In “The Empty Hourglass”, a book penned by my Opa containing his life adventures, he shares stories from the perspective of knowing his life was coming to a close. The book was written after being prompted by my Mom.
What he wrote was nothing short of a masterpiece; a story of a young man who grew up in the most unlikely of circumstances; raised on a plantation in Indonesia, fighting in World War II, and eventually immigrating to the United States with my Oma and infant Dad in tow.
I’ve read the book, front-to-back, more times than I can count. It’s served as my reading material on long flights, mornings, and times when I feel my true north is hard to find. There are a lot of inspirational reads out there – but, having words from your own blood is something truly special.
Kids these days don’t have much to look up to these days. Their heroes are often little more than CGI figures on the big screen. Parents no longer seem interested in investing their own time/lives into raising their children; choosing career over time spent with their family.
There’s not a lot of respect for creatives, creators, or people who buck the mold of ‘Merica culture; often, the people who choose to homeschool their children, eat holistic diets, or refrain from modern ‘medicine’ are painted more often as heretics than free-thinkers who have spent countless hours researching ways to live a balanced life.
Meanwhile, hordes pack the lines of fast food restaurants, consume food tainted with countless ‘additives’ and get their information/facts/ideas from the box in their living room, or the screen in their hands.
Land of the free…home of the brave. What does it mean to be brave, really?
Opa didn’t have a usual upbringing. As a young Dutch boy in Indonesia, he lived many, many lives before the age of 18. In some ways, he lost the innocence of his childhood and fought for many years to reclaim it.
He wrote of his experience enrolling in the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the age of 17; lying about his age, stuffing himself full of bananas to make the minimum weight requirements, and doing whatever it took to stay alive, serve his people, and greet evil in the eye.
During his first mission, he was tucked in the tail gun turret of a B-52 bomber, flying across enemy lines, and experiencing a fear many of us dream about only in our nightmares. Dodging search lights and enemy flak exploding in the air around the plane, he came face-to-face with his own fears.
“Was I afraid? A wave of shivering hit me and threatened to drain the life out of me. I was cold while at the same time perspiration would run down my neck and back. Deep inside of me was an empty feeling of misery. Yes, I was scared to death!”
“You’ve got me wrong!” I yelled in frustration, my noise over-powered but the steady drone of the engines.
“I don’t like being in the Air Force, and I tried to tell you that before…” but my cry was droned out by the engines. “Am I a man? Will somebody tell me if I am a man if I have done this shit long enough?”
Opa’s words have inspired me for many years, while reminding me that freedom isn’t free, love isn’t easy, and the most honorable thing a person can do in life is to raise a family that loves each other. Everything else is secondary, replaceable, or able to be bought if you have the right number in your bank account.
The love of your family. That is a treasure worth fighting for.
As a man without a family of my own, I often wonder if I’ll get it right. Sometimes I feel excitement. Other times, I wonder if the world is better off without another one of me – particularly during times of harsh criticism and hatred.
At the age of four, Opa was taken away on a train. Unbeknownst to him, he was going to an orphanage, where he would spend the rest of his childhood until he joined the RAF.
“Even now, I can still vividly bring back that episode from memory, and I was only four at the time. All I wanted was to be a child, but they wouldn’t let me……”
I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from Opa, who made the most of a life that seemed to provide him with little more than hardship, loss, and pain for the years leading up to the time where things turned around for the better; meeting my Oma, starting a family, and working hard to achieve the once-accessible American dream.
His legacy lives beyond his time. As the designer (and multiple patent-holder) of the brake mechanism for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) his work has kept billions safe as they ride the cold metal trains speeding beneath the streets of the Bay Area.
It seems like an ironic twist of fate that the first thing to fail on the ‘new and improved’ BART trains was the brake system…
When I went to Indonesia last year, I felt a calling to pay tribute to Opa, while searching for a better understanding of my own life. It seemed my life purpose had reached a dull ebb; drowned out by the noise that comes with partying, drugs, alcohol, and frivolous living.
In the midst of it all, I remember a quiet whisper, urging me to go to Indonesia. Cracking open “The Empty Hourglass” I searched for the story of Opa’s adventures on Jefman island. In particular, his encounter with a 16-foot hammerhead shark during one of his daily swims.
He took the time to draw a picture of the island, noting the quarter-mile span on the island where he took his daily swim. I searched for the island using Google Earth, and quickly found the small island located close to Sorong.
I searched on YouTube to see if there was any information about the island; a retired military air base, which still contained the long airstrip Opa was entrusted to oversee. A few results popped up, notably a young group of men who called themselves the “Sorong Adventure Society”.
I sent one of their members a message; asking if they would be willing to take me to Jefman, as well as film me taking the swim to honor Opa’s legacy. They agreed. The rest is his-story, now our-story.
I recently got two tattoos to honor Opa, which now adorn my right arm. They serve as a constant reminder that our lives don’t last forever; you get one shot to make the most of the seconds you live. To live in fear is the greatest waste of the time given to you.
Life is for the living! Not to hide, shelter-in-place, and freeze from fear propagated by that damn box in your living room.
All of us will die. That’s the one thing I’m certain of, and I’ve never found somebody to disagree with that sentiment. However, there’s often a lot of disagreement of how to live the life we have, while we have it.
Ever since I was a child, I felt an urge to taste adventure. Often, these desires found little support from those around me. Whether it be the urge to start a business (“You’ve had so many failures before!”) Travel to exotic places (“Is it safe?!”) or get fast toys (“Why not just get a car that goes from A-to-B?”).
Somewhere along the line, I realized that life is full of audience members, and very few cast members.
Theodore Roosevelt, the last president of ours to lead American troops into battle; the “Rough Riders”, a volunteer cavalry, once said:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Nowadays our [corrupt] politicians hide in air-conditioned boxes while they send young men and women to do their bidding to advance the legions of American Imperialism. I digress…
Life is full of choices. Every drop of sand into your life hourglass is the opportunity to say “Yes” or “No” to the call of your life. These days, I look at my own hourglass and see a life that’s been well-lived.
It hasn’t been through the pursuit of safety or security that I’ve collected libraries of incredible moments. Rather, it’s been the pursuit of living life to the fullest, with risk, adventure, and a desire to live from the heart, rather than snuff it out like a weak flame.
Today, I honor my Opa, for setting an example of a life well-lived. I know that somewhere in the universe, he’s watching over his family, applauding as they start their own and carry on the legacy he fought his entire life to build.