Biographical Log of Michael Furstner - Page 7

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Monday January 21, 2008 (bio, Dutch Army days, Babette's birth)

Silver Knight My ARMY days 1
Those cognac glasses yesterday started me thinking about my army days. After the war (WW2) until somewhere in the 70s there was compulsory army training in Holland. Every young and able male had to do their service of 18 (soldiers) to 21 months (officers). You were usually called up around your 18th birthday, but Uni students could apply for permission to complete their studies first. So I went into the army at age 26. I did not like it at the time I went in, but in hindsight it has been a very constructive and indeed enjoyable time in my life.
Reserve officers in Holland were selected purely on merit. Joining after your studies had of course an age advantage, being more mature than the bulk of 18-20 year olds. But there were quite a number of my friends from Uni who never made it into or through the Officers school.
The selection process was extensive and very thorough. It started already while still at Uni when at one point you were requested to attend a weekend selection camp. Quite a few of my friends had done this before me already, so I was well briefed on how to act and succeed when it was my turn. It was in fact interesting and rather fun.

I entered the Field Artillery basic training camp in Ossendrecht (West Brabant Province) in November 1963 with 1500 fellow recruits. I was accommodated in one of the barracks with 199 others in ten rooms, 20 recruits to a room. On the very first evening all 200 of us stood shivering in our sport shorts and T shirts closely pressed together in the entrance hall were our commanding officer, a Captain, addressed us. He welcomed us into the army and urged us to do our best because "right here and within the next six weeks your future in the army will be determined" he said, then added "and only 6 of you, at best will make it to the Officers school." I still remember how very small and vulnerable I felt at that moment.
For me the testing started right there and then, as I was immediately put in charge of Room 10, at the very end of the barrack, and responsible for each of the 20 recruits in it. I immediately started to get to know every one and to put them at ease. Some were still very young and innocent. A farm boy of barely 18 (Krikken) in the bunk below me had never left the family farm and always worn wooden clogs. So for the first week I tied his boot laces every morning until he could do it himself. "What is this for ?" he asked, holding up a hankie. I explained it to him.
Within a week we worked and acted as a well synchronised unit, snapping to attention on my command, marching crisp and sharp, putting every other room in the building to shame. A young wachtmeester (Dutch title for a Sergeant in the Artillery) was the instructor for our room. He was tough, matter of fact, but very effective and I liked him. Without letting on I think he was pleased with our progress, but discharged me from my "command" after just two weeks, the first one of the 10 rooms. Was this a good or a bad sign I wondered.

During those first six weeks we went through the usual basic training routines, marching, running, night patrols, riffle routines. Skill testing also continued and I had an interview with the army psychologist Major Waterman.
On the morning of January 10, at 6am when we were all packed up and ready for a 10 km hike through the snow, the loudspeaker suddenly called out my name. I had to report immediately to the command post at the front gate. When I arrived there, quite out of breath, I was informed my wife was in labour and given a pass for 3 days of compassionate leave. I rushed back to the barrack, threw my gear into its locker, wished my envious mates a "long and pleasant hike" and was on my way. After a two and a half hour journey in bus and trains my father was waiting for me at the Zutphen Railway Station. "Welcome son", he said "You have become a father.". Babette had entered this world.

Three days later I was back in camp. That evening I shouted several cases of beer in the mess to all 20 of my room mates. We had a hell of a party. Later back at the barrack the toilet was a real mess as several of the guys had vomited all over it. Two or three of us cleaned it all up before our wachtmeester, always on the prowl at night, got a sniff of it.
A few weeks later I climbed with my kit into the back of a truck to Breda. I had been selected as one of the six from our barrack to be admitted to the SROA, the School for Reserve Officers of the Artillery. A total of 52 of the 1500 recruits would arrive there that day. Only 36 of us would, 6 months later, successfully complete the course.

My ARMY days ontinues on January 22

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Tuesday January 22, 2008 (bio, Dutch Army days, Officers School, Jeroen's birth)

Breda region My ARMY days 2 continuing on from Jan. 21.
We arrive at the School for Reserve Officers in the Artillery (SROA) in Breda late in the morning (January '64), and after having our gear properly stored away in our lockers in the sleeping quarters we go straight in for lunch. Conditions at the school are quite different from those at the base camp. Beds instead of 2 story bunks, central heating and white table cloths, proper plates, cups and saucers, glasses in the dining room, where servants in spotlessly white jackets serve up our meals.
The Head of the School, a tall robust Lieutenant Colonel, joins us for lunch. After a few words of welcome he briefly states the two simple but important rules which must not be broken in the school. The first one needs no explanation : Being on time always means 5 minutes early !.
"The fundamental and absolutely essential function of an officer in the army," he continues "is to make decisions. And you will start doing that right here and now. Every time you make a good decision we will be very happy, and every time you make a bad decision we will be very unhappy, but we will forgive you! But fail to make a decision at all and you will be dismissed from this school instantly !"

This is without a doubt the single most important lesson I have ever learned, because it applies not just to the army, but to the way you conduct your entire life. Making a decision in life is not an isolated black and white proposition. Decision making is a skill which needs to be learned through practice. It is very much a percentage game, the more used you become to making decisions the higher the percentage rises of the successful outcomes.

There is an enormous amount to learn at the SROA, all cramped into just 6 months. At the end of every 2 months there is a full week of tests and examinations, both in writing and practical. If you fail your are dismissed from the school and return to the regular army as a Private. If you pass you progress to the next 2 months training. Each time you pass you are also promoted in rank. First from Private to Corporal, then to Wachtmeester (Artillery equivalent to Sergeant), finally after successfully completing the whole course to Cornet (accepted as officer but not yet commissioned).
There are different teaching streams for the various specialist officer positions : truck and car repairs, communications, surveyors, observers (based with the Infantry at the front line directing the artillery fire) and battery officers (BTOs), in charge of an entire Field Artillery Battery.
I go through the BTO stream. A Battery consists of six 105mm Howitzers, about 25 cars and trucks and 80 to 100 officers, noncoms and privates. As BTO you have to supervise every single aspect of the battery. Including for example : maintenance of rifles, guns, radios, cars. You have to develop skills in radio communication, surveying. You also need to be able to train the soldiers under your command on every aspect of their duties.

Probably the most important skill I learn is the gun fire control calculation. You have to compute the gun inclination and direction in order to correctly aim at and hit the target. This is a complicated procedure involving the weather conditions at various successive air levels the projectile is to travel through, temperature of the explosives, calibration for each gun, etc.etc. I very much enjoy doing these. The calculated base values are marked on a slide ruler, which can then used to read the required gun barrel inclinations for specific targets.
105mm Howitzer At the time I went through the School we are just changing over from 25 Pounders to 105mm Howitzers. The 25 Pounder is a lovely gun. It is small and compact and can rotate easily around on its circular base. Calculations are done using the old 360 degrees of the compass.
The 105 Howitzer has two legs which have to be spread and dug in when placed in position, and can therefore not shift around as easily and quickly as the 25 Pounder. It has however a much larger inclination range (able to point steeply upwards, essential in mountainous terrain) and is calibrated to the new 4000 thousands compass division. This makes calculations much easier, as it converts 90 degrees of the old system into the equivalent of 1000 thousands.

The Captain in charge of our progress is a blond square headed man with glasses in his mid 30s. He is much feared as out of the previous group he guided through the School less than half managed to graduate at the end. We are all therefore much on our metal. He also marries during our term (as one of the elected Class representatives I attend his wedding) which no doubt helps to mellow his attitude in life. This all helps as 36 from the 52 who initially started in our group successfully graduate as Cornets.

I become somewhat personally involved with the Lieutenant Colonel Head of the School. He discovered at one point that we have an important thing in common. Both he and I have married wives with incompatible blood groups, one being Rhesus factor positive the other negative. This can cause problems when our children are born. His wife has given birth to three children. Two of them survived without a problem, but the third one is stillborn. He warns me about this.
Our eldest daughter Babette is fine. But I am reminded of his words six years later when our son Jeroen is born in Kalgoorlie (Western Australia). He receives several blood transfusions immediately after his birth, and also spends the first 6 months of his life in a most ingenious frame to properly realign his hips. After that, thanks goodness, he is fine.

During the farewell party after our successful completion of the course I share a drink with the boss, and in my youthful enthusiasm try to give him some advice on one of the last training exercises we have just gone through. "Who the hell do you think is in charge of this School!" he bellows at me, "You or me??".
But it is a good natured rebuke, almost like a father to his son. For he surely must smile inwardly, as he realises one thing for sure : I have got a firm hold on that second School rule of his and will adhere to it for the rest of my life.
My ARMY days continues on January 30

Computers have replaced the humble Artillery slide ruler long ago, and the SROA too has closed its doors after National service was abandoned in the Netherlands. To me that makes these memories of days gone bye even more dear and valuable.

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Wednesday January 23, 2008 (diary, bridge, party)

Bridge friends from the Sunshine Coast Contract Bridge has always been a part of my life from the day my father taught me when I was just 12. I immediately started to teach my friends and played all the way through High school, University and the Army. It is a great game. Later in Australia and PNG I started to teach and set up private clubs in Yonki (PNG Highlands), on Bougainville Island, in Adelaide and at the Sunshine Coast.
Rowley and Marie Cornell, who knew I was around at present organised a bridge evening with the founding members of our small group at the Sunshine Coast. So tonight we have a wonderful evening with a little bridge, lots of talking and reminiscing, and as usual some bubbly to keep the tonsils oiled. I was also asked to bring my keyboard for old times sake and am always happy to oblige.

Back in 1993 Cathy organised three good friends of hers, Chris, Robbie and Ruth to start bridge lessons with me. Each lesson I kept talking about the mouthwatering laksas (coconut milk based Asian noodle soup) I used to have in Adelaide, and how much I missed them. So Ruth boned up on the recipe and at the end of our last lesson we had a wonderful laksa lunch.
The girls did not wish to play in any of the regular ("knives on the table") bridge clubs, and after that lunch they had softened me up sufficiently so that I simply could not refuse to start a small club of our own. In due course Doug and his energetic and happy (late) wife Peggy also joined us. So did Rowley and Marie (old members at my club on Bougainville) when they arrived at the Sunshine Coast.

These days I move around a lot, but now and then, like tonight, we meet up again. They are wonderful people and are in my heart wherever I am and always will be. I think they feel much the same about their crazy bridge teacher.

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Thursday January 24, 2008 (bio, study, Den Haag, food, art)

The Hague region I was in the final few months of completing my two Doctorandus theses (petrology and geochemistry) when Antien and I married on June 21, 1963. We could not find suitable accommodation in Leiden (where I studied), so ended up renting the top (4th) floor of a house of one of Antien's acquaintances in the Statenlaan in Den Haag (s'Gravenhage, The Hague). We absolutely loved it there.
The floor had a separate lounge and bedroom and a combined eating kitchen and bathroom area with a large shower in the middle of it. A 4th room at the back on our floor was partly off limits as it had belonged to a recently deceased child our house owners were still coming to terms with. But I was allowed to place a table with microscope there for my research. This room also gave access to a large sunning balcony which we used quite a bit during the summer months.

Statenlaan, Den Haag Tramline 9 went through the Statenlaan connecting Den Haag's city center with the coastal resort town of Scheveningen. This gave us great easy access to both of these. One could also walk to the fishing harbour of Scheveningen, a 10 minutes stroll, which we often did, to look at the boats or buy mussels or other fresh fish, eventually with Babette in her pram.
My Grandmother, after WW2 lived in Scheveningen for many years, just one street away from the beach Esplanade. I used to visit her often as a child during holidays, and later as a student for weekends and knew the place therefore quite well.

Besides the beach and the wonderful restaurants in the city (Chez Bob in the Molenstraat, and Het Gemeste Schaap nearby) there are two attractions in Den Haag I returned to again and again, long after we had left. They are the Stedelijk Museum, only 400 meters away from our house, and the "Panorama van Mesdag". My attempt of copying a Mondriaan
The Stedelijk Museum is especially known for its great collection of paintings by the modern Dutch artist Piet Mondriaan, which include his famous sequence of paintings of a tree, transforming it step by step from a completely traditional image to a totally abstract form in his own stark simple geometric style.
The Panorama van Mesdag is also a unique painting. Mesdag was a Dutch painter of around 1900, specialising in seascapes and ships. His panorama is a 360 degrees view of Scheveningen as it was during his life time, painted on a cylindrical canvas viewed from the inside out.
You enter the panorama through a passageway underneath, then via a staircase up to a viewing platform. As if standing on a dune top you are transported back in time, observing the sea, beach, dunes, marching soldiers, fishing village of Scheveningen, and Den Haag in the distance as you walk around the platform. How peaceful life was then. Or was it ?

There are still a few of these type of panoramas left in the world, including a small bush landscape in Alice Springs in the heart of Central Australia.

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Friday January 25, 2008 (bio, life in Assen, hunnebedden, pigeons, antiques)

Assen region Antiques hunt 1
We stayed in Den Haag for a full year, while I first finished my degree and then went into Army training at Ossendrecht and Breda, allowed home for a weekend every fortnight (14 days). For a brief spell Antien went to stay with my parents in Martinshof to give birth to Babette, but soon after that moved back again to the Statenlaan.
I graduated from the SROA in July 1964 and was then assign to the 42nd Afdeling Field Artillery (consisting of three operational and one support staff battery, 18 Howitzers and 400 men total) based in Assen in the Northern Dutch Province of Drenthe. Antien had done some house hunting beforehand and found us a lovely small 2 story townhouse in a row of six in a new suburb just across the Assen - Meppel Canal.

Hunnebed in Drenthe We moved in straight away and soon became good friends with the couple next door and the one across the road. We used to have small parties on weekend evenings, often ending up with a midnight expedition to one of the hunnebedden scattered through North Drenthe's country side around villages like Rolde, Anlo and Gieten. Hunnebedden are thought to be at least 2000 years old. They are ancient graves constructed from huge stones probably transported into the area by glaciers from the last Ice Age. We would sit on top of the stones in animated discussion and song and celebrate these ancient wonders with a glass of wine or two before finally returning home, feeling very much in tune with those ancient ancestors.

Across the canal from us and next to the Army base grounds was Cafe van Houten (Dutch pub). It was easily accessible from our home via a narrow footbridge across the canal conveniently located exactly opposite the Cafe.
Jan van Houten was a very eccentric pub owner, an enthusiastic hunter and a fanatical antiques collector, and in due course we benefited from all three of these qualities.
During the day Jan would roam around the farms in the area with his shotgun harvesting wild pigeons, considered a pest by the farmers. He would cut off the heads from his daily catch, present them to the local Council and receive his one Dutch Guilder (worth 2 glasses of beer then) per pigeon killed. The bodies he would keep at home and sell to his Cafe regulars for a reasonable price. We ended up with many of them which Antien learned to cook to perfection. They were quite delicious.

Antien and I had started collecting antiques and odd curiosa back in Den Haag, roaming the flea markets every weekend. Our greatest trophy so far was a zinc sit bath, which I painted black and Antien filled with pillows, transforming it into a comfortable lounge chair.
With Jan in Assen we hit the Jackpot however. He had a collection of 250 tobacco boxes fixed around the top of his bar, and various items scattered everywhere especially around his copper hooded open fire place.

One evening I was sitting at the bar together with another young antique enthusiast who managed a hotel in town. We were egging Jan on a little.

"You are pretty good at finding things Jan" my young friend said "but spinning wheels, no, they have all been snapped up long ago, you don't see them around anymore".
"No, you're damn right there."
I contributed "Many of those horrible fake new ones in shops, but the genuine antiques, they're all gone."

Jan was by now so agitated he hardly could speak a word. "You guys know nothing ! Nothing at all !!" he finally blurted out. "Come back in three days, and I'll have a whole bunch of them right here around my bloody fire place!"
We made a bet with him and promised to return in three days.
Well, he bloody well did it too. Six of them neatly arranged around his fire place, all genuine antiques. We handed over Jan's winnings and immediately proceeded to drink his price, because he was a very generous man, never a miser. And even the police, who soon after came in to collect one of the wheels to return it to its rightful owner, could not spoil our party that night.
Antiques hunt continues on January 28

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