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  


1 comment: