When your life spans eight decades, chances are you’ve witnessed quite a bit of extraordinary cultural, political and technological changes. Peter Bridges has experienced more than most and seems to have savored every moment of his years, utilizing the hardships, evolutions, wars and a learned diplomacy to propel himself into the 21st century.
Speaking with him is being in the presence of a historian who’s actually lived the accounts. Entering the world as a son of a businessman who had started out as a seaman from Tidewater, Virginia, he was raised in Chicago, where his family had been transferred. The family endured massive salary cuts during the Great Depression, but as Peter remembers, “Families kept together and helped one another. They lived together throughout the Depression to stay afloat.”
Attending Dartmouth in 1949, Peter muses, “Back then, tuitions were affordable and the Ivy League was a lot easier to get into.” Unfortunately, the Korean War started the following year, putting a crimp in young men’s futures and adding the fear of getting drafted and shipped out.
“I had a disastrous sophomore year because we thought we were going to get drafted. Luckily the government initiated the student deferment,” he explains. “If you were in good academic standing you didn’t get drafted.”
Although Bridges started out as an English major he quickly became intrigued with another language. “I discovered Russian novels and we had a small Russian language and civilization department, so my last years I majored in Russian.” Peter laughs that he dreamed of teaching Russian in a small New England college and having a beautiful, rich wife, but he confirms, “I gained a beautiful wife, who was not rich, and I didn’t teach.”
He met that beautiful wife, Mary Jane Lee, in 1954, when he continued on to Columbia University, gaining his master of arts degree in Slavic languages while Mary Jane received her master’s in finance.
Peter’s path changed when he decided he hated his professor, and he reasoned, “I wanted to marry this young woman so I had to do something. I went to the Columbia employment office and came across a poster that said, ‘Take the U.S. Foreign Service Exams.’” After three days of written tests and a full day of oral testing in Washington, D.C., Peter was ready to set out on his career journey as a Foreign Service officer, one who, at the time, had never been overseas.
He married his sweetheart in the spring of 1955 and enlisted in the Army to fulfill his military obligation. Even though he had a perfect score on his Army Russian test, they had forgotten to include it on his records and only his basic training in combat engineering showed up. So, although he was supposed to go to a U.S. intelligence unit in Germany, Peter arrived in Verdun, France to serve two years as a private in the 97th Engineer Battalion. He was made a headquarters clerk since he had a college education.
“I found us a little bedroom garret, a narrow room, and with minimal hot water,” he says, describing their first off-base living quarters, which sounded romantically French. However, he recalls, the place had only an outhouse, which was on the canal. But their location allowed the couple to jaunt all over Europe.
In 1957, they headed back to the States with their first child, David, in tow. Camped out at his parents’ house in Illinois and wondering what their next direction should be, Peter got a phone call asking if he was still interested in the Foreign Service. He took the train to Washington, D.C. and was sworn in as a Foreign Service officer and assigned to the Soviet desk in the State Department, which dealt with the Soviet Embassy in Washington and communicating with the American Embassy in Moscow.
Two years later Peter was sent to Panama as a junior officer to report all the goings on to the State Department. He spent two years there, exploring the Caribbean coast. Now with two daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, added to the mix, the family was transferred to Bavaria, 60 miles south of Munich, where they reaped the benefits of living an outdoor life. “For one year, we hiked in the Alps, skied, and ice skated. The only problem was, the reward for that was going to Moscow,” he laughs.
“It was a little bit drab after the Alps and Bavaria,” Peter remembers. “I had a crummy administrative job the first year in Moscow.
“I was the assistant general services officer… who supervised the motor pool and tried to keep the Russian elevators working where we were living. My second year as a political officer, my job was to try to figure out what was going on in the Soviet intelligentsia—the writers and artists.
“The Cuban missile crisis happened about a month after we got there. It was kind of a hairy time. The nuclear threat was considerable. The U.S. wanted to encourage intellectual freedom within the Soviet Union so we were interested in knowing what was going on with Soviet writers and also what was happening in the non-Russian Soviet republics,” Peter says of the times when no one could have guessed that the Soviet Union would ever collapse. “As far as we could see, the Russians were running a very efficient police state. We wanted to figure out what the possibilities were.”
When President Kennedy asked John Steinbeck to go to Russia and meet with their writers as part of a cultural exchange in 1963, (Robert Frost had gone the year before), Steinbeck asked for an American embassy person to accompany him as an interpreter. Peter was tagged for the job and recalls, “The propaganda was thick. Very few American books were getting into Russia.”
Touring with Steinbeck through Russia, Peter was forbidden by the Soviet government to go into Armenia and Georgia. But Steinbeck intervened, saying he wouldn’t be able to go on without his friend and colleague. The next day, the Soviet Foreign Ministry granted permission. Almost 50 years later in 2011, Peter would be invited back to Tbilisi to lecture about his experiences and early contacts between America and Georgia.
He left Moscow in 1964, returning to Washington, assigned to arms control and disarmament, traveling from the U.N. to Geneva and trying to squeeze family time in between. “I was desperate to get out of the Geneva job and there was an opening in Bulgaria in 1966 so I signed up for language classes but a friend told me about a job in Rome, so I told my supervisor that I was available to go serve my country in Rome as first secretary,” he says slyly.
Of the economic and societal development of the Italians, he comments, “They have a certain kind of entrepreneurial spirit. They have a high personal savings rate, and they managed to become one of the top seven economies of the world. They’re an economic wonder and there are things to learn from them.”
While they were in the beautiful city of Roma, Andrew, child number four, was born. They were posted to Prague in 1971 when another colleague was ousted on espionage charges and Peter was sent over, only three years after the Soviet invasion. He remembers, “It was drab—the Czechs all had their heads tucked under their wings, but it was extremely interesting.”
In 1984 Peter was appointed ambassador to Somalia by President Reagan because, he quips, “No Republican fat cat wanted the job. Somalia had been an Italian colony until 1960.” He retired in 1986, returning to D.C.
Peter discovered Crested Butte in the summer of 1986 while visiting his daughter Elizabeth, who had moved here with her friend, Jennifer Rose. Of course, he fell in love with the place. He and Mary Jane bought their Buttian home in 1988.
Although Peter continued to work in foreign countries in various capacities and after living all over the world, he realized, “I never liked cities. This was the first time I got to live in a small town. We’ve always been hikers and climbers of modest mountains. We fell in love with Crested Butte because of the mountains, small town, friendly place, and it’s surrounded by national forest.”
As an author, Peter has published three books, as well as many magazine articles, starting in the mid-sixties contributing essays and poems to the monthly Foreign Service Journal. His book Safirka, an American Envoy tells of his experiences in Somalia. Pen of Fire: John Moncure Daniel is a history of an American diplomat in Italy from 1853 to 1861. Donn Piatt: Gadfly of the Gilded Age was released in October 2012, and tells of the Washington newspaper man who was also an American diplomat in France in the mid-1800s.
As part-timers in Crested Butte, Peter and his wife of 57 years still travel the world, “We’ve done a number of treks… the Dolomites, Scotland, Pyrenees, and the west of Ireland.” Still in love with Italy, they spend a few months in Rome every year, and split the rest of the time at their Virginia home.
Peter smiles and confesses, “Anyway, I’ve been lucky and Mary Jane has helped keep me on earth.”