Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Opa's Stories

For some reason, I've been thinking a lot of my Opa.  Wishing I could talk to him one more time.  Remembering the magic tricks and swimming lessons.  And the life lessons.  Mostly, though, I wish I could sit by him and hear one more story.

Opa told the best stories.  When I heard his voice take on that familiar “narrator” note, I would shut up in a hurry.  His stories were not to be missed, nor was the awesome “shhhh shhh” laugh that accompanied them.

I often wonder how I will tell stories to interest my kids and grandkids, when I haven’t had the life to fill a room like his stories could.  Perhaps what mom says is true – she always says you have to be tortured and have a hard life to be an artist (writer, musician, painter… it doesn’t matter).  Opa’s “luck” was being at the confluence of some of the largest events in history … and being on the wrong side of all of it.

Opa was an Indo, which is not short for Indonesian , but rather a term for the Eurasian or Indo-European peoples of  what was then known as The Dutch East Indies.  He was the product of those Dutch sailors sailing at the behest of the crown and the Dutch East India Company who got greedy for what Indonesia had and colonized a people who did not want them there.  Those sailors intermarried with the locals and thus “Indos” were born.  Our family and other families like us say that word with pride, but it wasn’t always uttered by others in a nice way.

It was a good life for Opa, until WWII came along.  Being Indo made him a victim three times.  Once when the Japanese occupied the islands and Opa, technically a member of the Dutch army, was captured and imprisoned as a POW.   The second time when he was he was freed by the Allied Army only to be re-imprisoned by the Indonesians fighting to throw off their colonial “oppressors”.  And finally, when he was “repatriated.”  Although he was innocent of the colonial fighting that brought the Dutch to rule over the Indonesians a century before he was even born (and the violence that made it an official “trading post” 300 years prior), he was hated by the native Indonesians for the bad (or good) luck of being born into a ruling class.  So he and his family (including my aunt and uncle) were “repatriated” to The Netherlands even though Indonesia was the only home they had ever known.  My Opa spent the rest of his life looking for another Indonesia… even moving to Hawaii briefly in search of it.

The best of Opa’s stories were actually about his time as a POW.  But I think it’s only because of Opa’s need to cast everything with humor.  It was his armor, as it is my mother’s and mine.  I think it’s a family trait actually.  Like my cousin Pam talking about putting the “fun” in funeral and my cousin Rick IM’ing me from his time in Iraq with stories of bombed porta potties.  We are experts at laughing at ourselves.  It deflects attention from the ugly matters at hand.  While Oma would sometimes talk briefly about being loaded naked onto trucks “like cattle” and packed in so tight you could hardly breathe, Opa told of playing tricks on the guards and my favorite, landing in a “pit of shit”.  I lived for that story.  It never got old.

I don’t even remember how it started.  I’m not sure how, in the middle of a Thanksgiving dinner or a Super Bowl party it could come up.  I just know the rest of the sound in the room disappeared and I could see the tropics of Indonesia intersecting with the brutality of the camp when I heard him say, “I remember being scared of a tiger once in camp…”  I was riveted.  So here’s his story.  I only wish you could hear his accent (mostly Dutch with some influence of the Indonesian language that made him sound different from those raised in Holland) when he told the story.  And his laugh that made me think of Ernie on Sesame Street. 

Opa was up one night in camp because he had to,  ahem, use the facilities.  However, being a prisoner, the facilities consisted of large pits dug into the ground.  Now, keep in mind, this is Indonesia.  There are animals there we do not have to worry about here in the USA unless you’re worried about escapees from the local zoo.

So he’s wandering in the dark when he sees yellow eyes peering at him from the bushes and freezes.  He’s wondering just how big this tiger is and how on earth he’s going to get away.  He weighs his options and decides that instead of shitting into that pit, he’s going to have to jump in.  Up to his neck.  So he does it.  Jumps in up to his neck and waits.  And waits.  And waits some more.  Yellow eyes still staring, not moving and Opa is left wondering how long it takes a tiger to pounce once it has stalked its prey.  And will it jump into a pit of shit if it's hungry enough? The eyes begin to move toward him, the leaves rustle and out steps… (and here’s where Opa cracks up) the guard’s damn German Shepherd dog. 

At this point in his story telling, Opa is laughing so hard he begins to swear in both Dutch and English and it takes him a few moments to catch his breath.

So poor Opa, covered from the neck down in shit (and I use that word because that is the word he used, even when he first told me the story and I was only about 7).  He climbs out, giving the dog a murderous stare, and has to now dive into the FREEZING river to wash it all off.  He then drags himself out and attempts to dry off, warm up and stop shaking – he still can’t tell if it’s from the cold, the fear or just sheer lack of body fat.  He weighed around only 80 pounds when he was freed.

Opa never did see a tiger during his time as a POW.  And he never forgot that German Shepherd either.  Nor, I suspect, did he ever forgive him.

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