How Mr. Jan Hendrik Koster got to Aruba.

Taken from his autobiography.


Mr. Koster begins his autobiography with a background of his parents and his schooling and early life in Holland.  I pick up when he begins talking about going to Aruba.
Then one evening I went to see my friend Jan de Boer.  I had not been there for some time.  He asked me if I had seen the ad in the paper where they were asking for tradesmen to go to work in Aruba.  Jan told me that he had written.  They looked up the fourteen day old paper for me and I decided that I may as well try also.  However, there was one big obstacle.  The application and also the resume of credentials had to be done in English.  Here is where the better education of the family upstairs came in.  I believe that Sis’s (Dan’s note: Mr. Koster later married Sis) brother Jo did the job and it must have been a good one.  Although I did not have much hope I decided I may as well start to study English.  I did not have any trouble finding teachers.  Everybody jumped in.  The son of our family doctor gave me a book called The White Monkey, by John Galsworthy to read.  What an optimist!  However, once started I enjoyed the study and I worked hard.  A couple of weeks went by.  No word.  Then, one evening when I came home, I found the family waiting with a very important looking letter.  It said, in English, that I was expected to come to the employment office and meet a certain Mr. Shelton.  It proved that he was here from New York to interview people for the job in Aruba.  I tell you, I slept very little that night.  When I came to the office the following morning there were two gentlemen.  Mr. Shelton started to talk to me in English.  In the beginning I did not do too badly, but when it was all over the other gentlemen, Mr. Jansen, told me in my own language that Mr. Shelton was interested , but that my English was not good enough yet.  I got the advice to further my study and try again in about six months.  Mr. Jansen gave me his card and address, which was in The Hague.  Very disappointed but still with some hope, I went home.  But I decided to follow the advice I had been given and kept on with my study.  After three months I decided to try again.  Without any help I wrote to Mr. Jansen in English that in my opinion I was ready now.  I still have a draft of that letter.  It did not take long before I got a note from Mr. Jansen to come and see him.  His office in The Hague was in a beautiful building called Petrolia.  It was decorated with sculptures and beautiful iron work.  I was received there as if I was a very important person.  Later I found out that this was company policy for everybody.  Mr. Jansen received me very cordially.  For a while we talked in English about my background.  Then he turned to Dutch and went over the letters of recommendation he had received.  There was one he questioned me in particular about.  Yes, you guessed it----the yacht builder’s.
Let me digress here and go back in Mr. Koster’s autobiography and copy what he said about the yacht builder.  Mr. Koster had trained as a blacksmith and worked at the yacht works making fittings for the boats.
The yacht builders were a class by themselves and had no use for us iron workers.  I did not like to go to the place where we were supposed to eat our lunch and the other smiths went home for lunch.  So I always stayed by my self at out place of work.  One day the owner himself found me there and I was told to go and eat with the others.  I told him that I could not see why, and he left it at that.  But a few days later he came back.  We had an argument and almost a fight.  He fired me on the spot.  I am telling this detail because it almost prevented me from obtaining the most important job of my life.
At this point I will go back to where I left off in the paragraph above.
Mr. Jansen turned to me and asked if I was a communist?  I told him I was not.  I also told him that I might fly off the handle sometimes, but that if I was treated right I would give them no difficulties.  He looked at me and told me to go to the company’s doctor right away and then come back to him.  Back in his office he told me that in fourteen days I would go to Aruba.  Well, I had to tell somebody right away.  I went to see my Aunt Willy who lived in The Hague.  I had dinner there and of course talked about my early days.  When I came home with the news it was received with mixed feeling, but we all realized that this would be my big opportunity.  A couple of weeks of hectic preparation began.  Everybody chipped in.  Our family doctor who had been a ship’s doctor on ships going to the tropics brought me an entire tropical outfit including a pith helmet.  Later it proved to be of no use where I went, but what did I know.
Mr. Koster talks about how he spent his free time which I am leaving out.
Now the time came to say goodbye to my family and friends.  It was Mach 7, 1933.  I had decided that I did not want anybody to see me off at the train station.  There I met another fellow whom I knew from going to English lessons.  He was also one of the lucky ones on his way to Aruba.  His name was Jan Ouwejan, translated, John Oldjohn.  Together we went to Antwerp and found the way to our ship.  It was the Ingrid Horn, a rather small German ship.  It was mainly a freighter, but it had first class accommodations for about twenty passengers.  I am not sure now, but I believe that all my fellow passengers were also going to Aruba.  We sailed that night.  John Oldjohn and I had gotten a cabin together.  We waited until the ship was underway before we got into our bunks.  It had been an exciting and tiring day so we both slept well.  Leaving Antwerp, in order to reach the open sea, a ship has to go down the Schelds River and though a part of Holland.  But when we woke up the next morning, boy it was rough.  We were both very seasick and did not even try to get up for two days.  When the weather improved somewhat, we managed to wash and shave.  We were hungry and after something to eat we started to feel better.  Although John Oldjohn proved to be a rather dull person, I was kind of lucky to have him as a roommate.  Most of our fellow passengers were a rather rowdy bunch.  Almost all of them had been away from Holland before.  Some of them had worked in the East Indies and some of them had worked for the Shell Company in Curacao.  There was a lot of heavy drinking going on and although we were tolerated, we did not belong.  When we came further south, the weather became beautiful and the ocean very calm.  A kind of swimming pool was rigged up for us.  It was a large wooden box lined with canvas on the inside.  Every morning it was filled with seawater and in the evening it was emptied and cleaned.  We had a lot of fun there.  Still it was the object of an almost serious accident.  One of the hard drinking fellows decided one evening that he needed to take a dip before going to bed.  He had forgotten that he pool was empty and dived right in.  He was a sight to see the next day.  He was very lucky that he did not break his neck.  More about him later.  Boy the food we got aboard that ship.  All kinds of things that I had never tasted before.  We all learned to say “mahlzeit.”  The officers of the ship were very correct and I would say almost militaristic.  I should mention that this was the time when Hitler became very powerful in Germany.  One day we were invited to watch a ceremony where the German national flag came down and the so-called new flag with the swastika was hoisted.  We Dutchman did not pay much attention, but later I came to realize what a significant moment in history I had watched.
Now to continue.  Aside from looking at the Azores from a distance, we did not see any land until we reached the West Indies, better knows as The Antilles.  Our first stop was to be the island of Barbados.  As we were told that it would be possible to catch a shark there, I got permission from the first engineer to go down in the workshop and make a big fish hook.  We obtained a large piece of rope and a hunk of meat from the cook and when we entered the harbor of Barbados we started to fish.  Sorry to say nothing came of it.  The sharks just were not interested.  As our ship was mainly a freighter it depended on how much they had to do as to how long we could remain in port.  However, we had sufficient time to have a look at an entirely new world for me.  Strange people, strange fruits and strange flowers.  I remember that we stopped at a place where shelled coconuts were spread out in the son over a huge area.  One next stop was Port of Spain on the island of Trinidad.  I do not remember much about it.  Later Sis and I were there again and about that I will tell you more.  The next and last stop before Aruba was La Guira in Venezuela.  We were told that we would be there all day.  We had heard about Caracas, the capital of Venezuela.  Some of us decided that we may as well go and have a look there.  At that time the highway which now leads to the mile-high city did not exist as yet.    We went by a small-track railroad which wound through the tropical jungle.  It was an exciting and beautiful trip.  We met some colorful and interesting people, natives of the country and homey folks.  They had with them live chickens, some pigs and one had a large snake in a basket.  Although we could not converse with them, I remember a huge square with a statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of much of South America.  We did not have much time before we had to go and catch the train which took us back to the harbor.  In the morning of the 28th we arrived in the harbor of Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba.    At that time the island was still under the Dutch flag.  More of that later.  A company representative was there to meet us.  He took us to the other end of the island where the refinery of the Lago Oil and Transport Company was located.  You may know that Aruba is a tiny island just off the coast of Venezuela.  We were shown around a bit and then taken to the bachelor quarters.  At that time there were six quarters and some of us were taken to each one of them.  I do not remember the number of my quarter.  I was not too happy with my roommate.  It was the same fellow who had dived into the empty swimming pool.   Let me tell you a little about these quarters.  They were two-story buildings.  There were no windows in them, just louvers and screens, so that the trade wind could blow freely through them, which made them very comfortable most of the time.  Between each two rooms was a bathroom, so there were four persons to a shower.  We also had washing facilities in our room.  Soon we found out that all the drinking water as far as the Company was concerned, had to be imported.  Tankers with drinking water would come in and leave filled with oil.  We actually had three kinds of water.  There was seawater for the toilet, well water for the shower, which was not recommended for drinking, and then drinking water.  There were water coolers on each floor of the bachelor quarters.  There was also one faucet with fresh water outside of each quarter for washing our hair.  I do not know how true it was, but we were told that using well water would make you lose your hair.  As I had quite a bit of hair to lose I washed my hair in well water.  We all ate at the dining hall, which was open twenty-four hours a day.  This was because the oil refinery operates continuously.  It did not take us long to find out that you could go there any time of the day.  The food was excellent.  It was cooked by French cooks and served by Chinese.  Our rooms were kept clean and our beds were made by Chinese also.  We soon leaned that a small tip at the end of the month to those people would improve their service.
Now let me tell you about the contract I had signed with the Company.  To begin with I would be paid 1.40 guilders.  The work week was six days of eight hours. Yes, we had to work a full day on Saturday also.  After the first year of work I would get fourteen days of local leave.  All this was a tremendous improvement over what I had ever received in Holland.  If I did not want to stay, but could stick it out for eighteen months the company would pay my transportation back to Holland.  After two years I would be granted another fourteen days vacation.  At the end of three years I would get sixty days vacation plus transportation and travel time.  It sounded wonderful to me.  So, on March 29, after a good breakfast I found my way to the blacksmith shop.  I was the only one of the Dutchmen who would work there.  Although I probably looked a little strange in my new, much too warm coveralls, I was well received by my new boss.  His name was Bob Harrison and he was from Scotland.  There were three more smiths, a German, an Italian and an American.  To make a long story short, from the beginning I did very well.  Of course in the beginning I still had my difficulties with the language.  But, after all, I did not come to talk, but to work.  Our helpers were all black.  Sometimes the job would take as many as three helpers, and sometimes just one.  We used air hammers instead of steam.  These blacks were very good hammer machinists.  I never had any trouble getting along with them.  Pretty soon they would do anything to make my job as easy as possible.  I was not boasting when I say that as far as Bob Harrison was concerned I was number one.  When it was time for him to go on home furlough he recommended me to take over his job.  So, way ahead of the others I became General Foreman of the Blacksmith shop.  But I soon found out that I still had a lot to learn.  I had to make reports and also had to attend meetings on planning and safety.  I am sure that the other fellows had some fun at the way I expressed myself.  Still, all in all, I do not think I did too badly.  But I was glad when Bob came back and I could go back to work again.  You know what a “government job” is?  In case you do not know, it is when time and materials are stolen from the company you work for.  A lot of that was going on at Lago.  Oh yes, the big shots were in it also.  So I was picked to do most of that kind of work.  I made several nice fences and gates for the big shots and also was asked to make iron work for some grave yards.  I never asked any questions because it was none of my business and I loved the work.
Now let me tell you a bit about my life away from the job.  To begin with, I had made arrangements so that part of my wages would be sent to my parents.  I also started a little account for myself in Holland.  After we arrived we met other Dutch people who had come before us.  I got acquainted with Toon Gongriep, a machinist.  As we both did not like our roommates, we went to the Personnel Office together and were allowed to change and have a room together.  Soon Toon and I became good friends.  He was engaged and was saving his money to get married, as soon as he was assigned a bungalow in what was called The Colony.  We did not have much money to spend and kept away from those who spent their money drinking and gambling.  We both liked to swim and there was ample opportunity for that.  Don’t get the idea that all of our fellow workers were drinkers and gamblers, but there was a lot of that going on.  It did not take long for us to discover that there were two double tennis courts which were also lighted so that you could play at night.  We went to the movies often and bought magazines in order to improve our English.  One day we met a fellow at the tennis courts who took an interest in us and taught us how to play the game with very good results.  I would have my name in the Pan Aruban, the weekly paper of our Colony, as an upcoming champ.  Sorry bit it did not last.  Soon or main and only big expenses were to have our rackets restrung and buying new balls.  There was so much salt in the air that none lasted very long.
Let me tell you more about our fellow workers.  Although there were other nationalities present, the Americans were dominant.  Lower as well as higher management were all American.  For a long time there was little contact between us and the Americans.  There was a reason for this.  There were two different payrolls, a dollar and a guilder payroll.  We started at 1.40 guilders and soon were up to 1.95 guilders.  The dollar at that time was worth 2.50 guilders and the Americans doing the same job we did received 1.04 dollars per hour.  Our wages were still below what they were making.  Not going into detail, there were still a lot of other benefits going with the dollar payroll that we were not entitled to.  We did not grumble, and most of us were not even aware of the differences, but as more and more workers came from Holland, the others probably felt, and justly so, that they were there to take their jobs.  I had a taste of this difficulty one day.  The blacksmith shop was part of a large building where all metal crafts were under one roof.  Except for the roof, the building was open an all sides.  It did not rain often in Aruba, but when it rained, it poured.  That day it rained so much that the place around my anvil was in a pool of water.  I looked around and found a board to stand on.  No sooner had I taken it than a fellow came over and claimed that it was his board.  We quarreled and he invited me to come to the lighthouse to fight it out.  I did not want to back out, so I told him I would be there.  I went, but he never showed up.  Lucky for me, because he probably would have made mincemeat out of me.  He was about twice as heavy as I was.  When I went to him the next morning to tell him that I had been there he just laughed it off.  He probably figured that the long walk to the lighthouse had been sufficient punishment.  But to come back to the difference in compensation.  I think it was sometime in 1934 that President Franklin Roosevelt decided to take the dollar off the gold standard.  As far as the guilder was concerned, it went form 2.50 to 1.85 in value.  Now we were making more than our fellow American Workers.  The Company figured that the best way to remedy this situation was to give us a cut in wages.  This met with heavy opposition, not only from the Dutch, but also from all others who were on the guilder payroll.  The Dutch Government became involved.  In the end we were all put on the dollar payroll...  This was a big improvement because in this way we also became entitled to all other privileges.  The one exception was that the Americans were granted home furlough every eighteen months and we had to stay three years.
Again I skip ahead.
The Americans tried to get us interested in baseball, but we preferred to play soccer.  We had a kind of soccer team.  Alas, at the corner of the playing field there was a tavern, owned by a Dutchman.  We would start with eleven men, but after half time intermission, you never knew how many would show up again.
Mr. Koster then writes about returning to Holland for his first furlough.  He went back to Holland on the Esso den Haag, an 18 day trip from Aruba to Rotterdam.  He got married to Sis and they returned to Aruba by way of New York, crossing the Atlantic on the “Staatendam”, the flagship of the Holland-American Line.  After a stay in New York City they went to Boston and caught the tanker “Drake” to Aruba.
There was somebody to meet us and we were taken to Bungalow 193.  I got word that Bob Harrison had left the morning we came in, so I was expected to be on the job and take over the shop again.  Not much time for me to make Sis comfortable.  There was so much new for her to get accustomed to.
Again I skip forward
I was happy at my job and when Bob come back I went back to work.  As far as I was concerned things could remain that way until I was ready to retire.  But, alas, they had other plans for me.  One day, not long after Bob came back, I was called into the office and was told that I would be transferred to a supervisory position in the, of all things, Carpenter and Painting Department.  My Foreman would be Mr. Turner.  I had met this gentleman before in connection what a job we had to do for him.  Sorry to say, but it was a question of not liking each other from the beginning.  As I always have been someone who likes to work with my hands, I hated to leave my job in the first place.  Mr. Turner did not make it any easier to accept my new position.  From the beginning I got the idea that he would like to get rid of me as soon as possible.  I was put to work checking paint gangs over a very large territory.  All I had to do was sign time cards, order materials and move crews from one place to another.  I could not quit.  We were expecting our first baby.  I decided to stick it out and at least finish my contract.  I was usually able to pick up a ride home at noon.  One day I was very late, missed my ride and was walking home, when a car stopped.  It was Mr. Chippendale, the head of Maintenance and Construction Department.  He knew me because he talked to me once while visiting the blacksmith shop.  He asked me how I was doing.  I told him not so good.  I told him that at the present my job consisted of seventy percent walking from one place to another.  Also, That although I was now a supervisor I still had to punch a time clock.  Mr. Chippendale listened, but did not say anything.  A few days later Mr. Turner came to tell me that I would be allowed to use my own car on the job.  Also, that I did not have to punch a time card any more and would be put on the private payroll.  This was a big improvement for me.  The trouble was that as yet I had never owned a car and did not know how to drive one.  With the help of a friend I went out and bought a cheap secondhand car.  He also taught me how to drive.  The morning of the day I had to go for my drivers’ test I made a wrong move and drove the car right over a water line and into a ditch.  That caused trouble for me with the Company police, and their chief was a big, cowboy like fellow who felt very important.  When I told him that I was just learning and had to go for my license that afternoon, he had a good laugh.  But he sent the boys to get my car out of the ditch, gave me one of his big cigars and let me go.  That afternoon I got my drivers license.  From then on things were better for me and I did have more time for learning.  Mr. Turner did not bother with me any more, at least not for the time being.
His autobiography goes on to tell about the birth Rickie, his first daughter.
I do not remember how long we had to wait, but we knew that we were entitled to a larger house.  (Dan’s note: Because of the birth of their first daughter).  Then on day we had a very pleasant surprise.  Word came that we were to move to Bungalow 251.  Oh Boy, one of the choice locations in the Colony.  It was right at the seashore with a beautiful view across the lagoon and at the sea, only a few minutes away from two beautiful beaches.
Mr. Koster goes on and talks about the birth of Inez, and how at the beginning of Word War II he was drafted into the Dutch Army in Aruba.  He continued working at Lago during the day and reported to Army duty at night.  He did that for one year, until  Lago managed to get him excused from the Army duty.