On my mother's side, my Dutch Calvinist roots go 170 years-deep into the sandy American soil on the shores of Lake Michigan. He was, as were most Dutch immigrants to this country before the Civil War, a man of stubborn faith who left Holland for economic as well as religious reasons, one of a hundred or so Dutch folks who put up a church almost immediately, once they defined themselves as a community.
I was reared in a strong Christian home where earthiness was decidedly improper. My parents never, as I remember, used God's name in vain, nor did they indulge in vulgarity of the barnyard variety. A frustrated reference to human excrement might have slipped from their lips now and then, but the exception proved the rule--profanity was sin, and barnyard language was coarse, unbecoming.
But the Dutch can be earthy, believe me, and, oddly enough, one of the few Dutch phrases I know, a phrase I didn't learn from my parents, is "schiet in de broek" (I haven't a clue how to spell it). Broek is pants; schiet is--well, I'd rather not say.
So here's a Wisconsin lakewoods joke I've remembered for most of my life, a joke I didn't learn from my parents. It's roots are not Dutch.
A new park ranger is hired. In the orientation, his boss warns him about bears--they're around, he says, and you'd better learn to deal with them. The new guy goes slack-jawed. What do you do when you meet 'em? he asks. Just remember, the boss says, the thing to do is to throw shit in his face. That'll do it every time.
The new guy's eyes widen. Where do I get shit at a time like that? he says.
Just reach back--it'll be there, the boss says.
There's really is a load of shit in Dutch Resistance narratives. Diet Eman's stubborn faith was stretched to the breaking point when, on her bike, on her way back from some terrifying moment, her pants were just plain full. She can't stop just anywhere, so there she sits in sheer misery. That horror makes the bath she takes at the farm house where she was staying one of the sweetest moments in those difficult years.
But it's there--shit. In the middle of all that horror, in the middle of the gut-level prayers that rise in fists to the heavens, it's there. Shit happens.
Klein Jantje calls it "the brown sweater," a phrase that was itself a kind of joke among the Resistance people, the apparel people wear whether they like it or not when they're scared to death. What I honestly didn't know is that shitting one pants in overwhelming fear is an actual physical reaction. It's not a joke. It actually happens, and when it does, it gives new meaning to having been "scared shitless."
John Muller, who tells his story in The Reckoning, says the most scary times he remembers arrived, oddly enough, with much needed supplies, even arms, from Allied air drops, as if death could come by blessing. Allied airdrops came at night, and only on the darkest nights possible. He and the others would wait in some deserted field. The planes would descend--not a light visible anywhere--and drop cargo--often enough, arms. You had no idea if a pallet of arms would kill you right then and there, when you were already risking your life.
One night, when the roar of the planes descended, he filled his pants twice. He was that scared.
To my mind, schiet in the broek is funny, in a barnyard way, in a way that my mother would scold, the kind of thing my fourth-grade grandson would find hilarious, like farting.
I honestly didn't really know it really happened. To me, it was always a joke, even a naughty one.
But it did, and I suppose there are places in the world today as well, where it still does. And when it does, it's no laughing matter.
That's what I thought when I listened again to Diet's story.