Pioneers

My parents showed never any tenderness in front of us kids. I saw them kiss only once in my life, when my father left for camp Blokzijl in the new polder, seventy km south, for seven weeks at a stretch.

Workers arriving at the barracks in the new polder (in 'Sunday' clothes!)

Workers arriving at the barracks in the new polder (in 'Sunday' clothes!)

His bike was loaded with a suitcase packed with a few sets of (long) underwear, several pairs of knitted socks; suit, shirt, and tie, (and shoes for going to church;) two pairs of work pants and a few blue work shirts; a towel and a wash cloth, a piece of Sunlight soap for washing his clothes and his face; his Sunday hat, shaving kit, and the tool of his trade, his shining bots (shovel) like a saber fastened on the bike.

“Now, behave yourself, listen to your mother and, I will soon be home,” then planted his left leg on the bike peddle, took a few short steps to move his two wheeled horse, swung his right leg over bike and suitcase, making a soft landing on the seat of the bike. One look back to wife and children, a wave with the hand, and together with his brother Jan, father was on the way to the barracks of kamp-Blokzijl, seventy km south, just within the almost dry new polder, where they were going to stay to work for seven weeks on end, including weekends, leaving mother to care for herself and five children.

It was a summer day in 1940, a good day for bike-traveling and for the first hour the brothers were exhilarated by the freshness and beauty of their province of birth, Fryslân. Uncle Jan was not a talker but this time started a discussion about something he seemed to have some problems with. As they were the first workers to start in the new polder, they were called pioneers, and as pioneers they were first in line to get a farm in that polder.

Polder workers' keet (Kate) lunchroom, in front the bosses

Polder workers' keet (Kate) lunchroom, in front the bosses

“Do you think Hendrik, that that is going to happen, that they will give us our own farm?” Father had no doubt that what the 'Hoge Heren,' (the Men in High places) had promised would honor, and just thinking about working on his own farm made him warm inside.

“Can you imagine Jan how that will feel, to work on your own land and not have to listen to a miserable farmer? We both have four boys in our families to help when they grow up a bit, and there will always be one among them who wants to take the farm over when we retire in Huizum of Appelscha.” His brother Jan did obviously not share that feeling yet as he said “Or retire in the poor-house.”

'When we were close to our destination, Blokzijl, we witnessed something strange' father told me once, 'workers were arriving from every direction, the closer we came to camp-blokzijl, the more workers moved towards 'the kamp,' on bikes, with shovels and suitcases attached, they walked faster and faster as if they wanted to make sure to be there before the others got there before them. Some took shortcuts through the fields, half walking, half running. It was so weird. And for what? I don't know.'

Ditching by shovel, brother Frank owns a bats, a shovel like that yet

Ditching by shovel, brother Frank owns a bats, a shovel like that yet

When they were herded the following to their work station in the New polder they were surprised that there was still so much water on the endless field. They were told that they, the new workers were going to change that by digging trenches to collect the surface water and feed it via ditches to sub-canals, from where it was to flow to canals wide enough for freight boats to pass. The water in the wide canals was pumped into the Ijsselmeer, the Ijsel lake. The brothers looked at each other and the endless watery plain. Uncle Jan used sometimes a short sentence before he would state something profound.

“Hendrik,” he said, “it is here, sak mar sizze,just like it was were we came from, only worse.” He grinned at his brother an went on “before you and I retire in Huizum we have to do an awful lot of digging.”

The first man the walk to the island of Schokland through the reed covered sea bottom

The first man the walk to the island of Schokland through the reed covered sea bottom

Trenching under the watchful eye of a gang boss

Trenching under the watchful eye of a gang boss