Guichelaar: Traveling troupes (in the Netherlands)

Pageant wagon

Detail of a painting by Flemish Renaissance painter Pieter Balten, portraying a traveling troupe’s performance on a pageant wagon stage.

Advancements in my father’s teaching career required moving often and from one small town to the next. My birth, at home with a midwife lending a hand, took place in one of these hamlets. Less than two years later, my father’s promotion to schoolmaster arrived along with dispatch orders to my brother’s provenience.

This particular settlement consisted of houses and slender farms along a severely crowned brick road beside a narrow and endless canal. Our new home, the headmaster’s house, was next to the school; a rural well of wisdom consisting of three classrooms holding two grades each.

Moving took every bit of a Saturday, and my parents finally retired in the wee hours of the morning, only to be aroused a few hours later by a persistent hammering on the front door. My father cautiously descended the stairs and peeked through the sidelight. Several men stood on the stoop, one of them whisper-shouting at an upstairs window: “Headmaster, headmaster!” When my dad opened the front door wide enough to stick his head through, their leader said: “We did not see any lights and did not want you to miss church!”

Every morning, my father would finish breakfast at the kitchen table, grab his briefcase and commute from our back door through the garden and across the schoolyard into his classroom.

He was an educated man of the Protestant persuasion and the borough’s leaders soon invited him into their brotherhood. The church was a deacon short and the town’s council required new blood. All agreed he was just the man. Evidently these functions required frequent assemblies and, as they involved many of the same devoted souls, my mother at times muttered that perhaps they should all move in with each other.

But these habitual huddles offered diversion. After all, television was still in its snowy black and white infancy. The men took turns hosting these gatherings and their wives served coffee and cake. The first time my mother was volunteered, she carried a tray into a lively debate that interested her. An enlightened woman, she voiced a comment but was interrupted by an elder who, while reaching for his cup, smiled up at her and said; “No need to worry, dear. It’s not something you’d understand.” She was too perplexed to respond and the town’s reverend, a tall and sensible type, later quipped that he had observed her manometer’s needle peg into the red. He conceded that the opinions of some in his flock were as narrow as the rows of their neatly plowed fields.

In those days, it was common for performing traveling troupes to pass through. Their arrival would be announced by posted bills, much like when a circus comes to town. That fall, posters foretold that one and all should prepare for a drama of unprecedented suspense. Soon after, a Volkswagen bus carrying show folk and props appeared from over the horizon and parked behind the house of worship, which would be converted into a makeshift theater.

My new fraternal sidekick and I were left under a sitter’s care while our parents went to see the show with the rest of them. As my mother retold it, a scent of manure hung inside the church; unavoidable when farming families and their hired hands gather. The faint smell of alcohol also wafted. Outside of the Lord’s Supper, drinking was prohibited but some had covertly brought flasks containing spirits more intoxicating than sacramental wine.

The curtains opened and revealed painted backdrops, exchanged between scenes to transport the sinister tale from one setting to the next. An evil kidnapper, played by an actor with long arms and claw-like fingers, was about and danger lurked. In the first act, a toddler vanished. The despair of the bereaved caused the audience consternation. Matters got worse in the second act. The devilish culprit ensnared yet another helpless infant and the house went berserk. “Catch this madman!” someone yelled among cries of concurrence. Intermission arrived.

Some stretched their legs, others sneaked libations.

Act three served up more horror and people were on the edge of their seats as the tale reached a fever-pitch. In the final scene and to everyone’s relief, all tykes were successfully ransomed. The mysterious menace, however, remained at large as the curtain fell. The applause was not able to conceal some discontented grumbling.

The audience filed out the front and chatted with their neighbors before walking home. Some went behind the building, where flasks were heatedly passed around. Justice had not been served when thieves of children had gotten away. A back door opened and troupe members emerged with one lanky one carrying props toward the van. The cry, “There he is!” was followed by a “Get him!” and the surprised actors found themselves rushed. Some froze on the spot while others made a run for it. One hotfooted around to the front and his cries caused the pastor and others to investigate.

What they encountered was a pickled posse staring into the trees behind the church. “He got away!” one of them yelled. “Who got away?” the dumbfounded pastor inquired. The man turned, recognized his padre and clumsily clasped his hands behind his back. Not out of of deference; he was merely concealing his flask. The shepherd walked up to his troubled lamb and they stood nose to nose until his penetrating stare ignited the light of realization inside the inebriated mind.

During the walk home my folks came to a conclusion and sometime later, an official missive arrived. This memory belongs to me; my parents dancing like teenagers around the kitchen table. We had been dispatched once again, from those peculiar narrows to the breadths of the big city.

— Hank Guichelaar, a Longview resident, is an occasional contributor.

Today's Bible verse

The word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love.

— Psalms 33:4-5

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