Don’t you agree that writing about yourself is one of the most difficult things you can be asked to do? And writing about yourself in the third person, as if you are somebody you only know as an acquaintance, makes you feel like you are hiding behind a mask. So let me jump right in and tell you about myself starting at the very beginning.
I was born in 1934 on the Island of Sumatra in what was then the Dutch East Indies, which became the Republic of Indonesia after World War II. My older brother, Adri, was also born in the Dutch East Indies, on the Island of Java. My Father and Mother came from The Netherlands, Holland as they called it, as newlyweds and were as Dutch as they come. My Father was a school teacher seizing the opportunity to advance his career by committing to teach in the Dutch East Indies for 15 or 20 years. Two years after I was born, my Father was offered a sabbatical in Holland to further his education. I vividly remember the winters, the snow, and the thick frost on the inside of the windows in which I could scratch my name and could blow holes with my warm breath so I could see out, but little of the summers.
When we returned from Holland, my father was assigned to Makassar, a harbor town steeped in history, on the Island of Celebes, which is now called Sulawesi. You can’t miss it when you look at a map of the Indonesian Archipelago. It looks like an elephant with a large trunk walking on its hind legs – at least it always has to me. I was four by that time and I instantly loved Makassar and our old house there. That is where and when my book begins.
Less than two years later, my Father was transferred to Soerabaja, now spelled Surabaya, on the Island of Java. Our carefree and privileged life in Soerabaja was shattered when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and three months later invaded the Dutch East Indies. My Father became a POW of the Japanese and was forced to work on the Burma Railroad (yes, the Bridge over the River Kwai) and later in a coal mine in Japan, in Nakama some 150 km (93 miles) north of Nagasaki (close enough to see the cloud of the atom bomb). My brother was sent to a civilian concentration camp for men when he was thirteen years old – about as bad a civilian concentration camp as there was on Java – and my Mother and I were in a large concentration camp for women and children under the Japanese Army, which is the real subject of “with nothing but our lives”.
Our family was lucky. All four of us survived. The English Army was handed the responsibility of closing the concentration camps and bringing families together, a gargantuan task without the benefit of computers and the communication tools that we take for granted. Considering that at the end of the War family members did not know where the other members were and did not even know if they were alive, the English did an amazing job with grace and compassion. We were brought together in Singapore with only the clothes on our backs and were repatriated to Holland in April 1946.
I was educated in Holland, Liberal Arts at a small Jesuit College – what an education – and one year of Law School, and then had to fulfill the obligation of any able male Dutch citizen of spending two years in the military. I enjoyed the challenge of my twenty-seven months as a young Lieutenant in the Royal Dutch Air Force, particularly during the dicey period of the Cold War with Russia at the time of the Hungarian Uprising against the Russian regime in end of 1956
When I completed my service in the Dutch Air Force, I had an opportunity to immigrate to the United States and off I went by boat across the stormy Atlantic Ocean without the vaguest idea where I and my wooden crate loaded with books would settle once I landed on the other side. All I had in mind was that it had to be south of a curving line running from San Francisco, through Amarillo and Memphis, to North Carolina. To the north of that curve would be too cold. I took the train from New York to Los Angeles and settled there.
What did I do in Los Angeles? I found a job at a bank and worked hard to get ahead as any ambitious immigrant. Here I was, coming from a teacher’s family, with an old-fashioned liberal arts education, just out of the Air Force, trying to climb the ladder of success in business. I had a lot of help and worked for a number of large companies offering me challenges. I gradually became a go-to-man for problems, an idea man for new circumstances. It was such a great job that you could not call it work. During this time I married and had a most lovely daughter, and was smart enough to not be too busy to tend to my family.
I continued to relish solving problems when I decided to go into business for myself in San Diego. The type of industry did not matter: real estate development, construction, resort, civil aviation dealership, bakery, printing company. If it was failing, I was interested. Eventually, being solely responsible for saving the life of an ailing business became too draining and I stopped doing what I had done for so long and loved doing so much. Eventually I owned my own real estate brokerage representing large banks and savings and loans associations in handling problem properties that they had to foreclose. All of this came to a grinding halt when my daughter had a seizure and was diagnosed with the most severe form of brain cancer on Friday April 13, 2001 with a 6 to 9 month prognosis. She is still alive.
I now live in Santa Fe, NM with Billye, my wife of seven years, and work hard finishing “with nothing but our lives” and having it published. I have always loved traveling and we spend a good part of the year traveling to foreign places as well as to visit friends and see our combined three children and six grandchildren in the US. We also love returning to Santa Fe after a trip and enjoying our home and the ever changing views of the Sangre de Christo Mountains to the east and Jemez Mountains to the west.
Well, Leo, this all sounds impressive and heartwarming, but how come it took you so long to get this book on paper? You must have carried it in your mind for a long time.
Yes, I have had it in my mind for a long time and actually started to write it in 2006. I would have started it much earlier were it not for the fact that I have not had the time, quiet time. I have had a fantastic life but I also have had a difficult life forcing me to be a caretaker for many years. That is all I am going to say about that. What now is building a fire under me is that I finally have the time, though interrupted by travel, and have the scary responsibility of being the last generation to know what happened in these concentration camps on Java under the Japanese during WWII.
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