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.

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