The Devil’s Stone

Duivelssteen

All day a storm had raged through Utrecht, with howling winds and driving rain. Roof tiles blew loose and the cart horses were skittish. By the end of the day, everyone was exhausted, cold, wet, and on edge.

In a house on the Oudegracht, roof tiles that had been damaged in the storm allowed water to drip into the living quarters of Henk and Ingrid. The constant but irregular drip stretched their already frayed nerves as they sat in the weak light of flickering candles, buffeted about by stray gusts of wind snuck into the home. The damp chill of the day had worked its way into their bones and they soon retired to their bedroom to huddle under the covers in the hope of bringing an end to this miserable day.

Yet sleep was elusive that night as thunder continued to crack overhead and the sound of the churning Oudegracht below poured itself into ears desperate for peace and silence. Henk and Ingrid tossed and turned, until finally they fell into a fitful slumber. As the storm finally began to dissipate, their furrowed brows began to ease and peace settled over Utrecht.

Suddenly, shortly after midnight, a crack louder than any thunderclap rent the longed-for silence. Henk and Ingrid bolted upright in bed as their ears rang from the loud noise. Before their hearts could slow their galloping pace, another loud bang split the air and shook the house. Henk lay paralyzed with fear, but Ingrid leapt from the bed and raced to the window.

Peering out through the cracks in the shutters, she looked down onto the street in search of the source of this terrifying noise, certain that she would see the streets and houses tumbling into the canal below. Nothing else could explain the awful noise and the shaking of the house.

As she looked upon the scene below her, she began to wish her first thoughts were true, for they were preferable to the unholy sight she saw instead. There on the street beneath her, the Devil and his minions played a horrible game of marbles. But rather than small glass balls, the feared creatures used massive stones and boulders.

Again the bone-shaking crack of the stones ripped through the night and Ingrid slowly backed toward the bed, her hands covering her face as if to block the image from her mind’s eye. As she whispered to Henk the horrible sight she’d seen, his face grew paler than the full moon that hung in the sky.

The devilish game continued through the night, and Henk and Ingrid sat clutching each other, whispering prayers that soon this nightmare would end. As dawn approached, the monstrous sport finally drew to an end and the Oudegracht once more returned to normalcy.

When everyone was sure the coast was clear, the people who lived along the canal carefully crept from their homes and began to speak in hushed tones about the devils they had seen and heard that night. A few more candles were lit in the local churches and prayers were fervently made in the hope that they would never pass a night like that again.

Yet as darkness fell once more, the residents withdrew into the darkened rooms of their home, unwilling to risk being seen by the ungodly game players. As midnight approached, people felt their pulses quicken and their breaths become shallower as their ears strained for the first sounds of the stones striking the ground.

Despite their anticipation, the almighty crack of the devil’s game of marbles still shook them to their core. For another night, the residents along the Oudegracht sat wide awake in fear of this demon sport that made sleep impossible. Bang went the stones, causing the houses to shake and the shutters to come undone, letting in the ghostly light of the moon that served as a lamp for the creatures down below.

The next day, unable to bear another night of terrified wakefulness, the residents turned to their priest and begged for help. The canny priest had the devil’s stone chained up, and called upon God to prevent the devils from breaking the chain.

That night, Henk and Ingrid and the other residents along the Oudegracht said their prayers and went to bed, hoping that they would finally be able to sleep. As the Domtoren struck midnight, they heard the rattle of chains, but the rock remained still. Soon the chains grew quiet and a sense of peace settled upon the street. One by one, Henk, Ingrid, and all of those who had been tormented began to drift off to sleep, as the stone and its chain remained firmly in place.

♠♠♠♠♠♠♠♠♠♠♠♠

OK, so I took some liberties with the legend of De Gesloten Steen (The Closed [Locked?] Stone), also known as De Duivelssteen (The Devil’s Stone), but the stone does exist and it is chained up at Oudegracht 364. The legend that devils were keeping residents awake with the boulder until a priest intervened was already in existence in 1520.

Seeing as today is Halloween, I figured this was a perfect time to tell the story of the Devil’s Stone. However, if you’ve got a nervous disposition and spook easily, just tell yourself the stone was put in place to prevent wagons from damaging the corner of the building and that it has nothing to do with devils. Just ignore that thump in the night.

De Gesloten Steen

Alternative Christmas

My dad is an all-around talented guy, and that includes being a pretty spiffy writer. He recently sent me this story that he’d written a year or so ago (and which was published a few weeks ago in his local paper), and I wanted to share it with anyone who reads my blog. For one thing, it’s just a really good story, very touching. Secondly, considering a lot of people who read this blog are expats/immigrants like myself, I figure it has a certain amount of meaning, in the sense of being away from family during the holidays, but trying to make the most of what you do have — which is usually quite a lot!

Happy holidays to you all, no matter what or where you’re celebrating!

It was Christmas in the early days of Vietnam and I was stuck on an aircraft carrier somewhere in the South China Sea. Home, family and the Christmas spirit seemed a long way away.

In our berthing compartment we were stacked three deep, each bunk 18 inches above the next. It was crowded and hot. The calendar said it was December but the temperature in our compartment was 87 degrees – day and night. Our ship, the USS Hancock, was a leftover from WWII and it hadn’t been fitted with air conditioning – at least not for the crew. Some of the radar rooms had AC to keep the equipment cool and guys who couldn’t take the heat would sleep there on the hard deck. I was an electronics technician and I had to go into one of the radar spaces one night. Without thinking I opened the door and stumbled over half a dozen guys sprawled on the floor! What a way to spend Christmas.

While watching planes returning to ship one afternoon, I saw a prop-driven fighter with a unfired missile hanging under its wing. When the plane grabbed the arresting cable and was jerked to a halt, the missile broke loose and slid up the deck to where planes were being refueled! I saw it heading for a row of jets and I ducked when I saw the first spark of contact. I cringed and waited but there was no explosion. I peaked over a railing in time to see two airmen with the missile in their arms running to the port side of the ship where they tossed it overboard. A few minutes later I saw two more guys supporting a third as he hobbled across the deck with an injured leg. One loose missile, one injured sailor. What a way to spend Christmas.

The fighters and bombers took the war to the Viet Cong, but for us sailors the most important plane was the COD. It was a twin-engine aircraft that brought our mail each day from a base in the Philippines. We knew that a couple of hours after the COD landed we’d hear “Mail Call!” piped over the ships PA system. You have no idea how much we looked forward to mail from our families and loved ones.

As Christmas neared we might get a CARE package. That’s what we called the cakes, cookies, brownies or other goodies from home. We didn’t care if the contents arrived in less-than-perfect shape, just as long as we got a taste of something sweet from home. If we had any leftovers, they usually went into the radar room’s AC ducts for a little cooling to prevent mildew.

That Christmas someone sent me a Claxton fruit cake. I may be the only person in America who likes fruit cake; I loved it then and still do. We always had a fruit cake at Christmas and that cake was a touch of home. I wrote a letter to the Claxton bakery in Georgia telling them how much that cake meant to me that year. A month or so later I got a reply, thanking me for my note and wishing me a safe trip back home.

Launching and recovering aircraft night and day, playing nurse maid to a bunch of radios and radar, sleeping in a hot compartment, rushing to battle stations, fire drills , ship-to-ship refueling, lining up for meals, grabbing a quick shower. That was our schedule that Christmas. What a way to spend the holiday.

Then a few days before the 25th the mail clerk delivered our division a big bag of mail. Some students at Temple University in Philadelphia had taken the time to send us Christmas cards. They didn’t know us but they took the time and effort to write, simply addressing cards to a Fighting Man in Vietnam. I read a few of the cards and looked at the names inside. Young people our age, not that different from us, but how different our lives were. Students at home had taken the time to write a note and send us cards at Christmas. I guess all college kids didn’t think we were war criminals after all. What a nice gesture at Christmas.

It was almost midnight on Christmas Eve and I was off duty. Air ops were halted and the ship was quiet. I had my cards and letters from home and a piece of fruit cake stashed in my locker, but as the ship plowed through the dark South China Sea I knew it was Christmas but I wasn’t at home.

I went to the ship’s chapel for the midnight service. As I squeezed into a seat I was surprised at how many guys were there. We sang familiar carols and the chaplain told the familiar story of a birth long ago in Bethlehem. And with bowed heads we prayed as the ship rose and fell with the swells. I have to admit I was feeling sorry for myself, a bit homesick. What a way to spend Christmas.

About that time a seaman up front picked up a guitar and started to play Silent Night.

I always liked that tune played on a guitar. And as I listened to the quiet melody, my mood changed. Sure, I was stuck on a ship thousands of miles from home. My country was at war but I was doing my bit. But I had it a lot better than the guys in Vietnam’s jungles. It was hot where I slept, but at least I had a dry bunk. With the exception of a loose missile, no one was shooting at me. Chances were good that I’d make it home in one piece. I had mail and packages from loved ones, unexpected Christmas cards from caring strangers. It dawned on me that I had a lot to be thankful for.

As I listened to Silent Night in a small chapel on board a war ship in the South China Sea, I was too much a sailor to admit I had tears in my eyes, but I started to think that maybe this wasn’t such a bad Christmas after all.
-Tom Netsel