[Abraham van Stockum]
It is hard for me to give a proper picture of my parents. To me they are larger then life. At any rate, they were not ordinary, which caused them both a great deal of suffering.
My father was born on July 3, 1864 in a little village in the north of Holland called Lisse. His father Dirk Johannes van Stockum was a notary and a very stiff man who did not communicate with his children except to spank them when they transgressed. He had nine children, five girls and four boys. The girls were pretty and clever, the boys had genius. My father’s brother Willem became a doctor who would have gone far if he had not had an unaccommodating and caustic tongue. Dirk Jr. became a notary like his father, Jo went traveling and my father joined the Navy. I think that it was partly because he hated his boarding school and escaped so often that they sent him to the Naval Institute. He hated that as well, but he did not get a chance to run away or didn’t try because he wanted to go to sea.
Father was a real rebel all his life, typical of his generation. It was a time of intellectual probing and protest, a questioning of everything hitherto accepted. At catechism he did not last long. He and his three brothers were sent home with a note from the Dutch Reform minister to their mother. It appeared that, though well behaved, they were no longer welcome in the class because they asked too many questions. It did not increase my father’s admiration for theology and he soon called himself an atheist.
His exploits as a boy have given me material for some of my children’s books, especially for Andries. My brothers and I would sit for long hours listening to his tales of how he climbed the village steeple and, looking down from the top, clasping the weathervane, saw two old ladies holding up their aprons to catch him. He was one of nine children.
His father Dirk was the model of a village notary: extremely stiff, severe, correct and dull. He died before I was born. My father does not seem to have cared for him very much, though he said he always felt sorry for him when his father spanked him. It really did hurt his father more than himself, he said, especially as my father took the precaution of stuffing straw into his breeches. He was a tough inventive boy, always busy. As a child, his mother had to bribe him to read a book (later he developed a love of literature). He built a hut in his father’s favorite tree that was not discovered till the leaves fell, when then there was the devil to pay.
He made a sailing carriage out of a disused baby buggy, in which he went sailing along the streets, frightening the horses into bolting. The burgomaster therefore forbade him to use it on public roads and he had to sail it in the meadow. At the end of the meadow there was a canal. Once my father left his little sister in the carriage, anchored it and went to fetch something. Just as he was coming back a gust of wind uprooted the anchor and blew the carriage full tilt towards the canal. My father said he had never in his life run so fast, but he managed to overtake the carriage and stop it before it rolled into the canal with his little sister.
Then there was the affair of the drawing teacher. My father’s talents were all on the engineering side, although there were van Stockum relatives who ran a bookstore in the Hague and both employed, and were related by marriage to, Vincent van Gogh and his brother Theo. Bram objected to having art imposed on him on a free Saturday afternoon when he had a million more profitable things to do. His friends were if the same opinion and they decided to get rid of the teacher. It was really disgraceful, though my father loved to tell us all the tricks they played on the poor man until their end was achieved. Having taught art myself my sympathies are entirely with the teacher!
My father was also very good at breaking windows. He had a catapult and, until
his aim improved, casualties were many. The trades people would present his
mother with a list of broken windows and his mother would call Bram.
“Now tell me, which ones did you break?” she’d ask. To most of them he would confess but woe if some luckless tradesman had erroneously attributed a broken window to my father. Then my father’s indignation knew no bounds and his mother would refuse to pay for it.
“My boy never lies,” she said. It was quite true, and sometimes I have wished that he had shown a less rigorous regard for truth. His respect for truth could shatter the most routine social occasions. If I remonstrated with my father and told him that he had hurt someone’s feelings, he was always very surprised.
“I thought people were above such pettiness,” he said.
Perhaps he was sent to boarding school because his family needed a rest, but he was not there long. He once told me that there were only two periods in his life he would not like to have repeated: the years at boarding school and the years at the Naval Institute. From boarding school he simply ran away, and that settled that. But the Institute he had to put up with, because it was required for his career. Like every other Dutch boy, he wanted to go to sea.
On two occasions at the Naval Institute my father almost lost the chance to become an officer.
The Explosion (c. 1904). As a student at the Institute he wanted to test the power of steam (then still a fairly unknown quantity). He put a sealed tin full of water in the stove. The resulting explosion was so great that no one then would believe he had not used dynamite. All the witnesses however, testified to only water and this saved him from being dismissed, as it had been a scientific experiment and not an act of vandalism.
Years later, when he was a Navy Captain, he met one of his superiors at the
Institute, now a retired old man.
“Well, van Stockum,” he said. “As it does not matter any more, won’t you confess to me that you did use an explosive that time?” He was amazed to hear that it had really only been water.
Looking back on this incident, the verdict in his favor seems to me to have been extremely magnanimous verdict, and one can only conclude that he was a promising student.
The Naval Exercise at den Helder (c. 1905). The second time my father jeopardized his future was at the naval exercises at den Helder. He was given an “enemy” warship which had to try and enter the port during a mock naval battle. Den Helder is at the most Northern tip of Holland, where there are many sandbanks. It was really impossible for the “enemy ship” to break through the “Dutch” defenses. The searchlights picked out everything moving in the navigable waters. My father was angry because the game was stacked against the enemy ship.
This was a challenge that my father could not refuse. He was determined to get through. He searched among the waters considered not navigable, and therefore not covered by the searchlights. He found a stretch of water that might just be deep enough to let his ship through. He plumbed it and it would just about fit, without an inch to spare. He took the terrible risk of bringing this destroyer through this narrow inlet, plumbing the depth all the time. He said that he had his heart in his mouth as the plumber called out the depths in rapid succession.
If he had stranded the valuable ship on a sand bank it would have meant disgrace, and he knew it. But his calculations were correct and they just made it. It was the first time an “enemy” ship had won in those maneuvers. The whole town of den Helder was full of father’s praise. Mother, then a young girl, was staying with her sister. Her brother-in-law was also a naval officer. So the first time my mother met my father, he was the hero of the hour. It was then, I think, that she first fell in love with him.
How Bram Won the Silver Set. Another story that we loved to hear as
children was how he won the little silver milk and sugar set that stood on our
sideboard. It attests to his muscular strength. He was going to go to the races
on the river Maas in the south of Holland and decided to sail there from den
Helder along the north sea coastline above Rotterdam, entering by Ijmuiden and
so, by inland waters to the river. Unfortunately, soon after he set out on his
slender sailboat with one mate, a storm arose. To his horror he found that some
of the reefing tackle was jammed, so he could not reef any of the sails. The
little boat flew with dizzying speed over the waves of the North Sea, the
tiller held firm by my father’s strong hands.
“Can you swim?” he asked his mate.
“Like a brick, sir,” grinned the sailor.
He had, as usual, complete faith in my father. My father said that their lives were in fact saved by the fact that he couldn’t reef his sails.
“We went faster than the waves,” he said. “If one of the waves had caught up with us as we shot into the harbor of Ijmuiden we’d have been done for… they were mountainous. But we were well ahead.
The people of Ijmuiden could not believe it. “You come from the wrong direction,” they said. “You cannot have come from the sea.”
Well, the next day the wind had abated but all the sailboats had partly reefed sails except my father’s, so he won the race with ease.
My father much regretted the passing of the sailing ships. He said steamships made a dull mechanical job out of what once had been an exciting craft.
The Rice Cooker Invention. One morning my mother was called to the
living room by a pitying servant.
“Isn’t it a shame of the poor master?” she said. Two enormous mounds of rice had been poured on the living room carpet and several of mother’s best pots had holes bored into them. Mother burst out laughing.
“The master isn’t mad,” she said. “ He is merely inventing a rice cooker because I can never get the rice to his taste.” The rice cooker materialized into a beautiful gray enamel set of pans that fitted into each other, the inner one being perforated like a colander. It made beautiful steamed vegetables as well as rice done to perfection, but it was not a commercial success and our attic hung full of unsold items.
Bram’s Night-Owl Habits and Logical Brain. My mother would sometimes be
wakened by my father in the middle of the night, and told to go for a walk with
him… he had to tell her about his newest invention. He was a night bird, his
brain worked best after 10 o’clock at night.
“He was tremendously logical,” my mother said. “He developed my ability to think. There was one thing about him, if he saw he was wrong he’d admit it roundly and act on it. But I had to convince him. It took me three weeks of solid argument to get him to see that it wasn’t right for him to keep his little daughter awake all night and let her sleep in the daytime, like himself. When he finally saw it, there was no more trouble.”
The Guided-Missile Invention and How It Was Ended. My father must have invented one of the first guided missiles. My mother’s description of it sounded horrible to ears not used to modern weapons. All I can remember is that you could shoot it off from Amsterdam harbor and the thing would go unmanned to an enemy harbor and blow it up. My father was in his first flush of inventive triumph and it took my mother long evenings of argument till he was convinced that it was a wicked device and destroyed it.
The Depth Regulator for Mines. My father developed a very successful invention, a depth regulator for mines. It ensured that the mines were neither on top of the water, where they would be seen, nor at the bottom of the bay, where they would not be struck by a hostile ship. However, the invention was stolen from him.
The Dutch government did not want it, but the Danish government did. The trouble was that when it came to paying up for the invention the Danish government produced a document which was supposed to prove that a dead Danish inventor had already patented the invention. It was a clumsy forgery, because the document contained pieces of machinery not existing at the time the patent was supposed to have been taken out. However, my father was not able to appear in court at the time, being on duty at sea, and his friend, who was appearing in court on his behalf, did not spot this. So my father was never paid.
Torpedo Regulator. I remember my father bending over his blueprints with the eager face of a little boy constructing an erector set. There was also a torpedo regulator he invented and it was considered a long time by the Dutch government. I don’t know what finally happened to it. I do remember that he was always buying patents and that he constantly had to go to exercises testing his inventions. The Dutch government had first option on them, naturally; I think some of them were taken, but not so that we noticed it much financially.
The Effect of His Inventions on the Home. My father’s home was full of unexpected devices, like a clothespin to balance a lampshade or a corkscrew driven into a door to pull it where it stuck. He had arranged the drawer of his desk so that you could only open them by pulling the two outside knobs together. That was beyond the span of little arms and made his desk safe from children. He hated locks.
I do realize the advantages an artist has over an inventor. An artist can create without having to spend a lot of money.
Marriage. My father did not marry till he was over 40, which may explain why we children got on with him so well. He might have been our grandfather. He was an exciting parent to have.
My mother’s love for me and my two younger brothers was almost a passion, but my father was God then. He had made a special saddle just for me behind the handlebars of his bicycle and would take me riding. I remember the wind blowing into my face and the delicious thrill of danger combined with the safe feeling of my father’s arms about me.
We also had a game: I would stand on what seemed a dizzying high wall and he would hold out his arms. I was to jump into them and trust him to catch me. I learned to do it, and he never missed.
The Poverty of My Parents’ Early Married Life. Bram had married on the strength if the money his depth-regulator for mines would bring him (like Micawber, my father always saw riches just around the corner) and he and my mother had therefore rather a thin time of it at first. My father had done more than marry on this fortune, he had also piled up debts.
However, I don’t think my mother minded. She and my father carried the feeling of riches and luxury into the poorest conditions. Even when she could not pay the milkman there was always money for a movie. But that was later--there were no movies when my mother married--and my father never cared for them. I do not remember ever seeing him in a movie, though he was very fond of the gramophone and I always bought records for him on his birthday or at St. Nicholas. Calli Curci was his favorite singer, and Caruso came second. Whenever I hear the Italian operas, especially Carmen or Cavaliera Rusticana, I think of my father.
My father had a habit of anticipating fortune and regaling us with stories of what he was going to do when it fell into his lap. I think it was these stories that made my mother so content with her comparative poverty. I remember the description of a house my father was going to build. Its most salient feature was a private little railway conducting us from the entrance of the driveway to the front door.
He was an inventor and most of his spare cash (and some that wasn’t spare) went to patents. My mother was glad that he never made money with his inventions, though he was always expecting to. She shuddered to think what our lives would have been like if he had been rich. Only poverty put some limit to his enterprises.
Bram’s Playhouse. My father once had enough money to give me my heart’s desire, a little playhouse in the garden. Only what I wanted was a tiny little house, an exact copy of a real house, like my grandmother had at Drafna, in her garden, for the grandchildren. It had imitation brick walls, a real doorbell and foot scraper, and windows with imitation flowerpots on them. But my father was thinking more of a new invention of his, a door which could open both ways. It had two handles, and whether you pulled the right or the left one, it opened. The one window on the house also opened both ways. My father thought this a great advantage, but nobody else did and it was grief to me… for it made it most unlike a real house. It was also a much too big and lacked the charm of my grandmother’s little house. On the other hand, we could play in it and were allowed to sleep in it sometimes. So I had a lot of pleasure from it.
Bram’s Views on Neutrality. Holland was neutral in the Great War but there was every possibility of us being swept into the war by some naval catastrophe.
It was certainly not my father’s fault that we weren’t. My father believed in war, that is, defensive war. He was against Holland’s neutrality and explained to me why. He said small counties had to stick together against big bullies and when Belgium was brutally invaded by Germany, Holland should have come to her aid. He said nations were subject to moral laws as well as people. To let a neighbor be violated without jumping to the rescue was bad for nations as well as individuals.
My mother disagreed, she thought all war was horrible and would moan over the
newspaper accounts of the sinking of ships by Germany’s U-boats. My father was
merely angry. He found the German way of waging was unacceptable.
“We fight ships, not people,” he said. “The only humane warfare is naval warfare. You rescue your enemy after you sink his ship, and you don’t endanger women and children.”
Any warfare which left people to drown shocked him deeply. He hated all destruction, and his war inventions were done in the hope of that if weapons got too terrible it would stop people from going to war. I am glad he did not live too see World War II. It would have outraged him beyond bearing.
Commander of Ijmuiden (Amsterdam’s Port). For a short time my father replaced the Vice Admiral during World War I. I remember admiring his uniform with the golden epaulettes on his shoulders and the plumed tri-cornered hat (people dressed up more in those days). Afterwards he became commander of Ijmuiden, the seaport of Amsterdam. He had to stay most of the time at his post.
As commander of Ijmuiden the inventor was active. He had a multitude of ingenious schemes to handle any eventuality. One day his chance came. A British warship was stranded before Ijmuiden, damaged in some way, and one of my father’s schemes was to put into motion. The crew, and I think their ship too, were sent back to England repaired and re-outfitted before anyone else heard of it. They should all have been arrested because it was a fragrant breach of neutrality. My father was not openly punished for it, as the government hoped Germany had not noticed. But soon after the incident he was pensioned off. He was then in his 50s. Later, in World War II, Hitler proved that the Germans knew all about the incident because he cited it as a reason and a precedent for releasing the Graf Spee, which had been stranded at a neutral South American seaport at that time.
Living in World War I. While my father was first given command of the port of Ijmuiden in 1914 as a Captain in the Dutch Navy, I was six. The port gives access to Amsterdam via the Noordzee canal. My mother and I and my younger brother Willem [Jan wasn’t born yet?] went to live near Ijmuiden in the residential part of a farmhouse. A farmer lived in the other half. It is all gone now, as iron foundries have swallowed it up. It lives in my memory as a kind of Eden. I was seven when we went there and eleven when we left.
Those I think are the most formative years for the influence of nature. The house was lovely, overgrown with ivy, a conservatory full of grapes, a gorgeous garden and a kitchen garden, and a playroom (a converted stable) looking out on the dunes. When the sun set behind them my mother would gather us around and sing hymns. In the field behind the house a German Zeppelin once landed and we could see the German crew being marched away to an internment camp.
We did not immediately get possession of this house. We contracted to rent it in 1914 when refugees from Belgium’s two great cities flooded our country. My mother’s sister, my Godmother, Aunt Hilda (though an unofficial one as I was not baptized till I was grown up) was in charge of the refugee committee in Amsterdam. She knew of the house we were going into and grabbed it for her unfortunates, so we temporarily took a small house nearby till the government had erected refugee accommodation. It was summer. I remember the long tables in the garden. The dinner bell, then fixed to one of the trees to call the 300 refugees to their meals, remained there as a plaything for us later. It was hard to get enough clothes, utensils, bedding, etc. for so many refugees. My mother’s cousin Mathya, the first painter I ever knew, who had a gorgeous studio with the most delightful smells within a reasonable distance of or house, wanted to help my mother make purchases. My mother gratefully accepted, but to her dismay he arrived one day with a cart filled with 300 white chamber pots. They took their place in our attic beside the unsold rice cookers.
My father’s work as commander of the port meant that he often wasn’t home; and I
remember missing him, and sitting on my mother’s knee near the window. My
mother would point to the long white sweeps of the lighthouse beam, which
traveled over our house at regular intervals.
“That is father’s greeting to you,” she said. “He is telling us that he is looking after us and that there is nothing to fear.”
This did not seem at all strange to me, for, as I have said before, my father was like a god to me. He was not a tall man though he had very broad shoulders, but to a child he conveyed immense power. Few children can have as vivid a picture of their father as I had. Usually it is the mother that stands out. But my earliest memories are shot through with the power and the splendor of my father.
His Strength and Appetite. Although not very tall, Bram was immensely strong.
One time his strong arm saved a warship. It was the last sailing ship used in the navy, for training purposes. My father had command of it. There was such a huge storm that literally everybody was seasick, except my father. He lashed himself to the rudder and kept it straight the whole terrible night till the storm blew over. Then he drank a pint of whiskey and went to bed.
My father was a square sort of person in every way. He smoked cigars and ate great quantities of meat. Once, when at dinner with one of my aunts, she handed him first the plate of meat which was to be passed around the table so that people could help themselves. My father calmly took the plate and handed her back an empty one. I do not know whether the other guests got anything to eat.
His Taste in Literature and His Sense of Humor. My father’s early
dislike of books was reversed when he grew older. He was a lover of Dutch
literature and he often read the poems of great poets to me, which he did very
well. He gave me a great love of Dutch poetry which I have not been able to
match in other languages. One of his favorite writers was Eduard Douwes Dekker,
alias Multatulli (his story about the East Indies was translated into English).
Mother disliked Multatulli (the pen name derived from “I have suffered much”)
as he objected to his wife’s having a cold on the grounds that a goddess should
not have a drippy nose. My mother said nobody had a right to idealize his wife
“Poor woman,” she said.
She also bitterly objected to Multatulli dispensing charities while his wife and children starved in a garret. The bitterness was due to my father having the same inclinations. It is true that we weren’t in a garret and we never starved, except during the worst months of the English blockade in World War I, and that was not my father’s fault. But he had a tendency to give his best suits and shoes to a beggar at the door, and then my mother had somehow to contrive new ones. She said it was nothing but romanticism and his second and third best would have done as well. I think what my mother said was reasonable, but I admired my father all the same.
When I was a little girl my father would take me for walks and tell me Kipling’s Just So stories. He often read to me out of Alice in Wonderland. He laughed so much while reading it (in Dutch translation) that I came to love it, even though I did not understand the jokes.
My father’s laugh was a wonderful thing. His big broad shoulders would shake like an earthquake, his eyes would shed tears and his mustache would share in the fun with every hair. My father’s forte was humor. He was very witty but it was such subtle wit that few people saw it and that was a great grief to him.
His Fearlessness. He was a remarkable man and his memory is now revered
in the Dutch Navy. Many stories he told us pointed up his character for us, and
always it seemed to me he was heroic, daring and fearless. Once I asked him how
he could be so brave.
“I’m not brave,” he said thoughtfully. “I just never believed that anything could go wrong.” That was my father, and that made us children trust him so, and gave us such a sense of security in an otherwise changeable and haphazard existence.