My family invaded Holland in June, 1964. I have heard that The Beatles invaded America that year, too, but I had no idea who they were and probably would not have cared had I known. At four years old, I cared only for the ice cream freezer in the lobby of the old hotel we took rooms in, the cheese-man and his horse, the walk-in bird cages containing hundreds of colorful songbirds, and the wondrous spiral staircase that rose to the mysterious door in the ceiling of the third floor. Life appeared magical to a four year old in a new country.
Our hotel stood in the village of Huis Ter Heide, not too far from Camp New Amsterdam, the Air Force Base where my dad would be stationed. We lived there for two months until our household goods arrived and dad found a house for us in Driebergen. Those two months overflowed with joy and discovery for me as I ran around as if I owned the hotel, seeking fun wherever I could find it. Fortunately, the owners indulged me and, despite mom’s repeated apologies for my rambunctiousness, never prevented me from having all the fun a four-year old kid could have. I don’t remember other kids my age living at the hotel, so that meant my younger sisters and I had the ice cream freezer all to ourselves.
Every time I walked through the lobby I could feel the freezer beckoning to me; I couldn’t keep my eyes from it and could practically smell the chocolate and vanilla and strawberry ice cream kept inside. I used to lean my head against the freezer so I could feel the vibration of the motor, and then open my mouth and say “ahhhhhh” just to hear the sound vibrate and tickle my throat. I must have looked like Charlie Brown standing with his head against the wall. I probably provided quite a bit of entertainment for hotel guests and staff throughout my stay. Once in a while, someone on the staff or another guest would take pity on me and give me an ice cream bar. Every Friday evening, mom and dad would buy ice cream for all of us and we would go outside to eat it and walk around the neighborhood greeting our neighbors and waving to the folks riding bicycles.
It didn’t take long before I discovered that the cheese-man came every morning at 6:30, riding on his horse-drawn cart piled high with red- and yellow-rind cheeses. I begged dad to wake me up when he left for work so I could greet the cheese-man and his horse. Mom would give me breakfast and make sure I looked presentable before sending me out among the hotel guests. I don’t know if she called ahead to warn the staff; it wouldn’t have surprised me if she had. I would wait, jumping from foot to foot in the doorway of the hotel lobby, for the tinkle of the bell on the horse’s collar that signaled the arrival of my new Dutch friend. The cheese-man would lift me up onto the horse’s back so I could gaze at the rounds of cheese piled up in the cart. Oh, how important I felt when he let me lug a big wheel of cheese from the cart into the kitchen of the hotel where Chef kindly relieved me of my heavy burden. Cheese and bread and milk awaited me in the kitchen when I helped the cheese-man. I think I still liked ice cream better, though.
When the cheese-man and his horse left, I would wait for the man who fed the birds in the cages in the courtyard. The wings of the hotel encircled the courtyard which contained a grassy area and tables with chairs for guests to relax in. I have a vivid memory of an old Dutchman with a long white beard sitting at a table reading a newspaper and smoking a pipe with a long white stem; I can still recall the fragrant smell of the tobacco to this day, perhaps because my dad smoked a pipe at the time. I grew excited when I heard the birdman scooping the birdseed into buckets. He would walk out of the little room next to the coalhouse carrying a bucket in each hand. He’d wink and speak to me in Dutch; I didn’t understand Dutch then, but I think he probably liked my company because he always beckoned me with his hand to follow him.
When we came to the cages I had to stand outside while he went in and fed the birds. I don’t know why I could not go into the cages, but I suspect he didn’t want my mom to get angry if bird droppings fell on me. Only in my last week at the hotel did I get to go into the cages, and then my dad came with me. There were hundreds of birds, mostly canaries and parakeets, but also cockatiels. I loved the cockatiels best for their crests and the orange spots on their cheeks; they could mimic human whistles, too. I spent hours every day gazing at the birds and feeding them sunflower seeds through the wires of the cages. Years later in Tampa we had a cockatiel of our own named Christopher. He died when I was nine years old and I buried him in a pickle jar in the backyard.
On rainy days I stayed inside the hotel. Our rooms were on the second floor, at the top of a long flight of stairs that turned ninety-degrees halfway up to the landing. If I could find no one in the lobby to take pity on me and feed me ice cream, I would go upstairs and play on the spiral stairs that went up to the third and fourth floors. I’m sure my mom had some anxious moments watching me slide down that long, curving railing. I had never seen a spiral staircase until moving to Holland. I spent many hours playing on the spiraling steps that started out wide on one end and grew narrower on the side nearest the supporting pole. The steps rose through the third floor and stopped at a locked door in the ceiling. The door led to the cupola on the roof, but I didn’t know that and never saw it opened. I never found out what lay beyond the locked door. Dad told me I didn’t need to know; that only made not knowing worse. I always thought dad knew but just wanted to torture me.
One day, dad came home from the base and said our household goods had arrived and we were moving to Driebergen. Two days later I said goodbye to the cheese-man and his horse, Chef, the bird man, and the hotel staff. I felt sad to be leaving the hotel, but mom and dad said I’d like the new house.
Magic struck again for my sisters and me when we moved into the new house in Driebergen: it was located above a candy shop. Why in the world dad rented a house for a family of five kids that occupied the upper stories of a building whose first floor held a candy shop, I never found out. And why in the world dad rented a house located next door to a massive church, nearly the size of a cathedral, a church whose bell tower soared a hundred feet and stood on the corner of the church nearest to us, I also never found out. I do know, however, for whom the bell tolled: dad moved us within a year.
I loved the house, though, and I loved the two teenage girls who worked in the candy shop. They never missed an opportunity to provide my younger sisters and me with all the sweets we could savor. One of the girls had the same name as my next older sister, Marianne, pronounced “Moddyahn” in Dutch. Years later, I often teased my sister “Moddyahn” about bringing me candy. She turned eleven that first year in Holland, though, and probably never spoke to the candy shop girls. I think she spent all of her time pining away in her bedroom listening to .45s of The Beatles singing “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
I had the best bedroom in the world in that house. Pull-down steps led up to the little room that fit snugly among the rafters of the attic. I would lie on my stomach at night and look out the dormer window at the people passing by in the street below. The pull-down steps belonged to me and I always had to be the one to pull them down. Pushing them up, though, had to be done by someone taller than me.
One of my favorite memories comes from the winter of 1964. It snowed quite a bit during that first winter in Holland. I had never seen snow and loved to walk in it. One night, dad took me window shopping along the street in front of our house. I had never heard of window shopping and thought we were buying real windows. After a while I asked dad why we needed to buy them. He just smiled and explained what window shopping meant. I suspect dad felt like doing some Christmas shopping for mom; I don’t remember if he bought anything for her. We just walked along, hand in hand, looking in all the windows and watching other folks walk by. There were toy stores along our walk; I must have pressed my nose against a hundred panes of glass that night.
The night held magic for me, and for dad, too, I’m sure. The shops were trimmed with Christmas lights, windows decorated with fake snow and holly, and Christmas trees stood in every storefront. Light snow filled with the soft glow of street lamps glittered around dad and me as we walked along gazing at the gifts behind the windows. Christmas carols floated from the stores and filled the night. And, somewhere off in the distance, I thought I heard sleigh bells.