Just a game

It’s just a game.  Nothing more.  Something to pass the time.  Perhaps you can do it with your kids on long car trips.  Or with your husband, when he looks across the table at you in that nice restaurant with his usual bored expression.  Or maybe you know someone in the hospital and you’ve exhausted all there is to say about the Hawkeyes or Cyclones.  I’ve got a new conversational picker upper.  Give it a whirl.

Are you ready?

Okay, on this tiny, narrow street in The Hague, there are two stores facing each other. The first one is a chandelier and dress shop named “Emma.”  Bright, lavish, and beguiling.  

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Across from Emma’s is another type of store.  Spare, simple, serene.  All you can see in the window is the back of a violin, a book, and flowers.  That’s it.

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The small sign identifies the shop as one owned by Josef Vedral — violin maker.  Who is Josef Vedral?  Well, lo and behold, Josef Vedral  set up a violin workshop in The Hague in 1908 and became the violin maker to the stars.   His two sons, Nicolaas and Josef, Jr., continued in the business after his death.

Got it?  Those are the true facts.

Okay, here’s where it gets fun.  You get to make up whatever you want with those given facts.  Anything.

This one is easy.  On one side of the street is Josef the violin maker, with a single violin, a book, and a flower in his window.  On the other side of the street is Emma, with a store window reflecting warmth, laughter, and soft feminine apparel.   It’s obvious — Nicolaas and Josef, Jr., are the product of the tempestuous-but-passionate relationship, forged at the beginning of the 1900’s, between Emma and Josef.

Of course, this is all baloney.  But shouldn’t it be true?  Shouldn’t the world be full of tempestuous relationships that culminate in high passion at the turn of the century?  Shouldn’t love sweep away all propriety?  Shouldn’t a twinkling chandelier always catch your eye?

You can play this make-believe game all day long, with any theme you desire, with any juxtaposition you want.  Let’s say you’re feeling a little adrift today, a little at loose ends.  Okay, here’s two white-haired women taking a walk by the North Sea.  Fact.

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But did you know that they married and buried partners?  That their knees and hips have been cranky for awhile.  That they are tired, bone tired in fact.  That their conversation inevitably turns to lost love, forgetful children long grown, goals never achieved.  And, as the wheels of their walkers turn in cadence, their shoulders periodically brush.  And they inwardly smile at the gift of each other.

Pure baloney.

Are you getting the hang of it?

Okay, one last one.  How about the theme of violence?  A logical choice with 250 little girls kidnapped by terrorists in Nigeria, and a mentally ill person killing innocents in California.  No problem.  I have just the juxtaposition.

There’s a nudist beach on the North Sea . . . .

Image 11And do you see that object at the back, up on the dune?  It’s made out of poured concrete and tucked tightly into the sand.  Abandoned nearly 70 years ago.  No identifying signs.  Empty.  Overrun by dune grass.

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You guessed it — a Nazi bunker.  This bunker, built to push back the Allies from landing on this North Sea coast, was armed and manned and loaded with weapons.  It bristled like a mean dog back in 1944.  It doesn’t take much to imagine its teeth barred, spitting violence.

Along comes a group of nudists.  Exposed.  Open to the sun and sea.  Nothing left to take from them.  The quintessential pacifists.  Gandhi without the robes.

And as the nudist played in the sand, the soldiers questioned a world built on identifying and destroying those who were different from themselves — those who needed to die for purity’s sake.  This disconnect was bound to happen as the soldiers took off their own clothes and discovered, you guessed it, they had the same parts as those on the beach.  And before you knew it, the biblical swords were turned into plowshares.  The children of the soldiers’ children cavorted on the beach.  The bunker was absorbed into the dune to disappear forever.  And today, only pale bottoms, not guns, are flashing in the sun.  Violence has been defeated.

Of course, that’s also baloney.

Your turn to play.









“Am I in that grave?” — Part 2

Omaha Beach.  Utah Beach.  Sword Beach.  Juno Beach.  Gold Beach.

70 years ago, on June 6th, 1944, thousands upon thousands of American soldiers came to Europe for the first time, up these “beaches” into Normandy.  And over the next few months, thousands followed behind them for the push into Germany.

The students

Like newborn ducklings, the students follow their teacher single file up the road.  On bicycles, of course.  Each student wears a bright orange vest announcing that they are on a day trip away from their local middle school.  Rolling wheat fields surround them on all sides as they turn in at the manicured drive.  In the background can be heard the occasional squawk of a crow and the lowing of distant cows.  Farm country.  As they get closer, the sound of American and Dutch flags cracking in the wind announce that class is about to begin.


“Hello, I’m glad you’re here. I knew you would come, and I’m impressed that you found my grave. They all look so much alike. More than 8,000 men who fought in the Second World War are buried here, and I am one of them. If they all could tell you the experiences they’ve had, you’d hear a lot of different stories. But today you’ve come to hear my story; to hear about my life from the time I was born to the moment I was laid in this grave.”

The students’ teacher, Laur Rutten, is on a mission.  His goal, his “ultimate challenge,” as he put it to me, is to get these children to grow up as “citizens who feel responsible for a peaceful world.”  With that challenge in mind, he brings his Dutch 7th and 8th graders to this cemetery every year.  The Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten.

“After high school I started dating a girl named Marion, whose parents were also Irish. . . . Even with my small salary we were able to save some money and then get married in 1941.  We’d been dating 7 years and knew each other well.  We were very happy, especially when our daughter Gerry was born in March 1942. . . .  I left out of New York with 2000 other soldiers to cross the Atlantic Ocean on a big ship. . . .  The beaches of Normandy, where the Allied troops began the liberation of Europe, are now named after various American states and cities, such as Omaha Beach and Utah Beach.  I arrived in France in February 1945 with my division, the Second Division of the 38th Infantry Regiment.”

Rutten wrote a eulogy in three parts.  Three segments of a day-long lesson.  He spent countless hours researching and interviewing, phoning and writing, and weaved together the life of David Conway, out of Massachusetts, killed on April 14, 1945, just weeks before the end of the European war.

“In the morning we got up early and got ready to leave for Leipzig.  We hadn’t yet gone a kilometer before we were facing enemy fire.  Everyone ran for cover.  In the crossfire that followed, the freight truck I was hiding in was hit.  A lot of things ran through my mind all at once.  I thought of my mother, my father, my brothers, my friends at school, and all the nice and sad things I had experienced.  Last I thought of my wife and little girl.  I was badly wounded.  No one could help me because they were all as badly hurt as I was.  Marion and Gerry would have to live on without me.”

Rutten wrote the eulogy in the voice of the dead soldier, who tells the students of his life, his family, his marriage, his new-born daughter.  He tells of the war.  The dangers.  And, ultimately, of his own death.

“You are now standing at my grave, but soon you’ll return to home or school, to your family or friends.  That seems normal, but it is something special.  We can only enjoy this peace because of those who were prepared to come and fight for it.  I was one of them.  When I was born, that was my mother’s wish.  Her wish came true.  My wish for you is to live a long and happy life.  But at the same time I hope you’ll understand that peace on earth is much more than what it says on a Christmas card.”

As they circle the grave at the end of class, the young Dutch students remain transfixed.  Faces down, tears trailing on cheeks, they stand in silent reflection.

“It’s a start,” Rutten says.

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The son

The old couple sit as solid as the stone bench on which they rest.  They look out over a bumper crop of marble crosses and stars of David.  The sun shines bright and hot on this spring day.  The couple doesn’t flinch.  They know weather, good and bad.  Their faces are open, friendly, looking with anticipation as my wife and I approach.  They’re from Pennsylvania.  Edna and Dave.

They take us to the grave where Dave tells us his story.

“My father, Harold Wray, went by the name of ‘Huck.’   It’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow.  Of course I was a small boy when he died.  My mother, I was told, went through a deep depression.  As a small boy, I couldn’t figure out why other family’s dads were coming back and mine wasn’t.  Finally, when I was about six, my mother had this wooden box with all the letters and the flag and she said we’re going to go through this . . .  and then she put it away. . . .   She only lived to be 37.  Then I got the box.”

Edna’s eyes begin to glisten.

“Several years ago a man approached me at our small church in Pennsylvania.  He had noticed my last name and wondered if I knew a “Huck Wray.”  It turns out he and my dad had been best of friends since they shipped to England.  They were both blown up by the same bomb.  He ended up in the hospital.”

“First time I came over here was 1968.  There was an ad in the paper, for next of kin.   KLM flew us over here.  That was really something.  Very special.”

“Did you notice all the John Deere’s they have doing the cutting at the cemetery?  They keep it spotless.  It is an honor to these men.”

“See how his name is almost golden.  They have sand from the Omaha Beach.  They have fine sand and wipe it on there.  It gives it a gold cast.”

“We hope to bring our son Jim over to see this.  He wants to come so bad.  Him and his wife . . . .   We’ll see how we hold up.”  Dave clears his throat.

Edna leans in to adjust Dave’s shirt.  They stand as one.  A family picture is taken — Dave, Edna, and Huck.

Image 3The gravedigger

Jeff Wiggins appears to have lived a life of teaching and community service from what I can tell from my readings.  An exemplary life.  He was an outspoken advocate for different races and religions to coexist and learn from each other.  He was an author and a leader.  But, for all that, he never spoke about a time when he was 18 years old.  Even to his wife of over 40 years.  It was as if the months spent in Holland in the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945 never existed.

Wiggins was one of 280 African-American soldiers assigned to dig graves at Margraten.

“We need to remember that in World War II there were two armies.  One army was white and one army was black.  They had chosen not to use us in combat and gave us the tasks that nobody wanted to do.”  Wiggins spoke for the first time on television and in newspaper interviews in his home state of Connecticut after being discovered by a Dutch author and documentary director in 2009.

Wiggins reported that he was unfamiliar with death as an eighteen year old.  Suddenly, he was burying three bodies a day.  28,000 soldiers were laid to rest at Margraten in 1944 and 1945.

Wiggins did not want to remember this time.  However, after being discovered as the last surviving gravedigger, he was compelled to change his mind: “If these 28,000 can’t escape where they are, I have no right to escape their memory.  There is a price to be paid for war.  In spite of all that we hear, there is no glamour.  There is suffering and death.”

“When I first arrived, I had to dig a grave with someone with the same last name as me.  I was 18 years old.  I was a country boy never been to the big city.  I saw this name ‘Wiggins’ and the first thing that came to my mind is this all a dream?  Am I in that grave?”

And, as this picture of the Margraten gravediggers shows, they were.


Jeff Wiggins and his fellow gravediggers laid to rest many an Iowa boy in Margraten.  Every burial was done with dignity and honor in spite of the harsh conditions, according to Wiggins.  He recalled another gravedigger who decided to sing an old spiritual after every grave was dug.  Soon the song was echoing over the burial grounds as the dead arrived by the hundreds.  “Lord, I’m coming home.”

Jeff Wiggins can be found today in the Mountainview Cemetery, New Fairfield, Connecticut.

On this 70th anniversary, may they all rest in peace.


Older men

Older men are a dying breed.  Sad to say.  They are a species unto themselves and I worry about their extinction, which causes me to write on their behalf.  I’d speak of older women, but I find myself frequently infatuated with older women.  Not enough emotional distance to report accurately.  But older men?  To write about them is like talking about your old dog who pees periodically on the living room rug.   You totally love that dog, and will be sad when he moves on, but, undeniably, there you are scrubbing on the carpet looking forward to the day you won’t be on your hands and knees cleaning up Rover’s mess.  I’m not saying older men are incontinent dogs, but, let’s be honest, they’re not a bed of roses either.

Part of why older men are a little complicated to love is their sharp tongues.  Just yesterday, this Dutch guy, who I guess is somewhere in his 70’s, saw me and shouted his typical greeting of the last six months, “Heh, American.”  Sometimes he will switch it up with the greeting, “Heh, Obama,” to great hilarity among the octogenarians he hangs with; but yesterday he stuck with the tried and true — “Heh, American.”

“How are you feeling?” he said.

I told him I was great except for a blood vessel that broke in my eye last night when I sneezed too hard.

He looked at me closely, and then said, “Well, you are getting old.”

I told him that was the same thing my wife told me.

The old man looked startled and said: “I am surprised you have a wife.”

I asked him why.

“I am surprised because you are such an ugly man.”

See, older men, with one leg in the grave, are missing that part of the brain that says: “whoa,” “don’t say that,” “what will others think.”  They are looking for unfiltered entertainment.  Pure and simple.  Their days are shorter, they are watching reruns of Sex and the City late at night, and they’re feeling frisky come morning.  They will say and do anything.

But inside the rough exterior of every older man is the soft custard insides of a delicious pastry.  I promise you.  This is why they need to be saved from extinction.  You want an example?

Okay, today I am indoors at the Dutch Nationals Powerlifting Masters Competition in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.  Alkmaar is one more of the dozens of beautiful Dutch towns that dot Holland.  And, of course, Alkmaar has an awesome windmill.

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But I’m not sightseeing today.  Today I’ve chosen to be in a gym with really big men who are sweating and occasionally grunting.

The guy I’m betting on at this national competition is a little past most men’s prime.  Rik Priester is 58 years old.  He has all the aches and pains men have of that age.  But six days a week he puts iron into the air with the squat, the dead lift, and the chest press.  Serious stuff.  This type of lifting is not exactly the body sculpting advertised in men’s and women’s magazines at the checkout counter.   No, this type of lifting is more like “hey, do you want me to lift up your car while you change that flat?”  That kind of lifting.

Priester, a committed middle school teacher during the day, and a successful trainer of Dutch Olympic contenders in his off hours, is on his own personal quest.  He wants a world championship in his weight class for powerlifting.  He did it many years ago and is on track to do it again — yes, at the age of 58.  So, he warms up in the back room with the other competitors and tries to prepare for the nine lifts he is going to do this day.


The audience is politely disengaged during the day-long competition.  That is, until the competitors step up to the bar.  At the first sign of struggle by the poor guy up front, we all begin to yell in support, collectively willing the iron upwards.  You don’t even realize until the lift is over that you’re exhausted.  Everyone is exhausted.  Heck, we all just squatted over 500 pounds.  Sure, the guy with the weights gets the credit, but, come on, who carried the day?

It’s Priester’s turn.  He comes out, positions himself, and lifts an unholy amount of iron.  Again and again and again.  The guy is a monster.  Even the weight bar bends under his strength.  A champion to the bone.

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Of course, he wins it all.   A mark in the victory column against youth.

Ah, but what about that soft interior, which is the salvation of older men?  Well, when Priester stood up on the podium to get his championship trophy, he waited for a moment, but jumped down too soon for his wife, Henriette, to get a picture.  How do I know this?  Well, from out of the audience came Henriette’s voice, lilting over the crowd, “Rik, ga near boven terug.”  I don’t speak Dutch.  I didn’t understand a word she said, but, of course, we all understood every word.  I saw Priester quickly jump back up on the podium.  And, sure enough, Henriette walked to the front and got her picture.

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Okay, let’s recap: the champion, our hero, who just lifted a house, couldn’t get back up on the podium quickly enough after just five words spoken by his wife.  Really.

Are you satisfied?  Older men are marshmallows in a graham cracker crust.  Save one today.






“Our boys” — Part 1

The old Dutch couple moved slowly along the narrow reflecting pool.  Flowers and a vase were cradled in the woman’s arms.  They stopped.  The man took the vase from the woman and carefully, with obvious complaint by his joints, went to one knee next to the pool.  He dragged the vase through the water and then handed the dripping vase to his wife.   Pushing both hands against his bent knee, he forced himself back into a walking position.  The man adjusted his coat.  With his wife by his side, he continued the slow walk along the pool towards the stairs.  Looking past the old couple, and just on the other side of the stairs, could be seen the tops of marble crosses and stars of David glimmering in the early morning sun.  And in the far corner, an America flag flying far from home.

ALFRED WESTVOLD.  Hometown in Jasper County, Iowa.  Killed on April 7, 1945, east of Muhlhausen-Thuringen, Germany.  His wife was Helen, his only son was Larry.

The cemetery near Margraten, the Netherlands, might have been sitting smack in Iowa farm country from outward appearances.  When the bus from Maastricht left my wife and I on the side of the road, we found ourselves in the middle of lush spring wheat fields.  Not a town or a person in sight.   It was the wrong country for “amber fields of grain,” but it felt like home.

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The engraved stone wall across the road announced: Netherlands American Cemetery and Memorial.  This road in front of the cemetery, the road we travelled to arrive, was originally built by the Romans for the war campaigns of Caesar.  This same road was used by the Germans to invade France.  And the road was later used by the Allies to attack Germany.  During late1944 through 1945, however, this road carried truckload after truckload of dead boys.   Sometimes 1000 a day.  The trucks were unloaded at this very location.  The last stop.

ADOLPH PEDERSON.  Hometown in Emmet County, Iowa.  Killed on November 28th, 1944, in Germany.  Bernice was his wife.  He had six sisters and one brother.

Although the Netherlands wasn’t totally liberated by the Allies until 1945, this little section in the southeast corner of Holland was freed by September of 1944.  It became a staging area for troops heading into Germany and other parts of the Netherlands.  Many soldiers that came through here were put up by Dutch families and made Dutch friends.  Many of these same soldiers returned in the trucks, killed in nearby Germany.  Over 17,000 bodies.  The majority of the dead were eventually returned to their hometowns in America.  But 8,301 stayed in this restful spot next to their comrades — hallowed ground.

CHARLES CLOUGH.  Hometown in Hardin County, Iowa.  Killed on November 22, 1944, in Mullerdorf, Germany.  His dad was Charles.  His mom was Eldona.  He was killed by a German sniper on Thanksgiving Day.

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Forty sets of brothers are buried here.  Side by side.  As are four women caught in the maelstrom of the Second World War.  When bodies were found that could not be identified, they were given a marker that says: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.”  There is even one grave with two unidentified bodies together.  It is suspected they were killed in a tank explosion.  Melded together in the heat, it was felt “unethical” to separate them.

EDWIN WULFEKUHLE.  Hometown in Clayton County, Iowa.  Killed on July 28, 1943, somewhere in the North Sea.  Wife was Ruth.  His only son was Edmund.  He was last seen bailing out of his plane.

Two long walls separated by a reflecting pool provide the roll call for 1,722 missing American soldiers.  In 1994, the remains were found of one young soldier whose name was on this wall of the missing.  His funeral was the last to be held at the cemetery, nearly 50 years after the end of the war.

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GEORGE KERBY.  Hometown in Appanoose County, Iowa.  Killed on February 23, 1945, in Hilfarth, Germany.  His dad was David.  His mom was Cora.  George was promoted to Private First Class nine days before he was killed.

Ah, but there’s another story this cemetery tells.

In late 1944 and early 1945, as the bodies poured into Margraten, the Dutch town folks responded by assisting in any way possible, including digging graves when the bodies became too many for the American Burial Corp.  When the war finally ended, the Dutch communities were at a loss as to how to thank the Americans and to show respect for those who gave their lives.   On Memorial Day in 1945, just weeks after the end of the war, 30,000 Dutch showed up at this cemetery to honor the American dead.  Even more amazing, all 17,000 graves were decked out in flowers provided from Dutch gardens.  After the ceremonies were ended, the Dutch refused to go home.  They remained at the cemetery to pray for the dead.  No one left.  And the next year?  50,000 Dutch showed up at the Margraten cemetery.  Yup, 50,000 Dutch to honor our dead.

RICHARD WESTFALL.  Hometown in Tama County, Iowa.  Killed on April 1, 1945, at Eisen, Germany.  His mom was Nora.  His dad was Carroll.  He also had two brothers who fought in the war, George and Raymond.

A translator used frequently by the American army staff back in 1944 was the Margraten town clerk, Joseph van Laar.  After the war ended, an American soldier asked van Laar to periodically bring flowers to the grave of his cousin.   Peter Schrijvers, in his book about the cemetery and town, says that van Laar responded: “I will take care of your cousin’s grave as if he was my own family, . . .  I will adopt his grave.”

LYLE EVANS.  Hometown in Linn County, Iowa.  Killed on April 6, 1945, near Dortmund, Germany.  His wife was Alice.

And so it began.  The request for adoptions from American relatives overwhelmed van Laar.  Soon the mayor of Margraten decided to form a committee to organize the adoption process.  The Dutch responded to the committee’s request for volunteers in overwhelming numbers.  Grave after grave was given a family.  And now, nearly 70 years later, every grave is adopted, every missing person has a family.  Yup, over 10,000 adoptions.

As for the adopters, sure, they bring flowers to the graves, they write letters to the families when the families request, they send pictures of the grave or pictures of the name on the wall, but, mostly, they remember.  They remember when we all might forget.   And their remembrance is kept alive by their children.  The caretaker at the cemetery said that some graves are tended by the third generation of the same Dutch family.  The dead passing on the memory of the dead.  Amazing.

Image 5On Memorial Day this year, every grave will again have flowers.  And, once again, thousands from the surrounding communities will come for the ceremonies to honor the dead.  How can this be?  Schrijvers offers a clue: “When the Dutch talk about the soldiers whose graves they have adopted, they rarely mention ranks or last names.  Instead, they speak of Jack, or Gustav, or Antonio, or, just as naturally and caringly, of ‘our boys.’”  You see, this is personal.  As van Laar said to the American soldier, “I will take care of your cousin’s grave as if he was my own family.”  And so they do.

What about the dozens upon dozens of Iowa boys resting on this hill?  Don’t worry.  Each one of them has a Dutch family.  These families are bringing flowers, brushing off the cross, or the star of David, or the carved indenture into the stone wall.  Grass will be clipped, bird droppings whisked away, a wet cloth wiped across the smooth white marble.  Rest assured, the grave will be prepared for this Memorial Day, someone will speak his name aloud, and every Iowa boy will be remembered and honored.


PAUL LUTKER.  Hometown in Scott County, Iowa.  Killed on January 2, 1945, in Belgium.  Wife was Lenora.  Daughter was Nancy.

Meanwhile, the old Dutch couple made their way up the stairs to the large field of graves.  The old man trailed just a little behind his wife.  They seemed intent as they headed into the field of graves.  They had a job to do.  An important job.  They had flowers to deliver to their boy.

“Our boys.”


What should a woman not have to do?


Wading into the dark waters of women’s issues is not a good idea.  Especially for a male.  I  know this.  Why not just stay up on the bank where there are no snakes, no quicksand, no danger?  This seems a no-brainer.   But, unfortunately, I also believe in the magic of four events.  If four similar events call out to you within a short time, even though you are reluctant to wade into the muck, it’s already too late.   Just by counting the events and noting the coincidences, you’ve already planted one foot right in the middle of the snakes; you might as well put the other foot in the quicksand.   And, who knows, it may be a quick death.  Although I wouldn’t count on it.

It all began with Joni Ernst.  You know, one of the Republicans running for the Senate seat being vacated by Iowa Senator Harkin.  Yup, it was her amazing ad touting her ability to castrate pigs.  A gimmick to be sure.  A successful one.   In the same vein as the ad, however, I wondered about Ernst’s political position on Planned Parenthood and contraceptives, given her proclivity for castration.  Heck, you probably wondered the same thing.   But I recognized that thought as silly nonsense.  Unfortunately, in short order, along came Sarah Palin pulling me towards the water.

“No one is going to push her around . . . .  She’s not one who’s going to be told to sit down and shut up and let the good old boys do what they’ve been doing . . . .  She’s packing’ and she knows how to use it.” Yup, that  would be Palin stumping for Ernst in West Des Moines.  She continued: “Liberals like to claim there is a war on women.  Little chicks who need little sugar daddy government to take care of us.  Liberals make it sound that women are defenseless. Well, [Joni Ernst] is a pistol-packing Harley rider.”

Yikes, what was happening?  Sarah Palin was causing me to think about what women should do in this day and age.  What are women’s aspirations?  Where does feminism go next?  Palin’s vision of women (who she admiringly calls “Momma Grizzlies”) is that they should be strong, aggressive, and up for a fight.  The term “defenseless women” is coined by Democrats to entice women into being subsidized by the government — according to Palin.   Interesting notion.  I mean, who doesn’t admire a strong women?  Of course, do strength and aggression put bread on the table?  Is any safety net needed for single moms or women caught in poverty because of health problems or other reasons?   Is aggression really the only missing ingredient for women to succeed in the world?  And is carrying a gun ever the answer?

See, I was starting to fall over the edge into the water.   What did I tell you?  And I was given a decided shove by an event in Washington D.C.

A panel of self-styled conservative women were discussing feminism at the Heritage Foundation.  Mona Charen, a columnist for conservative publications, forcibly argued that the real concern by women should not be the lack of women in powerful positions, but “what is happening with men.”  “The decline of marriage has damaged men, women, and children. . . .  Family disintegration is the problem. . . .  The decline of stable families is hitting boys disproportionately hard.” Charen then rattled off statistics supporting these conclusions.  Having read of these findings before, I am hard-pressed to disagree with her.  Few would disagree that children generally do better with intact families.  Period.  She goes on to argue that single women with children are exposed to all sorts of dangers, which is why government programs are attractive to them and why they vote for Democrats.   Marriage is the answer, according to Charen.  And who caused the problem for women?  Charen tells us: “Feminism must take the blame.”

If you set aside Charen’s provocative language, we are left with her proposition that marriage is what society needs for the stability of the family.   That makes some sense.  I wonder, however, if she goes far enough.  Is the lack of two-partner families just a symptom of greater societal problems like poverty?  To say marriage is the answer to family disintegration is like telling a person to stop coughing to cure their cold.  I don’t think it works that way.

And then the fourth of my magic four events occurred, pushing me right into the dark waters.

Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, successful TV personalities, wrote a column in The Atlantic.  They assert that the reason for the disparities between women and men in the workplace is  because women have less self-confidence than men.

“Success, it turns out, correlates just as closely with confidence as it does with competence. No wonder that women, despite all our progress, are still woefully underrepresented at the highest levels. All of that is the bad news. The good news is that with work, confidence can be acquired. Which means that the confidence gap, in turn, can be closed.”

Is that it?  Is self-confidence the piece that will bring high-powered positions to women?  Can self-confidence really be learned by action?  Isn’t this just a variation on Sarah Palin’s Momma Grizzly?  And what about Charen’s concern about marriage?  How does that tie into this workplace disparity?

My head was spinning.  Four visions concerning what women should do.  I could no longer ignore it.  So, I did what any man would do.  I went to the gym.

Henriette stands behind the main desk — the mother of this gym in Holland.  With her pale, freckled skin and reddish-blond hair, she could be the poster woman for the word “Dutch.”  And like the Dutch, she does not tolerate the intolerant.  Including me when I get on my high horse.   You want advice?  She is the go-to gal.

Henriette told me a story.

“At the start of the war, my mom was engaged to marry a Jewish man.  He was sent away. . . .  She feels so awful and sad about it.  It was a strange time.  Everyone wants to survive.  After the war, she met my dad.  He was a smooth talker.  She thought he was the best man ever.”

But soon after the marriage, Henriette’s father started acting strangely.  “He wrote with lipstick on the walls, ‘my wife, she is dirty,’ because there was some stuff left around the table.  It started as mental abuse and then physical abuse.  When it was done, he cried and said he was sorry.  ‘I hope you can give me another chance.’  My mother was pregnant. Her dad was in prison because he built bunkers for the Germans during the war.  Soon she had two kids, three kids, four kids, and I’m the fifth.”

When Henriette begged her mother to leave her father because of the abuse and his philandering, her mother stated that she had nowhere to go.  So the abuse continued.  “My brother and I have the most hitting.  The three older sisters had less.  My brother is stuttering.  When my brother didn’t say words, my dad looked for reason to beat him up.  He shaved his head one side so everyone could see that he did something wrong.  My brother left when he was 15.  All those years go by.  And I left at 16.”


Okay, what should a woman do?  I certainly don’t have the answer.  Not that I would object if you are a married, self-confident, Harley rider.   Or even an unmarried, shy, bicycle rider.

What should a woman not have to do?  Mmmm . . . how about survive?









A typical conspiracy

Conspiracies are awesome.  Who doesn’t love an intricate web of deceit and lies and blind alleys that end with a broken bottle, three yellow tulips, and five drops of blood.   The obvious explanation?  A conspiracy.  Conspiracies are the province of mystery story writers and science fiction authors and the media.  We all love a good conspiracy.

And we certainly have had our share of them in recent times.  Just check the internet.  Global warming is a conspiracy by those against big oil.  The horrible tragedy of the Twin Towers was a conspiracy by the Government to curtail individual freedoms.  The mysterious loss of Malaysian Flight 370 was a conspiracy to cover up that it was shot down by [blank] government for [blank] reason.  Oh, and let’s not forget that Obamacare is a conspiracy to bring us under the thumb of Russian Socialism.  And on and on and on.

Conspiracy theorists, however, are in no way limited to grand tragedies and health care.  When we receive two parking tickets in a row, it is obviously a conspiracy by the Des Moines Police Department.   Offering year-round school for Des Moines Schools is a conspiracy to undermine the family.  Your boss asking you to train a new employee — duh — conspiracy to phase you out of a job.  When I was a prosecutor with the Polk County Attorney’s Office, I was constantly accused of being involved in some kind of grand conspiracy against someone for some ill-gotten purpose.  Please.  As my wife would gladly tell you, I’m just not that clever.

But even though all conspiracies have a menacing component, something dangerous to our wellbeing, we still cling to their rosy light.  This might be because conspiracies require the existence of a higher being, a clear purpose, an explanation for the inexplicable.  If every accident, every mistake, every tragedy, every stupidity, can be explained away as the result of some Machiavelian madman, wow, we are free and clear.   Something bigger and smarter and more evil than mere ignorance is causing it all to happen.  Absolution complete.

I ran across a new conspiracy the other day in, of all places, Colmar, France.  Colmar is this fairytale city that has a markedly unfairytale past.  First, the fairytale.  It is one of the most funky, beautiful little places in the world.  It sits comfortably on tributaries of the Rhine River at the foot of the Vosges  Mountains in north-east France — the Alsace region.  Yup, you heard me correctly, I said wine.  Riesling in particular.  Although the vines are just beginning to sprout, they are something to behold.

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And the town is a delight of rich-pastel colored houses, timbered windows and doors, and cobblestone streets that wind and curve and wax and wane.

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Sure, this place is the home of the guy that designed the Statute of Liberty and it has a museum with a work of art that is such a big deal no museum outside of Paris is more visited in France.  But it is these amazing homes that cause you to stand in the middle of the street with your mouth open and eyes wide.

Now imagine tanks and soldiers and machine gun fire on these streets.  Yup, Colmar was conquered by France in 1673, made part of the newly-formed Germany in 1871, then back to the French after the First World War, then retaken by Germany during the Second World War, then back to the French in 1945.  As you can see, none of pretty Colmar’s history was very pretty.   How it survived is a mystery to me.

But to the conspiracy.  As you World War II buffs know, by January of 1945 the Germans were almost pushed back to the Rhine River.  Not quite, however.  There was a pocket around Colmar still held by the Germans.  The Battle of the Bulge was over, but there was real concern about this small area in the Alsace region.  The French and the Americans mounted an offensive.  At the end of the day, it is estimated 8000 Americans lost their lives at the Colmar Pocket.  And twice that many French.  As for the Germans, they still don’t know how many died.  A lot.  An unbelievable cost for a battle that has disappeared in history.

But, again, back to the conspiracy.  Just after Colmar was taken by the Americans and French, the Americans arrived with a truck that contained two safes.  In those safes was special super-secret cryptography equipment used only for the highest level of communications among the Allies.   And, even more amazing, in those safes were the Allied plans for the spring invasion of Germany.  Yup, the entire plans drawn up by Eisenhower and his buddies.  All sitting in a truck in Colmar, France.  Parked on a side street.  And since it was nighttime, everyone was tucked into bed.  Sound asleep.

Well, not quite everyone.

That night the truck disappeared.

So what happened?  Did the Germans sneak back into town (they were four miles out), find the side street, hot-wire the truck, and scoot back out of town?  Did Hitler order a cunning infiltration?  Was the truck really stolen by the Russians in preparation for the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962?  Or was it aliens?  You can pay your money and make your choice, but, clearly, a conspiracy of the highest order.

Of course, I’d never heard of the “Colmar Incident.”  I suspect you hadn’t either.  In researching Colmar, I came across a secret report, written years earlier, released by the National Security Agency in 2008.  It told of the loss of the truck  and how it was a potential disaster for the invasion of Germany.  It catalogued the unlimited resources thrown at the pending catastrophe.  Even Eisenhower was personally involved, according to the NSA document.

After an intense hunt for several days, the truth did come to light about the stolen truck — and it wasn’t Hitler, it wasn’t the Russians, and it wasn’t aliens.  A French farmer was the culprit.  Fortunately, all the top-secret information and equipment was found untouched.  Germany could be invaded in the spring.  World War II was soon to be history.  The end of the Colmar Incident.

Oh, and one more tidbit, according to the NSA report, the French farmer did not steal the truck to sell the information to the highest bidder for world domination.  Nope, that darn French farmer took the truck because he had some furniture to move.  Yup, furniture.  So, being a practical farmer, he swiped the truck, threw the safes in the river, and moved his furniture.  Period.

A typical conspiracy.








Daydreaming in early spring

Is there any harm in letting your mind drift along on a warm spring day, feeling the sun on your neck, and smelling the just-turned Iowa dirt from across the fields?  With the world topsy-turvy because of missing planes, upside-down ferry boats, and troops massed on the border, isn’t it all right to take a short vacation from it all?  It seems as if whimsy is relegated to second best most of the time.  Certainly not newsworthy.   But isn’t it all right to daydream?

As a kid, we all daydreamed.  We lay flat in the grass and watched the cloud shaped like a dragon float across our vision.  It was awesome.  Now you are an adult.  There is no time to lay in the grass.  Besides, it is dirty.  But the experts are now saying that daydreams are the gateway to problem solving, career goals, and discovery of inner fears and desires.  Perhaps they are right.  But daydreams are also floating on the Raccoon River in an inner tube in the middle of August.  Period.  If daydreaming clears your skin at the same time, so be it.

You say you are a little rusty at daydreaming?  Here, have a seat on this wooden bench next to this canal in Gouda, the Netherlands.   See the three young boys playing?  The boys are shouting and laughing and being dopey, like young boys are inclined to do.  The one on the bridge dared his friend on the pier to jump.  The friend did.  Now it is the turn of boy on the bridge.  He’s scared.  And thrilled.  He’s almost ready to let go of the iron bar.  Leaning out, leaning out, leaning out . . . .   And in your daydream, perhaps you should plant a “no swimming” sign at the front of the bridge, draped with their shirts obscuring the sign’s message.  Now, wasn’t that easy?


You want to try a second one?  Okay, here’s an old classic.  You are standing on the bridge looking out over the boats and funky houses of this large canal in Leiden, the Netherlands.  Two swans make their way against the current.  They’re heading home.  But in your daydream these are not common swans.  They are princes.  Changed into swans because they failed to appreciate the gifts they had in their lives.  Love was treated cavalierly.  Friendship was squandered.  Kindness was manipulated.  And now?  Now they drift together up the canal.  With each other as companions.  Taking turns leading, gathering food, and guarding against young children throwing rocks.  And with all that they have lost, their necks still stand proud as they head out together — to a new future.

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Hah!  You’ve got it.  Way to go.

All right, here’s a tricky one for you.  Now you’re walking the small cobblestone streets in Colmar, France.  You see a nest sitting high up on a church tower.  A stork nest.  Truly.

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Barely discernible is movement in the nest.  The storks are watching from on high.  They are bringing babies.  Now relax, your daydream hasn’t taken an unforeseen turn down a dark and narrow hallway into a baby’s room — unless, of course, you want to be a father or mother.  No, these storks are bringing babies to themselves.

In another nest, two storks gawk with wonderment at you far below.  Considering, perhaps, that you might be a large earth worm.  But then correctly deciding that you looks a bit too chewy — a bit too Midwestern.

Before they were interrupted by your voyeuristic tendencies, they had been discussing what to tell their children about where baby storks come from.  The father had suggested explaining that elephants bring the baby storks in their trunks.  The mother wisely pooh-poohed such ridiculousness — and briefly wondered why she wanted to raise children with such a dolt.  Fortunately, the father stork quickly regrouped and suggested they tell the truth.  The mother stork smiled, making the father once again stand tall against the afternoon sky.


Excellent job.  And don’t worry.  No one will think you are crazy when you do this.  Why?   Because who’s going to tell them that you took off on a little trip?  Not me.  And, by the way, I haven’t forgotten that there are serious issues that need serious minds doing serious work.  But, let’s worry about domestic abuse, juvenile crime, racism, nationalism, and the price of corn — tomorrow.

How about this dog and little girl in the French village of Turckheim?  The dog is wondering if he will grow up to be a little girl.  The little girl is wondering if she will grow up to be a dog . . . .  Now you have the hang of it.

Image 1Daydreaming in the early spring.





Why not?

HELP WANTED: Person needed to create something wonderful out of an empty spot in Downtown Des Moines.  400,000 square feet available.  Some debris removal required.  Portions of Tea Room included.  Helpful if partially crazy.

The monumental fire and the destruction of the Younkers Building was quite a tragedy.  Sad for sure.  But, unfortunately, today is already tomorrow.  Time to pull up our pants, dust off our hands, and get to work.  Let’s look at those burnt embers and see them for what they are — a chance to cut out of whole cloth. A chance to do something totally different, totally unexpected, totally awe-inspiring.  Heck, a chance to order the large malt with sprinkles and gummy bears AND Oreo cookie crumbs.    Why not?

Come on, we need something special for this rebuilding project.  Something that catches your eye when you’re driving to work or dropping kids off at school.   Maybe something that causes you to sit up a little straighter, be a little better, smile for just a moment.  Something that Raygun might put on a t-shirt, or something where you tell out-of-town visitors “you’re gonna want to see this,” or something that has a crazy reality TV show named after it.  I mean, really, why not?

There is this guy in Barcelona, Spain, who could do this for us.  His name is Antoni Gaudi.  When I first saw his work, I thought he had more than one screw loose.   It was dark and late at night as I walked with my wife on the streets of Barcelona.  Suddenly an apparition appeared to our left.  A disturbing and wondrous vision.  Gaudi built a house of bone-like windows and blue-green colors and nary a straight line.  Imagine coming home from Court Avenue and seeing this structure at the corner of 7th and Walnut.  Now that would rock you back on your heals in a wonderful way.  Are those skulls?  Is that a dragon on the roof?  Sure, it’s no Tea Room, but WOW.


You’re getting nervous?  Well, we can sell prom dresses on the first floor during tournament season.  We can have Des Moines Gay Men’s Chorus sing from the windows during Pride Week.  And talk about a great Haunted House.  We can make this work.  Why not?

You want another choice?  Okay, how about this apartment complex Gaudi built just up the road on the Passeig de Gracia.  On the roof is a magical kingdom of vents and chimneys and open spaces.  This guy is totally wild.  Wouldn’t it be fun to go up on the roof among all these playful air ducts and look out over downtown Des Moines?  And if we went this direction, I assure you, Des Moines would have the next Star Wars Celebration, the next Star Trek Convention, and the next meeting of the Society for Creative Anachronism.  In the bag.  Why not?

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You want a third option?  Okay, what about Gaudi’s masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia?  The church sitting in the heart of Barcelona holds 13,000 visitors.  When we walked through the massive doors and looked up, my wife and I stood immobile with tears in our eyes at the wonder of it all.  Even the Pope came to visit this place in 2010.  Just picture such a building on the corner, rising up out of the center of Des Moines like a phoenix out of the ashes.  The Eighth Wonder of the World right here on 7th and Walnut.  Why not?

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Ah, but sadly I have bad news.   Gaudi’s dead.  Ignominiously dead.  Dead with such irony you don’t know whether to laugh or cry  – flattened by a tram in 1926 and left on the side of the road to die.  Everyone thought he was a bum.  Not the best reflection on mankind.  But, ironic or not, I’m afraid Gaudi’s unavailable.

Where does that leave us?  Who would have the audaciousness to pull this off?  Come on, let’s push the envelope.  Don’t forget, we’re the home of the Varnum decision.   We twice elected the current president of the United States.   And must I mention the Butter Cow?

Okay, how about this guy out of Paris?   I think his name is Gustave Eiffel . . . .


And, really, why not?






When a building dies . . . .

When a building dies do we mourn the loss?

With all the real troubles in the world, the real suffering, the real terror, the real death, it seems absurd to mourn a building.  I mean, come on, let’s be serious.

A thing, built of mortar and brick and glass and steel, is still a thing at the end of the day.  Right?  Nobody’s feelings are hurt.  Nobody is bleeding.  Nobody needs stitches.  You can’t even tell someone to just shake it off.  There’s nobody to shake.

Just because you ate lunch down that basement for ten years doesn’t make it some kind of holy shrine.  And even the cookies weren’t really a sacred sacrament (although I could be persuaded to reconsider this notion).  Sure, you bought shirts for work and ties for weddings and suits on sale.  And there was that coat.  But, at the end of the day, she was a fickle mistress who left you once the good days were over.  Even the updo to the infamous Tea Room was merely a come on.   Future hopes that weren’t realized.  And there she sat, empty, on the corner of 7th and Walnut in Des Moines, Iowa, for the last decade.  The Younkers Building.   A faded dream.

But then why the sadness when she burned to the ground the other day?

It’s simple, this gal, who was 115 years old, entered into a covenant with us.  A promise.  She crossed her heart and hoped to die and said, in no uncertain terms:

“I will stand here, immutable and impervious, on this corner, in the heart of downtown Des Moines, and I will be the guardian of the only thing that is left to you at the end of the day — your memories.  Even when my display windows are empty of fancy clothes, even when no pedestrians can enter my revolving doors, even when the smells from my kitchen are long gone, I promise to preserve within my brick and my steel your memories of bygone times.”

And she did.  But now the building has vanished up in smoke like something out of Chinese mythology.  Fire destroys stone, metal, and wood, until finally subdued by water.   A battle of the elements.  But no matter how glorified the battle, at the end of the day, the Younkers Building was turned into hollow echo of itself.  A shell.  A corpse laid out for viewing.

And with her death, all the memories kept by her, which she held onto just as she promised, were released with a whoosh and a roar and a bang causing an avalanche of reminiscences over the last weeks.  From weddings registrations, to Tea Room celebrations, to baby clothes purchased, to dress suits fitted, to cooking lessons, to Santa visits, to riding those newfangled “electric stairs.”  You name it, there is a memory.   My friend, Holly Novelli, wrote to me of being a young girl visiting the store:

“It was thrilling to wander past The French Room to see the gorgeous evening gowns on display, twinkling and sparkling in the low light . . . the customers’ and associates footsteps muted by the plush carpeting . . . .  The walnut-lined elevators each had an operator that announced the departments on the floor as she opened the grated iron door.  Imagine.  No big store directory by the front door.  All you had to do was tell the elevator operator what department you were looking for and with a friendly smile, she’d deliver you to that floor.  My first career aspiration was to be an elevator operator at Younkers.”

My oh my.  These are real memories with real value.  And you know what?  That wonderful Younkers Building kept her covenant to us.  But what do we do now?

We need to mourn her loss.  We need to mourn a building.

When a tree is knocked down by the storms from the North Sea, potted plants appear next to the exposed roots.

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When a fisherman dies in Scheveningen, an old Holland harbor town, flowers appear at the statute of the wife of a fisherman waiting for her husband to return from the sea.

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And so when a building dies, we need to mourn the same way — with a few flowers.

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There you go.  A few flowers.  May the Younkers Building rest in peace.







Fathers and sons

Old farmers in the Midwest tell tales of winter blizzards so fierce that a farmer had to tie a rope from the house to the barn to be able to get back home.  The tied-off rope kept the farmer from getting lost in the blinding snow and freezing to death in the back forty.  The rough braided strands sliding in their stiff, chore-gloved hands must have felt as intimate as a breathing tube for a person without air.  This was not complicated.  The rope was their lifeline.

Johan Roos was raised near the sea.  His father would go down to the harbor in the small fishing village of Scheveningen, load his pushcart full of the fresh catch from the just-returning boats, then walk the neighborhoods of The Hague singing of the fish for sale.  From this beginning, Johan fell in love with the tales from the fishermen returning home in the early morning hours.  He began to hang around the harbor with his ear to the ground.

Years passed, as eventually did Johan’s father, and Johan grew to be a middle-aged man with his own life, his own concerns, his own joys.  But he still loved Scheveningen and began a Dutch web site about the people and the village he loved (http://www.allesoverscheveningen.nl).   During this time, a particular old fisherman, who’d taken a liking to Johan, would visit now and again on a Friday night, drink a little wine, and tell a few stories about the sea.  One Friday night, the old fisherman leaned over to Johan and said he had a new tale to tell.   So, over six weeks the story was told.  The old man’s telling took many tangents, many circumlocutions, many digressions that began at point “A” on the way to point “B,” but ended deep in the weeds.  Lost with no way back.  But the next Friday, they actually did get back.  And so the story fitfully unfolded.

The Arie van der Zwan was a ship 120 feet long and 23 feet wide.  A “logger” they called it in those days.  A short-covered bow and a cabined stern was all that offered protection from the elements for the sixteen crew members.  It had a noisy engine and a hold to store fish and was an improvement on the flat-bottomed boats that had fished out of Scheveningen for over 100 years.

The old man told Johan they had been out on the North Sea for three weeks.  The old man came from a long bloodline of fisherman: his father, his father’s father, his father’s father’s father.  This is what the men did.  But this December of 1960, when the old man was 19 years old, the catch in the North Sea was not good.  And the Arie van der Zwan was heading home only partially full.

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Scheveningen was protected by a harbor.  Two thin arms reached out from the land with an embrace into the sea.  The logger was making its way into those two arms.

“We were coming into the harbor and there was a terrible storm.  She came in with low water.  The boat beached into the sand.  You can only come in with high water.  The power of the low water pushed us down under.  The end of the harbor was too short at that time.  The boat broke on the rocks.  I was on the ‘behind deck.’  I was preparing to come home so was getting my clothes on.  I heard a noise and I fell onto the ground.  I ran upstairs onto the deck.  Only in my underwear.”

The Arie van der Zwan was hung up on one of the harbor arms.  Caught sideways in the storm.  A hole was letting water pour into the middle.  The waves were crashing over the top of the entire vessel, and seven members of the crew were caught under the short-covered bow and the remainder of the crew were in the cabin at the stern.  Their homes in sight, they might as well have been in the middle of the ocean.

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The old man told Johan that he was quickly freezing to death in the bow.

“There was a hole formed in the hold by the pounding of the ship on the rocks of the jetty.  Seconds seemed like hours, and hours seemed days, the engine we heard no more, as we have, I do not know how long seated together in terror, fighting for our lives.  The waves breaking over us, counting our breath and our forces.  The logger was beyond saving.  The wooden deck hatches were washed away by the engulfing waves.  From the holds flooded the empty barrels and skate networks.  Anxiously we were seven people under the roof of the bow.  It was pitch black and the only thing we could hear and see was the raging sea.”

Ah, but hours later, a rope was miraculously thrown from the stern to the bow.  The fishermen pulled themselves across the watery middle, which was bucking from the waves and awash with debris, and made it safely to the cabin.  From there, the families on shore created a human rope of people lashed together by their belts and pulled the fishermen from the cabin to the shore.  It was now the next day after the accident.  The old man had been in the cold and the water for hours.  He couldn’t believe that he was alive.

Fifteen fisherman made it.  But not Evert.  Evert was sixteen years old.  He was one of the seven caught in the bow.  He was the youngest on board.  Evert and the old man were the last to cross over from the front of the boat to the back, hand-over-hand on the rope.  Their hands were numb, they were weak, the storm was relentless.  The old man made it to the cabin.  Evert did not.

As the human rope rescued the fishermen from the cabin, the captain of the Arie van der Zwan could not believe that Evert was not there.  Even though the logger was breaking apart, the captain refused to leave.  He believed that Evert had to still be under cover somewhere on the boat.  The townspeople begged him to cross to safety.  Finally, when all was lost, the captain relented and came to shore.

“Evert was washed off the boat.  Found one week later on the beach at Hoek van Holland, near Rotterdam.”  Johan told me.

And the old man?

“The old man loved the sea.  So he went back.  He didn’t like the sea, he was afraid, but he loved the sea.  All of them sailed again.”

Later the old man fathered children who fished, and those children had children who fished.  And now the old man is gone and a grandchild works the sea.

I went down to the harbor in Scheveningen and stood alone to watch the old man’s grandchild, an officer on a large fishing ship, sail out of the harbor.

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His grandchild, high up on the deck, yelled my name and waved in greeting.


So, Johan, the rope saved the old man, didn’t it?

“Yes, the rope saved them . . . all but Evert.”

And then Johan added: “And, of course, . . . Evert was the Captain’s son.”

Of course.