Homeward bound gerrit Verstraete homeward bound

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Gerrit Verstraete



by Gerrit V.L.Verstraete

The Verstraete family's

continuing Canadian adventure
An Autobiography


Homeward Bound

by Gerrit V.L.Verstraete

The Verstraete Venture, Volume I, 1979

by Chris Verstraete

The Verstraete family's immigration to Canada in 1958
Homeward Bound

The Verstraete Venture, Volume II, 2001

by Gerrit Verstraete

The Verstraete family's continuing Canadian adventure
Dedicated to my wife Alice, all my children and grandchildren,

those special friends who have joined us along the way,

and anyone else who cared to share this adventure.
© 2001, Gerrit Vincent Leonard Verstraete

Cover design and photograph: 1949 - two brothers.

Beert (left) and Gerrit (right) Verstraete

standing in front of the Verstraete family home

on Enkstraat in the city of Zwolle, Netherlands.

The Verstraete Family Coat of Arms

convocat nos deus ad societatem vitae

God calls us to a society of life

The Verstraete family coat of arms was originally created in the Netherlands. Even though the actual date of its design is unknown, the date of 1744, is attributed to the earliest known great great grandfather Livinius Verstraete. The Latin inscription and English translation were written by Dr.Beert C.Verstraete in 1979. Both design and inscription were registered in 1979, and have been accepted by such national organizations in Canada, as the National Library of Canada in Ottawa, the Canadian Regiment Library, and the Public Archives in Ottawa.

Introduction 11
A good night for a story 13
The honourary war baby 14
As a child 17
The Admiraal family 25
Ancient memories 28
Oh Canada 31
Hot steamy summers and bitter cold winters 38
The devil behind glass 45
Sgt. Rock of Easy Company 48
Fleas in my journal 50
Toronto bound 55
The OCA years 61
The Great Ontario College of Art Sit-In. 65
Swiss Chalet and the Imperial Theatre 67
December 16, 1967 - A special Canadian centennial project 71
The Only Available Door 75
The family years 81
The Folio years 90
Mid-seventies crisis 94
Call of the open road 101
Clothes make the man 105
A new life 107
On the back burner 110
The six hundred dollar fool 114
The Centre years 115
In touch with the supernatural 119
The road to trust 125
Building a family home 135
A whale of a day 137

The day I could not draw 139

A legacy of pancakes 142
Opa is cool 145
Church On The Rock 147
New beginnings - again 151
The Masterpeace years 157
The valley of dry bones 162
The painter - Théodore Verstraete 166
Epilogue 169
Epitaph 171
Postscript 174
Appendix: the immediate family 175
Select bibliography 175
The Verstraete family tree 177


Three events were responsible for shaping this writing venture in my mind, events which eventually led to putting the first words on paper a number of years ago. The first event was the 80th birthday of my father. The date was June 27, 2000, in the new or second millennium according to the Christian calendar. My father was born Christiaan Verstraete in Zwolle, the Netherlands, in the summer of 1920. When he came to visit Alice and I in our Gabriola Island home for a week during May of 2000, he was just a month away from turning eighty. Soon after that visit we became aware that it would be his last. His health took a sudden turn downward, and within months he was committed to a nursing home in Sarnia, Ontario.

The second event took place twenty-one years earlier, in 1979. It marked the year in which my father completed writing "The Verstraete Venture." This sixty page book celebrated the Verstraete family's immigration to Canada in 1958. Enough copies were printed for each of his six children and eighteen grandchildren.

The third event was the good news that Alice and I would be grandparents for the first time. Our third oldest, Angela, and her husband Jeff, announced in March 2001, that sometime that year, during the month of October, they would give birth to their first child, our first grandchild.

One Sunday afternoon I sat at Berry Point, one of my favourite spots on earth, at the end of Taylor Bay Road and Berry Point Road on the north shore of Gabriola Island. It is a special place Alice and I love to visit every Sunday after church. Complete with a hot chocolate or a cappuccino, we stare into the divine mysteries of nature's grand vista. The view is spectacular on any day, rain or shine. A nearly two-hundred degree panorama unfolds as the eyes scan the expanse of the Georgia Strait, a body of water that separates British Columbia's mainland from Vancouver Island. To our right and in the often distant haze lies the sprawling metropolis of Vancouver, with endowment lands and buildings of the University of British Columbia gleaming in the afternoon sun. From there our eyes travel along snow-capped mountain ranges that comprise BC's north shore and Sunshine Coast. For a moment the mountains disappear on the horizon as the Georgia Strait flows through the Inside Passage to the Pacific Ocean, only to appear again to our left as the mountain ranges of Vancouver Island form an impressive frame to many spectacular sunsets that grace these incredible shores. To our far left, the growing city of Nanaimo lies sprawled at the base of Mount Benson. A short ferry ride from Nanaimo takes visitors and residents to our home on the rural island of Gabriola. As our eyes strain to catch a glimpse of California bull seals and harbour seals, we hope and pray one day to see a pod of Orca killer whales. Our view is interrupted by the ever present play of sea otters, birds of many a feather, float planes, and the majestic fleet of BC Ferries. It was during one such visit to Berry Point that an idea struck me in the form of a question. "Who would continue writing the next chapters of the Verstraete venture?"

Although the idea of writing such a venture was not new to me, this time it was more than just a fleeting thought. My father had written volume one for his children and grandchildren. Would I dare to attempt to write the next volume for my children and grandchildren? Fortunately, writing is a not a foreign sport for me. From early beginnings in writing including poetry, some of them published, to many hundreds of pages of teaching notes, course notes, journal entries, essays, newspaper columns and other documents, I have been able to fine-tune some reasonable writing skills. I was comforted in my thoughts by a fellow artist and Canadian drawing master, John Gould. He wrote in his memoirs that he had never met a great artist who was not a writer as well. Michelangelo was a writer. When I enrolled at the Ontario College of Art in 1964, Michelangelo became my mentor and has been my mentor ever since I first put pencil and conté chalk to drawing paper. Michelangelo was a prolific writer, having penned some five-hundred sonnets and poems complete with commentary. Somehow, as boastful as it may sound, I felt assured at the thought of writing a second volume of "The Verstraete Venture."

But one probing question remained. Where to begin?

Could I simply pick up where my father left off in March of 1964, when the Verstraete family officially became Canadian citizens? Somehow I felt a need to backtrack somewhat in order to give my children and grandchildren a greater perspective of the roots that eventually gave birth to many Verstraetes. I needed to return to the country of my birth, Nederland ( Netherlands ), a name often confused with Holland. Holland is the western portion of this small European country as it nestles along the coastline of the North Sea and the English Channel. That western portion is divided into two provinces, Noord Holland, North Holland and Zuid Holland, South Holland, but all of the Netherlands comprises twelve provinces. However, over the years the term Holland has become somewhat generic for describing anything Dutch, which is a word derived from Deutsch, the Germanic name for things German. Dutch is the language of the people of the Netherlands, a language that belongs to the West Germanic branch. People in the Netherlands do not use the word Dutch in their common speech. To a citizen of the Netherlands, he or she speaks Nederlands or Hollands. Confusing, right?

So I decided to begin "in the beginning," specifically April 15, 1945, the date of my birth. The times and circumstances surrounding my birth revolved around the end of World War II. The details of my birth were first published in "When A Neighbour Came Calling," a series of personal accounts of Nazi occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945, published in 1985 by Paideia Press in Ontario. My personal account was titled, "The Honourary War Baby."

In many ways the story that follows is like one of many maps I have. I love maps. I have many maps: city maps, provincial maps, island maps, continental maps, old maps, historical maps, and my favourite, the Rand McNally Road Atlas, in which I have carefully marked all the highways I have traveled. I have driven many highways that stretch across Canada and the United States. Planning a long drive is a genuine pleasure for me. To map out a journey is an adventure in itself. Great is the thrill when my planning proves to be right and my eyes and mind feast on endless miles of landscape interrupted only by occasional urban sprawl.

Essentially three maps suffice the journey I share in this book. All three overlap as each map is integrally woven into the fabric of the entire journey. There is the map of my earthly journey as husband, father, and member of this great Canadian community. It is marked with many hills and valleys, with smooth and potholed roads. There is also a map of my artistic or creative journey, filled with endless observation and a desire to somehow give voice to the experiences along the way. Then there is the map of my spiritual journey, where words often fail me to describe what I really feel. May those who read these words be reminded and comforted that none on my words are carved in stone. Many were birthed out of human doubt and fear, yet through all the pages runs a scarlet thread that will bring encouragement to those who seek the higher way, where faith and hope are fused into a reality that rises above the mundane, common-sense reasoning of this tired world.

Gerrit V.L.Verstraete, Gabriola Island, British Columbia, 2001

A good night for a story
November was a dark month. By four o'clock in the afternoon the shadows had disappeared and dusk turned into early evening. This night was just another November night. Outside, the clouds had conspired to drench the island in torrential rains. Millions of wet raindrops pelted on the metal roof giving the night its own percussion symphony. Darkness was here to stay with the only hope of lengthening days still months away. Yes, somehow the evening felt safe and cozy. A generous fire was burning in our large woodstove. A kettle whistled upstairs in the kitchen, signalling for its contents to be poured into steaming mugs of hot chocolate and Kalua International Coffee. These were the kind of nights when a good comedy or a National Geographic special could pass away the hours. That is, right after Wheel of Fortune, when Alice and I would snuggle on the sofa and watch Pat and Vana tempt contestants with puzzles and prizes.

"Oh no! Not another National Geographic special, again?" was the lament of those children who still lived at home. Off they sulked to their rooms to play with video games, listen to music on their boombox, or watch their favourite program on a small portable television I bought over ten years ago.

"Turn that stereo down! Now!"

"And it's NOT music!"

This night, however, was not a night for television. It was a night for a good story.

Somehow the dark night had transported me into realms of facts and imagination. My mind was swimming in details of stories and events of many years ago. If only I had a video camera when I was young. My large collection of family pictures, including some three thousand slides, did not begin until our honeymoon in 1969, two years after we were married. The rest remain as a fathomless collection of glimpses that began pretty well in 1969, the year our first son was born.

Outside the rain continued to pour straight down.

The roof rattled like tiny drums under the avalanche of rain.

The night was dark.

I was interrupted in my thoughts by the tiny form of a grandchild crawling on my lap.

She did not hesitate to make herself very comfortable against my soft and bulky hooded sweatshirt. Or was that my stomach that is soft and bulky?

Regardless, I put my arms around her. Slowly she turned her head to look into my eyes.

"Opa," she asked, "when were you born?"

Somehow I knew my reply would be a lengthy one. To my children that was not so unusual, but for those who have heard me preach, it was somewhat unnerving when they looked at their watch and saw I had been speaking for an hour, and I didn't appear to be any closer to an "amen," than when I started.

However, there would be no sermon tonight.

It's was good night for a story.

I looked her in the eyes and said, "Opa was born in a country far away, thousands of miles from Gabriola Island and Canada, a country with a funny name called Nederland, which gave me Dutch roots."

She didn't seem daunted by the fact I was an alien to these shores, eventhough I had lived in Canada for over forty three years.

"If you promise not to fall asleep, I will tell you the whole story."

The honourary war baby

I was born on Sunday afternoon, April 15, 1945, while a bright and warm sun was shining on the ancient Dutch city of Zwolle. The sun was also shining in the hearts of the city's inhabitants. Church bells rang throughout the city. There was excitement in the streets. People didn't know whether to go to church or catch the latest developments on the street. It was Liberation Day.

Less than twenty-four hours earlier, German occupation troops still rumbled through the city's cobblestone streets, and according to my father ( your great-grandfather I added ), Zwolle was still under German artillery fire. Today, however, Hitler's Nazi troops were gone, driven from the city by the advancing columns of Allied troops, spearheaded by Canadian soldiers. Despite the practise of blowing up bridges over key waterways whenever the defeated Germans left to retreat one more mile, one more county, and one more province, the tide of Allied victory could not be stopped. The bridge that crossed the IJssel River, near the southern limits of the city, had been sufficiently repaired to manage the crossing of troops. Nothing could stop the Canadians now. A flood of Allied troops and relief supplies came rumbling over the bridge. With the flood of people and supplies came a torrent of tears of joy. People everywhere were dancing in the streets. From rooftops, awnings, windows, and steeples, the bright colour of Orange began to appear. Orange has been the official colour of the Royal Family of the Netherlands, the House of Orange, and the proud colour of Dutch people everywhere. The official Dutch flag, however, with its familiar red, white, and blue colours, appeared all over the city as well.

In the midst of all that excitement, I was born.

In the old city quarter of Zwolle stood a large Herenhuis, a house that belonged to a fraternal religious order. The address was Rozemarinstraat 1. It was also the home of my grandparents and parents during World War II. Whenever the frightening sounds of air raid sirens wailed over the city, and the houses shook with the drone of long distance fighters and bombers, my grandparents and parents retreated to the house of their neighbours, tucked behind the Herenhuis on Rozemarinstraat. The reason was a practical one. The Weller family, who were owners of Weller's Glass Wholesalers, had somehow managed to build a makeshift bomb shelter in the wine cellar and storage area of their business, a building which also served as the Weller's family home. It was into this shelter that my father and mother and opa and oma, retreated whenever the threat of Allied bombing raids and German retaliation loomed overhead. God knows how many prayers were said during those raids to ask that the deadly cargo in the skies would not fall on the city. People prayed feverishly that pilots and crew of the Allied bomber command would safely return to their families and friends waiting anxiously at home. However, this sunny Sunday was different. Prayers had been answered at last. Fear had been replaced by renewed hope and joyful anticipation of a better tomorrow. Even though the dangers of bombing missions and street fighting were just hours behind them, the Verstraete family chose to remain a little while longer in their shelter for yet another reason.

Cornelia Verstraete was about to give birth.

Dr.Weber, the attending gynaecologist, wore an orange tie for the occasion.

With the liberation of the city of Zwolle, came new life, a new life for a battle-scarred country, new life for a beleaguered city, and new life for Chris and Cornelia Verstraete. The world around them may not have been the best of places to begin a new life, but Chris and Cornelia Verstraete smiled as they laid me, their second baby boy, in a crib fashioned from remnants of an orange crate.

With pride they called me Gerrit, a name also carried by my mother's brother. Gerrit was the second child of Chris and Cornelia, following the footsteps of an older brother, Beert, who had stepped into the world a year earlier on April 2, 1944.

Custom often required that a newborn child be given additional names as well. This custom preserved a tradition of perpetuating family names and loved ones. For many it was an honour to see one's personal name live on in the proper names of their children. I was no exception. However, the search for my other names took an unusual twist. To understand what happened that Sunday, April 15, 1945, I must tell a bit of the story of the times.

By April 1945, World War II was over, at least in the eastern part of the Netherlands. During the following month of May, the remainder of my small European fatherland would be liberated. Times were a mixture of deep emotions with jubilation and freedom overshadowed by pent-up anger and resentment of German occupation. Some parts of the country, especially the major metropolitan areas of the west such as the cities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, suffered a great deal more than eastern parts of the country. Zwolle is the capital of an eastern province called OverIJssel, a name that means "over" or "on the other side of" the IJssel River, a major tributary of the Rhine and important shipping route to the Atlantic. After Dutch armed forces capitulated early in the war, my father went into hiding throughout the five-year German occupation of Nederland. I always compared my dad's hiding to a form of house arrest, with extremely limited access to outside services and always at great risk to his personal life. If he were caught it would mean being shipped to the work camps of eastern Europe. My uncle Herman who was my father's younger brother, served in the Dutch airforce. When the airforce surrendered, he hid as well in the family home on Rozemarinstraat.

When Allied troops began to fill the streets that sunny Sunday in April 1945, my uncle was one of many who quickly connected with the city's liberators. No doubt their common bond of military duty quickly cut though the awkwardness of liberator and oppressed. The fact my uncle spoke fluent English also helped a great deal. Somehow on that special day, uncle Herman got the thought in his head to introduce a number of Allied soldiers to the Verstraete family. He led two of his newfound Canadian friends through the narrow streets of the old city, past the old stone church, to the Rozemarinstraat.

As I lay in my orange-crate-crib that afternoon, the door to the makeshift bomb shelter and wine cellar opened and through it stepped uncle Herman with two strangers, dressed in combat gear. It was a moment never to be repeated. There stood the Verstraete family, face to face with their liberators, as I, a little baby in an orange crate, looked on. It was a profound moment in the lives of a Dutch family and two Canadian soldiers.

I do not know who it was that suggested a likely solution to the matter of my additional names, but Chris and Cornelia chose to name their newborn son after the two Canadian liberators. I became Gerrit Vincent Leonard Verstraete. It was without doubt a fine way to pay tribute to the gallant men of the Allied command, many of whom gave their lives so that babies like Gerrit Vincent Leonard could have a future of freedom. It was no doubt an unforgettable moment for two soldiers as they stood looking at me, a little baby in a bomb shelter, on April 15, 1945. Vincent Southrow, who spoke French, came from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Leonard Clampitt, who spoke English, lived in Vancouver, British Columbia. When the war was over, Leonard Clampitt moved in with his mother, who had in the meantime moved to Santa Rosa, California. Although both Vincent and Leonard kept in touch for a while after the war, nothing further is known of Vincent's whereabouts after Leonard's move to California. Leonard's mother, however, moved by her son's namesake in the Netherlands, did something unique and very special. In a way, she initiated her own version of the Marshall Plan, the name given to a massive American effort to rekindle the flames of western Europe's economy that had been devastated and plundered by the Nazis.

Each year, as close as she could manage to the date of April 15, she sent a handsome birthday card addressed to Gerrit Vincent Leonard Verstraete. In the card was a crisp American ten dollar bill, a huge sum for post-war times. I didn't have a clue as to how much ten American dollars really was. After all, I was just a baby. Like manna from heaven, her contributions were vital to the wellbeing of the Verstraete family. Occasionally she sent a parcel of clothes as well.

Regrettably, contact with Leonard and his mother, was lost when my family immigrated to Canada. Repeated efforts through Canada's Veteran Services and Canadian Legion Magazine have failed to track down either Vincent or Leonard. The last time I tried to contact Santa Rosa city hall was in 1995. They sent me a page out of their phone book. It listed a few Clampitts but none were the Clampitts I was looking for. Nevertheless, Vincent and Leonard's names live on as the "honourary war baby" named Gerrit Vincent Leonard Verstraete, lives to tell others of that special day in April 1945, when two soldiers came calling on a little boy and his Dutch family. On that same day in 1945, the city of Zwolle issued the following proclamation:

" Fellow-citizens! The Netherlands are rising again. The House of Orange returns. Zwolle has been liberated. The Allied armies are in pursuit of the defeated enemy. His unbearable tyranny is a thing of the past. God be worshipped and praised. Let us first of all thank Him in our places of worship and respectfully remember today those who suffered and died for the cause of freedom. With joy and enthusiasm we welcome the Allied forces who have freed us from our yoke. Let us not forget, however, in our rejoicings the sorrow still borne by so many and the difficulties which must be overcome by united cooperation. Three cheers for our native country and long life for the Fatherland. God save the Queen and her House!" ( translated from a document in the city archives of Zwolle, dated April 15, 1945 ).

As I begin to tell this story it seems fitting that I pen my thoughts on the west coast of Canada, home of one of my liberators. Perhaps it is one of the reasons I have always experienced somewhat of a special feeling for Canada's west. These feelings became very evident when Joe Hatt-Cook, my business partner of twelve years during the advertising agency years from 1970 to 1982, took me "home" to Vancouver, his place of birth. We never did make it to Vancouver. One time in 1974, we came close, having obtained a major advertising contract in Edmonton. From there we had planned to rent a car and drive through the Rockies. At the end of our journey we planned to fly back from Vancouver to Toronto. A wildcat airline strike forced us to abandon our trip. Another major advertising contract called us home in a hurry. From Edmonton we drove to Jasper and Banff. Somewhere on the Columbia Icefields Highway between Jasper and Banff we heard on CBC that a wildcat strike in the airlines had been called. As fast as we dared drive, we headed back to Calgary to try and get home somehow, but we missed the last available flight. Every airline was on strike, the trains were booked full, and all busses were occupied. It was an unfortunate way to end a great trip and I did not get so see Joe's west.

Instead, we drove from Calgary to Toronto, driving "one-way" rental vehicles all the way back. I may have missed the west, but it turned out to be a great way to see the rest of Canada. Joe died of AIDS in 1988, leaving me without his animated tales of Canada's fabulous westcoast, only to experience that coast myself many years later when I moved my family to Gabriola Island in 1993.

I was baptised Gerrit Vincent Leonard Verstraete in Zwolle's Oosterkerk ( East Church ), shortly after my birth. Thus began the journey of my life, first as a young child in the Netherlands and later as a teen and adult in Canada.

"Do you want to hear more?" I asked, wondering if she had fallen asleep.

"Sure Opa," she replied, as she snuggles closer.

( see postscript on page 174, for the conclusion to this unique and true story )

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