with the passage of time his feelings might have mellowed enough that he could be convinced to part with the cash. Especially since it would mean that I was actually getting a real job and that I would be leaving town again. It was good that I was not expecting an open-arms, return of the Prodigal Son-type reception; because the gimlet-eye and a few harrumphs were all I got.

After hearing my spiel, he replied with a few thinly-veiled slurs on my character. Finally he told me that he supposed he could see his way clear to the thirty dollars, but it would not be a gift, only a loan. Not, in his words, being able to trust me farther than he could kick an anvil, he had me sign an IOU for the money. I then proceeded down to the Greyhound Bus station and purchased a ticket for Rock Springs.

The Bechtel Corporation is the largest construction company in the United States. They built Hoover Dam in the early 30’s and have been involved in nearly every megaproject in the world since then. They had won the bid to build a huge, coal-fired power plant in South Central Wyoming in the early 1970’s. The facility was to be called the Jim Bridger Power Plant. It would have its own nearby strip mine and produce 2,110 megawatts of electricity – enough to power more than 2 million homes.

The Bechtel Corporation is fully unionized. Every person who did any physical labor on the project belonged to one of the many construction unions. Each of these unions had responsibility for one particular phase of the construction process and anyone from another union was forbidden to do any work outside of this “job description.” If it was made of metal and directly attached to a motor, only a member of the Operating Engineers Union could touch it. If it was metal and not attached to a motor, only an Ironworker could put his paws on it. If a Pipefitter was caught nailing a small chunk of plywood over a hole in his work shack, the Carpenters’ Union could call a wildcat strike and all hell would break loose.

The Laborer’s Union Hall – a cramped office, one flight up in an old, creaky building – was a short walk from the Rock Springs Bus Station. Usually, someone just joining the Union has to wait until all the available jobs have been taken by more senior union members. If there is nobody else waiting, then you get the job. The demand for Laborers at the new Plant was so strong that I was instantly hired and told to report to work the following Monday. Randy picked me up that evening and took me out to the trailer house in Superior.

The trailer was old, saggy, and funky, but it was cheap and had three little bedrooms as well as the smallest bathtub I have ever seen. It was more than adequate for the purpose and I was grateful.

On Monday, at the Bechtel on-site office, I was given a yellow hard hat and a roll of ½” orange tape. I was told to put a loop of the tape around the hard hat, give the remainder back, and then go and find the General Foreman for Laborers. He would be on the ground floor of Unit One and also wearing a yellow hard hat with orange tape around it. But his hat would have two vertical orange stripes on each side.

After several days of sweeping up and fetch-and-carry, I began to notice the similarities between working on a large union job and being in the military**. The people who worked for the Bechtel Corporation directly all wore clean dress shirts and white hard hats. They were the Officer Class. They gave the orders, but never got their hands dirty. The Union guys were the Enlisted Men. We all wore yellow hard hats with colored tape, each trade with its own color – red for the Pipefitters, blue for the Teamsters, green for the Ironworkers and so on. The Crew Foremen were the Corporals with a single vertical piece of colored tape on each side of their helmets… er, hard hats. The General Foremen, with two stripes, were the Sergeants. For an example of how this works, picture a crew of Pipefitters running a line of pipe along a high ceiling on the Ninth Level and finding a small pile of trash in the way of their rolling scaffolding. After reporting this to their Foreman, they then sit down and break out the coffee and donuts. The Pipefitters’ Foreman contacts his General Foreman who in turn locates the Laborers’ General Foreman, who tracks down the closest Laborers’ Foreman and tells him the situation. This Foreman then sends two of his men, in this case Swedish Tom and me, up to the Ninth Level to clean up the pile.

When we arrive, probably about 45 minutes after the call went out; we find the Pipefitters all sitting around slurping coffee and telling rude jokes. As we start to move the pile, one of the ‘Fitters gets up and saunters over to us.

“Hey guys,” he says all friendly-like, “we appreciate the show, but there really ain’t no need to bust your asses over this. Relax, lunch isn’t for an hour yet.”

We shrug him off and continued at the same pace. The most important thing I learned on that job is how to work. Find a good pace and stay with it. Don’t get in a frenzy to finish, but don’t spend your time looking for opportunities to screw off. To a loafer, an eight hour day can seem like twelve.

Working man’s humor can be rough but also hysterical. One day in October I was riding up the Lift – a temporary elevator attached to the side of the building to move men and material – and couldn’t help overhearing two Pipefitters on the same elevator. They were grousing about the lack of safety precautions on the job.

“Yer right, Carl,” one of the two pronounced. “This job is about as safe as wipin’ yore ass on a broke fruit jar.”

His point was born out only a few days later when a skid-steer loader, called a Bobcat, slid off a temporary road and rolled down the embankment. It landed in soft dirt completely upside-down. Everybody within running distance came to help and a small crowd quickly gathered around the overturned vehicle.

“Halp!” came a voice, “get me outta here!”

“You okay in there? Anything busted?”

“I’m just goddamn dandy! I’m hangin’ bottom-side-up by the seat belt.”

Just then a cherry-picker crane truck pulled up and started telescoping the boom out and dropping the hook over the accident. Hanging from the hook was a steel-wire choker cable. Common on construction sites, a choker cable is about four feet long with a permanent loop at each end. To use it you push one loop under a sturdy part of whatever you want to pick up, and then drop both loops over the crane’s hook. A piece of pie. Easy as cake.

They say you can put an egg on the ground and a legendary Crane Operator can drop his choker cable right on it without cracking the shell. This Operator was nearly that good as he had placed, within seconds, his hook and cables in perfect position over the Bobcat’s rear axle.

Then somebody looked around and said, “Is there an Ironworker here?”

Everyone looked around in vain for green tape on a hard hat. Then they shrugged their shoulders and sat down while someone shouted to the luckless Bobcat driver, “None of us are Ironworkers so we can’t touch the choker cable. A man’s gone to find his Foreman and he’ll talk to his General Foreman. Don’t worry. Somebody will be here soon.”

So while the muffled voice of the Bobcat driver kept up a steady stream of angry invective, the small crowd of men sat down on the embankment, lit up cigarettes, and waited for an Ironworker.

By mid-November I was feeling a little bit down. In the four months I had been building Power Plants for America I had saved only about $500. Winter was coming and I didn’t want to be cleaning up piles of trash for those next few horrendously cold months, let alone for another year which was what it would take to reach my goal. That was when I got a phone call from my good friend Deb. We had both started TM at about the same time, but in different parts of the country.

“Tim,” she bubbled. “I’m going to Teacher Training in December and you have to come too!”

“I wish I could, Deb, I really do. But I don’t think I can make it.”

“Why not? We have to enlighten Wyoming. Just think of the good we can do.”

“Turn ‘em all into yogis? Yeah, that’d be cool. The spirit is willing but the wallet is weak. Of the two thousand bucks I think I’ll need I only have around five hundred. So I’m going to have to put it off for another year.”

“Put it off, my foot!” was her answer. “I have an extra 1500 that I’ll loan you and you don’t have to pay me back until after we’ve enlightened Wyoming. What do you say?

“I say YES. Absolutely. And thank you!” After I hung up I was doing a little happy dance around the kitchen which made my roommate Dave’s eyes roll.

“I don’t mind you being pleased with something,” he grumbled over his pancakes. “But do you have to act so damned silly?”

Six weeks later, wearing my only sport coat and tie and clutching my beat-up suitcase, I arrived at the Zon en Zee, the Hotel in Westende, Belgium where my Transcendental Meditation Teacher Training Course was just beginning.

*Click and read Coqui in the column to the right.

**Click and read Basic Training 1: Sergeant LaCroix in the column to the right

7 Replies to “Building Power Plants for America”

  1. Ahh yes, and there we were, at the Zon en Zee. And Wyoming? Enlightened yet? Poor Deb!
    Nancy and I are still working on Cali…gaining ground slowly, if the fires don’t run us off!
    Good stories! Thanks Tim!

    1. I heard a wag on our course, in a conversation about the weather, say “Since I’ve been here at the Zon en Zee, I’ve zeen the zee but I’ve zeldom zeen the zon.”

  2. Worked on a construction project one summer for Brown & Root, as a ‘painter’s helper’, constructing a trona processing plant, west of Green River, in the 70’s.

    Eeeevryone hated the painting crews–electricians, riggers, ironworkers, insulators, etc.–for obvious reasons and made fun of our pink hard hats!

    Learned a lot though, and the pay was great!

    1. I think the painters on Jim Bridger had yellow hats but pink tape. What’s with the pink?

  3. Great story. And true. It got so to distinguish which work belonged to pipe-fitters versus boiler makers you had to find a rabbi.
    Sheesh. I must have still been in that grouchy Laramie mode. Rusty started it. After all the la-la hippie groovy drek it was liberating to throw it off and call everyone tweeks for awhile.

    1. It was fun, wasn’t it. I still wonder, did he ruin us? Or make the scales fall from our eyes?

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