Read an Excerpt
the NARROW ROADStories of Those Who Walk THIS ROAD Together
By Brother Andrew with John Sherill & Elizabeth Sherrill
Fleming H. RevellCopyright © 2001 Brother Andrew and John and Elizabeth Sherrill
All right reserved.
"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you plans to give you hope and future."
From the time I first put on wooden shoes-klompen we call them in Holland-I dreamed of derring-do. I was a spy behind the lines, I was a lone scout in enemy territory, I crept beneath barbed wire while tracer bullets scorched the air about me.
Of course we didn't have any real enemies in my hometown of Witte-not when I was very small-so we made enemies out of each other. We kids used our klompen to fight with: any boy who got himself hit with a wooden shoe just hadn't reached his own fast enough. I remember the day I broke a shoe over my enemy-friend Kees's head. What horrified us both wasn't the enormous bump on his forehead but the ruined shoe. Kees and I forgot our war long enough to try repairing it. But this is a skill gained only with time, and that night my hard-working blacksmith father had to turn cobbler as well. Already that day Papa had got up at five to water and weed the garden that helped to feed his six children. Then he had pedaled four miles on his bicycle to his smithing job in Alkmaar. And now he had to spend the evening gouging a little trough across the top of the wooden shoe, pulling a wire through the trough, nailing the wire down on both sides, and repeating the process at the heel so that I could have some shoes to wear to school.
"ANDREW, YOU MUST BE MORE CAREFUL!" said my father in his loud voice. Papa was deaf and shouted rather than spoke. I understood him perfectly: he didn't mean careful of bones and blood, but of hard-earned possessions.
There was one family in particular that acted as the enemy in many of my boyish fantasies. This was the Family Whetstra.
Why I should have picked on the Whetstras I do not know, except that they were the first in our village to begin talking about war with Germany-and this was not a popular subject in Witte. Also they were strongly evangelical Christians. Their God-bless-you's and Lord-willing's seemed sickeningly tame to a secret agent of my stature. So in my mind they were the enemy.
I remember once passing Mrs. Whetstra's kitchen window just as she was putting cookies into the oven of her woodburning stove. Leaning against the front of the house was a new pane of window glass, and it gave me an idea. Here would be my chance to see if the ever-smiling Whetstras could get as mad as other Dutchmen. I picked up the piece of glass and moved ever so stealthily through the lines to the back of enemy headquarters. The Whetstras, like everyone in the village, had a ladder leading to their thatched roof. Off came my klompen, and up I went. Silently I placed the pane of glass on the chimney. Then I crept back down the ladder and across the street to post myself out of sight behind a fish-peddler's cart.
Sure enough the smoke backed down the chimney. It filled the kitchen and began to curl out the open window. Mrs. Whetstra ran into her kitchen with a scream, jerked open the oven door and fanned the smoke with her apron. Mr. Whetstra raced outside and looked up at his chimney. If I had expected a stream of rich Dutch prose I was disappointed, but the expression on his face as he climbed the ladder was entirely of-this-earth, and I chalked up for myself a tremendous victory against overwhelming odds.
Another favorite enemy was my older brother Ben. Typical of older brothers, Ben was a master swapper. His corner of our common loft-bedroom above the main floor of our house was splendid with things that had once belonged to me or the other children; somehow we could never recall what we had received in exchange. His chief treasure was a piggy bank that had once been our sister Maartje's. In it Ben kept the pennies that he earned doing errands for the burgomaster or tending garden for Miss Meekle, our schoolmistress. Events in Germany were now in the news more than ever, and in my fantasies Ben became an enormously wealthy German munitions maker. One day while he was out earning more pennies, I took his bank down from its shelf, slid a knife into the opening, and turned the pig upside down. After about fifteen minutes of narrow escapes from the brown-shirted guards patrolling his estate, I had collected nearly a guilder from the enemy.
That part was easy. Much harder was the question of what to do with my spoils. A guilder was worth twenty-five cents-a fortune for a child in our little town. To have arrived in the sweetshop with that much money would certainly have caused questions.
I had it! What if I said I had found it! The next day, at school, I went up to the teacher and held out my hand. "Look what I found, Miss Meekle."
Miss Meekle blew her breath out slowly. "My, Andrew! What a lot of money for a little boy!"
"Can I keep it?"
"You don't know who it belongs to?"
Even under torture, they would never wring the truth from me. "No, ma'am. I found it in the street."
"Then you must take it to the police, Andy. They will tell you what to do."
The police! Here was something I hadn't counted on. That afternoon in fear and trembling I took the money into the very bastion of law and rectitude. If our little town hall had really been Gestapo headquarters, I couldn't have been more terrified. It seemed to me that stolen money must give off a telltale gleam. But apparently my story was believed, because the police chief wrote my name on an envelope, put the money inside, and told me that if no one claimed it within a year, it was mine.
And so, a year later, I made that trip to the sweetshop. Ben had never missed the pennies. That spoiled the game; instead of the -flavor of sabotage behind the lines, the candy had the flat taste of common theft.
As much as anything, I think my dreams of thrilling action, my endless fantasies, were a means of escaping from my mother's radio. Mama was a semi-invalid. A bad heart forced her to spend a large part of each day sitting in a chair, where her consolation was the radio. But she kept the dial at one spot only: the gospel station from Amsterdam. Sometimes it was hymn-singing, sometimes it was preaching; always-to my ears-it was dull.
Not to Mama. Religion was her life. We were poor, even by Witte standards; our house was the smallest in the village. But to our door came an unending stream of beggars, itinerant preachers, gypsies, who knew that they would be welcome at Mama's table. The cheese that night would be sliced thinner, the soup stretched with water, but a guest would never be turned away.
Thriftiness was as important in Mama's religion as hospitality. At four I could peel potatoes without a centimeter's waste. At seven the potatoes passed to my little brother Cornelius while I graduated to the heady responsibility of shining shoes. These were not our everyday klompen: these were our leather shoes for Sunday, and it was an economic disaster if a pair failed to last fifteen years. Mama said they must shine so the preacher would have to shade his eyes.
Because Mama could not lift heavy loads, Ben did the laundry each week. The clothes had to be hauled in and out of the tub, but the actual washing was done by pumping a wooden handle that worked a set of paddles. This technological marvel was the pride of the household. We would take turns spelling Ben at the handle, pushing the heavy stick blade back and forth until our arms ached.
The only member of the family who did no work was the oldest child, Bastian. Two years older than Ben and six years older than I, Bas never learned to do any of the things other people did. He spent the day standing under an elm tree on the dike road, watching the village go by. Witte was proud of its elms in this tree-poor country: one for every house, their branches meeting to form a green archway over the road. For some reason, Bas never stood beneath our tree. His post was under the third one down, and there he stood all day long, until one of us led him home for supper.
Next to Mama, I think I loved Bas more than anyone on earth. As the villagers passed his elm tree they would call to him to get his shy and wonderful smile in response. "Ah, Bas!" Over the years he heard this phrase so often that at last he began to repeat it, the only words he ever learned.
But though Bas could not talk or even dress himself, he had a strange and remarkable talent. In our tiny sitting room, as in most Dutch parlors in the 1930s, was a small pump organ. Papa was the only one in the family who could read music, and so in the evenings he would sit on the little bench, pumping the foot pedals and picking out tunes from an ancient hymnbook while the rest of us sang.
All except Bas. The minute the music started, Bas would drop down and crawl beneath the keyboard, where he would crouch out of the way of Papa's feet and press himself to the baseboard of the organ. Of course Papa's playing was rough and full of mistakes, not only because he could not hear the music, but also because the years of wielding a hammer on an anvil had left his fingers thick and stiff. Some nights he seemed to hit almost as many wrong notes as right ones.
To Bas it never mattered. He would press against the vibrating wood with rapture on his face. Where he was, of course, he could not see which keys were played or which knobs Papa pulled. But all at once Bas would stand up and gently push against Papa's shoulder.
"Ah, Bas. Ah, Bas," he would say.
And Papa would get up, and Bas would take his place at the bench. He always fussed a little with the hymnal as he had seen Papa do, turning the pages and usually managing to get the whole book upside down. Then, squinting at the page like Papa, he began to play. From beginning to end he would play the songs Papa had played that night. But not as Papa played them-hesitantly, clumsily, full of discords. Bas played them perfectly, without a mistake, with such surpassing beauty that people would stop in the street outside to listen. On summer nights when our door was open, a little crowd would gather outside the house, many of them with tears streaming down their faces. For when Bas played, it was as though an angel sat at the organ.
The big event in our week, of course, was church. Witte is in the polder land of Holland-land that generations of Dutchmen have reclaimed from the sea-and like all villages in the polders is built along a dike. It has only one street, the road leading north and south on top of the dike. The houses are virtual islands, each built on its mound of earth and connected to the road with a tiny bridge spanning the drainage canal. And at either end of town, on the highest, most imposing mounds of all, are the two churches.
There is still a lot of feeling in Holland between Catholics and Protestants, a carryover from the days of the Spanish occupation. During the week the village fishmonger will talk pleasantly with the village ironmonger, but on Sundays the fishmonger will walk with his family northward to the Roman church while the iron-monger will walk with his family southward to the Protestant church, and as they pass on the street neither will acknowledge the other with so much as a nod.
Our family was fiercely proud of its Protestant traditions. My father was glad, I think, that our house happened to be in the northern end of town, because this gave him the entire length of the village in which to demonstrate that we were headed in the right direction.
Because of Papa's deafness, we always sat in the very first pew at church. The pew was too short for the entire family to sit together, and I would manage to lag behind, letting Mama and Papa and the other children go in first. Then I would have to walk back toward the rear of the church to "find a seat." The seat I found was usually far beyond the church door. In the winter I skated down the frozen canals on my wooden klompen. In the summer I sat so still in the fields that wild crows would sit on my shoulders and peck gently at my ears.
With a kind of instinct, I knew precisely when the church service would be over and would slip into a corner of the church vestibule just as the first sufferers emerged. I stood near the preacher-who never once missed my presence-and listened for the comments of the congregation about his sermon. Thus I picked up his text, his theme, sometimes even the gist of a story.
This ploy was terribly important, because without it I could not have carried off the most important phase of my weekly adventure. It is the custom in Holland to gather in private homes after church. Three ingredients are always present. Coffee, cigar smoke, and a point-by-point discussion of the sermon. The men in our village could afford these long black cigars only once a week. Each Sunday as their wives brewed strong black coffee, they brought them out and lit up with great ceremony. To this day whenever I catch the smell of coffee and cigar smoke, my heart beats faster; it is an odor associated with fear and excitement: could I once again fool my parents into thinking that I had been to church?
"It seems to me that the preacher used Luke 3:16 just last month," I would say, knowing full well that he had not, but getting across in this way the fact that I knew the text.
Or: "Wasn't that a good story about politicians?" playing out a scrap of conversation I had overhead. "I should think the burgomaster would be mad."
The technique was immensely successful. I blush to think how seldom I attended church as a child. I blush even more when I remember that my trusting, simple-hearted family never suspected.
By 1939 the whole country saw what the Whetstras had seen all along: the Germans were intent on a pattern of conquest that included Holland. In our house we scarcely thought about it. Bas was sick; the doctor called it tuberculosis. Mama and Papa moved onto a mattress in the sitting room. For months Bas lay in their tiny bedroom, coughing, coughing, his flesh shrinking until only bones and skin lay on the bed. His suffering was more dreadful than that of a normal person, because he could not tell us how he felt.
I remember one day just after my eleventh birthday creeping into the sickroom while Mama was busy in the kitchen. Entering that room was strictly forbidden, for the disease was contagious. But that was what I wanted. If Bas was going to die, then I wanted to die too. I threw myself down on top of him and kissed him again and again on the mouth. In July, 1939, Bas died, while I stayed healthy as ever, and I felt that God had betrayed me twice.
Two months later, in September, our government called for a general mobilization. For once, Mama allowed her radio to be used for news.
Excerpted from the NARROW ROAD by Brother Andrew with John Sherill & Elizabeth Sherrill Copyright © 2001 by Brother Andrew and John and Elizabeth Sherrill. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.