Friday, September 19, 2014

Eli and Oma Rose: They share a grand day

      What a beautiful baby and what a day to arrive.
      Sept. 19 -- my mother's birthdate. Rose ... and now Eli. It must be a good omen.
      Great Oma Rose -- and Great Opa Louis -- would have been so proud.
      We are. This is the fourth grandchild for Beatrice and me, and probably our last. You never know.
      You will understand, I'm sure, that I have been near tears all day. Didn't realize I could still get this nervous. I was more teary this morning that 35 years ago when Bea delivered Rachel.
Rachel and her son, Eli Smith.
       That was our little girl -- now a grown woman -- delivering for the second time. Go Rachel. And she did beautifully; she was so much more prepared and so much more relaxed that when Josephine became our first grandchild almost seven years ago.
       Welcome to our new prince, Eli Russell Smith, who was born at 11:17 a.m. as the latest member of the Van Thyn family.
        He went the distance, the full nine months (Josie was three weeks early). We've been here in Knoxville all week, anxiously waiting and trying to help out and support Rachel and Russell.
        I say unequivocally that he is as beautiful as Josie -- born in this same hospital -- and his cousins Jacob, 5, and Kaden, 3 -- the Key boys, our son Jason's sons.
        Eli is 7 pounds, 1 ounce, 20 inches tall, with what Rachel says is going to be dark hair -- just like Russell's. We got our first look when Rachel posted a Facebook photo, about 15 minutes after he was born. She had been posting almost all during the process -- until the pushing phase -- and, wow, suddenly there he was on my phone.
        A few moments later, we headed down to the hospital room. Here was one of those exciting, thrilling moments you don't ever want to forget. I was practically jumping.
        Russell got a high five, and we would have hugged Rachel, but she was holding the baby, resting him on her right side, and he was cooing, content. He'd already nursed. Russell said he came out screaming, but when they put him under the heat lamp, he got quiet.
        My first observation: Gosh, he looks a lot like Josie did. Rachel agrees.
        He was screaming again a few minutes later when he was given his first bath. But, boy, even then he was so cute. Back under the heat lamp moments later, he was peaceful, stretching and trying out his new surroundings.
        And we were just floating.
        As I write this, it's "lullaby time" for a couple of hours at the hospital. When visiting hours resume, Josie will get her first look at Mr. Eli. Can't wait for that.
        This morning we took Josie -- delightful, busy, brainy and zany -- to school; she was going on a first-grade field trip. She knows a baby brother will be coming to the only home she's known in a day or two. We think she's ready -- she will be out of the spotlight for a while -- but it was funny to see her reaction when people mentioned the baby in the past week.
        "Are you excited about the baby, Josie?"
        Eye roll (learned it from her mother). "Yes," and then, "Why does everyone keep asking me that?" (That scene played out several times.)
        Eli is the fifth great grandchild of my parents. Good chance more will come from my sister Elsa's three kids.
         He is also the latest addition to the extended Shaw family, branched out from Bea's large group of relatives originally based in Jamestown, La. Bea had three siblings, so her parents -- Howard and Laura Alice Shaw -- had 13 grandchildren, and let's see, it's now 19 great grandchildren and one great great grandchild. Hope I got that right.
         Eli is the second grandchild for Dr. Joe and Laughlin Smith. Good chance they'll have more;  Russell has two younger brothers.
         Just last night, Russell -- a radio sports-talk host -- made a guest appearance on one of the local TV sports news shows. Took his mind off what we knew was going to happen this morning.
         Neither Russell nor Rachel have slept well this week; the waiting was difficult, the anxiety great. Granny Bea and Opa haven't rested that well, either.
         But this is the great reward. The process played out much smoother than we had thought it might. Sure, our daughter was a bit apprehensive, thinking the delivery process would be as extended as last time; that was an all-day ordeal. But she did beautifully, and so did Eli.
         "My view. He's perfect! Looks like his sister when he's sleeping," Rachel wrote on a closeup shot of him, one of the 27 photos (so far) she's put on the Eli album on Facebook.
         He's perfect from our view, too. We have such hopes for him; we do for all our grandchildren. It's only natural, isn't it?
         Sure, we wish we lived closer. How many times did my mother express that thought in her final years? But with Facebook and Facetime, we are going to see plenty of our newest little boy.
         Any day would have been good, and good health is such a blessing, but to have him born on Sept. 19, oh, my mother would have been so pleased.
          We are blessed, we are lucky, and we are grateful. And so, so happy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A lot to like ... and not like about football

       Before I take a break from writing blogs -- got an important family matter to attend to, a baby -- one more piece about my football likes and dislikes.
      Let's start with Leonard Fournette, Mr. Heisman Trophy pose. Sorry, but in my opinion, that was not the way to act after his first LSU touchdown run. Maybe some people liked it, but I know two who didn't: Tigers coach Les Miles and me.
      As Fournette came to the sideline, Miles greeted him, and I don't think he was exactly congratulating him. I would say "chewing out" is more like it. My reaction: Good.
      Too soon, Leonard. (Get used to the "too soon" phrase. I'm going to repeat it.)
LSU freshman Leonard Fournette: C'mon, kid, be serious -- you're not
Heisman Trophy material yet, not after one or two TDs. (photo, Getty Images)
      But it got everyone's attention. It wasn't all that long after he scored -- and by this time the game was so one-sided, we needed some diversion -- when -- the web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune (with its Baton Rouge branch) -- put a link on Facebook to a story about the touchdown ... and the pose.
     My posted comment: Don't like that, and neither did Les.
     Jim Kleinpeter, the T-P's longtime beat writer on the Tigers, quickly returned a comment to me: "C'mon, Nico, don't turn into an old fart just yet. lol"
      Yeah, lol. As I replied to Jim -- an old buddy from our early Louisiana sportswriting days -- it's way too late for that. I have admitted to old-fartness in several blog pieces, and I'll stick to it.
      I don't like athletes acting out, period. It spoils NFL games for me, same for the NBA, and I especially don't like it in baseball. Every walkoff victory is followed by a silly team-jumping, dump-the-water bucket-on-player and/or shaving creme-in-the-face pie on player ... even if the team is 10 games out and has no hope of making the playoffs. I know, my team is one of those. Can't stand it.
      Of course, the guy who played third base in years past for my team -- when he's not hurt or serving a suspension for PED use -- is one of the most call-attention-to-yourself players in history. If he never plays another game, I'm fine with that.
      I'm getting away from the subject, which today is football.
      I love college football; it's hard not to. There's a joy about it, an enthusiasm, an appeal that goes way back, a loyalty to a school and a program -- or in my case, two schools and two programs.
      In my opinion, college football so far surpasses the NFL these days. It's not even close. At least not on my television. I have some friends in journalism whose jobs are to write about NFL teams, and I'm happy for those guys. But read on.
      What I like about college football: Walking around a campus; the "walk" to the stadium -- Victory Hill at LSU, the Vol Walk at Tennessee, up The Grove at Ole Miss, etc., all are good; the tailgating (but not irresponsible drinking); the bands (can't show the bands enough for me; I like the pregame show, the fight songs, clips and sounds during games ... in fact, I want to see the halftime show on TV).
      I want the halftime show on TV because I refuse to watch any of the pregame, halftime, postgame analysis -- no Lee Corso, no Lou Holtz, no anyone. Really don't want it now that Tim Brando no longer the lead guy on the studio show at CBS.
      Like the fired-up players (except when they make a show of the whole team running down to the end zone).
      Don't like ticket prices. OK, I'm cheap. But I cannot pay $65-70 or a lot more for a game ticket. We will save our money for season tickets to the Pops Series by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at Bass Hall.
      Obviously, a lot of people will pay the price. Many stadiums are full, or mostly full, and I do marvel at full stadiums. And that's why we have 50 bowl games (see below).
      Like close, competitive games between ranked teams -- Southern Cal and Stanford on Saturday, for example. Oregon-Michigan State, Virginia Tech-Ohio State.
      Which brings up this: Don't like the Big Ten, never have. Overrated almost every year now. Let me repeat: overrated. Michigan State lost Saturday, Michigan lost (big-time to Notre Dame). Ohio State lost. Purdue and Northwestern lost to mid-majors. Send the Big Ten champ to the Rose Bowl, and see what happens almost every year.
      Don't like one-sided games -- majors vs. mid-majors. Here are scores from Saturday's Top 25: 37-12, 41-0, 52-7, 59-13, 73-3, 70-6, 56-0 (LSU), 41-3, 58-23, 37-3, 73-7,66-21. Boring.
      I even turned away from the LSU game several times, and on computer watched Louisiana Tech take care -- good care -- of Southwestern Louisiana (not "Louisiana").
      Yeah, those "money" games for the mid-majors often reek. But then you get McNeese State almost beating Nebraska, and that makes the day.
      Speaking of routs: What in the heck, Texas and SMU? Hard to digest what's happened to those great traditional programs so dear to the Lone Star State where I live now. 
      I do not like "sack" dances/celebrations, particularly on routine plays. If it really makes a difference in a game, fine. Don't like receivers giving us a first-down signal or defensive backs waving their arms "incomplete" after a pass breakup. It's ridiculous, showoffs.
      Deplore late hits and tackles with the helmet. Don't have a problem with any rules put in to punish the offenders. Here was a beauty I saw Saturday: After breaking up a pass intended for a La. Tech receiver, a ULL defensive back got in his face and got a 15-yard penalty for taunting. His team was behind by 27 points ... in the fourth quarter. Stupid.
      Love "the play is under review" -- in any sport. As long as the technology is there and the procedure is relatively quick, great. Let's get the calls right. It's one of the best developments in sports in my lifetime. Love it in college football, the NFL, NBA, NHL and baseball (which should expand its system). Soccer, too.
      Here is one of my current major gripes: bowl projections, Heisman Trophy watch, Davey O'Brien QB Award watch, wind-your-watch and scratch-well, your nose watch. And the most important watch of all: What teams are going to make college football's first Final Four playoff?
      Too soon, people. Too soon. All of the items above.
      They were talking about this last week after the first week of games. They're talking about it this week. The season is two weeks old. Too soon.
      Yes, my newspaper friends are writing about it, the sports magazine writers are projecting and predicting and ranking, the talk shows everywhere -- radio, television -- go on and on.
      A lot of these people writing and talking are my friends; my son-in-law is a radio sports talk show host. Sure, it's good fodder ... for them. For me, I refuse to read any of it or listen.
      One more time: Too soon. I will start paying attention about Nov. 1, or maybe Nov. 15. By then, everyone might have a clue.
      If it were up to me, I would not release any national rankings before Oct. 1. But I understand this is what people want, what they can talk about.
      I think the college football playoff is so long overdue, and I think it should be an Elite Eight, not a Final Four, and after some team(s) get a raw deal, it will be. While we are it, let's cut out all but about 20 bowl games. In fact, let's cut it to about 12 -- and really make them count.
      On the playoff selection committee, I think it's a select group -- great diversity and knowledge. And, yes, I think Condeleeza Rice is a darned good choice; she's smarter than most of the guys, and she'll be fair.
      This group will do the best it can be done. They'll be criticized, but any panel doing this would be. In fact, they can do the pairings for the 12 bowl games I've suggested.
      What else? Oh, the NFL.
      I love the history of the NFL, the days when Tom Landry coached the Cowboys and they won pretty consistently. Watching Roger Staubach and Troy Aikman as their QBs. I wasn't as big a fan of Jimmy Johnson as of Landry, but Jimmy's teams were consistently efficient and often dominating. There's never been a better Cowboys player than Emmitt Smith or a more overblown, overpaid one than the current QB.
      Saints? Didn't care then, don't care now. Sorry, Saints fans. I know you're out there, and more power to you. The Saints whip the Cowboys every time they play now. I don't like it.
      What I like about today's NFL: 
       (That's right ... that's a blank space up there.)
       I'm not watching. I'll tape the Cowboys' games. If I feel like reviewing the game, I will, and I'll skip the parts when they show Jerry Jones. How's that for front-running?
       Don't like the violence. Don't like the concussions. Don't like the announcers (well, I could tolerate Troy Aikman ... but I won't watch). Got other things to do on Sundays, Monday nights, Thursday nights. See ya.
       Don't like the players woofing at each other, and celebrating every tackle and every touchdown and every passing of gas (oops, I slipped and got ugly). I'm back to where we started, players acting out.
       Enough football. Now let's talk about Duck Dynasty and the Duck Commander and his family. I'm just kidding. Let's not. I'll let all you people who have nothing to do talk about them. 
       Enough opinions. Let's take a break from this blog. How about that? That I like.
       Oh, Leonard Fournette. Let's win the Heisman before you give us the pose again. This old fart doesn't approve.


Friday, September 5, 2014

End of a life, end of this story

Dad. This was taken during his 1996 USC Shoah Foundation
interview. The way he's smiling, the session must've just ended.
(34th in a series, final chapter)
      Near the end of the USC Shoah Foundation Institute interview my father did on Oct. 9, 1996, he is asked if he has a message for humanity.
      "Oh, that we have peace," he answered. "I pray for that. I still pray a little bit. I pray we have peace, and I hope we see it in our lifetime, maar [but] what's happening in Israel, I don't think I will see it in my lifetime. They're fighting for so many years there already, [even] before Israel."
      Peace remains an elusive goal, so Dad (Louis Van Thyn) would be disappointed in the ongoing Middle East turmoil. But despite so many hardships -- the loss of most of his family of origin, the five years of Nazi Germany's rule of where he lived, three years of work/concentration camp misery -- I believe he was grateful for his journey through life.
      He was especially grateful for the opportunities and assistance he found from 1956 -- when we immigrated to the United States from The Netherlands -- to the end.
      "Life for us after the war was real good," he told the interviewer in 1996. "We were blessed with two children; I had a good job, and made a nice living. We love our life."
      The end came on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008, at about 7:30 in the morning at Willis-Knighton Medical Center South in Shreveport. He had been rushed there the night before after collapsing at home.
      It was a bit of a shock, but not a surprise. His health had declined for several years, especially the last three years after our daughter Rachel got married, and he and my mother traveled to Knoxville, Tenn., for that happy occasion.
     But diabetes had made his life difficult over the past 15 years; vision in his left eye was all but gone, his (big) heart had weakened and his kidney functions were very diminished. He was offer dialysis a year before the end, but -- wisely, we think -- declined.
      He was a month and a half past his 89th birthday.
      For most of his life, especially considering his 2 1/2 years in the concentration/work camps -- some of it in hard labor, his health was relatively good. He did have a couple of scary blood clots in his legs and three or four very painful episodes with kidney stones. But those were temporary slowdowns.
       He worked until he was 65, and he was still refereeing kids soccer games in his mid-60s, and going to athletic events -- and many other things -- regularly. He did what my mother told him to do (well, mostly) and puttered around the house and yard, and regularly attended Shriners and Masons functions, and his coffee klatches. When he was 83 and again at 85, he still managed to make trip to Europe.
       Loved reading the newspaper daily and books, playing solitaire on the computer (and reading Dutch newspapers), watched a lot of taped television (wrestling, soap operas and soccer games) in his little back room (which was once my bedroom), and working puzzles.
       Near the end, he fell too often -- that was distressing -- but avoided serious injury. But he collapsed at home a couple of times, had to be taken to the hospital after 911 calls and required too much time as a patient at Willis-Knighton South, where he much preferred to do his regular workouts in the exercise room (more talking than working out, I suspect).
       The final collapse came just four days after our son Jason married Ann in north Fort Worth, a trip my parents couldn't make. Dad had stopped making long driving trips and driving at night for several years, but he was still driving in town some, including taking my mother to her speaking engagements.
       My sister, who had come south for Jason's wedding, was with him when he passed away and had to give us the news by phone. That was tough. We left for Shreveport almost immediately.
       After his death, The Shreveport Times did a nice obit and Jerry Byrd did a wonderful column on "one of my heroes" in the Bossier Press-Tribune.
       Bea and I saw the body, on the day before the funeral -- one of the most difficult five minutes of my life. His lips pursed, his arms battered with large purple bruises from all the IVs, the large number 70726 tattooed on his left forearm more prominent than ever on his very white, thin skin.
       70726. It sticks with you.        
       What also sticks is the great love and respect our family was shown, in so many ways.
        A few hours after we viewed the body, it was prepared in the traditional Jewish manner by the the Chevra Kadisha in Shreveport -- (from a sacred society, a group of pious men and women who have taken on the obligation of ritually preparing the deceased.)
        The funeral service on that Friday, at the Rose-Neath Marshall Street chapel, was well-attended. Most prominent was the presence of Ruth Nierman and Pauline Murov, daughters of Mr. and Mrs. A.A. Gilbert -- who took my family in as part of theirs and gave Dad a job for 29 years. Most touching was that Neal Nierman, Ruth's husband, came out of the hospital to attend ... in a wheelchair. A month later, he too died.
Dad and his first great grandchild Josie, fall, 2007
       Ron Nierman, Neal and Ruth's son, was one of the pallbearers and an eloquent eulogist. Adam Wellen, my sister's oldest child then two days short of 26, gave a nice talk. Rabbi Foster Kowaler did a wonderful job conducting the service and summarizing Dad's life and his place in the community. Least eloquent speaker was me. I thought I could do it without notes, so I stumbled and rambled. But at least it was genuine.
       Ron Nierman and Bill Braunig, the two Gilbert family members then running the business and both close to my Dad, were pallbearers, as were the grandsons -- Jason, Adam and Josh (Wellen) -- and Rachel's husband, Russell Smith.
       Someone else at the funeral: 10-month-old Josephine "Josie" Smith, my parents' first great-grandchild. A few months earlier, Opa Louis -- in this case Great Opa Louis -- got to hold the baby Josie.
       Now there are four great-grandchildren ... and one to come any day. There will be more.
       The burial was at the old Greenwood Cemetery on Stoner Avenue; Dad was delighted to have purchased a plot there through the Masons. In fact, the Masons' burial rites were an aside to the Jewish ceremony; this was a cause of concern for the rabbis and my mother, until Mom checked out the details. I insisted it be included because I knew that's what Dad wanted.
       He is buried in the Masons section, but only about 100 yards from the Jewish section -- about 100 yards from the Gilbert family plots and the great Janice Cahn, who did so much for our family and was one of my mother's guardian angels in Shreveport.
         I still see the mourners shoveling the dirt into my dad's grave after the plain white casket was lowered, especially my kids -- Jay in a black suit and sunglasses to hide the tears, Rachel in a black dress, sobbing. Elsa's boys stayed after the ceremony and did most of the shoveling.
         He is buried a long way from Amsterdam and Antwerp, and especially from his family's ashes at places such as Auschwitz and Sobibor.
         Dad is at peace, with a gravestone he'd like. We go by occasionally just to say hello, and remember.       
         As the Shoah Foundation interview wound down, Dad talked about the other Holocaust survivors in Shreveport and the immediate area, and the interviewer asked whether our parents talked to Elsa and me about the Holocaust.
        "Yes, m'am; yes, m'am," Dad answered. "They know exactly what happened. First, my son didn't want to listen, but lately -- the last 5-10 years -- he started asking me some questions. My daughter, from when she was young, listened.
      "We told them they didn't have any grandparents or uncles or aunts; they knew that. And our grandchildren the same way already, we talk to the grandchildren. ..."
     Yes, we always knew. But when we were kids, we didn't talk all that much about it with our friends or in school. It didn't matter; we were just trying to settle in and live our lives. It was long before our mother became a regular public speaker/educator on the Holocaust and a celebrity of sorts in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana.
      Dad's story was more varied and perhaps more interesting than my mother's. But, as I've written before and said often, he didn't speak English well enough to speak long to an audience or class.
Which is one reason this was a motivation to put his story in print. And maybe it was cathartic for me. Honestly, there were lots of times when I did not treat him with respect; in fact, I was downright ugly (I'll spare you the details).
      Oh, how I regret that now. I regretted it then.
      Because he deserved that respect, what he had been through, what he had seen. He was not a disciplinarian -- he was just too good a guy, too gentle, to be harsh to his first-born, his only son. He was my biggest fan; he bragged on me far more than I deserved, or liked.
      His love of sports, in particular, was so great that he passed it on; it was a natural for me. It gave me an avenue ... and a career. His love of family and of friends and of good times was his greatest trait.
      He was generous, especially with us (his family), but also with various charitable causes. Sometimes his contributions were greater -- especially for Jewish-related campaigns -- but he almost always gave to the organizations that sent mailouts (St. Jude Children's Hospital, Easter Seals, Shriners' Hospital for Children in Shreveport, Disabled American Veterans are just a few examples). It might not be much, but it was something he liked doing.
      Plus, he was an active Shriner and Mason, working in the kitchen or helping set up for activities and helping with the cleanup.
      Yes, he had a sense of entitlement, maybe about some benefits he felt he deserved or a sleight he perceived. Can't say I always agreed with him, but my view is that was understandable he could feel that.
      Did he hold a grudge about the camps? Well, he never warmed to the "new" Germany or to any countries or groups that took violent actions. Again, understandable.
      "I pray we have peace," he said, and that was a genuine wish.
      Everywhere he went, people took to him. They could sense his spirit, his benevolence, his appreciation for life and for the twists his journey had taken. He certainly could not have imagined the road from Amsterdam and The Netherlands to a place called Shreveport in the United States of America.
      So, telling his story, writing about his family and his life and his travails in World War II, in the unimaginable concentration/work camps amid the Nazis' cruelty, is something I owed him.
I think, I hope, he would have been proud. I was proud of him.
      For 63 years after Mechelen and Jawischowitz and Janina and especially Auschwitz-Birkenau, Louis Van Thyn was a survivor. His world view was a positive one -- he could always look on the bright side -- and the life he lived was a beautiful example for his fellow man.
       So his story ended, but not really. Because the family goes on, and he would like that.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A return to Auschwitz

The Dutch delegation at the dedication of the international memorial at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site,
January, 1952: That's my Dad on the left; his close friend, Jacques Furth (third from the right). (photo
(33rd in a series)
      One element of Louis Van Thyn's story that fascinated me was that in January 1952, he returned to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp -- some 8 1/2 years after he arrived there as one of the thousands of prisoners.
      Don't know how Dad could do that, but he did. I know I never want to see that place. I know people who have made the visit there and have seen that place of horrors. Not me. No, thank you.
From On behalf of the
 Dutch delegation, Bets Roos and Louis van
 Thijn fill an urn with ashes from one of the
 lime pits in the extermination camp.
Photo NAC
    But there was a good purpose for his return: the establishment of an international monument.
Representatives from the many countries affected by the Holocaust came to Auschwitz as part of the monument committee.
      Dad was part of the Dutch delegation. So were his first sister-in-law, Eva Furth, and her husband, Jacques Furth -- both Dad's close friends. In fact, Dad played a significant role.
      From the Dutch web site "As part of the ceremony, each delegation --  including the Dutch representatives -- filled an urn with ashes. This ash is the only tangible reminder of the millions of people murdered in Auschwitz-Birkenau."
      Dad was one of the two people from The Netherlands to fill the urn (see photo).
      The urn was brought back to Amsterdam and became part of the Auschwitz memorial there. Designed by Dutch artist/writer Jan Wolkers, it is a display of broken mirrors, in which the skies are reflected, day and night.
        In 1993, it was moved from its original location and dedicated in Wertheim Park, just down the street from the Schouwberg, the converted theater which the Germans used as the gathering point for deportation for their Jewish prisoners in Holland.
         We've seen the memorial twice, in 1991 and -- with my wife Bea -- on our trip to The Netherlands a year ago. The message: Broken mirrors, broken lives.
         Each Jan. 27 -- the date of the death camp's liberation -- there is an Auschwitz remembrance service at the Amsterdam memorial.
      There is a back story to this, my sister Elsa reminded me. When our parents applied to immigrate to America, Dad did not disclose the trip on the form. "I think he was told not to, by the people from the organization [the Dutch Auschwitz committee] who sponsored the trip," Elsa said.
      It was suspected by some Dutch government officials that the committee -- of which our aunt, Eva, was a founder and leader -- was a front for Communist Party activities. As I have noted before in this series, Eva -- "Tante Eef," in Dutch -- was a card-carrying Communist. Yes, she was.
      Can't explain it, people. Neither could my mother and father, who had many a philosophical argument with her, especially after we came to the U.S.
      Back to the story, from Elsa: "Apparently, the US government knew about [the trip], since Poland was a Communist country, and Daddy was questioned. He was, of course, cleared from Communist activity and allowed to immigrate."
       Thank goodness for that.
         (Next: End of a life, end of this story)

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

For Dad, friendship to the end

(32nd in a series)
      One unforgettable remembrance of my Dad, he was a great friend.
      When Louis Van Thyn considered you his friend, you knew it. Two friendships that tied him to Europe after we came to the United States were enduring and endearing.
       Few people were as close to my Dad as Joseph "Joopie" Scholte, his first cousin who lived for decades in Cagnes-sur-Mer, the largest suburb of Nice, heart of the glamorous and beautiful French Riviera, and Jacques Furth, the husband of Dad's sister-in-law of his first marriage.
Joopie Scholte and his wife Judith married in
 1939; that's my Dad in the back on the left.
        Those two men enriched Dad's life -- and ours. Dad outlived them both by at least four years -- Joopie died in 2002, Jacques in 2004 -- and he was loyal to them, and they to him, to the end.
         Like Dad, both were Holocaust survivors who spent time in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and lost their first wives. Unlike Dad, Joopie and Jacques had to survive the infamous "Death Marches" -- the Nazis forcing them to walk for days and days, miles and miles, near the end of World War II.
          As with all Holocaust survivors, they had their own compelling stories, with practically their entire families wiped out. Joopie not only lost his wife Judith -- Dad had been part of their wedding party in 1939 (note the photo) -- but also a 2-year-old daughter, Helene. Jacques lost his wife "Fietje," but their son Dave, 2 when the Nazis sent his father to the camps, was hidden away with a foster family in Limburg, as far south in The Netherlands as possible, and reunited with Jacques after the war.
          And while Dad was an apprentice to become a diamond cutter, Joopie and Jacques were in that business pre- and post-war ... and made comfortable livings.
          It was with Joopie's family -- father, mother (my father's aunt, his mother's sister) and older brother -- that Dad came to live in Antwerp, Belgium, when he left Amsterdam in 1936 at age 17.  But after the Holocaust, only Joopie returned from that family.
          So you can imagine the joy Dad and Joopie -- only survivors of their immediate family -- must have felt when they found each other back in Antwerp in the summer of 1945. They had been through Auschwitz together; it's no wonder that they remained close for all the years thereafter.
          It was a really special bond, as you will see.
          A note here: My father and mother built many strong relationships. There were dozens of people in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana to whom they were close, who were dear friends. And they always remained friends and in contact with couples from Holland who like them had lived through World War II.
          Some were Holocaust survivors; several who lost spouses and/or children in the gas chambers and then remarried fellow survivors; a few who were married before the war and each survived the camps; and a few in which the man went to the camps and the woman was hidden away.
          I knew some of these people from my early days in Amsterdam.
          And as close as my Dad was to Joopie Scholte, another survivor with whom he went way back was Coenraad "Coen" Rood, a kid who lived around the corner from Dad's family in Amsterdam and was best friends with Dad's older brother, Hyman. They were in a youth workers' group (AJC) together.
           Coen, his wife and daughter -- at my parents' urging -- immigrated from Amsterdam to Shreveport (and joined us in Sunset Acres) in 1960, and he eventually settled in White Oak, Texas, with his own tailor shop in Longview, and he was quite the character.
           He, too, remained close to my folks and I wrote a blog piece about him just after his death
          Just as Dad found my mother, both Joopie and Jacques remarried after the war. Joopie married a French woman named Francoise and they made their way from Antwerp to the posh Nice area, where my father visited them several times on trips to Europe.
           Dad did not know Jacques Furth before the war, but when Jacques married Eva Halverstad, whose younger sister Estella was my father's first wife --  after the war and settled in Amsterdam, they became my parents' closest friends. And Dave, seven years older than me, was often my babysitter, probably more than he wanted to be.
            The few trips my parents made back to The Netherlands, they stayed with Jacques and Eva -- "Tante Eef" to us. After she died in the mid-1980s and my mother refused to go back to the old country (except for her first cousin's funeral in 1992), it was Jacques who made Dad feel at home on several visits.
            Joopie and Francois never had children. As it turned out, that was important for us.
            Because after Francois died in the mid-1990s, Joopie told my father that if Dad wanted to, he was going to make him the sole executor of his estate. Dad was his closest relative.
Dad and Joopie: This was a late 1990s photo in the
Nice, France, area, perhaps their last visit.
             In the files my parents kept a 2001 letter from Joopie in which he outlines the details of the estate for Dad. It is written in Dutch and I can translate some of it, but not all (the handwriting is difficult to interpret). He lists his assets and the contents of a safety deposit box, and explains that the French government will take about 60 percent of the package.
              In the letter, Joopie says he hasn't been doing well physically, that he just returned from a trip to Antwerp and Amsterdam, and says that's probably his last visit to both places. But he also is hopeful of making a trip to the United States.
              That didn't happen. He died June 27, 2002, and Dad then began the process of dealing with the estate.
              Long story short: It was a big hassle.
              The translation was difficult. The French laws of succession were a maze. The French government was difficult. The taxes kept piling up. French attorneys were vague
              It took some 2 1/2 years, and dozens of letters and phone calls by Dad and his Shreveport attorney, contacts with the French consulate in New Orleans and a visit there, translation of written material in French by an LSU-Shreveport French professor ... and finally a visit to Cagnes-sur-Mer by Dad. By this time, he was 83 years old. He didn't speak French. It was no easy trip.
               In the end, the French government did get its fair share -- ha! -- and so, we think, did the French attorneys handling business on that end. But what we gained, what Joopie left us, was worth it to Dad and to our family.
              Joopie always treated Dad, my mother, me and my sister as if we were family -- he was "Oome Joopie" to us -- and extended that to Elsa's family and my wife and kids. He was a generous, kind man.
              And so was Jacques. For me, one of the great highlights -- there were a lot -- of my first trip back to The Netherlands in 1991 (after 36 years) was seeing him again and having him as our host and often as our driver.
              Sadly, while Dad was still working on settling Joopie's estate, we lost Jacques in 2004.
              Dad -- also a generous and kind man -- had lost a lot of people, much of his early family, in his lifetime, but losing Joopie and then Jacques two years apart was hard to take.
              I look now at the pictures of Dad with those two men late in their lives, and it's a reminder that those were very special bonds. He loved them, and they loved him.
              (Next: Going back to Auschwitz)


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Opening-game memories -- Part II

          As I said in the previous blog piece, LSU has been a tough opening-game opponent for any football team, especially the 18 seasons leading up to this one. Tough, but not always intimidating.
          The 17-1 record in that time includes some shaky victories and a couple that I consider great ones.
          Hopefully, Wisconsin will be added to the list of opening-game victims Saturday night, but it's a toss-up game. This Tigers team appears to have plenty of talent, plenty of potential -- and plenty of questions because it is one of the youngest teams in Les Miles' 10 years as coach.
Tyrone Mathieu, the "Honey Badger," and the LSU Tigers went Duck hunting
at Cowboys Stadium to open an almost-perfect 2011 season (
          We'll see soon enough, won't we?
          There are many people who have much more expertise in LSU football history than I do; mostly, I've been a fan and follower from a distance, even in my 25 years of sportswriting in Louisiana. But I have my favorite opening-day LSU victories and my least-favorite opening-day losses.
          I had to do some research to find that the Tigers had lost five consecutive opening games -- 1991 (at Georgia), 1992-95 (all Texas A&M, two at home, two away) before this current streak of success began.
          Now, for my favorite openers ... start with three years ago, 2011, the 40-27 thumping of highly touted, high-scoring Oregon at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. That was the coming-out game for Tyrone Mathieu as a legitimate star, the "Honey Badger" campaign and the first of 13 victories in a row by a team that was equal to any LSU team in history.
          Yeah, it ended badly with that one-sided loss to Alabama, but those Tigers were as dominant or more so than any of the three national championship teams. Hey, it's my opinion.
          Two favorite openers were ties -- 6-6 with No. 1-ranked Nebraska at Tiger Stadium in 1976 and 21-21 at Florida in the first game of the Bill Arnsparger coaching era, a sensational game (if I remember right) by running back Dalton Hilliard against a team that won Florida's first SEC title (later vacated because of NCAA penalties).
          Another favorite: The first game of the Les Miles coaching era: 35-31 at Arizona State, played there because Hurricane Katrina made it impossible to play at Tiger Stadium. Remember how the Tigers were behind 17-7 after three quarters, rallied to take the lead on special-teams plays, fell behind again -- and then won on a long late drive and JaMarcus Russell's 39-yard TD pass to Early Doucet ... on a fourth-down scramble and heave.
          (What we didn't know then: It would be a trademark of Miles' teams ... flounder for a while, then somehow put it together, make pulsating comebacks, and -- in Les vernacular -- finish first.)
          Another personal favorite: Last year, 37-27 over TCU, against at Cowboys Stadium. We live close to TCU, but I'm not a Frogs' fan -- no fan of the head coach -- especially against LSU. The Tigers didn't even need their top running back (suspended).
          The Tigers have had some one-sided opening wins over the years against lesser opponents and some against "name" schools in which they built nice leads and then had to hold on -- such as at Washington in 2009 (31-23) and against North Carolina in Atlanta in 2010 (30-24). In those, they were about one play from disaster.
            But in my opinion, no LSU opening win was more fortunate than the last one of Nick Saban's coaching era (2004). The defending national champions, ranked No. 4, trailed Oregon State 9-0 at halftime at Tiger Stadium and were still down 15-7 with 1:38 remaining before driving for a TD and tying two-point PAT and forcing overtime. And they won 22-21 when Oregon State's kicker missed a PAT kick for the third time in the game.
            That was a night when Saban had a lot of Les Miles-type luck.
            I looked this up: From 1956 through 1971 -- 15 seasons -- LSU opened all but one season against either Rice (five times) or Texas A&M (9).
            The only exception was 1966, and that was a memorable night at Tiger Stadium: When Paul Dietzel, coach of LSU's 1958 national champs and great 1959 team who left abruptly -- and disgusted LSU fans -- after the 1961 season for the head coaching job at Army -- returned to Tiger Stadium to begin his coaching stint at South Carolina. He was supposed to be greeted by "The Big Boo," but it didn't happen and LSU was happy with its 28-12 win that night.
             In a 13-year period (1958-70), the only time LSU lost its openers were memorable for me.
  In 1961, the Tigers went to Rice and its 70,000-stadium was full that night. Dad and I made that trip to Houston to see friends and go to the game. LSU lost 16-3, its only loss of Dietzel's last season there; it won its last 10, ending with the Orange Bowl. I remember one of the Rice stars that night: fullback Roland Jackson, from Ruston.
              The reason I remember the 1970 opening loss to A&M was because it was so stunning. Most old-time LSU fans will remember it. The Aggies had minus 42 yards rushing, but LSU had six turnovers and here's the main reason we remember it: A&M won 20-18, on a 79-yard Hail Mary pass in the last minute, Lex James to Hugh McElroy. Unbelievable.
              (It wasn't quite as bad as Iowa's last-play, 56-yard touchdown pass to beat LSU 30-25 in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando on New Year's Day, 2005, in Saban's last game as LSU coach. But it was bad.)  
            In the previous blog, I wrote about some of Louisiana Tech's opening-game challenges and my memories of two openers while I was in school there. In researching Tech's football history, I came upon this gem: When it lost its 1973 opener at Eastern Michigan, 21-19, it was the only loss in a 38-game span. Amazing; the most successful Bulldogs era ever.
            That was the last two games in '71; a 12-0 season in 1972; 12 wins in a row after the loss at Eastern Michigan with the last one the NCAA Division II national championship; and then 11 more wins in 1974 before a loss in the second round of the national playoffs.
            What Keith Prince, the longtime Tech sports information director, remembered about that one loss was that Jerry Pope kicked what all the Tech people thought was the winning field goal in the last minute. Only the officials didn't think so.
              NFL openers are another week away, but a quick note about the Dallas Cowboys. We've learned that no matter how they do in their opener under Coach Jason Garrett, it's only the start of an 8-8 season (three in a row).
              Once upon a time, when The Man in The Hat coached the Cowboys, they won 17 opening games in a row and 21 out of 22 (only loss to the Steelers, 36-28, in 1982). You could count on Tom Landry's teams starting 1-0, just as you almost always could count on them making the playoffs.
              But that was then. Now the playoffs are only a hope, only something they talk about. But they have won five of their last seven openers ... after winning one of the previous seven.
              Let me know when they are worth watching ... or when you-know-who is no longer in charge. 
              For more than 50 years, I followed high school football -- first as a student, a manager/statistician and then in my sportswriting career. Covered many a season-opening game, and dealt with others on the sports desk as an editor. It was always a love. It was work, but a love.
               But I have a special memory of the first high school opening game I covered, in 1969, my first year as a fulltimer at The Shreveport Times: Minden at Bossier, Memorial Stadium in Bossier City.                           
               As happened with several other games I've mentioned, it rained -- significantly. And the visiting team, Minden, whose program had floundered for several years, pulled a muddy 6-0 upset of a Bossier team that the year before had come within one late Woodlawn TD pass of winning what would've been a surprising district championship.
               The Minden people, and coach Billy Roach, were elated. Bossier's coach was Milford Andrews, an excellent high school baseball and football coach but not -- from a media standpoint -- all that quotable. That night, Milford didn't have much to say at all. The rookie reporter, admittedly unsure of covering the first game of his career, had about as much success getting quotes as the coach's team did scoring.
                I don't have a copy of that game story, but I know it wasn't an effort I liked.
                Don't recall much about other openers I covered, but I do know the last two: In 2011 for The Dallas Morning News at Weatherford's beautiful new stadium ... the Kangeroos -- great nickname -- upset the visiting Haltom Buffalos (yes, that's spelled correctly) 28-20, and in 2012 for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at old Wilemon Stadium in Arlington, Texas, where Arlington Bowie outlasted Mansfield 59-43.
                 The wild, fast-paced game, with touchdowns coming rapidly, had me thinking that I was too old to keep pace with the statistics and play-by-play that you need to chart in covering high school football. It was -- there's a laugh here -- the beginning of the end of my career.
                Now I can just sit here and write about the opening week of football season -- and how much I've always loved it, no matter who won or lost. But I prefer that my teams win.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Opening-game jitters ... and memories

       The opening game of the football season -- and I'm talking mostly high school and college -- can be a scary experience for teams and fans. I learned that a long, long time ago.
       Even if you anticipate have a very good team, or a great team, they don't just hand you victories automatically. This is why they play the games.
       At the risk of jinxing the LSU Tigers, they have lost one season-opening game in the previous 18 seasons -- 26-8 at Virginia Tech in 2002.
       But talk about some close escapes, the Tigers have had a whole string of them through the years. We'll get to that in a moment.
       Saturday night's opener with Wisconsin in Houston figures to be another close one, especially if you look at the preseason Associated Press poll, with LSU ranked No. 13 and Wisconsin No. 14.
        My other college favorite, Louisiana Tech, frankly can only hope for a close game. There might not be a bigger underdog on the opening weekend than the Bulldogs, who will visit No. 4 Oklahoma. The Sooners and their fans think they can win the national championship, and why not after last season's Sugar Bowl domination of mighty Alabama.
       For Tech, this task is not an unusual one. Few schools nationally, if any, have played more challenging season openers over the past 15 years. Here's a partial list of the teams Tech has faced, just in openers: at Tennessee, at Nebraska twice, at No. 1 Florida State, Oklahoma State (in Shreveport), No. 2 Miami (in Shreveport), at No. 10 Florida and at Auburn.
        Challenging, agreed?
        Yes, most of those are "money" games -- Tech being given a tidy sum to play them, but that's the life of a mid-major program. Other opening-game opponents for the Bulldogs included Houston (twice), North Carolina State, SMU, Mississippi State, Southern Miss and even the historic first-ever meeting with Grambling (4 miles from Tech) in Shreveport in 2010.
         And sometimes it pays off in a victory -- against Oklahoma State (39-36) in 2002 -- or an impressive showing on national TV, a 30-23 loss at Nebraska in 1998 in which Shreveport's Troy Edwards put on a receiving show unequalled in Division I history at the time (21 catches, 405 yards) and led to his winning the Fred Biletnikoff Award as college football's top receiver and being a first-round draft pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
          Good memories (OK, I had to look up the facts). But I have a bunch of opening-game memories. So let's turn on the nostalgia machine.
          Remember these are my memories, so it's a lot of Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech and LSU and the Dallas Cowboys, and from my journalism career. Bear with me.
This is not a quarterback pose, but this
guy was the winning QB in the first
 game of my high school days, but --
unfortunately -- not for my team. Three
years later he was a QB for my college's
team; I was the statistician.
         Here's where I learned not to take season openers for granted -- my sophomore year at Woodlawn (1962), my first game as a team manager. We played North Caddo at State Fair Stadium, and we should have won. We didn't.
          We were going to have a darned good team; many of the players were back from the year before when Woodlawn -- surprisingly, in its second year -- won the district championship ("The Team Named Desire"). North Caddo, meanwhile, had only a so-so program.
           But that late September night, it rained -- hard. And after we drove a long way for a touchdown on our first possession, we never scored again. We lost four fumbles, a botched punt try was blocked and rolled out of the end zone to give North Caddo a safety, and we completed three passes all night.
          On the first play of the second half, we fumbled the ball away at our 13-yard line. North Caddo soon scored the winning TD, on a 5-yard run by its quarterback, Phil Robertson. You might have heard of him.
           We would lose only one other game in a 9-2 season, a tough 10-0 game with arch-rival Byrd, which would go on to play in the state championship game. North Caddo had no business beating us.
            But that was a lesson for our team -- and for me. Do not assume victory.
            It wasn't much easier the next season opener, at North Caddo. But we worked hard for a 13-0 victory. The best quarterback in that game was not their guy, Mr. Robertson; it was our guy, Trey Prather. Trey was an All-State QB a year later; the future Duck Commander, no matter what you might read in his bio, was not ever All-State. But he was All-North Caddo.
            In my senior year, our opener against North Caddo was a 47-0 breeze; Gerald Burnett ran 70-something yards for a touchdown on our first play from scrimmage. But the next year, in Terry Bradshaw's first start as Woodlawn quarterback, the team won 59-0 at North Caddo. Woodlawn went on to the state championship game; North Caddo, I think, did not win a game.
            The best opener in Woodlawn's glorious football decade of the 1960s, though, was in 1968 against a big, strong LaGrange team in Lake Charles. LaGrange jumped ahead 21-6 in the middle of the second quarter. Then Joe Ferguson started hitting passes like he could do, and the 34-21 comeback victory was the first of a 14-0 state-championship season.
          Phil Robertson was one of the QBs in the first football game of my high school days, and he was one of the QBs in the first football game of my college days -- at Louisiana Tech, in September 1965.
           He played in that game, as a second-stringer to Billy Laird for our Tech team, which at that point was playing its most significant opener perhaps since Coach Joe Aillet's second and third years of his 26-year tenure at Tech, 1940 and 1941, when his teams opened at LSU.   
           The game at Rice had a "big time" feel in Rice's then-magnificent 70,000-seat stadium, which within a decade would be host for a Super Bowl. OK, so only an estimated 22,000 showed for our game with Rice, which had as legendary a coach (Jess Neely) as Coach Aillet was at Tech.
            Again, it rained, significantly, and while Tech was a decided underdog, our team played well. But we were a passing team, and the rain hurt us more than Rice. We lost 14-0, but felt we could've won in better conditions. Truth is, Rice had an awful season -- 2-8 -- and, funny thing, its only victory was against then-mighty Texas, two years removed from a national championship.
             One of Rice's touchdowns was due to a punt return by Chuck Latourette, who went on to play five years in the NFL with the St. Louis Cardinals.                  
             The game meant a lot to me -- my first as the Tech statistician/student sports information assistant.
              But the most memorable opener of my Tech days was in 1968, a trip I didn't make and a game I didn't see -- a 20-13 victory at Mississippi State when our junior quarterback was sensational, as he would be often in the next two seasons. Yes, Terry Bradshaw. And that victory felt big-time, too -- Tech's first against an SEC school since Coach Aillet's 1946 team had upset Ole Miss (whose QB was Rebels legend/future NFL star Charlie Conerly).
               (Next: My LSU opening-game memories)