Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Going back to the old country

       I'm going home this week -- at least "home" as I once knew it. Going back to the Netherlands -- Holland, as it's also known. Home of the Dutch.
Dutch royalty: Queen Beatrix and soon-to-be
 King Willem-Alexander (thestar.com)
       But home for me since 1956 is the United States of America, and I love it. I'm Dutch in heritage only. Found that out, for real, on my two previous trips back. I have a Dutch  in name and had a Dutch family, but I am an Americanized Dutchman.
       When I tried to speak Dutch, I did it with a Southern American drawl. Uh, they're not used to hearing that in Amsterdam. Consequently, my Dutch conversations fell just a little short.
        This will be third trip back to my little country; I went in 1991 -- after 36 years away -- and again in 2004, and it will be Bea's second trip; she went in 2001.
         My Dad took us on each of those trips, and he knew what he was doing. He had money in a bank in Amsterdam (thus easing the dollars-to-Euros exchange) and he knew where he was going and how to do it.
         This time we on our own. Good luck to us.
         Well, actually, our host there will be Catherine "Kitty" Kruyswyk-van der Woude, who is a second cousin of my father's. She's been to the U.S. often, speaks fluent English (and other languages), and she was a big help to my father and Bea on their trip in 2001.
           She lives in Zaandam, a town about six miles (oops, kilometers) northwest of Amsterdam.
           And, yes, to answer a question I receive often, we do have relatives there -- Kitty and a cousin, Heleen (her grandfather and my grandmother -- mom's side -- were siblings), who lives in Antwerp, Belgium but grew up in Amsterdam. Plus, we have a friend we'll meet in The Hague -- Peter DeWeijs, who played basketball at Centenary College in 1977-78 when I was the sports information director.
            Holland is about the size of one of our smaller states, Maryland (I looked this up), and it doesn't take long to travel from point to point; the longest trip might be three hours by train. Public transportation is well-run and readily available (at least, that's our experience).
             The country is densely populated, with two cities of more than 1 million people (Amsterdam and Rotterdam) and roughly one-sixth of the country is water, with much of the rest only slightly above sea level.
            The North Sea has had its way with Holland several times; thus the reputation for the sophisticated dykes system (New Orleans was leaning on advice from the Dutch after Hurricane Katrina). And, of course, just about everyone knows it's the place for windmills and wooden shoes and tulips.
             The timing of our trip, in fact, centers on two things: (1) the re-opening of the Rijksmuseum -- the national museum -- this past Saturday after a lengthy renovation and (2) the peak of the tulips season.
             Bea noticed the Rijksmuseum re-opening on a Facebook post, and said she'd like to visit there (hopefully, the crowds won't be too large) and maybe one or two of the other great museums for which Amsterdam is known.
             (We'll see how they compare to the museums in Fort Worth. Can they be any better than the Kimbell, which is world-class?)
            Now, too, is when the Dutch flower gardens are blooming; one of the highlights of a five-day river cruise we're booked for is to visit the Keukenhof, with its abundant and colorful fields.
          On my past two trips, we saw a lot of my original hometown, Amsterdam, which we left for Shreveport when I was 8 1/2, and we saw some of the countryside -- the fishing village of Volendam, the cheese capital (Alkmaar) and the sights on the train trip from Amsterdam to Antwerp, and back.
          This time we intend to see more of the country, places such as Rotterdam and The Hague, maybe even Eindhoven in the southern part of the country, and a few smaller towns.
           One day that we will NOT be going into the big city is Tuesday, April 30 -- the day before we leave. Amsterdam will be packed that day and covered in orange (the national color) because the House of Orange will have a significant change.
             Queen Beatrix, who was a princess (Queen Juliana's oldest daughter) when I lived in Holland, is abdicating the throne and her son, Willem-Alexander, will become The Netherlands' first King in 123 years.
             We didn't plan to be in the country when that happens; the announcement was made after we'd booked the trip. But that will be exciting to watch on television.
              Maybe at some point we'll go back to the neighborhood and the old (very small)  house -- if it is still standing -- where we lived before Shreveport and the beautiful big canal just down the street.  Maybe we'll search for the old Jewish neighborhood where my grandparents lived and where my parents grew up.
               We'll be taking pictures and taking notes, but I'll wait to blog on the trip until we return to the United States. Don't bother to call; we're not taking our cellphones, but we will be checking e-mail and Facebook on our IPad and any computer we can access.
               So, talk to you soon after May 1. By then, it'll be good to get home.                

Friday, April 12, 2013

We didn't wiff on this ...

      If the definition of insanity, as my wife likes to remind me so often, is doing the same (crazy) thing over and over and expecting different results, consider our wiffle-ball games in Sunset Acres some 50 years ago.
      From about my eighth-grade year through my senior year in high school, a select few of us played wiffle ball in the middle of the day ... in the middle of the summer ... in 100-degree temperatures ... for a couple of hours at a time. And we did this 5-6 days a week every summer.
      Then we'd stop for lunch, sweating pouring off our shirts (if we wore them) and all over the kitchen ... and we'd go out and play again for a couple of more hours.
       It was insane.
       It also, at times, was hilarious. It was about as much fun as we ever had in Sunset Acres and, you know what, I'd do it again. Only I'm 65 now, and I like air conditioning.
       But 6527 Burke Street -- where Johnny, Terry and little Steve Tucker lived with their parents -- was a second home for me. I was the nominal fourth son a lot of days and nights.
        And that was the site of Tucker Field -- the Yankee Stadium of Sunset Acres wiffle ball. You can ask Ronnie Shelton or Earl Hebert or Pat Bradford or the Hiers boys, Pat and Jeff. They were part of the visiting teams, the losers.
         With me teaming up with Johnny Tucker -- and with me arguing the close plays and slanting the rules -- we never lost.  Never. Johnny hit the home runs; the ones that didn't managed to get around the huge tree in the middle of the yard, and I got the cheap hits and ran the bases like hell, and we'd always come out ahead.
         Sometimes we'd go on the road and play in the Hiers' backyard, where Jeff once went after a ball and when older brother Pat yelled at him to throw it, Jeff yelled back, "I can't; my foot's caught under the fence."
           We're still laughing.
            We played in Ronnie Shelton's backyard one day, but it was so tiny. Not even the trees there could stop the barrage of home runs. It was a bandbox; even I hit some home runs that day. We decided that 35-30 games weren't what we wanted.
           Everyone had their own way of playing wiffle ball. For us, it was two-player teams, we ran the bases, and we had forceouts at home plate.
           We had our plastic bats and we took care not to crack them. We experimented with different types of wiffle balls, but some cracked very easily. We finally decided we liked the balls with holes, rather than the solid balls. To get the kind we liked, we had to go all the way to K-Mart off Linwood Ave., across from what would become the LSU Medical School -- maybe it was Confederate Hospital back then ... a good drive from Sunset Acres.
           Again, just nuts.
           Actually, we could have played night games at Tucker Field. That's how we got started one night when Mr. Tucker turned on the spotlight that illuminated the backyard well enough that we could see what we were doing. However, Mr. Tucker wasn't too keen on us playing hours at a time and running up the electricity bill.
The guy on the right (Johnny Tucker) was
 the home run king; the big guy on the left
 was king of the arguments.
              So it was day games, and gallons of water, and the patient Mrs. Tucker rolling her eyes at our arguments. I don't know how she put up with the sweathogs coming into her house, but after all, she was raising three boys of her own, and then there was me, so she was used to it.
            I know this, she was going to make me  put on a shirt -- no matter how soaked it was -- to eat in her kitchen and, on the rare occasion that I slammed a screen door, she would make me come back and shut it nicely.
            One summer we had a regular four-team league, a schedule of 12 games for each team (four games against each of the other teams). Rain, of course, interrupted us at times; so did parents' other plans. There were yards to cut and chores to do. So maybe we didn't finish the schedule. But I guarantee you this: John Tucker and I were undefeated.
           I know this because, budding sportswriter that I was, I did a story on one unbeaten season. Its readership was limited to the Tucker household.
           This madness continued into our high school years, and obviously I told other people about it. I'd play wiffle ball by day, work as a parttimer for The Shreveport Times at night. One day, Pete Barroquerque -- then a young sportswriter at The Times -- came out to Sunset Acres to play with us.
           And I obviously popped off at school, too. Because after my sophomore year, Jon Pat Stephenson and Ken Liberto -- two of my good friends and both great all-round athletes at Woodlawn -- came to Tucker Field for a "challenge" game of wiffle ball.
            They were All-City caliber baseball players. But they were playing on our turf, by our rules. Of course, we beat them.
            No, I'm kidding. They beat our butts. So much for wiffle-ball superiority.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Nathan and Sara ... my Dad's parents

   (Fifth in a series)
   All I know about my grandparents is what my parents told me, what they said on their USC Shoah Foundation interviews as Holocaust survivors, and what they wrote in a nine-page family history.
    I never knew the grandparents, as I've written several times previously. Wish I had. But if the Holocaust hadn't happened, if much of my family hadn't perished in the concentration camps, my parents would've had their original spouses and ...
    That's not how it went.
    I can just imagine, though, if you had told my grandparents that their grandson would be a sportswriter and their granddaughter a social worker, they might've liked it.
    If you had told them it would be in the United States of America, they would've been astounded.
    But this piece is about my Dad's side of the family in Amsterdam (and Antwerp) in the 1920s, '30s and early '40s. About Nathan Van Thyn and Sara Van Thyn-Van Beem, and about the two grandparents that Dad -- Louis Van Thyn -- knew.
      From what Dad told me, the thing I like most about my granddad was ... he was a sports fan. Shocking, isn't it?
Nathan Van Thyn
     I remember Dad talking about when he was 9 going with his father to attend events at the 1928 Olympics, especially at Amsterdam's Olympic Stadium -- the place where I walked to by myself on weekends regularly in 1954 and '55 to be a 10-cent standing-room-only spectator for pro soccer games.
      Nathan was born March 5, 1893, the fourth of seven children of Levi Benjamin Van Thyn and Elizabeth Mozes Van Bergen (married in 1887). One child died as an infant; only one, the youngest (a female, Sippora), survived World War II.
       The rest, including my grandfather, died in the concentration camps.
       They grew up in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, educated in the Jewish traditions. My great-grandfather was a strict Orthodox (more on him in a moment). My grandfather, and the others, I suspect had only high school-equivalent educations -- if that -- and went to trade school. That's how it was for Dad and his older brother, Hyman.
        Nathan -- they called him Nico -- was, Dad recalled, "a hard worker. He worked all the time." He was, by trade, a butcher, but he also worked as a gardener and a carpenter.
         "He was very handy, liked people and was very outgoing ... He was mild and easygoing," my mother wrote.
         Then, as Dad noted, "in the Depression time (1932-37), nobody was working in Amsterdam. ... He got some odd jobs, so he worked sometimes. ... He was working in wholesale plumbing supplies as a truck driver."
         Asked about their relationship in the 1996 interview, Dad replied, "Real good. We were going out all the time, he took me on the bicycle as a young boy (he laughed and said, "cars were not going then") -- and sometimes we went fishing, and we'd go see sports events -- I loved sports, and I still do.
        "He was a nice man."
Sara Van Thyn-Van Beem
      My grandmother Sara, like my granddad, was one of seven children; only one was older. She was five years older than Nathan, whom she married in 1916 (she was 28, he was 23).
        She was, as was common then, a stay-at-home mom, but she worked as a seamstress at the house.
        "I never knew when she worked out of the house," Dad recalled. "When I was young, many times she worked in the house, other than her housework.
        "She worked for a manufactory. She was making pants and many times when she was finished, my father, on his bicycle, took the pants back to the manufactory. When I was older, I did that too for her and then brought the material back home."
        Mom, in her family history, wrote -- obviously information provided by Dad -- that my grandmother also enjoyed knitting and "loved opera and would sing whole arias while doing laundry." Then in typical fashion for Mom, she added, "The poor neighbors closed all the windows."
        Sara was "really a straight-forward woman and would tell it 'like it is,' not always in her best interest."
          So let's see -- my granddad was a sports fan, my grandmother was outspoken. Hmmm.
         Next: My Dad's grandparents

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Rose for Centenary's rose garden

       This is a promise kept. My mother, Rozette Lopes-Dias Van Thyn, is now a permanent part of Centenary College's rose garden.
       Before she passed away, almost three years ago, we promised Mom -- Oma, as the grandkids called her -- that she would be memorialized at the college she grew to love.
       The plaque is in place. On a beautiful Sunday morning with Centenary's garden in full spring bloom, Beatrice and I dedicated it.
       My thought was "ashes to ashes, dust to dust." That's adapted from Genesis 3:19 (yes, I had to look that up).
      And in the area where it's located, under a gazebo, one -- and only one -- rose was in full bloom, right next to the plaque. How appropriate.
       In her obituary -- she died June 27, 2010 -- we had promised to honor her with a plaque at Centenary, where she and my Dad visited often with students as part of a Holocaust study class, where her memorial service was held and where the Van Thyn Endowed Professorship Chair for Holocaust studies was established.
       We thank campus officials -- especially David Henington, Centenary's director of planned giving -- for getting this done.
       We think Oma would have liked the plaque because it has a red base and gold lettering. It's a bit gaudy, and often so was she. She was bright, and she would wear bright colors.
       The wording on the plaque is similar to that as the plaques on the memorial benches at LSU-Shreveport honoring both my parents. This one reads:
                   In memory of
            DR. ROSE VAN THYN
             Wife, mother, Oma and
        Holocaust survivor/educator"
 Honorary doctorate in Humane Letters
                   Centenary, 2002
Oma Rose talking with Centenary students
      As I've written before, my mother spent more than 25 years speaking to groups -- students, church, civic organizations and, most notably, Shreveport-Bossier's annual Holocaust Remembrance Service -- about her and our family's experiences in the Holocaust and about the buildup to and aftermath of World War II.
       This week, for the first time, I will be speaking to a class -- at Ferguson Junior High in Arlington, Texas -- about the Holocaust.
       I'll try to do justice to what my mother was always trying to say: That tolerance for other human beings is one of life's most important elements; that cruelty, in any form, is unacceptable.
       That, God forbid, the horrors of the German occupation -- and the concentration camps/mass murders -- not happen anywhere, to any people. And that when they do -- and there is still suppression and total disregard for human life in several parts of the world today -- they are unacceptable.
       No way will I have as much impact or be as insightful as my mother was on this topic. But I've done some reading and studying in preparation, and I've listened to a tape of my mother speaking.
       I'll try to do the best I can.      
       And I'll be thinking about Mom, just as Bea and I were Sunday morning. We preceded our visit to this year's Holocaust Remembrance Service with a visit to Centenary's rose garden, or in this case Rose's garden.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The family: van Thijn became Van Thyn

       (Fourth in a series)
       The moment occurred deep in Dad's interview with the USC Shoah Foundation on his Holocaust experiences. He had talked about family repeatedly, describing the losses and the discoveries, and now he summed it up:
       "So we have built up a family again."
       He said it with as much pleasure and as much pride as anything he talked about in the 2 1/2-hour interview.
       Family was the most important thing to Louis Van Thyn. That was clear.
       And what would one expect? He had lost so much. Not just lost it; had it taken away -- death in the concentration camps, in the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other horrible places.
       He lost -- as I have noted in previous blogs -- two families: His original family (father, mother, two brothers) and his second family (wife, in-law parents), plus his older brother's wife and their baby. Dad was the only Holocaust survivor.
       With his original family, he had a bunch of uncles and aunts -- his parents' siblings -- and thus a bunch of cousins. The great majority also died in the gas chambers. But there were a few survivors.
My Dad, left, with his mother Sara, dad
Nathan, and older brother Hyman.
       But after nearly 3 1/2 years of being controlled and/or imprisoned by the Nazis and his long, winding journey away from his original home (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) and his second home (Antwerp, Belgium), Dad didn't know who was gone and who was alive.
       Hard to imagine his despair.
       But not hard to imagine his joy when he did find those survivors, that indeed some of his aunts and uncles and cousins made it through.
       It's not just Dad's story. It's my mother's, too. She also lost her original family (father, mother, sister) and her first husband, and her sister's husband. It's thousands of Holocaust survivors' stories.
       I intend to write about Mom's Holocaust story and her family. But the current series is about Dad. So in this piece and the next few, I'm writing about his side of the family.
        Some of the material I'm sharing is from Dad's Holocaust interview. Some is from a Van Thyn family genealogy (more on that in a moment), and some is from nine long-sheet handwritten pages done by my mother in 1981.
       Dad's name at birth was Levi Van Thijn. (It feels strange to type that.) From the start, he was called Louis; the people who knew him well called him "Louietje," his Dutch nickname.
       When we immigrated from Holland to America in 1956, to simplify matters, his name was legally changed to Louis Van Thyn.
       From the genealogy done by Marion Fahrenford-Nietfeld and Leo Van Thyn (of Mississauga, Ontario, a Toronto suburb) -- like me an Amsterdam native and son of Holocaust survivors and a distant cousin who found us a dozen years ago -- here is an explanation of the last-name variation:
       It should be noted that “van Thijn” is Dutch and “Van Thyn” is North American. The Dutch letter “ij” becomes “y” in North America and “van” becomes part of the surname, and therefore becomes “Van.” As such “van Thijn” becomes “Van Thyn.” 
       Going back through the generations, Levi (or Levie) was a common name in the Van Thijn family. But I've seen only one Louis. He was a good one.
       The name Nico is common in Europe, especially in Holland, and uncommon in the United States, although we're seeing it more often these days.
Nico Van Thyn:
my cousin, born 1941,
died 1943
       I am not the first Nico Van Thyn in my Dad's family, nor the second. My  grandfather's name was Nathan, but -- as Dad told me -- everyone called him Nico.
      When Hyman, Dad's older brother (by two years) and his wife, Regina Kok, had a child in 1941, they named him Nico.              
       Those two Nico Van Thyns -- my grandfather and my 2-year-old cousin -- died in the gas chambers.
       So did another Nico in our family -- Nico Fierlier, the husband of my mother's older sister Anna (my mother called her Annie). Three months after they married, that Nico -- a tailor -- was sent to Auschwitz.
       So, yes, I like the name Nico because it's unusual here in the U.S., but more because of the family heritage. Wish I could have known the other Nicos.
       Hyman was my Dad's constant companion as they grew up.
       "We were real close," Dad recalled. "Like boys, we were fighting sometimes too, but we were a real close family.
       "We played together. We were members of the same club, a youth organization from the labor parties. When I was 12 and he [Hyman] was 14, we go camping, and we go walking, and every week we came two times together and have dancing, square dancing, and all those kind of things."
       In 1932, they gained -- surprise -- a little brother. His name was Jonas, although the family called him Sjohnny (don't why the "S" was part of it; European, I suppose). 
      As Dad noted in his interview, "I was a good babysitter in that time already."
Sara, my grandmother, and
Jonas, my uncle -- died in 1943
      Hyman had gone to trade school to learn cabinet making and Jonas was only 2 when Dad left home to move to Antwerp and become an apprentice in diamond cutting. So their connection wasn't long-lasting, but Dad was fond of his younger brother.
      Jonas was 10 when, with his mother, he was sent to Auschwitz ... and to the gas chambers. 
      The pain of losing so many relatives, much of the family, was something Dad could accept, or at least reason with, over the years. But the deaths of 2-year-old Nico and 10-year-old Jonas was as painful to him as anything that happened in the Holocaust.
       Near the end of his interview, he answers a question about his religious views and his views on life.
       "I cannot say I'm 100 percent religious," he said. "I believe there is something, I believe there is a God. I still have in the back of my mind what happened in the war, why did that happen?
      "Why was my little brother killed? Why was the baby of my brother killed? They have do nothing in this world. That my father and mother maybe were not good, I can understand ... but they were good. Why did they [the Germans] have to do that?
     "That is something I ask my rabbis a couple of times already, and I never got a straight answer about that from my rabbis before. You know, I still cannot understand that."
     Next: My grandparents, Dad's side




Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Finebaum's career did survive Shreveport

     Sports writing at the Shreveport Journal, Part III:
     Paul Finebaum came to the Journal sports staff as a young man out of Memphis, and the University of Tennessee, in 1978. He is now a very respected sports writer and, even more so, a radio sports talk show host who SI.com ranked recently as one of the 20 most influential media people in the country.
     And he is one of the biggest success story of line of sports writers who worked at the Journal, and who could have imagined that?
Paul Finebaum (photo from aol.sportingnews.com and the
Paul Finebaum Radio Network/WJOX)
     In a short time, Finebaum made people in Shreveport mad. He was a different type sports writer than the town had seen.
     Even as a young man, Paul was just a bit cynical. He was a quiet, soft-spoken guy, really mild-mannered. But he didn't write like it.
     I had seen Wally Rugg come into Shreveport sports writing, at the Journal, a few years earlier, and shake things -- and people up -- with his opinionated writing style. Finebaum topped even Wally.
     Paul was ahead of his time, at least in Shreveport. He was what became known in sports writing as a "chipmunk." I guess I could do a whole blog on that, but let's see if I can explain. These were young guys who were irreverent, or agitators. They had answers to their questions, or thought they did, and they wrote what they wanted, no matter what.
     Summing it up: They were smart asses.
     So Paul wrote with satire, and he did that well. He was just a bit caustic; he did that well, too. He perhaps questioned some institutions; he was not enamored with history.
     Shreveport readers didn't understand. One example was when, in a column, he referred to the basketball coach at Centenary College as "Thomas of Canterbury." It was actually cleverly written. As the sports information director at Centenary, I tried to explain to some upset people what Paul was trying to do. It was satire, people.
     Then he wrote a piece on the semipro football team, the Shreveport Steamer. It was really a fly-by-night operation, and Paul saw it as such. So his tongue-in-cheek report on a game didn't go over well ... at all. The next game, Steamer "fans" had signs berating Finebaum. "Fire Finebaum," I think one of them read. (The fans also might have had rope ready for Paul's neck; I'm not sure.)
     Paul also was not exactly thrilled with covering Shreveport Captains' games at a wreck of a stadium, SPAR Stadium. Long, hot nights and games there could be a test. Paul, as I recall, wasn't all that much of a baseball fan, either; he did prefer college football over anything. Couldn't blame him for that.
     So his Captains' game stories weren't, let's say, enthusiastic.
     But that's not what teed me off one Fourth of July afternoon game Paul was covering at SPAR Stadium. I was the ballclub as public relations director, and what sent me over the edge -- an edge I went over much too often -- was a disparaging remark Paul made about Shreveport, my hometown: "Some people have to die here."
     Let's leave it at I owe Paul a button off a shirt. It was an embarrasing moment, not exactly good public relations.
     I apologized then, and as often as I could later. Still apologizing, OK.
     I defended Paul often in Shreveport; he didn't ask me to, but I tried to say to people that he had the right to write whatever he wanted, as long as it was OK with his bosses at the Journal.
     Ah, but Paul wasn't all that happy there at the newspaper and, as it turned out, neither were the paper's editors with him. Soon he was moved to newsside -- mutual agreement, perhaps -- and he took off on an assignment. He made a road trip with a trucker, to do a one monsterously long story. (A monster truck story?)
     After he did his work on that, he was gone ... fired from the paper. Something about overtime hours; I never knew the details, and don't need to know.
     And so away he went. He wound up in Birmingham and then in Mobile, and he became a well-known sports columnist/writer ... and more significantly, he became a radio sports talk show host.
     He became a tremendously popular/unpopular radio sports talk show host, and he became an expert on Alabama football and Auburn football, and Alabama/Auburn basketball, and on the SEC. His radio sports talk show is known throughout the Southeast, and he has a national reputation.
     He is often seen on the major sports network shows being interviewed about college athletics; he's regarded as an "expert" on NCAA matters and on football and basketball. When there is controversy -- and isn't there always between Alabama and Auburn faithful? -- Paul's viewpoints are what people want to hear, one way or the other.
     He can still do controversy.
     Paul has appeared on many top talk shows on television, and not just sports shows.
     He is the host of the "Best of the SEC" series for cable television; I've seen some of the shows, and they're well done.
     I visited with him at an Alabama football game I covered in Tuscaloosa in 1995, first time I'd seen him since he left Shreveport. We had a nice visit -- I apologized again -- and we've talked a couple of times since. He's been a guest a few times on my son-in-law's sports talk radio show in Knoxville.
     And we talked last week. In private, he's still as soft-spoken and low-key -- and entertaining -- as ever. He said he's never been back to Shreveport.
     His career didn't die there, and he won't either.