Go West Young Man – 1991

One of the traditions at ABB Combustion Engineering, was for the various field service district offices to hold an Annual Meeting during mid-summer. That was the slowest time of year for the field service group as the nation’s coal fired power plants were operating at full capacity to keep up with the electricity demands of America’s air conditioners. The custom was for two district offices to pair up on a meeting in a resort location, as a sort of reward to the service engineers for a year of hard work crawling boilers, and sucking flyash. It was a chance for us to see our colleagues, whom we rarely crossed paths with during the year, and to mix and mingle with field guys from another district. It was also a time for the district managers to size up talent, and make trades as they felt necessary to pad out their district, or pare it back to maintain a billing ratio of as close to 100% as possible.

As I’ve said in a previous post, in the fall of 1990 I had been traded from the Birmingham, Alabama district to the Chicago district, for two laptop computers and an engineer to be named later. My year in the Chicago district had seen me spend most of the winter working on a new recovery boiler start-up in Nekoosa, Wisconsin, and bouncing around to outage inspections in the Com-Ed system. Being one of only two engineers in the district from the Class of 1990, I was consigned to the end of the bench most of the time. The Chicago office was a desirable one for field guys, as most of the customers were within an easy day’s drive of the district office. So the older engineers with wives and kids could maintain a relatively normal life, getting home on weekends and holidays.

Despite the fun I had that winter in Nekoosa, I was not enjoying my time in the Chicago office any more than I had in Alabama. Sure, the surrounding culture was more similar to the one I grew up in, but being at the bottom of the depth chart, I was getting tired of bumping around as the tag along with the older, more experience field guys. Adding to the problem was the fact that the engineers in the Chicago office were worse than a bunch of old housewives for gossip, and intrigue. You wouldn’t think a bunch of 30-40 year old guys would spend so much time gossiping about each other as a group of teenage girls, but it was true. They clucked away incessantly, trying to maneuver themselves into the choice assignments at the expense of their colleagues. The district manager, a tall mustachioed Pollack, that was half as clever as he though he was, and twice as clever as he pretended to be, did nothing but encourage such diseased behavior.

So when our joint annual meeting with the Philly office convened in Virginia Beach, Virginia, I was already putting out feelers to see about getting a transfer back to the East Coast. After 3 days of running into dead ends, I learned through the grapevine that the Denver district office was looking for another body. Now Denver was a place that I had never dreamed I’d have a shot at going to. The Denver district covered just about everything from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The plants out there were few and far between, and not since the hey day of the late 70’s, when mine mouth power plants were springing up all over Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakota’s, had there been much need for field guys out there. Their staff was only about half of the staff of the Chicago or Philly offices, so I was shocked to hear that they were looking for another engineer. I jumped at the chance, and my Pollack manager, who had been clever enough to see what a malcontent I was becoming, was more than happy to offer me up.

The best part about Nebraska is that there's nothing to get in the way of the scenery

By the second week of August, I was driving west across the flat expanse of Nebraska’s Platte River valley, on my way to Denver to meet my third boss in less than 18 months. I had been to Colorado twice in my life, and having a love for skiing and hiking, I was excited about getting out to the Intermountain West. Our office in Denver was down on the south side of town, in an industrial park near Centennial Airport. After settling into the Hampton Inn on Arapahoe Rd., I showed up in our office for introductions. It being summer, the office was empty except for Donna, the secretary, and Charlie, the district manager. It was late afternoon when I arrived, so after introductions, Charlie took me out to dinner, and we got to know each other over beers.

Arapahoe Rd.

Charlie was from New Mexico originally, and spoke with a touch of a Southwestern drawl. He was tall and rangy cowboy, with a thinning head of hair about which he was very self conscious. In his early 30’s, he was young for a district manager, and was the first boss I ever had that spoke to me like a peer. He was also the first true westerner I ever met. Charlie had been around for the construction boom of new power plants that had gone up all over the West in the late 70’s and early 80’s, and while most of the field engineers that worked those jobs were East Coast guys that eventually moved back East, Charlie, being a native, had stuck around and risen up the ranks.

Sitting in a local Tex-Mex joint that he liked to frequent, he began to school me on the finer points of green chile, and the local microbrews. I asked him a lot of questions about the different parts of Utah, Arizona, and Wyoming where the power plants were, wanting to know the best places to backpack. He was surprised to discover that I knew so much about the geography of the Intermountain West, having grown up in the East, and began to tell me about his favorite places to go to fly fish. Charlie was a passionate fly fisherman, and tended to rank places by the number, and quality of their trout streams. After 3-4 beers, I knew I was going to like working for this man.

Kennecott Copper Smelter - Magna, Utah

My first assignment was at the Kennecott Copper Smelter in Magna, Utah, just west of Salt Lake City. I was tagging along again, as the 2nd engineer on the job, with Steve, a 30 something burned out hippie that was Charlie’s 2nd in command, . Whenever field guys worked in Salt Lake, rather than stay in a hotel, Charlie let us stay at his place. He had an apartment in Denver, but actually maintained a house in Salt Lake City, and tried to get there a couple of times a month. It served the twin purposes of saving the company money, and having someone there to mow his lawn and keep an eye on the place. His house was just a little ranch home up on the East Bench, tucked in the shadow of the Wasatch Mountains, near Big Cottonwood Canyon, but after a year of living in hotel rooms, it felt like paradise. After work at the mine, we’d head home, make some dinner in the kitchen, then sit out on the back porch drinking beer, and watching the sun set out across the valley. The sight of that blood red ball sinking over the tall stack of the smelter on the western horizon, was so beautiful, that even 18 years later my eyes mist up just thinking about it.

Sunset over Salt Lake City - from Panoramio

Steve was a real trip. A honest to goodness hippie, that was full of wonderfully bizarre stories of his experiences working overseas in India, and Thailand. He had returned from South East Asia with a wife, and her 7 year old daughter, and was living in a tent in Castle Rock, Colorado while they built a house. I spent a week working in Magna, enjoying the wonderful vistas, and Steve’s laid back approach to work, before an urgent call from Charlie had me on a plane to Omaha. The OPPD plant in Omaha, had a forced outage over the weekend and they needed someone to come out and take a look. Since everyone else was either on vacation, or tied up in longer term assignments, I was his only choice.

I can’t remember what the problem was exactly, but it didn’t take us long to figure it out and get the plant back up and running. Returning to Salt Lake a few days later, Steve told me to give Charlie a call right away, that he wanted to talk with me urgently. Fearing the worse I called him up in his office. He answered the phone, and at the other end of the line, I heard him shout, “Hey man! What did you do out there in Omaha?” The color drained from my face, and I felt a nausea beginning to well up in my stomach. I answered, “Umm… why do you ask?” “Well, they just called me up glowing about the job you did for them, and asking if they could get you back in the fall to do their outage inspection for them.”

A star was born. Overnight I had gone from the end of the bench, to being a starting quarterback. Charlie began throwing me solo jobs all over the Intermountain West. Green River, Wyoming; Trona, California; Laughlin, Nevada; Colstrip, Montana; Price, Utah, I saw them all. After a year of wallowing in self doubt, and self pity, I was reborn. Overnight I had found a self confidence that I had never known before. All through the autumn of 1991, and into the winter of 91-92, I was as happy as I have ever been in life.

The trona plant outside of Green River, Wyoming

To get around out there I bought a Jeep Cherokee to replace the Pontiac Grand Am I had been driving. I filled the back with my hiking and backpacking equipment, and my skis. On weekends I would head into the mountains, or out into the desert, and explore. When winter came, I spent almost every weekend skiing. I fell in love with the West. Not the places you see from the Interstate, but the rural west you only find if you get off the beaten track. The jeep trails, and dirt roads across BLM land you won’t find in any Travel Magazine.

Periodically I would cross paths with Charlie, on my way through Utah or Colorado, and we’d head up into the mountains together in his old 1970’s Toyota FJ40 Land Cruiser. We’d park at the end of some jeep road in the Uinta’s, or along the Front Range, and he’d head off to fly fish, while I set off to climb the nearest peak. We’d rendezvous back at the car late in the afternoon, and head down into town for Mexican food, and cold beer.

Heart Lake in the Uinta Moutains, Utah

It was hard to believe that they paid me to do this, but they did. Over time, I would get to know the other field engineers in the district. Most of us were in our 20’s, and running into each other in these remote places was always a cause for celebration. A person gets used to living alone, and seeing someone you know, who understands the oddity that is the life of a field engineer, was refreshing.

Overlooking the San Rafael River south of Price, Utah

I learned a lot about myself in those days. I discovered a freedom, and a strength within me that I never knew existed. Maybe it was the wilderness that brought it out, or maybe it was the work. Whatever the reason, when I eventually left the company to settle down in Minnesota, it was hard to leave the West behind. For the first few years here, I would take Mrs. 20 Prospect back to the West for vacations. We even spent our honeymoon in Arizona. I used to fantasize about finding work out there, and moving back, but eventually the demands of having a family brought those daydreams to an end. Minnesota is home now, and most likely will always be. Talking over lunch yesterday, we both expressed how much we missed the mountains, and how much we’d like to take the kids out there in the summer time. They are getting to an age where a trip like that would be fun for them. I don’t know when we will get back out there, but I look forward to that day when I can share those wonderful vistas with the kids.

25 Mile Wash, south of Escalante, Utah

All Images and Photos taken from Panoramio courtesy of Google Maps

4 thoughts on “Go West Young Man – 1991

  1. Pingback: The Ballad of Yellowstone Sue « 20 Prospect

  2. Pingback: How the West was lost « 20 Prospect

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