Dutch treat: Mountains drew couple to Colorado
Gerry and Marja VanderBeek come from one of the world’s flattest countries, so it might seem ironic that mountains have played a huge role in their lives. Mountains drew the couple to Colorado from their native Holland in the 1960s, and mountains have been the focus of Gerry’s decades-long passion with alpine climbing, taking him on mountaineering adventures all over the United States, South America and Africa.”I can’t stop,” said Gerry with a big smile. “If I see that something goes up, I gotta go up it.” In 2001, Gerry and Marja summitted Kilimanjaro together. And in 1996, it was on the highest mountain in Alaska where their middle child, Michael, 33, was killed while searching for another climber.Now, attached to the wall of their pale aqua-colored Victorian house in downtown Glenwood Springs is reminder of Michael and his love of mountains.It’s a wooden plaque, with Denali, or Mt. McKinley, etched into it. Below the etching is the inscription, “Forget Me Not.” ‘My Greatest Hero’Beneath the VanderBeeks’ sunny dispositions and healthy glows are memories of growing up with war all around them, and of family loss. “Marja’s father was my greatest hero,” said Gerry. “He was captured during World War II and sent by the Japanese to Burma to build railroads there. He saw people dying like flies. But he didn’t hate the Japanese and he always could make a joke out of life. He always saw the endless possibilities life offers.”
Marja was born in Indonesia which was then a Dutch Colony. When World War II broke out and Indonesia became occupied by the Japanese she was 3 years old. When it was over, she was 7. Marja, her mother and her four siblings – ages 9 months to 9 years – spent those four years in a concentration camp in Indonesia. “They put 13 people in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room,” she said. “Six of those were my family. We slept like sardines on one bed. There was a woman in the room who lost it. She couldn’t handle it. She had a little boy but she ignored him.”Marja said she remembers prisoners having to stand in the hot sun for three days. She said she and being forced to watch fellow prisoners being whipped for wrong-doing, and having food withheld because of someone else’s infraction.After the end of the war, Indonesia’s War of Independence started, and suddenly the Japanese were protecting the Dutch from Indonesian native extremists.”Once, we all had to lie under a truck,” she said. “The extremists were shooting at us.”Occupied HollandGerry grew up on the other side of the world in a rural village in Holland. When he was born, his country was already being occupied by the Germans. “We were allowed to live in our house because we weren’t Jewish,” he said. The VanderBeeks’ neighbors, who were Jewish, disappeared one day and were never heard from again, Gerry said. Two German soldiers – named Hans and Krebe – lived in the VanderBeek house with Gerry and his family.”They were so young,” he said. “They didn’t like the Nazis either, but they were afraid.”
Gerry said his uncle was part of the “underground,” hiding Jews and “eliminating as many Germans as possible. “At the time, there was a different perspective,” he said of his uncle’s work. “We considered him a hero. Who wouldn’t defend their country in that environment?” Gerry distinctly remembers the day Holland was liberated by the Canadians. “There was corned beef and candies,” Gerry said. “And I remember seeing girls sitting on German tanks.” ‘Kind of clicked’Marja’s family moved back to Holland after the war, where she spent all of her school years.The couple met while they were both attending college in Amsterdam – Marja at a girls’ school. “He crashed our party!” Marja said, laughing at Gerry.Gerry said he pursued Marja “full time,” and that “finally, we kind of clicked. It’s been 42 years.”They consider their move to North America in the 1960s “a life adventure,” said Gerry, who’s had a multi-faceted career in international banking, focusing much of his work on Latin America while being based in Seattle, Denver and Salt Lake City. He taught himself Spanish and learned about the Hispanic culture while climbing mountains south of the border.
Forget Me NotThe couple’s middle son, Mike, shared his father’s love of climbing. An accomplished rock climber, Mike, the Seward, Alaska, resident was also an expert mountaineer, and a National Park Service volunteer mountaineering ranger in Alaska when he went missing on Denali in 1998 while searching for a fallen climber. “The climber that was with him said there was just the sound of a swoosh, and he was gone,” said Marja. “There was no cry or anything. His body was never found,” said Gerry.Mike’s death hit the couple intensely, and precipitated their move to Glenwood Springs from the Denver area. They’d had a condominium in Carbondale since the ’80s, so they knew the area and knew they needed a change. A photo of Mike with a huge smile on his face on a climb with mountains all around him sits above Gerry’s home office door. So does Mike’s crampon that was found on Denali. That’s when the “Forget Me Not” plaque on the VanderBeeks’ front porch gains true significance. “Michael lived on Forget Me Not Road in Alaska,” Gerry said. “And Alaska’s state flower is the Forget Me Not.”It’s clear that the Vanderbeeks never, ever will. Contact Carrie Click: 945-8515, ext. email@example.com
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