From Antwerp to the valley
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
CARBONDALE, Colorado ” “Ladies and gentlemen, the war is over.”
When Chuck Vermeyen heard those words, he was 10. It was May of 1945, and a gentlemanly voice was saying them in French over the radio. Everyone in Chuck’s hometown of Antwerp, Belgium was celebrating. He was there to watch real history, as people jumped up and down and cheered.
“It was a happy time,” he said.
That’s just one of the many stories Chuck, 74, has to tell.
On a recent morning, he was sitting in his Carbondale living room and talking vibrantly while his wife, Marge, listened in. While he went on about Chicago and Florida, architecture and boating, pig feet and his paintings, he was funny and vital and completely engaged. He was giving tidbits of his life’s history.
The stories started when he was 6, living in Antwerp. He recalled his mother, Marie, bringing him to their window and both of them staring wide-eyed as a swarm of German planes flew by. Soon after the invasion, his father, Philip, joined the calvary, only to be captured by the Germans a short time later. He worked at a prisoner’s camp for a year before coming home. While Vermeyen didn’t shy away the frightening aspects of the war (the bombings, the times his family had to move) he liked talking the most about the creative ways they got food. His father, for example, took a job at an oatmeal plant. That kept the family rolling in oats ” breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“For years, we ate oatmeal every which-way,” Chuck said.
He remembered how his dad used to catch little sparrows and bring back two dozen or so for his mother to cook up. He described trying to nibble the meat off those tiny rib cages. Once, he and his family were invited for a big rabbit dinner at a friend’s house. It was only after the satisfying meal was in their bellies that they realized it had been a cat. Those sorts of realities made it all the more wonderful when they were able to procure a pig, which they illegally raised to butchering age in their backyard.
“The only thing that went to waste on the pig was the hair,” he joked.
Even the animal’s feet were boiled up and served with sauerkraut. And he was able to laugh about all of it.
He talked about coming to America at 13, and how he had to get used to changes like new, exotic produce and even brushing his teeth (In his words, “My mouth didn’t see a toothbrush for 13 years!”). But he didn’t mind the shift. In fact, he relished the idea of being all-American. He wanted to learn the language and blend in. He and his family made a life in Chicago, where he would later go to school and begin as an architect.
He recalled a fateful blind date he had there back in 1957.
“I’ll never forget this lady. Her name was Marge,” he said, grinning. “Oh, here she is.”
Marge smiled back.
This year, they’re celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary.
He described living in Skokie, Ill., and having four kids in a span of five years. In the early 1970s, he and Marge decided to take a road trip to this valley. At the time, he felt as though he was on a “merry-go-round” in Illinois, he said, and he needed off.
He wanted a place where the people were friendly, the prices were cheap and the pace was slow, slow, slow. In 1973, the couple packed the kids into the car and moved here for good.
It didn’t seem like Chuck has ever second-guessed himself about it.
In the years after, his children left home, and he and Marge moved to Connecticut for a stint when the local economy slowed down. He took an early retirement there in 1997 and instead of sitting in an easy chair somewhere, they decided to sail to Florida. On the way, they stopped in little towns and got to know the boating community. Eventually, they found Cape Coral, Fla., where they’ve since spent their winters. As they got older, they swapped the close quarters of the boat for the comfort of a condo, but they’ve never stopped making the long trek to Carbondale for the summer.
“We get the best of both worlds, people tell us,” said Chuck.
It looks like he’s living it up. One of the biggest developments in his life these days is art, which he’s been doing off-and-on since college ended. While it used to be a spotty thing, he’s now dived into it much more forcefully. Around his living room were loose watercolors and colorful acrylics depicting landscapes and breezy Florida town scenes. One of his most recent pieces, now on display at the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts, is a blatant message against the Iraq war, which uses Nazi war criminal Hermann Göring’s own words to make his point. Chuck mentioned the ribbons he’d won at the Fall Art Festival and such, but more than that he spoke of the personal meaning behind the works. This is his way to express something from his heart, and that’s not a responsibility he takes lightly.
“It’s a nice thing to leave behind me after I’m gone,” he said. “Call it my legacy if you will.”
When it came to his current life, he didn’t have any more funny little stories to tell. He simply seemed appreciative of the now. More than art, his world revolves around taking care of Marge, who had a stroke a few years ago. For her, he’s got to stay healthy and strong, so he exercises, tries to eat right. He’s not really about future goals anymore. He’s about living each day as it comes ” and enjoying each one.
“I’m 74 now. And it’s just a matter of time before I make room for somebody else on the planet,” he said. “And that’s OK.”
And he was still smiling ” just as wide as he been through most of the conversation.
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