Sunday, November 06, 2016

Opa (1923-2016)

Rene Ferry Diets passed away October 2016, not long after his wife Mary left this world. The father of my first wife Maria Johanna ("Yanna") Diets, Rene played an active role in our sons lives, as he did all his relatives.

Below is Rene's obituary from the 11/4/2016 edition of the Ojai Valley News:


Long time Ojai resident and artist, Rene Ferry Diets, passed away on October 16, 2016, in his own home, blessed by the love of family. For the past few years, old age and declining health gradually limited his ability to socialize. The loss of eyesight was especially devastating. He became home-bound and could no longer express himself on “the canvas” as he had done for some 70 years.

Rene was born in 1923, in Java, Indonesia (The Dutch East Indies). The third of seven children, his early years were heavily influenced by Dutch colonialism. His father worked for the Dutch owned railroad. Rene attended private schools where Dutch was the official language, but mainly socialized with Indonesian and Chinese peers.

During WWII, Rene served as a sailor with the Royal Dutch Navy. His ship escaped the 1942 Battle of the Java Sea, but was intercepted by the Japanese on their way to Australia. For 3.5 years, as a POW, he worked in the ship yards on the coast, and later in the coal mines in the mountains of Nagasaki. From his mountain view he saw the mushroom cloud expanding, and later a closer view of the devastation, following the horrific August 9, 1945 atomic bombing. Rene and fellow prisoners were liberated by American troops shortly thereafter.

His experience confirmed his faith in a personal God. He also felt forever indebted and grateful towards the Americans who risked their lives and the country they represented.

After the War, Rene lived in The Netherlands. He met his wife, Maria Vermeer, at a wedding reception where mutual acquaintances arranged their seats across from one another. They married a year later and had 3 daughter during the next 7 years. A secure government office job and a loving extended family was not enough to quell Rene’s longings for a warmer, more prosperous environment. He often dreamed of living where oranges grew.

In 1957, as a repatriate from Indonesia, under the Marshall Plan, Rene and family were given the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. Through a family business connection, a Mr. Frank Atkinson sponsored them to come to Ojai.

The Diets family dream-come-true existence began in a farmhouse in the middle of an orange orchard surrounded by mountains in the East End. Rene knocked on doors and found part time work in a variety of places including building rock walls and catering Indonesian food for dinner parties in the neighborhood, caring for sick pets at Dr. Bee’s animal hospital and gardening for Beatrice Wood. Each opportunity was a gift for a better life. One very significant answer to prayer was a helpful Dutch neighbor with a car who provided weekly trips to college night school.

In 1962, Rene became the accountant, and later the purchasing agent for the Thacher School. A dedicated employee, he spoke highly of his work associates and the institution he became a part of. 

Ojai’s natural beauty and climate rekindled Rene’s passion for landscape painting. Trained in the European technique of layering, family members assisting him in steadying the canvas on the easel learned to wait days, even weeks, before seeing something identifiable. His work ranges from Realism to Impressionistic and documents a time when our lakes and rivers were full and native plants flourished.

Rene Diets is survived by his sister, Winnie Schnabel of the Netherlands and her extended family; his 3 daughters, Suza Francina, Maria Diets-Stover and Paula Kee; 10 grandchildren and their spouses, Bo and Amy Hebenstreit, Das and Jonnie Williams, Senyo and Diana Gault-Williams, Joel and Joy Connell, Ryan and Rachel Connell, Monica and Trevor Marshall, and Kelsey, Bethany and Olivia Klein; And 11 great-grandchildren: Joshua, Daniel, Eli and Jonah Connell, Grace Davidson, Osric and Deia Gault-Williams, Sophia and Emma Connell, Maggie Marshall and Ya’ash Rene Williams. One of his favorite bible passages was Psalm 127: 3-5. He treasured time with family.

Rene's wartime survival story is told in the book, "Veterans' Stories of Ventura County," a chapter entitled, "Rene Diets: Survivor of the Atomic Bomb."

Videos of his recalling his POW years are on YouTube:

His grandson Das -- my first-born son -- wrote about his grandfather for his daughter when she grows old enough to read:

My Opa Rene Diets passed away this morning. He wanted us to rejoice, not mourn, and here is a bit of his exciting story (written to my daughter, his namesake):

The story of who you are begins in a prisoner of war (POW) camp in the spring of 1942. World War II was the most destructive 7 years in humanity’s extensive 7,000 years of trying to dominate or exterminate each other. Only the genocide against native Americans (your Pima's people) and Genghis Khan’s invasions exceed it in the number killed, but what must have been particularly shocking was war was supposed to have been outdated, that we had built a world without it. Just about about every person on the globe, even in remote stone age villages, was effected.

Most were not as effected as my grandfather Rene Diets. He was a happy go lucky kid from Java who loved climbing coconut trees. Though his family had modest resources, because he was not Muslim and his grandfather was part German he had more opportunities than most Indonesians during the colonial period. But he was also expected to put his life on the line for the preservation of the colonial order that dictated that he was a second class citizen. At the age of 17, he was drafted into the Dutch Royal Navy.

After the Allied defeat at the Battle of the Java Sea in the spring of 1942, his crew tried to flee to Australia. There were limited food supplies, and so the Dutch officers decided that they should get all the food and the Indonesian sailors should get little or no rations. "I wasn't a white boy, I was a colored boy and so that is the way it was. One thing I hate is ranks (of people)."

To avoid starvation, he and his crew mates had many adventures. In a boat there are large openings between decks to facilitate airflow. Opa Rene once lowered a line with a hook into the bakery to steal a loaf of bread. When telling this story, he would howl with laughter because of the expression of the Chinese baker trying to figure out what happened to it. At another time, they lowered one of their conspirators into the hold, to sneak past the cook and steal food. If starvation wasn't bad enough, they also slept on the deck or on lifeboats on the sides of the vessel, where one night Rene barely stopped a shipmate from slipping overboard in his sleep. "Needless to say, when the Japanese captured us... the food got better" Opa would joke and make us laugh, even though we knew the rations the Imperial troops provided were barely more than starvation.

The crew were taken to a POW camp in Makassar, a harbor on south Celebes. There he survived by taking the duties no one else wanted. Cleaning out the overflowing lavatory pits earned you better rations. Opa Rene commented how strange it was to see tall, strong Dutch and European POWs sprayed down naked by diminutive Imperial troops. The old colonial order of things was going away forever.

By 1943, he and many of his fellow prisoners were shipped by boat to Nagasaki. On the way they feared a US submarine would take out the transport, but in Nagasaki the two real dangers lay: starvation and the cold. He had lived all his life in the tropics, had only his light uniform to wear, and when those gates to Fukuoka #2 closed, many gave up, thinking this was the end. "You had to decide whether you would believe this was the end, or that if the gates closed, that one day they would open."

Despite the racism and the colonial order, Rene felt comraderie and empathy for the Dutch sailors and soldiers he was imprisoned with. His estimate, consistent with many POW experiences, is that less than 30% of his fellow prisoners survived... and that was before the atomic bomb. Rules were enforced with savagery, including beheadings for some offenses.

Despite the risk, Opa Rene had to find extra food to survive. They were in forced labor in the shipyards, and the Japanese sometimes used molasses to lubricate machine parts. He ate insects when he could find them. He also almost was caught climbing a tree in the middle of the night for food. But he never resorted to stealing from his fellow POWs. Not everyone could hold it together and avoid the temptation. One day the camp was cleared out for forced labor save one man left behind in poor condition. This man ate all the bread rations of his fellow prisoners, but his stomach, used to a starvation diet, could not handle it. He died of overeating.

These were the darkest of times, as one year became two, three, then four in captivity. To a 17 year old it must have seemed like his whole life. Opa Rene credited his faith in God and his sense of humor. "If you cannot find the humor in things then you are already dead."

Finally in 1946 he was transferred to a mining camp outside of town. For many this would be nothing short of a death sentence, but he was assigned the job of hunting and scavenging any food possible in order to feed the miners. They definitely picked the right man for the job, and soon old Opa was catching rodents and other small animals to feed them. Things would likely have gone from bad to worse, and in a manner they did. A few weeks after his transfer Nagasaki, and the men, women, and children that lived there, were destroyed by the atom bomb.

Rene reflected on this. Though his gratitude for the Japanese-American nisei soldiers who liberated the camp, and for the nation that sent them, was limitless, he pointed out that it was wrong to drop the second bomb, that Japan was ready to surrender after "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima. That was among the last of the brutal tragedies of World War II. He felt that the innocents of Nagasaki had been killed by our decisionmakers on an unnecessary principle of unconditional surrender and the perhaps more from the desire to send a message of power to Stalin and the Soviet Union (our ally that was feared to be our next enemy).

The rail line to the port of Nagasaki was repaired and POWs were transported through the ruins of the city. The heat of the blast was so powerful that it not only demolished most buildings but that it even changed the composition of the surface of the ground and many objects, as if the entire city had been blowtorched into glass. Before embarking, the POWs were given donuts, which they thought was a miracle, but a contradiction as they dined on donuts as everything around them melted into glass.

His experience on the British vessel that took them from Nagasaki to Okinawa was far from positive. The POWs were kept in a camp on the deck, strictly segregated from the crew, who generally treated the emaciated POWs as disease ridden pariahs. Transferred at Okinawa to an American vessel, he experienced an entirely different culture. The Americans were outgoing, treated them well, and wanted to buy, sell or trade everything, even things that did not belong to them. Old Opa was shocked when he saw one of his buddies in an American officer's uniform, which he had traded a Japanese weapon for. This experience had a lasting impression, because it was the first group of white people who treated him as something like an equal. He said years later, "It (America) is not always ideal, but in this country you can be what you want to be."

After all he endured, your “old opa” said to me as recently as Christmas Eve 2015, that “we have done well in the best of times, and in the so-called worst of times, (which) after a while you will see are in fact also the best of times…with faith, and together, the best is yet to come.”

Opa Rene did not go back to his home in Indonesia. The war had ended for America, but in much of the world it raged on for years, as Soviet armies betrayed and destroyed the partisans that had fought the Nazis in Eastern Europe while France, Great Britain, and even little Holland tried to reassert control over their lost empires. But the Indonesians did not want the Dutch back, and so the war went on. And Opa was sick of war.

Yet he had few options. He went to Holland and tried to rejoin the Navy. He admitted to me that it turned out, after years of starvation and death, he was in no state physically or psychologically for such a task. He enrolled in school for accounting and worked for the postal service. He met Oma Mary at a wedding, where they immediately fell for each other. They had three daughters, your Oma was the middle one.

When she was still a young girl they all immigrated on a boat and cross-country train to the US. Back then, as part of the Marshall Plan to stabilize Europe, many immigrants were accepted but they had to have a sponsor family that would help them set up a new life.

The war left scars on Rene. Even with his sense of humor, your Oma and her sisters remember him as being stern as a father. From second hand information I can surmise they were not that great of parents. The girls had run away by the time each was midway in their teens. This was strange for us to find out, even as kids. Mary was extremely bossy but she was a good grandmother, and the Rene we knew was always loving, always joking, and always forgiving. Even when I was rabidly anti-Christian, he struck me as the person I knew that best exemplified the faith. Half the time they would have a homeless person living at their house that Opa was trying to get back on their feet.

What had created such a change between the time they were parents and the time they were grandparents? Opa Rene credited his faith for the change. With it he knew the gates of that prison camp would open. With it he knew he could find a better life for his family in America. With it he knew he would not be forced to clean chicken coops in Upper Ojai forever to provide for them. It slowly transformed him into the person his grandchildren knew. And what a loving, forgiving man he was that gave you his name.

As a disturbingly precocious child and teen, my faith was science and I persecuted his faith in endless debates as determined as any Saul of Tarsus. He never dismissed me, and always talked for as long as I had an attention span for...and always shared his encounters with God. A decade of this eventually softened my heart and made me open to spiritual knowledge.

In the last months of his life, you and I went to visit him and Oma Mary. You were 7 months old and just starting to drag yourself across floors in a sort of crawl. Despite discomfort and obvious fatigue, he uttered a prayer over you that went something like this: "My one hope that I ask for is that you will not walk this world, a place full of beauty but also full of dangers and darkness, that you not walk this world alone. The power and wisdom of the Holy Spirit walks with you." His thoughts concerning himself were without fear. In the last days of his life, the pallor of death was upon him, and he had shrunk to skin and bones, yet still he sang "I belong to Jesus, Jesus belongs to me. Not only for a day or a month, but for all eternity."

 One of my favorite pictures of Opa (and Das), early 1990s

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Images of 2015

My favorites of 2015, organized from most recent to further back in the year:

I am inspired every day by my wife. How did I luck out so good? Here she is, cooking for a temple event. Following image is of us with her father, Khun Paw, on the chedi pad, land we donated.

Sen and family, December 2015:

Kopavi in Idaho... actually, Kopavi changed his name from Kopavi Lyou to Boyd Williams. I did a similar thing, thus the "Gault-Williams"... great to have you closer, Boyd!

Johnnie and Ya'ash:

This pic reminded me a lot of another picture that I once took of Das, in Alaska:

My sons and Ya'ash:

My father, Edwin Sartain Gault, Jr:

Das found a way to get around the stumbling blocks that have historically prohibited Isla Vista from establishing its own governmental control. For those of you who may not know, Isla Vista is an area where our family has lived, partied and prospered:

Great Grandpa Rene having fun with his great grandchildren:

Yanna, Jerry, Deia and Osric:

Opa and Oma:

My favorite shot of myself this year, at the building site of our new home...

Last, is Kulthida (Ray), Thip's daughter, who graduated with an AA in 2014 and went on to successfully test for a government job in 2015: