De Fiets (The Bicycle)

Jan Naaijkens – ‘De fiets’ (The Bicycle), from Mooren, Piet (ed.), Oorlog onderweg.  Tilburg in de Tweede Wereldoorlog, Tilburg: Schoolbegeleidingsdienst Tilburg/ Gemeente Tilburg, 1994, pp. 22-24.

“It was 1942 or 1943, I cannot remember exactly. The English had won the aerial war over England, the glorious Battle of Britain, which had been fought by a handful of untamable, imperturbable British pilots against the enormous German air force. And now the airplanes were flying in the opposite direction. I mean: at first many planes flew from Germany to England, while now they were flying from England to Germany. For the time being they only flew at night, because the German anti-aircraft defense on the ground was still very strong and very well organized, and the German fighters were not caught easily. Every night at the same time we heard them fly over us. You could set your clock on it. Sometimes they flew somewhat lower, sometimes a bit higher. Their course was a bit different each time as well, but you could be sure they were coming. Slowly the monotonous sound came closer. It got louder and louder and some nights, when many were flying, the sound grew into an enormous howling that made the windows rattle. Of course it often happened that English or American airplanes were shot down. Sometimes the pilots managed to save themselves by using parachutes. If they were fortunate enough to land on Dutch territory, they were usually helped by some good Dutchman or other. Slowly a number of organizations had been founded to help the pilots who had landed safely get to England, through Belgium, France, and Spain. I had become a member of such an organization.

Because we lived close to the Belgian border, and because we knew every little road, it was our task to take the pilots to the nearest meeting point in Belgium. Sometimes we had to pick up such a pilot, and one day I was asked to pick up one of these stranded young men in the nearby village M. [Moergestel].  Sjaak R., whom I had met before, was to hand him over to me in a tavern. That night I hardly slept at all. Do not think I was a hero! No, I was hardly able to sleep because I was so scared! Honestly, I was terrified, because I knew what was at stake. The Germans were very strict about these things. Helping enemy pilots led to the death penalty. I turned and turned and walked up and down the room and was glad when it became dawn. The next day I walked around with a tight throat, I did not say anything, and I hardly ate, which made my mother wonder if I was ill. It became night. I told my mother I was going to visit a friend, picked up a second bike at my friend Eugene’s, who played a leading part in the organization, and with the other bicycle in my hand I cycled to the village M as fast as I could.

At dusk I arrived at the tavern. I carefully opened the door. Sjaak R. was in the corner of the barroom. A few meters away from him sat a stoutly built young man. He was wearing a shabby suit that did not fit at all, a hand-me-down donated by some good person. The men did not say anything. They could not do otherwise. One English word would have caused a disaster when heard by the wrong person. Sjaak signaled that all was safe. I sat beside him. ‘He’s an American,’ he whispered. ‘Tom Applewhite, from Arkansas. We just brought him here by car.’

We did not say much else. I quickly had a glass of warm beer and left the tavern; the sooner we left the better. A minute later the soldier left the tavern. I gave him the bike. He was shocked at first and then had great difficulty to keep from laughing. ‘What’s that?,’ he whispered. ‘A bike? I don’t know how to ride a bike. Cycling is for children. Americans don’t ride bikes, they drive cars. I haven’t touched a bike since I was ten.’

There I was. Sjaak R. had already left. What should I do now, without any transportation and a pilot who did not know how to ride a bike?

‘Couldn’t you at least try?,’ I asked him in my best schoolboy English. ‘You knew how to do it once. You never completely forget how to do it.’ ‘Okay,’ he grinned.

He clumsily got on the bike. Waiving and waggling he took off, riding his bike as if he were on one for the first time or as if he were drunk. My goodness, would he ever make it to our village?

‘Stay behind me for about twenty meters,’ I explained to him. ‘We should not be seen together. If you see me being stopped, then hide in the fields, else we’ll both be executed.’

‘Okay, okay,’ he grinned and rode on.

I got ahead just enough to be able to keep an eye on him and to give him the opportunity to take off if necessary. But the distance between us got bigger and bigger. The Yankee did not appear to get along. Every hundred meters I had to stop to let him catch up with me. This way we would never get home and time was short. We had to get home at least before curfew because then the Germans would start patrolling and it would get extremely dangerous in the streets. I made up my mind; I went back, took him firmly by the shoulders, and while I kept his heavy body in balance as well as possible, I pushed him ahead along the bumpy road as best I could.

It was a hell of a ride. The road was terribly bad. We were having a head wind and to make matters worse, it kept getting stronger. Slowly my legs kept turning round and round. The American did his best. I felt as if my legs were slowly filled with liquid lead. Tom Applewhite kept getting heavier too. His broad appearance seemed to catch more and more wind. It seemed as if we were standing still. We could not go on like this. This way we would never arrive in time. Something had to be done.

‘Make or break’, I said grimly.

I motioned the pilot to stop. I took his bike, hid it in the bushes alongside the road and with a friendly gesture I invited him to take place on the luggage carrier.

The man looked at me as if he saw the skyscraper of New York dancing in circles. I insisted. He shook his shoulders and with his heavy weight took place on the luggage carrier.

I ground my teeth, took a deep breath, and there we went along the cobbles. It went far better now. The American, sitting on the back of the bike without anything he could do, did not do anything but pat me on the back continuously and mumble: ‘Good boy, good boy….’ I felt a warm feeling of pride because I was making a modest contribution to the final victory that would once come. At that moment my bike collapsed, because it was an old little bike. The American had been too much for the rear wheel and with a loud bang it bent double. While we were looking at the mess, feeling desperate, a car with no lights on rushed around the corner and stopped with screeching brakes.

We were paralyzed… was an army car. A soldier stuck his head out of the window. It was a young man, who often had a drink in my uncle’s bar; I recognized him and he recognized me.

‘Car trouble?’, he called.

‘Car trouble!’, I replied.

‘Einsteigen bitte!’, he grinned.

We got in the car as if we were as innocent as new-born babes. He drove to the village at full speed and dropped us off at our destination. That is what I call service…..

I have written to Tom Applewhite several times after the war, but he never answered my letters. Yes, children, that is life…..”

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