Friday, April 27, 2012

Dr. Hunt delivered for Byrd

     In 1963 and 1964, Gene Hunt was the "other" quarterback in the Byrd-Woodlawn football rivalry.
     Which isn't fair to say because Hunt also was the winning quarterback in those games.
Byrd: The old-Line school.
      But Trey Prather of Woodlawn was the big name, and in 1964 was the Class AAA All-State QB in Louisiana and a prime LSU recruit.
      Gene Hunt had to settle for leading the team that ruined Woodlawn's perfect record. Which was fine with him.
       He won no all-star honors and wouldn't play college football. But for toughness and leadership and willing his team to victory, there were few quarterbacks better in the '60s in Shreveport-Bossier than Gene Hunt. Anyone who could beat Trey Prather twice had to be good.
Woodlawn: In 1960, it was the new frontier.
      All these years I'd wondered what became of him; friends told me he was a doctor. Finally found him; he is now Dr. Gene Hunt, an OB-GYN in Dallas for nearly three decades. Called him, and as we talked, the memories came back. Beating Woodlawn was a big deal.
         "It was our finest moment," he said of the '64 game. "It was the 'Game of the Year,' they were unbeaten, we were good, and we knew it was going to be for the [District 1-AAA] championship. ... And I was selected as player of the week [by The Shreveport Times] after that game."
        As if Byrd needed any motivation -- I know we didn't -- a letter was posted on the bulletin board in the Byrd dressing room.
      "This was supposed to be from someone supporting Woodlawn," Hunt said, laughing. "It said we were pantywaist, I was lame and 'Jogger' (Johnson, running back) was nothing. That was a deal we never forgot."
       Somehow, I suspect that letter came from Nicky Lester, Byrd's defensive line/linebackers coach and chief motivator in those years. But, heck, coach Jerry Adams was known to write the same type letter at Woodlawn.
        Woodlawn-Byrd was an almost instant football rivalry after Woodlawn opened in the fall of 1960. Beginning in 1961 through the end of the decade, the matchup at State Fair Stadium drew at least 20,000 fans each year -- by far, the biggest crowds of the season in North Louisiana.
         It was the game we at Woodlawn thought about every day of the year, the one win we wanted more than any. We would have to wait six long years. We heard "Good Night, Knights" much too often.
         The differences in the schools were part of the rivalry.
        C.E. Byrd was the old school; many of its students were from the affluent parts of town, kids whose parents were doctors, lawyers, businessmen, white-collar people, Shreveport's civic leaders. The school -- "The City of Byrd" -- had a great tradition of excellence, in academics and in athletics.
      Everyone, every school wanted to beat Byrd
      My Woodlawn friends are not going to want to read this: Byrd was a great school.
     But so was Woodlawn. We were the new school, the city's first public high school to open since Fair Park in 1932. We had a beautiful sparkling facility in Sherwood Park, out in southwest Shreveport. We were much like Fair Park; most of our kids were from working-class homes, the "other side of the tracks" from Byrd.
      We had some kids with money and we had a bunch of smart kids. We had a togetherness, a spirit, we thought was unmatched. It would only grow through the '60s.
      But to begin with, we had no athletic tradition, and for the first part of the '60s, in football, as Jerry Byrd used to say, "All Byrd had to do was roll those purple helmets out there ..."
       In successive years, Byrd beat Woodlawn 52-6, 26-0, 10-0, 14-7, 14-7. The 1961 Woodlawn team -- "The Team Named Desire" -- followed a winless season with a Cinderella-type season that produced a totally surprising district championship. But Byrd spoiled the Knights' 6-0 start with that 26-0 rout before the first of those 20,000-plus crowds.
       The next three games were all defensive battles. Each time, Byrd -- with its depth and its size (it was always one of the biggest teams anyone would play) -- wore down the smaller Woodlawn teams.
       Unlike Prather, Hunt was not much of a passer. Didn't need to be; Byrd mostly kept the ball on the ground, using its big offensive line and backs and its "Student Body Sweep" to pound on opposing defenses.
        Hunt was often part of that sweep as a lead blocker. If you saw a Woodlawn QB blocking anyone, it was probably a broken play. But what Gene could do was make plays with his feet, and against Woodlawn, he made some critical runs in the '63 and '64 games.
        The Byrd defense, meanwhile, stopped Woodlawn's running game just enough every year and kept the pressure on the QBs to disrupt what usually was an effective passing game. In two years, Prather managed one TD against Byrd -- on a pass of about 60 yards to Gerald Burnett right down the middle of the field late in the '64 game. By then, Byrd had a 14-0 lead.
        Gene remembers that he'd never had a conversation with Trey until the summer before their senior year. "I knew he was a bootleg passer, and he was good," Gene said, all these years later. "I respected the heck out of him; I knew he was a good athlete in several sports."
        They finally met because Palais Royal, a department store in Shreveport-Bossier, created an advertising/PR campaign featuring the local high school quarterbacks. So Gene, Trey and Jimmy Gilbert of Bossier were to meet on a Saturday for photos and to receive slacks and shirts to wear in store appearances that summer and fall.
       "I didn't want to do it," Gene recalled. "We had been taught that those guys were the enemy. ... I wanted not to like him [Trey], but he -- and those other guys -- were such good guys."
        The series domination turned in 1965. A Woodlawn team that had struggled for three weeks found itself against Byrd, which was having a down year. Terry Bradshaw, Tommy Spinks and their teammates did little wrong, and the 39-0 victory was the long-awaited one. That game ball, with the details written on it, is displayed in coach Lee Hedges' living room today.
      That Woodlawn team went on to the state championship game.
      Woodlawn won the next four meetings, too, none of them close, and won or shared district championship five years in a row. Byrd declined, with new Captain Shreve opening in 1967 and taking some of its students.
       There's a nice postscript. Gene Hunt went to Baylor to begin his college education in pre-med. He didn't play football, but after his freshman year, he missed playing. He went to Baylor coach John Bridgers to ask for a chance to try out in spring training.
       Baylor had one of the best passing games in the South, along with Florida State. Baylor had recruited Prather and Bradshaw, who would have fit well into that offense. Hunt knew he'd have a lot to learn.
      "Coach Bridgers knew who I was because they [Baylor] had recruited in Shreveport," Gene said. "But he knew I wasn't a passer. Still, he encouraged me to get in shape and come out."
     Wanting a quick education in the passing game, Gene called Lee Hedges, who by this time in early 1966 had left Woodlawn to join Coach Joe Aillet's staff at Louisiana Tech as an offensive assistant.
      "He [Hedges] invited me to come to Ruston to talk," Gene said. "Went over there and he talked to me for an hour, an hour and a half. He went over the technique involved in throwing the ball; he talked about the timing between the quarterback and the receivers, the precise routes and the delivery of the pass; three- and seven-step drops ... all these things that we didn't have at all at Byrd. We were just rough and tough; our pass routes were simple.
      "I'm sitting listening to him, and I'm thinking if we'd had some precision like this, if I'd had this guy coaching me, I might've done something as a passer."
       Hunt didn't stay with football, but continued on the path to a medical career. In about 1987, he was a resident doctor at a Dallas hospital when he was reminded of another ex-Woodlawn great.
     "One of my fellow doctors came in and said, 'Terry Bradshaw is here; his wife is about to have their first baby,' he recalled. "He said, "I know you played football in Shreveport; you probably know him. You should go say hello.' "
     Gene had been a speaker at a church function at which Bradshaw was singing with the choir years before, but they hadn't talked. But he had never met him. Bradshaw, by now an NFL analyst on TV, was at the hospital with the legendary Verne Lundquist, his first broadcast partner at CBS.
      "I'm ashamed to tell this," Hunt said, "but the old Woodlawn-Byrd thing came up. I couldn't do it; I couldn't go talk to him. I never did go out there."
     But there's a nice postscript. Some years later, Gene Hunt was in Washington, D.C., for a doctors' conference. He wanted to see the Vietnam Memorial Wall, and did.
     "There was only one name on there I wanted to see -- Trey Prather," he said. "That was a guy I knew; that was a guy I played against."              


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Her name is Rachel

Rachel, age 4
    On April 25, 1979 -- 33 years ago today -- Beatrice presented me with the greatest gift I have ever received.
     Rachel Nicole Van Thyn was born that day. When the nurses put her in my arms, it was the best moment of my life. (Tied for second place: The three days in recent years when I first held my grandchildren.)
     She is now Rachel Smith -- a wife, a mother, a daughter-in-law, a middle school librarian, a talented scrapbooker and photographer, an artsy person, loves Glee and Disney World and Facebook and PinInterest, sometimes drinks beer and/or wine (oh, my).
     I assure you that our world revolves around her and her older brother, Jason, and their families.
      We named her after my mother's mother, Rachel Kopuit Lopes-Dias. The Nicole part was Bea's idea (but I liked it).
      She came out a strawberry blonde, a little surprise because we thought she might be dark-haired. She was very blonde as a little girl, and very precocious. Her first word was "light," and she pointed to it. Very soon she was pointing at the "copters, copters" when we lived near the air base in Hawaii.
      Her mother put her in printed, flowery dresses -- and Rachel adorned them with strings of beads, many beads. She loved stuffed animals, and had a bunch. Boppy was her favorite, and shared her bed. At 3, she sometimes walked up to people and said, "Hi, my name is Rachel."
      Pinwheel was her first TV show; she loved Aurelia and Plus and Minus. Later she got us hooked on Happy Days and Quantum Leap. Her room was usually a mess; told to clean it, she invariably would take everything off the shelves, pile it in mid-floor, and start over.
     She was born long after the '60s, but she caught Beatlemania. She had all the Babysitters Club books, and her favorite movie -- must've watched it a thousand times -- was Dirty Dancing (again, oh, my). But she loved Rainman, too, and Aladdin and The Lion King.
The grown-up Rachel.
    She could recite almost every word of those moves. But she could do that even when she was very young, and she could "read" books and memorize them. When she was in the play Snow White in first grade, she knew everyone's lines, and kept prompting the other kids.
       For her 8th birthday, she asked for a cat. Kitty, a talkative, cuddly and big Siamese with a deep voice, stayed with us for 16 years through four states. He joined Boppy on her bed most nights. Rachel and Kitty loved each other.
       Her sports career lasted one soccer season. She picked flowers and daydreamed while others played. When she was about 9, she wrote a poem that began, "Sports, sports, is all I hear; sports, sports, every time I'm near ..."
       Nice. (I have the poem in the drawer next to our bed.)
        She had to endure many an hour while her brother played soccer -- for 11 years, in Louisiana and then Florida. She had a tough time in junior high with braces, implants and a strange allergy,  causing her to miss multiple days of school.
         Fortunately, got past that. I'm partial, yes, but she's beautiful. She always was.
         From the time she was young, she was talkative, articulate, could visualize things and draw. She tested into advanced classes in upper elementary, was an uninspired student in junior high -- she had lots to overcome with a sometimes hectic situation at home -- and came into her own after moving to Bearden High School in Knoxville as a junior. She had to go through two moves, five schools in nine years.
         But she went to the University of Tennessee, and her sharp mind kicked in. Although she took a one-semester break to work as an intern at Disney World in Orlando (and she loved it), she made nothing but A's until her final semester, a summa cum laude graduate, major in English Literature.
        She wasn't ready to teach, so she went to work ... in retail. She flitted from job to job, happy for a while and then not. But she met a lot of nice people and made a lot of friends.       And finally, she met the guy. He lived in the apartment complex right next to her. He was tall and dark (and I'll let Rachel and Bea and Laughlin, the guy's mother, add the handsome part).
        So her dad was a sports writer, and maybe she resented sports, but Russell Smith was -- is -- a sports talk radio host in Knoxville. He's also a musician and a Vols fan and -- like Rachel -- loves Disney World.
          On June 4, 2005, Bea and I walked Rachel down the aisle. Talk about a proud moment.
The trip down the aisle with our baby.
          Some 2 1/2 years later, Rachel and Russell presented us with Josephine Nicole Smith.
       I don't know any mother who is more conscientious than Rachel. Not perfect, but she tries to be. That little girl is the center of her world -- and ours. Just like her two cousins, Jacob and Kaden Key.
       The Smiths, Laughlin and Dr. Joe, have treated Rachel like their own daughter (Russell is the oldest of three boys). It was Laughlin, a high school geometry teacher, who pushed Rachel to go back to U. of Tennessee for her master's degree in library sciences. After two-plus years, Rachel got it done -- again with almost all A's. And fortunately, a job came open -- at the last moment before the start of the school year -- at Carter Middle School in Strawberry Plains, Tenn.
       Rachel was a bit scared and apprehensive going in. But her talent and personality took over; she's fit in well. It's still a learning process, but she's grown into it. She's neat and organized, takes pride in her library, and is still learning to teach her classes. Who knows where she goes from here, but we have a lot of confidence in her, and so do others.
       She is close with her mother, and she has taught Bea and me so much about life. We hope she feels the same about us. She is still our little girl, but -- as she used to say when she was very young -- she's "all growed up."

Monday, April 23, 2012

Shreveport's First Family

    At Shreveport-Bossier's 29th annual Holocaust Remembrance Service on Sunday night, Ron Nierman presented an emotional tribute to my parents. It was well done, and we much appreciate it.
    Because they were Holocaust survivors -- but not the only ones in the city -- the service was always special for our family. And my mother was featured -- either making a speech or reading her poetry -- almost every year of the first 27 services.
The Gilbert family, with my mother on her final birthday.
    Last year was the first year without her presence; the fourth year without my father. But as Ron pointed out, their stories -- and the memories they left -- should be carried on at this service.
    That Ron would be the one speaking about my folks isn't a surprise. He wrote beautiful tributes for each of their memorial services. He knew them as well as anyone.
    It is appropriate, too, because he is a grandson of Abe A. Gilbert and Rae Gilbert, and he is part of the extended Gilbert family. In our eyes, they are the First Family of Shreveport. That's how much they mean to us. 
  Among those at Sunday's service were 91-year-old Pauline Murov and 88-year-old Ruth Nierman -- the Gilberts' daughters. They are the family matriarchs, still bright, still active ... and still generous.
     I look at them, and it takes me back many years because Ruth looks exactly like their dad; Pauline looks exactly like their mother.
    When plans were made to have dinner with Ron and wife Jackie, and Helaine (the Niermans'  daughter) and son-in-law Bill Braunig, Pauline and Ruthie said that "if you'll let us come, too, we'll pay for the dinner." That was a deal.
      And then they good-naturedly argued about where Pauline's car was parked. They're still feisty, too.
       Ron and Bill now run A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply, where my dad worked for 28 years. But he didn't just work; we became part of the family.
       Mr. Gilbert didn't provide the Shreveport Jewish Federation with the original sponsor money that helped bring us from Holland to the United States. That was someone else. He did offer to provide a job.
       My dad knew nothing of oilfield pipe, and he didn't speak much English. He would learn, but it would take time. The start was difficult.
        The outcome of our lives in Shreveport and the U.S. is a heckuva success story. But we owe Mr. Gilbert and his family a great deal of thanks. They became our true sponsors.
     On the Sunday of our first weekend in Shreveport, my dad asked for directions on how to find the pipeyard on Mansfield Road. He wanted to see it and know he could get there to start work the next day. We were told to take the Line Avenue bus that ran just a block away from our new little duplex on Jordan Street.
      Off we went. In a strange new place, the bus ride seemed to take forever ... like we were going to the end of the world.
      We exited the bus at Mansfield Road and Kings Highway, and walked to the pipeyard from there. It was perhaps about a quarter mile, but again it seemed like a long, long walk to an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old (my sister). After we saw the yard -- with stacks and stacks of pipe -- we walked back, then took the bus ride home.
       My dad went to work as a laborer with the crew -- loading pipe, cleaning pipe. It wasn't what he imagined. After a few weeks, he told Mr. Gilbert -- and the Shreveport Jewish Federation -- he wanted to look for something else.
        He became a carpenter's apprentice, or so he thought. Again, it didn't work out. Perhaps the language barrier got in the way. On to a new job.
      By now, someone in Shreveport had told us of a Dutch native who worked in town. Ed Vandenberg was a plasterer who lived outside Arkadelphia, Ark., but was working on the Beck Building then being constructed. He and a daughter, Janet, in her early 20s, worked in Shreveport during the week and went home on weekends. They would become our first good friends in this country.
     Ed helped line up a job for my dad on the Beck Building construction crew; just a cleanup-type job. My dad didn't like that much, either.
      And here came a critical point. My dad went back to Mr. Gilbert, asked for another chance. Mr. Gilbert, with his sons-in-law Lazar Murov and Neal Nierman helping run the business, decided they would teach my dad -- his English somewhat better -- the insides of the business, aiming to make him a foreman.
      The rest is sweet history. Not only did they take him back, soon they provided him a car. And many cars over the rest of the 28 years. And gasoline, repairs, bonuses, time off, time to attend sports events when they just happened to coincide with where he needed to look at some pipe (amazing how often that happen).
      He rewarded them with hard work. He traveled thousands of miles to look at pipe, recommend  whether the business make a purchase, get the crew to load the pipe on trucks, paid the fines for overloads, did many favors for people who needed second-hand pipe for various reasons, and helped run the yard at home.
      The Gilberts gave us our first TV, helped us buy our first home just a year and a half later, treated my mother and Elsa and me like we were their own.
       When Mr. Gilbert passed away in 1966, Mr. Murov became head of the business (Mr. Nierman had gone back to dealing in investment and stockbroking -- his first love). Eventually the business passed to Ron and Bill, who became my dad's best young friends and, at his request, were pallbearers at his funeral.
       (There's another neat connection to the Gilberts; they were longtime Fort Worth residents. Bea and I have lived in the area near TCU for the past six years. Before they came to Shreveport in 1950, Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert, Pauline and Ruth lived in this very neighborhood; the girls graduated from Paschal High School.)
      There were lots and lots of people who greatly enriched the Van Thyns' lives, and I hope to write about more of them soon. But all the Gilbert family is at the top of the list, and their love has never diminished. To be thought of as part of their family is indeed a privilege.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

A thank-you note (revisited)

  No column I've written received more attention than the one that appeared in the Shreveport Journal on April 21, 1984 -- 28 years ago today. It was entitled "A thank-you note."
   The subject matter was Louis Van Thyn -- my dad.
   There are still times when someone mentions that column. It was written a week after he retired from work, after 28 years at A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply in Shreveport. He would turn 65 in a couple of months.
    He would live another 24 years, and he was thoroughly happy in retirement -- stayed busy with volunteer work, and travel, and accompanying my mother on her many Holocaust education speaking engagements. He also loved to piddle, and watch his soap operas (yes, it's true) and his soccer games, and wrestling, and go to his coffee groups.
     I didn't tell anyone I was going to write the column, didn't ask for permission (hope it was OK, Stanley) and it appeared in a Saturday afternoon edition on a day when I worked sports alone. So no one proofread the piece.
    And here is why I mention that: I first wrote it in third person -- as if someone else was talking about my dad and I. When I was done, I decided to change it for first person, and I did. But I left one third-person reference (didn't matter that much, but I knew there was a typo of sorts in there).
     Here is a reprint of that column -- the corrected version -- with the same photo that appeared that day.


     To our kids, he is Opa, the common name for grandfather in Europe. To the kids and young adults who play soccer locally, he is Mr. Ref.
     You have to know him to know why, at age 64, he wants to spend parts of Saturdays and Sundays officiating soccer games. This is the game of his youth, the game he played in the streets of Amsterdam so many years ago. So he loves doing it. He always has and always will.
     Now his grandson plays the game and Opa proudly watches. Or sometimes he proudly referees -- a source of debate within the family. But even his critical son will admit that he does a better job of officiating the kids than most others who try it.

Louis Van Thyn
     His uniform now is grey shirt with white collar, black shorts (or long pants, if the weather is cool) and often flashy white shoes, even though the officials' manual says they're supposed to be black.
     There was another uniform -- a blue one -- that he wore about 30 years ago when he played city-league basketball in the Old Country. The boy who accompanied him to those games was starting a lifetime of involvement in sports -- and later sportswriting.
      Opa wasn't an athlete of note. But he played soccer, he played basketball, he ran track ... he competed.
      He introduced his son to all this and from the time I was old enough to understand, I absorbed it. The radio brought us Holland playing international soccer matches and the first television event I can remember is a 1953 Holland vs. Belgium soccer game.
      (Twenty-one years later, we were watching together on closed-circuit television when Holland, for so long a pushover in soccer, had the greatest team in the world. And tears came to our eyes when the Dutch national anthem, Wilhelmus, was played just before the final game of the World Cup.)
      Maybe Opa's love for sports was a diversion for tough times. He never had things easy growing up; he wasn't poor, but his family struggled. And like millions of others of his generation and his faith, he was caught in the greatest injustice of the 20th century.
      He suffered incredibly, but -- unlike the rest of his family -- he survived it. It scarred him deeply, but he rarely talked about it.
      But he was tough. He and Oma gave up all their friends and most of the things they possessed for a new start in a new country across the ocean. If that didn't take guts, what did?
     And that first year in Shreveport was such a struggle. The language barrier was immense, keeping a job was tough. But he didn't give up -- how could he? Oma and two kids were counting on him. And a wonderful family came to his rescue, gave him a job at a pipeyard on Mansfield Road, and from there he found his place in the community.
    That year, too, was our introduction to baseball. We found our way to Texas League Park, Ken Guettler was hitting 62 home runs for the Shreveport Sports, and so our love affair with sports grew.
     Unfortunately, Opa's son also was no athlete of note -- two years of batting .000 in Junior B was proof. But there was the night when I caught -- stumbled into is a better description -- the last fly-ball out of a victory for my team. (Of course, I was playing right field, where they tried to hide the team's worst player.) And Opa ran out and carried me off the field on his shoulders.
     Soon I moved to keeping scorebooks and handing out equipment. But Opa stayed involved. When the Oak Terrace Junior High faculty formed a basketball team, he sneaked in as "The Flying Dutchman." At age 41, he could still fire those funny-looking two-handed set shots. Some of them even went in.
    Then in the mid-1960s, Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech didn't have a bigger fan than Opa. Funny thing how often he happened to be inspecting pipe in Monroe or Lafayette or Thibodaux or anywhere the Knights or Bulldogs were playing at the time.
     Maybe I didn't tell him often enough, but I appreciated his being there. Even now, I'm amazed at the friends he made. Proud, too, when people ask about him. And that happens often.
      Last Friday, The Old Man stopped working, retired. They threw a little party for him at work and it was hard to keep from crying when one of the men recalled that "we brought him in to work for us for three weeks; he stayed 28 years."
     And so this summer Oma and Opa will travel again in Europe, beginning and ending, of course, in the small country where they spent half a lifetime, where they have so many memories -- good and bad.
    This father-son relationship often has been difficult, not uncommon for concentration camp survivors, I learned recently. But there's no questioning our Opa's love. Here is a man who is always ready at a moment's notice to fix anything broken in our house, to smooth over his son's ignorance of anything mechanical, to help us move our belongings, even if it means driving a truck 550 miles round-trip. He gets involved in civic organizations and his synagogue. He spends generously -- too generously -- on his kids and grandkids, both with his time and money.
     His son is sorry for the many times he's lost patience with him, for things he's said and done in anger. But he knows Opa always had his best interest at heart and, thanks to journalistic license, he has a chance to put into print what he's had trouble saying face to face.
    Thanks, Dad. I love you.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Shreveport, 1956

     Amsterdam is a busy, congested international city, gateway to western Europe -- and it was home to our Van Thyn and Lopes-Dias families for several generations.
      Until January, 1956. And then home became Shreveport, Louisiana, USA ... the laid-back Deep South personified. It wasn't a huge place -- a small city, I suppose.
      It was a long way from Amsterdam. And to us Dutch immigrants, it was strange. Nearly everything was strange. That was a feeling that lasted a few months.
      In Amsterdam, there were bicycles everywhere. Here there were cars everywhere; bicycles, it seemed, only at schools. We'd never owned a car; in Holland, at that time, that was a luxury. We traveled everywhere by train or even more by bicycle, even on vacations -- to the beach every year; to Arnhem, all the way across the country. I rode with dad; Elsa rode with mom.
A Shreveport trolley in the late 1950s/early 1960s.
      In Shreveport, no streetcars, and I missed them -- my dad had been a streetcar driver my whole life. Here there were buses, and more noticeably, trolleys, with those extended antennas overhead in contact with electric lines (strange).
     In Amsterdam, we went to the market for groceries almost every day; our market was right around the corner, so my mother bought something fresh daily. Here there were grocery stores -- the A&P a few blocks away -- with grocery baskets, and shelves lined with all sorts of items. We didn't have a refrigerator or icebox in Holland; here, it was a necessity.
       No televisions in Amsterdam that I'd ever seen. Here you had to have a TV. We didn't for the first couple of months; invited by our neighbors, we would go to the other side of the duplex. First thing I remember seeing was the Friday night fights; my dad loved boxing. Gillette sponsored those fights (remember the Gillette jingle: To look sharp, and to feel sharp, too, get the razor that was made for you ...)
      Until we came to America, I recall seeing a TV only once in Holland. We were on vacation in a little place called Breda, and my dad and I went into a restaurant for a snack. There, in October 1953, was a TV showing the Holland-Belgium soccer game from Rotterdam. I was fascinated -- by the game and the TV. (And we, the Dutch, won the game 1-0.)
       The weather, even in January, seemed fairly mild, compared to Amsterdam, where it was cold, snowy and rainy for all but a couple of months. We wouldn't know until that summer how really hot it got in Shreveport. (But we loved that, my mother and I did. She did not like cold weather at all.)
        Mostly for us, the biggest problem at first was language. Not sure how we managed. My mother was working hard to learn to speak English; it didn't come as easily for my dad. But both went to English Second Language lessons often in those early days. I picked it up more easily from the kids at school and as I was learning to read (I was a third-grader, but started with those "see Jane run; run Jane run" first-grade books).
      And then there was this: Lots of people whose skin was darker than ours. I am not writing this section for laughs or with any disrespect. But to see black people was a revelation.
      Honestly, I don't remember seeing many -- or any -- black people in Holland in the early 1950s. OK, I was 8, so maybe I wasn't paying attention. Again not for laughs, but the only black people I recall there were people accompanying St. Nicholas on his arrival or appearances in early December; people whose faces, hands and legs were painted with coal black.
       In Shreveport, in the Deep South, the Jim Crow days were still in full force. We noticed right away, these people were always sitting in the back of the bus, they had separate restrooms from white people, they had separate drinking fountains, separate waiting rooms at the bus or train stations, separate doctors' offices, they couldn't sit at the counters in restaurants. They were deferential to whites in so many ways.
      When this was explained to my mother, she was appalled. She was disgusted. She, at times, was furious.
      My parents had seen discrimination -- religious discrimination -- up close and very personal. It had deeply tainted their lives.
      I can tell you that I saw my mother debate people on the matter of segregation on many occasions, and she didn't give in on her argument.
      My dad was more moderate in his approach, but he felt the same way. He had gone to work at A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply on the Mansfield Road, first as a yard worker with a crew of black people. He would become the crew's foreman, but he respected them as people, he knew how hard many of them worked and how genuine they could be.
     I learned some lessons there. My views were different from most of the kids at my school, and there were reasons for that. Sure, my attitude was strange to those other kids, but America was strange to me.
      Soon: More Shreveport, 1956  

Saturday, April 14, 2012

"The Blond Bomber" a bright star, then and now

One of my favorite Sports Illustrated covers:
The No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, 1970
    A guy I worked with at two newspapers -- one in Florida, one in Texas -- often contended that Terry Bradshaw "was the most overrated quarterback in NFL history."
    Uh, I think I disagreed with him.
    Andy -- let's call him Andy -- based his view on (1) Bradshaw's statistics didn't measure up to some of the game's greats and (2) Bradshaw played on great teams that made him look better than he was.
     OK, fine. Yes, Terry's passing accuracy wasn't always sharp. Yes, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s were tremendous in almost every way.
     And there is no way -- as our 3-year-old grandson Jacob often says -- no way, the Steelers would have won those four Super Bowls (and lost none) without Terry Bradshaw at quarterback.
      It's no accident Terry was the first Super Bowl QB in history with a 4-0 record. Maybe he was just one of the guys in the Steelers' first Super Bowl win in the 1974 season. But somebody threw those long passes Lynn Swann caught in the next Super Bowl, and Terry was the game MVP in the last two Super Bowls he played in.
       Here's how I feel about him: He's the best athlete I ever covered.
       Plus, he was one of the most fun guys to be around -- from junior high through high school and college. He was always outgoing and upbeat, loose and kind of crazy funny. And not malicious at all.
       Those of us in school with him -- at Oak Terrace, Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech -- could always see the potential. In my case, I was a year ahead of him, but it didn't take long to see that the tall, thin guy with the snow-white flattop could throw a football harder than anyone else.  Much harder. Even harder than our starting quarterback, Trey Prather -- and Trey could throw it.
        I found out real quick not to try to catch balls from Terry in warmups. He didn't ease up, even for 5-foor-2, 115-pound team managers.
        For nine years, it was my great fortune -- mine, and many more people in Shreveport and North Louisiana -- to watch Terry Bradshaw play football. 
      He had a lot of setbacks ... two broken collarbones in junior high, two years of waiting behind Trey Prather -- an All-State quarterback -- to play on the Woodlawn varsity, struggles to run the correct plays sent in by coaches during games, a loss and a tie in games early in his senior season (because the inexperienced junior-laden defense couldn't stop opponents).
     And there was this: The perception, the kids' perception, was that Terry wasn't very bright. That would follow him for a long, long time ... into college, into the NFL. (We know now how very wrong that was.)     
      But, oh, that potential. We saw it first-hand in his junior year, in a varsity game against West Monroe at (then) State Fair Stadium. I can see the pass now, sailing high and arched perfectly 60 yards in the air, right in Tom Hagin's hands on the right sideline headed north (toward Fair Park High, for those who remember the stadium setup). Touchdown.
     It was a pass for the ages. We ran that play back on film over and over the next day and next week, disbelieving.
     His senior year was full of achievements: His 21 TD passes set a state record; the team went 11-2-1 and played for the state championship; he was the QB who finally delivered Woodlawn's long-awaited first win over arch-rival Byrd, and it was 39-0; he found a receiver, his best friend Tommy Spinks, who made All-State and would be his go-to guy for the next five years. 
     As a javelin thrower in the spring of '66, he set the national record ... repeatedly, despite an elbow injury that often limited him to one throw per meet. He made Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd," and Michael Landon -- then the very popular Little Joe of Bonanza -- came to Woodlawn for a visit with him.         
     Terry signed to play at La. Tech, then signed to play at LSU. He wound up at Tech, and his story was that he purposely tanked the entrance exam to LSU. 
     He struggled, too, at Tech the first two years. Again, that perception (not bright). But once he found himself, in the middle of his junior year, he was unbelievable. Think it wasn't fun to chart his statistics (which was my job)?
      We went from 1-9 and 3-7 in his first two years to 9-2 with him as the starter as a junior. And if you think the "Immaculate Reception" to Franco Harris with the Steelers was a great play, think again. It was a lucky play, a lucky bounce. The greatest play of Bradshaw's career was the 82-yard pass to Ken Liberto -- one of my best friends for all those years in school -- in the last minute of the 1968 State Fair Game with Northwestern State, turning a sure 39-35 loss into a glorious, forever-remembered 42-39 victory.
      It was a perfect pass, a perfect catch-and-run. No way it could happen.
      It was the greatest of dozens of great plays by Terry in his career, at every level.   
      In sports information, we first nicknamed him "The Rifleman" because of the rifle arm and because he resembled Chuck Connors of the TV western. But then he became "The Blond Bomber." Buddy Davis, the Ruston Daily Leader sports editor then and now, and I have received credit for doing that; really, it was Paul Manasseh, then the Tech SID. 
      You know how, after being the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft -- a proud moment for the Bradshaws, for Shreveport, for La. Tech -- Terry struggled, too, at the start of his pro career. Again, that perception, again the difficulties running an offense.
      It changed Terry. He was still the down-home, country jokester, but he'll tell you he became a lot more leery of people, a lot more sensitive about criticism. He wasn't as accessible to the media as he once had been. His personal life, at ti mes, was a mess.
      But once his talents kicked in, once the Steelers built that great team, he was on his way to Super Bowl glory and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And that dumb perception? Well, he called his own offensive plays for years. How many QBs other than Peyton Manning do that now?
       As he played on, and then after he retired (after a torn ligament in that strong right arm), as he openly talked about battling depression and attention deficit disorder all those years, the world discovered that maybe Terry Bradshaw wasn't dumb.
       He went into television full-time, as an NFL (and sometimes college football analyst). He became a pitchman for all sorts of products, a sought-after speaker ... he became what he'd always sort of been, an entertainer. 
      He's as sharp on Fox Sports' NFL Sunday show as you'll find. He speaks his mind, even if it irritates Archie Manning, who called Terry when Bradshaw said on the air that Archie should stay out of his sons' football careers.
     I haven't seen or talked to Terry in 25 years. We're not close; we never were. He doesn't do Woodlawn reunions, and I can understand why. I don't even know where he lives; I think it's in the Phoenix area. He used to be in Westlake, near Fort Worth, and I know he had places in Oklahoma and a long time ago the ranch in Grand Cane (near Shreveport).
     But I am happy to see him involved with Louisiana Tech athletics and the university -- he wasn't for some years -- and he's back there this weekend for his annual golf tournament/fundraiser/press conference.
       He's as funny and open and friendly as he was all those years ago. He was a helluva football player, and a helluva guy. And if someone wants to criticize him, take it elsewhere. I don't want to hear it.
      We should all be so overrated.



Friday, April 13, 2012

"Coach" is a special title

      In Jerry Byrd's book Football Country -- on the sport in North Louisiana specifically and the state in general -- the chapter on coaches carries the title "Biggest Men in the World."
      That was certainly true for me. Coaches were the biggest men in my world for a long time.
      The coaches I grew up with -- at Oak Terrace Junior High, Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech -- were among the best coaches I ever encountered. I learned so much from each of them. In fact, they spoiled me.
      Came out in the real world and found out that things weren't as ideal as they had been in school, that not all coaches -- or journalists -- were as dedicated, as caring, or as efficient as my coaches had been.
      Can't say that they were role models; journalists fit that description more readily. Can't say they were a bigger influence than my dad, but it's close. They were -- are -- among my heroes. Sometimes, thankfully, I can still seek their advice. So, in a way, they're still coaching.
        What I found early in my journalism career was how much we needed coaches, how much we depended on them for quotes, story ideas, statistics, direction on possible all-city, all-district and all-state selections, how much we needed them for guidance.
        What I also found in North Louisiana was a bunch of outstanding coaches, and people, beyond   Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech. There were, for instance, enough talented basketball coaches that if I listed them on this blog, I would run out of room.
          Found coaches who were media-savvy, who enjoyed being interviewed and quoted. Others not quite as open knew exactly what you were looking for, knew what the media's role was and were always cooperative. Some were media-shy, not very quotable, not very trusting. Some, but not many, were downright uncooperative; they could rarely be reached; never returned phone calls.
         I have been praised by coaches for pieces I wrote, sometimes unduly so. I have been scolded by coaches, yelled at face-to-face, had the phone slammed down on me, ordered out of the locker room or out of a gym (that's another blog), saw a coach or two simply turn and walk away without a word. And once, I was saved from players throwing me into the showers (thank you, John Thompson at Bossier High).
        I knew coaches that played strictly by the rules; I knew some -- and I considered them friends -- who broke the rules, and got caught. I knew at times that coaches weren't telling me the truth, and I knew some who didn't let the facts stand in the way of their argument.
        Knew one football coach who every week before his team's game -- every week -- would say, "We're ready to play." And sometimes after his team would get beat, he'd say, "We weren't ready to play."  Not making that up (and not naming him).
        And, no matter what, coaches had my respect. It's the way I was brought up.
         I appreciated how much work coaching required, how much time and dedication, how difficult it can be to be in charge of a group of kids, to have your success depend on kids' whims or flaws.
         Today's coaches perhaps face greater demands than ever. Our world has changed so much; kids have so much more access to information, so much more to take their focus off their sport. The use of drugs, as evidenced recently right here at TCU, can be a big problem. Academics -- as always -- should always be a first priority (and you wonder just if they really are).
       (Of course, in this changing world, coaches are not just the biggest men in the world. There now are many outstanding women coaches.)
       Whether it's the pros or the colleges, or even in Texas high schools, coaching salaries have grown proportionally out of sight with much of the rest of the world. And perhaps that leads to a sense of entitlement -- Nick Saban lecturing the media and the world, Joe Paterno (rest his soul) skirting the reports of his defensive coordinator involved with young boys, Les Miles -- if you read what Glenn Guilbeau writes -- not being exactly truthful at times, the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick-Tom Coughlin-Charlie Weis-Saban school of haughtiness (I'll control everything I can -- media included).
        Gary Patterson, our Star-Telegram writers have told us, has yelled at most of the TCU beat writers in the past decade. When he was at Florida, I recall Steve Spurrier calling the Florida Times-Union beat writers at 7 a.m. if he read something he didn't like or thought he was misquoted. Jason Garrett often rambles on at Cowboys' news conferences, with boring cliches, saying absolutely nothing of substances. When he screwed up and cost the Cowboys a chance to win at Arizona, he never owned up to it publicly.
     (To be fair, I never remember Tom Landry, my alltime favorite coach, ever saying in public: "That [loss] was my fault. Not even when he alternated Roger Staubach and Craig Morton on every other play in Chicago one day.)
        I don't like the paranoia of today's pro and college coaches who shut out the local media -- the guys they deal with every day -- from practice sessions, except for the first 15 minutes of warmup. So, so afraid that a piece of information -- perhaps injury info -- might get in the paper and help the opponent. Don't like the way they limit access to their players (Patterson, at TCU, is a serial offender here). Don't like the lack of access to assistant coaches.
      But this is the way these coaches operate. It works for them, the media be damned. The coaches have to do what's best for them, for their program, for their student-athletes. So be it.
      I've had this piece in mind a long time. The timing had nothing to do with the news out of Arkansas this week.  That story isn't one anyone can enjoy reading, no matter what you think of the coach (he's a terrific coach, but he's not a guy I like from a distance).
      It brings to mind what my wife so often reminds me. Coaches are just people. Don't put them on a pedestal. Don't glorify them out of proportion.
       But they do deserve our respect ... until they don't deserve it.       

Friday, April 6, 2012

NYY: Today (finally) it counts

     This is one of the best days in sports: Opening Day for the New York Yankees. Today it counts. Today I pay attention.
      Yes, I know there have been some Opening Day games already. But today the only team that matters to me will play.
      Hopefully, in late October, Mariano Rivera will register the last out of the baseball season and the Yankees' 28th World Series championship will be a reality. (And it's likely to be the last pitch of Mariano's brilliant career.)
     The off-season has been too long because last season ended too soon.
      I am not a spring training guy. I know it's traditional and it's charming, and the complexes in Arizona and Florida are nice. But I don't care at all about spring-training game results; I rarely look at the records or stats. I do look at the Yankees' web site or read the sports wire, but only for news about the camp. And if someone talks to me about what's going on, I dismiss them with ... talk to me on [Opening Day] April 6.
     But today the suffering begins, and the daily analysis. There will be almost everyday e-mails with my Yankees friends. There will be up-to-the-second checks on what's going on with the team. There will be ups and downs, and mood swings ... maybe there will be close to 173 wins and no losses.
     I think there's nothing in sports like following a baseball team over the seven-month grind.
     Anyone that knows me knows that I am a Yankees fan, and that I have the arrogant, smug, selfish, sense-of-entitlement true Yankees fans have. It goes with the territory. It goes with the magic numbers -- 40 (American League pennants) and 27 (World Series titles).
       I recite those numbers often because right now -- with the Texas Rangers as two-time defending AL champions -- history is all we have.
One more World Series trophy would
 be nice for Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
      I don't root for any other team, but I do like that my many friends who are Rangers fans are having a great time with their truly outstanding team. If the Yankees can't win the AL, the Rangers winning it is fine with me. We follow them daily, being in the D-FW market.
     And if I had to pick a team in the National League, it would be the Houston Astros. Regional  bias.
       I jumped on the Yankees' bandwagon in 1956 -- my first year in the United States and Mickey Mantle's greatest season. I've never changed teams -- not even through some really poor seasons -- and I never will.        
      Honestly, when I picked the Yankees to root for back then, I had no idea about their history (remember, '56 was the heart of The Dynasty years -- 15 pennants in 18 years, 14 in 16 years, nine World Series titles.)  No, I had no knowledge of baseball history.
      But I saw the pictures in the paper and, when we got our first TV set, I saw them on TV -- and I liked the uniforms. I liked watching Mantle, the pure athlete. I liked that their catcher was named Yogi and they had a pitcher named Whitey and a first baseman named Moose and a manager named Casey. Oh, and they seemd to win a lot.
      And I liked looking at majestic Yankee Stadium. I still do ... the third version of it.
      I did find out quickly in 1956 that in Shreveport, there were many Yankees haters.
      And while I believe this is the greatest franchise in American professional sports -- by far -- and we have millions of fans everywhere, we also still have millions of haters.       
       But I always thought the Yankees had class, and I still think that. Yes, we've had our "bad guys" and our cheaters, and controversies, and an owner and manager that were nuts, but the uniform still looks sharp (no pullover colored tops -- always the pinstripes at home, the classy blue-and-gray on the road), the players look sharp and most of them -- but not all -- play the game the right way.
      When they win, they act like they've been there before. Many of them have.
       I don't have enough room for a list of my favorite Yankees players or teams or moments, but obviously I think Derek Jeter and Mo Rivera are two of the greatest and classiest players we've ever had.
      And from today until late October, I'll be pulling for those guys and their teammates as much as I ever have. Let's play ball.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Bottom line: She cares

      It's not a perfect marriage, OK. It's not ideal.
      But it is a strong bond, a love still developing after 35 years. We still work at it daily; we feel we have to.
      I met Beatrice in the summer of 1976. She was applying for a job in the purchasing office at Centenary College, where I was the sports information director. It was a rare day when I went from the Gold Dome -- where the athletic offices were located -- to the main campus across Kings Highway.
     She was sitting in the lobby there filling out application papers. She looked pretty in pink; she caught my roving eye.
Beatrice, with her oldest grandchild, Josie Smith.
      In my usual shy manner, I took the application paper out of her hands. The name read Bea Key ... and I had to laugh at that rhyme. She was pleasant and attractive ... and, as it turned out, divorced and available. One child -- Jason, 2.
      Interesting, and interested.
      We hit it off. Made a date for lunch. Long story shortened: We married the following February
      She was 31 then and I was 29. Today she turns 67. Happy birthday.
      We see most things the same way. But not all things. When we disagree, it can be civil ... or not. We do not fight well; it can be loud, and it can be ugly.
      She pouts; I explode; then she explodes. She's much more even-tempered -- who isn't compared to me? -- but not always.
        Age does not faze her. Her mindset is to live each day the best she can, just like you'd want.
        What does bother her is that physically she's not as strong as she was, can't keep the house as clean as she wants (I'm not much help there; I'm not messy, but cleaning isn't my strong suit). She can't do all for the grandkids that she wants when we have them with us; she just wears out.
        She loves to read; her reading choices are broad. She's not religious, but she's spiritual. She's deep into philosophy and psychology -- she studied it in college. Read her daily posts of affirmations on Facebook and you'll understand.
        She follows Dr. Mehmet Oz, Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer, among others.
        We like to watch Dancing With The Stars; she enjoys well-written, intense shows such as Hawaii 5-0, Castle, The Closer, Point of Interest.
        She loves her Dallas Mavericks, rejoiced in their NBA championship last year, and she's no less involved this season. She'll watch every game she can, preferably without my critical/demanding input. She "suggests" that I leave the room.
        She was a sports fan when I met her. She lost her passion for it about 10 minutes after we were married; the overdose from my involvement was too much for her. Except for the Mavs, she's watched from a distance for years, exception being any sports Jason was playing.
        She's still Jason and Rachel's sounding board on so many things. When they need advice, she's a go-to person always.  She puts up with my foolishness, and she's my advisor on what to eat, what to wear, how to act properly (well, she tries to tell me) and on this blog.     
         She's a wonderful cook, a wonderful wife and mother, mother-in-law, sister, aunt, friend.
         I wouldn't trade her for anything, except maybe if the Yankees needed a big bat late in the season to assure another World Series championship.
        But then if the Mavericks needed one more player to assure another NBA championship, I'd be on the trading block, too.
        She's the most conscientious, most caring, best person I know -- the most important person in my life for 35 years.
      I'm thankful for Beatrice every day. But especially on April 5.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

What a trip

  Here's a promise: I will not be taking the boat back to Holland.
  Or the boat to anywhere on any ocean. No, thank you. I've done my time.
  Thinking back to late 1955, we should have insisted on an airplane trip to the United States, no matter how scary. But that wasn't the economic reality then. My parents were grateful for any way to leave Holland for a new life, a new chance in the new country.
    So on Dec. 28, 1955, welcome to the SS Ryndam, the big ship that was part of the Holland America Line, leaving out of the port of Rotterdam.
    Ten days on that boat. Ten long days. You'd think this adventure would have been a joy for an 8 1/2-year-old (me) and his 4 1/2-year-old sister (Elsa). It was ... for Elsa.
Our ride to America, the SS Ryndam
     Don't remember much about the boat, except it seemed big. Here's what I do remember ...
     I was sick -- seasick. So, for much of the trip, were my mom and dad. That tiny cabin holding four (tiny) people, that little porthole, that rolling sea, always rolling. Remember, this was the middle of winter, the Atlantic Ocean was rough.
     We went from Rotterdam to stops in LaHavre, France, then across the English Channel to Southampton, England, then the endless ocean ... days and days to Halifax, Nova Scotia. At that point, when we docked for a while, my dad just had to get off the boat and walk around on land.
     Then the relatively short cruise to the New York City harbor ... and the sight of the Statue of Liberty. My mother insisted we go to the upper deck to see her standing there ... how many immigrants had done that?
     And I was clueless (not unusual). Had no idea what she symbolized.
     Remember this: I spoke very little English ... just a word here and there -- table, chair, desk, door, please, thank you. We were Dutch; we spoke Dutch. I could read Dutch at a third-grade level.
    Until my parents told us we were moving to the United States, the only thing I knew about this country was from my Dutch sports book ... V.S. (Verenigde Staten) showed up a lot in the Olympic Games history/results. The only baseball I knew was that it was honkbal, a minor sport -- very minor -- in Holland. Had never heard of Louisiana (or any of the states), much less Shreveport.
      We sailed into New York on Jan. 7, 1956. Jewish Federation officials were there to meet us; they might've had a Dutch interpreter, but I'm not sure. My mother spoke just enough English to get by. But arrangements had been made for us to take a cab from the harbor to the middle of Manhattan for a three days/nights stay at an older hotel.
      Amsterdam was a big city, but nothing like this. New York City was awesome, busy, intimidating. Elsa and I both remember that the hotel had a spiraling outside staircase, and we had to use it repeatedly.
     We also remember that we went to Radio City Music Hall to see the famed Rockettes; my mother thought we might never get a chance to do that again (but we all did).
      On Jan. 10, it was time to take the train for the ride south to Shreveport. Now, I loved riding the train, loved it then and love it now. Wish I could do it more often. So that part of the trip was OK.
       We went through St. Louis, then down to a stop -- of all places -- in Hope, Ark. (you might have heard of it). At midnight, again my dad had to get off the train and take a walk. Elsa remembers that she lost her doll on the train; I remember thinking how big this country must be. (Compared to Holland, most countries are.)
        At 7 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 12, we pulled into the old Union Station in Shreveport, right there on the southwest edge of downtown. The SPAR building at Princess Park -- which would play a part in my life just a year or two later -- was nearby.
       It had been 15 days since we left Amsterdam.
       Officials from our sponsors, the Shreveport Jewish Federation, were waiting for our arrival. No Dutch interpreters this time, but somehow we got in a car for a short ride to our new partially furnished home, a duplex at (I think) 625 Jordan Street. It was an older house and not particularly clean (my mother hated that), but they had stocked some food for us -- and, for the first time, we had a refrigerator.
      We didn't have much with us, other than clothes; most of what we were bringing was crated up and en route; it would arrive in a few weeks.
        It was, if I remember, a nice day, with sunshine, warmer than most winter days in Amsterdam, where the weather can be harsh.
      We had been in Shreveport for only a few hours. By 1 p.m., I was being enrolled in Line Avenue Elementary, only a couple of blocks away. I was about to start being Americanized.
      Soon: Shreveport, 1956 

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Coming to America ...

On the boats and on the planes, they're coming to America.
Never looking back again, they're coming to America.
Everywhere around the world, they're coming to America.
Every time that flag's unfurled, they're coming to America.
Got a dream to take them there,
They're coming to America.
Got a dream they've come to share,
They're coming to America.

    When I placed a photo of the Statue of Liberty with a Facebook post on Jan. 7 a year ago, noting that it had been 55 years to the date that we first saw Miss Liberty from the boat going through the New York City harbor, Jerry Byrd posted a note:
    "The Van Thyn story reminds me of the words of the Neil Diamond song," and he added the lyrics  you see above.
    We did come to America, and we stayed. It was the trip of a lifetime.
     Our story obviously isn't unique -- millions have done it, leaving the "old country" for a new life in the U.S.A. We never regretted it, but I have to think that my parents, through those early days in 1956, must've wondered what they had done.
      Why leave Holland, where they'd grown up and lived most of their lives (my dad lived in Belgium for a while before and after World War II), for unseen territory so, so far away, where the language was so different? Why leave what few relatives were left after the war, their friends, my dad's work?
     The memories of families lost in the concentration camps haunted them. I think that was a major reason. The war experience was still so prevalent among the Jews of Amsterdam.
     My dad had been a streetcar driver for the time I had been alive -- I was 8 1/2 then -- and he was not in line to be promoted. We weren't starving, but they didn't see much opportunity for a better life in Holland.
      So, as Neil Diamond sang, did they have "a dream?"  I think the dream was my mother's dream. She wanted to live in Canada or the United States, and that was fine with my dad.
       They saw opportunity in North America. But did they really know?
       I have to admire the courage it took to make the move, the courage that each immigrant must muster. For us kids -- Elsa was 4 1/2 -- it was easy; we just went along. What choice did we have?
       (Maybe I would have chosen to stay where I was. My dad always said that those first couple of months in the U.S., I was terribly homesick for Holland, and for my friends. I don't remember that as an overwhelming feeling, but I suppose I could have been scared and lonely. Looking back, I'd say I was apprehensive but also curious.)
         I often have been asked, why and how did we end up in Shreveport? How did we get from Amsterdam to Shreveport, of all places?
        The smart-aleck answer is by car, boat and train. The real answer is the Shreveport Jewish Federation, and some awfully generous people in Shreveport.
        We needed a sponsor; we needed the money to pay for the trip, for housing, and help to arrange  a job for my dad. Many immigrants had family in the United States (or Canada) to be their sponsor; we didn't.     
       Working through whatever Jewish agencies in Amsterdam/Holland were handling immigration applicants, my parents first applied to go to Toronto, where they had friends. I'm not sure of the details, but something in my dad's work history wasn't a fit -- and we were turned down.
       Nothing against Toronto or Canada, but what a break that turned out to be.
       And here's where Shreveport came in. The Shreveport Jewish Federation put together a sponsorship package  A man donated the money to pay for the ship and train tickets, and a three-day stay in New York City; the Federation arranged for housing -- a duplex on Jordan Street, two blocks from the synagogue; and A.A. Gilbert provided a job in his pipeyard for my dad.
     (The story goes that Dad thought he would be dealing in smoking pipes. To his amazement, the job was about oilfield pipe. Good story; don't know that it's true.)
      In the fall of 1955, I had just begun third grade at the Montessori school three blocks from our tiny house on the west side of Amsterdam, the only house I'd ever known. But we knew we were coming to America.
      As I write this 56 years later, I can't stop the tears. My dad must've been right because I still feel the sadness of leaving my friends in Holland, leaving the Dutch soccer team I loved so much, leaving what was comfortable.
    My parents must have had that same bittersweet feeling.
    We have a short film clip of the start of our trip -- Max Gerritsen's car (he and Marja were like an uncle and aunt to me) -- being loaded for the ride from Amsterdam to the port in Rotterdam. There we were leaving for the U.S. on the SS Ryndam, the Holland-America Line. The next clip, about 10 seconds,  shows us coming down the ramp toward the boat; me (of course) doing the talking.
        It was Dec. 28, 1955, our last day as Dutch residents.
        Next: What a trip