A STRANGE ENCOUNTER

A STRANGE ENCOUNTER

 

On Friday the 18th of July, 2008, I reached Edmonton, Alberta, on my return bicycle journey from Alaska.  I spent a rare night in a hotel there, a Howard Johnson. It had been a fairly rough trip – I suffered from atrial fibrillation at the time, and had had several episodes in the far north. I had also managed to get my hands frostbitten while riding past still-frozen Kluane Lake, Yukon, very late on an evening in mid-May. This is the highest part of the Alaska Highway, with long climbs and descents: it was the long descents at high speed that got me.  By the time I got to North Pole, Alaska, I was in a state of hypothermia, and had to beg a lift the last few miles into Fairbanks.  At the beginning of the return trip I was overtaken by a sudden intense storm on the Top of the World Highway, which is at 64 degrees North (2.5 deg S of the Arctic Circe), and for most of its length between 1100 and 1200 m (3600-4000 feet) above sea level. The road runs through tundra along the ridge tops, the rain was intense and lightning was everywhere, starting forest fires way below me.  There was nowhere to shelter and it was 10.00 pm before I got to lower elevations: this was the one and only time that I had thought I might die on a bike ride.

However, Edmonton was a pleasant city, with cute outdoor cafes and coffee shops, and an excellent bike shop that opened at 10 a.m. on Saturday 19th of July, and replaced my rear shifter, which had broken in British Columbia, limiting me to 9 gears.  I left Edmonton around noon, somewhat reluctantly, to begin the long haul back to Texas.  I made good time 54 miles down the Poundmaker Highway to Tofield,  where I was overtaken by a storm and took shelter in the town library until the storm ended around 5 pm.  The librarian told me that there was a Lutheran Church in Viking, another 59 miles down the road, so I thought I’d try to get there before nightfall: I go to church whenever I can while on the road.

It got too late to make it to Viking, so I ate dinner in the truckers’ hotel-restaurant in Holden, half way to Viking. The cook was a pleasant young lady from Newmarket, Suffolk, 40 miles from where I grew up. The place had showers for truckers, so I bathed before heading off to the local municipal campground, which I reached at dusk – about 10 p.m.  There was one other vehicle there: a small camper. I put up my tent, and called Ingrid, which involved some shouting because the connection was very poor.

When I finished the couple from the camper called me over, and the man asked me why I was going to go to a Lutheran church the next day. I explained that my wife was Swedish, and he asked me my name.

“John Berry” I said.

“Are you the son of Robert Berry?”

“We-ell, there must be a million Robert Berrys!”

“This one was a metallurgist who worked for Pilkington Brothers in St. Helens just before the War”

“Ye-e-es, that’s my Dad. How do you know about him?”

“I teach glass technology at Port Edward, near Prince Rupert.” “Your father’s work is the subject of the first week of my course.”

“I knew he had a couple of patents on the float glass process”

“Not a couple – dozens”

“Where can I read up on this”

“It’s all written up in the Pilkington Brothers company history”

“Is it published anywhere

“No”

“How did you get to see it?” “Can’t say”

 

Sarah: the trouble with this is that everything that Pilkington’s has said pulicly about float glass contradicts both Mr. Arneil’s story and what I remember Dad telling me (see accompanying file – Pilkington).  Apparently Sir Alistair Pilkington started working on the process in the early 1950s, it wasn’t publicly announced until 1959, and wasn’t commercial until 1962-63.  Dad had been telling me about making glass by pouring it out onto a surface of molten lead ever since I can remember. He had described to me his experiments with convection cells, and the struggle to keep the temperature differential small enough to prevent them, since I was ten or eleven (1952).  I have been fascinated with convection ever since, because it is extremely important in geology.  Of course, Dad never published on any of his work though Mum was constantly at him about it, and after him to submit his Pilkington’s and Lodge Plugs work for a D.Sc. degree.  He wouldn’t do it: “A’m happi with what A’m doing, and a D.Sc. is joost a bit o’ pehper, nearly as bad as a Ph.D., which isn’t urth th’pehpr it’s printed on”.  So Pilkington’s can say whatever they like – the only evidence to contradict them are some very tightly rolled up engineering drawings of Dad’s that I sent to David with everything else 12 years ago.. At least I think that’s what they are: they were very fragile and I never had the time to open them up and study them.  Whatever, your Uncle David has the only remains of his father’s work.  Any way, Mr. Arniel and I talked about Dad’s work at Pilkington’s for a while, and then I said,

“But he left Pilkington’s in 1942 because he didn’t think he was doing anything related to the war effort. He went to Rugby.”

“Oh, yes. He worked for Lodge Plugs as part of Sir Frank Whittle’s jet engine team. He was working on making ceramic turbine blades for the jet engine!”

This was out of the blue to me: Mum always told me that he worked on high temperature alloys for the ignition syste of the jet engine.  If he worked on ceramic turbine blades, he failed. In 1971 Rolls_Royce went bankrupt because they could not succeed either, after spending truly vast sums of money, in successfully making a revolutionary new type of jet engine for Lockheed-Martin.  I believe that one of the key problems was that they had committed to ceramic turbine blades, and they couldn’t make them work.  More recently (2010) a variant of the idea, single-crystal blades, is the latest thing. Dad was only 55 years ahead of the field (just as he had been 20 years ahead of Alistair Pilkington). If they really wanted ceramic blades, it’s not surprising that they hired Dad, with his glass experience: the field of “Materials Science”, basically ceramics, didn’t exist then – I remember it becoming the thing in the 1960s.  Dad never said a thing about his war work – I only had Mum’s tales to go on.

 

Then I said, “yes, but he moved to Ipswich in 1945.” and he said,

“Yes, Manganese Bronze – he had a lot of top secret contracts with the Navy to develop torsion-resistant alloys for submarine prop shafts.”

That was another bomb-shell, because I knew that Dad had an installation on the sea-floor off Felixstowe where he had a series of alloys under stress for long periods of time. All I ever got from him was that they were “trying to develop better marine alloys”. Never knew he had any hush-hush work at all. Again, very obvious in hindsight – if he’d worked on the jet engine and kept his mouth shut, and Manganese Bronze’s other factory, in Birkenhead, made huge propellers (like, the ones for the Queen Mary), he was the right man in the right place.

Incidentally, for the WWII generation, “keeping your mouth shut” was IT: a whole lot of Ingrid’s archaeological colleagues, who knew the Med and the Middle East well, and spoke the languages, worked for the CIA (OSS, then) during the war, some of them doing some hairy cloak and dagger stuff.  They were sworn to eternal secrecy when the war ended, and I don’t know of a single on who ever said anything.  Just within the last couple of years a woman has published a book on what they did, but she had to go completely with de-classified government documents and FIA requests – none of the archaeologists left a word of it behind.

I asked Mr. Arneil how and why he knew so much about Dad, and he told me that Dad’s work in glass was so important that he had researched the rest of his career.  When I asked how he was able to do that, he clammed right up and said he couldn’t tell me. Later on, though, he talked about being in the Special Forces and the SAS (which is British), and having worked for Canadian Intelligence.  Big question:  why on earth would Canadian Intelligence have a file on Dad?  I can understand US Intelligence having one, as they knew all about Whittle’s Jet, and in fact the US Scientific attache literally stole the designs on a visit to the factory. At the San Diego Air and Space Museum they brag about this episode, and about how their first jet was a copy, but their second was a much better design.  Which it was if you wanted a bloody big fighter plane.

However, a couple of funny things have happened to me in this connection: in 1959 Dad organized a summer job for me in Novy Sad, Yugoslavia.  I was refused a visa to go there. In 1973, I applied for a visa to visit the copper mines in Upper Silesia, Poland, because they were the most similar in the world to the Zambian mines on which I was writing my thesis. I was very curtly turned down (basically: “you needn’t bother to ever re-apply”.  So I assumed that the Commies had a file on Dad, too, and knew who I was.

I asked Mr. Arniel if I could contact him, and he reluctantly gave me his mailing address, and even more reluctantly give me his telephone number.