OK, so I only have one book out so far, Jan’s Houseboat Hideaway, the true story about my father growing up in Holland during WWII. My ambition is to have more, so “books” it is. I am working on a fantasy novel, which I find much harder than nonfiction. If I get brave enough I will post parts of it here.
For now, here are a few chapters from Jan’s Houseboat Hideaway.
Chapter 1: Fall 1939, Breukelen, Holland
When the teachers discharged 11-year-old Jan and his classmates from the Johannes de Doper Parish (John the Baptist) grammar school to go home for lunch, Jan went eagerly, his stomach rumbling. With his blond hair, blue eyes, and slim build, Jan looked very much like the other boys except for the pronounced cowlick above his right eye. The deep curve of hair refused to lie flat, no matter how much Jan combed it over. He and the other boys filed out methodically like a miniature army from the red-brick, two-story building into the school yard. On the opposite side of the yard, Rennie, Jan’s younger sister, filed out with her classmates in an identical line. A seven-foot, solid wood fence divided the yard and the children. A roof covered the wall and the benches that lined the wall on both sides. Master Jutte eyed Jan’s friends, Hans and Willem, sternly and warned, “Stay in line!” The day before the two boys pulled themselves up on the wall and peeked at the girls through the opening between the top of the wall and the roof. The boys had gotten a good look before the teachers caught and reprimanded them.
Jan met Rennie in the narrow village street in front of the school. They didn’t speak. They didn’t need to. He stopped to yank at his beige stockings made of fine wool. He tried in vain to make them stay up. For a moment they stayed up to his knees where his short pants, knickerbockers, ended. But then they fell down again. Rennie walked beside him. At age nine, she was a smaller mirror image of his blond hair and blue eyes. Underneath the coat that Miss Fietje Drost made for her, Rennie wore a dress made by a young village girl, Gerrie Eikelenstam. Jan’s and Rennie’s mother, who they called Mu, liked to save money by checking the markets for inexpensive material and having the clothes made. Gerrie visited the houseboat twice a month to make dresses for the girls if they needed them. Rennie’s skirt hem swayed over the top of her knee as she walked. Mu insisted that their school clothes be taken care of and repaired. Mu did not allow anyone in the family to wear neglected and worn clothing outside of the house. Having to replace worn clothes meant extra expense for the family.
They walked past 200-year-old brick attached houses. Wood was scarce in Holland, so most of the houses were made of brick. Miles of rivers throughout the country provided a rich source of brick clay. Orange-tiled roofs called dakpannen topped each house. Occasionally, a narrow alley or small yard interrupted the row of houses. Jan and Rennie looked down an alley as they passed and shooed the black and white cat from it. They moved on, not daring to dawdle. Overhead, gray clouds hung low, threatening rain, and the air was cool. They stepped carefully, avoiding the mud and puddles from yesterday’s rain. Mu expected them to keep their school clothes dry and clean.
“Wet shoes mean wet feet, and that leads to colds and sickness,” she always told them. Mu insisted that their shoes shine and that they scrub their hands and nails. Thinking of his mother’s rules, Jan tried to smooth his blond hair and push down his cowlick.
They walked past two very old Gothic churches on their way home. Theirs, the Johannes de Doper, was the Catholic Church. The other church was reformed Protestant. There were more Protestants in the village and in the country than Catholics. And while each group did not always agree, they tolerated each other. Many books and scholars discussed the differences of these two Christian faiths, but for Jan and Rennie it came down to this. They went to church every day, but their Protestant schoolmates could not play on Sundays and had to stay in the house all day
As the two walked beyond the village boundaries, the neat rows of brick houses gave way to the farms surrounding the village. The flat, green pastures stretched to the horizon, interrupted only by dots of grazing cows and the tall church steeple of a distant village. They followed the canal to the outskirts of town. For Jan, the abundant canals in and around his village meant a way to travel to distant places. Sometimes he and Rennie took their row boat up the canal and pretended they were rowing all the way to the city of Utrecht, eight miles away, about a 20-minute train ride from the village. Jan knew if they rowed long enough, they could travel all the way to Germany.
Soon their houseboat came into view. The white, long, and narrow houseboat floated on the smaller side canal that ran parallel to the main Merwede Canal. The Merwede connected Amsterdam to the Rijn River, the great river of Europe that flows from Switzerland to the North Sea. The calm, dark water of the side canal licked at the bank edges. In the Merwede, cloudy water swirled as a constant stream of freighters and ships large and small traveled to Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and France. Jan’s stomach rumbled and as he stepped into the houseboat, his thoughts turned to lunch.
Some days, as he walked onto the houseboat, Jan secretly wished they lived in the two-family house his father had just recently bought in a nearby village. Then he wouldn’t feel lower than his classmates, and his family would be like the others. They wouldn’t have to live like gypsies or like poor people who couldn’t afford a house on land. Catching his sour look and knowing very well what he was thinking, Rennie elbowed him gently and said, “Jan, think of all the fun we have rowing in the summer and skating in the winter. And we don’t have to milk cows like Pieter.” He ignored her, but he knew she was right. They went in to have lunch.