I wanted to send a short story to an online magazine whose editor lived in England so I unearthed something I’d written about an incident when my wife Sally and I had visited London and we’d met the author Ruth Rendell at a book reading. In the story we’d spoken to Ruth Rendell after her reading and Sally had bought one of her books which, after Sally had told her I was also a writer, she’d inscribed to “a fellow writer,” which was pretty close to what happened. As always, when I re-read one of my stories I made some revisions but, while I was doing this, what came to my mind wasn’t that visit but the first time I’d been to London and had met Helen Ingalls. This was way back in 1953.
In 1952 when I graduated college the Korean police action (as it was called then) was going on and I was drafted into the Army. After the usual basic training I was sent to a couple of schools and then shipped over, not to Korea, to hold back the North Koreans, but to Seventh Army Headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany to hold the line against the Russians. I eventually accumulated enough time to have a leave and somehow had heard of MATS, Military Air Transport Service, in Frankfort. With MATS, I was told, you could get a plane ride to almost anywhere in Europe. This sounded good so, it must have been in the fall, my friend Joe Petrick and I took the train from Stuttgart to Frankfort and somehow made our way to the MATS airfield. As I recall, we had a choice of flights, to Amsterdam or London. Joe chose to go to Amsterdam. I’d been an English major, had read many English novels and also mysteries set in London. There was no question in my mind; I’d go to London.
When I started to think about that visit to London the thing that came to my mind was that on my first or second day there I was looking into the window of a bookstore and behind me saw the reflection of an attractive girl and there she was, Helen Ingalls, whom I’d met the day before on the ferry going from France to England. So I guess I hadn’t gotten a direct flight to London but to somewhere I could get that ferry. How I managed this I have no idea but I had met this American girl who was visiting London. She was not only attractive but she was rich, or from a rich family. She told me her father did something in the State Department. They lived in Washington D.C., she’d graduated from some snooty college, and now she was touring Europe, where she knew people everywhere. But even without being told this I’d known she was a rich girl, she had that look, as did her clothes she wore. As for me, I was just a poor kid from the Bronx. I had gone to college, but it was on a scholarship and I had no idea what I was going to do after the Army.
Needless to say, I didn’t expect to see Helen Ingalls again after that ferry ride. She was staying at some hotel, the Strand, I think, and I would be staying at some place for Gis I’d been told about, probably like a youth hostel. But now here she was, a Hollywood meeting, the start of---well, who knows? As it happened, she had no plans for that morning. I’d planned to see the Tower of London so we found the right two-decked bus to get there, sitting on top and looking at all the London sights as we passed them. The Tower was as interesting as I’d expected and we took pictures of the Beefeaters, saw the chopping block where Anne Hathaway had lost her head and ooh’d and ah’d at the crown jewels.
Afterward, we walked along the Thames and found a nice café to have lunch. So here I was, the poor kid squiring the beautiful rich girl around, just like in the movies. Then we went back to her hotel and --- no, I’m afraid not. Whatever else I remember about that encounter with Helen Ingalls, it was chaste. First, it wasn’t the 1960’s yet; it was the still conventional 1950’s. Secondly, I was young, had gone to an all-male high school and college and so had virtually no experience with girls. Finally, Helen was due to meet some friends in the afternoon and spend the rest of the day with them. So, I escorted her back to her hotel and left her there. I did get the number to call her. Then I spent the afternoon walking around London, and thinking of Helen Ingalls.
For the rest of my week’s stay in London I did meet Helen a few times. One time I remember is having a late breakfast with her at the Strand. It was the large English breakfast and we lingered over it while I tried to entertain her with stories of Army life in Germany. Then she was off to visit someone in the English countryside. This was typical of our meetings. The one I most clearly remember was our last one. I’d found that tickets to plays in London were incredibly cheap and had tried to see a play every night. On my next to last night there I’d gotten tickets to, I think, Guys and Dolls, and Helen for once was free at night so I invited her to come with me.
I can’t remember if we had dinner before the play; if we did I’m sure I tried to select an inexpensive restaurant. I do remember that we enjoyed the musical and then we went back to her hotel, which was the Strand. This time at her door there was an awkward moment or so and then I gathered my nerve and kissed her. She kissed me back, but in a chaste way, and she didn’t ask me in. As I’ve said, it wasn’t the 1960’s yet. She gave me her address back in the States and I said I’d write her.
When I got back to Stuttgart my friend Joe Petrick regaled me with stories of the girls he’d met in Amsterdam and said that’s where I should have gone. I didn’t tell him about Helen Ingalls, I’m not sure why. But I did write her in the months I had remaining in Stuttgart and she wrote back. It was nice to get letters from a girl and I got some teasing from Joe and the other guys. When I ended my tour, finally, and returned to New York I wrote to Helen and suggested that we might possibly get together, but at that time Washington seemed far away. I had a harder time than I expected getting a job in New York as evidently employers weren’t anxious to hire English majors. Everyone asked how come I wasn’t going into teaching. I eventually did land something with an advertising agency, but, although advertising had become a glamour business, starting salaries were, as I found, pretty low.
Meantime, my correspondence with Helen had fallen off and then, around Christmas, I got, not exactly a Dear John letter but one intimating she was seeing some guy, from another wealthy family, I was sure, and it was serious. So that was that. After a couple of years I left New York for California, got a job there, married, had three sons, and now I was retired and had taken up writing. I have to say I’d forgotten Helen Ingalls but she must have remained in some corner of my memory because I had a clear picture of my looking into the window of that book store in London and then seeing her image reflected in the window, turning around and --- well, you know the rest. A Hollywood beginning but a real life ending. Still, if she’d been in New York instead of Washington, if I’d managed to get a higher-paying job, well, it probably still would have come to nothing. But you never know.