The Skippers of the Chameleon

Schippers van de Kameleon - Firwt edition, 1948In 1948 Dutch carpenter Hotze de Roos published his first book; a novel for children, named “De Schippers van de Kameleon” (The Skippers of the Chameleon). It’s about two brothers – identical twins -, the sons of a blacksmith. They live in “Lenten” (Spring) a made up village by a lake in “Friesland”, one of the northern provinces of the Netherlands. Friesland is a bit of a little ‘nation within the nation’ with an own official language, local culture and history goes back to the iron age. For centuries this barren land was almost isolated and self-supporting. The landscape is dominated by agriculture and lots of water, lakes, channels and streams.

The story starts with the twins (named “Hielke” and “Sietze” Klinkhamer) who try to cross a ditch with a pole. Off-course this attempt fails and both get wet. Their mother is furious as they get home, it’s the third time that week this happens. But this time it’s a sunday and they ruined their best clothes. As a punishment they have to stay in bed while mother hangs the clothes on the line. The neighbor, mrs. Bleeker, comments that this is a shame “On the day of the Lord”. Remember; it’s the fourties and the majority of the Dutch still attended church every week. When their parents are in church, the twins escape and go to the neighbors’ house. In the shed they find the laundry basket and start to hang the clothes on the line. Then they go back to bed and wait…

After the service is finished the towns people walk home, then they stop because they see something unusual. The clothesline of the Bleeker family is packed with laundry. The people point to it and tell each other what a shame it is…

A boat

Schippers van de KameleonLiving at the lake the boys love to play outside. Often near the water, fishing, making rafts, jumping across ditches. Their great desire is to own a boat. But money was tight in the post-war years, and a blacksmith simply didn’t make enough money to buy his sons a boat.

So when the neighbor gets a new bath installed, the boys ask the plumber for the old bathtub. They plug the hole and put it in the stream behind the house. Both get in and they set sail. Naturally this trip doesn’t last long. The boys end up with another set of wet clothes and the bathtub on the bottom of the water…

Their father sees only one solution: the boys need to get a boat. A few days later a little push boat breaks down right behind the forge. The smith is called upon to fix it, but the motor is beyond repair. The owner says he wants to get rid of it and asks the smith to buy it from him as scrap metal. At first he refuses, but then sees his sons. He buys the boat for 10 guilders (quite a lot of money in those days).

The boys get the heavy iron boat on land and start to clean and repair it. They ask the local house painter for some left overs and get a large can. When they open it it’s a large array of colors, put together. Nothing wrong with the paint, but it needs to be stirred to make an even color. After the boat is painted something strange happens. Depending on the angle and distance to the boat, the color seems to change. This gives the name “Chameleon”

But rowing a plump steel boat across the lake is quite hard. So they need a new engine. When they save the doctor from drowning in the lake after his car got picked up by a tornado, the motor of the wreck is placed in the Chameleon.

Then it’s time for a test…

The boat is faster than any boat around. It has te power to push barges and help out other ships that got stuck. This is a start for over sixty adventures…

DIY and reaching out

I’ve read and collected these books since I was eight. During every vacation a large stack of them went along. One thing that appealed to me was the DIY-mentality in the books. All the personages were always making or repairing something. From the smith changing horseshoes, bicycle tires and welding broken tractors. To the twins polishing the valves of their broken motor, building sheds and helping everyone in the village. Along the way of the storyline I learned lots of information about wood- and metalwork, farming, nature, the way engines work, boats, etc. many of which I still use daily. Like how to harden steel, the colors a blacksmith looks out for when heating steel, how to hone a chisel, but also to be resourceful

In a way life in the books is of a comfortable but impossible simplicity: they live in a village where everybody knows each other and has its place and function in the little society. A policeman, the fire brigade, grocer, baker, mailman, notary, preacher, smith, farmer, major, miller. All work hard and get quite good along. Threats and difficulties always come from outside, from the big city with its bizarre busy life. News and novelties always take some time to get to the village. Sometimes there are troubles with tourists or people who don’t mean well. But these are always resolved and the people become friends. Or there is a thief or crook stirring disorder in the village. But they always get caught in the end.

But De Roos also described social mishaps in his books. Many times the boys get out to raise money to help a poor old widow or family without a home. To get a new cart for the ragman. Or to help someone to get a new job. Initially this was quite controversial, as was it to write about boys managing mischief… Children had to listen to what elders had to say, be obedient and behave themselves. But boys will be boys, and boys love to do something. To tinker, make and break things, to get wet and gather dirt.

A lot of the stories find their roots in the vacations De Roos had in his youth. Later he became a carpenter and left Friesland, but he always kept a soft spot for it.

After De Roos died in 1991 his books were continued to be published. They are still quite popular, although with the advent of the digital age and mobile phones the stories become more outdated. It’s a nice look in the hopes, dreams and culture of people in the first 30 years after the war. The improvements in agriculture, milk robots and tractors are first viewed with a bit of disdain, but embraced later. The same with traditional family relations and the work in the forge.

Sometimes I take up one of these books and like to travel to Lenten, wonder about how things have changed, but also what is basically still the same. I think reading these books was one of the first things that made me aware of the fact that we can really make and repair things ourselves. Something I later found in the “hobby club” books by Leonard de Vries. And to re-use, recycle and repurpose leftover materials. It’s a way of thinking I saw in my grandfather, who never threw anything away, because it might come in handy someday. Presumably because they had known times of scarcity.

While some conservative politicians romanticize, would like to go back to this age with its simple life, I know that’s impossible. And most people wouldn’t know how fast they had to push the “get back” button on the time machine, when they travelled to the fifties. We have become accustomed to a higher standard of luxury and prosperity. Also the social standards would frighten us. The role of woman was to stay at home and take care of the house and kids, while the man worked outside. Higher education for woman was a rarity.

But I think we can learn something from these books. That boys will be boys, and children love to do something substantial. To be creative and make something. To see the fruits of their labor. And that we can act more responsible in regard to the world around us. Both the people as the environment. We’re all travellers on that small blue spaceship called earth, and it’s easy to make life miserable – as we can see in the news. But the trick is to reach out and do something positive. And not to take life too serious. One of the main characters is Gerben: a farmhand who always is out to tell funny stories and start practical jokes. The power of doing something; simple, positive, substantial, funny, social. That’s what these books are about. And almost 70 years after the first book was published, it’s still most needed. Maybe now even more than ever…

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