by Nicholas P. Snoek
Jack, "Geerhard, let's see if we can get a sugar beet off that truck when it slows down."
"What! You're crazy! What do you want with a sugar beet?"
"Just for the fun, that's all. Come on, let's go!"
They wait until a truck slows at the corner without any traffic following, and Jack runs right up to the side of it and jumps up, grabbing one of the cherished beets by the tip. It comes out, bringing two other ones with it! All three fall on the road, and two of them break in several chunks. The boys gather up the pieces and quickly take them to the vacant lot, where they hide the incriminating roots under some bushes.
Geerhard, "Oh boy! That was exciting. Now, what are we going to do with them?"
"Have you got any rabbits, or guinea pigs?"
"No, have you?"
"No. Do you know anybody who does?"
"Must be somebody. Can't think of anyone right now."
The two scallywags try in vain to come up with some use for the sugarbeets, but cannot think of any. Suddenly their musing is interrupted by a voice, a voice of authority.
"What are you boys doing?" A policeman is standing by the side of the road, looking down at them. Geerhard takes to his heels, off and down the main road! Jack crouches down and makes his way through the stinging nettles into some denser bushes. But the policeman, better dressed for such hazards, follows him easily.
"Okay, young man. Were you taking beets off that truck?"
"Don't you know you're breaking the law when you do that? And what do you think would happen if the driver suddenly had to stop, or swing out to avoid hitting something? You could really get hurt, even killed!"
"Okay. I'm just warning you this time. If I catch you doing that again I'm going to take you right down to the station. Do you understand?"
The officer disappears up the road, and Jack, leaving the spoils in the undergrowth, wanders off to find Geerhard.
What a drag. How can I have any fun? Wonder what it's like at the station. What would they do with me. Make out a report? And keep me there, while they send for Mom or Dad?
At suppertime Mom says to Dad, "Some boys have been chasing those sugar beet trucks again, did you hear about that? A customer was telling me one of them actually ran right up beside the truck and pulled some off. I can't imagine why they want to do that."
Dad, "Uh huh."
Mom, to Jack, "You wouldn't do that, would you?"
Jack, shifting his gaze down to his plate, wonders if she suspects. "No, Mom."
No, she doesn't suspect. She knows.
At Mom's urging, Jack becomes an altar boy. He finds it hard work memorizing all that Latin, and remembering what to do at each point. But he does it. Why not. It pleases her to no end. And she's quite enthusiastic about any reference he makes to becoming a priest.
What interests him most about being a priest is the scholarly side, and then, dealing with people as counsellor. But for the rest of it, performing the sacraments and such, he thinks that if being an altar boy is any indication, he'd sooner do something else! These ceremonial duties interfere with prayer -- he cannot talk to God and keep his mind on what to do with the censer at the same time. The idea that he is praying in a special manner by serving, doesn't seem right, to him. God cannot surely have that much interest in getting this stuff done in this or that exactly correct way.
He has another problem, or perhaps it's another part of the same problem. He often gets dizzy spells as he is kneeling, and he worries that he might keel over sometime, and cause a scene. How embarrassing that would be!
There's a big black dog terrorizing the neighborhood. It's a long coat Bouvier, and it roams around mostly at night, getting into people's garbage and, if any family dog tries to protect its home, the poor thing gets thrown against a wall like a rag, and can only go whimpering off into a corner.
This dog takes a special interest in Dad's meat workshop at the back of the property. It's been tearing at the wooden door, making a hole that's gradually getting bigger.
Dad has decided to do something about it. One morning, when everyone is about ready for breakfast, Dad comes down the stairs with a towel wrapped around his right hand. Mom knows what's happening. Inside the towel is a German Luger, and he intends to use it.
"Siem, don't. Please don't. It's dangerous! That monster will get at you! What if you miss? What if you just hurt it?"
Tersely, "I won't miss." And he keeps going.
As he softly opens the door to go out they can hear the growls from the shed, and the sound of wood breaking. Everyone crowds the windows, trying to see, but there is too much stuff in the way.
They wait, without a word. Several minutes go by.
Suddenly they hear a shot. Just one.
Another half minute. Mom goes to the door, and opens it a little. There is no sound. On the rear balcony of the confectioner's house she sees the neighbor lady, quietly watching the back of the garden.
"Marie, he got it! He's digging a hole already."
"Oh, thank God! I was so worried."
"You don't need to worry. Siem is the man to do it. Good riddance, too. Everybody will be thankful."
Mom comes back in the kitchen.
"Look kids. You know you can't tell anybody about this, right? We don't want any trouble with the law."
Everyone nods in awed conspiratorial silence. Jack is thinking back to the shooting of Borg. He wonders if there's a boy around here somewhere who will be upset when that dog does not come home. Hopefully not, everyone says it must have been a stray for a long time.
The weather continues to get colder. And Jack does more and more reading. There's a church library behind the vestry, and every Sunday he borrows three or four books there. Even at Geerhard's he has a tendency to ignore everything around him and bury himself in whatever there is to read.
At Van Daam's there are stacks of comics in a closet, and he makes his way through them all. He devours reading material. He's not an exacting reader; he's still in the omnivorous stage.
The bakery next door is an enticing place, especially now, close to the winter holiday season. The show window is filled with speculaas, boterkoek, all sorts of delicious chocolate concoctions, and bankets. Mouth watering, and the people are so friendly. There's always a cookie for Jack.
But little by little he finds out there is another side to these neighbors. Jack hears Mom talking a couple of times about the older son -- apparently he has been molesting one of Jack's sisters. And strangely, it doesn't seem to have affected the friendship between the two families, as far as Jack can tell. How on earth can that be?
One day, in a little ditch between the bakery property and the empty lot, Jack finds a tiny fish, frozen tight in the ice. He presumes it's dead, but is curious to make sure, so he gets a shovel and bangs loose a chunk of ice with the little fish in it. He takes this into the warm workshop, puts it in a bucket of water and sets it on a bench to thaw. When he comes back later the little silver thing is swimming around! Lively as can be! What a marvel! Doesn't freezing damage the cells?
In the middle of the back yard Dad has sunk a large rectangular tub, filled with water for the ducks. Jack notices the ice on this needs to be only three quarters of an inch thick to carry him. But that same thickness on the canal would not be enough. Why is that?
Is it because the water can move away from underneath him on the canal, but is held in a solid square column in the tub? Or is it because of the tightness of the edges of the ice sticking to the side of the tub? Maybe both?
He goes skating with Geerhard and some other boys one Saturday afternoon. And after everyone else has tired and gone home, he's still skating. Back and forth, up and down. The ice surface is about seven feet below ground, in a sloot, with a foot bridge at either end of the cleared space. He skates from one end to the other, all by himself, through dusk and hours into dark.
He is sort of hypnotized by the rhythm of it, and not really thinking of what he's doing. At last a man comes and walks across one of the bridges. He stops for a moment, watching, and then goes on.
That breaks the spell for Jack, and he goes home. Fast. Supper is long over. He finds some bread and makes a syrup sandwich. No one comments on his absence. They must assume he was over at Geerhard's place.
Kind of nice to have that unquestioned independence. Or would he prefer to be missed and sought after or worried over?
No. Freedom is better.
Jack is puzzled about Mies. He likes her a lot, but she's so boisterous, so exuberant. He is afraid to do anything more than just silently like her. He enjoys all the energy and free style frolicking in this family, but he cannot bring himself to be that way. So he reads, and listens, and watches.
He develops a closeness with Geerhard's mom, who apparently sees in him some of the qualities she would like her son to have. But he starts to drift away from Geerhard.
Jack hangs around a bit with two other boys, Gees and Pim. Gees is tall, as tall as Jack, but slighter. He has very dark brown hair, and light brown eyes. He's very direct in his manner, often offending when he doesn't mean to. One thing Jack doesn't understand about Gees and Pim is the way they treat animals, almost as if they were toys. Even less than toys, because kids don't very often ruin their toys.
One Sunday the three of them spend about an hour catching frogs, collecting them in an old bucket with some weeds and water in the bottom. And Jack is thoroughly revolted when the other two start taking them out and squishing them on the pavement, at first with their feet, and then smashing them with their fists. He watches in sickened helplessness.
Later, when he tells Mom about it she asks him why he didn't stop them, or at least leave. Not being able to come up with any good answer to that, Jack says lamely, "I watched so I could tell you about it." But that wasn't it. He was bound into it, somehow.
One Saturday Sanna invites him to stay for lunch, and when he explains that his mom has told him strictly to be home by noon, all she says is "She knows you're here, it's okay."
But it's not okay. When Jack gets home around two, he gets heck from Marie. Jack thinks adults should get together on the rules, and not expect children to sort them out.
Marie has one sister, who is married and has five children. They, and her parents, all live in Amsterdam. Several weekends Jack and Mom and some of the girls go over to visit. There's a cousin, Kees, about Jack's age. The two go to a soccer game, and Kees vaguely tries to interest Jack in big city life. But Jack has no use at all for the city; the masses of brick and eyeless reflections of glass, the endless cobblestone streets and wired up posts, and the hundreds of smelly canals... what a place!
The relatives on Dad's side are more interesting. He comes from a family of sixteen kids! Two sets of twins, one identical, the other not. The two identical sisters are planning to be nuns. But they do not seem identical, to Jack. One has a bigger head, Gertrudes, and the other, Alie, has bigger hips. Alie is lefthanded, and seems a bit clumsy. And she's less friendly. So what's the story, there? They were genetically mirror images at birth, but since then life has caused these differences? How? Have they learned different things? Must have, more or less. That would make their minds different. What about their brains?
The family lives on a farm. Jack is intrigued to find the farmhouse something like the houses in his native home.
In Bhutan in the cold mountains, the ground floor of a house is usually an undercroft stable for livestock, and living space for people starts on the second floor. It's a very practical arrangement in a country where there is little fuel, no chimneys to vent smoke, and thus little heat but that coming off the animals. The farmer lives with his animals.
Only here, the stable starts one section to the rear of the main floor living area, so that only the bedrooms are over the cattle. You would think they might send up a smell, but they don't seem to. But then, the floors below are smooth concrete, designed for drainage, and are cleaned constantly. Buckets of water from the sloot are used freely; the animal smells get no time to build up.
Heating is scarce in Holland too. There is little wood, even less than in Bhutan's high country, and in this farmhouse, as is common, there is no plumbing. There is an outhouse. And water for the kitchen is scooped up out of a part of the building projecting over a sloot. Jack thinks that's great. But he does wonder about the musty stagnant smell in that part of the house.
His experience in the monastery has fitted him well to live in the frugal and austere atmosphere of a large Dutch household. It feels like the communal style of living he was used to with the monks, the way all those uncles and aunts gather at the table. And in the evening, if butter lamps were to be substituted for the coal oil ones used here, he could imagine himself back at the monastery. Cold and dim, but still comfortable somehow.
But in the evening there is also another difference. Jack is angered to find the aunts and uncles trying to influence him with talk of a boogie man. He thinks it childish of them, and he worries they might really scare some poor kid. There is surely enough nightmare material in the world without making up any extra! He remembers with warmth the abundant good sense of most of the monks. How did they become so wise?
Do they, better than others, remember being young and impressionable? Or were they different even as boys, from other boys? He is remembering Jim's remark about a mini-monk. Could it be that he is different from other boys the same way the monks maybe were?
Another thing that puzzles, more than upsets him, is Grandma talking about boys with their hands in their pockets going to Hell. He can't imagine what possible connection there could be between putting one's hands in his pockets -- at worst a bit boorish or gauche -- and going to Hell. Does God really have so intolerant and finely tuned a sense of style? Why would He care? And what are pockets for, if you can't use them? In this damp grey climate it seems quite natural to have your hands in your pockets. And isn't it almost a standard pose for a farmer? Are they all doomed, or is this just for little boys?
A new young lady has come. To help with the kids. Her name is Bets. And everyone, including Jack, likes her right away. She is very friendly, very warm, and quite good looking. Her hair is a full dark brown and shoulder length, it sort of flows around her neck. She has a good figure and a pleasant voice. Her eyes are so dark they're almost black. Jack is quite taken with her. She seems to like him, too.
She babysits when the Spiets go to Minnie's wedding.
As she is putting Pietje to bed, Jack hears her sing a nursery rhyme:
`Slaap kindje, slaap
Je vader is een aap
Je moeder is een boefiaan...'
Jack asks her about it. "Bets, where did that song come from? It's awful. It says the kid's dad is an ape, and the mother some sort of outcast."
"Yes it does, doesn't it. I don't know Jack. You just hear these songs, and then you sing them yourself after a while. Nobody bothers about where they come from. A lot of nursery rhymes are kind of scary if you think about what they say."
"But the idea in them has to come from somewhere."
Butting a cigarette, "I suppose. Maybe it has to do with the Dutch East Indies. Like Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas' helper."
Jack, "Oh, yeah. Tell me Bets, why do you smoke?"
"I don't know. I just do. Don't your parents smoke?"
"No. But Giel does. He's not supposed to smoke in the shop, but when Mom and Dad aren't looking, he does. He told me when I get fluent in Dutch he would give me a cigarette."
"He was bribing you, was he?"
"Oh, I don't think so. He just didn't want to give me one now, so that's just his way of putting it off. My aunts and uncles have given me cigarettes. They leave them out in a saucer on the table. They told me I could help myself. But I can't figure out why people do it. When I try, it just tastes bad, and the smoke bothers my eyes and my nose. Doesn't it bother you?"
"So why do you do it?"
"You ask too many questions. Like I said, I don't really know. It's something people do. You don't think about it. Most people smoke, that's all. You will too when you're older."
"I doubt it."
"Oh, yes. You will."
Jack has been having a recurrent dream. Nightmare, really. He's sitting at a table, right up close, looking down at what seems to be cream of wheat porridge. And as he looks at it he is drawn or pushed or somehow compelled to go closer to it. He cannot stop, he cannot pull back, he cannot even look aside. Closer and closer. The kernels get larger, his whole field of vision consists of an expanse of little round shiny off-white iridescent dots, something like fatigue spots before your eyes. And still getting closer! Then he wakes up, sweating, breathing hard.
What on earth is that about?
He is having some difficulty with his duties as altar boy. When he has to kneel for long periods as often happens, he finds himself getting woozy. First a sensation of pressure on his temples, then a lightness in the back of his head that slowly moves forward along the top. Then a narrowing constrictive feeling on his eyes, as shiny tiny electrically luminous photons float and bounce across his view...
And then that pulling on his solar plexus, and he just aches to bend over, to relieve that impending doom of nauseating dizziness. Such a fear too, of losing control!
Think of it! To pass out, in front of a thousand people!
In the front room, or parlor, where people usually go only if there is formal company, or some sort of meeting requiring the space, is a large fish tank. It's about three feet long and two feet deep, filled with tropical specimens. Jack enjoys watching all the brightly colored species floating in their vivid magic world. So beautiful. So relaxing. It is Siem's hobby.
But one day the floors in the living room are suddenly soaked. Mom runs out to the shop.
"Siem, it's that fish tank again! There's water all over. You'll have to give that up. It's just not going to work!"
The heavy sugar beet trucks going by on the built up dike shake the soft ground so much that the vibration, and the weight of all that water in the tank, eventually crack the glass. And so, Dad has to give up his hobby. Everyone is sad about that.
Jack celebrates his tenth birthday. It's the first one as a member of a large family. He is quite abashed at the attention, never having experienced this fanfare for a birthday before, with a cake and little presents from everybody. He loves it!
What a change from the monastery! A birthday there was hardly even mentioned.
St Nicholas' Day! The table in the living room piled high with presents! A section for each child. Jack has asked for a soccer ball, a leather soccer ball. At his place is a basket ball. Various other things, too.
But why do Mom and Dad not understand he cannot use a basketball. There are no facilities, no court, no hoop. And for a soccer ball you don't need anything but the ground? But, with the others, he yells up the artificial fireplace, "Dank U wel, Sinterklaas!" He is hardly sincere, and feels a bit hypocritical, especially since he has figured out there is no such thing as St Nicholas. He was a Spanish bishop, long since dead.
When he talked to Neddie about that, she said he should just pretend for the other kids, like she and Addie and Mom and Dad do.
Then Christmas. Lots and lots of really good stuff to eat! Big chocolate block letters; each of the kids gets their first initial in a solid chocolate almost one inch high and five inches across! And those oliebollen, wow! Deep fried sweet batter with raisins and apple chunks, dipped in icing sugar. A feast for a king!
This is Jack's first experience of a large, public Midnight Mass. Usually Christmas is the highlight of his year; but this time he is an altar boy. He has to help with all these special ceremonies. This is not Midnight Mass; it's a conglomeration of complicated and pointless distractions.
There is more activity for him to concentrate on, though, and that seems to help keep down the danger of dizziness.
But really, why is he here, doing this busywork? Where does God come in? What about Jesus? Now, if others can do this and it doesn't seem to bother them, why can't he? What is wrong with him? To be a priest you have to learn to take care of all this stuff and pray at the same time?
Or do you have to take time out from your spiritual life so you can concentrate on providing other people with the opportunity to fulfil theirs? And then you do your own praying when others are working. But if the priest is taking time off from religion precisely when he appears to be most involved in it, isn't he sort of going through an act? a performance?
That's a troubling thought. Wonder what Brother Andre would say about that.
What's the answer?
The Necessary Things
Please God, forgive me once again for not
Participating. I have been trying all these
Weeks to keep my mind on what is right,
To follow the devotions and the prayers
That used to hold all my attention without
Fail: it seems the more I try to do
What used to come so naturally, to pray
With all my heart and all my mind, the more
I find my thoughts go wandering off. My heart
Is full of trouble.
No longer is my life
A simple matter of some lessons and
Some heartfelt prayer with easy stages in
Between. Is it the hectic pace, with all
These new responsibilities? Is my
Small mind incapable of coping with
The complications of a life within
A large and busy family? Am I
So weak and small? Is my attention such
Perhaps I should not try
To please so many people. If I could keep
My mind on just the necessary things,
Like You and me and how we are together...
If I can meet the challenge of a good
Relationship with You, then somehow all
The rest should fall in place.
Oh Lord give me
The strength of will and singleness of purpose
To be a pure and solid son, a son
To You as like Your own as it is possible
For me to be, with all my many faults.