A sense of place

Look for Iowa farmers before planting.  You’ll see their pickups parked at an angle in the entrance to their fields, like they didn’t have enough time to park it straight what with all the traffic in the ditch.  Driver’s doors left wide open in the supposed rush.  And a short distance away, there they are, squatted on their heels, their ball cap tipped back just enough to see the  pale portion of their forehead, their eyes vaguely looking into the middle distance.  Perhaps they are meditating.  But if you look closely, they have a clod of dirt in one hand.  They are slowly crushing it.  Nostrils flared because they are smelling for that sharp odor of basement damp.  Fingers rolling the soil back and forth because they want to tease it down to a grain.  And all the while they are thinking and planning and measuring their own worth.

Well, folks, that farmer’s checking the soil for what your wine friends call terroir.  A French word that is supposed to capture that inexplicable part of the grape that is due to climate, earth, and plant.  It is distinct and it is individualistic.  So much so, that if your vineyards are on one side of a valley that gets more morning sun, and your neighbor has vineyards on the other side with more afternoon sun, the terroir will be different between the two.  No kidding.

But terroir is also used to describe a sense of place.  The uniqueness of place.   In the Netherlands, believe it or not, that terroir would include eating herring.  Yup, herring. Specifically, eating what the Dutch believe is the greatest of treats — “Hollandse Nieuwe,” or Holland’s new herring.  Raw.  Lightly scaled.  No head or guts.  But a tail to hold onto.  Maybe white onions on the side.  But for the purist, not even the white onions.  Just raw oily fish on a plate.  Yum?


“Once a year it is coming.  The moment just comes.  This is really Dutch.  When you’re in Holland you eat herring.  When you are in Spain you drink sangria, when you are in Italy you take pizza and pasta.  But, Joe, you will never be a real Dutchman just because you eat herring.  Just like I won’t be a real Italian because I eat pizza.”

A little educational, a little philosophical, and probably all malarkey, Denis Navarro smiles and laughs and ducks his head and races to the front of his restaurant and then quickly races to the back, joking, eyes scrunched small then suddenly sprung large, as if to make a small child laugh from the surprise — it all works for me.  I laugh.  Clearly, a carnival barker disguised as a restaurant owner.

Denis Navarro knows fish.  Raised in the Dutch fishing town of Scheveningen, owning restaurants since he was 21, and loving food, he speaks of fish almost in song.  And herring is clearly the chorus to his favorite tune.

“This is a good year.  It has to do with the fat.  The more fat, the better.  This herring we have is not salted.  This is the natural flavor.  The new herring cannot yet give birth to other fishes.  The head is going off, the skin is going off a little bit.  They cut them open, in one time they take it out.  It is the work of five seconds for a fisherman.  This is something special.  It is a delicacy.  Although this is a cheap delicacy.  You should not eat it with the bread.  You should eat three or four to be filled.”

The herring season is very short.  The boats go out in mid-May and by late June it’s all over.  The arrival of Holland’s new herring is celebrated every year on Flag Day in Scheveningen.  The fishing boats arrive in the harbor decked out with flags, and the first wooden basket of herring is handed over to the Queen, who then puts it up for charity.  Thousands upon thousands of people show up to eat the first catch, more than a few garbed in traditional Dutch costumes, and all buying herring right off the boats.


Even during normal times, Denis Navarro has his own fish man go down to the boats three time a week and pick fish for the restaurant.  Herring season, however, is special.

“People used to live off of herring.  It was their main income.  At that time it was something very different.  They used to go out for a half year to fish for herring.  Now they go three days before.  The charm is gone, but it is still good herring.  They catch them in the boats and directly freeze them in.  In the early days, they salted them to keep them good.  No need to do that anymore.  Fish is very delicate and more difficult to prepare.  Meat is easier.  For fish you have to have a good address.”

So, you ask, how does one eat this six-inch slimy critter?  Ah, Denis Navarro and his wife Nathalie demonstrate on a willing victim, my wife.

“You hold it by the tail, just so, now tip your head back, and then slide it down your throat.  Excellent!”

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And there you have it.  Holland New Herring.  The terroir of the Netherlands.

And Iowa terroir?  Duh.  You grab the top of the ear where the silk shows, pull the roasted husks down to the bottom, dip the golden kernels in butter, add a splash of salt, and bite.  Now you’ve had Iowa herring.  By the way, just because you eat this delicacy doesn’t make you an Iowan.  But, trust me, if you add a dash of Iowa State Fair, you can’t get any closer.





Aging in wonder


Leaning in over the chair, his right arm held up and out in classic ballroom dance form — elbow high, left hand centered, body balanced — he cuts hair.  Elegant, poised, and the center of his world.  No orchestra, just the sound of the scissors.  Snip, snip, snip, snip.  The customer sinks lower into the chair.  Relaxed.  Snip, snip, snip, snip.  The sound of an old sprinkler turning back and forth on a warm summer day, comfortably marking time.

“When I was young and an intern, I turned a famous Dutch singer’s hair green.”  Willem Arnoldus twinkles over the tops of his glasses.   “She was crying one minute, and angry the next.  She came in with long blond hair, I added a chemical to her curls — she forgot to tell us she had added metal to her hair in England — and her hair turned green.  So she went home with short and brown hair.”    Willem laughs softly at this long ago silliness.

So, your advice for women as they age?

You must accept growing old.  It is really important. If you just want long hair to stay young, that’s wrong.  You don’t have to cut it short.  You do have to look after the color.  And look after who you are.  You will wear it different when you’re older.  If it is grey, you can make it classic and put it up.  To make it blond with stripes is wrong.” Image “Be close to yourself.  Behave like your age.  Because then you are beautiful.  Don’t put Botox on your face.  Older women can be beautiful.  I see them every day.”

And what about for you as you age?

Willem laughs.  “When I get older I want to cut only men — then we can talk about women and talk about football.  No more talking about trouble with the children anymore or husband’s going with other married women.”  He laughs and goes back to cutting.  Arm raised.  Elbow high.  Snip, snip, snip, snip.


A former professional bodybuilder was my first guess, as she prowled the gym floor.  Even the heavily-muscled men stayed clear of her intensity.  I was just a smidgeon off — a big-city editor of a big-city newspaper in The Hague.   Focused.  No nonsense.  Attractive.  Tough.


“I think it’s a gift to be 52 years old.  The way you look at life is shifting as you age.  I could never understand it at 17, 20, or whatever.   When you are young, you do not realize the ups and downs need each other.  When you realize that they go together, you will flow.  You will have trust in yourself.  Balance.  That is growing older.”  Thessa Slootmaker wipes the sweat from under her hair.

The squat rack is abandoned for the moment, and off she goes to the shoulder press.

“The gym and the spiritual element together is important.  I don’t think it will really help you if you only exercise the body, or if you only exercise the mind.  I really truly believe it is a unit.”

The dumbbells are raised above her head with a familiarity, an intimate ease.  Triceps bulge.

Exercise the mind?

“Meditation in all its forms.  A lot of people think meditation is sitting down.  That’s not what meditation is all about.  For some people it works.  But meditation can be during the workout, or when you walk or sit on your bicycle in the dunes.  Meditation is really being in the moment.  To be always in the moment.”

Thessa’s upper lip is now glistening with sweat.

“I think you have to try to keep your body moving.  You have to find a way that is suitable for you.  For me it’s the gym.  Someone else wants to jog, walk around, whatever.  You have to find something you like to do.  Because otherwise you won’t do it.”

The bar is lifted up by Thessa, and the bar is slowly lowered.   Lifted again with a push, lowered again back to the start.   Lifted, lowered.  Lowered, lifted.  Hypnotic.

“As for your mind, you must explore things, have curiosity.  Life must be able to surprise you again.   Every time again.”

Thessa pauses, gives me one of her treasured smiles.  “Life is a wonder.”


The elegant lady from Des Moines, Iowa, came to see Europe.  Walking between five and ten miles a day over two weeks, she explored the blue pottery of Delft, the old church and markets of Leiden, the almond blossoms of Van Gogh, the canals of Amsterdam, and the harsh winds off the North Sea.

What else do you want to see, Peg?

“I want to see it all.”

Here’s Peg O’Connell, at 80 years old, standing in a narrow alley in the Red Light District of Amsterdam.  Seeing the good and seeing the bad.  Eyes open.


Aging in wonder.






Girl with a volleyball

The Girl holds herself with regal deportment.  Shoulders down, back straight, head turned, ready to receive her fans.  She comes home after being gone from Holland for too long.  Japan, New York City, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Italy.  She was sorely missed.  The crowds on this Friday in The Hague are backed up several hundred deep in eager anticipation.   Two marching bands, the King and Queen, and assorted street artists herald her arrival to the restored Mauritshuis Museum.  It’s a fine day for the Girl with the Pearl Earring.


Across town, another woman holds herself with brash directness.   Shoulders leaned in.  Eyes bright.  No wilting flower.  She also returns after being gone for too long.  Shanghai, Moscow, Berlin, Prague.  But there are no crowds to see her home.  Not even one baton is twirled on her behalf.  In fact, she advises me to lead with the picture of her in her bikini — “otherwise no one will read further.”  But, if asked, she’d tell you it is a fine day for Marloes Wesselink.


The Girl with the Pearl Earring was painted in 1665 by Johannes Vermeer.  She wasn’t such a big hit in those days.   She was painted as a “tronie,” which just meant Vermeer didn’t have a commission and was hustling for money by painting a model, maybe his oldest daughter, in costume.  Perhaps Vermeer was hoping for a quick sale down at the Des Moines farmer’s market on a hot Saturday morning.  Unclear.  But when Vermeer died, the painting disappeared.  For 200 years.  No parades during that time.

Marloes Wesselink turned professional at 16.  By 19, she was deep into the world of beach volleyball.  The international circuit was her playground.  She travelled around the world from April through September — with some success.  Heck, she even had her own Wikipedia site.  Her life was practice, practice, practice, travel, competition, practice, practice.  An ordered life for sure.

But then events turned a little south.

“My Wikipedia site is not up to date because I think I got less interesting,” Marloes says with a self-conscious smile and a shrug.   After a decent year in 2013, she was cut from the Dutch beach volleyball program.  26 years old and put out to pasture.  A very public rejection.

“It was pretty weird.  I think I’m a realistic person.  I know your spot is never secure.  That you always have to prove yourself every year.  We had results.  And I really liked the team.  It was pretty crushing.  ‘What’s happening?  We just got a great result and now you tell us this.’  It was pretty painful.  It actually came like falling out of nowhere.  It was a difficult situation.”

So, Marloes disappeared.  Not for 200 years, but disappear she did.  Off the circuit, off training, and onto the couch.  A hard time.

Vermeer took a similar trajectory.  Sure, he had some early success during his career.  Sold a few paintings.  Made some money by running a bar and art gallery.  Elected to run the artists guild.  But he had eleven surviving kids and times were tough.  War and disease were the order of the day.  Sadly, when he died at 43, he left his wife and children in debt.  His paintings were auctioned off.  His work was soon forgotten and his reputation as a decent painter vanished within a couple years.  Gone like a puff of Vermeer light blowing across canvas.

End of the story.

Or not.

After doing nothing for several months, Marloes realized she loved the game and she missed it.  Eventually she searched out another volleyball star, Laura Bloem, and they decided to make a run for it together.  They found a strength coach, a ball coach, a practice area, and sponsors.  They formed a team.  All on their own.  And between the two of them, they had enough points earned from past performances that they could start competing on the international stage in the 2014 World Tour.  So they did.

As for Vermeer, in 1881, at an obscure auction in The Hague, there was a dirty, grimy picture waiting to be sold the next day.  Two art-collector buddies from The Hague recognized it.   It was agreed that one would buy it.  Which he did.  For a song.  Two guilders.  After the auction, the painting was sent to Antwerp for restoration, and lo and behold, the Girl with the Pearl Earring was reborn with her glistening parted lips, the wet corner of her mouth, the drop of moisture at the edge of her eye, and, of course, the translucent pearl.  My oh my.

And Marloes, our other girl, now waxes philosophical about the twists of her life.

“You can say it’s just a game.  It’s not.  It’s your life.  Some people say it’s just sport.  True it is just sport.  Of course, it’s more important to be healthy, to be happy, and to be loved, and to love, that is most important.  But you cannot make it that simple.  You really dedicate your life to the sport.  You just have to find your way back after the sport doesn’t work.”

“Every week you’re somewhere else.  One week you’re happy, one week you’re sad.  It’s a roller coaster.  We would like to play in 2016 in the Olympics.  But even if it doesn’t work — I would of course feel bad if it doesn’t — but I have many things to feel proud of.  Now I am playing only for me and my team.  It feels like it is our own battle.  I think it’s good.  After 2016, I will definitely be done.”

Maybe.  However, today, even the strands of her hair seem to dance with energy.  There is a zing to her every sweep of hand.  Her flower is definitely the hard-scrabble Iowa rose.  I don’t envy those on the other side of the net.

When the Girl with the Pearl Earring was in New York this last winter, 235,000 people came to see her.  No wonder.

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And for Marloes?  What will be her future?

FIVB Berlin Grand Slam, Main Draw Women

Hmmm, is that a pearl earring in her left ear?






A Dutch bar — in three games

The high gloss on the wood shines as the rag wipes the first spill of beer to the side.  The movement of the rag continues over the wood, back and forth, polishing, as the young bartender patiently waits.  He is almost indolent at this early stage of the evening.  Why rush?  The beer taps are perched and ready to deliver.  Glasses are clean and within reach.  Coasters are strewn over the top of the bar.  And the shot bottle is upside down, ready to perform.  Waiting is all that remains.

Game 1 — Spain against Holland

The Sien bar in The Hague is bursting.  Orange is in every nook and leaking out the door.  A big screen TV is placed so that the dozens of fans who cannot fit into the bar can watch from outside on the street — an alternative Drive-In Theater.  Five bartenders are pouring  beers and shots for the customers who are standing in a space the size of a large American living room.  Raucousness is the scent in the air.  Spain scores.  No matter.  Everyone expects it.  Spain is a mighty team from the past.  Aging but powerful.  They shamed Holland last time around.  An ugly defeat.  Beer flows regardless of the score.

Image 7On the bar stool next to me is a slight man hidden among the Dutch giants.  A Spaniard.    Identified immediately by the bartenders.  The bartenders’ response after the Spanish goal?  An orange t-shirt, orange sunglasses, and a big orange hat are placed on the counter next to the Spaniard.  An offering from the Dutch.  And a free beer.  A sacrifice on the altar of good will.

It works.  A flying header by Dutch striker, Robin van Persie, starts the rout.   Two, three, four, five more beers and a shot for good luck arrive in front of the Spaniard.  Holland 5, Spain 1.   The lone Spaniard smiles and dons the orange shirt.  The crowd cheers.  There will be another day.

Game 2 — Australia against Holland

Admittedly, it was a mistake to come in costume.  The bartender almost immediately sidles over to me as I try to blend into the masses.  “You know that shirt you’re wearing is not orange, don’t you?”  Well, apparently not.  I am a red cherry floating in a sea of orange sherbet.

Jaap, the bartender, is young, mischievously handsome, and focused.  He tells me there are around 120-130 people in the bar.  They’ll sell around 2000 beers this evening.  Not bad.  Tonight they’ve brought in seven bartenders, their entire staff, because they’re going to try to move some food also.  Packed like sardines, without an inch of elbow room, my guess is that a few fries will go missing as they are passed hand to hand to the poor customer who actually ordered them.

Australia, one of the lowest ranked teams at this World Cup, is dominating.  Tim Cahill for Australia line-drives a shot so hard into the Dutch goal that my teeth hurt as I sit thousands of miles away on my barstool.  Unfairly, it almost seems, the Dutch team hangs on.

Jaap tells me that these evenings are a little nerve-wracking.  “It is nervous because it is busy, nervous because of the game, and nervous because you want a good result.  It is worth it.  But, handling this crowd should not be every month.  Not good for your health.”  He laughs and runs to pour beer from the tap where he unerringly fills four glasses before he throttles the handle back.

The Dutch team has regained their balance.  A quick score moves them ahead.  The crowd erupts.

Image 9And, like as after every Dutch goal, the room breaks into song for several minutes.  Sung at the tops of their voices.  With stomping involved.  And some swinging of the lights.  It is infectious.

What are they singing after each goal?

Jaap, drinking his traditional shot after a goal, takes a breath, and says:  “It’s called ‘I Will Survive.’ A song we stole that was popular in the clubs.”

Of course.  The Dutch don’t sing  “We Are the Champions,” or “Another One Bites the Dust.”  They are a people where one-third of the land is below the ocean.  Another third is at sea level.   They are survivors fighting for every inch of the ground they stand on.  This is not about winning.  It’s about not dying.

Holland 3, Australia 2.

Game 3 — Chile against Holland

The bar has a different tone this evening.  The Dutch can lose and still advance.  Everyone is relaxed.  There is even a sense that it might be too greedy, too impolite, for the Dutch to win a third time.  Moderation in all things, please.

Although, that feeling doesn’t stop a little money from being placed.  Why not?

Sjoerd, a soft-spoken bartender working my corner, explains in perfect English how the betting works.  He might as well have been speaking Dutch, however, as I drink my beer and am lost in the vagaries of the explanation.

“So, what number do you want, Joe?”

In my early days as a prosecutor, I was enlisted to review charges and assist in investigations dealing with a type of gambling that rocked upstanding Iowans.  Yes, mothers of River City, I’m talking bingo.  Played in church halls and social clubs.  Dens of vice.  In these days of Prairie Meadows, where grandma is playing the slots while hooked up to her breathing machine, someone shouting out “O — 3” seems a bit less of a gateway to organized crime.  But  the old days haven’t disappeared for me.

So I hesitate, as Sjoerd patiently waits for me to choose.  I turn to my barstool neighbor, Aeisso, for advice.  Why do I turn to Aeisso?  Because I had earlier made a determination that Aeisso was a  trustworthy and knowledgable legal advisor based on his selfless act of sharing his french fries with me.

“Is this legal?”  I ask.

With a loud laugh and a clap on my back, Aeisso leans in:  “A question like that would not occur to a Dutchman.”

And that’s all the tolerant Dutch have to say on the subject.

“Five euro on number 2, please.”

Amazingly, the late game subs, Leroy Fer and Memphis Depay, come out of the shadows of the massive stadium and win the game.

Holland 2, Chile 0.

Jaap, with blurry eyes and a mischievous grin, drags his rag one more time over the wood.  The  luster is returned to the high gloss.  Patiently and slowly.  His movements are almost indolent at this late stage of the day.  Why rush?  Closing time beckons.


So there you go.  A Dutch bar — in three games.








Summer solstice with a Witch

The witch sits across from me at the table.  Smiling.  No pointed hat.  No flying broom.  Not a single cackle is recorded during our long conversation.  She is smart, open, answers each question carefully, and is aware of “being made a fool” by others.  She does suggest that I don’t eat elves’ food at the time of summer solstice —  “when you eat their food, you are their servant forever” — but then she also speaks of kindness and love and the disheartening sadness of all the violence in the world.  It is not easy to clearly label this woman.

Why am I sitting with a witch?

Well, in small increments, in small ticks of the clock, the longest day of the year is approaching. Summer solstice occurs on June 21.  This year, there will never be another day with this much light.   Heck, why even go to bed when the sun certainly doesn’t?

Celebrations and feasting will occur on this day.  Stonehenge, the place in England that has the strange stones set on end, is a destination for many.  For about $24, you can get a timed slot to visit on June 21.   There will be modern druids, pagans, wicca, and even astronomers, all there to see the stones in a long-forgotten farmer’s field line up with the sun.

Margreet David-den Adel, the Dutch witch with whom I am sitting, is friendly, polite and caring.  She asks about my family.  She is curious about my time in Holland.  She wants to know of my wife’s work.  A model of a socially gifted person.  But a witch?

“Wicca is a religion of nature.  Nature is the driving force behind all life.  Nature is god.  There is an unbelievably intellectual force behind nature.  And he wants the best for us all.  He wants that we live in the heart, not in the mind.  When you treat somebody not so well, there is a force from the universe that you will get it back ten times harder.  It is a universal law.  That’s how it works.”

Margreet knew that she was tied to nature from when she was a very young girl.  However, it was not until she read her first Wicca book at 27 that she discovered, “Wow, that’s me.”  It explained her extreme sensitivity, her healing hands, her need to be next to animals and plants and trees, her “old spirit” that at one time was an Inca shaman, the protection offered by Archangel Michael, and why even strangers on the train come to her for help.  It just made sense.

And now we sit together in this coffee shop in The Hague.


“The wicca celebrate the changing seasons.  The solstice is the celebration of Litha.”

On solstice, Margreet will prepare a meal and a special wicca tart for her husband, her children, and her friends.   It will be served on a blue tablecloth.  Everyone will have sunflowers for their hair.  And sunflowers will be on the table.  She will speak some words about the solstice and then all the guests will write wishes on small pieces of paper.  These wishes are then put in a fire.

“The wish goes into the air and everyone leaves with a sunflower.  It is a lot of fun.  It is not so important how you do this ceremony, it is the right intention.  Why you do it?  You do it with love.”

Of course.


This evening, shortly before the solstice, the sun sets slowly over the North Sea, dragging its feet reluctantly, refusing to go to bed.  But things are closing down.  Out on the arms of the harbor walk only lovers, using the shadows and early night wind as an excuse to meld even closer.  Storm clouds rest low on the horizon.

And hidden in the kernel of summer solstice is a small darkness.  For on the very next day, summer is dying and the shades of winter are getting ready to blow down from out of the north.  Relentlessly and without remorse.  “A time to be born and a time to die.”

And so there you are.  You get one wish on one sheet of paper.  With love.  What is your wish going to be?  And don’t forget the blue tablecloth.












Spotlight on a young professional

Yes, dear reader, you have now turned to that part of the newspaper where we traditionally focus on some amazing young professional in the Des Moines area as an inspiration for those of us who might be slacking just a bit and need to shape up.   These are always great stories of great people doing great things.  What’s there not to love?

But, honestly, don’t these stories make you a little depressed?  Take last week’s story where we headlined Bob, who, at 32, owns three successful internet businesses, raises two kids with his first and only wife, and, when not coaching youth soccer in Johnston, spends vacations in Kenya caring for two-dozen orphaned children for whom Bob has donated a kidney, one finger, and his Y membership.  Really.

Perhaps it’s time to look through a different lens.

Johan de Niet sits across from me.  Intense.  Hair pulled back in a knot.  Bearded in a Shroud-of-Turin sort of way.  Sadness pulls at the corner of his eyes as his mouth smiles across the table.  He’s Dutch, but talks with a strong Australian accent, and it takes me a couple of beats to catch up to the cadence.  But when I do, I’m caught in the song of it all.

“If I was going to teach someone to surf, I’d take them fishing.  To surf, you have to learn how the ocean works, go for a swim in it, get comfortable in it, know where to enter, know where to exit.  You have to know the sea a little bit.  Get into trouble a little bit.  Find your way out.”

I suspect Johan has never written a resume.  However, if he did, it would be very short and very succinct.  “Johan de Niet.  32 years old.  Single.  Lives in The Hague, Netherlands.  Sociable.   A little bit crazy.  More friendly than you are used to.”  And at the bottom, the most important piece of information —  “Occupation: surfer.”

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Johan began surfing at the age of nine.  He fell in love.  School was thrown to the side because all he could think about was waves.  Family was left behind because he wanted to go to Australia where the big waves could be found.  Relationships with women floundered because surfing was a demanding mistress.  None of it mattered.  He wanted to surf.

“Just because you enter the water doesn’t mean you’re the runner of the sea, you know?  Just because you go to church doesn’t mean you go to heaven.  Surfing is more than just catching a wave.  For a real surfer, the wave has meaning.”

By the age of sixteen, Johan was living in Australia.  Surfing with “the old pros.”  At first, he was laughed at and ridiculed, but he survived the initiation and stayed for six years.  His goal during that time was not to become a champion surfer on the circuit.  Rather, he wanted to surf the waves the champions surfed.

“When you go surfing at a strange spot, you have to ask the locals, what are the dangers here?  Where do I exit, where do I enter?  What are the hazards?  If you’re not prepared, you’re in trouble.”

Johan returned to The Hague.  A dark time descended.  Alternative pleasures blocked his path.  His sense of self-worth faltered and caused him to stumble.  And when it came to choosing between pain and love, he told me he chose pain.

“Surfing is a long-term relationship.  Most of us are never going to be a world champions.  The biggest fear in surfing becomes the biggest challenge.  The challenge is between you and the sea and overcoming fear.”


Johan is trying to put the black clouds of unnamed problems behind him.  He’s changed his habits, changed his friends, and is making plans.  He sees his life as blessed, and now it is time to turn his back on his demons and chase the big waves.

But enough talk.   With a clap on the back and a broad smile, Johan says to me: “Mate, let’s just go for a surf.  We’ll go surfing together.  The Hague is a great place.  Nice sunny day.  Surfing is for everyone.  Not just surfing people.  Let’s surf together, bro.”

Yesterday, I walked down to the North Sea.  Young boys and girls were taking surf lessons.  All clad in wetsuits and each with their own board, they surfed 12-inch waves on the nearly flat water.  Only laughter rose above the roar of the ocean.  And, apparently, pushing your buddy off the board was an integral part of this class.  The teachers stood patiently on the shore and waited for the clock to run out.

One young boy had drifted away from the group.  Looking straight out at the ocean, he lay flat his board, fingertips dragging through foamy surf.  Lost in dreams of big waves, it seemed.

“Never fight the sea,” was what Johan told me.  “Joe, never fight the sea.”

Spotlight on a young professional.











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.

Image 1

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.”