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Families

Abe Baanstra
1953 – Groote Beer

When my parents decided to come to Canada in 1953, I was faced with a huge dilemma. I had become a career soldier in the Dutch Air force the year before and signed on for a minimum 5 years. Pappa told me that I was to come to Canada with them, otherwise he would not consider going. At 19 years of age, that was some tall order to sort out. I had behind me 6 months at the NCO school in Wezep and was already promoted to corporal. My career was definitely taking off. I knew Pappa had his heart set on immigrating since his work situation was slowly killing him. He worked from 9 am to 2 or 3 am the early morning, next day. 6 days a week, and on his day off he slept all day to catch up on his sleep and give his body some rest.

We talked it over and the decision was made that I should try to leave the service and join my family to go to Canada. Well, that started some nightmare. Request after request for my dismissal from the Air force was sent in to what ever department we could think off. But each one was denied or forwarded to another department, (Typical government stuff), where more info etc. was requested. This went on to about a week before our departure. By now I was desperate and something needed to be done quickly. My RC padre came up with a solution. Off to den Haag, were he knew people in high places in the Supreme Command Centre.

It was like a whirlwind, from one office to another, begging, cajoling, and telling the powers to be that I was the oldest and needed to be with the family. The end result was that I would be discharged as soon as the required papers arrived at Volkel, the Airbase where I was stationed. So, back to Volkel and more nail biting. Just one day before we were to leave for Canada and first thing in the morning, my temporary discharge papers arrived by motorcycle courier. My final discharge did not come until we were 8 months in Canada.

So I was out off there and on the train to Boskoop. When I got there the house was empty and everyone had gone to relations nearby for their last day and night in Holland. I don’t remember where I finally met up with all the family but I think it was at Tante Regina’s place. From there we boarded the "Groote Beer", an ex troop transporter in Rotterdam. All this time I was still in my uniform since I had grown out off all my civilian clothes. I was 17 when I joined and 19 when we left. Being in uniform was kind off neat since many thought that I was going to the States for Pilot training, including a number off very cute girls. That came in handy on the trip over, my own fan club. We had a tearful departure with Tante Regina, Koos, Miep and others waving goodbye on the dock as the ship its moorings.

On the "Groote Beer" was a deckhouse shelter without a back wall. It was located on the upper deck, on the aft end off the ship were we would spend most of the day and watch the waves crash right overtop off this shelter. The weather on the way over was horrendous and many were totally seasick. Our family was separated, the males in one dormitory and the females in an other. There were rows and rows of upper and lower bunks and with all that seasickness it was not a fun place to be. The luggage that was left loose, stashed under the lower bunks, would fly from one end off the dorm to the other with each wave. People were too sick to get up and tie it down.

So, the upper deck was it, during daylight hours. There we would hang out with friends we had made on board and talked and talked. There was not much else to do as the ship was heaving and pitching due to this big storm we were going through. When we came closer to the Canadian Coast the weather finally calmed down. The ship slowed to a crawl. We encountered a huge fogbank. This was morning time and we were all anticipating our arrival in Halifax. The scene I saw next will be burned into my memory forever. Suddenly the fog lifted. We already had entered Halifax Harbor, which was like a huge bay. There were green lawns, picturesque buildings, other ships, tugs and barges and people, real Canadians— We had entered the "Promised Land." and then we docked at Pier 21.

As kids we used to make shoeboxes with scenes in it. We cut a square hole in the front of the box so you could look inside and wax paper on top to let the light through. This was the sensation I experienced and it was priceless. The landing itself was a blur off activity, saying goodbye to new found friends, making promises to write each other to stay in touch. Perhaps we wrote each other once but then the friends were soon forgotten. Then going ashore and finding our way in this new land with a different language. And then the heat, after a cold Atlantic crossing. We were treated with a heat wave in Halifax and my heavy uniform became like a walking sauna. We stayed at a transition house for the duration to wait for our train; I believe the Sisters off Service ran the place. I discovered then that people in Canada were very generous. Those ladies in black supplied me with my first set of summer clothes. They probably noticed how hot I was because of their own tunics.

Anyway, time to board the train. This, I thought, would be a long drawn out affair. I could not perceive the train travelling for a whole week across the country and was thinking it would be crossing with many stops to waste time. Holland is so small. I understood that Canada was a big country, but my conception of its size was way off, and once we got to the Rocky Mountains I was completely overwhelmed by the splendor and size of this massive country. An enormous steam locomotive pulled the train, with many Pullman type cars behind it. With our destination being Vancouver, the conductor put us in what was the middle of the train, with all the smoke from the locomotive entering the open windows and making everything black. John took on the job of keeping our compartment clean. He washed the walls while those Pullman cars bucked endlessly. He did such a good job that the conductor praised him for it. The smoke entering our compartment was extremely unpleasant but it being so hot we really had no choice but to leave windows open. We did get a break from the heat in the prairies though and again it showed me how large this country is.

SNOW!! — It snowed in the middle of May in Calgary. Compare that with a heat wave in Halifax. And it would be even hotter when we arrived in Vancouver and Victoria. But here in Calgary we all piled out of the train and had a great snowball fight, very refreshing and a welcome change from the heat. Here we also had a short layover to remove and add more cars and to pick up an even bigger locomotive to take us through the Rockies.

And in Calgary there was an opportunity for Pappa to do some grocery shopping. There was a store close by, which seemed to suit him, but he did not realize that this was a Hungarian specialty store. It seemed to have everything he needed specifically a large summer sausage. When he brought it back to the train where we were waiting to dig into this delicacy. It looked great, it smelled even more delicious but when we took the first slice and bit into it, WOW, firecrackers in our mouths. This great looking sausage was some "spicy meatballe" and for us impossible to eat. Talk about disappointment, the money was short, we were hungry but it was just too spicy for our Dutch stomachs to digest or to chance an enormous heatburn.

So, on we traveled through the Rockies and into Vancouver. There we spent the day and then boarded the CPR night ferry to Victoria where we arrived in brilliant sunshine the 14th of May 1953. [Ann says it was the 13th] Mrs. Sally Rogers and Mrs. French from the Catholic Woman’s League were there to greet us and transport us around, first to the Customs House on Dallas Road [this building is long gone, and as I write this, a new high-rise condominium is being built there].

From there we went to our first house on the Gorge Rd East (it was owned by Mrs. French who also owned Victoria taxi). The house was furnished with second-hand furniture that the ladies had donated from the St Vincent de Paul society. Our own furniture that we brought from Holland would arrive a month or so later. And that turned out to be all smashed up inside the container. Apparently this box was dropped out of these slings during unloading. The ladies were given mattresses for us to sleep on, and so, we slept on those without linen, and on the floor. The thing that I remember most about his house was that at night, and trying to sleep in the front bedroom, cars would drive by almost under our window and a manhole cover in the road would go "clank-clank" every time a car drove over it, we were about 6 months in this house and I never became used to that. But still, we were grateful for the roof over our heads and no one complained.

So now we are in Canada. 7 children, 2 adults and $54.00 in Pappa’s wallet. He and Mama must have had their anxious moments. That $54 was only good for a couple of weeks. The job that was lined up for him at Empress fell through. His English was not good enough. He found some part time work in the shipyard cleaning oil tanks in tanker ships, a job totally unsuitable for him. His hands were soft and as a waiter he surely was not used to this heavy work. He’d come home on the bus, his clothes covered in a heavy tar-like smelly oil. One time he almost stuck to the seat he was sitting on, having a big blob of this goo on the seat of his pants, which must have bothered Papa more than the bus people. He was always so apologetic, I can still see him coming into the housed, all soiled and oil on his hands and face. Mam would help him take his clothes off and put him in a as hot a bath as he could stand it to try and melt this goo from his body. He sat in the tub and cried because every bone in his body hurt so bad, but the next day he would go again and do it all over, he was going to make a go of it, come what may. Eventually, he would get a job with Page the Cleaner that lasted for 14 years, just daytime work. He told me many times that life for him could not be any better now, having the strawberry and vegetable garden he always wanted in Holland but could not because he had such crazy work hours. Now he had all this extra time to do things or just to be there with Mams and us, things he really missed out on in Holland. Life was good in Canada!

Hugh and I had jobs with Brown’s the Florist in Esquimalt (the arena and parking lot are there now). I used my trusty uniform for work clothes but wished I had some lighter gear since digging flower beds in 35 degrees Celsius was almost too much, even stripped to the waist. This job lasted 6 weeks and then I was fortunate to get a job on the very same CPR ferry that had brought us to Victoria, a dream come true at double the money. To get the show going we all agreed that for the first two years we would donate 90% off our wages to the family, so this extra income gave Pappa the opportunity to look around and buy 646 Dunedin and pay off a sizable chunk in those early years. I sure felt rich after the two years were over, not only literally but also having been part of creating the happy and secure years that followed. To be truthful, there was a time that I felt burned for having to leave the Air force in Holland, I could’ve been retired at 45 years old, but life has been more than good to me and coming to Canada has been the ultimate for me, so my parents did know what was best for me!! 50 YEARS, CAN YOU BELIEVE THAT!!!! Thanks Mamma, you were the best!! You took a chance and we all won!! ABE