Broad Stripes, Bright Stars

Broad Stripes Gene en Donald

July 2, 1776 – A dozen or so kneesock enthusiasts gather in a large darkened room and bolt the door. These nascent Giants of Liberty, our Founding Fathers, are about to change the course of human events, put shoulders to the massive Hobbesian wheel of history, and in a fever of invention redraw the Rights of Man, actualize the Magna Carta and alter forevermore the intertwined destinies of all people everywhere. They will be performing these feats wearing inept doll’s hair wigs that appear to have been hastily glued together in a school for the blind, clunky buckled shoes bought for a song at Pilgrim Thrift, and those ass-hugging revolutionary trousers that so unnerved the French when old Ben Franklin was ambassador there. Despite these setbacks, the architects of our national sovereignty solemnly adopt the resolution to cleave the 13 American colonies from the British Empire. The momentous meeting concludes with the murmuring handshakes and hubbub that in those days passed for celebration. They realize there will surely be war now; a Revolutionary War, the birth pangs of a great nation. What they don’t know is that the English will sneak back in, conquering us anew via the maddened Revenge-Anglophilia of the mid-to-late 20th century; the Arthur Treacher Fish-and-Chips plague, Benny Hill’s unexpected classification as a ‘comic’, the lung-crushing Merchant-Ivory steamroller with its endless gauzy tape loop of Colin Firth in lace cuffs staring dolefully at his lipless, stick-figure girlfriend across an airless drawing room, and the mop-top tea party that swarms ashore to suckerpunch Elvis and slap around a stunned Connie Francis. Worst of all, our great nation will thereafter suffer at least one nattering anglophile per tormented office, he who regales you with his perfect ‘accent’ in the lunchroom every noontime until you want to crush your congealing Sloppy Joe against his bowl cut. Thanks, Founders.

Two days after the voice-vote Resolution to leave Mother England in a huff, a bunch of the Founding Guys in their Jiminy Cricket tailcoats get around to signing the hard copy, which has by now been promoted from Resolution to Declaration. But not before this fateful missive is dispatched. “The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America,” a wildly mistaken John Adams writes to his wife, Abigail. Thereafter his blood descendants will miss, by two days, every July 4th hullabaloo till the end of history.

September 14, 1814 – An American lawyer, blueblood and amateur poet named Frank rises with the dawn aboard the British flagship HMS Tonnant, dresses and heads topside. The frustrated British had a couple years before come roaring back across the pond to holler some more in a long nagging engagement later known as The War of 1812. The previous evening Frank had dined shipboard with the gracious British captain and crew and then watched helplessly from the deck as, through the long night, the British lobbed wave after wave of cannonade and corkscrewing rockets onto the beleaguered Ft. McHenry, the outpost a would-be guardian of the strategically important Baltimore Harbor. Frank had been trapped on the Tonnant during a friendly and pre-arranged prisoner exchange at whose conclusion the British declined to return him to shore – realizing the American was now aware of the disposition of His Majesty’s warships off Baltimore and might blab to his compatriots along the Maryland coast. He would have to wait until the conclusion of the battle to be put ashore with his freed colleague. Now after a night of deafening violence, morning on the water is utterly silent. The British have run out of ammo. The lawyer leans over the deck amidships and stares hard at the shoreline through a peaceably drifting scrim of smoke. After a minute or so the curtain of mist parts somewhat, and he can just make out the enormous American flag flapping serenely over the smoldering fort – a stubborn, striped, burned rag on a stick, waving like a sonofabitch; two fingers and the back of a hand raised to the British Empire, the victorious archer’s salute. Not as exclamatory a gesture as its colonial counterpart, the singular raised finger. But still. “The flag is still there!” he says aloud, pissing off the British sailor who has arrived to summon him for breakfast. Francis Scott Key heads belowdecks to join his weary hosts. On the way he stops in at his cabin and grabs his pencil.

July 4, 1986 – I’m prancing (there is no other way to describe it) across another shore, Leadbetter Beach, my pitiful little sunburned arms delicately aloft and flapping as I hippity hop and zig-zag through a fusillade of bottle rockets, Whistling Jupiters, cherry bombs, and roman candles. The good people of SB have come down to the water in their hundreds to ring in another national birthday with kegs and ordnance. According to a longstanding tradition, pits have been dug into the previously picturesque shoreline and the patriots are tossing fireworks at each other with beer-infused abandon. I watch with momentary interest as a pot-bellied guy in board shorts and a top hat proffers a colored cone of some kind, waving a font of sparks in front of him like a man watering a lawn, eyes closed. Leadbetter beach this day is a sun-drenched scene of mayhem, the stink of gunpowder commingling with that of hot dogs and spare ribs. The 4th of July. This is not the war-torn dystopia foreseen by the grousing post-Industrial naysayers, Wells and the other reflux Luddites. The world has changed, massively. The hopeful, bewigged guys in their embarrassing buckled shoes and gigolo pants were on to something, and the naive promises made in that room, the handwritten promises, have found their way, have found traction, through the succeeding centuries of war, privation, avarice, greed and hypocrisy – the human race’s unavoidable party mix.

More to the point, I’ve just met a girl. And isn’t that the way these things always wrap? Juud is visiting from Holland. I met her at the club the other night and we’re meeting again later in the day. She promised! And though I can’t know or even imagine it this July afternoon, we’ll fall, she’ll leave the country, and then she’ll return to the U.S. to stay. This young woman whose siblings all live within a mile of the family homestead on the Dutch channel coast, she’ll come back to the States and plant roots. In time she’ll bring me my Stella, my Sam, and through her dazzled eyes I’ll see things for the first time, by degrees I’ll begin to grasp how strange, exotic, musical, loudmouthed, and frankly batshit this country is. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, for instance, America personified and already persons of interest to my burgeoning id, will be made actionable Ideas in the new pantheon Judie’s happy fascination conjures.

This afternoon I’ll flee the beach at fireworks apogee, the crossfire becoming worrisome. Later, Judie will actually show up at Dave and Susie’s condo on Bath St., to my mild surprise. Just like she said she would. I’ll spend that afternoon beginning my 27-year-and-counting freefall into the sunniest, most beautiful green eyes I will ever see. By that evening I’m still at it, as SB’s explosives experts put on their yearly show, launching colored fire over our own harbor in a display meant to mimic that of the assault on Ft. McHenry, the Bombs Bursting in Air that Frank Key was so anxious to note. Enormous blossoms of light periodically illuminate the scene, throwing into momentary, strobe-like relief the thronged, lucky recipients of all the largesse the guys had struggled to articulate on that carefully inscribed parchment those centuries ago, the vivid starbursts this evening accompanied by the quaint, concussive pops of this purely liturgical artillery barrage.

My new Dutch friend is there beside me. She sees all this stuff from a new window, and she adores what she sees here. In time she’ll throw light on everything I might otherwise never have apprehended with this clarity. The U.S. isn’t a police action or a drone strike. The U.S. is Georgie Gerschwin massaging a Steinway and glancing coyly over his shoulder – Someone to Waaatch Over Meeeee – the grand, straight unbrowed nose, the slight underbite. The U.S. is Gary Cooper, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis, Jr., Henry Fonda, June Christy, Steve McQueen, Doris Day, Paul Robeson, Ann Miller, Dana Andrews. Gene Tierney, Jimmy Stewart collapsing atop a paper-strewn table and sliding to the floor, Cary Grant walking off into a snow-filled evening, Frank O’Hara jamming his hastily scribbled poetry into dresser drawers, Saul Bellow’s flight from Canada to Chicago to begin his pointillist, heart-seizing chronicle, and surely Steinbeck’s analog for the United States of America – lumbering, well-meaning, puppy-crushing Lenny. And at the center of the American Experiment, and of my patriotic id, a distinguished clique of tuxedoed figures are standing around a brilliantly underlit emerald swimming pool in the dead of a desert night, pinching martini glasses and tossing heads back congenially, in laughter, free hands in pockets, backs arched, knees bent slightly. A many-splendored thing.

This light-filled evening – July 4, 1986 – we’re just getting acquainted, Judie and I. Hoo boy. I’m seeing all of this for the first time! I’ve got a lot to learn about this place. But there is puh-lenty of time. Tonight I find I’m just staring at Judie as she stares, smiling like a fool, at the sky.

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Mooi. Gezellig. Prachtig. Beetje Gek.

tulips_photo by Normann Szkop
The big screen and its cheery hieroglyph at the front of my section of seats shows the little airplane icon on a happy, secure and predictable downslope. The awful roaring contrail is replaced in this illustration with a fat dotted line, the kind you see on a cereal box.  Explosive decompression, stripped jackscrews, knife-wielding hijackers and other such mortality-trivia are safely hidden behind a cartoon. Throughout the longish flight over iceberg-littered glacial bays and rolling open ocean I feverishly remind myself that all is well, that the suspension of 90 tons of metal and wires and seat bolts and stiffening chicken piccata 6 miles up in the empty air is a physical inevitability and not a fragile miracle. As long as the plane keeps charging forward it is lifted on velocity itself, it doesn’t have time to fall. Unfortunately this inviolable rule of airfoil technology depends on crazily enormous steel wings that bounce and wobble like sonsabitches in the azure vacuum over Greenland. But the screen up front assuages and soothes, the funny dotted line and inert little airplane glyph a blankie of familiarity in the long tube of concussive, horror-dealing plausibilities.
Now the dotted line slopes downward in a cozy parabola of life and warmth.  The familiar and deeply beloved Earth is rising slowly to greet our machine. We’re headed in for a happy landing, in Holland of all places. A new life awaits,  The boiling English Channel is behind us and we’re coming in fast over a green, steeple-punctuated landscape as flat as a tabletop and peopled with flight-path cows that don’t even glance up as the screaming spaceship overhead applies air brakes and lurches uncomfortably into landing speed. It would seem we’re going to actually land in a cow paddy but the tarmac suddeny appears and we’re on the ground with a happy if unnerving jolt and the mantra ‘I’ll never fly again’ briefly reasserts its primacy in the promises-to-be-broken category.Then the thronged cavern of Customs, an Ellis Island mockup where hundreds of confused passengers are herded through rope mazes and a few young Dutch officials with badges and comically stern faces glare down unconvincingly from atop raised pedestals, a pouting gang of Benetton models. This one looks at my face, then the passpot, face-passport, face-passport, face-passport, the old trick, until I’m sure some little European guy in a Gendarme cap is going to appear and whisk me away. Passport is scrutinized and stamped and relief floods in.
 I and the other passengers herd-shuffle into the big brightly lit room with the baggage carousels, and then my retrieved suitcase is vivisected by more Dutch models, blush-cheeked and businesslike, then the mock-Samonsite is slammed shut with my underwear sticking out like a tongue. And there a wall of glass gives onto a crowd of waiting people and my new family are there, two of them, Karin and Marcel, and my adorable new girlfriend is there waving madly and through the surreal fog of jet lag I realize that’s Judie who I met in the club that night and I’m in her world now, I’m in Holland, this is her home and her world and I’m seeing her as if for the first time and her mad waving and jumping looks like nothing I’ve ever seen or imagined, like nothing I’ve ever felt.
 All the planning and daydreaming, the angst and sorrow of leaving my friends and quitting the band and bidding my family farewell in the carport in Phoenix, my saddened quiet little brother suddenly turning and running back into the house for reasons unknown. Goodbye, Patrick; goodbye! Now I see my Dutch love through the glass and the blood hurriedly rushes upward into my teetering, overburdened imagination, I lumber forward with my dumb suitcase and two-ton electronic typewriter, the ceremonially weighted glass door is pushed open with some effort and in the crowded concourse I set down my suitcase but keep a grip on the typewriter, dazedly grab my new girlfriend and touching her after all these hours of reality-tempering travel is a crazy workaday miracle. Can this be happening? Then the three Dutch kisses; not the two cheek-pecks of the exotic French which we’ve come to know from the movies, but three. They want to better the French. You get two pecks and think giddily ‘holy crap, this is real’ and then the third little peck, just to throw you off your pins, and you know you’re in for it.
On the drive home, in the back seat, 19-year-old Judie is leaning heavily against me, her arm intertwined in mine, head on my shoulder, the radio blaring strange pop music. I can’t stop looking at her and staring out the windows at a landscape that is a living daydream, vivid green and furry and flat to the horizon, the windmills near and far with their heroic vanes slanting in the light, amazing to see, steepled Olde World townscapes like movie paintings poking up in the near and middle and remote distance beneath an enormous blue verticality decorated with puff-ball clouds. Can an airplane do all this? Yes.  And the terror of the flight is commensurate with this bombast and wonder, the Wright Brothers my new best friends.  All the insane rocketry we strap ourselves to and pretend to trust – this is what all the fuss is about, these changeling moments of stunned dislocation. Spires and towers and high peaked roofs in mid-day silhouette decorate these receding fields and meadows, the little towns are cheek-by-jowl and are nearly joined, the flatiron landscape means you can take them all in at a glance, but what you see are steeples. You can bike from one town to the next with little effort and you will do so often, sometimes in freezing squalls of rain. Today the sun shines down with a forceful message, the boundless green dotted with cows, heads down.
Then off the A4 and onto the surface roads, lined with greenhouses, fluffy fields, occasional homes with penned goats and sheep, then the outsized Kweker houses with their acres of entrepreneurial glass behind them where are grown everything from petunias to palm trees, the region’s kingpins and employers. This is het Westland, agricultural nexus of Holland. Close your eyes and throw a rock and you will likely put a hole in a greenhouse. My bro-in-law Marcel is driving now in what I would come to know as typical Dutch fashion, negotiating the narrow little inter-town roads like the car’s ass is on fire, and only as we enter the neighborhoods do I come down somewhat from my reverie and realize I’m being threatened anew with explosive death and maiming. Then a quick right followed by a quick sharp left onto Wassenaarstraat, a screeching halt in front of Judie’s house, two and half floors tall, red brick and narrow. Through the large square huiskamer window an indistinct figure spins quickly away into the shadows and then out runs Riekie through the front door in an excited half-jog, my beautiful heartfelt future Dutch mom whom I am meeting for the first time, and she is wildly grinning and her arms are outstretched in a guileless loving welcome and she enfolds me like a long lost son, then holds me out from her to look at my face and her sunny expression, to my surprise, is ecstatic and teary, and I tear up and then a few others are gathering around me and I’m dazed and happy and already feeling the love of my new home, my new household, and I look down the row of houses and a few smiling neighbors have come to their doorsteps and are smiling grandly, one with her hands clasped. I look over and there is Judie again, like that night in the club, the serene, green-eyed beatific smile, a settled smile of contentment to match my own.

Yeah. A Town called Monster

A Monster You Can love

This is not a warning

Dutch wind hits your face like the blowback from a NASA rocket sled. Your cheeks balloon out around your sudden rabbit teeth, your eyes squint shut, your hair plasters back. And this on a bike ride to the nearby post office to mail a letter. I’ve never understood how hairdressers stay in business over there. There is no hairspray that can survive that tempest. But they soldier on. Mrs. Petrie’s third grade classroom didn’t prepare me for this. I remember the first time I considered Holland.

“Class, consider Holland.”

We were being taught The World from one of those 1960s grade school social studies textbooks whose mission is a sort of broad boiling down of our complicated planet to its easily ingested elements. All the countries were in there, the important ones anyway, with their pyramids and rice paddy peasants, alpine lederhosen folk, striped gondoliers, Eiffel towers, Big Bens, cowboys, and the Taj Mahal. All the loud, glossy picture pages were in the middle of the book, as grotesquely garish as the color-soaked post-surgical food photos restaurants still tape to their windows like a warning. I can see myself sitting at my little desk with the pencil-holding groove at the top of the grade, I’m turning the row of shiny pages and absorbing the world as even the grown-ups knew it, as even the handsome Missiles of October brothers knew it then: famous landmarks and a Manichean map and astronauts, hammers, sickles, and so on. All the pertinent third grade countries contained in those ink-scented pages, a whole complicated world to absorb. Lucky for us they were coded and easily separable. France; yeah, the Eiffel Tower, looking to my mostly empty pinhead like a giant tv antenna. Venice, and you gotta go everywhere in this skinny boat. No sidewalks? No thanks. What’s this? Holland. Or is it The Netherlands? Which is it? Make up your minds, people. On the heavily colorized page a series of big wooden windmills receded into a snowy distance. Apple-cheeked, almond-eyed little boys in MC Hammer pants and girls wearing napkins on their heads skated joyously on a frozen canal, their non-skating compatriots standing around in crazy looking shoes that, if I didn’t know better, might be made of wood. The girls wore superfluous white aprons, some of them shouldering a long pole from which hung milk pails at either end.  A pleasantly insane Other World.  No depiction of wind, though. Clearly the tourism office thugs had shown up at the artist’s apartment and made some strong-arm requests.  Any reader with half a brain would wonder at the presence of so many enormous windmills, though. Surely a tickling breeze occasionally stirs these things?

So, there is a lovely little town on the Dutch Channel Coast whose unlikely name is Monster. My Juud was born there, 2 blocks away from the town windmill, and my in-laws live there still. Hallo Riekie, Karin, Sil, Kim, Lisa, Arnoud, Irene, Loes, Jasper Marcel, Leah, Liam, Hannah, Naus, Erlinde, en Mark. The town’s central intersection is a block a way from a wide and lovely beach that stares out at the frequently white-capped North Sea, and that intersection is where the windmill is planted, a wondrous old thing (1882) whose massive vanes are freed to turn two Saturdays a month. It’s quite a sight and sound when that happens. The bustling town square is towered over by a massive, curiously mothering church tower straight out of Thomas Hardy, the sort of stately tower that terrifies in rain but heartens and assures in sunlight. The cobbled streets of the town wend cozily between gabled brownstone homes of such cluttered character one is warmed despite the often howling, rain-soaked winds. There is a neighborhood in Monster called Big Ghost (Grote Geest) where alongside a small pond a weed-choked, nearly invisible crypt holds a secret; a story for later. This is a village with a lot going on, an entire world.

I lived there for a little while in the ‘wake me up before you go-go’ eighties, fell in love there, married into Monster. I’ve eaten her stroopwafels and frikandel speciaal, smoked her hand-rolled zware shag till dizzy, vomited in a stupor on her lovely brickwork, and with a crazy little vibrating wand coaxed her ripening tomato plants to pollinate under peaked steaming greenhouse glass.

In my time there I ‘mastered’ the language, but not its damning nuances. Once after a particularly storm-buffeted bike ride home from work (a daily nightmare), I was sufficiently enraged by the weather and soaked in sweat that I burst into my mother-in-law’s kitchen, threw down my backpack and yelled “I’m angry and I’m horny!” She wiped her hands on her apron and said nothing. On another occasion, in attempting to offer a demure glass of wine to an elderly dignified lady who was visiting, I said something like “Ma’am, would you like to get smashed?” I soon learned the word zuipen doesn’t mean ‘to have a drink’ as I’d thought; it means to get ripped to the gills. This elderly lady registered some mild surprise at my offer and declined. My mother-in-law took this in from several feet away and again said nothing, but her eyebrows betrayed a suppressed jollity.

We have a small print on our living room wall we bought on the wonderful Denneweg in the Hague, a map of Monster in French, dated 1272. There are lots of stories, from the 5000 year-old Drenthe monoliths called the Hunebedden, to the sometimes hysterical results of Napolean’s insistence on a new personal naming convention when he conquered the place and had to count heads; and from Naaldwijk’s Lost Age rock club De Wip and Annemiek’s expert bartending there, to de Ouwe Droog where Geert offered me something that sent me to hell for about 5 hours. Holland is much more than the adorable doll-house country one is sold in the travel brochures. She is more often one of those trick gift boxes with a coiled toy snake inside that jumps out and stuns the shit out of you. It’s all good. I’ll share. Nederland is zeker een vreemd en gezellig landje. Ik heb een paar verhalen…