The Story of James E. Bennett, Jr.
in his own words
Thailand - December, 1961 to February, 1964
Thailand - December, 1961 to February, 1964
We were furnished first class tickets from Charlotte, NC, to Bangkok, Thailand, with layovers in San Francisco, CA, Honolulu, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. When we boarded the plane in Charlotte, we had 13 suitcases to keep track of. We flew to San Francisco from Charlotte and spent three days on the West Coast. It was the first time that any of us had been to the West Coast. It was also the first plane trip for Jimmy or Wayne. Kathryn and Kathy had flown before. While in San Francisco, Kathryn got to see Don, her brother, and his wife who were living in Sacramento, California at the time. Don was able to get time off from the Air Force and he and Janet came down to see Kathryn and the children. He was stationed outside of Sacramento, CA at that time.
I spent several days with Professor Davis at the University of California, Berkeley campus, discussing the concrete problems at the site. From the job records the reported concrete compressive strength was low and Professor Davis was very concerned in as much as the dam was a gravity arch type which normally requires a higher compressive strength than a normal gravity dam. The cement was also giving problems.
We flew on Pan American Flight 1, first class, from San Francisco to Honolulu to Tokyo to Hong Kong to Bangkok. Our first one day layover was Honolulu. In 1961 flying first class on Pan Am was a much bigger deal than it is in the nineties. The first class passengers disembarked first, then the rest of the passengers would get off. We were escorted through customs ahead of the rest of the passengers. The stores in Honolulu were are decorated for Christmas and we saw Santa Claus in a grass skirt. We spent the day walking around the downtown area and the beach.
Our next one day layover was in Tokyo where we stayed in the old section of Frank Lloyd Wright's Imperial Hotel. I had requested a room in the old section of the hotel that he designed rather than in the new section. Wayne got sick on the bus ride from the airport to the Hotel. We spent the next day walking around the area at the hotel. It was hard for us to get into the Christmas spirit in the hot weather. In Hong Kong we did a fair amount of sightseeing and went into the New Territories to an area where you looked into China.
We left New York with snow on the ground and below freezing temperature and landing in the plus 90 degrees temperature in Bangkok and was met at the airport by a bachelor. He arranged for us to go to the client's guest compound and gave us a list of places where we could eat. The compound was located on the water front and it was like a motel with no cooking provisions. We found out that all his recommendations for eating were night clubs.
The General Manager of Sverdrup & Parcel (SPIC), Carl Lovell, invited us to his house for Christmas dinner. They had a daughter the same age as Kathy. We spent several days in Bangkok and did a lot of sight seeing. There was no rush to get to the job site. We flew to Tak on a local air line. Tak was the nearest town to the dam and the construction site was about 3 hours by road from Tak. The plane had to fly over the landing field to make the water buffalo move off the field, and once the field was cleared, we landed. No one was there to meet us, but luckily a pickup truck was there for the Contractor to pick up the mail and they took us to the job site. We saw our first elephants on the road side. The Contractor dropped us off at the mess hall.
Finally Ted Neelands, SPIC Dam Engineer, heard we were at the mess hall and came down to meet us. Kathryn and the children went to his house and Ted and I went down to the job. We had dinner at his house and he then took us to our house. It was dark and I had no idea where our house was in reference to Ted's house or to the mess hall. We had no lights except for candles and a small flashlight. In other words we were not expected. Kathryn kept hearing talking during the night. Wayne was sick, so at day break I went to the nearest house and to get drinking water. We also found out that they were still working on our house and the workers were staying in one room while they were working on the house. They were not in a hurry to leave as they had a home as long as they were working on the house. They were converting a bachelor's house into a family house for us.
I supervised around 25 Thai Inspectors and two Thai Engineers that could understand some English. My section was responsible for the inspection of the cement plant, aggregate plant, concrete plant and the site construction materials testing laboratory. Our responsibility for the concrete ended when the concrete was dumped into the placement. During the construction season the cement plant near Bangkok could not produce sufficient cement to maintain the contractor's placing schedule at the dam. Whenever the cement demand was less than the production capacity of the mill, they would stockpile the excess clinkers and transport the clinkers to the job site. The contractor installed a grinding mill at the site to produce the cement. Most of our problems at the site were due to the low quality of the site ground clinker. There were times we controlled the cement content of the concrete mixes based on one day compression tests.
The fine aggregate came from the river and was excavated by dredging. The coarse aggregate was produced at the limestone quarry. The aggregate plant with crushing and screening equipment was near the river and the final product was transported to the batch plant by a long conveyor. The mass concrete contained 6" size aggregates. I had a driver assigned to me and he drove me around most of the time. He also understood some English and helped me out a great deal in dealing with the local people.
We found out that I was replacing a very popular bachelor, and he always planned the camp parties. We had a rather rough first few weeks but at long last we got the workers out of the house. During the first week I got bitten by a scorpion and had to go to the project's medical clinic and receive a shot for the bite. The clinic was staffed with Thai Doctors. The project worked seven days a week, 24 hours per day. The engineers worked seven weeks straight and then had seven days off. Most everybody would go to Bangkok. I had no one to relieve me, so on my week off I stayed in camp and checked out the job in the mornings at shift change.
Our Thai house was built with teak floor boards nailed down with a space between the boards. This allowed snakes or other insects an entrance into the house. The camp area had several venomous species so at first, most of my time was spent pulling up the boards and renailing the boards back without a gap between the boards. Once I got the house fixed up, I decided to work six days a week. On Sunday I would check out the job at shift time and spend the rest of the day with the family.
Sverdrup and Parcel and the Contractor, Brown and Root from Houston, constructed a semi-indoor club house, with a tennis court and a swimming pool. The club house had a movie projector and movies, usually twice a week, were shown. The Contractor would get the films from Bangkok. Brown and Root had a small commissary store. Once a week we ordered food from Bangkok to be delivered the following week. The mail was flown in, and during the rainy season the planes sometimes could not land due to a flooded landing field and so no mail. There was very little food on the local market except for fruit. When one purchased items on the local market, the items would be wrapped in dam drawings or banana leaves.
Kathryn ended up with two maids, one worked indoors and the other worked in the yard. However, Kathryn did all cooking as well as taking care of the children. Bread was not available so she began baking bread. The flour had to screened to take out all the bugs. Our sea shipment took over six weeks to get Bangkok plus about two weeks to the job site. Washing was being done by hand and we were glad to get the shipment. Our shipping container was dropped in the river while unloading from the ship, but most everything survived in reasonable shape. We put a room air conditioner in each bedroom.
In one of the first batches of mail that we received was a letter from my sister, Gloria. She enclosed several letters that had been sent to our New York address in response to letters I had written looking for work. One was from Harza Engineering of Chicago and the other was from TAMS of New York. She also enclosed her response, stating that I was on a two year contract with Sverdrup & Parcel in Northern Thailand. Both companies responded to her letters and requested that I contact them when I had completed the two year contract.
We enrolled Kathy and Jimmy was in a one room school house with two teachers. The school covered from first grade to ninth grade. Kathy was in the eight grade and Jimmy was in the fifth grade. Brown and Root ran the school and they used the Calvert system out of Baltimore, MD. One of the teacher's was the wife of an engineer and the other teacher was an Australian. Kathy and Jimmy learned some Thai, as the government required Thai to be taught. Wayne stayed at home. Our house was on the edge of the camp and during the dry season we could see the bamboo burning on the mountain side. There were several fairly good tennis players and we would all play on Sunday afternoon and then go swimming. The tennis courts were lighted, and sometimes I would play at night. Later in my career, I was in a position to recommend hiring several of the engineers that worked for Sverdrup & Parcel (Ted Neelands, Dam Engineer, Pete Giras, Powerhouse Engineer, and Brian Anthony, Powerhouse Engineer).
After a year in camp, we went to the island of Penang for a week. Penang is off the coast of Malaysia and is a part of Malaysia. We had a great time, spending most of the time on the beach with trips into the Georgetown for shopping. During that year we did take a trip to Chiang Mai, the capital of the Northern providence of Thailand. We got permission to use the Land Rover to drive us to the train station in Lampang, about three hours from the project. At Lampang we boarded a wood burning train for a four hour trip to Chiang Mai. We really enjoyed our week stay there and purchased a lot of items. I believe that it was the first time some of the Thais in this area had seen a red headed girl. We always had a crowd around us, as we attracted a crowd as soon as we went on the streets because I was very tall as compared to a Thai and Kathryn and Kathy with red hair. The local people were always touching Kathy’s red hair and Wayne's dark curly hair.
After a week we boarded the train to take us to Lampang where my driver was scheduled to meet us to drive us back to the project. About half way there the we had a flat tire. We put the spare tire on and decided to stop at the next place where we could get the tire fixed. About an hour later we came to a crossway with gas station and a outdoor cafe. The old tube was badly ripped and they had no tubes. They said that they could patch the tube with a series of small individual tube patches, one at a time, which took a long time. It was not safe to be on the road without a spare tire, so I told them to go ahead and try to fix the tube. It was still light and we went over to the cafe to have tea while the tire was being fixed. As darkness approached the cafe started filling up with a lot of Thai men, most of them carrying exposed guns. We could understand enough of the talk to realize that most of the conversation was about us. They would check out the Land Rover and could see that we had a lot of packages in the back of the Rover. We were the only non-Thais in the area. The tire was finally repaired and we were glad to leave the area and get back into camp. Even the my driver was glad to leave as he also felt it was unsafe. We had been told not to drive outside of the enclosed camp area after dark.
Near the end of the school year we applied to Woodstock, a boarding school in India, for Kathy. There were no boarding schools in Thailand and Woodstock was considered an excellent school. A local missionary in Lampang had some information about the school, so we decided to visit them, to find out what we could about the school. It was about a three hour drive to Lampang, so we started out early in the morning in order to return to the camp by dark. For the trip we used my vehicle, a pickup truck, with my driver. Several of my inspectors decided to come along and they set in the back. We had side benches mounted in the back of the truck in order to carry the inspectors to the work areas. About half way to Lampang the right front wheel came off and we went off the road into an old borrow pit, hitting a bunch of bamboo trees. The men in the back were throw out of the truck and one of them had a bad cut on the face and another had a broken leg. Neither my driver, Kathryn nor I were seriously hurt.
We waited along the road side for two hours before someone drove by and stopped. Our accident happened on the main highway going north to Chaing Mai, but there just wasn't any traffic. A motor bike finally came by and stopped. He said that he would call in at the first place he could. A car stopped and offered to take Kathryn and I to the next town but we decided to stay with the truck. The driver said that he would call the police. Finally a police car arrived and took all of us to a local hospital for first aid treatment. My driver was able to talk a local bus driver into agreeing to take us back to the project. We never did get to Lampang to talk with the couple about Woodstock.
Kathryn took Kathy to India in early June, 1962 to enroll her in the ninth grade. They flew to New Delhi and after a couple of days in New Delhi Kathryn rented a car and driver from Cook Travel Agency to take them to Woodstock. Woodstock, a formal British church school, is in the foothills of the Himalayas in NW India near Dehra Dun. The school operates in the summer and fall and closes down in the winter as there is no heating system. The school operated under the British system.
Kathryn specially asked for an English speaking driver. By the time the car got out of New Delhi, Kathryn discovered that the only English words the driver knew was "a very nice day, ma'am". By then it was too late to turn around. The road leading to Woodstock is a narrow one lane road requiring a vehicle to move over to allow a vehicle travelling in the opposite direction to pass and the larger vehicle has the right of way. Between two cars it was a game not to pull over until the last minute trying to make the other car move over first. Kathryn was not at all happy with that arrangement, but there was nothing she could do except pray that there would not be in a wreck.
The driver drove them to Dehra Dun and the school was about a three mile walk up the mountain side. Cars were not allowed in the school area. Kathryn instructed the driver to wait on her until she returned from Woodstock. To get to Woodstock, one either walked or used bearers. Kathryn elected to walk and hired bearers to carry the suitcases. It was very hard for Kathryn to leave Kathy in Woodstock. She left Kathy on her 14th birthday and walked down the mountain to Dehra Dun, hoping to find her driver. She wasn't at all sure if she would recognize the driver or the car. The driver recognized Kathryn as she was walking into the town. They drove back to the hotel in New Delhi. Kathryn spent several days in New Delhi and was able to visit the Taj Mahal.
When the contractor's school started back up, they cut back to one teacher to teach the entire eight grades. Kathryn decided to keep Jimmy and Wayne out of school and teach them herself using the Calvert system which was the same system the contractor's school was using. We discovered that both Jimmy and Kathy were being used by the teachers last year to help them instruct the other students. Kathy and Jimmy excelled under the Calvert system and in our opinion the Calvert system was superior to the normal school system used in the states. It depends upon the ability of the students to self study and the parents. We converted Kathy's bedroom into a class room. Jimmy was in the sixth grade and Wayne was in kindergarten.
The concrete situation settled down and by November, 1963 the concrete was around 95% completed. The local project manager decided to release me from the project and send me back to the States. We had a few arguments in the past and so I wasn't too surprised. I wrote to Harza Engineering Co in Chicago and to TAMS in New York stating that I was being released and would be back in the States in December and would be interested in talking to them about work. I received response from both TAMS and Harza. TAMS asked me to call them when I got to New York City for a possible interview and Harza wanted me to call them after the Christmas holidays.
In preparation for leaving, we spent a few days in Bangkok. I made an arrangement with the Bangkok General Motors dealer to purchase a 1964 Impala Chevrolet and take delivery in New Jersey, just outside of New York City. I paid $25.00 over cost, plus the cost of the cables from Bangkok to New York setting up the purchase. We made arrangements for tourist airline tickets flying from Bangkok to New York by way of New Delhi, Cairo, Athens, Rome, Madrid and Lisbon. We were entitled to first class tickets from Bangkok to Charlotte, N C and we elected for tourist fare and received a travel voucher for the difference between first class and tourist fare.
Kathy was still in school and we scheduled a two week trip to Penang. We enjoyed the Island and stayed in same hotel as when we were there before. I was out early on the beach when someone told me that President Kennedy was shot while on a visit to Dallas, Texas. I started back to the room when I met Kathryn who had just heard the news.
After our two weeks we flew back to Bangkok and started our trip home. We flew to New Delhi arriving the day before Kathy was scheduled from Woodstock. We had planned to meet the incoming train from Dehra Dun and arrived at the train station the next day only to find out that we were given the wrong train number, arrival time and track number. The New Delhi train station is very large and by the time we found out the correct train number, Kathy's train was already in. We decided to spit up with Kathryn going one way and Jimmy, Wayne and I going the other way to look for Kathy. Kathryn found her first and then they went looking for me and the boys. We spent several days sightseeing with a side trip to the Tah Mahal. Kathy was very hungry when she arrived in New Delhi and she ate so much that she got stretch marks. Food had not been very good at the school. India at this time was not importing food and the people had to live off the land.
We left New Delhi to fly to Cairo on Air India Lines. We landed at Bombay and after an hour we left for Cairo, only to return to Bombay because the plane had developed some problems. During this short flight the plane dropped over 10,000 feet giving us all a scare. We returned to Bombay and spent several hours more in the airport. We finally left Bombay and arrived in Cairo very much behind the scheduled time.
Several plane passengers were in front of us when we arrived at the hotel and they were having a hard time trying to check in at the hotel desk. By the time they got to us, we had no problems in checking in. In fact we had an excellent room facing the river Nile. We spent several days in Cairo seeing the sights. Of course we saw the pyramids and climbed them, and went inside to the tomb. We all rode camels around the area. Kathryn wasn't feeling too good the next day, and I took Kathy and Jimmy to the Cairo Museum while she and Wayne rested.
We flew from Cairo to Athens. We spent several days sightseeing. This involved several bus tours to areas outside of Athens. The weather was nice. We left Athens for Rome and the weather turned cold. It was very cold and we had not been exposed to this type of weather for two years. The hotel rooms were cold, and we switched rooms but still no heat. We went sightseeing and had a good time. One of the problems we had was eating, as most places did not open up for dinner until late and the children were hungry long before that time. After Rome we went to Madrid for additional sightseeing. When we left Madrid we decided we had seen enough of Europe and decided to skip Lisbon. We landed in Lisbon but stayed on the plane and went onto New York.
In New York I contacted the General Motors Office and made arrangements to pick up the vehicle. I called TAMS and set up an interview with them. They wanted me for the Tarbella project in Pakistan. I said that I would go, depending on their contract. We talked about money and length of contract. In those days one had to stay outside the United States for 510 days in any 18 month period to be exempt from income tax. We reached an agreement and they said that they would send the contract to my parents home in Charlotte. After showing the children the sights of New York, we made arrangements with the General Motors office to take us to the dealer in New Jersey to take delivery of the new car.
We accepted the car and started driving to North Carolina. We stayed with my parents for a few days until we could find a place to rent while I looked for a job. I called Harza Engineering Company and talked with Bill Bussey. He set up an interview in Chicago after the first of the year. Just before Christmas I received the offer from TAMS for the Pakistan Project. After several telephone conversations, I declined their offer for two reasons. TAMS changed the length of the contract from 18 months to 15 months and reduced the money from what we talked about in New York. To remain in a tax free situation I would have to leave for Pakistan right after Christmas.
After the first of the year I called Bill Bussey and he arranged for me to fly to Chicago. I went to Chicago and met with Bill Bussey and others and was offered a position with Harza as Concrete Engineer which I accepted. This started my long association with Harza.