There was a time a few years back when I was dissatisfied with my job.
Actually, the job was OK, but the company I worked for was one of those mega-corporations that had gobbled up a family-owned enterprise and was milking it for all it was work, funneling profits to a distant, soulless suite of offices where (extremely) well-compensated "executives" spent their days scheming on how best to reward themselves for their sharp business acumen.
They mostly followed the time-honored playbook for dismantling an organization: replace established local talent with outsiders who have proven themselves in other corporate roles as worthy of the task at hand, namely cutting budgets and eliminating staff, all under the guise of improved efficiency.
Bringing in corporate hatchet people and slashing budgets was the easy part. When it came to staff, they literally sucked the life out of the place with a corporate-tilted job review system designed to drive high performing (read: high paid) staffers into early retirement or resignation. Not surprisingly, older, more experienced people were the first targets. That included me.
With the handwriting clearly on the wall, I decided it was better to seek other employment before someone else made that decision for me. I was pretty picky about where I applied at first, which seemed like a smart strategy at the time. I was the finalist for three good jobs in the area before I realized what was really going on.
I was the token older white guy that HR managers could hold up as proof that they were oh so open-minded in their screening process. The final interview in each of these situations was basically the same and it was clear that I was just "checking a box" for the interviewer. All three jobs went to young women.
But the rejection that really hurt was the one I got from Wood Magazine. My good friend Jim Pollock was a writer at Wood and he said they were looking for a writer with fresh ideas that could raise the content bar a bit and he thought I would be perfect for the job.
So, I applied and went through several stages of the interview process. Finally, the HR people at Meredith Corporation, the parent company of Wood, called me to schedule a meeting where we would discuss salary, company benefits and start in-processing at Meredith. Of course, I was pleased.
But, when I showed up for the meeting, I was told that a senior editor at Wood changed his mind at the last minute and I wouldn't be getting the job. Seems my lack of woodworking experience turned out to be a major problem after all, though it clearly wasn't prior to that.
One of the tasks I was asked to perform in the tryout phase was to come up with an unusual story about wood. Of course, I complied and everybody seemed pleased. Unfortunately, they weren't pleased enough. I eventually left my job and ran my own business for a few years before going into full retirement (read: writing for myself), but I want to share the story I wrote for Wood. I think it's pretty good.
Here it is:
For much of his career, the British inventor was regarded as an eccentric, “a man of a vivid and uncontrollable imagination, and a totally uninhibited tongue,” according to Lord Zuckerman.
But when Pyke started talking about building aircraft carriers out of ice and sawdust as a means to stopping Adolf Hitler in World War II, people started listening.
By early 1943, Pyke had convinced Winston Churchill and the military leaders of three Allied countries that his idea had merit. Within weeks Pyke was overseeing a crew of carpenters as they constructed a model of the top-secret warship in the Canadian Rockies.
By all accounts, the mockup lived up to expectations. It survived bombs, torpedoes and strafing attacks and held up remarkably well during the warm summer months. A demonstration of Pykrete, the unique material to be used in construction of the carriers, impressed a high-level meeting of military brass, including Churchill.
But the project died within a year, as Pyke and his Pykrete were shoved aside as the Allies concentrated their efforts on another project, one that would lead to the decisive Normandy invasion.
For the 48-year-old Pyke, the aircraft carrier was the last of a series of schemes he had concocted to stem the Nazi tide, a passion arising from his experiences in World War I.
German officials in Berlin detained the young Pyke after accusing him of espionage after he sent newspaper dispatches to London. After escaping an internment camp, Pyke wrote a book about his experience, became a British hero and made a small fortune in the stock market.
Pyke was driven by his work and frequently worked from his bed, claiming that getting up and dressing was a waste of time.
Vice Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations for the British military, was impressed with Pyke’s peculiar intellect and recruited him for the British think tank. Pyke came up with several innovations intended to stop Hitler’s march through Europe.
One of Pyke’s proposals was to start fires outside the heavily guarded Romanian oilfields then send commandos in fake fire trucks to stoke the fires with water mixed with fused incendiary bombs.
Another Pyke plan was to have a man drive a vehicle slowly up a slope in occupied Norway, enticing the Germans to follow him. Halfway up the slope, the driver would release the torpedo, blowing up the Germans.
In late 1942 Pyke hatched his idea of a floating airfield in response to Churchill’s concern about the Allies’ ability to maintain air superiority over a battle area. Such a huge structure built of timber or steel pontoons would be unstable on the open seas and breakup was likely.
Pyke reasoned that an ice airfield would be a perfect solution.
Although Pyke had no training as a scientist, he knew that ice is molecularly similar to concrete, but without the tensile strength. He theorized that suspending wood fiber in water would increase the tensile strength dramatically.
Tests at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Cold Research Laboratories proved Pyke to be correct. By adding between 4 and 14 percent wood pulp to water, a crush resistance up to 12 times that of ice could be achieved. A 1-inch column of Pykrete was strong enough to easily support a medium-sized automobile.
Besides its strength, Pykrete was durable. As the ice melted, the fibrous content of the mixture formed a furry outer surface that acted as an insulator, further retarding the melting process. Pyke claimed the material could be hammered and sawed like wood.
Pyke envisioned a 2,000-foot-long ship, powered by 26 engines carved in caves in the hull, which would be from 30 to 50 feet thick. Below deck would be hangars, living quarters, workshops and a refrigeration plant. Cardboard tubes would circulate cold air to keep the hull frozen. The hull would be clad in wood or cork to cut down surface evaporation.
The carrier would carry 100 Mosquitos, 200 Spitfires and a crew of up to 2,000. The runway would be long enough to accommodate any military aircraft then in use.
Pyke claimed the ship would be, for all practical purposes, unsinkable. A direct hit by a torpedo or bomb would leave a hole just 3 feet deep and 20 feet in diameter and could be easily repaired.
Pyke estimated that it would take 8,000 men eight months to build the ship from 280,000 Pykrete blocks.
The British military gave the project tentative approval and assigned the code name of “Habbakuk.” The name was derived from a prophet from the old testament, who said: “I am doing something in your own days that you would not believe if you were told it.” (Hab 1:5)
The British contacted the National Research Council of Canada in January 1943 for assistance and secret work soon began at Patricia Lake near Jasper, Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies.
Pyke arrived to oversee the project in 20 below weather, with a long straggly beard and dressed in light clothing. He wore no socks.
It took 15 men two months to build the 60-foot long, 30-foot wide, 19.5-feet high 1,100-ton prototype in a structure designed to look like a boat house.
A further experiment was conducted simultaneously on Lake Louise near Banff, Alberta, where it was determined that a hull 35-foot thick would be necessary.
According to some reports, the test model was repeatedly bombed, strafed and torpedoed, but would not sink.
Buoyed by the success of the prototype, Lord Mountbatten took a 3-foot high block of Pykrete to a summit meeting of the Allied High Command in Quebec in August 1943 in the hopes of securing funding for the first Pykrete ship, whose cost was expected to approach $100 million.
At the summit, Mountbatten had a block of ordinary ice placed on a dumbwaiter next to the Pykrete and wheeled into the conference room. He invited the strongest man present to chop each block in half with a special axe he had brought.
After some discussion, U.S. General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold was designated the group’s strong man. After removing his coat and rolling up his sleeves, he split the ice with one blow. When he tried the same with the Pykrete, the axe bounced off the material and Arnold shrieked in pain as he injured his arms and shoulder.
Mountbatten then capped the demonstration by drawing a pistol from his pocket and shattering the remaining ordinary ice with one shot. When he fired at the Pykrete, the bullet ricocheted, narrowly missing Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff.
Churchill found the incident amusing.
“Who in war will not have his laugh amid the skulls?” Churchill later wrote. “And here was one.”
But Pyke did not find the matter so amusing.
Funds to build the carrier were never approved and the test structure was immediately abandoned. All machinery was removed and the structure was allowed to sink. Scuba divers discovered its remains in 1970 and they were studied by the Archeology Department of the University of Calgary. Plaques were later placed at the site.
As for Pyke, he shaved his beard and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills in the winter of 1948. He was 54.