Opa loved the sea

Written by Helena Clarkson

Nicolaas v/d Kruk, my grandfather (Opa), was born in Monster, Zuid Holland in the West Land; which area used to be the vegetable garden of the Netherlands in December 1890 the beginning of the decade referred to as the gay nineties. I have considered translating this story in Dutch but have not figured out how to translate that jolly nineties era into the Dutch language, but Google was quite helpful and suggested “the “homo years” from the 1890’s”?!? I kinda doubt that dear grandpa would approve of this missed translation statement of course. Since he was the eldest son he was expected to take over the family vegetable farm eventually. However, Opa as a very young boy, had a more adventurous spirit and really wanted to go to sea instead; so, at age 11 quit school to start out first working on fishing boats of the local herring fleet out of the small village of Scheveningen located next to Den Haag. I doubt, or it was unusual for a youngster to leave school at such an early age in those days? Scheveningen is also the town where he met his future wife Leuntje, I suppose I was named after her sort of? My mom was told by mother Leuntje if she didn’t name her first born after her, she would never talk to her if she lived, and she seriously meant it for many people and my granny, were extremely “name-sick” in those days! My parents were none too keen on that old-fashioned name though and decided to compromise and name me Helena instead and Leny for short. Still now when I think of it, I have grown rather fond of that old-fashioned name Leuntje over the years.

Our Oma had to be a rather self-reliant young woman, after all every time her sailor hubby was in port she would have another baby on the way and these lively kids were quite a handful and were absolutely no angels, the neighbours complained often to granny about the hell these mischievous brats raised. Oma would fiercely defend her brood, because she loved them, but unfortunately she was also extremely hard of hearing; so basically, the lil’ darlings used that to their advantage and got away with bloody murder so to speak! Auntie told me that Oma was also a very religious woman and when there was a storm raging off the coast of the Netherlands, she told her children to pray for all the sailors at sea to remain safe! Personally, I have experienced how calm or how rough the North Sea can be when crossing it on a ship; so, granny’s prayer circle seemed quite sensible to me.

Like I mentioned before, our Opa went to sea at the tender age of 11 and first literally learned the ropes of being a sailor on fishing boats and later on merchant ships for the Maatschappij Nederland and travelled all over the world by ship for most of his lifetime. I am thinking possibly forty or more years he worked and eventually worked himself up to a “boatswain position” until he retired. A boatswain on a ship compares a bit like the mother superior in cloister she teaches the young nuns all about how to handle themselves in church the boatswain teaches the young deckhands aboard ship the ropes like swabbing the decks getting rusts of the rails and painting them and so on and so on. His younger brother Leendert meanwhile took over the family veggie business and became quite successful at his trade apparently, but Opa kind of insinuated later on that a lot of his brother’s money was perhaps made on the black market during WWII? This sounds quite plausible actually, judging from all the books I read over this horrible time. During the hunger winter of 44 many people died indeed from starvation in western part of the country. I doubt our great uncle Leen was the only one to make a slight profit during this era. I was told my young mother walked with a baby buggy to the north of Holland in order to hopefully get her hands on some food for the family in The Hague.

Opa and I had a special bond ever since I was a tiny little girl. I am sure my sister and myself were very special to our grandparents, as they had several sons before their only two daughters were born. Of these two pretty blonde Dutch girls our mother Sjaantje was 3 years younger than her older sister Nelly and also the 7th child born in this big family, but sadly did not live to see her 27th birthday due to a freak accident, I prefer not to go into detail about that for now. Right after her untimely and tragic death, her older sister Nelly resolutely stepped into our departed mom’s footsteps and took care of us and extremely well I should add. Our dad immigrated to Australia soon after as many Dutch families did right after WW2, besides I doubt or he would have been very good at being a “Mr. Mom” anyway? Opa doted on his daughters but since his youngest daughter was taken away from him at such an early time in life, I think of all the many grandkids, he surely loved my baby-sister Elly and I best of all! He routinely would bring many presents back for all the grandkids and beautiful dolls back for all the little girls in the family after a long voyage. Yet I always got to choose my pretty dolly out first, even though I had a couple of girl cousins that were a few years older than myself. Yes, Elly and I, definitely were his favourite all right and were seriously spoiled and loved by our grandparents on a routine basis. Opa would rush to visit our house as soon as he arrived in Rotterdam from his long sea trip. He even claimed that he visited us before seeing his wife even! Well that is what he let us believe anyway, for Opa was a master at telling tall sea stories. I think he liked my company however for he would sometimes take me on the train to Rotterdam for some shipping business while ashore. I am sure I inherited my curiosity and love for ships and wanderlust too far away places from him and became an appreciative audience for his many unbelievable tales and amusing travel stories from all over this world, for as a kid I adored listening to fairy tales and I recall Opa told the best; some of them resembled real whoppers too, but I would not realize till I was much older and slightly wiser perhaps…

Of course my memory of Opa begins after the war and when he was on a long voyage the entire family would not see him again for a half-year or more, but he did always keep in touch regularly with hand written letters and post cards from exotic ports from all over the world and it always was quite exciting for us kids to receive mail with fancy stamps from faraway places.

While at sea he wrote many letters to our “auntie-mom” on a regular basis, and even with his very limited schooling, he was a very good writer at that! I was fascinated as a kid to read his letters as he wrote them in a peculiar mirror script and you would have to read these obscure epistles with a looking glass next to it; it seemed always rather cloak and dagger stuff to me. I remember he showed me his tattoo, I do not believe he was very proud of it, as it was just a very amateurish drawing of an anchor in black ink near his wrist. He did go into detail how a tattoo was made however and it sounded a bit painful to me. I think he was trying to tell me; never to get one? Still in order to be accepted as a sailor, you had to have one I suppose? I tried to con Opa into drawing pictures for me like I recall my mom used to, but his repertoire in the fine-arts department was rather limited, he only would draw primitive looking mules. I should have asked him did he grow up with mules on the farm perhaps, as they appeared to be his favourite animal to draw. While he explained to me in earnest that the mule was the product of a donkey and a horse, but they could not reproduce off spring. As I believed all my Opas’s stories and he had quite a repertoire, but at age 6 I was still extremely naive and while we were discussing a favourite topic of mermaids, I asked him if he had ever seen any on his travels? He assured me vehemently he had and many times even! Got totally carried away with the subject and promised to bring me one for our aquarium on his next voyage. Mind you our aquarium was rather small and had barely enough room for our two small pet-gold fish to swim in stately circles, still Opa assured me that a mermaid would thrive in this kind of environment! Then he started to describe the much-wanted creature as having long blond hair as well as tiny blood-red eyes! I was happy with the blonde hair but preferred the mermaid to have blue eyes at the time…How he must have chuckled about that description behind my back, to his sweet but quite gullible granddaughter. As for our goldfish, they committed suicide soon after, I am thinking the thought of this blonde-haired siren with bloody red eyes, crowding their tiny pool covered with algae, was more than these poor critters could take!?!

Opa took it upon himself to teach me how to play checkers and dominoes and I have to admit sadly that he used to seriously whoop my butt with the game of checkers on a regular basis; I don’t think I ever won once. Just accepted the fact that a humiliating loss in the vicious game of checkers was mine to endure. I think he tried to teach me the game; so, I would eventually gain some expertise in it, but I must say I never liked it, nor became good at it. My grandfather liked to keep me informed about some facts which impressed him over the years for example: how the famous American Andrew Carnegie donated the grounds for the Peace Palace in my hometown The Hague (found out much later that Carnegie was Scottish) and how the Rosenbergs were electrocuted in an “electric chair” for spying and the tragedy of “the Lindbergh’s baby kidnapping”, which perhaps was the crime of the century? All this stuff apparently happened in a continent far from here in a place called America?

I mostly remember my grandfather as being short and bald; still I do have a photo of a dashing young man wearing a white sailor suit with hair on his head still, taken in 1910 in Djakarta. In mom’s living room there hung a photo of Opa’s ship in front of the then new famous bridge in Sydney. This bridge dating from 1932, looked brand new on the photo. The name of the ship the Arenskerk and when I looked up that name I found out that one of the Captains of this ship finished up paying a hefty fine of 900 British pounds Sterling for about 3 Chinese nationals who managed to stowaway aboard ship. Apparently, Australia was not interested in illegal immigrants either once upon a time! Come to think of it, 900 British pound was quite a sum of money in the 1930’s… Years later in 2008 hubby and I had our picture taken with that same bridge in the background…I felt somewhat emotional to sail in the footsteps of Opa and dad that day…

After grandpa retired from the merchant marines he had a part time job as a watchman in Overvoorde. That was especially useful for us kids, as I attended 4th grade in that school at the time and if I had left something in the classroom, he would open it up for me to retrieve… Opa used to walk me home from school a lot and we would catch frogs together on the way home by hand and put them in a paper sandwich bag. We were quite proud of this small accomplishment, which Opa had taught us and Elly and myself became real pros at catching these big fat slimy green frogs! The frogs we took home and allowed to swim in our small round bathtub. Auntie was a working mom in the 50’s and had a total hissy fit when she found the froggies literally croaking in our precious tub after a long day at the office. She told me in no uncertain terms to bring these critters immediately back where they came from! My sister and I were rather sad about that decision we liked pets of any kind and had already constructed a small floating island for the froggies to sleep on forever more.

A small brook surrounded the mini Forrest of Overvoorde. In order to cross that stream, as it was way too wide to jump over, Opa had found a long plank so we could walk across safely there into the cow-pastures. We would then cross the pasture and climb over the fence and sometimes jump off from it into the next pasture; it was a kind of shortcut home really, as well as a great thrill to walk that “homemade gang-plank!” One somewhat memorable occasion stands out during warm summer weather when I shouted at him after climbing that fence; “watch me jump Opa!” I then jumped with grace and full of gusto in the fresh green grass below, well that was the plan anyway, but unfortunately landed in the middle of a fresh cow patty and the smelly clumps of shit splattered high up to me ears! Kind of hate to tell you what my white socks and clean white sandals looked like afterwards. Never mind my hair either, the smell alone of this greenish “hair mousse” made your eyes water! Opa was no help, he just stood there laughing at me. Even many years later, he loved to repeat this story to all who would listen until his dying day. Somehow that story never became old for him!

When Oma passed away after suffering a fatal stroke, he suddenly became a lonely old man. She was bed ridden a lot in the 50’s as I recall and Opa did lots for her around the house, but when she was gone he felt totally lost and perhaps even useless? Besides the fact he surely must have missed his life’s companion. I am not sure or the family gave him the support he could have used at the time. I suppose we all have to deal with grief ourselves in a way and Opa handled it eventually too. As always family remained very important to him and he used to visit us at least once a week and especially when an international football game was on TV. He loved staying for dinner, as mom was a good cook. Opa earned his supper though, for he always insisted on peeling potatoes, kind of a type of ship’s KP duty perhaps? Even though he enjoyed watching football games on TV, he never wanted one of these modern new-fangled-dangled inventions himself, even though mom offered to buy him one. He had a strange fear that the TV might crack in two perhaps, especially when the horizontal hold frequently used to slip in those days and go on a sort horizontal rampage. This strange phenomenon made the old fellow extremely nervous! At home, he enjoyed listening to the local football games on his small radio; I think ADO was probably his favourite team.

2 When I had my schools garden, Opa dug up my potato patch at the end of the year. With the strength and energy he exhibited during this venture, I decided he was a true potato expert! Some of the experience of growing up on the vegetable farm must have stuck? We were both so proud to share these potatoes with some family members too. Opa was indeed a jack of all trades, for he took care of granny who was sickly and made sure my little sister made it to school in time in the morning. He showed me how to take someone’s pulse way before I ever dreamed about going to nursing school. Grew beautiful amaryllis in the windowsill and had the kerosene heater going most of time in the bedroom of Grandma to keep the room comfy warm. I can still recall that yucky smell of Kerosene. He painted mom’s grey kitchen chairs and was and expert on fixing arms and legs back onto our dolls, us kids had perhaps handled a bit roughly? We only criticized him once for that effort, as he had put the arms on backwards from one of our favourite dollies. He immediately corrected that blunder and we all laughed about this silly mistake. He never owned a refrigerator and got milk from the milkman in a pan then boiled it and put it in the cold windowsill to remain cool. Since we did not have a telephone sometime Opa would visit and if no one was home, we could always tell he had been, for he would leave two peppermints in the mailbox as calling cards. We would always get peppermints from him I think they must have been his favourite hard candy. He explained they are good for your teeth, pure nonsense of course but we didn’t know any better in those days. My little sister almost choked to death on one of these huge King Peppermints when she was about 2 years old come to think of it. Opa Raised canaries for a while- after grandma died, to amuse himself…we had one of these birds called “Pietepiet” for many years- When we had company the bird would raise it melodious singing voice, especially if the visitors spoke loudly. How we all loved that yellow caged bird and the fun we had when he could fly all over the house when we cleaned the cage once a week. In 1960 sis and I were sent for to immigrate to USA and except for short visits never lived in the Netherlands again. It was not only a very traumatic time for Elly and myself, but our entire family was affected and saddened because of this move. We never thought we would see our family back again and we did not until 1974.

In 74 I got a golden opportunity to spend about a half year in the Netherlands while hubby was at sea in the Mediterranean. My girls were little and the eldest two were going to kindergarten while the little stayed home with me and accompanied me while bringing and picking up sisters from school in a baby stroller. Once a week however all 4 of us would visit Opa there great grandfather; they too would call him Opa of course. I would drink my usual cup of coffee at his house that Opa made especially for me. Mind you I did not like coffee but the way he fixed it was ok I suppose. I just did not dare to say no. It was coffee with sugar and lots of milk the children got milk to drink. After the coffee Opa came out with the candy bars! I mean, which kid can say no to chocolate candy? As it was winter they were wearing winter coats Deanna the baby resembled a little snow flake with her Snow White fuzzy little coat. I did allow them to eat some chocolate to please the old man, but most of their prize they were to take home. Opa always liked to give Deanna age 2 a small piece of the chocolate right before leaving; I think the thought of getting that white coat all messed up with slobbery brown chocolate must have amused him secretly. I suppose the old man had a bit of mean streak?… He enjoyed these weekly visits from the great grandchildren and was present at our house for the one and only St Nicolaas celebration they ever experienced and stood next to them in total wonder looking at the huge amount of packages the good Saint brought us all.

Opa never drank much while on sea voyages but developed an interesting theory about alcohol use in later years, after his retirement he certainly enjoyed an occasional snort at a birthday party. His philosophy for usage for etoh was quite simple and practical really. To keep your kidney functioning properly one should drink beer! Malaga wine is very good for your blood circulation. He claimed that he drank gin per doctor’s orders and well let’s face it; it is never a good idea to go against Doctor’s orders! Every nurse should know that. Jerry visited him once while on a short liberty from the USN in the Netherlands. Opa was pleased I had married a sailor and he talked to my hubby in decent English with a heavy Dutch accent, was pleased he was stationed in Norfolk after all he knew it well! Made Jerry smoke some fine Dutch cigars but Jerry was dumbfounded when the old man pulled one stogie after the other out of hubby’s mouth as he had decided the Dutch masters were wet and unfit to be smoked I always recall that surprised look on my dear hubby’s face when the old man had pulled one cigar right after another from his mouth until he finally found one deemed suitable to smoke for him. Gosh this was so funny.

After our family returned back to the States I sent Opa letters with simple drawings in them for his amusement. Apparently, he put all the letters and drawings I sent to him on his bedroom wall later on auntie removed them when he had to move in the nursing home and I still have a few of those drawings left as souvenirs…

The last time I saw him was in the nursing home and he was well in his 80’s he still recognized us and appeared in good spirits he told us to spend a lot of money on our trip to Paris, for he could well afford it! He proudly proclaimed to have won the state lottery 3 times in one week! On another occasion while mom and I visited the nursing home he is extremely excited and tells me Leny will be soon visiting him today. I am sitting next to him and ask him “Opa who do you think you have been talking to all this time”? He looks at me over his horn-rimmed glasses and cackles from laughter and says: “I’ll be damned Leny, it is you!”

Opa’s youngest son Piet likes to tell his favourite anecdote about his dad. Uncle Piet who worked for the NS (Dutch Railroads) had a terrible fear of flying as did many members of our family at this time. He was discussing the fact that he would love to visit his nieces, Elly and Leny, in the States one day but was afraid to fly. Opa announced that he himself would not be afraid to fly however. Our uncle Piet then said; “so you think it is ok for me to fly then papa”? Opa answered immediately and resolutely: “No my boy you should not do that you are still much too young to fly”! I suppose I should add that my uncle was at least forty or fifty when he asked his dad that question. Needless to say, neither one of these two men ever came to visit us by plane!

Opa made it to age 95 in the nursing home and then one day the staff noticed a big tumour growing on his neck. He was taken immediately to a hospital for surgery the following day and the growth was subsequently successfully removed. Yes, the surgery was quite successful; sadly the patient died soon after…. the German song “seemann” comes to mind when I think of him and personally I like to think on his last journey he decided to take a closer look at the Big Dipper, which he pointed out to me way up in the sky so many times since I was all of 2 feet tall!

“Deine Heimat ist das Meer
Deine Freunde sind die Sterne
über Rio und Shanghai
über Mali und Hawaii
Deine Liebe ist dein Schiff
Deine Sehnsucht ist die Ferne
Und nur ihnen bist du treu
Ein Leben lang”


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