Patrick Holloran stood under the mango tree, fascinated by the painted turtle that had just crawled out from under the heavy tropical foliage near the giant bamboo trees. It was a large amphibian with a glistening black shell and yellow markings on the sides of its head.
As Holloran studied the colorful reptile, a smaller snapping turtle suddenly galloped out from the same spot and, with mouth wide open, lunged at the painted turtle’s stern end. While Holloran watched in horror, the snapping turtle quickly chewed its way through the vital organs under the painted turtle’s shell, emerged through the bow, and hurried away without stopping. Holloran stared in disbelief at the lifeless shell. What a few minutes before had been a live turtle was now just an empty shell with two open ends, like an old piece of glazed tubing.
Holloran suddenly sat up in bed. Hot beads of sweat were rolling down his contorted face. He snapped on his reading lamp and rubbed his eyes.
"Saint Patrick, save me," he exclaimed. "That same dream. But WHY?" His hands were shaking as he lit a cigarette. But he almost instantly crushed it into the ashtray on his night table.
"I’ve got it," he said out loud. "That power failure yesterday. That’s what it is. I had the same crazy dream after each of those other two power failures."
Holloran was the American chief engineer of the Butano de Mexico chemical plant in Tampico, Mexico. The plant was only six months old, but some of its electrical machinery had come from a defunct chemical plant in nearby Yucatan.
The plant’s electric generating equipment consisted of one 5-MW, 4,160-V generator, driven by a topping turbine, which ran at 900 psi and exhausted at 150 psi. A second similarly configured unit was rated at 6 MW, and a third produced 1,500 kW. All in all, it was a fairly nice installation.
Holloran had been transferred from the firm’s Veracruz division shortly before the Tampico plant was commissioned. But from day one, he and Bolivar Cornoz—the native chief electrician—had locked horns. Then, only a month later, the entire chemical plant went dead due to a power failure. Holloran and Cornoz had words, each blaming the other.
Eliot Nevins, the plant’s general manager, stopped the argument, making it crystal clear that any power failure made him look bad in the home office in Mexico City. Nevins wanted a detailed report on the cause of the outage. But Holloran didn’t have any logical explanation. That night, he had his first turtle dream.
Six weeks later, there was a second power failure. As before, with no warning, the large plant suddenly went dead. All was darkness, and it was sickeningly hot and quiet inside. Lacking a tie-line to the local utility, the hot process plant had to be started up from scratch. Placing the many electric-driven pumps and steam process equipment back in service took several hours of sweaty, backbreaking work. Everyone was on edge.
This time Holloran’s and Cornoz’s words and accusations were even more heated. Eliot Nevins was kept busy on the phone trying to explain what had happened to the central engineering office in Mexico City. But just as with the first failure, no reason could be found for the outage. All relays, interlocks, fuses—in fact, everything—had been thoroughly checked and found to be in working condition.
Before putting the plant back on steam, Holloran had his assistant check the high-speed stop and overspeed trip circuits of all three topping turbines. They all worked perfectly. So the electric-generating units were returned to service. Because Holloran could neither explain the cause of the outage to Nevins nor assure him that power wouldn’t fail again, all department heads were nervous. The fear of another shutdown hung above their heads like a guillotine blade, ready to drop unexpectedly. Among the plant’s engineers, Holloran’s stock dropped to an all-time low.
Again, the chief engineer said he thought the cause was electrical. Again, Cornoz insisted it was mechanical. There followed another argument that was so nasty it looked like the men would come to blows. That night, Holloran again had that gory dream of the two turtles near the bamboo trees.
The chief was convinced that Cornoz was stacking the cards to get him transferred or fired. But although he couldn’t prove anything, after each power failure Holloran kept one eye on the chief electrician while using the other to study the system, component by component.
It was common knowledge at the plant that Cornoz had expected his brother-in-law, Raphael Jiminez, to get the chief engineer’s job. Jimenez was the chief engineer of one of the chemical company’s smaller plants in Zacatecas. By now, Holloran was convinced that Cornoz would stop at nothing to get him bounced for good.
Then came the third power failure, and the third nightmarish dream. Making the connection, Holloran nervously lit another cigarette as he sat on the edge of his bed. "That’s it, all right," he said out loud again, using a corner of the bed sheet to wipe the sweat from his face.
"It’s a warning, that’s what it is. In the dream, I’m the painted turtle and Cornoz is the snapping turtle that destroys me. Now there’s no doubt about what’s going on. If I could only catch him in the act. I wish I knew what the dirty SOB is doing to cause those failures."
The chief took a few more puffs. "I gotta keep on the tail of that sneak," he murmured. "You know, come to think of it, yesterday when the plant went dead he was in my office. So that’s how he’s playing the game. One of his stooges is doing his dirty work. But I’ll get him, I’ll get him. . . ."
Then Holloran had another thought. "Today’s Friday. Big boss Alvarez is flying down from Mexico City this morning to investigate personally. I need some coffee, right now."
The ides of August
As it turned out, that Friday was August 13th, and it didn’t start out as a happy day at the Butano de Mexico plant. Everyone was keyed up, especially chief engineer Holloran. The big boss had arrived, but Holloran still had no better clue to the cause of the power failures than he had the first time it happened. He stood at his office window looking dejectedly out at the blue waters of the Bay of Camoeche. Then his eyes focused on the large tanker tied up at the oil pier down the street.
"The SS Hidalgo . . . is she back already? Marmaduke Surfaceblow’s the chief on that tub," Holloran said to himself. "Maybe this is my lucky day after all." At that instant, a large man dressed in a natty white tropical suit strode down the gangplank. He was a big man, every bit of 6 feet 4 inches tall. A long unlit cigar protruded from his rugged, sun-bronzed face, which was decorated by a steel brush mustache. Holloran scooted out of his office, ran down the street, and met his old buddy before he could hop into a taxi.
After getting a bone-crushing handshake from his seagoing friend, Holloran urged Marmaduke to visit his chemical plant, giving him a quick rundown of the situation. "It’s that sneaky chief electrician; he wants my job for his brother-in-law. But I don’t know what the dirty rat’s doing," he explained to Marmaduke. "And the big boss just flew in from Mexico City to call me on the carpet. Marmy, I’m in boiling water right up to my Adam’s apple and I can use your help," he pleaded.
The Hidalgo’s chief looked at his friend. "So the big boss is here, eh? I guess those power snafus cost buckets of pesos, all right. I was just shoving off to the Los Pintos for a dish of atole and a big plate of ensalada de cucarachas that the joint’s famous for. Then I was going to catch some sun with Felicia at Playa de Miramar. But if I visit your plant first maybe I’ll be ballasted down with pesos. Then tonight I can take Felicia to that fancy Flamingo Club near the Plaza de Armas."
A few minutes later, Marmaduke and Holloran were standing near the control panel in the turbine room. Marmaduke seemed lost in thought as he blew smoke rings and kept studying the machinery and instrument panel.
"Got a piece of chalk?" the marine engineer suddenly rasped in his foghorn voice.
"Chalk?" echoed his friend, taken by surprise. "Why yes, right here in the log desk. Why?" With that, Holloran walked over to the desk and took a piece of white chalk out of a drawer. As he handed it to Marmaduke three men walked slowly into the power plant. They reminded Holloran of mourners following a departed friend’s coffin. The men were Josï¿½ Alvarez from the home office; Eliot Nevins, the general manager; and Hermenez Zmeskal, the company’s brilliant chemical engineer. Just as the three reached the machinery room, Cornoz suddenly appeared out of nowhere. Holloran bristled at the sight of his arch enemy and wondered what witch’s brew he was cooking this time.
After shaking hands with Alvarez, who had originally hired him five years before at the Merida plant, Holloran introduced Marmaduke to the group of visitors.
"Like I’ve been telling you, chief," Nevins addressed Holloran, "these power failures are very serious. They’re getting us all down. We just don’t know when to expect them, and this plant must make money. That’s why Mr. Alvarez flew down here. I told him that since you don’t know why we’re having blackouts or how to stop them, I have no choice but to have you replaced. After all, you’re the chief engineer and should know."
"Don’t you have any idea about what’s happening, Holloran?" asked Alvarez sympathetically. "There must be an explanation. These interruptions are too costly to continue."
Holloran pointed at the chief electrician as he erupted, "Why don’t you ask Cornoz over there what he knows about all this? Maybe he knows more than he cares to tell you," he hinted darkly.
Cornoz, his Latin blood boiling, shot back. "Mr. Alvarez, why don’t you ask the chief why he keeps saying the fault is electrical? Maybe he has reasons for wanting me fired."
Marmy chalks up another win
"Bilgewater on chopping off heads to solve a mechanical problem," roared Marmaduke in his foghorn voice from near the 5-MW turbine’s throttle. "I’ve got the answer to your problem, and I got it just now from this little piece of white chalk."
The men seemed stunned as they stared at the chief engineer of the SS Hidalgo, who was furiously making a calculation on the turbine’s casing with the chalk. Finally, Alvarez said, "I hope you’re not joking. This matter is too serious."
"You won’t think I’m fooling when I tell you my consulting fee for correcting your headache is 6,250 pesos," rumbled Marmaduke, as he added up a column of figures and turned to eye Alvarez with an amused expression.
"But I understand you just walked into the plant," said Alvarez. "How can you possibly know the answer?"
"Do I ballast my pockets with your pesos before we shove off in the morning or don’t I?" asked Marmaduke. "I’m only asking the equivalent of five hundred American dollars. You lose that much every ten minutes this plant is blacked out."
After a quick conference among the two department heads and Alvarez, the answer to Marmaduke was an emphatic "Yes."
Marmaduke took two steps to the throttle wheel of the turbine and pointed to a chalk mark on its rim. "I put this mark here a few minutes ago, when I noticed this relaxed spring in this trip rod and the slight vibration in this turbine," said Marmy. "Just as I thought, the throttle valve trip latch is worn enough so that it gradually vibrates to the unlatched trip position. You can hardly notice it, but it is moving."
"You’re telling us that’s what’s been knocking out our juice, Marmy?" asked the astonished Holloran. "That’s impossible."
"That’s right," the marine engineer barked. "When this valve trips closed, it actuates this switch to energize the anti-motoring relay to open the generator breaker."
Before anyone could say anything, Marmaduke tried to get his friend Holloran off the hook. "You know why you didn’t spot this throttle as the gremlin, Pat? Because, as you explained to me on the pier, this turbine was completely overhauled just before you arrived here three months ago. So you naturally assumed that this spring and these latch surfaces were in good shape. With your normal load of about 10 MW, the whole plant goes down each time this unit suddenly loses its 5 MW because the other generators can’t handle this big a loss."
"I can’t believe it’s something that simple," said Nevins.
"I told you all along that the fault wasn’t electrical," Cornoz said excitedly.
"Why couldn’t I see what was happening?" asked Holloran, evidently feeling foolish about the affair.
"Because," answered Marmaduke, "you had a psychological block. Each time you had that dream about the turtles, you were convinced that your chief electrician was trying to cut your throat. Instead of being logical and trying to pick up the trail of the gremlin causing the problem, you wasted your time looking for the monkey wrench you thought Cornoz was throwing into the stew pot. Then, because you had to start up from scratch after each power failure, you always found this throttle valve closed by the overspeed trip device."
"I guess you’re right," agreed Holloran. "Cornoz, I apologize. I thought you wanted my job for your brother-in-law. I’m sorry I made such an ass of myself."
"Since I’ve told you what’s been causing your problem, I may as well tell you how to prevent it," offered Marmaduke, rubbing his hands expectantly. "After all, you caballeros are paying for it."
"Your advice is worth every centavo of the 6,250 pesos," assured Alvarez. "Thank God, no more mysterious outages. Now I can face our board of directors."
"All you have to do is tighten the packing gland on this throttle valve with a wrench," rumbled Marmaduke. "But to be on the safe side, Pat, why don’t you make a forked lever and drop it over one of the wheel spokes? Next time you shut down for general plant maintenance, be sure to overhaul the valve and remove the fork."
All this took place almost nine years ago. Patrick Holloran is still chief engineer at the Butano de Mexico plant. And Bolivar Cornoz is still chief electrician. Only two things are missing—the mystifying power failures and Pat Holloran’s horrible turtle dreams.
As for Marmaduke Surfaceblow, he paid off the SS Hidalgo when it tied up in Bayonne, New Jersey, after that voyage to Tampico. Today you may find him in any of four places: in his consulting office above O’Houlihan’s Machine Shop & Engine Works in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, at Bedlam’s Bent Propeller Bar around the corner (probably nursing a bottle of Sandpaper Gin), aboard a ship, or in some plant where he still keeps his oar in by solving hellishly unusual and baffling engineering problems.
Oh, yes, chief electrician Bolivar Cornoz finally got his wish: a brother-in-law working with him at the Butano de Mexico plant in Tampico. But it’s his second brother-in-law, Pat Holloran. Yep, Pat married Cornoz’s younger sister, Inez. She’s the pretty woman with the dimpled cheeks and the big flashing black eyes who won the beauty contest at the Dance of Los Chinelos festival back in March 1959. See how well things work out when we bury suspicion and use logic and positive thinking instead?