Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Going Dutch ... in America

          Their names were Vanderwal, van den Boom, Vandenberg, Elshout, VandenOord, Gosschalk, Van Witsen, Himel, deBruyne, Thaxton*, Vercruysse, Gosschalk, Rood, and even Van Thyn (a couple of times).
          Our Dutch friends (and distant relatives) in America and Canada. Bless them all.
          Like us, they made the journey across the ocean, looking for a new life, with hope for a better future, for peace and prosperity ... and with deep, fond ties to the little country they left behind.
          My family came to Shreveport as 1956 began and found a welcoming Jewish community. Little did we know then how many Dutch connections we would find, and how close they were.
        And how fortuitous that would be. It gave my parents -- who cultivated friends -- repeated touches of the home country; it gave them people who would be part of their lives forever.
        We were always making trips to visit those Dutch people, whether it was in our own neighborhood, Sunset Acres, were at one point six Dutch families resided, to other neighborhoods in or close to Shreveport, to Minden; Logansport; Natchitoches; White Oak, Texas; Bismarck, Ark.; and even as far away as Toronto and Culver City, Calif.
            I have such great memories of so many good times, so many good families. Gatherings on Easter Sundays at Lake Bistineau State Park, and on each New Year's Eve (for more than 25 years) at Jack and Louisa deBruyne's house.
           Can't possibly cover it all in this chapter.
           How it began: We had been in the U.S., for maybe six weeks, trying to learn the language and adjust to American ways when my dad -- working at A.A. Gilbert Pipe & Supply -- got word of a Dutch native working on the construction of the Beck Building in downtown Shreveport.
          His name was Ed Vandenberg. Someone told him how to contact my dad.
          He was a 50ish, balding, portly man -- a plasterer. He came to the house, with a daughter, Janet, a tall, thin, single 26-year-old who also lived and worked in Shreveport. They made the trip back to Arkansas every weekend.
          Ed Vandenberg had come to the U.S. from Holland with his family when he was 4, settled in Michigan, which was full of Dutch folks lived. He spoke and read Dutch fluently, amazing for having left the country as young as he did.
          Don't know about his formal education, but he had a brilliant mind. He was engaging, well-read, a story teller, knew the Bible thoroughly and would quote regularly from it, opinionated as hell, and his views on blacks were, well, a bit stringent (those were the times).
           He had settled in Arkansas, as we came to find out, on a piece of land outside of Arkadelphia, with his wife Tina, who ran a mom-and-pop grocery store. It was on a dirt road; in fact, you had to take several dirt roads, off Highway 7, toward Bismarck, to find their place. There were five kids; the youngest, Barbara ("Bobbie"), was a senior in high school.
            My parents were delighted to meet Ed and Janet, to be able to have a conversation in Dutch.
            We fell in love with the Vanderbergs.
             We made many, many a trip to their farm -- outhouse, cows, pigs, chickens, guineas -- over the next few years. The first time Ed drove us up there -- in the pouring rain -- he went about 80 mph all the way on two-lane roads, yelling at people going too slow in front of him ("you lullies," he would scream and then fly by them when he could).
            We'd go through Arkadelphia, finally get to the dirt roads, and they were so rough (Elsa and I called them "the bumpity-bumpity roads,") It was country, country, country.
             We adored the girls -- Janet, Virginia ("Ginny"), Bobbie -- and Aunt Tina gave us (Elsa and me) anything we wanted from the store ... candy, ice cream, whatever. Mom and Dad and Elsa would go to church with the family on Sundays; I stayed with Tina while she cooked a great Sunday meal.
            We'd get to help feed the animals, watch Bobbie wring chicken's necks (hello, dinner), and then settle in while Ed and my mother debated politics and racism. Talk about two people who had their minds set.
            They had a big white dog named Snowball. When we got our first dog, a white Spitz, he was named Snowball. Later they had a German shepherd, Rudy, the most obedient dog I've ever seen. Rudy-toot-toot, Ed called him.
            We were at home in that little house and that neat old country store. Ed would've made for a great movie character. The whole scene there was out of a movie script.
            Best thing was that they had books to read, including the World Book Encyclopedia. The yearly annuals of the late 1950s/early 1960s were my favorite books to read; I read them over and over. That's why the historical events of those years stuck with me.
            The Vandenbergs. I'd love to one day try to find that place again. Maybe they've paved over those roads by now.

Our dear friends Ann and
 Frank Thaxton (1995 photo)
          Go back to the first paragraph and notice the asterisk by Thaxton. That's Frank Thaxton II -- yes, he's it's an American name. But we made him an honorary Dutchman ... or he made himself one by marriage.
         He was a U.S. serviceman in Holland when he met Ann De Beer in The Hague -- Den Haag, in Dutch -- right after World War II. In 1946, when Ann was 18, they married in Holland, and she came to the U.S. to live with him. And they're still together, in Southern Hills.
        But the connection with us began in 1957 when they moved to Sunset Acres. What a happy connection it was.
          My parents were looking to move out of our first apartment in Shreveport, on Jordan Street, and asked our landlord -- a Jewish immigrant from Poland -- if he had a bigger place. He did, at 1124 Mildred Street, a corner place right off Southern Avenue. It had just been vacated.
          "If you keep the place as clean as the Dutch lady who has been living there," he told my mother, "you are welcome to move in."
          The Dutch lady. You think my mother wasn't delighted to hear that?
          The Dutch lady was Ann Thaxton.
           My mother immediately asked the landlord how she could get in contact with Ann.
           "She wanted to get together that day, I think," Ann said the other night, "but I had come home that day from gall bladder surgery. But I was as excited to hear from her as she was to talk to me."
          Soon they did get together. A friendship began that was as close as my parents had, other than the Gwins next door in our Sunset Acres years, and the Gilbert family and Mrs. Cahn whom I've written about previously. And my sister Elsa and young Frank III, who joined their mothers on a trip to Holland in 1962, were always close, and still are.
          "Ya'll were like family to us," Ann remembered. "We really didn't know any other Dutch people in town. I was just in seventh heaven when your mother called."
            But there were other Dutch people in town. In fact, two houses over from the Thaxtons in Sunset Acres were Jack and Louisa deBruyne. Louisa -- or Wies, as we called her -- was Ann's older sister; she and Jack had come to Shreveport in 1954.
            A year later we moved to Sunset Acres. Have to believe the Thaxtons influenced my parents in picking that neighborhood.
          NEXT: More of the Dutch connection

1 comment:

  1. Ann, Frank and their son Frank are family. I could not have been closer to an aunt, uncle or cousin. Frank II taught me to drive, always laughing about my backing into a garbage can the first time he took me out. Ann always invited me to decorate their Christmas tree and to this day when I see any holiday tree, I remember her telling Frank III and me to place each icicle individually on the tree. Frank III and his partner, Eric have become so close not only to Jim and me in the past few years, but also to our children. We stay with them in New Orleans and and no one could be more gracious.