Friday, July 25, 2014

Taking the daily walk: It's routine

      I am a walking man.
     In previous blogs, there have been references to my daily walking routine, and people who have been around me a while know this is what I do. But I've not written a blog piece giving the details.
     Walking is probably my main hobby these days. Used to be reading the daily newspaper, but that's been out for about a year. Used to watch a lot of television, lots of sports events. But no more. Love to read, spend time on books and the computer, and for the past couple of years, I try to write my blog pieces -- two or three times a week.
     But I am motivated most of all to do my daily walk.
     I am a regular walker around the University Drive area and the TCU/Paschal High School area here in Fort Worth -- dressed in shorts and T-shirt, sunglasses, ballcap and holding a bottle of water. I don't much like sidewalks, so I'm usually out in the street walking along the curbs.
     Not apologizing for it. Very cautious about crossing streets and watching traffic. Those cars going by, the occasional motorcycle or cyclist, they can hurt you.
      I do this for exercise; I've done it for about 25 years. Gave up running -- which I loved as a kid -- because my shins no longer could stand the pounding on the pavement or the track. Gave up playing softball (OK, I stunk at it) and shooting basketball, another love for years.
      Started riding a bike regularly for a year or so in Orange Park, Fla.; loved riding my green Schwinn around the Sunset Acres neighborhood in Shreveport and sometimes beyond as a kid (didn't we all love to ride our bikes?). And then the bike got stolen, and I began walking for exercise.
      Also didn't mind walking when I was a kid -- and I still don't mind. But I much prefer the streets and parking lots and, well, drivethroughs to time on a treadmill or a walking path or a track.
      So I go almost daily, year-round. It's part of the routine, unless we're on a trip or a vacation. And I seldom let the weather stop me. I prefer the hot weather, such as right now in Texas -- 90s, up to 100 -- but I'll go if it's pretty cold, too.
      I don't mind the heat, don't mind the sweat. It makes me feel like I've done something. Try to be careful and drink enough water and, if possible, go early in the day or if we're busy, late in the day. But sometimes I go right in the middle of the day, conscious of the fact that we're getting older and not overdo it. 
      The one weather element that bothers me most is the wind, any time of year. I just don't enjoy walking in the wind, especially if it's a really cold wind, but even in spring or summer, if it's windy, I might cut the walk short. 
      In winter, I bundle enough to handle the cold -- I am not a cold-weather person -- but I will skip the really hard-freeze days and opt for the apartment gym and the treadmill. Usually will do an hour there, and it's a darned good workout. It's also boring as heck.
      I've recently begun doing some work on the machines in the gym -- doctor's suggestion for helping keep my weight down and my body toned (there's a laugh here). But, honestly, I don't have much of a routine there; my wife works a lot harder in the gym than I do. For me, it's just a warmup for my walk. 
      I'd much rather be out on the streets, saying hello to people and making the occasional stop in a store or filling station perhaps to refill my water bottle and/or unfill my bladder.       
      I am not a super-fast walker, but I'm steady. What I'm trying to do is get the heart rate up, make myself feel like I've done something, that I've pushed enough to satisfy the exercise needs. I know this: I am usually pretty sluggish early in the day until I go to walk and get the endorphins going.
        People who know me pretty well also know this about my walks: One of the main sidelights is that I look for money as I go. Yes, you read that correctly.
         You would be surprised how much money is out there in the streets. If you look as regularly as I do, you can hit some jackpots. Well ... sort of.
         This year I have found a $20 bill in an apartment parking lot, a $5 bill along the curb on a side street off West Berry Ave., a couple of silver dollars in the nearby food-truck park (it's vacant on Mondays).
         About 3-4 times a year, I find what I call a "mother lode" -- a pile of change in one place. For instance, at the end of the TCU school year in May, I found a broken piggy bank in the street ... $2.32 in pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters, thank you.
         The kids at Paschal High are usually generous; one day I found eight quarters in one area of a parking lot. Some of Paschal's lots are a regular late Friday or early Saturday route during the school year; TCU's freshman parking lot is a Saturday or Sunday route.
         My greatest day, money-wise, as a walker was the Sunday of the 1997 season Super Bowl (Broncos-Packers, Jan. 25, 1998) -- $81 (four 20s and a dollar) in a hotel parking lot in west Knoxville.
          It was raining a little, so I just saw the bills, picked them up and didn't even check to see what the amount was until I got home some 20 minutes later. When I showed Bea and our daughter Rachel (then a college freshman), they were surprised. So was I. Then Rachel said, "Dad, you should've turned that money in at the [hotel] front desk." 
         Yeah, right. Gee, I forgot.
         I have been chased out of parking lots and fast-food drivethroughs -- sometimes not too gently -- and I'm on good terms with the TCU campus security. Most of those guys know me, know I'm there to walk, and sometimes they'll tell me when there have been a series of break-ins in the neighborhood and be alert.
         So I'm going to tell you that my little hobby here pays off. OK, I tally up the amount I find; I've kept up for the past 16 years. It's made a nice retirement supplement, and now it goes toward the grandkids' allowance.
         If you want to come to the TCU area and throw some loose change into the street, chances are I will find it soon.
         But, no, the object is not the money, it's the exercise, the effort. I can find 3 cents -- as I did last Sunday -- and it still feels good to walk.

Rogers Road hill: It's not steep, but it is
 uphill, and it's my little challenge.
         The questions I'm asked most about my walks are (1) how long do you walk each day? and (2) how far?
         Bea fairly regularly says that I walk 2 1/2 hours. That is, as I point out to her, an exaggeration. I usually walk about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.
         (But, confession: If the weather is nice and I feel good, and my feet/legs don't hurt, I have been known to go that 2 1/2 hours. OK, it's not very smart, and it gets to be a labor, or counter-productive.)
         How far? I'm not sure. I do have my usual routes, and several times a week I will head to the TCU area, which means going past the fourth green and fairway at Colonial Country Club and up the Rogers Road hill. This is my mountain.
         It's an uphill route, not all that steep -- it's not like hiking in the Smokey Mountains or in Colorado or Mount McKinley -- but it is about all I want, and it's at the start of my walk. So, yeah, I do have to catch my breath for a moment.
         I had to look this up online: It is 1.8 miles from our apartments to Paschal High; just a bit shorter to the CVS store Bea and I visit often. It is 1.27 miles to TCU's Amon G. Carter Stadium. It is 2.15 miles to Bluebonnet Circle, one of my routes.
         But every now and then, I get a whim and pick out a new location. A week ago, I needed something from CVS and our regular store didn't have it. I knew there was a CVS on Camp Bowie Blvd. off Montgomery Drive, and it was a challenge. Had to walk around the giant railroad yard near the apartments here. Looked it up just now and it was 2.2 miles to the store. Oh, and 2.2 miles back.
         I did it; it took a while. Actually, I shortcut it back; I cut across the railroad yard (a first for me). Crossed about a dozen railroad tracks, but not a moving train in sight. I knew I should avoid those. 
         I didn't tell Bea until afterward. I guess it took that 2 1/2 hours -- but it was during the cooler spell we had.
         A walking man can handle the challenge.    

Friday, July 18, 2014

Going home to Amsterdam (more heartbreak)

(27th in a series)
Street sign at the block where Dad's family
 lived in the 1920s and '30s in Amsterdam
      I have tried to imagine how my Dad (Louis Van Thyn) must have felt when he finally made his way back home -- Amsterdam -- after the end of World War II.
      I have thought about it often, to put myself in his place. But it is unimaginable.
      It was bad enough when he first returned to Antwerp and realize that his wife and her parents were no longer there, victims of the Holocaust. He must have known that it was likely that his parents and brothers, sister-in-law and nephew were not going to be in Amsterdam.
      Don't know why he didn't contact someone in Amsterdam to ask questions. But remember that not all that many people in those days in Belgium and The Netherlands had telephones. Nor did they have cars.
      And remember, too, that Dad -- after 2 1/2 in concentration camps and almost five months of wandering around eastern Europe -- had practically no money. Just finding his next meal was often uncertain.
      So first he had to find some footing, maybe some work, in Antwerp. He stayed -- as was pointed out in the previous chapter -- in his in-laws' abandoned apartment (and later with an aunt who survived the war because she was hidden). But he wasn't in position to just take off and go to Amsterdam. Not yet.
      Yes, he could have written his gentile neighbors in Amsterdam and asked questions, could have borrowed or beg the use of a telephone. I'm not sure what he knew or tried to find out between early January when the Nazis abandoned the concentration camps and late May/early June when he got to Antwerp.
      These are things I never asked -- I should have -- and he does not detail in his taped 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview. He might have known the most important people in his life had died in the gas chambers or the concentration camps; the rumors, the talk must have filtered among the prisoners in the camps.
      But the interviewer asked him: "When did you finally find out that your parents and brothers were gone?"
      And Dad's reply was, "Now, when we come back in Amsterdam."
       By the end of July or early August (he wasn't sure exactly when), still without steady work and without a plan for his future, he decided to make the trip. It's about two hours by train ... but it's telling that he made the trip another way.          
        "I hitchhiked on a truck to Amsterdam," he told the interviewer. "Then we were somewhere and I had a little suitcase and I put that on the back of the truck, and they stole my suitcase, with the only suit I had. I was in uniform, so I had some shirts and my suit and some underwear in that suitcase. Nothing else, and they stole it.
         "And I come in Amsterdam and my cousin made enough money already in the black market, and he furnished me with everything."
        The interviewed asked him, "You were still in the Russian uniform?" (The uniform given to him during his stop in Odessa.)
         "Ya (yes)," Dad answered, jumping ahead in the story. "We were in Amsterdam, we walked with six boys in Russian uniforms one time; we did that for fun. Maar [But] I had my English [army] uniform on because I could hitchhike better from Antwerp in an English uniform than in regular clothes."
         But the stolen suitcase wasn't the only problem on the trip.
         Dad also tells of a cousin who was hitchhiking from Brussels at the same time. They were to meet, but he lost track of him. "I forgot to know where he lived," Dad remembered. 
         "... I came into Amsterdam on Saturday night, and I don't know where to go," he added, then shook his head. "That was bad.
         "You know I come to a town where I was born and raised on a Saturday night, about 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock, and a man said, 'Where are you going?' I say, 'I ... don't ... know.' Money I don't got; ya, maybe a little in my pocket. And he say, 'Come spend the night with me.' So I spend the night with that truck driver. ...
          "I didn't know the man [truck driver]; he was a stranger."
          The cousin, he explained, "was back in his home. He was married to a gentile girl, and he was in [prison] camp a couple of months in Holland and they [the Germans] let him go back home. You know, they let many that were married to gentiles go. I had more second cousins over there; they were cousins of my father all."
          He found the cousin in a short time.
          "The next morning I know where my cousin was coming to the cafe," Dad said. "So I walked there. He came in and said, 'Where have you been?' I say, "If you tell me where you live, I could find you.' "
          That was bad enough. But the most difficult part was ahead.
          "Then I went to see my old neighborhood over there, and that was something," Dad said, pausing. "That was bad. That was real bad, you know. The first night I stay in my own bed weer [again]. That was bad. Nobody around. You know that was a bad time for me. ..."
          The interviewer: "Did you believe that all your family was gone?"
          Dad: "I had to believe because I not saw anybody. ... Not 100 percent [sure]. I still was a little bit, how you call that ...?"
          Interviewer: "Skeptical?"
          Dad: "Yeah. That that could happen in this world. You know, that something can happen like this."
          What he did find was that some of the neighbors had taken some of his parents' and his brothers' possessions -- and they weren't going to let go.
          " ... My parents and my brothers' [stuff] ... was with gentile people," Dad recalled, "and I not could get it back. They say my brother give it to them, and I was not ready to fight in that time."
          Eventually, he went to city authorities, who forced the neighbors to give him the material. Among those possessions: photo albums, which came with us from Holland to the U.S. Some of the photos posted with pieces in this series were in those albums.
          When were you convinced, the interviewer asked Dad, that your family was gone?
          "After the war, 1945, when I saw nobody coming back, and read the books already," Dad answered.
          He found some more cousins and some friends as he stayed in Amsterdam for the next few weeks -- and he found a barracks-type facility which housed hundreds of fellow Holocaust survivors.
          One of those survivors was a little woman named Rozette Lopes-Dias-Lezer, who also lost her spouse in the concentration camps.
           "You see they had houses in Amsterdam for survivors," Dad told the interviewer. "The diamond industry, they made places, cots; that's where Rose stay. I met Rose there because my friends were over there and I met them there."
           We'll have more on that story soon.
In April 2013, I stood in front of the location -- 38 President
Brandtstraat -- where my Dad returned 68 years earlier.
           Dad would go back to his life in Antwerp, but eventually return to Amsterdam, and that was home again from late 1946 until we left for the United States in late December 1955.
           He would make, as best I can recall, about eight trips from Shreveport to The Netherlands, to Amsterdam, over the 50 years. None of it was as painful as that return in August 1945, but ...
            " ... I was in to Amsterdam many times since we came over here [U.S.]," he told the Shoah Foundation interviewer, "and every time I go back and I go back to my old neighborhood and go see.
          "And every time I cry when I come out there."
          When Bea and I made our trip back to The Netherlands and to Amsterdam in April 2013, it was  the first time since I was very young that I went to that old neighborhood and to the location where Dad and his family lived in the 1920s and 1930s. I was so young then that I don't remember it.
           The neighborhood is the Transvaalbuurt -- in the old-east section of Amsterdam -- and my cousin Heleen (with her husband Jacky) drove us there. As I wrote in a May 8, 2013, blog piece about the visit, it was difficult to find and, because some streets were blocked, it took some effort for Heleen, who grew up in the city and can maneuver the car in all sorts of situations).
          But we finally reached the street and the location (38 Presidentbrandtstraat) and I stood in front of the new building on that spot.
          For a moment, though, I had to walk away so the others in my group would not see my tears. And I thought about my lost grandparents and uncles, and the 26-year-old Louis Van Thyn coming home ... to emptiness.
          (Next: Finding the survivors)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Going home to Antwerp (and heartbreak)

(26th in a series)
Louis Van Thyn, as he looked
at the time he returned home.
     There were many gripping, gut-wrenching moments in my Dad's story of his time in the Holocaust, but for me, none were (and are) more hard to take than when finally returns home.
     Here, after 2 1/2 years in work camps and concentration camps -- in Auschwitz-Birkenau and its satellite camps -- he tells of the reality of what happened to his family, where he learns for certain what he had suspected, what he had feared.
     Among his original family and the family he married into, he was alone -- the lone survivor.
     He came home, after the greater part of three years, to emptiness.
     It is actually a two-part return: (1) to Antwerp, Belgium, his adopted home before World War II where he went to work and was married and lived with his in-laws and where he was picked up by the German/Nazi forces and (2) his true home, Amsterdam, where he'd left his parents and his brothers some five years earlier.
     Louis -- or Levie, his original name -- was the last of his Van Thyn family.
     Lost his first wife, Estella. Lost her parents, his in-laws. Lost his father, Nathan; his mother, Sara; his brothers, Hyman and young Jonas, his sister-in-law Regina. His nephew, Hyman and Regina's baby, a 1-year-old boy named Nico.
     As he told of his return in his taped 1996 USC Shoah Foundation testimony, I could see his emotion.
     He could be an emotional man, but he was the least demonstrative of the four people in our family. There aren't tears here, or sobs, or even a break in his voice. But when the interviewer asks the questions that bring him back to those awful days, Dad pauses and takes in the question, then shakes his head and says, "That was bad. That was real bad. ..." Or, "That was terrible. ..."
     Even as he talked then, 51 years later, those moments, those memories still hurt.
     This was near the end of May 1945, almost five months since the Nazis had bolted the camp (Janina) where Dad was in the camp hospital, left with 27 fellow prisoners. This was after he and others made two stops in southern Poland, then wound up in the Ukraine and then Russia, and then were among thousands on a boat trip from Odessa to Marseille, France.
     By now, World War II was finished in Europe; the Germans had surrendered. The horrors of the concentration camps were becoming reality for the free world.
     And the survivors were making their way home ... not knowing what was there, what their futures would be.
     For Dad, it meant a train trip from Marseille to Paris -- and he was still wearing the Russian Army uniform he'd been given in Odessa -- and directions to English barracks. There he was given an English Army uniform. And from Paris it was another train trip to Brussels, the Belgian capital, and on to Antwerp.
     "And in Antwerp, at the [train] station, I had one bag met [with] me," he recalled in 1996. "I  had I sold my prison uniform in Odessa to somebody who needs clothes. We were real poor in the time."
     At this point in the testimony, Dad jumped ahead in the story to Amsterdam. But I will relate that part in a moment.
     "I find when I was back in Antwerp, the train station was full with people," he said. "The reason was that the military, the POWs, were coming back from Germany. We were coming back, and no one was looking for me. I come out of that station and the Red Cross asked, 'Where are you going?' and I say, 'I go to my old house, maybe there is somebody over there. You know, you don't know.'
     "And I walked -- that was not too far from the station -- I walked and I saw my neighbor and he say, 'Come upstairs and I let you see something. And there was all my caps (?), my good suits, all my silver, my wedding ring, everything was there, pictures, china -- I got still some china over here [in the U.S.] from Belgium.
     "They saved it for me, my gentile neighbors. They had a Jewish daughter-in-law, but there a cross, a Catholic cross, was in the room. When the Germans came, they saw that in the room ... so that saved all that stuff, my neighbors."
     Interviewer: "And they gave it back?"
     Dad: "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah." But at this point, he recalled that is not what happened in  Amsterdam a couple of months later. More on that later.
     About the first night back in Antwerp, the interviewer said, "You started to tell me about the night you slept in your own bed."
     "Yeah, that was terrible," he said after a pause. "I don't think I sleep that night. All the memories come back from that time [before the war]. I was married out of that house. My in-laws lived there. My aunt lived 5-6 blocks from there, [that's] where I was living with my aunt and uncle [when, at age 16, he first moved from Amsterdam to Antwerp."
     In a short time, he would find -- thankfully -- some members of his extended family who also had survived the war and the Holocaust. I will write about that in a future chapter, but here is the first reference.
     "The first couple of weeks in Antwerp I find a cousin of my sister-in-law," he said. "[His wife] was not Jewish. She was in Malines [the Nazis' holding camp for Belgian prisoners] and they came home. I visit him and they were living in a fort from the military. The house was bombed with the V-2 bombs. The house where I was living before was bombed, too."
     Here he interjects a pointed reference to a significant figure in World War II and later in the space race.
     "You know the V-2 bombs, Mr. [Wehrner] Von Braun, he was a hero here in the United States, and he had a big building called after him," Dad said. "He was the [Nazis'] organizer of the V-2 bombs in Germany. He was the hero here; I never called him a hero."
      (Indeed, Von Braun helped develop the V-2 combat rocket for Germany and two decades later came to the U.S. to work for NASA and was the chief architect/developer of the Saturn V rocket that launched the Apollo spaceships that carried Americans to the moon.) 
     Dad said "the first couple of months in Antwerp was no good." But a couple of aspects made life bearable.
     "I find some friends that were coming from the [concentration] camp," he said. "We come together with [a group of] boys."
     And this, "The Red Cross was terrific good in Belgium," Dad recalled. "But Belgium was already free one year. We could pick up every week -- we had to go to Brussels -- and they give us 500 francs to live the first 2-3 months, to stand on our legs weer [again]. I give all the compliments to the Red Cross in Belgium. They took care of us."
     So that June and July, he began to work again. "I was a concrete carpenter, and I worked all odd jobs."
     Still, his future was uncertain, permanent job prospects uncertain, although going back to diamond cutting -- the trade in which he was going to apprentice and for which he came to Antwerp originally -- was a possibility.
     And the most nagging uncertainty ... the conditions in Amsterdam. He had to find out; he had to know.
     The interviewer: "Why did you go back to Amsterdam?
     "I wanted to see what was going on there," Dad answered. "You know, my parents were over there, and my brothers were over there, and I wanted to see how Amsterdam looked."
       (Next: Home to heartbreak, Part II) 



Who's on my "respect" list? Who's on yours?

     If you haven't seen the Derek Jeter "Re2pect" commercial done by Nike's Jordan Brand and tied to tonight's final All-Star Game appearance for the Yankees' No. 2, the Captain, I will give you a one-word description.
     Of course, I'm biased. This is one of the greatest players in the history of the most successful franchise in American baseball, a team I've loved for almost 60 years.
     A tip of the hat to the people who thought of this commercial and developed it, and a tip of the hat to all the people who appear in the spot and tip their hat to the Yankees' shortstop. It is an all-star cast -- family, friends, teammates, celebrities, opposing fans.
     At the beginning, Jeter steps into the batter's box -- against the Red Sox, of course -- and adjusts his batting helmet, as he normally does. But it also looks like a tip of the hat, and that touches off about 90 seconds of the same by everyone in the Western Hemisphere.
     Certainly, Jeter had to be in on the doings, but I'm not sure he knew totally what was going to happen. It doesn't fit into the character of one of the most self-effacing athletes in my lifetime.
     I don't think he relishes all the attention he's receiving this season, in his last trip around the ballparks before his career ends this fall. I think he accepts it. For one thing, Mariano Rivera -- very much the same type Yankees' hero and class act -- received the same treatment last season.
     Rivera -- "Mo" to Yankees fans -- was honored in many special ways and one of those special days was at last season's All-Star Game in New York City. But not even Mo was the star of a commercial such as this one.
     I saw a Washington Post headline today that said Jeter has earned "universal respect during his Hall of Fame career." Which made me think about universal respect. That's a powerful expression.
     Also made me think about who I rate in the "universal respect" category, who I -- like Nike -- would feature in a tribute such as the one to Derek.
     And, I'm asking who you would put on your list?
     First, guidelines. These have to be people with great achievements in their particular field, but also people who are beloved by most, but if not beloved, then greatly respected. Those who handled themselves with almost total dignity, without controversy, with an understanding of themselves and the world around them. These are people who were revered in their day, and still are.
     And a quick disclaimer: No one in American politics qualifies, then or now. If I did include a politician, my choice would be Abraham Lincoln. But you know, he did have a few folks in the South who despised him.
     OK, some names from the non-sports world: Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Mother Teresa, and although I'm not a follower or believer of his teachings, Rev. Billy Graham. I'd also say some of the Popes, but even they have their detractors in the Catholic Church.
     The celebrity/TV/movies world? Well, my wife thinks Oprah Winfrey is a candidate. When we started trading names, one she mentioned that I think a lot of people would choose is John Wayne. My personal favorite was Jimmy Stewart.
     Of course, as I've written, I loved Johnny Carson. But honestly, he had his critics.
     Back in the sports world -- where I'm a little more qualified to nominate candidates -- when I think of baseball, the first that came to mind was Stan Musial. The statue honoring him outside of Busch Stadium (the old stadiums and the new one) is inscribed with: "Here stands baseball's perfect warrior. Here stands baseball's perfect knight."
     Second, I think of Cal Ripken Jr., who in 2001 received a similar sendoff from baseball as Rivera and Jeter have. My personal list has Sandy Koufax and Hank Aaron. Willie Mays is close, but he was never all that humble about his place in the game. One of my friends suggested the recently passed Tony Gwynn.
     In football, give me Roger Staubach and Emmitt Smith and, yes, two Cowboys' nemesis: Bart Starr and Joe Montana. Football coaches? Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry are obvious, although in each case, lots of people found things to criticize. My personal favorite -- and a favorite of many in Shreveport-Bossier and North Louisiana -- is Lee Hedges.
     In basketball, two old names top my list: Bill Russell and Jerry West. Of course, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird would be many fans' choices; I can make arguments  against them.
     Golf? No question: Arnie and Jack. And from all I've heard and read, Byron Nelson. Fort Worth super scribe Dan Jenkins and others in Fort Worth probably would include Ben Hogan, but I think they'd also tell you he was more aloof and reticent than the others.
     Tennis? My list starts and ends with Arthur Ashe, still so revered. I just don't know enough history of the sports to judge beyond that.
      Ice hockey? No one tops Bobby Orr on my list, although Wayne Gretzky is close. I know one guy who will say Mario Lemieux, and some will say Gordie Howe -- although he did have very sharp elbows.
      Soccer? Well, obviously Pele is the greatest player of all time. But as a recent Sports Illustrated story pointed out, there are those in Brazil who don't regard him as highly these days.
      Muhammad Ali is -- as I've written before -- probably the best-known and most widely popular athlete in the world. But as we found out when I wrote about him a few months ago, there are still many people here in the U.S. unwilling to forgive and forget his 1960s/1970s protest actions.
      I'm sure there are plenty of others I'm forgetting and fields I haven't touched. But for the sake of argument, I've started a list.
       For now, for me, it's enough to give my re2pect to Derek Jeter. He deserves it.                        

Friday, July 11, 2014

A tour of eastern Europe ... a boat ride west

(25th in a series)
    Stuck in a couple of cities in southern Poland, still searching for food and help, Dad (Louis Van Thyn) and some of his fellow ex-concentration camp prisoners needed direction.
    The thought, the goal, always was to return home -- to Antwerp, Belgium, and to the old place in Amsterdam. But the road to get there, the process, was convoluted. They were looking for direction.
    But the direction they received, and that they traveled, had them going east instead of west. It was yet another strange twist near the end of a horrendous five-year period, near the end of World War II and the Holocaust.
    Reasonably sure that he and his fellow ex-prisoners were safe from the Nazis a couple of weeks after leaving the Janina mining camp -- a satellite camp to the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau main camp -- they spent a couple of weeks in Katowice and then Krakow.
    Then it was on to, perhaps inexplicably, a town in Romania -- or so my Dad said -- and then on a boat to Odessa, the then-Russian port on the Black Sea ... and then finally a train back to western Europe.
    By then, after being liberated when the Russian Army came into the Janina camp in mid-January, more than four months had passed. Hitler had taken his own life, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had been captured and hung, and the German Army had surrendered for good.
    And Dad was still searching for home.
    In Krakow, he recalled in 1996 in his taped USC Shoah Foundation testimony, "They say there was a train for us, and gondolas, and they put hay in it, and give us some food, and I don't know where the food came from."
    The next part of the story is confusing to me, and I have no way of clearing it up.
    Dad says his group was taken to a town in Romania. The name of the place -- at least it sounded as if was saying this -- was Czerniowce (Polish spelling) or Czernowitz (German). He said it was "close by Hungary, and we were put in barracks. And that was a Jewish town before the war. Czerniowce was one time Russian."
    I spent a half hour looking at maps of Romania, Hungary and Russia in that time frame -- pre-World War II, during the war and afterward. I Googled for the town name and came up with the town names listed above, but also known as Chernivsi, which was then in the Soviet Union and actually closer to southern Poland -- where Dad & Co. were -- and very close to the Romanian border. But much farther northeast than Hungary. 
    The town is now in western Ukraine; there was a strong Romanian influence in its 1920s-'30s history -- perhaps this is why Dad remembered it as being in Romania -- and it did have a substantial Jewish population (26.8 percent) at a time before the war.
    So I'm not really sure if that's the right place, but good chance. 
    On with the story ...
    "And we find some Jewish people over there, we find some girls," Dad added, "and we stay with the girls over there, and want to take the girls to Odessa, but they no want to leave. Young girls, 18, 19 years old. How they come out of the war we don't know, maar [but] they don't want to go."
    Remember, my Dad and the others had not seen women up close for more than 2 1/2 years. Yes, Dad was married, but the likelihood of his wife having survived was slim.
    "Were they survivors?" the Shoah Foundation interviewer asked Dad.
    "No, they were not in Auschwitz," he answered. "There were many [women] on the train we met in Krakow, many that came from being liberated from Auschwitz. And I saw an old neighbor of mine, a woman, she was coming out of Block 10; she was sent back to Birkenau. Four or five [from Block 10] were there."
    In Czerniowce, he said, "they put us under the command of two military officers from England, and they asked if there were some ex-military, and they signed us all up to become military again (40 or 50 men, he estimated) and put us on the train to Odessa, and we got put in barracks.
That's my Dad, Louis Van Thyn, upper right.
     "We could not go out of the barracks, maar [but] I went out of the barracks; I not stay in the barracks, and go to the town of Odessa. And they gave us Russian Army uniforms. I have a picture of me in a Russian uniform."
    That picture was given to Dad, laminated on a plaque with the following explanation:
    "Jack Frankenhuis, 1924, was liberated in Auschwitz by the Russian Army, January 1945. He was told that there was a ship waiting for him and other survivors in Odessa, Russia, that would bring them back to Western Europe.
    "Jack and many other survivors left Odessa on May 25 on an Australian troopship called Monoway on their way to Marseille, France. This ship had made this trip twice before. On their way back to Odessa they loaded the ship with ex-Russian POWs who were regarded as traitors and were at their arrival at Odessa shot to death.
    "This picture was made right before they left Odessa. Back row to the left, Jules Granda; to the right, Louis Van Thyn; front row to the left, Ab De Hond; to the right, Jack Frankenhuis. Ages: Jules 26, Louis 26, Ab 32, Jack 21.
    "3 of the men are wearing Russian uniforms. They were given to them because the (cq) fought in the Dutch Army against the Germans.
    "The caps they are wearing has the Russian symbol of sickle and hammer."
    That photo/plaque is right here in the room where I'm writing this blog.
    When the boat arrived, Dad recalled for the Shoah Foundation interview, "We got better treatment, too. We were the first on the boat when the boat arrived in Odessa; we got the best cabins on the boat. And there were already civilians, not Jewish people, they had been laborers in Germany, they were there, too."
    Here is an amazing connection I found on the Internet when trying to judge the distance and the time it took to sail from Odessa to Marseille. I found the following on the nzhistory.netnz web site:
    New Zealand has a small connection to the poignant story of Anne Frank, via her father, Otto, and the merchant ship TSS Monowai.
    On 22 April 1945, shortly before the end of the war in Europe, the Monowai sailed from England for Odessa on the Black Sea carrying 1600 Soviet citizens who had been captured serving with the Germans in France. The ship then embarked Jewish Holocaust survivors from Western Europe -- including Otto Frank -- who had been liberated from the Auschwitz death camp by the Soviet army. On 21 May it sailed from Odessa for Marseille, arriving on the 27th.
    In The Footsteps of Anne Frank (1959), Ernst Schnabel wrote that: "The Monowai flew the New Zealand flag, and had come all the way from New Zealand so that a few survivors from Europe could return home." The men slept in hammocks, while the women were accommodated in cabins. Otto was impressed by the ship's comfort, the abundant food and the kindness of its crew.

    A couple of notes: The ship was New Zealand-based, not Australian; the spelling of the ship's name on the photo/plaque and in the New Zealand history are not the same, and the dates of the boat trip don't match. No matter; the stories are similar enough to make the connection of Otto Frank and my father.
    So the boat sailed to Marseille, and Dad had a couple of stories there to tell, too.
    "In Marseille, there was a boy who had a girlfriend, a Russian," he said, "and he smuggled her back on board in a big bag -- you know, a military bag -- and she came back to Holland -- I saw her later on -- and he married her.

    "We go naar [to] Marseille, and they [French authorities] checked to see if there was [Nazi] SS [men]," he said of the people arriving on the boat, "and they find three SS, Dutch SS, in our group and they say [they were] laborers in Germany and they had that mark under their arm, and they arrested them over there."
    Dad is referring to -- according to an Internet search -- to a small black-ink blood group tattoo which all SS members had on the underside of their left arm, usually near the armpit.
    "They were three of the SS, and they were good friends of ours," he said. "We don't know they were SS. ... "
    Back in the freed part of western Europe, Dad was about to return home and he was back among familiar people.
     "The Dutch people [who had been in] England came over there [France] because  Holland was just liberated in May 1945, and we took the train to Paris; I was in my Russian uniform, and in Paris, I come in the English barracks, and they give me an English uniform."
    One of the men who was in Dad's group and on the boat also was from Amsterdam, from the same mostly Jewish neighborhood, also a survivor and possessor of a Russian uniform. His name was Abraham (Appie) van de Kar ... and, yes, I remember him and his wife from my early days in Amsterdam.
    But when they got to Marseille, "We split up already and I lost my friend," Dad recalled. "Then later on in Amsterdam, I saw him [again]."
    This is actually a deep connection because my mother and Appie's wife, Jannie, were in Auschwitz together. Their story is an important part of my mother's Holocaust history.
    "His wife came back [to Amsterdam from Auschwitz," Dad told the interviewer in 1996. "She was in Block 10 and -- my wife go tell you this later -- that was her best friend, and she still write us. Every two weeks we get a letter from her. Her husband [Appie] died three years ago, and he was my friend on the streets and I come together with my wife [because of him] in August 1945."
    Next: Home ... and heartbreak



Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Being a fan -- it's difficult these days

If The Netherlands' national soccer team can celebrate two more victories
-- such as after Saturday's penalty-kick shootout against Costa Rica -- the
World Cup championship will be ours. (Associated Press photo)
     Other than being with my family, especially the grandkids, being a sports fan is how most people know me.
      It's always been that way, some 60 years, and it's still true. But, honestly, it gets harder every day.
      This World Cup of soccer, with my beloved Oranje team -- The Netherlands, my native country -- just two wins from a world championship so long in the making (and waiting), could be my ultimate success as a sports fan. It's certainly the ultimate test of my fandom.
      Attention to my friends who know this phrase because I've used it a thousand times: I've got no guts.
      Nope, I could not watch the last 14 minutes of extra-time play Saturday in the scoreless quarterfinal game against Costa Rica. I sure as heck couldn't watch the penalty-kick shootout. Too nerve-wracking.
      I vowed never again to watch Holland in a penalty-kick shootout in a major competition. I've seen our team go down like that three times, and it's sickening.
      We've also won a couple of shootouts and advanced in competitions, which is nice. But I am on record as saying this repeatedly: A PK shootout is not a good way to settle huge soccer games (or any soccer games, for that matter).
      It is a way, and it does prevent an all-day, all-night battle for someone -- anyone -- to score the one necessary decisive goal, and it does satisfy a limited television time slot. But I say make 'em play until someone scores a legitimate goal (even on a called penalty and PK); put in a rule that each team must take a player off the field every 5 minutes. When it gets to be 9-on-9 or 8-on-8, something is going to get settled.
      I digress. Back to my role -- convoluted role -- as a fan.
      I've been able to watch these World Cup games, but only in a room by myself. Beatrice wants no part of watching the game, or watching me watch the game.
      Same for LSU football; I'm better off just watching by myself, although I sometimes share the game with my favorite LSU fan, my son Jason. But it has become a mostly tense exercise; the Les Miles coaching era at LSU has been more often than not -- and much more often than we like -- a how-did-they-pull-that-off experience.
      I can handle that, though -- barely. I can't handle watching the Dallas Cowboys mess up game after game after game; I've pretty much stopped watching the NFL.
      I still watch enough college football and college basketball to send Bea out of the room, but not as much as I once did.
      I love baseball dearly, I love the New York Yankees dearly. But the minimum 3-hour, sometimes 4-hour games are becoming routine -- and not my routine. For the last 3-4 seasons, I have not watched a dozen games start to finish.
      The NBA is Bea's sports love now. She will watch most Dallas Mavericks' games and playoff games they're not involved in, and she can be as intense about it as I am about my teams. But I can't handle much of the NBA and here is what I admire about Bea. If it's a boring game, or the teams aren't playing up to the standards she likes, she can turn it off and not worry about it.
      She says she is more of a fan of the players and the coaches, and that she doesn't look to them to make her feel like a winner or the illusion of being a winner. She also admits that maybe she's not a true competitor, that competition isn't her thing.
      I can't say that. The competition is still a motivator for me; it always was. My team winning is still important to me. That's silly in a way because there's really not a damn thing I can do to help my team win.
      But to me, this is also being a true sports fan. Suffering is as much part of the game for me as enjoying it. You'd think as I got older, it would be easier -- being retired, no work pressure, a life of relative ease.
      But no.
      Bea is always kidding me, and telling other people, that I'm a better loser than I am a winner. My standard reply: I don't want to be a better loser. Losing still stinks as much as ever. My team losing does not feel as good as my team winning ... surprise, surprise.
      Here is what I have to keep reminding myself: The players on my teams want to win as much as I want them to win. And what I expect, what pleases me win or lose, is teams/players that give the total effort.
      That hasn't always been the case with the Dutch soccer players, but it certainly has been with the lasttwo World Cup teams. Could not ask for greater efforts.
      We (yes, we) have won 11 of our 12 games in these two World Cup, and the only one that went to penalty kicks was the Costa Rica game. The only loss was the tense, tight, rough extra-time championship game against Spain in 2010, a 1-0 result in which the goal came six minutes short of the ultimate PK shootout (for the title).
      That was tough to take; the third time we've lost in the championship game (1974, 1978). But I was so proud of those players and that team. And I'm so proud of these players and this team.
      If we win the championship this time, it's what we've always wanted. If we don't, I'll still be very proud of the team and the country.
      Do we have a great team? Can't say that. We have a gutsy, resilient team. It won't quit. We have a coach whose moves, whose lineup changes, keep working just right.
      Can we beat Argentina -- and one of the world's greatest players, Lionel Messi -- in the semifinals Wednesday? If we do somehow, can we beat the host team and favorite, Brazil, or our greatest nemesis and probably greatest rival, eastern neighbor Germany -- mighty Germany -- in the championship game Sunday?
        Five wins down, two huge steps to go. Our soccer history against Argentina and Brazil indicates we have a good chance. Against Germany, not as much. But bring 'em on.
        We're the least likely of the semifinalists, a 25-1 pre-tournament shot to win the title. We weren't even one of the eight seeded teams. Most everyone expected defending champion Spain, the team we wiped out 5-1 in group play in our first game this tournament 3 1/2 weeks ago, to be the semifinalist in our spot.
          Heck, yes, we've been lucky. We've been behind in three of our five games; Spain almost had a 2-0 lead on us, which would've been hard to overcome because Spain was still the great power then. We almost lost to a so-so Australian team. We made a late two-goal comeback against Mexico.  We survived the PK shootout because our late-game substitute goalie, Tim Krul, made two saves of Costa Rica kicks.
            But, no question, we outplayed Costa Rica most of the 120 minutes, had many more chances to score. It takes luck to advance in this sport.
            It also takes a lot of patience, if you're a fan. I've seen enough posts from American sports fans who can't watch soccer because they don't think it's exciting and they don't have that patience to wait for the one -- or two -- critical moments in these games.
            I am a fan, but I am a nervous fan, and my patience only goes so far. I stop watching because I hate to see the other team score a last-minute goal (especially if it's been dominated as much as Costa Rica was). And my patience certainly does not include penalty-kick shootouts involving Holland.
            OK, no guts. I know it's just a game, and life will go on and my family is my real joy. But I care; I want my team(s) to win, and I will pull for them -- positively -- as much as I can. Proud to do it. But it's not as easy as it once was.   

Friday, July 4, 2014

The hero of my first book in the USA

One of the great moments at Yankee Stadium on July 4,
1939 -- Lou Gehrig hugged by Babe Ruth. (
      Happy Fourth of July and happy Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day.
      This is, as you might have heard or read the past couple of days, the 75th anniversary of the tribute to Lou Gehrig at Yankee Stadium and the immortal speech he gave that day -- one of baseball's most famous events.
      Almost at the start, he said the words the baseball world remembers: "... today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth."
      This week, a couple of friends have sent me either the entirety of the speech (which I will add below) or links to it, and I have seen a half-dozen Facebook posts about it, too.
       It was a very short speech, but a poignant and powerful one -- and one from a man who, by accounts I've read, was a vanilla, straight-laced personality ... much the opposite of his more famous Yankees teammate. Babe Ruth was an overpowering, flamboyant figure -- on the field and off. Gehrig was almost as big a star on the field, but with a quiet, workmanlike demeanor.
       I decided almost 57 years ago that Lou Gehrig would be one of my heroes for all time.
       Mickey Mantle was my favorite Yankees player of my boyhood and young adulthood, and my favorite forever. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are the heroes of my 50s/60s years.
       There were lots of Yankees first basemen in my lifetime I rooted for: Bill "Moose" Skowron, even Mantle for a few years, Joe Pepitone, Chris Chambliss, Don Mattingly, Tino Martinez, Jason Giambi and now Mark Teixeira.
       But the best Yankees first baseman ever? They retired that designation at the same time Mr. Gehrig's No. 4 became the first number retired in baseball history.
       Still, I have a personal reason why Gehrig was special: The first book I read completely in the United States -- not counting the learn-to-read primers -- was a kids biography on Lou Gehrig.
       I was born six years after Lou died. I did not know anything about him or the New York Yankees when I came to the U.S. in January 1956. Even though I became a Yankees fan that year, I still did not know much about their history or about Gehrig until a year later.
      Here's a reason why: I couldn't read English all that well, other than the first- and second-grade primers.
       But by the fall of 1957, when I began fifth grade in Mrs. Cooper's class in room 6E at Sunset Acres Elementary, I could read well enough and what fascinated me most in the little library in that classroom was the biographies of famous Americans.
       So I read about the childhood days of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Helen Keller, George Washington Carver, Babe Ruth ... and Lou Gehrig.
       I loved Gehrig's story the most, read it three or four times, as I remember.
       He was left-handed, his parents were immigrants who barely spoke English, he loved sports and he was a dutiful son (maybe this is the one part that didn't exactly fit me). Oh, and he was a great athlete (I didn't have that in common with him, either).
       But I loved his story, except of course for the tragic end. And a couple of years later, when my Dad purchased a long-play record of great moments in sports broadcasting, Gehrig's speech was one of my favorite numbers.
       And while we're on favorite numbers, Gehrig's uniform number was 4. Which is why I wore No. 4 when I first played on a team in the late 1950s. (Only made it better that my favorite Shreveport Sports player of that era, second baseman Lou Klimchock, in the 1959 season also wore No. 4.
       The Fourth of July obviously has had great meaning in the U.S. since 1776. If you're a Yankees fan, you probably realized it also meant the birthday of our Yankee Doodle Dandy, the blustery team owner/bully, George M. Steinbrenner III. One year, 1983, it meant a no-hitter pitched by Dave Righetti against the Red Sox at Yankee Stadium -- the first no-hitter by a Yankee since Don Larsen's perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
       But mostly, every year since 1939, it meant Gehrig, his "day" and his speech.
       It came only weeks after he could play no more, after he took himself out of the lineup and ended his "untouchable" record of 2,130 consecutive games played (Cal Ripken Jr. made it touchable in 1995), after it was obvious to all around him that something physically was dreadfully wrong.
       No one knew much then about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is now commonly called Lou Gehrig's Disease. We all know now, it's fatal. We still don't have a cure. When I think of this loss of the central nervous system, and its debilitating effects, I think of Gehrig and Jim "Catfish" Hunter and our high school/college friend Larry Alexander. And it's so sad.
       Gehrig's story, his devotion to his parents and his wife, his brilliant baseball career and the disease that ended it and then his life a little less than two years after July 4, 1939, was told in the movie The Pride of the Yankees, released a year after his death.
       Babe Ruth plays himself in the movie, but the script doesn't touch the fractious relationship of the two great stars in their latter years with the Yankees (they were good friends at first, but Ruth's often outrageous behavior dismayed the Gehrig family.) Several other Yankees are in it, too.
       I've seen the movie several times, and I know a lot of people love it. Frankly, I think -- and I've read this -- it's corny, cheesy, trite, whatever. Gary Cooper stars in it and he doesn't look much like a ballplayer.
        One of my memories of it is one of the stars is a young Walter Brennan, who plays -- I believe -- a sportswriter (no laughs, please). We remember Walter mostly as the cranky old, limping, wisecracking grandpa on The Real McCoys in the late 1950s/early '60s.         
        But, no question, near the end, where Gary Cooper gives the famous speech, can bring tears. That's not corny or trite.
        "Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.
        "Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn't consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I'm lucky. Who wouldn't consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball's greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I'm lucky.
        "When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift -- that's something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies -- that's something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter -- that's something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body - it's a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed -- that's the finest I know.
        "So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for."
        Lou Gehrig was a hero for all time. I've known that for years.