By Pat Browning
Watching the Olympics Winter Games I rooted for the Dutch ice skaters. My admiration for the Dutch goes back a long way. As a kid I read HANS BRINKER, OR THE SILVER SKATES (Mary Mapes Dodge 1865), and its story within a story of the little Dutch boy who used his finger to plug a hole in the dike until help arrived. The lessons: unselfishness, perseverance.
The first time I visited Rotterdam I heard the story of the War II blitz, symbolized by a statue with a huge hole in the middle. In 1940 the Nazis wiped out Rotterdam’s city center -- the post office, the railroad station, things a city and a country need to function.
The tour guide said, “We didn’t even have an army.” Travelers sometimes have to take what tour guides say with a grain of salt, but basically this was true. The Netherlands had 1 tank, 124 old airplanes and 280,000 soldiers. Germany had 759 tanks, 830 modern aircraft and 750,000 soldiers. No contest. After the war De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City), a sculpture by Issip Zadkine, was erected as a testament to the city’s survival.
In 1973 I visited Amsterdam and learned about the good cheese and chocolate to be found in Holland, and rediscovered Vincent Van Gogh. I had read LUST FOR LIFE by Irving Stone and wept buckets of tears over Van Gogh’s miserable life. I had a poster of his Sunflowers painting hanging in my office.
Van Gogh’s paintings were still in the Rijksmuseum at that time, and on a visit I was startled to learn that he painted several portraits of sunflowers. He couldn’t afford models so he painted his shoes or whatever and whoever was at hand. Seeing his paintings was an emotional experience.
As it happened, that was the summer of the Watergate hearings in Washington D.C. I sat in my hotel room in Amsterdam and watched scraps of the hearings on a TV set mounted on the wall. I was watching when Alexander Butterfield, former Deputy Assistant to President Nixon, testified there was a system in the White House that automatically recorded everything in the Oval Office and other rooms in the White House, including the Cabinet Room and Nixon's private office in the Old Executive Office Building. That revelation stood the country on its ear, so to speak.
Butterfield, who was not part of the cover-up and was not prosecuted, has since led a busy but sedate life in aviation. According to my research, he is currently working on his doctorate, with a focus on presidential pardon power.
Fred Thompson, the Senate Watergate Committee’s chief minority counsel, has kept a higher profile. He was the Republican U.S. Senator from Tennessee, played a district attorney on numerous episodes of NBC’s TV series "Law and Order" (now in reruns on TNT), ran briefly for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and currently has 3 movies in production or post-production.
Watergate and Amsterdam are joined in my memory, but a few years after that summer, a Dutch woman who had settled in Hanford, California spoke to the Business and Professional Women’s Club there. She told us of hardships endured by the Dutch during World War II. She said they verged on starvation and her father made periodic trips to the countryside looking for vegetables. She remembered once he found a few potatoes but was stopped at a checkpoint by Nazi guards, who took the potatoes. She said that as a teenager she was a courier for the Resistance, bicycling from point to point with messages hidden in the feminine napkins she wore. Once again, my admiration for the brave and hardy Dutch people was confirmed.
Which brings me back to the Vancouver Olympics and the rotten luck of a modern-day Hans Brinker named Sven Kramer.
Sven Kramer is a superstar in speed skating and came to Vancouver expecting to win 3 gold medals. He has won World Titles in the 5000 meters, 10,000 meters and “team pursuit.” At Vancouver he did win gold in the 5000-meter race, but a bizarre mistake cost him gold in the 10000 meter. His coach was distracted, waved him into changing lanes and Kramer was disqualified.
“Team pursuit” was a dull thud after that, and his team won the bronze. A distraught Kramer was quoted as saying, “I can't do it alone. You can be the best in the world, but it doesn't help everything." He also said bronze “doesn’t mean a thing.”
According to news reports, the entire country of Holland went into shock. Ice-skating is almost a religion there. Fortunately, Kramer recovered his aplomb and forgave his coach. And that’s what makes horse races. Or ice skating.
Hans Brinker book cover, one of several at Amazon.com;
De Verwoeste Stad (The Destroyed City) sculpture in Rotterdam by Issip Zadkine, from Wikipedia;
Still Life: Vase with 12 Sunflowers, Arles: January, 1889; painting currently on display in Philadelphia at The Philadelphia Museum of Art; from the Vincent Van Gogh Gallery, web page showing 100% of his works;
Sven Kramer and coach Gerard Kemkers; David Hecker/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images, New York Times 2/24/10.