by Bob Herbert
In the summer of 1951 Fred and I worked together on a small railroad gang in Groton CT. Our job was to wrap and waterproof 2-inch pipe that would carry gas to flame switches (to combat ice in wintertime). We alternately spread gunk and wrapped tape for several layers, then passed the pipe to the two plumbers. They connected and installed the pipes in a trench that was dug by the third and lowest component of the gang, the ditch-diggers. One of the plumbers had been fired at age 55 from his Providence RI firm; they could hire a younger man at half the salary. Charlie, who drove the round-trip every day from Providence, was perpetually glum because he hadn’t had his big idea. “See that hinge,” he’d say, pointing to an ordinary RR car hinge, “the guy who invented that made his million. Trouble is, I’ve never had an idea.” He complained that his wife didn’t allow him enough money to bet on the horses. On Friday he’d show us his marked Narragansett race sheet and on Monday prove how sharp he was. But no betting, only 50c for admission to the track. “She fifty-cents me to death!”
In September I headed to Paris on a Fulbright, and Pat and Fred to London for Fred to complete researches for his doctorate on British policy towards the Latin American independence movement in the early 19th century. At Xmastime I came over to London to stay the holidays with them, sleeping on their daybed/couch in their apartment in Hammersmith. Their landlady Mrs Piggott was unwittingly someone out of a British comedy, always reminding Pat and Fred to stoke the shilling meter lest their electricity run out. Pat had a regular job at The Economist — she continued for years to send them market research — but Fred was free to take me sight-seeing. We did the usual things in London, and once took a day excursion out to Canterbury. By dint of needing a doctor for a minor ailment, they had met Tony Ryle and his wife Rosemary who became my friends also.
In the spring of ’52 I returned to London. I renewed acquaintance with the Ryles whom I greatly enjoyed. The Cody’s friend Bill Rouverol (I don’t remember how they met originally, maybe New York?) had won a mathematics prize at Bailliol in Oxford. He couldn’t take the money out of GB (severe financial restrictions still in order) so he decided to spend it on a trip to Wales, inviting the Codys and me (sight unseen) along. We were six: Bill, his wife Bea, her mother Lygia, and the three of us. I had the only valid license, so I drove the whole trip, 8 days if I remember correctly. I don’t recall why Wales was chosen. We entered at Bridgenorth and went to Conway, which Pat and I wrongly conceived as the ur-home of the Herberts. There’s a photo of the two of us standing in a wall niche at Caernarfon castle to commemorate the occasion. Before we reached Conway we had to stop at a chain stretched across the road. An old guy was seated there on a chair, with a sign stating the 10P toll. Later in Conway we were told he had no right to do that, but had been expropriated for widening the road and refused to acknowledge the change. When a police car approached he’d withdraw the chain and scoot off the road.
We hadn’t booked ahead but that was no problem. There was virtually no tourism in Wales. As one Britisher commented when we told him we had come into Wales for a week: his wife was Welsh and therefore they had to make their annual visit, but why on earth do you ameddicans want to come here? At any stopping point — gas station or cafe — the locals would address us in Welsh, making us admit we couldn’t speak the language (even though Pat rode with a brief history of Owen Glendowr and a Welch in Five Easy Lessons). They’d then speak perfect English of course. At Dolgelly we stayed at the Red Lion Inn. After an early supper there we were standing on the front porch a little before 8 in the evening when we heard a heavenly male choir coming down the street from the church. The clock tolled 8 at which point a bobby — dressed like a London cop — stepped out from alongside the hotel and shouted “Curfew boys!” at which the lovely music ceased.
Central Wales, Glamorganshire, surprised us by looking something like the Dakota Badlands: only sparsely populated, rocky and wild, sheep and rangy small cattle, although there were occasional wet valleys. Down south in Swansea we drove down a mountain slope approaching Rhondda Valley only to realize that the road was atop a gigantic slag heap the scale of a mountain. At lunch in a pub nestled among the old factories, a couple of guys, hearing our accents, come over to berate us for American foreign policy. When they learned we were all on the left, and admirers of Nye Bevin, they bought us drinks and one left for a bit, returning with a large Caerphilly cheese as a memento.
My third time with Pat and Fred was in early summer. My Fulbright stipend was lavish, so I located and paid for a pension in Brittany, which Pat particularly wished to visit. It was a farm I had found in a Breton realtor’s index in a hamlet a few kilometers from Quiberon, the tourist village at the tip of the peninsula that juts south toward Belle-Ile, the island made famous by Sarah Bernardt and Monet. Our widowed landlady ran the farm with her adult children. Two of the “boys” were also fishermen, so we had fish and farm food every day. Our board and room was the equivalent of $2 per person per day. I brought my bike with me, and Pat and Fred rented bikes from Quiberon. Pat had never ridden a European bike before, so when we started out the first time she was fine until she needed to brake. Her feet spun backward and she screamed. I told her to use the handbrakes but she said she couldn’t release her hands from the handlebars to grab the brakes. She did the sensible thing of crashing into the roadside hedge to stop and suffered a few bloody scratches which our landlady nicely bandaged. After just a day or two of practice she was ready to head out along the more-or-less flat spine of the peninsula. We took a couple of long rides to Carnac on the mainland, the site of famous alignment of eleven rows of stone menhirs, and to a further site of a monumental menhir several tens of yards high that had fallen. Imagining it upright boggled the mind, and we found no really convincing explanation of how it had been erected.
On most days we’d ride a ways while overlooking the sea, then choose a sandy inlet for picnicking and sunbathing. Fred and I braved the cold water for a couple of brief plunges, but mostly we lazed about. Our landlady provided us with picnic lunches, complete with some wine in a clay bottle. Pat made some sketches in watercolor, but I don’t recall seeing them afterwards.
In Paris either headed to Brittany or on the way back (I forget which) I found a wonderful cheap hotel, the Deux Continents, for the Codys right off the Bd St.-Germain and quite close to my room on the rue de l’Odeon. Lovely old-fashioned furnishings which Pat especially delighted in, even if the only toilet was down the hall and the only bathroom was still a bit further. The owner-managers were Denise Chresteil, young middle-aged and unmarried, and her married sister who was always present (we never saw the husband). They took us under their wing and Pat quizzed them about their lives, with me acting as translator. I often had to soften somewhat the directness of Pat’s inquiries. When Fi and I returned to Paris in the fall of 1955, we stayed at the Deux Continents until we found a rental apartment; subsequently I stayed there on business trips and remained a quasi-friend of the two sisters until they retired from the business. They moved into an apartment on a nearby tiny square where I visited them until about 1986 when the name had changed on the door and I assumed that age had taken them away.
How lucky I was to see Pat and Fred throughout that year! One legacy was friendship with Tony and Rosemary that Fi and I cultivated in a visit from Paris during our year there in 1955-56. Then in 1960-61, we rented the third floor of their tall house up on the Great North Road in East Finchley. Tim and Rosie overlapped with their kids, so there were multi-child baths in the giant bathtub in our kitchen. Tim had a dramatic hospitalization that year when Tony diagnosed his folded intestine that required immediate surgery. In 1966 we spent a few summer weeks with the Ryles in Kingstonridge on the South Downs (Tony had become medical officer for nearby Sussex University). Poor Tim fell while playing with Martin, Cym and Conrad and smashed his front teeth, necessitating several years of visits to the dentist.