My friend Ken is a Welshman. He can even speak a good bit of Welsh, despite its having been uncommon in South Wales where English is prevalent. Ken was born and lived twenty-six years in his parentsí home on Pentremalwed Road in Morriston, a community of Swansea with a strong independent identity. The story I want to share begins on that road. Pentremalwed means village of snails.
Ken drove us to Swansea in his Mazda MX-5 (Miata in America), on a sunny day that was perfect for a convertible. Our first stop was his wifeís grave in the Morriston Cemetery to pay our respects, not a mile and a half from Pentremalwed Road. We came to his childhood home, a straight street of narrow roadway running about a thousand feet, lined with houses. Many of the stone facades on the terrace houses and semi-detached homes have since been covered with terra-cotta. His familyís home was conspicuously missing from the street, has been missing for years. Rain filled the copper mineshaft on the other side of the hill. The ground pushed through the backyard gardens and eventually seventeen houses, including his house, had to be pulled down.
There had been only one car parked on that street when he was a child. It belonged to a travelling salesman. There were plenty when we visited, but he recalled the street when empty and available for football and tennis. He once knew every occupant of every house and they all knew him. There was no getting away with misbehavior. He showed me the exact spot on the curb where he sat as a child and watched a window across the street where his grandmother was dying. His auntís hand appeared in the window to pull the blind down, so he knew his grandmother had died.
Other memories returned. The milkman returning to the stable at the end of the street would slow his horse-pulled milk wagon, allowing the kids to jump aboard and ride to the barn.
His best friend, David, lived just around the corner. He could not have had any idea that one day he would marry Davidís little sister Pam.
Then there was the red brick church halfway along the street. It was the Pentremalwed Church when Ken lived across the street and a few houses down. This was Kenís church. In the 1950s, he helped carry bricks to the bricklayers when the church was enlarged. In this church he married Davidís younger sister. The church has since changed its name to the Lifewell Church. This year it will celebrate its 100th anniversary since founding. The entrance used to be on the side of the building, but was now in front facing the street.
At the time of this story, Ken was twenty-one, the assistant manager at the SPAR Foodliner Supermarket. It was a Friday, 21st October 1966. The Aberfan Disaster came crashing out of televisions and radios from BBC News broadcasts. This infamous catastrophe has been etched into the memory of the Welsh psyche. Colliery coal tip 7 had collapsed. Underground streams turned the slag into slurry that tore down the mountain slope in waves twenty to thirty feet high, colliding into Aberfan and engulfing the Pantlas Junior School. These are the eventual numbers: 116 children and 28 adults were killed. Of those killed inside the school were 109 of the children, mostly between 7 and 10 years of age, and five teachers. It was morning, the last day of school before the half-term holiday, which would have begun at noon. This story is before those numbers were collected. A plea went out for volunteers.
That evening, Cliff Michelmore, a BBC Television Presenter, reported from the site in tears. This is remembered by many. Ken crossed over to the church where he was Youth Leader. There happened to be no speaker scheduled that night. Ken stood before the youthful congregation, which included Davidís little sister, now a young woman, but Ken still did not suspect she was to be his wife. He addressed the issue of the need for volunteers to go to Aberfan. Young men were soon gathered into two cars, each filled with six volunteers. David drove one and Ken drove his four-door Ford Consul.
As Ken and I motored along the dual carriageways, Ken reflected on the longer drive before the new roads had been built. Aberfan was 25 miles east, but there are no straight routes through the hills and mountains. He reminded me that the old Ford Consul had a front bench seat, so they could fit three across. There wasnít the usual banter among buddies during the journey. He didnít remember what was talked about, only that the talk was subdued. They arrived. The night was held back by arc lights revealing the devastation, the wreckage buried in sludge and crowded with workers.
Ken and his friends were separated from each other and put to work. Tin walkways were spread across the sludge where it was still soft. They were formed into groups of three. Ken was given a shovel and worked alongside someone assigned a pick while the third held an arc lamp.
Down went the hole and a childís arm appeared. As Ken remembers it, they didnít allow themselves strong emotions, were hardened to their purpose and not to be distracted by the horror. They stopped, and those with more expertise came to extract the body of a young boy. Before the body was lifted from the hole, a whistle was blown and all work throughout the area came to a sudden halt, shovels, picks, plows, backhoes; in the eerie silence, the body was taken away. The whistle was blown a second time and the noise of work commenced.
Ken and his friends worked through the night. Ken was spared finding any more bodies. They went home to sleep in daylight and returned on Sunday. This time, the site was better organized. Ken was put to work digging channels to divert the water still flowing through the sludge and debris, to prevent further slides. As they dug, they overheard a reporter wondering why the Welsh werenít singing as they worked. I will not share here the choice words Ken used to describe the incident, only that he thought about borrowing the pick.
Ken returned to Aberfan with me. He had not been back since the disaster. This was his first visit in 56 years. Where the school once stood was now a tiered memorial garden. Ken pointed to where there once was a corner house and described seeing a car crushed flat against its apex at the time. This house is gone. He talked about a furniture truck arriving, filled with empty coffins. There was a new playground adjacent to the gardens and there were children at play. It gave us a good feeling. Ken sat on a bench to ponder his surroundings, the disaster erased and made beautiful with only plaques as a reminder. I followed a path that took me to the Bryntaf Cemetery where the victims were buried. Ken brought the car around and joined me there.
Up the steep hillside are buried the 144 victims. Rows of Roman arches on columns, composed of pearl white granite with prominent keystones, mark their graves. They are called archways by Mossfords Memorial Masons, who replaced the deteriorating originals. I said to Ken, ďThe boy you found is one of these.Ē
In time, the numbers will remain to help those who came later to imagine it. Only imagine it. That will be a kindness that time offers. Meanwhile, this story concludes at Le Monde. After visiting the graves, Ken drove us home to Cardiff. We went to our separate flats to freshen and rejoined each other for dinner at Le Monde, a favorite brasserie tucked away half hidden on Saint Mary Street. I insisted on paying. ďWhy?Ē he asked. ďBecause you were a volunteer at Aberfan,Ē I said. Ken is a good friend, he let me pay.