THE FAR SIDE OF THE SKY

© Christopher Earls Brennen

THE SEARCH FOR CLAUDE LEBON

``Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.''

From ``Burnt Norton'' by Thomas Stearns Eliot (1935).

 

Independence Day, 2016. There was something extra-special about this Independence Day. I was in France, the home of our oldest ally, to attend and present a paper at an international technical conference in Grenoble, a very pleasant French provincial town in the foothills of the Alps. I had been there a number of years before to attend an earlier symposium and had a number of acquaintances who lived and worked in that vicinity. It was a glorious summer day and I had no special obligations at the conference on this July 4. So I decided on an adventure that had its roots some 58 years earlier. I need to digress to set the scene.

About 1957, when I was 16/17 years old, my parents decided to host a young man from France for several weeks in the summer. I have no recollection of how this was arranged but I suspect that my father's affection for things French were part of the motivation. So it happened that a young man named Claude Lebon from Voiron, France, spent several weeks with us in Magherafelt. He came with stylish French clothing like jeans with cuffs at the ankles and elegant sweaters. He brought tennis gear beyond our resources and was determined to exhibit both his skill and his style at the Magherafelt tennis club. So I collected together a few friends to show him some Irish hospitality and provide him an opportunity to interact with his Magherafelt contempories. Claude was a handsome and smooth young man with a sexy French accent; not surprisingly, the most willing participants were several of the local girls. This group included Barbara, a close friend whom I had known since kindergarten and whom I had recently fallen seriously in love with (though this depth of sentiment was not to be reciprocated until more than fifty years later). During the ensuing days, much to my dismay, Barbara developed a crush on Claude. There followed a brief kiss in the tennis pavilion, a kiss she later said was her first. The two of them also managed to sneak off to the cinema one evening without my being aware of it. But Claude's visit and the brief flirtation soon came to an end. It was not until 58 years later and after our marriage, that I learnt from Barbara of the kiss and the movie date (though I did have some suspicions at the time).

     
Left: Claude Lebon, the author and Alison Scofield in 1957. Middle: Alison Scofield, Claude and Barbara Badger in 1957.
Right: Claude, the author and Eileen McMaster at Magherafelt Tennis Courts.

Many years later, in March of 1976, I attended an international conference in Grenoble and, on that occasion, I telephoned Claude at his nearby home in Voiron. We had a very pleasant conversation. He was pleased and excited to hear from me again and we both regretted that I did not have time for us to get together. He made me promise that I would visit with him if and when I ever came to Grenoble again. I made note of his address ("Le Verdin, 38500 Voiron, France") and telephone number and that information stayed in my phonebook for many years.

So here I was in Grenoble again in July 2016, 40 years after that phonecall and almost 60 years since I last saw Claude. In the interim much had changed in my life. After the soul-destroying tragedies of the death of my son and my first wife, Doreen, I had reconnected with Barbara; by some magic I had fallen in love with her again and we were married barefooted on a Mexican beach in the prescence of our combined six daughters and 13 grandchildren. We often talked of our shared childhhood in Magherafelt, of all our friends and adventures. We were beyond secrets and Claude's name inevitably came up but without engendering any resentment on my part. All those years ago we both knew that we would go our own ways; the lovely surprise was that we would come together again after 58 years and fall marvellously in love.

So here I was in Grenoble with a free day to explore and I could not resist the curiosity of trying to find Claude again. I had that address and telephone number from the 1976 phone call but when I dialled it all I got was a recording in French that I assumed was "please leave a message". Nevertheless I decided that I would make the short 20 minute train journey to Voiron in the hope that I might be able to find Claude. The search had turned into an adventure in the French countyside and I have always loved unusual adventures. Besides, it was a lovely, sunny day on which to explore the French countryside.

So it was that I arrived at the sleepy Voiron railway station with only three pieces of information: (1) the address "Le Verdin, 38500 Voiron, France" and photos of the vicinity obtained from the street view in Google maps (2) the telephone number that seemed of no value and (3) a very vague (and its turned out erroneous) recollection that Claude may have become a pharmacist. I decided to explore the third clue first and look for a pharmacy where I might get some information. There were a number of pharmacies but they all seemed to be closed (I never found out why). I walked to the beautiful church in the town center and eventually found a "para-pharmacy" (I still don't know what this is) that was open. A very nice sales lady tried to find Claude Lebon in various computer resources she could think of but drew a blank. In the end she suggested trying the post office and directed me to it. I gave the Post Office clerk the address but, despite trying, he was not able to provide any information. He said (erroneously) that the address was just 500 metres up the road and so I set out to walk. I soon realized using my Google maps that it was much further - and uphill. So I turned around and began to walk back toward the town center in the process trying vainly to find a taxi. I reached the station without success and had to wait some time before a taxi showed up.

Eventually a Grenoble taxi (Grenoblois Taxi, 0476544254 or www.taxi-grenoble.fr) arrived at the station to leave off a passenger. I immediately button-holed the driver lest he should leave without me. As things turned out, I was very fortunate for the taxi driver, Philippe Parodi, not only spoke good English but was also very helpful in my quest. I began by asking him to drive to the address, Le Verdin, 38500 Voiron. When we got close I recognized where we were from my earlier Google Maps exploration and realized that we needed to turn sharp left off the main highway (D1076) onto the very narrow, one-way country road, "Rue de Charpenousse". At this point I was navigating by instinct, an ability I do not understand but that has been surprisingly helpful on a number of previous occasions. It must be based on a set of accummulated recollections of the setting of the desired location.

We proceeded southwards along the very narrow, one-lane Rue de Charpenousse until we came to a spot with houses built right up to the edge of the lane on both sides. Instinctively, I knew this was it and asked the taxi driver to stop in a pullout on the left just north of the houses. Several people in the lane took an interest in our arrival and I got out and approached them. The first person I spoke with said that the house on the right (or west side of the lane) was where Claude Lebon used to live. His son, Romain Lebon, now lived there (Google maps says the address is 52 Rue de Charpenousse, 38500 Voiron, France, with coordinates 45.390584oN, 5.569221oE) but was presently at work.

New Lebon house under construction.

I knocked on the door but there was no reply. Walking past the houses I saw two men below me on the road just beyond the houses and addressed them. They spoke no English but one gestured for me to accompany him as he walked back up the hill to the house that was on the left as we had approached this spot (opposite to the Lebon house). He indicated that someone in that house spoke English. I followed him and was introduced to Henri Martinenghi ( henri.martinenghi@orange.fr ) who answered the door. Henri invited me inside his home and told me that he knew Claude Lebon who used to live in the house on the other side of the road (opposite his home) but that Claude had moved. A son of his now lives there but was work. Henri also fetched his wife, Jill, who turned out to be from Australia and so communication was much improved. They told me that Claude's first wife had died but that he had remarried. Moreover, he and his second wife lived just a few kilometers away.

The Martinenghis gave directions to the taxi driver as to how to get to Claude Lebon's new home and we set off again on our now epic journey. The taxi driver was now fully invested in the search and eager to press on. We passed through the hamlet of La Murette heading for "38500 St. Blaise du Buis" along "Route de la Couratiere" in the village of "Le Petit Voye". Following some signs and with several stops to ask passers-by if they knew Claude Lebon we eventually came to an intersection where "Rue du Petit Voye" branched off to the left. There we stopped a number of cars to enquire of Claude Lebon. After several such efforts, a farmer driving a tractor said he knew Claude and provided directions southwest along "Rue du Petit Voye" (which morphed into "Route de la Plaine") to where there was a turn-off on the right onto a short lane where there was a house with a black gate. Following these directions, we came to the closed black gate. This was clearly the house that the farmer had described, the house where Claude lived (Google Maps says the address is 120-380 Chemin du Boteau, 38140 Saint-Blaise-du-Buis, France, coordinates 45o22'30.2oN 5o29'57.1oE). Ringing the bell at the gate, a woman emerged from the new house and told the taxi driver that she was Claude Lebon's wife. Our wild ride through the French countryside had come to a successful conclusion! The taxi driver was clearly delighted with this success as was I.

The woman neither spoke nor understood English. She told the taxi driver that Claude was playing bridge but would be home in about an hour. Moreover, I was welcome to come inside and wait for him. So I said a most grateful farewell to my fellow traveller, the taxi driver. He refused to accept full compensation for the fare, perhaps because he had enjoyed the departure from his usual business. I was very lucky to find a driver who spoke some English. In the days that followed, I wrote to the taxi company to express my thanks to him for his company and help.

Mrs. Pierrette Lebon was very kind to invite this stranger into her house to wait for an hour for her husband to return from playing bridge. She spoke not a word of English and I understood very, very little French. But she nattered on in French seemingly thinking that I understood. Despite these problems I gathered that Claude and his first wife, Martine, had three children, two boys and a girl. Martine had died suddenly on Feb.14, 2008. Pierrette and Claude were married shortly thereafter. My impression was that Pierrette wanted a home of their own and that is why Claude built this house in St. Blaise du Buis that seemed only a few years old (the Google maps photo shows it under construction).

When the conversation turned to my wife, I decided to call Barbara and then passed the phone to Pierrette who was intrigued by the fact that Barbara spoke French. They had a short conversation that Pierrette seemed to enjoy. Throughout the evening she made frequent reference to Barbara and that conversation. Written notes seemed to be marginally more successful for communication and in this way we exchanged contact information, email addresses and telephone numbers. Pierrette also gave me a tour of her garden and we were sitting outside on the front porch when Claude drove up after the conclusion of his bridge tournament. Though I would not have recognized him in the street, I remembered some of his gestures. He was shorter than I remembered and had clearly put on some weight in the intervening years. He greeted me warmly, "Christopher ...", and we immediately began an easy and interesting conversation. While his English was not great we communicated quite easily and the conversation naturally covered many of our personal histories from the intervening years. He had a good recollection of most of the people and places he had known in Magherafelt. He asked about my father and mother and about my brother Michael though I am not sure he remembered my younger brother and sister, Colin and Paula. He certainly remembered Barbara and seemed slightly taken aback when he learnt that I was now married to her. However, by the end of the evening, he was insisting that I come back to Voiron and bring Barbara with me. I whispered to myself "Fat chance of that ...".

  
Left: Claude Lebon and the author in 2016. Right: Claude and Pierette Lebon.

  
Claude Lebon and the author in 2016.

Pierrette served us a lovely dinner on the front patio, preceded by Claude opening a bottle of Champagne in my honor. In short, we had a pleasant and interesting evening. We exchanged invitations to California/Connecticut and to Voiron. I asked Claude about his working life. Apparently, he spent his life in charge of the family business, "Elve - Lebon et Vernay", a company in the Voiron area that makes paper products. It was founded in 1850 by the Lebon and Vernay families and today employs 55 people. Located at Rue de la Manche, 38430 Saint-Jean-de-Moirans, France, (Phone: +33476050145) the company has a readily found website. Claude retired several years ago and I think one of his sons now works for the company. In his retirement Claude spends a couple of days a week playing bridge. Prior to my visit I had found his photo on the website of the local bridge club that he patronizes and of which he is a treasurer.

Eventually it was time for me to take my leave. We said our goodbyes and Claude called a taxi that took me back to the railway station in Grenoble. It had been a delightful adventure, quieter and more sentimental than most of my wanderings. Days later, on the train from Grenoble to Geneva (and the flight back to New York), my mind turned often to the pleasure of that afternoon and evening. I tried to understand the source of my interest in making contact again with Claude. Was it in any way motivated by resentment over the events of 58 years before? I could understand why an objective observer might think so. But, truthfully, I could find no trace of that in my own soul. Rather it was an adventure motivated by opportunity, by a very special set of circumstances, by the beauty of that summer day and by the ambiance of the French countryside. On the other hand one can never be sure of the temptations buried behind the conscious mind. I can only say that I have searched as deeply as I can and find no such unworthy motivation. If we had both loved Barbara there could be no fault in that.

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Last updated 8/20/16.
Christopher E. Brennen