Bob and Marilyn's Weblog
Tommy Bentham's Stories
When father wrote the first chapter of his memoirs which he titled "As I remember it", he prefaced his stories by clearly stating that what we were reading was his version of history.  With father's comments in mind, what you are about to read is my recollection of what an old man told me about events that had happened a long time before he told me about them.  

Tommy Bentham came to work for me in about 1981.  He was probably past retirement age by then but he had spurned CPP and never put any money away.  His retirement planning consisted of buying lottery tickets and cigarettes.  Likely the cigarettes worked out better for him than the lotteries did but I've long since lost track of him.  He had spent his life in construction and had worked for some heavy hitters in his day, including Dominion Bridge.  To hear him tell the story, when the smelter at Kitimat was being finished, he was the main ramrod on the project.  I don't know how much of that was Tommy exagerating and how much of that was me being young and impressionable but judging from some of the stories, he was in on some pretty high level meetings so he must have been fairly senior.
Tommy Bentham
Alcan Aluminum
Concrete Bathtubs
My favourite story was the tale of the concrete breakwater structures.  Tommy hated engineers.  He claimed the head engineering firm on Kitimat was some French outfit and he detested their froggy engineers and their superior froggy attitude.  I was introduced to Engineers at the U of S - we preferred to call them plumbers - and I tend to agree with Tommy.  In fact I think if you work back from every problem known to mankind you will find that there is either an Engineer or a Lawyer at the root of that problem.  But I digress.

Tommy was a concrete guy and the concrete breakwaters at Kitimat may have been why he was called in to the project.  I seem to recall that detail but its a long time ago now.  I think the story was that the breakwaters were seriously behind schedule and they had a hard and fast deadline because of how they were intended to be placed.  The plan was to build huge concrete bathtubs on the beach above the normal high tide lne and then float them out and sink them on a particularly high "spring" tide.  I think Tommy was called in when it became apparent that they were going to miss a window to float the breakwaters and that in turn was going to put the whole project behind schedule.  

Tommy claimed that from the start he said the design of the breakwaters wouldn't work.The plan was to build huge concrete bathtubs with big holes in their sides so that the tide could weep through them without moving them.  In order to make them watertight to float them out to their ultimate position the plan was to fill those weep holes with wooden plugs.  Tommey (correctly as it turned out) warned the froggy engineers that the wood was going to swell in place and that they would not be able to remove it once the bathtubs were sunk. As Engineers will often do, the frenchmen rejected the advice of a simple working stiff and insisted that he proceed according to their plan.  He even suggested that they embed huge pipes in the sides of the breakwaters and put threaded caps on them which could subsequently be unscrewed but that plan was rejected as being too expensive.  So the construction proceeded, the bathtubs were ready for the high tide, they were dragged off the beach by huge tugs on a particularly high tide, pumped full of water in position and sunk.  Then the divers went down to remove the wooden plugs and of course they couldn't get them out.

Then ensued several high level meetings with the froggy engineers which Tommy described in detail.  Tom's proposed solution was that they would pack dynamite on the inside of the wooden plugs and blow them out that way.  Of course the engineers hadn't designed their concrete bathtubs with dynamite in mind so they were opposed to that idea.  Engineers also tend to oppose anything that they don't think up themselves.  In addition to his concrete experience Tom had a lot of dynamite stories so he evidently had some experience with it as well.  He always called it "powder" - never dynamite.  Evidently they finally came to the conclusion that there was no alternative to Tom's plan so the blast went ahead.  Tom described watching from the surface after the charges were set off and said they could hear the muffled explosions through the water but for a long time afterward nothing appeared to have happened.  Then he said, all of a sudden, the wooden plugs started popping out of the surface, it having thaken them that long to rise to the surface.

Al - u - min - i - um
The second Tommy story that I remember well happened at the official opening of the smelter.  Evidently the project was behind schedule and the plant wasn't actually operational by the time of the official opening.  But the date of the opening was cast in stone because Prince Phillip was to cut the ribbon.  The plan was to cut the ribbon in front of some portion of the production line where ingots of molten aluminum would be visible behind the official party.  So there was great consternation because the plant wasn't operational so they couldn't have ingots moving by the ribbon cutting ceremony.  Tommy claimed to have come up with the solution.

They filled the molds with waste engine oil and then poured aluminum paint on the surface of the oil.  Apparently that looked enough like an actual ingot to fool any casual observer.  But Tommy said that at one point during the opening ceremony Prince Phillip ducked behind some machinery for a few minutes and when he emerged he said something aside to Tom's boss who was on the official dais.  Tom said he didn't know what had been said but his boss, who always had a cigar, in his mouth chewed particularly vigorously on the cigar after Phillip's remarks.  After the fact he learned that the Prince had said to him "That's not aluminium you know".