In honor of a truly exceptional priest, Father Cornelius Byman, who's passing will be remembered by me every May 31st, I publish his autobiography....
How My Life Began
To be born is nothing sensational, except for some kings and queens, but this was not my lot. What was sensational for me was to have been born in Holland, a country of which a french poet wrote a long time ago: "God has created the world, but the Dutchmen have created Holland."
A little exaggerated, but not without some truth!
First there have been the powerful dunes, thrown up by the ocean, without which there would not be Holland and from here its first inhabitants began to make the dikes which hold the water away from its fertile ground, that would grow into a country called Holland. Once, a long time ago, the dunes had been broken through in a very violent storm, but thereupon the hole had been stopped by the making of a triple dike of which the first is called "The Watcher", the second is called "The Dreamer", and the third,"The Sleeper". It is not far from here that I was born, and this happened February 20, 1909, as the fourth of ten children.
It was on one of the deepest parts of the country, called Broek enwaterland (Broek and Waterland), several meters under the level of the ocean; land which had been dried up thanks to the dutch watermills, which turn almost continually moved by the west wind that is always strong in this part of the world, so that young trees are always planted slanting west, from where they become erected by the west wind.
My birthplace was called Harenkarspel (Herring Perish). Herring is a salt water fish that was there first, before the salt water had turned into sweet water and the death of the herring. A part of the town is called Waarland and it lay between two towns called Heer Hugo Waard (Sir Hugo Water), and Langedijk (Long dike): all these places have names connected with water.
My father was a tulip grower and my mother a happy mother of ten children. Tulips culture was and is a lovely and interesting profession, with its different fields, and each one in its own colour and when the flowers are flourishing, they released a fine and strong odour that flowed over the roads and enjoyed by everyone who passed there. When the flowers were at their most beautiful, the time had come to cut them; the eldest of the children had to pass through the field and to cut the flowers under their heads putting them into the basquet on their backs and to throw them into the ditches, where they lived some few days longer before dying a quiet death.
The flowers were not to be sold but only the bulbs, which without the flowers became bigger and more worthful before the plant had died completely. The north of Holland is a country of ditches and canals, wherein almost every road is laying between two of them . Almost every house is separated from the roads by a little bridge and themselves surrounded by water. Many people had a boat which is easier to bring the harvest home than a horsecar or a truck, that not existed before WWI but does not have the room like a boat as big, that it can take some five times that of a truck or horsecar. At that time peace reigned everywhere , only the badgering between Germany and France let us foresee that war was coming; and this happened in 1914. All the church clocks which are in Europe began some all day together to ring after Germany had declared war with France. Holland was neutral, to say it was not in alliance with one of the two countriesand let in peace, but the consequences of the war were too hard to support. No ship could leave the ports. Germany had soon surrounded the country with seamines, that threatened every boat or ship with crack of doom. One day, we heard cannon shots from the sea, probably a German and an English one that were engaged. One of the two was sunk.
In the country one of the first signs of the war was a long train with soldiers that was overfilled; it had even soldiers sitting on the roofs of the cars that went slowly to Den Helder, the airport. There was no trust in Germany. Thereupon we saw another train coming in charged with Belgian refugees who had come to find a lodging somewhere of whom some left the train at the station.
One day I was with my little friends of a neighbor house and awaiting them outside. All were in the house.
There appeared a small car; it was the first one I saw in my life. Probably it was one of a rich Belgian industrial. Behind it was open and there was a little boy with a rifle that he directed to me and shot. The bullet touched the goat pen that was covered with jute bags that in the hot sun took at the same time fire. Started by the soud of the shot, the boys ran outside and saw the goat pen in flames, believing that I had lighted the bags. They then threw them into the ditch to quench them in the water. Then they searched my pockets to see if I had matches, but they found nothing; happily I had nothing. The car was away and they would not believe what I told them. Who could believe this strange story told by a boy of five years, even if I had been shot? If I had been killed maybe I would have been the only war victim in Holland.
In the midst of the summer the tulip harvest had been made, but it remained unsold. From what should we live was our thought. After the fields had been arranged again, cabbage took it's place. This would be a meager supply for the income of that year. All became moreover more expensive and this would last for three years. The tulips were to be sold in foreign countries and they could not be exported. Moreover came the meal for the baking of bread from oversea. We all received bread cards and no more than the quantity indicated on them. My mother was an excellent economy which hold all of us alive.
Some people began to throw away the tulips, but my father waited for the end of the war and this would take three years before he decided to change his profession. Little mountains of bulbs appeared here and there to let them rot away.
We had in our family a young uncle, an unmarried man who helped him in all his work. It was one who was beloved by everyone because of his joyful witches and his undisgussed good behavior. He participated in our misery with patience. The cabbages would one day become another danger for my life. Howthat? Well, the winter had come. They had to be cut off and to be loaded into the ceiling of our house. They would be sold with the time when the prices went up. Germany was a good client and we would receive a good price what we needed. While my father and uncle brought them into the ceiling over a broad stairs, I had nothing to do but go up and down to see them working and so it happened that my uncle came with a large basquet on his head while I was on the stairs and to give him room, put myself on the brim of the stairs , but too much...and I fell down and came with my head upon the cement floor under it. They believed first that I was dead and brought me into the barn, wherein was also the kitchen, saying nothing to my mother hoping that I should come back to life. Then came my mother going to the kitchen, and she found me, and was frightened to death. When I came back to life I some of the neighbors with my mother around me. One of them made me happy with a print. I was again top hole, but one of my ears was always hard hearing, and this may have been the cause.
I was from the beginning on a tall boy and the pride of my parents. This, being tall, helped me a year earlier to be admitted to the school. One had to be 7 years old to be accepted for the first year, but I was only six when my father brought me to the schoolmaster and let me enroll. I don't know how he managed this, but he did so. During the years at school another accident would happen to me which was no less serious than the both already mentioned. In this country water is everywhere. It has great meaning in our life, and no less in that of little boys.They invent games with everything; and that too, with water. One of this was to lay on the wall of the ditch and to put his head from there into the water. We were a row of boys doing this and the one who and come the deepest would be the winner. I was this, but not so as we had thought. I lose my equilibrium and fell into the ditch. Nobody of the little boys was able to help me, and I should have drowned, had the Diving Providence not come to my help. Just passed a man on the spot and he stepped with one leg into the water and brought me to side. Of course I could not be pride of my victory. Many young people find their death in the water in Holland.
The first victims may be the babies. While almost every house is surrounded by water, an unguarded baby will run to it and let fall itself into the water, like young ents that leave their nest and run to the water, knowing not at the same time to swim. The mothers are always fearing for such an accident, and while working, put a fence into an open door or they bind the little one with a cord to a place so that they cannot go farther than the cord permits them. I once saw two little girls in a wash tub in the midst of the ditch, going forwards rowing with their little hands, unaware of the danger to fall overboard. I was too young to think of letting it know to someone.
Then in the winter, in the ice time, we would often stray over canals, ditches and fields to go to school. The water was covered with a layer of ice, here more strong, there weak, that in this case sometimes would break; then is there a victim that is difficult to help and easily lost.
As for the boats, some of them are made if iron and sometimes overloaded when going to market. Going with imprudence they can take water and sink. I know victims of each class of these kind of accidents.
I myself was not an easy boy and had often to fight with others. I was not strong, but tall, which helped me to hold my adversaries at a distance. As soon as two were fighting, others made a circle around them to watch if all was according to the rules inherited from our predecessors, before all, to never use his feet against hi adversary. When this happened, you could here a cry of protest. The winner was always honored, except when it was for an unjust reason. It was I whom a strong fighter asked me once for a piece of cord that he had seen on me, and I gave it to him. He promised me to help me when I was fighting, and this happened much time later when I was fighting with several boys; and there, as out of the stars appeared my debtor suddenly, beat them all away and disappeared as soon as he appeared, not waiting for my thanksgiving. What a man of his word!
To finish this part, I'll tell you that as a boy of 5 years I went once away from our house to see the world, not thinking of my parents and the rest. My mother saw me going but she could not go after me to hold me back. She was alone with a babie and two little girls of three years, but she waited for my oldest sister who had to return from the school. I went straight on forewords, admiring the new world around me, when my sister arrived. She was sent behind me. Suddenly, I felt my hand gripped by hers, and laughing, she turned me back. I followed her willingly as if it was normal what I had done.
This was my first trip into the wide world, but not as far as what I would do later as I will let you know in the following chapter.