Written by Bert Plomp
It’s truly a miracle that so many top footballers emerged from that era. But then again, maybe not. Due to the presence of park wardens and similar figures, young players were forced to develop their skills under poor conditions – namely, on cobblestones. This hardship actually made them even more adept on grass. The temptation to play on a real grass field was often too strong for me. For that simple reason, I spent many afternoons confined to the police station, as if I were a criminal, in a small cell at the infamous police bureau at Het Ledig Erf. My parents didn’t mind, actually. One troublemaker less at home. Besides, they probably thought it taught me to respect the law and authority. Too bad Uncle Kobus didn’t catch wind of it; he would have surely known what to do.
One fall afternoon, after completing his homework, Theo went to play football on the square with the other boys. Before closing the front door behind him, my mother managed to give him a little task. She asked him to bring a jerrycan of kerosene from the storage box in the basement. The fuel reservoir of the oil heater in the living room was running low. Obedient as he always was, Theo took the jerrycan down to the large oil drum in the storage box. We lived on the third floor, and the storage box was four floors down in the apartment building. On that afternoon, the barrel down there was still at least a quarter full. The substantial pressure on the tap had decreased a bit, but there were still about two hundred liters of kerosene in the drum. Because filling the jerrycan took quite some time due to the reduced flow, the aspiring scholar placed the can’s opening precisely under the drum’s spigot. He calculated how much time it would take to fill the tank and concluded that it would certainly take half an hour. Just to be safe and to gain some extra time, he turned the tap only a quarter of the way. It seemed mathematically sound. Satisfied with his plan, he hurried to the square for a game of football.
Much to his horror, and subsequently the rest of the family’s, my mother cautiously inquired about the state and location of the kerosene jerrycan the next morning at breakfast. With Theo in the lead, I rushed to the oil drum. Descending the stairs three steps at a time, I flew to the basement, heading towards the scene of the disaster. Just like my younger brother Charles and my sister Saskia, I wouldn’t miss the moment of my parents discovering the disastrous consequences of Theo’s negligence for anything in the world. Once everyone was assembled at the bottom of the building, it could be unanimously determined that the floor of the storage box was covered with a solid layer of kerosene. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only observation. The large winter stock of potatoes in the storage box had also failed to stay dry.
Because my parents were not well-off at the time – and for a while afterward – this was truly a catastrophe. It was a close call for Theodorus, literally translated as ‘God’s gift.’ The gift from God received such a merciless scolding that he still has sleepless nights about it. Charles, Saskia, and I didn’t miss a minute of this spectacle. Whether Theo was better off surviving this beating is debatable. For months, we were served potatoes with a kerosene taste at the warm meals. It’s hard to imagine what that was like – sitting down hungry at the table with a large, steaming pan of potatoes that smelled of kerosene waiting for you. The misery was complete if haddock was served alongside, generously supplied with bones, with mustard sauce and beets.