by Nicholas P. Snoek
One day Jack is out in front of the store after school when a boy of around twelve comes along, carrying a large bouquet of flowers. He suddenly turns, and goes in. Jack is curious about this, and follows him.
Marie sees the lad, and smiling, says "Hallo Geis."
The boy smiles, but doesn't say anything. He goes over to Siem and, pushing the flowers forward, says "Thank you." and then he walks out again!
Now Jack is really curious.
"Mom, what's that all about?"
"Oh, that's really nice. A couple of years ago that little boy was skating on the canal, and the ice gave way and he fell through. He disappeared underneath the ice and the current was taking him away. But then Dad dove in through the hole and pulled him out.
And every year on that same day he brings us flowers."
Wow. Dad's a hero!
Jack has tried to get Geerhard to join with him in the sugar beet caper again, but Geerhard won't have any part of it. So Jack takes a few on his own, hiding them in the bushes as before. But without anyone to share in this, and not having any use for them, he starts to lose interest. So, reluctantly he stops. Too bad. It was such wicked fun!
Schoolwork per Winnie has proved less than satisfactory, and as the hoped for approval to go to Canada has not come, Jack has been registered at school, as a visitor from Bhutan, since there is no question of passing him off as Viktor, here. So he soon goes regularly, and is pleased and surprised that he enjoys the classroom situation, and has little trouble with the work, with the language, or with the teachers.
He finds it unexpectedly gratifying that teachers regard him as a bright student. But his success is credited mostly to the good foundation he got with the monks.
There's a long wide hallway down one side of the school building, with big windows on one side, and classrooms on the other. Between the doors, all along the wall, are large pictures of prehistoric animals. They are arranged in order of development, from the earliest and simplest types, like the Silurian trilobites, to the more advanced, like the modern horse. Jack studies these very lifelike and detailed pictures for long periods of time, and he gets to know the names of the more interesting ones. Like the brutish Pithecanthropus, an advanced ape or early man.
He feels drawn to them; they seem hauntingly familiar, as if he had seen them before.
And he can't help wondering. If true man came so much later, how do people know? How do we know how hairy they were, and what color? Who was there to see what these beings looked like? Are fossils so detailed and so well preserved?
He has little to do with other children. There is no precedent; he has no idea about relating to others in a group. Luckily his sisters, especially Addie, seem to mediate for him, even protect him. No one is going to give Jack a hard time while she's around! More than once, pigtails flying, she chases kids away, who were teasing him for being a foreigner.
The months roll by, and spring sets in. The ground is fertile here, and the grass springs up so lush and green! Jack has never seen anything like it. Several times he tries to sit in it, which is what he would have done around the monastery, but he soon discovers that here, every clump of grass has several deposits in it from the neighborhood dogs!
Jack hears people talking about swimming at a swimming pool. He has never been in one, so he asks Mom if he can take swimming lessons. To his amazement, she says he can. So, he is enrolled, at a pool some ten blocks away. Lessons every Saturday morning, rain or shine. And he can't help thinking, what if he had never asked? Does his learning to swim have to depend on his own initiative? What does that imply for other parts of his life.
What do parents do? What else is he responsible for that he hasn't even thought about?
The pool is an outdoor structure, stuck all by itself out in a field, completely separate from any buildings. The whole thing is surrounded by a high brick wall. He's surprised to find he can keep up with the others in the class, as he half expected they would show him up.
One Saturday morning he goes there long before class time. There is no one around, but he wants to swim. So he finds a place where he can scale the wall.
The water looks coldly dark and forbidding. There are larvae and other bugs swimming on the surface. But, he has conquered walls and fences to get here, so he won't let a few bugs stop him! Soon he's swimming around to his heart's content, treading water, trying different strokes, holding his breath under water.
When the lifeguard arrives an hour later and sees Jack cavorting around in the deep section, he is astonished. Nothing like this has ever happened before.
"Hey! What's your name?"
"Jack. You know, I'm in your swim class!"
"How did you get in? Have you got a key?"
"No, I climbed over the wall, in the corner over there."
"How? And why? Who said you should do that? Who told you you could do that?"
"Nobody. I wanted to get some practice, that's all."
Shaking his head, the man walks away. The next week Jack does the same thing. The lifeguard doesn't say anything. But the week after, when Jack approaches the wall, he sees three strands of barbed wire, all around the edge of the wall top. He is forced to wait, and go in with the others.
That day the lifeguard, watching the swimmers below him in the water, calls over the other instructor. Pointing to Jack, he says "He can climb a wall pretty good, but look at how he swims, like he's dog tracking, trailing to one side. When the class is over we should check his legs and his back. There's something wrong with him."
At the end of the lesson, the guards take Jack over to the office, and they run their hands over his back and his legs, trying to find out what causes him to swim that way. They can't figure it out. And Jack doesn't know what they're talking about.
He hears nothing from his parents about his unauthorized swims in the pool, so he concludes the guards didn't want to get into that with any parents. Can't blame them! They don't want people thinking any kid can get into the pool when no one is around, and maybe drown. And of course he doesn't mention it either. Best let sleeping guards lie.
It's summer holidays!
And Jack gets to stay at the farm. What an interesting place, with rich black clay bottom land and lush grass fields, intersected by sloten that just barely drain off the wet ground, and frogs... frogs everywhere! All kinds of them, all sizes and colors.
Jack comes up with a project involving the frogs. By the bridge at the entrance to the farm there is the base of a silo, open at the top, but with a circular concrete stub wall that no frog could hop over. He imagines the whole thing full of frogs! What would that be like! And what would they sound like?
He spends the best part of three days, doing nothing but catching frogs and putting them in there. Then, on the evening of the third day, as he sits looking down into this enclosure, he can still see just one or two frogs at any one time! He can't think where they could all be. If they had died he should see some of them, some little bodies.
So where are they? With a sigh he gives up and goes in for supper. No one seems to have noticed what he's been up to.
This is a dairy farm, with dozens and dozens of Holstein cows. And the field work is done with three or four huge horses, very gentle animals. So gentle that Jack has no fear of them. He's standing behind them, watching them in their stable one day, while one of his uncles is doing chores. And he decides he wants to see them up close at the front. So he steps in between them, and, reaching out his hand to steady himself, touches one on the leg... and Wham! Jack goes flying! Bang, against the wall.
The next thing he knows he's being carried to the kitchen. They're talking about him having a hole in his head! That sounds pretty strange. How could he have a hole in his head; there's nothing coming out! He thinks about Borg, and the hole in his head. This couldn't be anything like that. He feels alright, a bit sore. But his aunts insist he stay in bed till suppertime. He thinks they're being pretty silly. What difference is it going to make if he's lying here bored in this stupid room or running around having fun.
And he doesn't like the horses anymore.
A few days later he gets to watch the men working on a sloot. He can't figure out how they keep the water from running in, but what he sees is a crew of farmers, all in gum boots and thick woollen pants, but just thin and shortsleeved shirts, spaced at intervals along the side and up and down a huge open trench in the ground, about twelve feet deep, three feet wide at the bottom, and almost twenty-five at the top.
They re-excavate this sloot with simple garden spades! What a colossal amount of work! Is that how all these drain ditches are dug to begin with? That's inhuman! It makes him think about the pyramids, and cheap labor.
It's haying time! In this wet country, so close to the sea, and exposed to the moist Westerlies, getting the hay in is a gamble. The ground is permanently damp, it never really gets dry enough for hay to lie on it without rotting, so the determined Dutch farmers have worked out a system of setting their hay up on braced sticks, so bunches of it can cure, raised off the ground. And the men go round with horses and wagons to gather it in, loose. They compete as to who can build the best load.
Jack enjoys the hay loft. It consists of six huge poles stuck in the ground, to which a movable peaked roof like a very shallow cone is attached in such a way that it can be raised by winched cables as the hay mow grows higher. It slides up to make space for more hay on top, up along the poles which protrude through holes near the bottom meeting points of the long triangle panels comprising the roof.
In a strong wind the roof can be lowered to sit tight on the loose hay, so nothing blows away, and on a sunny day it can be raised, so the whole thing can breathe. The hay is extracted for feeding the animals by tunnelling in from the stable door, and then up through the center of the pile right to the top. Forkfuls are taken off the top of the mow, dropped down the center shaft, and through the tunnel, hauled in to the cows and horses.
Under the roof is a fine and private place, and some, it seems, do there embrace. The uncles, winking at Jack, talk about taking girls up there. But Jack hasn't seen any girls around, only the aunts, and they don't seem to go up there.
One day the hay wagon, horses and all, is parked by the loft while the men are having a break. Jack has seen how the horses are handled a dozen times, and he decides to try it. He jumps up on the seat and, taking two reins in each hand, as he knows it should be done, yells Giddy up!
The horses obediently start off, and Jack is delighted. But he hasn't thought out just how the wagon should be steered in through the passageway between the tool shed on the left and the hay loft on the right, where there is only about a foot of clearance on each side. He assumes the horses would naturally take the most central path. They do not, quite.
And one corner of the wagon catches on the wall of the shed. And breaks out a chunk!
Not knowing what else to do, Jack just yells Whoa! And the horses stop. And Jack leaves the whole thing sitting there, not wanting to compound his felony by trying to put anything back the way it was.
To his surprise, his uncles are more amused than upset when they discover what he has done. But he feels bad. And he worries about what grandpa, a sterner man, might have to say about it. To him, and to Mom and Dad, it would be no joke.
But nothing more is said.
Milking time in the summer takes the aunts out into the pastures. The cows are not brought into barns to be milked; the milkers go out to the cows, pulling a hand cart with spindly iron rimmed wheels, loaded with tall milk cans, three or four shiny buckets, several milk stools, and some short ropes to tie the nervous and the younger animals' back legs.
And Jack learns to milk a cow. That's pretty hard on the arms at first. But you get used to it.
He's back home. The holidays are over.
Across the canal some canoes are stored, and Jack is delighted to discover that Dad has a canoe over there. They go out paddling around a few times, something they can do together.
But Mr Spiets is a very active and physical man; that canoe has to move! Jack is more contemplative, and would prefer letting it drift, and watching the currents eddying around the hull. He likes studying the shore and the reeds floating by. To him the slowly moving water is relaxing, soothing.
So Dad arranges for Jack to go over and get the canoe into the water on his own. Jack is glad, and does that every chance he gets. Especially after he meets Rietje. She's the youngest daughter of the family that stores the canoes. He learns to time his excursions to coincide with her being in the yard, so he can watch her.
She has a pageboy cut, with very fine brown hair and light brown eyes. She's cute and shy. They won't allow her to go out in canoes, but she can play across the road. Jack invites her over.
And in the shed at the back of the property, he kisses her. He doesn't feel the same excitement and suspense as with Truusje. Rietje is less of a challenge, but it's still very gratifying. And soon this becomes a regular thing. His sisters tease him about his girlfriend, and they try to catch him kissing her by watching through the skylight, and peeking in the cracks in the door. He can't imagine why they're so interested. But luckily none of them say anything to Mom and Dad.
It's Saturday morning, around eleven. The girls are playing outside, and Jack's in the kitchen, reading. Bets is peeling potatoes and smoking. They don't talk, they're just quietly aware of each other.
Suddenly Dad comes in from the store. This is unusual. Jack watches, to see what's happening. To his surprise, Dad starts to kid around with Bets, teasing her and tickling her.
"Kom nauw, kind, een zoentje voor de baas."
"Mijnheer Spiets, mijnheer Spiets! Stop! Doet dat niet! Wat als mevrouw Spiets zou binnen komen, wat dan!"
"Zij komt niet, zij is beesig. Wij zijn alleen."
"Neen, je zoon Sjaak is daar."
"Oh, dat doet niets. Hij weet er niets van. Kom vlug, een zoen, dan ga ik weg."
After a while Siem gives up and leaves. Bets is all red in the face, and her hair is mussed up. She's embarrassed to look at Jack. Neither one says anything as she leaves to straighten up. Jack is very uncomfortable, and can't think of anything to do but stare at his book.
Suddenly Mrs Spiets comes in from the shop, looking around a bit uncertainly. "Where's Bets?"
"I think she's in the washroom."
She looks at Jack a moment, then goes back up front.
Bets is gone for quite a while. Jack is worried, and looks questioningly at her when she returns. But, she takes no notice. She seems alright.
Now that's a puzzle, that Dad would take such a chance of hurting his wife. For a kiss. Just a kiss! And how could he think that I don't know what's going on? Or care?
He must not have any idea about what goes on at what age; he would likely be quite startled to learn I've been doing some kissing of my own.
Jack takes his book and goes out in the canoe. He wants to read, so he steps out onto a tiny island, little more than a mound of sedge, about thirty feet from the far bank, and with the tie rope across his knees, hunkers there and reads. He gets so absorbed that he doesn't notice the current swinging the canoe around and ever so gently disengaging the rope!
When he looks up at last, having caught something moving in the corner of his eye, it's too late. The canoe is ten feet or more downstream! The only way to get to it is jump in. But what about his book? And his clothes would get all wet. The explanations! He stands up tall to see if anyone is around. There's nobody in sight. Helplessly he watches the canoe drift farther and farther, till at last he sees a rowboat going along the far side. Feeling ridiculous, he yells at the man in the rowboat.
"Help, help! Over here!"
The man changes course to come up to the tiny island.
"Hey, boy, what're you doing there? And how on earth did you get here?"
"I was reading, and my canoe got away. The current pulled it loose and it floated off. See, down there by the bridge."
"Reading? On that pile of bird shit? You're crazy! Well, hop in and we'll get you over to your canoe."
"Oh, thank you. Thank you very much."
At suppertime there is no unusual comment from anyone, least of all Jack. No one knows. He wonders if the man in the row boat will tell Mom and Dad about that. Likely not. No big deal to him, probably, just amusing.
In the front wall of the house the Spiets have installed six small vending machines, in two banks of three, and in the middle between them is a little wicket and a buzzer, so people can ring for service or change. Mr Spiets keeps the little cubicles stocked with deli items, and some of his own specialties. He's an excellent sausage maker, and has developed a good trade with the evening crowd. Croquettes are very popular, a sort of stewy sausage filling, deep fried in batter.
The wicket is attended from the parlor, and in the store you can't hear the buzzer. Usually for daytime business Bets or Neddie, sometimes Addie look after it, mostly to make change. Jack hears the buzzer one morning, and as there is no one else handy, he looks after the customer. And he finds himself in that position a few more times. His tendency to read while others are playing outside makes him a natural candidate to do this.
But one day, making change for a businessman, he gets things hopelessly confused, and of course at the height of the misunderstanding Dad comes walking in! Jack is embarrassed by his failure to handle the situation, and Mr Spiets is chagrined at Jack's ineptitude and its reflection on his establishment. And sure enough, "Jack, you will not answer that buzzer any more."
Dad, what about explaining to me what went wrong? What am I going to learn from it this way? Toads!
Sometime in late September, Jack hears his parents discussing Bets. "Siem, the girl is just too inefficient. She's very pleasant and good with the kids, but she'll go to the kitchen, and come back with a fork, and then a moment later go out again for a cup. She's not organized. We have to let her go."
"But who knows what you might get in her place. They can't all be Minnie's, you know."
"Well, I'm not very happy with her."
Jack has made a new friend at school. His name is Floortje. Floortje Hilhorst. A tall intelligent looking blue eyed blond fellow, with a bit more enthusiasm for life than Geerhard. He listens with a subdued and tolerant smile, as Jack tells him about his home, his sisters, and some of the things that have happened around there. He is quiet, like Jack.
His dad plays a piccolo. A tall, large man, with black hair and a pinkish face, who never speaks to Jack.
And there are bookcases all over the house, filled with large heavy impressive leatherbound tomes. Jack is overwhelmed. What could possibly be in all those books! There are more books in one of these rooms than there were in the whole monastery! And all for one person! At least Jack never notices Floortje, an only child, or Mrs Hilhorst, looking at any of them.
Compared to the Van Daams the atmosphere here is a bit dry. What a difference.
A sort of ritual develops. About half an hour after Jack's arrival Mrs Hilhorst brings two tall glasses of buttermilk up to Floortje's room. At first Jack is a little embarrassed that such a lady would condescend to serve two insignificant boys. But Floortje seems to take it as a matter of course, so Jack gets used to it. Eventually he even jokes with her a little.
Floortje never comes to Jack's place. Jack understands that in the eyes of the Hilhorsts it would be stepping down just a little to do that. What a contrast with the Van Daams!
It's an even greater contrast with a visit Jack makes to another school friend's house, where the father makes so much fuss over Jack's kindness in doing this honor to his house, that Jack is more than a little dismayed and shy over the whole thing, and never goes there again. How many layers are there?
Strange too, what is allowed to interfere with friendship. Too much appreciation, too little... and not even from the person directly concerned.
The kids often talk about going to Canada, and Jack is intrigued with the idea of seeing Indians and cowboys, and mounted police. He wonders if it'll be possible to have a horse. Or necessary.
Neddie, right at the supper table in front of everyone, points out: "Jack, you're so clumsy, to get on a horse you'd probably need a stepladder!" Jack blushes in silence.
Bets is let go, and the work she was doing is divided among the children. Mom has decided they're old enough now, so it's no longer necessary to have home help. This means a lot of potato peeling for Jack. He doesn't like that. He notices, when one of the girls cuts her finger, she is excused from doing her chores, so, about every other week, Jack coolly cuts his finger. To get out of peeling potatoes!
He's a little surprised at himself over this, because not long before, when he had a dentist appointment that he was to go to by himself, he just didn't go. Because he was afraid of the needles! A cut isn't that bad.
A needle, now that's something else! There's something about a needle -- the way it gets right far into the inside of you without a real hole! It's a trespassing, a violation of your inner self, somehow. It punctures, without bursting, the skin bag that holds in all our juices. A needle is black magic and icy antiseptic science all in one!
Suddenly one day, news comes that the way is finally clear to emigrate. In about a month, the middle of November 1951, they will take a charter bus to Paris in France, then a train to Le Havre, where they will board the Ascania, a ship of the Cunard Line, and cross the Atlantic to Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Another country. Another life!
The month is spent in getting ready. And part of that involves travelling all over Holland, saying goodbye to hundreds of relatives. Jack meets dozens and dozens of stalwart stubborn and stouthearted Dutch, and forgets almost all of them soon after -- there are just too many!
In one place Dad pulls over in his rented car to give a hand to a group of farmers gathered in a double line, pulling on a rope. They're getting a cow out of a sloot. That Dad and Jack should help they take as a matter of course; it's customary that when a cow gets bogged down in one of these muddy ditches, and the poor animal, unable to get a good enough footing to extract itself, starts to lose the fight, that everyone in the neighborhood will pitch in as soon as they can get there, to help save the cow.
Using a horse is too risky, because all the weight of the cow has to be slowly drawn through the sucking mud without breaking its neck, so the pulling has to be very powerful but also very steady, without any jerking.
Even the standoffish independent stiffnecked Dutch will join forces for the right common cause.
People are much the same at heart if you dig deep enough.
Jack is intrigued by another scene: An old overweight man sits at a kitchen table, one ear glued to a radio which is on very low, and a telephone beside him. And he's turning the dials almost continuously; even when he's on the phone he continues to monitor the radio.
He's making a living by entering contests, solving riddles, winning all sorts of prizes, cashing in on coupons, promotions.
Holland is in the middle of half a dozen countries accessible by radio, so this man, a polyglot as the Dutch have learned to be, has literally hundreds of radio stations he can reach. What a marvellous idea! What surprising resourcefulness! To wrest employment from a radio.
And anyone could do it. Anyone!
A blind person could, a person confined to a wheelchair. Anyone!