Some families spent their Sunday’s going to church, we didn’t, we took a long walk. If the weather was particularly good we would bicycle. Well, more specifically my parents would bicycle, to some new place to explore at leisure. This was a particularly bright and sunny day in the middle of summer. A real scorcher by Dutch standards. I rode with my father in a child’s bicycle seat, one that would have been met with gasps of disapproval by today’s standards. It was black metal and red vinyl and collapsed when not in use. Moms bicycle had a large wicker basket in which the family dog rode. Not one person we knew well owned a car, there was always those days a very small number of motor vehicles comprised mostly of the cheapest of Citroen’s and Volkswagen bugs.
I could smell that we were coming closer to the sea, it was in the air. Sea gulls screeching with delights as their extended wings caught every warm air current, endlessly gliding along. Everything here was either sand coloured or sea green. Only tall patches of grass broke the very flat landscape, all of it an extended quilt of sandy lifeless polders and squares of grass, just occasionally a patch of houses. One such patch of houses was Spijkernisse. There were no new buildings like the ones in Hoogvliet where we lived. Here the air no longer reeked of the refineries. The quiet here was quite shocking to the system. Our normally chatty family was just now silent, we were blending in, at one with the calm.
We came to the very edge of a brand new polder, not a building, a road, or even a blade of grass, nothing. There was only packed sand dotted by small stones and decaying jellyfish. Seagulls were diving for any small thing that moved. As I was being lifted out of my kiddy seat I could see my dog Cerbie running as fast as he could in a straight line, running back after seemingly hitting the “limit” and repeating, over and over. By the time we started walking away from the bicycles the dog was already panting.
To my little girl mind, this place looked as though it needed Bedouins on camels crossing the sand. If I squeezed my eyes and imagined I could see them as a mirage at the horizon. Here and there I found a seashell. I kept as many of the nice ones as would fit in the pockets of my bright blue knee pants. Some of these shells would walk away, dad told me to put those back. Taking them would be like stealing a small animal’s house. Clearly, that was a bad thing to do.
“Look Cobie” my father beckoned to my mother who was busy throwing a stick for the dog to fetch. He showed her the small treasure he had found was a perfect bleached bird skull. Absolutely white and perfect. I thought it was a little creepy, wondering if that meant people’s bones could be found here as well. Could we find our way back to the bicycles. Judging distance as a child does, by how tiring the walk and if familiar objects are still in sight or not, we were certainly very far from where we started. My father lived for these treasure hunts, a stone, a bone, and old magazine, everything was a great event in his life. Then as now, I marvel at his capacity for finding great excitement in what others might have found utterly mundane. It was catching, he could make anyone with us, excited as well.
On the far horizon we could now see the tall grasses marking the polder’s edge. At one end of the very straight horizon was the dyke at the other in the distance, the small town of Spijkernisse. It was obvious by how quickly my father started to walk that he had spotted something. “Come”, he smiled from ear to ear, he looked back to where my mother had come to a full stop. The wind was playing gently with her skirt, her dark red hair glowed in the hot sun.
It was easy to understand looking at her standing there, why my father had abandoned his family to pursue her, marry her, and ultimately have me. She was beautiful. She used her very considerable skills as a seamstress to turn the hand-me-downs from more well-heeled friends and relatives into stunning clothes copied painstakingly from the pictures in the latest fashion magazines of the day. He announced back to her “I think there is a German Tank back there!”
I did not know exactly why, but I had clued in for some time that “German” was not a good thing. Four year old’s have limited concepts of history and the world, but I knew in our house, German was bad, especially for my mother. The sound of the word would make her blanche, her eyes would become glazed and sad, she would retreat. I think my father regretted saying just as soon as it came out of his mouth. His smile faded. Only the seagulls had something to say.
This was my cue to zone out. This was adult stuff I wanted no part of. This was a good time to spin, and spin and keep on spinning. Everything was a sea green and sand blur. The soles of my feet were burning inside my jellyfish sandals from rubbing the grains of sand deep into my skin. I was still turning until I fell back into the sand laughing, giggling, unable to get up. “Would you like to come and see it?” My father stretched his long hairy arm out to me. How could I refuse. I mean really? He might feel hurt and rejected, he was so excited, how could I refuse? My mom looked so alone back there. I bit my lip, said nothing and raised myself up. Daddy dusted the sand off me. I held to his shoulder as he took off each sandal and shook out the grains of sand, he brushed my feet clean. I had to go, I would be extra nice to mom later. Even if it was “German” I knew my dad would make sure I was safe.
Mom and the dog worked their way back to the bicycles by the road. It was a big, ugly broken thing. It sat angrily staring at us from out of the long grasses. Most of the remains of the war had been put to scrap, somehow this beast, this great metal dragon, had been missed. The metal was hot, I could feel it as we came close. My father explained how it would be like an oven inside the tank. He was practically jumping up and down with excitement. I thought it might be just the sort of place you’d find human bones. “Is anyone in there?” I asked nervously. “No, wanna see? Before I could answer, or even come up with how I felt about it, dad disappeared in the belly of the metal dragon. It was half on it’s side, the small trap door to get in faced away from me. Slowly and with great trepidation I walked around. My father’s extended arm poked from it.
It had an odd smell inside, a little like the refinery and the damp in the basements of old houses, and old sweaty things in the laundry basket, a little like that. It was barren except for some metal boxes, and it was these that my father was completely absorbed in. He held up each of what he found, hammers, wrenches, pliers, all kinds of tools. “These are wonderful” he exclaimed. Apparently the “Germans” were nasty buggers, but they made the best tools. Certainly a boon to dad, on his salary tools were something he could rarely indulge in. He put them in a satchel. Before putting me outside the beast, he did give me a fine show and tell about the technical advancements of tank building, and the painstaking attention to making it last, something I could sense from my father was an exceptional trait peculiarly common in all things “German”.
To this day these tools are still in use in our family, I have the hammer and one wrench, my mother pliers. My mother cherished the small bird skull for years until we moved to Canada, there was a very small limit for what we could take with us. My father would occasionally note with some regret that he never did go back, there was certain to have been more in the way of tools. I think he let it go and we never went back because he could not bear to see my mother in pain.