Tuesday, March 20, 2007


I was looking through a few old pictures from the Elisson archive this past weekend, and I found a few of an old friend and colleague that brought a smile to my face.

Jan was a chemist, a native-born Netherlander with a lovely wife and a clutch of blond, blue-eyed kids. We first crossed paths back when I was in the midst of my first assignment at the Great Corporate Salt Mine in Baytown, Texas. He was in his thirties, thirteen years my senior - yet we became good friends.

Never before or since have I met anyone with a finer instinct for the Practical Joke.

Once, we had - by coincidence - stopped at the same filling station to gas up our cars. Jan found a humongous beetle wandering around on the ground. Not a cockroach, but comparable in size to a big-ass Texas roach. He popped that sumbitch right in his mouth, just to see the bug-eyed expression on my face.

Another time, he had a small army of his Dutch relatives come flying in from overseas for a visit. He picked them up at the airport, drove them out to Baytown, and dropped them at the house. He then drove off.

What he didn’t tell them was that he had dropped them at a random house in the neighborhood, not at his home. Imagine your standard-issue Texan, confronted with a gaggle of Dutch-speaking furriners at the doorstep, luggage in hand for a week-long stay: Hilarity ensued.

One prank Jan pulled - arranged in advance with the wife of one of his neighbors - could have gotten him shot. He got in said neighbor’s bed and buried himself (fully clothed, of course) under the covers. By and by, in comes Mr. Neighbor, who gets in bed, not realizing that the lump in the bed was not his Missus, but the nutty Dutch guy from next door.

Jan essayed a couple of tentative grunts. After a while, Mr. Neighbor decided that he was going to have to perform his Husbandly Duty - if only to get some rest. He reached over...

...only to be greeted by the sight of a bearded man. Yaaaaaaaaagggggghhhhhh!

Jan leaped out of the bed and sprinted for the door, barely giving Mr. Neighbor time to figure out what was going on, much less to find a Handy Weapon. I can only imagine the fun when Mr. Neighbor’s wife confessed to being in on the gag.

And then there was the time we almost got ourselves arrested at the Galleria.

The Galleria, an upscale shopping mall on the west side of Houston, decided to hold a Dutch Festival one day in the spring of 1978 1976 (I think). Jan and I decided to take a long lunch and drive the 35 miles into Houston so that we could pass out fake anti-Dutch hate literature (“Stop them before they drain our lakes and put windmills everywhere!” “They’re trying to poison us with their insidious cheese and chocolate!”). This we did...but the Galleria’s security people were not amused. They were this close to clapping us in irons when we managed to convince them that it was a practical joke...and most definitely not for profit. After all, Jan himself was Dutch...

A few years later, after I had been transferred to a different Corporate Salt Mine outpost, I had occasion to travel to Europe. Stopping in Amsterdam, I grabbed a postcard and mailed it off after jotting a quick note to my old friend. Something on the order of, “If only the Americans United to Beat the Dutch could see me now...in the belly of the beast!”

Sadly, Jan never got the postcard. Later I found that, that very week, he had been in Galveston, running - as was his custom - on the hard-packed sand of the beach. He keeled over with a massive coronary infarction and was dead before he hit the ground. He was forty years old.

I cursed the Unexpected Visitor then. Bad enough that Jan died young, leaving a widow and three now-fatherless kids...but why couldn’t he have gotten one last laugh from that postcard?

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