BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH OF PETER M. TIERSMA
(including a few interesting anecdotes)


 
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 I was born in the province of Friesland in the Netherlands.  I don't remember an awful lot about living there.  I do remember making little clay boats and learning to whistle.  I still whistle, incidentally, a legacy of growing up on a farm. 

Friesland is a province in the north of the Netherlands, as well as an area on the North Sea coast in Germany, just south of Denmark (including a number of islands). Frisians have their own language, which is the closest language to English (see the page on Frisian on my website).  Although a majority of people in the Dutch province of Friesland still speak Frisian, the language is severely threatened by Dutch, the official language taught in schools.  Dutch itself is threatened by English.  I sometimes tell my Frisian friends to just skip Dutch and go directly to English--what happens to Frisian today will happen to Dutch tomorrow.

I was born on a dairy farm owned by my grandparents (whom we call Pake and Beppe). 

 

My pake was named Pieter, and my father was his firstborn son.  According to Frisian naming tradition (now largely disappearing), the father of a child names his oldest son for his own father, followed by a patronym.   So my father was Meije Pieters. Since I was his oldest son, I was named Pieter Meijes.  Frisians were forced to take last names during the French occupation of the Netherlands in the early 1800s, so my ancestors took the name Tiersma (Tier is a Frisian name, meaning "people's army," and ma is a clan or family suffix).  Many Frisian last names consist of someone's name and -ma (Hobbema, Bokma, Piersma, etc.).  The other common last names consist of a place (Grouw) followed by the suffix -stra, as in Grouwstra (referring to people from Grouw, and equivalent to the Dutch last name Van Grouw.)  The most common Frisian last name is Dykstra, referring to people living close to a dike.  A lot of Frisians live close to dikes!

My parents were teenagers during World War II.  It was a terrifying time, but also in some ways very exciting.  My uncles and aunts (on my father's side) had a lot of stories about the farm, especially during the war (i.e., World War II).  The Germans were constantly looking for young men the age of my father and uncles to work as slave labor in their factories.  But, remember, the farm was surrounded by water.  There was a bridge to the road, but it was usually left open so that boats could pass.  People who wanted to cross over the bridge had to shout or honk their horns.  So if the Germans wanted to conduct a raid, generally at night, they first had to honk for someone to come close the bridge.  The family's boys and girls slept two to a bed.  When they heard the honking, the boys would run off to hide in the hay, while the girls spread out over the beds so that the German soldiers would not find a warm bed unoccupied.  They would sometimes poke in the hay with their bayonets--one uncle almost lost an ear (or so he claims)--but otherwise the system worked and they all survived the war.

Two of my uncles were a bit mischievous.  After dark, there was a curfew and no one was permitted to be outside.  My grandfather and a neighbor were cycling home in the dark after a late meeting in the village, worried that the Germans might arrest them for violating curfew.  Unbeknownst to them, two of my grandfather's sons (the aforesaid uncles) were bicycling behind them and also heading back to the farm.  They caught up with their father and shouted, in German, "identification papers!!."  My grandfather and his friend panicked and jumped off their bicycles, catapulted themselves over a small canal, and made their way home through the pasturelands.  Pake Piet always suspected his sons, but to his dying day never knew for sure who had been cycling behind him.  Now that they both have passed on, I feel free to expose them: it was Auke and Jetse.

My father and mother met during the war, at a party of a cousin.  To avoid the Germans, my father went there by rowboat (it was also shorter, but a lot slower than a bicycle).  They went out together and were later engaged for about six years--much too slow for my mother.

My mother's side of the family had a tough time during the war.  Unlike people in the cities, where food shortages were rampant (especially at the end of the war), they could grow much of their own.  However, my mother's mother (my Beppe Jitske) died in the war during childbirth.  Her daughter lived, but now my mother--still in her mid teens--had to start running the household, which also included her father and three brothers.  One of the brothers was severely developmentally disabled (he could not talk and had limited functionality physically).  My mother loved him, perhaps because he was so dependent on her.  He was sent to a mental hospital in Heemstede, and died there not long afterwards.  His body was returned to the family.  According to my mother, he had a red pinpoint in his neck, suggesting he had been ordered euthanized by the German occupation forces. 

Most of Friesland was liberated by Canadian forces.  My father once told me that all the young Dutch men were jealous of the Canadians, who were driving large tanks and attracted the attention of the local girls, who would jump aboard the tanks as they entered the villages and cities in a type of victory parade.

 Emigrating to the United States

After the war, many Dutch families began emigrating to the United States.  Especially farm families left, since the Netherlands is a small country with a lot of people (and there was a population boom after the war, as well as a lot of devastation).  The Dutch government actively encouraged emigration in order to reduce its population as well as to improve housing and employment opportunities for those who stayed behind.

The United States instituted the Marshall Plan after the war to help Europe get back on its feet.  My father had never seriously considered emigration, even after all of his siblings left, because he was the oldest son and was slated to inherit his parents' relatively large Frisian farm when his father (Pake Piet) retired.  But in 1950 he signed up for a program sponsored by the Marshall plan--my parents were not yet married--to send Dutch farmers to the U.S. to learn modern (i.e., American) farming methods. The 50 Dutch farmers traveled to the US by ship (the Holland-America line's Volendam; return on the Veendam).  My father is on the left.


He spent a half year working on a farm in Wisconsin owned by the Ballback family.  He was very impressed with all the cars in the United States and the high degree of mechanization there, compared to the Netherlands.  He found American culture rather strange--they did not stop for a coffee break in the morning, or tea time in the afternoon.  Instead, they drank coffee with dinner, and no tea at all!  He worked hard on the farm, and the Ballbacks were quite hospitable.



Afterward he visited his sister in California.  He began to seriously consider moving to the United States.  But, back in Friesland, his fiance Aukje was waiting for his return.

My parents married a year or two after his return from the US.  And not too long after that, I was born, and then my sister Jitske and, several years later, Brechtsje.  We lived on the farm owned by my grandparents. 

There was a lot of water around our dairy--we essentially lived surrounded by canals and a lake.  My sister and I fell into the canal in front of our house more than once.  Fortunately, my parents could swim!  My mother eventually took to tying me to a tree in the front yard with a rope, one side attached to my suspenders, and the other to the tree.  Degrading, but effective.  Here's a photo of me on the milk boat that came to take our milk to the creamery:


My grandmother (known as beppe in Frisian) was a wonderful woman who loved to give me treats and sweets.  This sometimes undermined my mother’s authority, especially when I was being punished for being bad.  So my mother made a deal with Beppe Brechtsje that she would put a safety pin on the back of my shirt collar if I was being punished, so that if I wandered over to my grandmother’s side of the house, she would know not to give me anything. I’ve been a good boy ever since.

When I was five years old, we emigrated to the United States.  We flew in a large and noisy airplane that had four propellers.  It could not make the trip without refueling, so we had to stop at Shannon airport in Ireland and New York City before landing in Los Angeles.  I cried all the way because I missed my Beppe Brechtsje.  In those days flying was more expensive than taking a boat, but my father once told me that the Dutch government subsidized our airline tickets in order to promote KLM, the Royal Dutch Airlines.   I think I would have found a ship more interesting!

We lived in the house below.  That Chevy Bel Aire was a nice car!  I guess that’s why we wrapped it in plastic.

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In case my mother is reading this, I should point out that we only lived in this humble abode for about two years, and that our subsequent houses, while never opulent, were definitely a step up.  And my mother, being Dutch, kept the inside immaculate.  I think the move must have been rather traumatic for me, because I had recurrent nightmares of being on the end of the pier in Oceanside, near where we lived, and large waves breaking the beginning of the pier, leaving me stranded at the end.  I had those dreams for years afterward.

My father milked cows for one of my aunts and uncles who had preceded us to the US (in San Luis Rey, California), and who sponsored our immigration.  I believe my sister and I are in the middle of this row of kids, along with some of our neighbors, Dykstras and Diepersloots.

 

My parents had some of their possessions, including some furniture, shipped to their new home in a large wooden crate.  My father turned the crate, which might have been 6" by 6", into a playhouse for us kids.  We loved it and spent a lot of time there, often accompanied by our cousins, who lived on one side of us on the dairy, and the children of Japanese immigrants who lived on the other side.  Somehow we children managed to communicate, even though we spoke little English at the time.  In fact, my sister and I spoke no English when we first went to school in Oceanside.  Fortunately, I had a cousin in my class (the kid at the top of the slide in the photo above) who spoke some Frisian, so he would translate for me sometimes.  In fact, he was sometimes called into my sister’s kindergarten class to translate for her.  I don’t believe I have ever properly expressed my appreciation, so thanks to cousin Pete!

Before too long, my father went into business for himself.  His plan had always been to save some money and start his own dairy.  A fellow immigrant told him that opportunities were better up north, especially the central valley of California.  Another Dutch immigrant, who was a cattle broker, cleaned out his truck and moved our modest possessions up north. In the photo below, my father is loading the truck for the trip north.

 

I thus mainly grew up on various dairy farms in the San Joaquin Valley of California. It was a nice life to grow up on a farm, although we were obviously fairly isolated (this may explain my deviant personality!).  One of my favorite places was early on, when we lived in a small two-bedroom house, which was not really large enough for my parents and the three children.  My sisters got the second bedroom, and I had to sleep in a small trailer in the back yard.  It was one of those streamlined "teardrop" trailers.  I loved it!  It was tiny, but it had a very small kitchen and bathroom, so for about a year (when we moved to a larger house) I had my own little place away from everyone else.  I had completely forgotten about this, but a few years ago I was watching a movie in which someone was referred to as "trailer trash."  I realized that I had been trailer trash for a year.

Growing up on a farm, you learn a lot about nature and animals.  In fact, when I was in sixth or seventh grade, my father apparently decided that it was time for some sex education.  The problem was that my father was fairly reserved and also quite religious.  In other words, not the type of person who easily talks about sex.  One day we were working on the dairy.  Each corral had about 50 or 60 cows in it, along with one bull.  The purpose of the bull is to impregnate the cows.  Dairy cows need to have a calf about once a year, because this causes them to produce more milk.  But sometimes the cow and bull just don't seem to get along, so the cow fails to get pregnant.  Artificial insemination might be an option, but before doing that, we would normally put the cow and bull into a small pen, where it was impossible for them to avoid each other.  I had helped my father do this often enough.  This time, however, there was a critical difference.  When they were together in the pen, he said: "Watch!"  That one word was the extent of my sex education.  Fortunately, I had enough imagination to draw the connection.  Below you see my father (on the right) and an uncle (Omke Durk) outside the milking barn.

I attended Sanger High School, which for its time was a very diverse place.  About half the students were Latino, or Mexican-American (a few of them called themselves Chicanos, but besides some activists that term never particularly caught on).  What struck me about the more Latin immigrants was that they always dressed very nicely.  The “American” kids (including acculturated Latinos) tended to wear worn jeans and t-shirts, whereas the recent Mexican-Americans immigrants wore dress pants and shirts, or nice dresses.  They might not have had much, but what they wore was always dignified.  Today’s high school students couldn’t be more different.

 

I tended to associate with a group of more serious students, who consisted of Anglos, a few Latinos, and a substantial number of kids of Armenian and Japanese descent. There was exactly one Muslim, an Iranian student who was reportedly living with relatives to avoid being inducted into the Shah’s army.  There may have been one Jewish student—I’m not sure.  Some of the Japanese students were Buddhist, and about an equal number were Christian.  I often sat on the bus with Jean, a Japanese girl on a neighboring farm who told me that not just the Germans, but Americans also had concentration camps—her parents had lived in one.   By the time I was growing up, however, the Japanese and Armenians were very much an integral part of our community. 

 

The Mexican-Americans were a diverse group. Some spoke excellent English and were very American.  Others were recent immigrants whose parents worked in the fields picking grapes or other crops for Anglos, or for farmers of Japanese or Armenian ancestry.  This was the time of Cesar Chavez and the United Farmworkers Union, which pitted Mexican-American farmworkers against Anglo and Japanese and Armenian farmers.  My father had just one employee, who was of Oklahoman descent (if you don’t know what that implied, even in those days, buy a copy of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.)