The Admiraals were my grandmother's side of the family, a side that came complete with an illustrious past, a past that began somewhere in a little place called Hasselt. I do remember, although vaguely, occasional visits to Hasselt, a small rural town just west of Zwolle. It was home to a number of family members of my grandmother, Aleida Admiraal. Hasselt is a picturesque little medieval town with tiny brick rowhouses placed in an orderly fashion along its many waterways. It was an urban planning tradition common to the Dutch watery way of life. Hasselt was also home to a number of family businesses, especially those of shipyards and shipwrights. The town graced the banks of a river that eventually flowed into the North Sea. The Admiraal family were shipbuilders. They built many ships to ply the coastal waters of the Netherlands and to cross the channel to England. I share this brief story of the Admiraal family because of its unique history and special place of honour in the "Verstraete Venture." In fact, I am rather proud of the events that led to the Admiraal legacy. Let me take you back a century or so, during the early nineteen hundreds. Beert Verstraete had married Aleida Admiraal. Beert and Aleida were my grandparents who were both born just two years apart, in 1893 and 1891, respectively. Their lineage continued via a son Christiaan, my father. Two other sons, Lambert and Herman, although married, never had any children.
The 1890's were times when the great powers of Europe were on the verge of war. Europe was in turmoil. A number of alliances were hastily formed to stem the growing tide of revolution and war. Germany had signed a reassurance treaty with Russia in 1887. The French and Russians had declared an alliance as well in 1893. The Boer War between Great Britian and Transvaal began in 1899, and lasted until 1902. The English signed up with the Japanese in 1902, and the English and French concludes an entente in 1904. The Russian-Japanese War broke out in 1904, and lasted until 1905. Austria annexed Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908. The first Moroccan crisis of 1905, spilled over into a second crisis in 1911. Two wars erupted in the Balkans in 1912, and 1913. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated by Serbians in a political plot at Sarajevo, Bosnia.
The European continent erupted into the first World War.
During those turbulent times, the ship-building Admiraal family, married into the Verstraete family. Everyone tried to maintain life and order. The Verstraete family became heirs of the Admiraal legacy. However, the Admiraal story dates back much further than the 1890's, World War I, and the early nineteen hundreds. In fact, records of the Admiraal family date back further than Verstraete's and those of the Van Dam's on my mother's side. Whereas the Verstraete and Van Dam family trees can be traced back to about the year 1744, the Admiraal legacy begins in 1573, two hundred years earlier and as of today, nearly half a millennium ago. I must confess to a vivid imagination as I recall the events of 1573. My mind conjures up images of swashbuckling buccaneers, tall ships, barrels of pork-in-brine, and adventures to the East Indies. However, I shall attempt to remain true to the details of the story. I hope you will not become too frustrated by all those Dutch names, but the Dutch language is still a special part of my life. My children have often expressed a desire to learn the language, therefore, go ahead and try pronouncing the words.
During the month of October in 1573, Cornelis Dirkszoon ( meaning: Cornelis, zoon or son of Dirk ) suddenly became a national hero, while serving as burgomaster or mayor in the community of Monnikendam, a small town located a few miles north of Amsterdam on the Zuiderzee or South Sea. The events of the day swirled around the Battle of the Zuiderzee, precipitated by a revolt of Dutch citizens against Spanish rule. The Zuiderzee was an inland sea connected to the North Atlantic through the Noordzee or North sea, allowing strong Atlantic currents to buffet the low coastal stretches of fertile Dutch land. Cornelis Dirkszoon must have been a rebel with a cause, namely Dutch freedom, and he must have had a certain affinity for both the sea and sailing because he soon found himself captain of a Dutch warship. His warship was part of a small naval force hastily mustered by the Dutch rebels. In the battle that erupted, Cornelis Dirkszoon's ship captured The Spanish Inquisition, which of all ships, was in fact the flagship of the Spanish fleet. He took as his prisoner De Bossu, enemy commander of the Spanish flagship. It was no small victory. A short while later, the entire Spanish fleet was defeated and destroyed. Following Cornelis' spectacular naval victory, the entire sea battle served as a moral and symbolic victory for the Dutch rebels. For his bold feat of courage and leadership, Cornelis Dirkszoon was honoured with the rank of Admiraal, that is Admiral of the Fleet. His descendants adopted the military rank of Admiraal as a family name complete with a special family crest to commemorate the events of 1573. I could, if I wanted to, sport the name Gerrit Vincent Leonard Admiraal-Verstraete on a letterhead alongside coats of arms of both families. Hey, call me what you will, but I am still rather proud that my journey includes liberators of the 1570's as well as 1945, yet three hundred and seventy-five years apart.
As the nineteenth century progressed, however, the trade of shipbuilding declined for the Admiraal family. The primary reason for the decline was the result of cutting the Zuiderzee's watery link between inland rivers and the North Sea. The town of Hasselt, where most of the Admiraal family lived just west of Zwolle, in effect had become land-locked.
In the mid-nineteenth century a great Dutch engineering feat made that "cutting of watery links" between north and south seas possible. It was known as the Afsluitdijk, a long stretch of dike literally known as "the dike that cuts off," and it ended the Zuiderzee's dominance and turbulent contributions to Dutch coastal life. Instead, this body of saltwater once known as a sea, the Zuiderzee, became a lake to be called IJsselmeer, or "IJssel Lake," named after the IJssel River, a tributary of the Rhine. Zwolle, my city of birth, is located on the banks of the IJssel River. When the Afsluitdijk was completed, plans were implemented to begin draining IJsselmeer, an ambitious project to reclaim the fertile land that lay below the surface of the newly-formed lake. The result was the creation of a number of polders, which are tracts of marshy land, below sea level. In turn these polders were drained and the land reclaimed for cultivation. Dutch engineers built an elaborate network of dikes and pumping stations to keep water at acceptable levels. Typical images of the Netherlands are picturesque windmills, a national symbol of Dutch invention. Windmills served as pumps to manage water levels and as mills to grind all sorts of grains. After many years the slowly drying polders eventually turned a watery landscape into some of the most productive and fertile farmland of these low-lands. I have bicycled and toured by car through polders where fields stretched endlessly flat and rolling, boasting of an abundance of wheat and farm produce, while basking under blue and generous Dutch skies, skies made famous by seventeenth century Dutch masters.
And so ends my story of the Admiraal family amidst the colourful surroundings of a Dutch landscape and its equally colourful history.
However, as I share this tale, I am prodded once again to dig deep into my memory and find some more stories to tell. In fact, I am somewhat reluctant to leave my past, as I savour the moments I remember once again, even wishing to turn the clock back to simpler days. Those were the days of endless hours of playing safely in the streets of Zwolle and in the alleys and backyards of our neighbourhood. Television had as yet not dulled my imagination and my only venture into modern technology was distribution radio, an early form of state-controlled cable radio. Holland was a free and democratic country and the sparse airways of cable radio were filled with concerts and radio drama. As a family we gathered around a single speaker and turned the dial on the wall to either channel 1 or channel 2. Some of the more affluent folks on the the street owned AM/FM radios complete with banks of glowing glass radio tubes, enabling eager listeners to tune in a variety of radio stations, especially the powerful signals from Germany and France. However, i spent more time with my children's story books and a dusty copy of the official book of provincial legends and folk lore. Those were the days when I could soar in my imagination to the highest heights and the greatest adventures. Regrettably, today's youth cannot even get off the sofa as television and video games have chained them to their seats. "Back then," however, as evening fell and the Enkstraat was still lit by gaslamps and replaced later with electric lights on the Abel Tasman Straat, I retreated into my world of dreams. It helped that my older brother Beert was a master storyteller. Bundled in our blankets, because we had no central heat in those days, Beert invented story after story until we finally drifted off into welcome sleep.
My story would simply not be complete if I did not tell one of my greatest adventures ever. Having established the Admiraal family as integral to the history of the Verstraete's, I must move on to the next great chapter of my life, namely that one-of-a-kind adventure called immigration to Canada. Before I do, however, there are a few ancient memories that bear telling. Their value lies in giving all who read this story a greater insight into our collective history and an appreciation that as Verstraetes
our greatest legacy has been and always will be the rich variety of people who together are the aunts and uncles, cousins, nephews and nieces, grandfathers and grandmothers, fathers, mothers, children and grandchildren, who gave birth to each one of us.
Even though many childhood memories remain alive in my consciousness, some memories are no doubt the typical trials and temptations of any child, and others stand out as special. Perhaps there will always remain a deeper longing in me to return to that time of innocence, a time of swimming in canals and skating on them in winter months, playing soccer on streets paved with bricks, and the legends and traditions that surround my ancient home. I will never forget traditions such as Sinterklaas, a Dutch tradition celebrated every December 5th, and not quite the same as Santa Claus and Christmas celebrations elsewhere. Every year Saint Nick arrived in Zwolle as he stood tall and robed in red on the bow of a large tugboat. His white horse was at his side as was his faithful Zwarte Piet, who was Black Peter, his trusted servant. Legend had it Saint Nik rode his horse over rooftops dropping presents down chimnies. While the generous saint busied himself with presents, Black Peter made his way to the front door of every home. He knocked hard and did not wait for the occupants to open the door. He opened it himself and stuck his gloved hand around the corner. In a split second a cascade of pepernoten, small ginger cookies, tumbled to the floor sending the children scrambling to get a fair share. No sooner had he come, Black Peter left again. Somehow in the commotion, a large bundle of presents appeared. The only present I can still remember is a windup train that ran on a small circular track about two feet in diameter. Sinterklaas celebrations also heralded the start of winter, a time of year complete with its own fond memories.
My mind swirls with picturesque images of frozen canals, stubby, knotty, willows standing eerily against a pale winter sky. Who can forget ancient stone walls of medieval cities, their secret passages, and the torture chambers and grand halls in old castles. As a child I dreamt of knights with swords and shields. I constructed their symbols of chivalry and daring out of cardboard and scrap wood. In my mind I sailed endless rivers and canals, traveling past old stone churches and stately brick pakhuizen or warehouses that lined canals beside cobbled streets.
Every Sunday morning our family went to the Oosterkerk, a large church located in the oost or east section of Zwolle. In the afternoon it was time to visit oma and opa, known as grandma and grandpa. She cooked succulent meatballs made of lean horsemeat with a gravy that left your mouth watering for days. I do not recall any of the religious teachings of my youth, other than an overwhelming fear combined with guilt and a shame and unworthiness so typical of orthodox Calvinism. There was an old mariners' song I used to sing as a child. It was a song about sailors from the island of Urk, who were on shore leave and obligated to attend church. On one particular Sunday, so says the song, they were grateful for the sea's intervention, as yet another Calvinist sermon droned on about guilt and shame. It seemed the pastor of the church in Urk, a small coastal fishing village, suddenly forgot his sermon, because the sea had begun to thunder very loud outside the door of his country church - no doubt to the entire congregation's delight. I lived too far inland to expect any bulderen of de zee, "thundering of the sea," to drown out the droning and condemning voices of my childhood religion. Nevertheless, the sea and people of the Netherlands have a more sober relationship and less religious, a relationship that dates back centuries to ancient struggles between the might of oceans and the resourcefulness of people who lived along its shores. Often the relationship was one of pleasure and sandy beaches crowded with vacationers. Sometimes the relationship was a disaster.
Such was the year 1953, when sudden disaster struck.
Even though I lived quite a ways inland and far away from angry seas and windy shores, I could not escape the weight of a tragedy that struck the Netherlands during January of 1953. I was seven years old, just three months away from my eighth birthday. A massive Atlantic hurricane smashed the coasts of England and the low lands, including the Netherlands. The hurricane thundered up the channel that divides Europe and Great Britain, smashing shores and reaping havoc. Early one fateful morning, church bells began tolling a mournful dirge across the countryside to announce the looming disaster lurking outside Holland's many dikes and along her Atlantic shores. I can still feel a chill down my spine as I think of those church bells ringing ominously in the dark night. Many of Holland's dikes failed and the Atlantic came rushing over farms and through houses. With only a radio to stay abreast of the news, I listened to a national disaster unfold. Over two thousand people, including men, women, and children, died in a single tragic weekend, with over 1500 deaths recorded in the Netherlands alone. I heard the church bells ring in Zwolle. It sent shivers up my young spine. I saw water levels rise to alarming heights in rivers and canals. I feared the dike just across the street from us would burst as water rose precariously towards the top. Everyone in the neighbourhood stood nervously on standby ready to spring into action with shovels, pails, and sandbags. Parts of Zwolle's downtown business and residential areas experienced some flooding but nothing that could not be stopped by sandbags. We were safe on higher eastern grounds, away from the low lands that lay below sea level along Holland's western shores. The people of my homeland, however, rebounded from the tragedy with an even greater resolve never to let the sea win again. Thus began plans for the greatest marine engineering project ever, the Delta Plan, a plan that would eventually control all water flowing in and out of the country's most vulnerable areas that lay below sea level. I was a plan so bold and daring that even the mighty Altantic ocean and Rhine river would have to yield to the Delta Plan's power to stop or control both.
The only other time I experienced such shivers happened when the Netherlands' civil defense authorities periodically sounded all the air raid sirens throughout the city. This was done to ensure all systems were still working should yet another tyrant invade this fragile and small country I called home. After all, it had been less that ten years since one such tyrant, Adolf Hitler and his German Nazis, had been defeated and the drone of high-altitude bombers finally stopped. To young and old those air raid sirens were screaming voices of pending doom and very painful memories. We strained our ears to listen for the throbbing drone of bombers and fighter escorts. None came. I plugged my ears whenever their cry tore through the city. It's a memory that still haunts me whenever I hear any siren, even today as a fire truck or emergency reponse vehicle or ambulance wails in the dark night on this otherwise quiet island called Gabriola.
Those sirens also drove a relative mad.
I had a very strange aunt who insisted on even stranger birthday presents. When my uncle had worn through his pants, she would cut them off at the knees and stitch them into shorts. I hated those button-fly shorts with a passion. Only suspenders kept them from falling down over my legs. She was equally strange with other clothing items of my uncle. My parents made me wear those horrible uglies, not because they couldn't afford any better, but so as not to hurt my aunt's feelings. I wish they had. But, it was all blamed on "the war." My aunt was mad because of the war. Ever since those ancient memories, I have hated hand-me-downs, for both myself and my children. My children have never worn any aunt or uncle's clothes, or any hand-me-downs, unless the accepted the clothes after a full disclosure of the items in question, absolute free consent of the children, and the fact that the items were nearly new. I still detest buttons and button-flies. I have never visited a recycle depot or thrift store to look for clothing among the hand-me-downs of others, not for me or my children - brrrr.
Despite painful memories of national disasters and air raid sirens, I also experienced my first love. Her name was Titi.
Once during a brief moment of male bravado, when I was about ten years old, I prepared to show my undying love for a young girl in my class. Her name was Titi Meyer. The day dawned sunny and bright as I planned my move. My heart was pounding. Love rose within me. Seconds ticked away. Any moment we would all be seated in our traditional wooden school desks, each desk complete with a little inkwell nestled in a small glass bottle in a round hole at the top of the desk. With the sudden passion of a love-sick suitor, I bent over Titi's desk and blew hard into her inkwell. The ink splattered on her notepaper, on her pretty dress, and all over my face. I stood stunned. It was so unlike me to do such a thing. Despite youthful playfulness and exuberance, I was a normal somewhat quiet child with a big streak of shyness. Why on earth I would think that blowing in a girl's inkwell would demonstrate my love for her, I will never know. The teacher, who no doubt knew I was out of character with my sudden burst of passion, tried to control his laughter. He managed to keep a stern look on his face as the whole class erupted in cheers. Even Titi managed a big grin. Maybe love's arrow had struck home.
My punishment and the teacher's discipline were gentle. Instead of blackboard duty, endless lines, and penance in the corner of his classroom, he sent me home and told me to go to Titi's parents and apologize. I had no choice but to walk to Titi's home. It was one of the longest and most agonizing journeys of my young life. Titi lived in what seemed like the other end of the city. One day, while twisted in agony, I stepped through the doors of the Meyer grocery store in downtown Zwolle. I found Titi's mother wearing an apron at the back of the store. I had rehearsed my confession over lengthy sidewalks and now the time had come. I swallowed hard and nearly in tears I apologized profusely to Titi's mother. She was so moved by the innocent appeal of this young boy standing in her store, his head looking mournfully at his feet, that she promptly invited me to her daughter's birthday party that Saturday. I couldn't believe my ears. Earlier that week I had embarrased both myself and the love of my life, and now I was invited to her birthday party. Not only was I invited, I was the only boy coming to her party. I learned early that true love can have great rewards despite awkward circumstances and stumbling beginnings.
My love was not reserved for just young girls. I also loved guns.
In 1956, at age eleven, I wrote a passionate letter to the chief of Zwolle's police force, begging him to give me a used revolver, one the police did not need anymore. I had falled in love with American comic books, especially the Westerns. I simply had to have a gun. In true Dutch fashion and with diplomatic courtesy, I received a very personal letter from the chief of police, a letter in which he gently refused my request and diffused my passion for used revolvers.
I have never owned a revolver, a gun, or any other firearm - ever.
Some thought at one time that my destiny was to be one in the performing arts. As a young boy I loved creating puppet shows. Armed with colour pencils and paper, I created elaborate backdrop sceneries for my productions. I constructed a puppet booth complete with a draw-curtain. Somewhere, and I don't remember where or when, I found some puppets. My theatre was a small storage shed behind our house. It could seat about ten to twenty kids. Soon the little theatre was bristling with activity as children from the neighbourhood came to see my puppet shows. Years later, as an adult, I was often "persuaded" to do puppet shows for children during the annual bazaar of the John Knox School in Missisauga. The season of puppet shows ended when television, cartoons, and other children's programming overwhelmed my continuing desire to see little children laugh. Ever since those puppet days I have tried to evoke their laughter through drawing games including storytelling, hang-man, and such special games as "scribbling," which is the art of drawing something recognizable from random scribbles on a page. Sometimes I get on the floor with a little one, as I have done so often with my own children, and draw a spontaneous story as we each take turns at developing the story in cartoon form.
And so ends a cavalcade of memories, many of them yet untold.
On June 8, 1958, the S.S.Waterman docked in Quebec City, with The Plains of Abraham looming high above the docks. The S.S. ( Steam Ship ) Waterman was a converted troop and supply carrier of the Holland America Line. It had left the Dutch port of Rotterdam, about a week earlier. As the last of the big cables that moored the S.S.Waterman to her berth fell away from the sides of the ship, large tugs gracefully and silently guided the ship into the Dutch canal that connected the harbour to the sea. On the pier stood hundreds of people, mostly relatives, as the last ties to our fatherland faded in arms that pumped goodbye, with hearts that bled as family and friends disappeared from view, and tears that flowed freely with each farewell blow of the ship's whistle. The journey eventually became a pitching and rolling rollercoaster ride through high seas, with generous portions of fog and cold, in sharp contrast to our balmy and sunny departure from the Netherlands through the English Channel. The ship, however, was a comfortable ship with many lounges, a movie theatre, and plenty of room on deck just to sit and relax or go for a stroll. It was also the S.S.Waterman's last voyage. She had an appointment with a scrapyard right after her trip to Canada.
A month earlier, I had pocketed a pale yellow Dutch and international vaccination certificate which declared me fit for immigration and which was approved by the Municipal Department of Public Health of the city of Zwolle. The certificate was kept safely in my pocket beside my own Dutch passport, which proudly declared I was valid for "de gehele wereld, le monde entier, and the whole world." The Queen's Commissioner of the Dutch province Overijssel, signed the historic document ( at least in my eyes it was historic ), dated April 29, 1958. I was Homeward Bound to a place I would come to love and appreciate as Canada, my new home and native land. Perhaps this new home would also help me find the answer to an apparent paradox.
As I look back upon my arrival in Canada, why did I consider my journey to Canada, an unknown destination for a young boy of 13, a journey homeward bound? Despite deeply rooted memories in my former homeland of the Netherlands, a fact just recently stirred up again as I watched a documentary on the Netherlands, I have always considered Canada my home. Yet my heart struggles with a longing for the past, a longing that remains rooted in a sense of belonging to history, belonging to yesterday, while another struggle competes for equal attention, namely a longing for tomorrow and a belonging to that grand adventure of another day and another year, when I was very young. I do not dismiss these struggles as a mere inevitability of dual citizenship, but I am a citizen of Canada and not a citizen of the Netherlands. It remains a tug-of-war, however, between images of ancient stone city dwellings and log cabins in remote temperate forests. The inner struggle is painted in vibrant colours over pictures of canals, windmills, turrets, knights in shining armour, and a remote and wild coast of Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim, endless prairies, winding highways through the Northland of Ontario, and the tranquil comforts of a Maritime wooden roadside chapel. Call me a sentimental fool, but could it be I want the best of both worlds, the old and the new, European and Canadian, the civilized and the frontier? Somehow I believe the answer lies in deeper feelings, feelings stirred up by special events along another journey, my spiritual journey. The events of my spiritual jouyrney all point to a mysterious city, a distant past of ancient patriarchs, a fulfillling present of escape into the beauty of drawing and fine arts, and at last a promising future that points to this mysterious city not built by humans hands. It is the eternal City of God.
I may not have been able to put words to those feelings when I was just thirteen years old, nor did I know what the City of God was, but the earthly memories of steaming towards distant horizons during June of 1958, remain as vibrant and promising as they were the day I first sighted a land called Canada. Somehow I believed then and believe now that Canada would a stepping stone towards that mysterious city.
But that was not quite how I saw Canada in June of 1958.
From 1957 to 1963, John Diefenbaker reigned as Prime Minister in Canada. It was a time marked by an unprecedented wave of western European immigration, an immigration encouraged and openly solicited by Diefenbaker's Conservatives. My father regularly received fat envelopes from the Diefenbaker government. Each envelope was filled with brochures about this magical, mystical land of opportunity called Canada. My father began a large scrapbook into which he carefully pasted bright colourful pictures of Rockie Mountains, Mounted Police, indians with spectacular ceremonial dress, gleaming office towers, vast prairies, and the endless bounty of a rich land. So it was in 1958, that Chris and Cornelia Verstraete with their six children embarked on an adventure of a lifetime. I was the second oldest of three boys and three sisters. In order of age, their names are Beert, Gerrit, Lida, Baldwin, Annelies, and Sylvia. A seventh child, Ingrid, was born in 1960, in Wallaceburg, Ontario, two years after our family arrived in Canada.
It seems providential that my first account of our voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, written in 1977, as a short manuscript of twenty-two pages, was lost a few years later, only to be found again by my daughter Karen. Providential in that I must include the detailed account of our immigration in this story of mine. Fascinated by these early writings, Karen faithfully kept them until I began this account. As I read the pages of that manuscript, it seemed right to include them in Homeward Bound. What follows is their content, beginning on a cold foggy morning somewhere off the coast of Newfoundland.
I suppose even the sun can have one of those careless and lifeless mornings, void of ambition and desire to touch even the humblest forms of life. This was one of those mornings. We all have such mornings and I was no exception. Even the very thought of effort was tiring and depressing. However, I managed to make it to my usual place near the bow of the S.S.Waterman. A thick blanket of fog greeted everyone including myself and all the other early risers. Tentacles of spray and mist spread like gloved fingers through dark troughs between endlessly slow waves. I could barely see. Deck gear stood in grey lifeless shapes stacked against bulkheads. As I looked over the side of the ship I could see the fog roll silently in front of my eyes, parting for but a brief moment to allow the ship to pass through, only to close again moments later behind a frothy wake at the stern. I remember awesome feelings of timelessness and suspended animation that belonged exclusively to the realms of fog and complete darkness.
A few more passengers staggered into the wet early morning air. They joined me in a silent vigil as we stared into the fog. Tiny drops of water began to collect in our hair and clung to our clothes. Within minutes we looked as wet as all the painted surfaces on the ship. I poked my finger into the grey mist and wrote my initials GV, on the slate-grey side of a ventilation shaft only to see the letters disappear immediately in tiny rivulets down the side. They were joined by others as they ran down together along a slippery hull towards the sea. It was an eerie sight, this small bunch of passengers huddled together like some lost platoon of non-descript soldiers, leaning on the railings of an aging ship, their eyes fixed on nowhere. The weight of their grey and dark-blue duffel coats made them look tired. Inside their hearts, however, burned bright fires of expectation. They were immigrants. I was one of them.
I pulled my coat tightly around my neck as I tried to bury my head deeper into its soft and warm lining. Even though I was only thirteen, memories of that voyage have remained clear in my mind. Despite thick fog and bone-chilling cold, I was lost in my own thoughts, thoughts of a new country that lay somewhere beyond the fog, a country of high mountains, remote wilderness, prairies, waterfalls, and Mounties everywhere.
A sudden blast of the ship's foghorn tore the misty silence to pieces. Everyone on deck was startled out of their foggy thoughts. The blast lingered for a while, as if the ship cried out desparately to the sun to penetrate the morning and bring some light. A brisk wind began whipping the fog in thick and thin patches around the deck of the ship. Portholes had been closed for a few days in anticipation of bad weather. I tried to dig even deeper into my coat. My thoughts wandered to a piece of paper in my coat pocket. Finding a sheltered area on the wet deck, I reached carefully into my pocket to retrieve a folded map. I had spent many hours drawing the map from information collected by my father. The voyage provided ample time in our family cabin to work on the map. I knew we were nearing land and despite a relentless fog I held the paper in an early morning light. The captain had mentioned a few days earlier that we would soon be nearing the southern tip of Newfoundland. I looked on my piece of paper and with a few passengers looking over my shoulders I traced my finger along an Atlantic route towards a red X placed at a watery spot called Cape Race. I had memorized our approach to Canada. First we would dip beneath Newfoundland, pass Cape Race, and enter the endless expanse of the Gulf of St.Lawrence. Passing between the Gaspé Penninsula and the island of Anticosti we would steam our way up the St.Lawrence River. Despite fog and wind, it was the prospect of seeing our new homeland that brought so many up on deck that morning. After ten days of crossing a vast and sometimes rude Atlantic Ocean, as well as many months of preparation for the voyage, we were ready to catch a glimpse of Canada. The captain also informed us that any first sighting would be brief. The next major sighting would not appear until later when we approached the Gaspé Penninsula. He estimated the time of our view of Cape Race would be at about 7:30 that morning. I looked at the watch I had borrowed from my father. It was nearly 7:30 and still the fog persisted with near-zero visibility.
Once again the foghorn tore through the cold and misty morning.
Suddenly, as if nature had finally heard the pathetic plea of a lonely ship on a sea of zero visibility, the fog lifted. Grey water spread endlessly before me. The horizon was a bleak line. The ship continued to roll gently over slow waves. There was no land in sight. Had we missed Cape Race? I walked over to the other side of ship only to be greeted by the same empty watery horizon. Behind us lay the receeding blanket of fog; in front just water and no land. Disappointed I returned to the group of immigrants who remained huddled by the railings. I asked a member of the ship's crew if we had passed Cape Race? He muttered something about not knowing or caring as he had passed this way before and it all looked the same to him. He warned me not to run on the wet deck.
Just as I capitulated to my disappointment, and as impatience began to make its presence known, a shout from our group of immigrants broke the silence.
"Look, over there! That must be Cape Race!"
Everyone strained their eyes to catch sight of land.
I pushed my way through many wet duffel coats to get a look myself. It was, however, a disappointing glimpse. Far away along a pale horizon was a small patch of dark mass that vaguely resembled a bit of land. Was it Cape Race? As I pondered the anwer to my question, the fog returned, wrapping itself around the ship as suddenly as it had disappeared. Amidst a muffled chorus of grunts, inaudible curses, and other not-so-kind words, the passengers left the deck for their cabins and any number of comfortable lounges. The first breakfast call was only minutes away. Fortunately, there would be some consolation in mounds of pancakes, bowls of porridge, plates of eggs, juice, toast, and steaming coffee. I remained on deck a few minutes longer, not willing to accept the fact that my first sight of "the promised land" was a disappointing glimpse. There had to be more. Perhaps the captain had made a mistake. If, however, he had gotten us this far, safe and sound and on course, why would he be mistaken about Cape Race? I consulted my map once more and figured that in a short while we would be able to see the shores of the Gulf of St.Lawrence. I calculated that even if we had missed seeing Cape Race we would soon see the shores of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, and Quebec, as they were "just around the corner," forming a semi-circle around the Gulf of St.Lawrence. It would be my first awakening to the geography of North America. I was too young to comprehend Canada's majestic expanse using European measures. I had been accustomed to small villages "just around the corner" as I skated along canals and rivers. Therefore, I assumed Canada to appear in the same manner. Not until my first drive across Canada many years later in 1974, did I fully realize how truly awesome and big this country really is.
Just around the corner is not a matter of mere kilometres. Often it is hundreds or thousands of kilometres and days of driving, such as the distance from Toronto to Winnipeg, a distance not even one third of the country's width. But here I stood, on the deck of a wet ship. After all, I was thirteen years old and a "long way" for a young man's understanding had been trips across the full length of the Netherlands, trips that on my father's Goggomobile or on the trains, would take only two to three hours. I simply had no idea about Canada's vast distances. I thought we had come a long way when we had barely left our Dutch harbour, passed through a special entry waterway into the English Channel, and steamed through the Channel to the edge of the Atlantic. It took only a day to travel that short distance but it seemed like eternity to me. What I did not know was that before me lay the Gulf of St.Lawerence, a huge body of water that spread nearly three hundred miles from north to south, a distance longer than the entire country in which I was born. And this was "just" a gulf, with the bulk of Canada spread for many thousands of kilometres in every other direction, north, south, and west.
When the fog finally lifted completely, a sudden event added a much-needed bright moment to an otherwise dreary day. Although the sighting was distant, the captain announced over the ship's loudspeakers, that whales could be seen off the port side of the ship. I joined the rush to port side. Many people stayed in line for the first breakfast call. They had been disappointed with the prospects of seeing Cape Race and considered it a wise choice to stay below and avoid yet another disappointment. However, as clear as I could see, in the distance were the unmistakable white plumes of breath of a small pod of whales who surfaced regularly as they made their way north. What kind of whales I did not know.
Somehow I felt vindicated. I dismissed thoughts of having missed Canada altogether and stayed on deck for many hours to watch the ship slowly dip its bow into the waves. It was a welcome change from being confined for many days to our family cabin, too sick to care about any land or other sightings. When the noon hour passed I finally returned to our cabin. My father did his best to explain the great distances that lay ahead of us, but he promised that soon we would be able to see the Canadian coastline and the shores of Quebec along the Gulf of St.Lawrence. The best was yet to come. He was right.
When we finally reached the mouth of the St.Lawrence River, having quietly passed Anticosti Island, the view was breathtaking. June had finally dawned in brilliant sunshine and I stood fixed to the deck of the ship. Once in a while I shifted from port to starboard to catch the "other side of heaven," as the view slowly unfolded before my eyes. Even as I close my eyes today, over forty-five years later, I can still see the mountains and steep headlands that plunged into the sea followed by rolling hills that seemed to drip in an abundance of early summer colours. I didn't want to miss a thing. Slowly and deliberately we made our way up the river. It was as if the captain knew there were many on deck who not only savoured the view, but who also had to deal with overwhelming emotions as ten days on a dark ocean finally gave way to a panorama of magnificent splendour. Words could not adequately describe the view. I think the captain envisioned himself as grand marshal of some giant homecoming parade. Flags appeared everywhere. On both sides of the river wound a black asphalt highway, often touching the very shore of the river. For the first time I could see people. They were driving along the highway in big cars. I wondered who they were. Could these be Canadians? Could they see our ship as it slowly pushed its way up the river? Were they waving at me? Could they see me?
I waved back.
My mind drank in every moment along the great river.
The mountains of the Gaspé Penninsula followed to form a beautiful gateway to our new home. At a point along the river known as Father's Point, a small boat came alongside the S.S.Waterman to bring us our much needed pilot to guide us up the St.Lawrence River.
Thoughts turned towards the future, even if they were the thoughts of only a young man. As anyone who knows me will testify, I am prone to vivid imaginations and fantasies. Therefore my thoughts turned to school, home, and seasons of play. I would probably not go to school anymore so that I could help my father build a log house and cut trees from the forests that bordered a vast wilderness around our soon-to-be family homestead. Of course, we would have to start building right away to be ready in time for the winter's first snow. My mind drifted to a collection of photographs my father had so carefully pasted in an album. He had been very thorough in his investigation of Canada.
"The Canadian government was glad to see us," he said, "and the Dutch government was glad to get rid of us."
I remember carrying a personal picture of the Honourable John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister of Canada, in my pocket, complete with a hearty welcome to Canada. Actually it was a standard, government-issue, postcard, but I did not care. I must have showed that card to everyone I knew in Zwolle, so impressed was I with the fact that the Prime Minister had personally invited me to come to Canada. Perhaps it accounted for the fact that for many years after I reached voting age, I voted Progressive Conservative.
Forgotten was the long grey journey across the Atlantic. Forgotten was sea sickness, cabin fever, and nausiating line-ups for meals when we all stood waiting patiently along smelly passageways awash in the foul odours of fuel and lubricating oil of steamy engine rooms. Forgotten were my father's white shirts as they hung on coathangers to dry in our cabin, slowly swaying back and forth with the rolling and pitching movement of the ship. June 1958, became forever etched in my thirteen-year old mind as that memorable day I first steamed up the St.Lawrence River, a day bathed in my mind's eye in deep blue waters, majestic pale-blue mountains, green hills and bright sunny skies with snow-white clouds.
Every mile and moment along the St.Lawrence River was drenched in a fulfillment of dreams I had nurtured for months. Needless to say, the dreams of my father and mother were much less romantic. Theirs were thoughts of survival and the unknowns of a new country, the hidden perils of a new culture, and struggles of a new language. Our only tie with the old Dutch ways was a representative of the Christian Reformed Church, the Canadian version of the Christelijk Gereformeerde Kerk in the Netherlands, to which our family had belonged as long as I can remember. Our Canadian representative was there to help us find a new home, to recommend suitable places for employment, and of course settle us into the nearest church. Most immigrants followed the advice of this church representative. Our representative was especially excited about southern Ontario in a province whose economy was booming because of massive post-war growth especially in the building trades and manufacturing sectors. The only relative we knew was my mother's step-sister, aunt Janny and husband, uncle Izak Jager, who also lived in somewhere in southern Ontario. They had immigrated years earlier. They lived in a new home and boasted continually about Ontario, the province of opportunity.
Our journey up the St.Lawrence River eventually took us to Quebec City, our first port of call. The ship slowly docked below a steep embankment that climbed to a high plateau crowned with historic fields. A couple of small wooden staircases led precariously to the top of the embankment. But these were not for the ship's passengers. The stairs led to The Plains of Abraham, site of the Conquest of 1759, when British forces defeated French forces. In 1791, just thirty-two years later, Canadian Parliament passed the Canada Act which divided French and English Canada into Upper Canada ( Ontario ) and Lower Canada ( Quebec ). We had just docked in Lower Canada. My thoughts were, however, not on Canadian history when the S.S.Waterman docked in Quebec City. My mind was filled with pictures my father had glued in his big Canada scrapbook, pictures of Mounties in scarlet and seated on black stallions. There were photographs of plains indians in full ceremonial costume, a prairie cowboy complete with buckskin chaps and wide-brimmed hat, and grain silos framed on the horizon by those awesome and majestic Rockies. I dreamed that soon I would be there. Canada was a land of fantasy, at least for a thirteen-year old boy.
Strong gusts of wind did not stop excited immigrants from leaving the ship. They were glad to be on terra firma again. They stood in small clusters on the deck of the ship as they clutched cardboard suitcases. A sudden gust threw a number of passengers off balance. Some fell to the deck. A suitcase snapped open spilling its contents everywhere. The wind caught linens and fine Dutch underwear and tossed them into the river. However, nothing could dampen the spirits of immigrants. Slowly they began leaving the ship. As they walked down the gangway, they turned to wave a final goodbye and then disappeared into the immigration building. I returned to my cabin to read some more from my English/Dutch dictionary.
"How do you do."
"Very well, thank you."
"Where is the bus station?"
I practised and practised. It was hopeless. I could not master English using a Dutch phonetic system.
"Is this the way to the post office?"
Sleep soon overcame me. Tomorrow was a new day. Montreal was our destiny and final stop for our ship's trans-Atlantic journey. We arrived around lunch time. The city afforded us some time to walk around in good weather. We spent several hours in a beautiful park. We bought some bread at a local grocery store as well as fresh-baked buns, butter, cheese, and milk. Under a warm and bright sun we enjoyed our first picnic on Canadian soil. Local residents who walked in the park stared curiously at this fresh-off-the-boat family. Maybe we did look rather bedraggled having just gotten off the boat. Some nodded with broad grins, perhaps in memory of their first steps on Canadian soil. A number of pigeons joined our picnic. Not all the Verstraete's had fared too well on our epic journey. Seasickness had affected most of us, some worse than others. A Montreal park was welcome relief from the ocean. By evening we boarded a train for our next destination, Toronto.
As we left Montreal's railway yards, evening turned to night. I pressed my face against the window to catch a glimpse of the Rockies. All I could see was the reflection of lightbulbs of the train's interior outlining many silhouettes of tired immigrants and other passengers. Despite vigorous promotion of trans-continental trains and the fabled Canadian silver-bullet, we were destined instead for a slow and rocking ride on a train which had no doubt seen better days. The train was drafty and messy, with dirty washrooms and hard seats. All I remember of the Montreal-Toronto trainride is pitchblack darkness, except for a brief moment when I caught some movement in the trees that lined the tracks. It was a white-tailed deer, my first sight of Canadian wildlife. Sometime during the long night we arrived at Toronto's Union Station.
Waiting on a nearby platform was the Chicago-Toronto Dayliner, a sleek and silvery train that would take us to Chatham, a city in south western Ontario. The ride would take about three hours to get there. However, this ride was smooth, but too smooth for Lida, one of my sisters. She was simply overwhelmed by too many hours of travel and became very sick. It was a messy night on the Chicago-Toronto Dayliner. At last, the train rolled to a quiet halt in Chatham.
The night was strange and dark. Bright headlights suddenly caught us in their beams as we stood on the platform. Soon we were shaking hands with two friendly drivers. We were ushered into two large cars that resembled majestic livingrooms on wheels. I remember the dark and warm interior of a 1945 Chevrolet. The others traveled in an older Pontiac. We drove through the night and rolled quietly towards the end of our long journey. Some of the children slept. Both cars finally pulled into a wide driveway somewhere on the outskirts of a mid-size, Ontario town called Wallaceburg. The night was still very dark.