My Dutch In-Laws and the Wonder of Machined Things

Koos en Riek in an Italian Movie moment
Koos en Riek van Vliet, 1950s, Holland. I’ve always loved this picture – it looks like a Truffaut movie still.

My mother-in-law is visiting from Holland, an unlikely country spread across an undersea declivity from which the water, over the centuries, has been ingeniously pushed, rather than drained. The sea still muscles up to the country of 17 million like a churlish rejected suitor, harassing with all the weight of the vast ocean the defenses the Dutch have built to keep her at bay. On the night of January 1, 1953 an historic catastrophe which the Dutch call the Watersnoodramp (‘water tribulation disaster’, approximately) befell the dish-like Holland with long-lasting effects.  A mighty storm, combined with the kismet of high tides, swamped the Dutch system of seawalls and dykes and inundated the south of the country in the Zeeland – Noord Brabant region. Nearly 2000 people were drowned, along with tens of thousands of animals. Buildings and homes were swept away and in the course of the blow several ships were lost at sea and in the channel.

In one of many notable feats of spontaneous, powerfully practical Dutch “Now we will fix this” derring-do (a quality I’ve learned to both love and fear), the quick-thinking, detail-averse mayor of a town called Niewenkerk commandeered a largish grain barge and ordered the captain, named Arie Evegroen, to head with all speed to a widening breach in the Groenendijk on the river Ijssel near his town, a key dyke in the region whose loss would be catastrophic. That high sea dyke was beginning to weaken on the seaward side, threatening with explosive flash flooding about 3 million Dutch people in the province’s lowlands. Captain Evegroen was reportedly nervous about the more-than-a-little-crazy, seat-of-the-pants plan his wild-eyed mayor had cooked up, but he only paused long enough to haul a lifeboat onto his rust-eaten barge, de Twee Gebroeders (the Two Brothers), in case things didn’t work out and he was obliged to jump overboard.

Een Dubbeltje op Zijn Kant
Een Dubbeltje op Zijn Kant – a cool little statue in the Groenedijk commemorating a sea dog’s rescue of his countrymen in a moment of rural quickthink.

In the event, Captain Evegroen throttled up to the dyke and in the “I was raised on this river” manner that jut-jawed heroic sea dogs have, masterfully maneuvered his ship into the yawning hole such that the full force of the sea was diverted from the breach, and several million Dutch brothers and sisters downriver were saved.

A typically demure bit of Dutch statuary commemorates the event on the site of the patchwork rescue of a quarter of the country’s citizens that day in ’53. It’s called Een Dubbeltje op Zijn Kant – A Little Coin on its Side – a Dutch saying that connotes a narrow escape. For all the lives that were saved, and the scale of the added disaster that was averted, the commemorative sculpture simply shows a guy in a raincoat bending hurriedly over a dinghy. This is how the Dutch pat themselves on the back. Quietly. Their tensile strength is in the doing.

In the literal wake of the ruinous flood the Dutch hurriedly, almost angrily, came up with a massive machined response called the Delta Project; a huge, technologically complex series of sluices, walls and sea-gates down the channel coast of Holland whose intent is to effectively round off the complex inlets and waterways of the coast and reduce the number of miles and opportunities through which a storm-maddened sea may pour its wrath, so to speak. The Dutch had been planning a similarly large-scale if technologically less robust project to protect their vulnerable southern reaches when WWII broke out and more immediate concerns superseded the fear of drowning. Now they attacked the problem with all the ingenuity and will they are known for.

The largest and most dramatic stretch of the project, completed in 1986 and dedicated by Queen Beatrix of Holland, is the Oosterscheldekering; as difficult to say as it is awesome to see. The Oosterscheldekering is a 9 kilometer long (~5 mile) wall of sluices and gears and gates, and looks like something from another planet. It is a world-renowned example of national pluck, as we Americans might once have put it, and amounts to an enormous Dutch middle finger raised to old King Neptune. That is, following the disaster, this attack by capricious nature, the level-headed, quietly indomitable Nederlanders had wrung out their clothes, sharpened their pencils, and returned to bitch-slap the elements. Or as the Dutch plainly understate on a plaque installed near the ostentatious sea wall – “Hier gaan over het tij, de wind, de maan en wij“.

“Here the tide is ruled by the wind, the moon and us.”

Yes. Point made. And stated, I can tell you, with the firm and mildly grinning Dutch clarity of purpose one learns very deeply to love.

My father-in-law, Koos (Jacobus – may he rest in peace) was in the military at the time of the disaster and was given a medal for his efforts in the rescue operation that followed the disaster. His stories are many and his everyday heroism and humor will find a home in this blog.

My mother in law, Riek (short for Hendrika) is also heroic. What she experienced, and what her family survived during wartime, are of another world and epoch, and with her permission I’ll get some of that down here, too. It defies easy comprehension, much of it. Riek is funny, loving, and unbreakable. And – now to the buried mini-anecdote that catalyzed the writing of this post – she has a great respect for water. All the Dutch do. Every man, woman and child in the country must pass a surprisingly arduous three-step swimming program and exam called the ABC Zwem Diploma, beginning around age 5 or 6, or they aren’t allowed out of the shallow end of any public pool. Ever. The Dutch are citizens of a place that exists at the pleasure of the sea, and of the engineers whose ingenious contraptions hold the sea, year after year, in abeyance.

The prosaic result of all this water-conquering is that every year on her visit, Riek destroys our shower handles in a fit of water-arresting determination. It can be said that the 1953 seawall catastrophe in Holland has been a gift to Santa Barbara’s plumbers. Ours is an older shower which, when turned off, looses a few fitful drips of water before closing off the flow completely. If you are able to bide your time for 4 seconds the dripping ceases. To Dutch folk of a certain generation, 4 seconds may as well be 4 days. On seeing the drips Riek’s impulse until recently has been to crank the shower handles to ground with such muscle-trembling strength that by the time her 3 – 4 week visit is ended, the measly American shower gaskets have been crushed to diaphanous doilies by her strength of will and bionic wrists. A plummeting droplet of water is something to be forcefully addressed. The shower handle gaskets are invariably shot to pieces during her visits and need to be replaced, in a yearly ritual that signals dear Riek’s return to Holland, within a day or two of her leaving. This year she got the memo, and is treating the fixtures more gently. Surely Riek’s new exercise of patience is allowing her the astonished revelation that sometimes running water will stop moving of its own accord.

I’ve long understood, though, that she has earned her contempt for uncontrolled running water. She’s earned her ways. Most of her habits and ideals and sayings were formed in a crucible. Everything she and Koos feel and felt were hard-won. Allow me to explain. It’s the very least I can do.

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