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NIPSCO – Life Changing Time

Historical Posts representing Adventure Continues: Second Quarter

What was I thinking? I was a young professional enjoying a great lifestyle in Northwest Colorado. Yes, life was good, but I started thinking I could make it better, but to do that I would need to expand upon this new career as a chemist.

MitchelPlant

Dean Mitchell Power Station

So I started applying at other power plants around the country and an option that came up was to be a plant chemist at NIPSCO’s Mitchell Power Station in Gary, IN. So I rationalized that Gary would not be terrible and access to Chicago might be cool, etc, etc. We moved to the armpit of America in the Spring of 1980, finding a rental home in Hammond, IN, for my new job in Gary. It took about a week for us to start making plans for how we could get out of this place. I now understand how that young man with an adventurous spirit justified this move, but at that time I had no idea how life changing it would be.

I think the tone was set when I took my required physical exam for the job. I was from Indiana but I had changed into a free spirited mountain man from Colorado. During the exam the nurse asked me if I smoked. So my reply was, sure I smoked some marijuana occasionally, but never tobacco. It never crossed my mind that one should not divulge such information. So three days later I was asked to appear in the plant directors office where I was greeted by plant leadership. They asked me if I knew why I was there and I truly did not. They said, no one has ever answered the question about smoking the way I had. OK, now I realized what I had done and where I did it. I took a moment to speak, but then with great confidence I said: “Look at it this way, I am the most honest person that works here”. And they bought it. I assured them that I would never be under the influence of marijuana while at work and they could totally trust my work ethic. I still cannot believe that I did this, but I totally understand where my state of mind was that allowed me to.

Connie and I were making the best of this home. We rented a fairly cool old house in Hammond. Connie got a job as a legal secretary, we got to visit our family in Indiana, we checked out Chicagoland. I was enjoying the chemist job helping them create more standardized testing procedures.

Our pets were dominating our attention since Coco was about to have pups, Rusty was playing the father dog role and Barney the Cat was establishing his turf. Unfortunately, Barney did not understand the ways of the urban cat gangs. He had been missing for a few days when he showed up all torn up from fighting. We patched him up but he went right back out to retake his turf and we never saw him again. CocoPuppies80We were sad but also a bit impressed by Barney’s determination. Soon Coco had a litter of 12 cute australian shepherd puppies and we were knee deep in puppy poop in our basement. Unfortunately, Coco developed an infection that prevented her from caring for her pups as we might have hoped so Connie and I provided assistance with baby bottles. It was intense for a few weeks and we lost 2 of the pups, but soon we had crazy playful pups all over us.

If we had lived anywhere other than in the Chicago area we could have made some pretty good money off those pups, but soon it was just about finding them good homes, which we accomplished.

It was starting to warm up and the Indiana humidity combined with the industrial pollution of the area was motivating us all the more to escape this horrible place. AppleIIComputerLandA volcano named, Mt St Helens, erupted in the Northwest which created red skies in Chicago that looked like there was a fire in the heavens. Why were we here? But then I discovered a computer store called ComputerLand that was selling the Apple II computer. OMG, I could own a computer. I was obsessed and scraped together enough money to buy the Apple with a monitor, cassette tape drive and thermal printer. There were very few programs available so I started writing my own, quickly realizing that I could develop supporting programs for the chemist work we were doing. There was a dream evolving in my mind where I could envision my new evolving skill parlaying into a computer career. It was also about this time when our plant’s labor union decided to go on strike.

I quickly learned that a strike in the industrial armpit of America was a significant event. Unions in this area were in solidarity when it came to strikes, so when NIPSCO management did not budge and our workers went out on strike it was no longer safe for us non-union strike breakers to conduct our lives as usual. We went into a total plant lockdown where the administrators, supervisors and plant professionals took over responsibility for running the plant. Oh yes, and they paid us triple our salary which would financially pave the way for my exit.

This experience was fascinating to watch the process whereby company management had to prove that they did not need the union workers. The line was drawn and the two sides were facing off which is why we initially had to stay in the plant for like 10 days. Then it was something like out for 3 and in for 7 days at a time. Accomodations were made for us to sleep in areas converted to dorms, but I asked if I could bring my parent’s camping trailer on the property and stay there. 69ShastaTrailerAnd they said yes which sort of set things up for me to stay more independent which is what I had always been since I don’t think anyone else had ever taken a job there from Colorado. We went about our jobs along with some new assignments but we did have free time and everyone seemed to showcase some hobby or personal interest. A coworker who I had gotten to know was a serious saxophone player so I got to observe what that life looked like. For me it was about my computer but I also had this desire to play frisbee on the turbine floor. To do that I had to find someone who could throw so that I could have fun with my acrobatic catches. I guess we were all just trying to show off. But I was learning a lot about people.

VHSBetaFor entertainment we were fortunate to be living at the time of the VHS and Beta Tape battles and no real legal control over the pirating of current run movies. So we were actually watching movies that were in the local theaters. But the ultimate entertainment night would be on my shoulders. I was telling people about my Apple Computer and that I had some games on it. These were typically simple text oriented games but I started to get some of the guys to checkout my football game. A simple play by play where you would run a play or choose a defense and the computer would randomly provide an outcome for the play. I found a way to put in our own names for the players which gave me the idea to create a game based on our own plant groups playing each other. Somehow the hype took off and everyone ended up in the cafeteria one night with my computer displaying the football game action projected onto a screen. We played an entire game where my computer was giving play-by-play results which included the names of most everyone in the room. These hard core power plant professionals went wild cheering for each play and I just made it run.

Keeping all of this in context: I’m a 26 year old chemist who came from Colorado and by then everyone knew how I had answered the smoking question and I am orchestrating one of the weirdest parties that I could have imagined. I think that is when I realized that anything was possible and I decided to take my strike pay winfall and move back to my beloved Steamboat Springs, CO, to develop laboratory software and open a computer store. I called Jeff, my college buddy who had just graduated with an MBA and degree in Law to see he wanted to join me. Connie was all in and left for Steamboat with the dogs. Soon after that I resigned from my job at NIPSCO and finalized my move back to Steamboat to launch my new adventure.


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Scientific Frontiers – a computer business in Steamboat Springs, CO in the early 80s.

 

Colorado Ute Chemist

Historical Posts representing Adventure Continues: Second Quarter

ConnieGregStmBt78I did have a degree in chemistry so I was checking out job opportunities and wouldn’t you know it, I landed a job as a chemist for Colorado UTE Electric Association’s power plant in Craig Colorado. I was probably never thought I would work as a chemist, but then again, this was not serious chemistry. A Chemist for an electric generating station had to perform basic water, coal and emissions testing that really just required some knowledge of chemistry and the aptitude to learn. Plus they did not pay very much so they were definitely looking for novice chemists. But it was a real job, working for a real company, so I had to adapt to this new culture.

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Craig Stations 1 & 2

When I started work in late 1978 there was one new 400 MW plant in operation and a second 400 MW plant about ready to be started up. Colorado Ute was sort of a conglomerate of rural electric associations based in Montrose providing electricity to the western slope of Colorado. However, the power plants planned in Craig were more about satisfying the electricity needs for California. Plus new environmental concerns were forcing electric utilities to be more responsible about the dangerous emissions that had been polluting our country since the industrial revolution. I had no clue how electricity was produced, but it sure did look exciting. This was all happening in Craig, CO, because of easy access to fairly good coal.

Accepting this job ushered in all sorts of new responsibilities. Where to live? Craig was a boom town now with no available housing so Colorado Ute built a mobile home park on the outskirts of town and that was the only option.

CraigTrailer

Our Mobile Home and Subaru in Craig, CO 1978-9

We went to Denver, bought a 14×72′ furnished mobile home for $14K that would be delivered to Craig. For my first week of work we stayed with friends in Steamboat Springs, however, I never made it to work on my first day. It 49 degrees below zero and my car was totally frozen. It was devastating for me to make that call to my new employer telling them that I could not start my car. Our mobile home was delivered at the end of that week, however, utilities would not be hooked up until the following week. Connie and I went to Craig to check out our new home that weekend and decided to actually sleep in the dark cold trailer one night. We were a bit naive thinking we could be warm enough sleeping on our new bed when it was below freezing outside. I swear the trailer felt 10 degrees colder inside. But we were excited about this new life, it was truly going to be an adventure.

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Access to Steamboat sure did Help

Work as a chemist was fairly easy to learn, we were mostly concerned about calcium in the water/steam that could plate out as silica on the turbine blades along with the BTU and sulfur content of the coal we were burning. ColUtePeopleMagazineCover79

I was rather surprised when I appeared on the cover of the Colorado-Ute magazine highlighting an “article about what life was like in Craig, CO“. The startup of the second generator was exciting as there is great concern and optimism associated with such an engineering feet. Here is an article from the Unit II Dedication about our Environmental Effort that I am mentioned in. Overall I was into this sort of professional life. Connie worked as a bank teller but then doing research for a local Title Company.

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View of Power Plants from our Land

We must have assumed we might stay in Craig because we bought a 5 acre plot of land that we planned on building a log house on someday. Craig, CO, was a unique experience, good people but also a bit rough. I played in a basketball league and a flag football league where I was the quarterback until I got my jaw broken.

I got to ski a fair amount in Steamboat and definitely took advantage of the surrounding wilderness for hiking and fishing. Oh yes, we added another animal to our family. A local rancher, Joni Voloshin, who worked with me offer to give us a beautiful Red Australian Shepard if we agreed to let her have a litter of pups. The local ranchers were trying to increase the population of Aussies so to help prevent them from being stolen.

This job as a chemist was good in that I now believed I could do so much more. Our lab’s new Varian Atomic Absorption machine opened doors for me especially thanks to the HP 85 Computer that controlled it. I discovered that I could program these new micro-computers to do so much more. CoUteLabVarian

I was becoming restless and believed that I should make more money as a chemist so I applied for other power plant chemist jobs all around the country. I got an offer from NIPSCO, Northern Indiana Public Service, to work at a plant in Gary, IN. I was young and into the Adventure but who in their right mind would move from Colorado to Gary, IN?


Next Post:

NIPSCO – Life Changing Time

I decided to advance my career as a chemist by applying for jobs with more opportunity. Somehow I ended up in Northern Indiana working at NIPSCO’s Mitchell Power Station.

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