|Bram van Stockum in his first Dutch naval|
officer's uniform. Photo from my collection.
The photo of Bram in his first naval officer's uniform suggests why my grandmother married him. An officer's uniform is hard to resist.
Hilda van Stockum on Her Father Bram
My mother has described his uniform as it was later when his rank advanced. (I will try to find a photo of him at the higher rank somewhere–it must be in the Amsterdam Archief.)
Once my father served as a vice-admiral for a while and his beautiful uniform made a deep impression on me. He had a three-cornered hat with a plume. He had gold-braid epaulettes on his shoulders. The gold braid on his sleeves and trousers glittered and he wore a saber at his side and white gloves. He was covered with medals which he said he got for sailing and bowing at royalty.The following is from my mother's lined copy book that I have marked Diary Book II. I have moved a few paragraphs around to improve the flow.
My father and mother were not the kind of people to discourage a child in his search for God. I made up my own mythology, patched up from various remarks made by grownups added to an inborn religious sense. I was really a Sun-worshipper. Early in life I associated the Sun with God.
The first real grief I can remember is when my father went to the West Indies (Surinam) on an expedition and was away for many months. I was only three at the time  but I missed him dreadfully. I'd go to the house of my aunt Mary [Mary Boissevain van Eeghan?] and she had made up a song for me about my dear father coming back, which she played on the piano. That comforted me.
My Father's Naval Career
My father's career in the navy was unusual. Several times he risked his reputation for an idea.
At the naval port of "Den Helder" there used to be exercises of the navy– one part of the fleet would be the "enemy" and the other "Dutch". The enemy would have to sneak into the harbor at night without having been spotted by a searchlight. In my father's early days he was appointed captain of such an "enemy" ship. And he didn't like the assignment. The "enemy" never won. It couldn't win. The searchlight covered all of the navigable space.
Father felt it was unfair. He was always ambitious, and he wanted to win. He explored the approaches to the harbor and found a place not covered by the searchlights which was considered too shallow for the kind of ship my father commanded. My father always wanted to find things out for himself and he measured it. According to his calculations he could make it. And so, on the fateful night, he went over this dark stretch of water, his heart in his mouth. If he grounded that ship it would have been the end of his career in the navy. He often told us how he listened with beating heart to the ominously dwindling numbers of the depth meter–until at last... it remained steady... steady... steady and my father’s ship came through.
It caused terrific excitement in Den Helder, as it was the first time the "enemy" had won for years. It was on that occasion that my mother first met my father and that he and she quarreled about the number of children they wanted to have. It was ten years later before they finally married.
My father once won a sailing match through similar daring. He took his boat from Den Helder at the northern tip of Holland down to Rotterdam harbor in the south, whence he'd reach the lakes where the regatta was held.
Unfortunately the wind rose while he was sailing over the North Sea and something went wrong with the rigging, so he couldn't take down the sails. They flew like a bird over the storm-tossed sea. "Can you swim?" asked my father anxiously of the sailor who was with him. “Like a brick," said the man, meaning it literally. But he had full confidence in my father.
My father said they made Rotterdam harbor on account of the fact that all sails were up. He said if one of those enormous breakers had overtaken them they'd have been done for, but they went faster. Nobody afterwards would believe that he'd gone into that harbor in that weather.
The next day the wind had considerably abated but all the other sailboats had only half sails up. Of course my father saw no need in taking down his sails and so he won the match with ease. (We still have the little silver tea set he got on that occasion).
My father always deplored the advent of steam. His first ship was a clipper and he could tell appetizingly of the activity and skill involved in handling sails and the way you were alive to the weather and became one with your ship.World War I
Bram van Stockum had an important job in 1914, keeping open the port of Amsterdam, Ijmuiden. At that time his daughter Hilda was six and she had vivid memories of that period and of her father.
My father was very much against women and children being involved and he felt land-warfare was unchivalrous and messy. "At sea we do not fight against people." he said. "We save them when we can. We fight ships."
It was the fact that the Germans broke this rule in their naval warfare and refused to save the crews of sinking ships or failed to give sufficient warning, that turned Father against then during the First World War.
They do not understand the laws of the sea," he said with disgust.
He was commander of the seaport to Amsterdam, Ijmuiden, in 1914. Once when a British warship was mined just outside the harbor he had the crew rescued, clothed, fed and dispatched to England before the night was gone.
Of course, my mother said, “Holland was neutral. But father was never neutral."He always maintained that we should have come to the aid of Belgium when it was brutally invaded by the Germans in 1914. "No matter when a brother is attacked, you don't stand by and do nothing–you help," said my father. "The same rule goes for nations as for individuals."
I often thought of those words when the 1939 war was upon us and he was so plainly proved right.
Once, during the First World War, my father invented a gadget that horrified my mother. It was a kind of automatic torpedo which could be directed infallibly towards an enemy harbor - where it would explode. My mother thought this diabolical and wept and argued until my father tore up this invention. Perhaps if there had been more wives and husbands like that we wouldn't have the atom bomb upon us now.
My father had tremendous physical strength and seemed to me most courageous. He smiled when I told him that. “Not at all–" he said. "I wasn't brave. I just couldn't imagine anything going wrong." He always said that he could stand any pain as long as he could clench his teeth–that's why he was a coward at the dentist's. He was so afraid of the dentist that he once pulled one of his own teeth. I can remember it clearly, my father standing in front of a mirror with a pair of plyers clenched around the offending tooth - tugging at it for all he was worth."Bram," my mother called from downstairs. "Dinner is ready!" "I'll be down in a minute." my father replied. "It's half out already!"Bram's Expeditions for the Queen
Bram went on several expeditions for the Queen of Holland.
He used to have dinner with Queen Wilhelmina and he often told us children with relish how a minister had taken a spoonful of boiling hot soup and was growing purple in the face, unable to swallow it though not daring to return it to its original place. The Queen noticed it."Spit it out - your Excellency," she cried with maternal solicitude. "Spit it out!"
He used to take me to see processions of the royal family - I'll never forget the lined streets - the waving flags - the handsome Cavalry men and the open carriage in which the Queen and prince consort bowed from left to right. When my father became a naval officer, the Queen of the Netherlands was very young. He saw her crowned as a girl of 18 and I think he fell in love with the slim, long-necked dignity of her.
His feeling for her was always that of a champion and he often said he preferred to have a Queen to fight for than a King. Not that he did an awful amount of fighting. He participated in some minor skirmishes in the East Indies, that was all, until the first World War came.
He was sent on several exploring expeditions in New Guyana (now Surinam), which he had described in a diary. He penetrated forests where no European had yet set foot and gave names to mountaintops, the Van Stockumberg being one of them.Bram's Character
Bram was an unusual intellect and parent.
My father was a terrific arguer but a fair one. When you beat him in an argument he always acknowledged it and congratulated you with as much pleasure as if he'd thought of the idea himself. My mother says that her intellect went through a terrific course of training with him, as his ideas were so original and unconventional that he was hard to live with unless you could convince him that the generally accepted way was best. She managed to convince him several times, and on each occasion the matter was closed. My father gave in and the subject was never mentioned again.
One such argument dealt with the training of us children. At heart my father was an anarchist with a flavor of Rousseau [who loved the state of nature]. He believed children to be naturally good and able to grow up perfect if not interfered with. All my mother’s efforts at discipline were considered interfering with nature. My mother said that nothing less than the welfare of her children would have embarked her on the argument that ensued. I believe they argued day and night for a week, but in the end mother won and we were brought up normal children instead of savages.
The only remnant of his former attitude could be found in the fact that he didn't like our table manners to be corrected.
"The children will learn from looking at us." he maintained. "Meanwhile conversation at table should be pleasant." If mother sometimes forgot and burst out in irritation at our bad manners he'd leave the room.
Another extraordinary trait of my father's was his opinion about time. One of the tragedies of my childhood invariably went like this: Father and Mother would take us out on a trip in the train. We were all dressed neatly and left much too early on account of Mother's nervousness. Father would laugh to see us go. "You'll have to wait for hours." he'd warn us. "I'll follow later." "I don't care." Mother would answer defiantly.
Of course we did have to wait for a long time on a cold and draughty platform. The train would eventually come, but not father. With tearful faces glued to the carriage windows we would see him arrive just as the train pulled out of the station. To go out together with him mother used to say, she'd have to aim for a later train and he for an earlier one.
Once we went on a trip in a donkey carriage with my father. We were not allowed to beat the donkey, even though it went at a snail’s pace. “It will run when it wants to," said my father treating us to many stories of gentleness and charity to animals. It was a very edifying journey but it took us all a day to get to the seaside place that we should have reached for brunch - and instead we all had to stay overnight at a hotel.;
The next day we went home by train and father's orderly made the return trip in the donkey carriage in two hours. You have no idea how slowly a donkey can go that knows it’s not going to be beaten! And how fast it can go if it does! I don't really know what that trip taught me. I think I dimly felt that some ideals cost more than they're worth. But I honored and loved my father for it all the same.
Both my father and my mother always followed their consciences. When they were atheists they were so from a mistaken idealism, because the God they were asked to believe in didn't measure up to their standards. Eventually they both became ardent believers. God could not have failed to love them even in the days when they denied Him.
My Father’s Teaching
Though my father was very busy at the time and was away sometimes for weeks on end, he wouldn't let me go to school but instructed me himself. He thought all schools were stupid, killed initiative, made knowledge unattractive and were physically unhygienic. He disliked us acquiring a vulgar way of speaking and feared the influence of other children.
My mother wasn't happy about it. She favored a more social attitude but she herself had suffered a lot from boredom at school and didn't care for the orthodox methods of education. She had just heard of Maria Montessori and was examining her methods. Meanwhile she taught me reading and writing by the Jan Lighthart method - a great improvement on the older ways.
My father understood arithmetic and geography. He was a very difficult taskmaster. He allowed no hesitation. If he told me to learn a table I had to know that table without pausing to clear my throat. I remember weeping hopelessly one afternoon because I couldn't "understand" the table of two.
My father didn't make allowances for a child's way of thinking. Instead of starting geography with a familiar thing like my own house, or our village, he began with the earth and the sun. There was a candle and an orange. I remember, and a lot of talk about stars and planets. The result of this was that I no longer pictured the night sky as a sheet with holes pricked in it to let through the glory of heaven.
My father's teaching was dramatic and descriptive and bolstered with logic. I pictured my life as an angel after death, flying between all these worlds in a space without an end - so it didn't matter if you fell for there was nowhere to fall to - and was it likely you'd ever meet another angel? Well, once in a while, perhaps - and then what would we do? Sit down in a world and chat for a while? What a dreary existence!
However it wasn't as dreadful as another nightmare I had, after my father had flatly told me that God was an invention of people who were too cowardly and lazy to stand on their own feet. I remember standing in front of him as he told me this, the lovely sunshine outside making an incongruous background. My father said it sadly, regretfully. There was no hatred, not even satisfaction in his voice. He was dreadfully sorry to disturb my illusion but honesty compelled him. No, there was no God - I might as well know now as later. I ran to my mother and asked her.
She was more concerned with my peace of mind and much less sure.
"I don't know," was all the comfort she could give me. I felt more deserted then I had done when they had left me because of illness and travel. I pictured what it would be like to die if there was no God. I could picture nothing - for ever. It was appalling. I had to stop myself from doing it because I knew it was bad for me. And secretly I didn't believe a word of it. I knew there was a God. But I remember freezing coldness. The freezing coldness of the thought.
It was at that time that we had a servant who was found to have stolen a lot of our things. They were found in her suitcase. There was a terrific scene. I still see the girl walk past me, weeping. I was horrified. Suddenly I knew very definitely that I must never lie or be dishonest in any way - neither with myself nor with others. "If you are truthful you will be saved," something told me deep inside myself. I promised this something that I would try - and any lapses against truth have always hurt my conscience more than any other sin.Her Uncle Han de Booy's View
For an objective view of my mother's father, I turn to excerpts from the diary of his brother-in-law, Han de Booy, and his nephew Jim, that provide glimpses of Bram's life. Han was married to my grandmother's closest relative, Hilda Boissevain. My mother was named after her, and Hilda Boissevain's eldest daughter was named after my grandmother. The following excerpts from his diaries were translated and annotated by Han de Booy's daughter Engelien de Booy, who became a friend when she was retired and I visited her at her home in Bilthoven. I have made a few minor edits to her translations to bring the idiom in line with U.S. English conventions. For example, where a woman’s maiden name would follow her married name in Holland (and in Spanish-speaking countries), with a hyphen, as in “van Hall-Boissevain”, I have followed Anglo-Saxon practice of having the maiden name precede the married name, without a hyphen, as in “Boissevain van Hall”. I have also changed dates for simplicity to the uniform genealogical format of day, three-character month, and year.
World War I, 1912-1916
Han de Booy is crazy about his sister-in-law but not so much Bram.
6 Apr 1912. Dinner at Drafna with Olga and Bram [van Stockum], who had come back. Bram and I got along well. I talked with him about the naval defense of Holland against the Germans. He wants torpedo ships, land-based batteries of anti-submarine guns, and Holland’s own submarines. He is convinced that Holland would win.To balance this dismal picture, here is a fragment of the diary of Jim de Booy, Han's nephew, who met Bram two years later:
7 Oct 1912. On Saturday and Sunday I went to the Hague with dear Olga, Bram’s wife. In the evening we went to Rijswijk, where Bram and Olga live in a cramped and rather disorderly house. We had bread and shrimps for supper. On Sunday morning we took a walk along the beach at Scheveningen. We went back to Rijswijk where Bram cooked rice in a rice-cooker he invented. He hopes to make money from his invention. This time he didn’t talk any more about torpedoes. On this visit I’m afraid I began to pity him. The poor wretch is so wrapped up in all his inventions he has an unruly home and badly trained servants. I had a poor impression of their lives and I pitied Olga as well.
I met Captain van Stockum in the street. He had just arrived to take command of the port [Ijmuiden] and asked me to join his staff, which I was delighted to do. The command included all the coastal defenses as well as the running of the port. Capt. van Stockum was a great inventor. He invented a mine that would float under water, and a mirror for investigating the stomach, and a rice boiler. He put this ingenuity to work improving the defenses of the port. The principal port of Ijmuiden had two gun-turrets lit by kerosene lamps...The same year, however, Bram seems to have left the Navy in a pique, not the best way to leave. Han is legitimately concerned about his sister's future.
9 May 1914. Took a walk on the heath with Jan van Hall, Hessie [Hester Boissevain van Hall], Teau [Catherina Boissevain de Beaufort, the youngest and widely viewed as the most beautiful of Charles and Emily Boissevain’s daughters, although Mary was also considered very beautiful], and Fik [Ferdinand de Beaufort]. We talk about Bram’s plan to leave the Navy, just when Olga was starting to revive in her beautiful Navy-dockyard house, and was just getting to know the Navy people at the port. Bram says he is going to leave because he can’t stand all the paperwork (the “bumf”). He won’t even delay his departure from the Navy by a few months to collect an extra 200 guilders a month pension. He is planning on going to work at a Dutch factory but he doesn’t know for sure if he can get a job there. They are going to have to move to a small house.Bram leaves the Navy. Han is admiring of his brother-in-law's ability to come up with new ideas, but skeptical of Bram's ability to earn money from it. As an economist who has read a few things about the beneficiaries of innovation, I can say that Han was right to be skeptical. Bram was not alone in creating credible inventions that he did not cash in on. (In the case of his depth-regulation device for mines, it was used by the Norwegian Navy, but Bram never seems to have earned anything from it.)
15 Jan 1915. Bram [van Stockum] believes strongly the Allies are going to win. The war is just beginning. He is going to build a wind-powered generator on his house. [Ahead of his time! Although Han seems skeptical.]
31 Jun 1916. Walked to Bram and Olga in Boschlust. The house is old and dilapidated. The guest room is shabby and has a short bed. Talked with Bram who is busy with all his inventions: a mine with depth-regulation device, a flame-extinguisher on torpedo-ships, a steering device for an air-ship and an anti-aircraft gun. At 11 p.m. to bed, and Bram starts working. He goes to bed at 3 a.m. as a rule.
17 Oct 1916. Bram tells at dinner about his inventions for making observations in Surinam. For example, he did his work at night to avoid faults of the instrument caused by the sun’s heat. He constructed a well-working artificial horizon. And so forth. The boys [Tom and Alfred de Booy] listen with great interest.
Sickness and Apparent Recovery, 1917-1919
Bram seems to have picked up a long-term illness in his expeditions to the Dutch colonies (most likely Surinam).
5 Jul 1917. Today Bram van Stockum was brought to the Institution of Prof. Bouman from Boschlust by three male nurses. He went willingly, saying he “would not resist force majeure.” He is very content at the moment. The doctor thinks the situation is very serious.
25 Apr 1918. Today Bram van Stockum lunched with us and he talked with Hilda [de Booy] about his revelation, his rejuvenation etc., and Hilda listened very calmly – she looks at these kind of beliefs with less prejudice, because of her theosophy.
6 Feb 1919. Went in the evening with Bram van Stockum to the Concertgebouw. We listened to a new composition of Zagwijn with weird but beautiful sounds, and a wonderful “Don Juan.” [Han de Booy was on the Board of the Concertgebouw, as was his brother-in-law Charles E. H. Boissevain.]
Han attended Bram's funeral and gives him a sympathetic and appreciative eulogy.
2 Jan 1936. Funeral of Bram van Stockum. Olga had not seen him since he had been taken ill [in 1933?]. [Olga lived in Washington, D.C. with her daughter Hilda since 1933. She came with the family to Montreal in 1947 and died there in 1949.] The funeral was at 3:30 p.m., a third-class function but a very sympathetic group of mourners. Col. de Viner and I spoke. Bram was a very special person, very brave, independent. A very keen brain, but at the same time childish, naïf, and steadfastly believing in his own earthly immortality.Bram van Stockum's youngest brother Johannes (Jo) also died, five years earlier, of an exotic disease, picked up in Africa.