On May 12, 2009 I got an e-mail from Dick Wimmers who had lived in the Shell Lagunillas camp from 1937 to 1945. What follows is a part of his family history that occurs in Lagunillas. It will remind most of us what it was like growing up in Venezuela in those early days.
Lagunillas by Dick Wimmers
The oil fields that supplied the crude oil for the refinery on Curacao were in a part of Venezuela near Lake Maracaibo, a large salty lake containing crocodiles and sharks and often covered with oil slicks. After I was born my father was assigned to work and live in Lagunillas which was in a very tropical area below sea level not far from the lake. There we lived in a compound made up of Dutch and English families that was built next to the oil field. A river ran through it that always had oil on the surface. The houses stood on poles that were tarred at the bottom half to keep insects, snakes and other creatures off and they had no windows, only metal screens and wooden shutters. It never got colder than 80 degrees so no windows were needed. The shutters were supposed to keep out the dirt and sand from occasional windstorms. But we usually ended up having to sweep out the floors and hang the rugs on the clothes lines to beat them with mattekloppers (wicker rug beaters that my mother sometimes used when we needed a spanking).
Lagunillas was something of a tropical paradise. There were all sorts of insects, frogs, lizards, iguanas, butterflies, snakes, flowers, plants and birds and us kids were often free to run around barefoot and amuse ourselves as we saw fit. Sometimes when it rained, the cloud would creep along very slowly above and we would be able to run in and out of a downpour as it moved slowly down the street. We thought it was great fun. The company had also seen fit to build a large swimming pool with diving boards and platforms to help the employees and their families deal with the heat. Naturally, we became good swimmers and divers at a young age as we spent hours in the pool ending up with brown skin and bleached out hair. Once my mother tried to darken hers back to its natural brown but she got it so dark that John and I did not recognize her and kept crying and saying “You’re not our mother, we want our mother.”
My parents were not so contented there initially. Dad had agreed to go to Lagunillas only for an increase in pay and responsibility and with the promise of adequate housing. When they arrived they were only given a one bedroom house that was not at all adequate for a couple with two children. As my mother told it, Dad handled this by going on a one-man strike. He went to work and just sat at his desk doing nothing. When the supervisor asked him why he was not working he calmly told him that the company had not kept their agreement with him so he was under no obligation to do the work. This went on for two days until finally the big boss was called to resolve the impasse. He told Dad that he would get a bigger house in about six months. Not mollified, Dad told him, “Fine, then when we have moved in the larger house six months from now I will start working.” We moved into a bigger house the next day.
It helps to understand that it was not easy to get people to go to Lagunillas because of the climate and the lack of any town or civilization. There was a jungle all around it and it took a long time to get in and out of there so Dad could not easily be replaced and his work was sorely needed. He also had become known as fast working, sharp accountant and they had a serious backlog of work. The company had recently been given some early calculators and my father had shown that he could add large columns of figures faster and with greater accuracy than a person using the calculator. He knew he had a strong hand when he initiated his personal strike.
Today if you look for Lagunillas on a map of Venezuela it will be a little dot near the coast of Lake Maracaibo. The only way out was to travel to Maracaibo where you could take a ship or fly on a Trimotor Fokker F18 called “the Snip” to Curacao. The Snip (1934) and its sister ship the Pelican(1933) were considered to be the first passenger planes ever built. Their skin was made of a canvas-like material and wood levers with rope pulleys were used for the controls. Canvas chairs similar to deck chairs were used for seats when we flew on the Snip. We took the flight a few times while living in Lagunillas. The airplane would cover the seventy or so miles at low altitude which allowed us to see the Caribbean Sea in all its various colors of blue, turquoise and light greens. It seemed like a wonderful way to travel and see the world
The house that I recall was nice enough. It had a living and dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and a large front porch. It had an icebox but the iceman didn’t come very often. There was no radio but there were electric lights. We had a piano that my older brother learned to play and a wind up Victrola along with two records. John and I used to play Chattanooga Choo Choo over and over and also the March of The Tin Soldiers. The only milk was powdered and I hated it so much that Mom used to feed me a daily dose of orange flavored cod-liver oil as a vitamin supplement. I liked it better than the powdered milk. I remember that powdered stuff came in boxes that said Klim Milk on them. After I learned to read my first literary discovery came when I realized that Klim was milk spelled backwards.
While the heat and high humidity could be stifling, the compound was made up of mostly younger people who had children and the social climate was open and pleasant. There was a clubhouse for the adults but people would often get together informally at each other’s house or in the yard during the evening. They would entertain each other with stories, jokes, poetry recitals, instrumental performances and songs. After all, there were no restaurants, night clubs, stores, movies and few of them even had a car. John and I had nice voices and could be cajoled into singing at times. We learned and still remember a lot of old songs in Dutch and English. Since the English speakers were mostly British we develop British accents while learning English.
There were many children in the compound so we had ready-made friends. I remember playing “Kick the Can” on many a warm evening with the game finally ending to the yell of “Ollie ollie oxen free”! Later I learned that it stood for “All of you who are out s’ in free”. Another mystery solved later was the true meaning of “mersey doats and dosey doats and liddlelambsy divey”. Ah the innocence of childhood! But we were not always so innocent. We got into our fair share of mischief like trying to hit hummingbirds with sticks, bringing bats and snakes into the house for pets and playing with fire. Once John and I discovered an open grate, about 10 by 10 feet in size, that was used to burn the mowed grass from the oil field. The dry grass was stacked around it and a few palm branches were lying on top of the grass. The fire was kept going constantly so grass could be burned on a regular basis. At that moment there was no one around so we amused ourselves by throwing grass on the metal grate and watching it burn. Then we wanted to see if the palm branches would burn so we threw a couple of them on. They burned nicely. Unfortunately they were long and stretched out to the surrounding grass which then also caught fire. Suddenly we had started a whole conflagration and the breeze was blowing the fire across the field away from us but toward the oil wells. Luckily some workers spotted it and called the fire crew to get the blaze under control. A foreman arrived and promptly gave us both a sound spanking before taking us home to mother. Later that evening, we got a stern lecture from Dad as well as another spanking. It was a three spanking day. We were environmental terrorists before environmental terrorism was cool.
Although there was a bridge that crossed the oily river which divided the compound our preferred route was a foot in diameter pipe which provided a shortcut to a friend’s house. We would balance our way the 30 feet to the other side like trapeze artists. I don’t recall that any of us ever fell in off the pipe. But one time we were throwing pieces of bark into the river on one side of the bridge and then running to the other side to see whose would come out first. In my eagerness I leaned too far over and fell into the scummy stream. Cleaning the oily goo off my body and out of my ears, nose and hair was a very painful process for my mother and I. The oil would not come out of my hair so I had to have all the hair shaved off my head and eyebrows.
The boy next door, Clive Phillips, was even more foolhardy than I. One hot day we were wandering around aimlessly when we spotted a large yellow jacket nest on a bare limb of a tree. Clive wanted to throw rocks at it and knock it down. I, already a veteran of stinging encounters with a variety of insects, suggested it might be wiser to just leave them in peace. But Clive was determined and proceeded to toss some rocks at the nest. He hit the branch several times which was enough to annoy the bees. Standing a little distance behind him, I noticed some wasps glinting in the sunlight as they came out of the nest to see what was causing the disturbance. Soon they spotted the source and I watched as three of them swooped into the air in formation and dove one by one to sting Clive just behind his right ear. He gave a loud whoop and started running toward me with the wasps in pursuit. “Don’t come runnin’ to me”, I yelled while turning to flee at top speed. I was faster than Clive and fast enough to escape unscathed but he got stung a few more times before we got to his house. He went around with a swollen head for a while, but not out of pride. I don’t recall that he ever offered to disturb another wasp nest.
It is interesting how some memories stand out so sharply with extraordinary visual, auditory and textual clarity. Like the time a bunch of us were playing tag at the pool and decided to escape from the person who was “it” by climbing up the steps to the diving boards and the 20 meter platform and then going down the other side. I was last in line and the turn around at the platform was going too slow. I could tell I was going to be tagged. I hoisted myself up on the platform and, knowing I didn’t have time to turn around and start back down the stairs, started running to the end of the platform. I was five years old and had been practicing diving off the lowest board so I instinctively launched myself off the high platform into a dive. This was not something I would have done on purpose. I’d been up there and jumped off, but that was a scary thing to do. I can still see the pool below, the surprised adult faces watching me, and recall how I stretched my arms out into a swan dive before closing them to plunge into the water with hardly a splash, going down to touch the bottom and come smoothly to the surface. It did not hurt at all. After that the diving instructor tried to make a diver out of me until she discovered that I had limited flexibility and could not point my toes.
All the kids in the compound went together on a bus to a school where we were taught in English. John and I were good students and we learned to read, spell and do math with relative ease. My only problem was being cross-dominant. I was right handed for major muscle movement but left handed for finer movement and I was left-eye dominant. While I played sports right-handed, I could only write left-handed. The teachers tried to force me to write with my right hand but I just couldn’t do it. Their efforts were a source of considerable frustration, particularly when I got a poor grade only in writing. Eventually I was left to muddle through with my left-handed scribble.
While in the first grade I fell in love with Mary Jane. She was pretty blonde girl, a good reader and very athletic. One day she showed me a comic book she was reading about Mary Jane and Sniffles. The Sniffles character was a mouse and Mary Jane a girl who had befriended him. He taught her to say “Poof, poof piffles, make me just as small as Sniffles”. She would then become his size and together they would explore and have adventures in the magical world of the diminutive. She wanted to know if it would be alright for her to call me Sniffles. How could I object.
Soon I discovered that Mary Jane was the only kid in my class who could keep up with me in a foot race. We often tied but she could never quite beat me. However, when we were learning to high jump she showed amazing ability and could usually outdo me. It didn’t bother me. I loved watching her jump and run and was glad she could beat me at something. Then came the Field Day. We all competed in various events with our parents watching. I won all the races in my class and John usually won in his grade. I had barely edged out Mary Jane in all the races and was happy to start the high jump because I knew she could win that event. Finally there were just the two of us left. But she missed at a height she had cleared many times before. So I made sure to miss as well. Then on the third try she cleared it easily. It was height I had cleared before, too, but I wasn’t about to take any chances so I made sure I just barely ticked the bar and knocked it down. It was great to see the delight on her face when she won. I never told her I had hit the bar on purpose and I’ve never regretted it. Winning really isn’t everything.
Nor was I the fastest runner in the family. John was a lot faster and there was a time I thought he must be the fastest boy in the world. What did surprise me was the day I saw my mother coming out of the house with the dreaded matteklopper and an angry glare on her face calling my name in anger. If memory serves it was because the bat we had put in the closet for safekeeping flew into her hair. She tore down the back stairs and I took off at full speed confident that I could outrun her. After all, I had never seen her run at all. But she caught me at the edge of the yard, administered several whacks and dragged me back to the house. When she asked me why I ran I told her I didn’t think she could catch me. She laughed and told me that she had just missed qualifying for the Dutch hundred meter Olympic sprint team by one place when she was nineteen and the Olympics were coming to Amsterdam. I note they were held in Amsterdam in 1928
I realize that some of these childhood stories may make it seem like my parents were somewhat neglectful. It is true that they were not overly protective and did not watch us like us like hawks, but they were quick to respond when we needed them. One time I stepped on a piece of broken glass in the swimming pool and received a deep cut on the bottom of my foot. As I swam to the stairs I left a trail of blood behind and when I got out of the pool blood was gushing from my foot. Someone wrapped a towel around it and no one seemed to know what to do next. Suddenly my father appeared. He took one look at my foot, wrapped the towel tighter around it, picked me up and swooped me into the company pickup. A few minutes later he carried me into the doctor’s office and, over the objections of the nurse, on into a room where the doctor was busy examining a woman. He unwrapped the towel and told the doctor to fix this foot right away. Soon the bleeding was stopped and the doctor was sewing up my foot under the intense scrutiny of my father while a half-dressed woman held my hand to help me deal with the pain. I suffered no ill effects from the cut and was thankful my father acted so decisively on my behalf.
We were lucky to be in Venezuela during WWII as we were in no immediate danger there. But it must have been a time of great anxiety for the Dutch and British families because their families, friends and relatives in Europe were involved and in danger. The German Luftwaffe attacked Holland on May 10, 1940 and encountered ferocious resistance from a vastly outnumbered Dutch air force that, with just over one hundred aircraft, managed to down 328 of the 1024 deployed by the Germans on the first day.
Holland surrendered four days later when the Germans unleashed a torrent of bombs on Rotterdam that killed 30,000 people and threatened to do the same to other Dutch cities unless they capitulated. During the occupation 500,000 Dutch were forced to work in labor camps in Germany and about 30,000 died from malnutrition and disease. News of these events would arrive through newspapers, letters and radio but it was often difficult to get direct news from or about one’s own family. Dad’s brother, Ferdinand, was in Indonesia with his wife and children. Indonesia was taken by the Japanese in 1942 and the Dutch there were placed in concentration camps where they underwent terrible conditions and brutal treatment. These events were all sources of concern to my parents and their friends.
1941 was a very eventful year. My younger brother was born in August in Maracaibo and soon afterwards we went to the United States for an extended stay. Having nowhere to spend money in Lagunillas, my parents had amassed considerable savings and decided to spend it on a vacation in the US to see what life was like in America. We flew to New York on a Pan Am “Clipper”, the Boeing 314. It was very exciting to fly in a plane that took off from water with spray flying past the windows.
After spending some time in New York we crossed the country by car and wound up in California where my parents rented a house in Santa Monica. While there they enjoyed golf, the ocean and in the evenings would go to nightclubs where the movie stars of the day dined and partied. My mother remembered meeting some of the stars. It was a marvelous time for them and led to a desire on their part to eventually immigrate to the US.
About the time the great vacation was coming to an end the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered WWII. My parents soon learned that members of the armed forces had priority over civilians on all modes of transportation and they were unable to make arrangements to fly back to Curacao or Venezuela. With the help of the Dutch embassy they did manage to secure passage on a small Dutch freighter called the Astrea that was headed for Curacao from New York harbor. It was a dangerous way to travel because German and Italian submarines had been attacking ships leaving the East coast since 1939 to prevent them from carrying supplies to the forces in Europe that were fighting against Germany. I once read that before the US entered the war the German submarine commanders would land on Long Island in a small boat, buy a copy of the New York Times, and use the printed shipping lists to help determine their plan of attack. Spotting the ships in the convoys was made easier by the fact that there were no blackouts on the coast and the ships would be highlighted against the lights on the shore making them easy targets for the submarines. After the Pearl Harbor attack, Hitler ordered his submarines to increase their efforts.
I was only four and a half then but I do recall that on the Astrea, John and I were in a small cabin with black curtains over the porthole and a light bulb that was painted black. We were taught how to put on life belts. Along with the other passengers we rehearsed putting on the life vests and making our way to the deck several times. We left the harbor at night and were awakened some time later to don our vests and rush on deck where we could hear explosions, ships blowing their horns and see some ships burning. I don’t remember being frightened but I probably did not really understand what was happening and our ship was not torpedoed during the trip to Curacao.
After taking us to our destination the Astrea went with another convoy to cross the Atlantic. About 300 miles East of Bermuda she was attacked and sunk by the “Enrique Tazzola”, an Italian submarine commanded by Capt. Carlo Cossato. The crew of the Astrea were rescued by other ships in the convoy and suffered no casualties. A few days later, while trying to maneuver away from fighting ships protecting the convoy, the submarine ran into the wreckage of a tanker it had torpedoed, was disabled and limped back to Italy for repairs
Looking back, my early childhood seem close to idyllic. Yes Lagunillas was a hot, humid place with lots of noxious creatures and we were subject to sun-strokes, illnesses like whooping cough, stings and bites and many things I probably don’t remember. But we were also surrounded by families who watched over us and gave us freedom to explore, experience adventures, take risks and learn from our mistakes. We had friends from different cultures and learned to speak Dutch, English and some basic Spanish. We got to travel on boats, airplanes and trains and see different parts of the world. To me it seemed just fine and the next few years proved to be more difficult.