ANTIGONISH, N.S. - “You never forget.”
Three simple words from Royal Dutch Princess Irene Brigade veteran Willie Westenenk perfectly capture the sentiment around Remembrance Day.
And it’s a special month for Westenenk in another regard too; he’ll turn 90 on Nov. 29.
“Be good … keep on trucking,” Westenenk said when asked about the secret to living well at 90.
And when it was pointed out how often he seems to have a smile on his face, another ideal reply came forward.
“It’s the only way to do it … and I usually get a smile back too.”
A military life
Westenenk, a native of Raalte in the province of Overijssel, The Netherlands, served his country in the aftermath of the Second World War, in the late 1940s, which included being sent to places such as Indonesia in “peace keeping” type of missions.
“The war was over, the conflict was over,” he said, noting there was a time he didn’t think he would even be sent “overseas.”
“I had started training for about two months; I was in a section of the company – a third group, about 25 to 30 of us – we didn’t have to go (overseas), the rest all had to go,” Westenenk said, recalling the time clearly.
“We could never figure that out but I was happy I didn’t have to go overseas.
“I came home, my father asked, ‘what are you doing here?’ I said I don’t have to go overseas. ‘Oh, wonderful,’ he said. Then, a month later, I was allowed leave again and went home. ‘How come you’re home again in the middle of the week?’ my father said. I looked at him and I said, ‘I guess I have to go overseas to Indonesia.’ [It was like] a sack of potatoes sunk down on his shoulders, he didn’t want to hear that.”
Westenenk said his father had an alternative plan for him which, in his mind, was a much worse fate.
“He said ‘you don’t have to go,’” Westenenk said, once again quoting his father.
“I said, ‘how can you say that, the government is the boss of me.’ He said, ‘no, go to the coal mines in the other end of the country.’ I said ‘no thank you, I’ll take my chances.’”
Westenenk said in regards to his decision; “I never felt a damn bit sorry I went,” noting the life experience he gained being in the army, which included going on a train for the first time, handling weapons and seeing different parts of the world, was worthwhile.
“It was quite an experience,” he said.
He noted his company was moved around often while manning areas around Indonesia and New Guinea.
“It was interesting, we seen many places,” he said, noting he was OK with moving around by land but water was another story.
“I didn’t like boats, didn’t like the ocean either,” he said, recalling getting sea sick on occasions.
“We even lived on an island they called Doom, in old, dirty barracks,” he said. “We got used to it; acquainted with the monkeys. I remember picking bananas off the trees, and mangos, other fruit.”
Westenenk recalled one time, while being stationed just outside Jakarta, when he and a few buddies got lost in the city.
“We walked around town and had to be back at a certain time, but couldn’t remember what the name of the camp was,” he said, noting they were still very new to the area.
“We couldn’t figure out where the camp was. The military police came along again and they straightened us out … that was kind of scary.”
Westenenk noted his time with the brigade even included getting a sense of what jail could be like. He explained the incident started while he was training in The Netherlands, and him asking permission for a day’s leave, to attend his brother John’s wedding.
“They said, sure, no problem, so that was for a Thursday, and, in those days, when someone got married, it was always two days,” he said, noting the first day of a wedding celebration was more for the adults and the second day more for the younger folks – friends of the bride and groom.
“Young people would serve on the first day,” he said of the old tradition, noting it was during the day he met a young lady.
“I told her I’ll be back tomorrow and my brother said, ‘how can you tell her you’ll be back tomorrow, you have to go back.’ I said I’m not going back. So I had a damn good time, but I have never seen the girl since.”
Then the consequences.
“Saturday I went back to the army barracks and everyone was standing on the parade ground, to be dismissed and go home and here I was, returning from leave.
‘“You’re a little bit late aren’t you?’ Westenenk recalled being asked by a superior, to which he hummed and hawed.
“They took everything I had and took me to the captain’s office. ‘Mr. Westenek,’ - I stood at attention of course and you only spoke when you were spoken to - ‘who gave you permission to stay a day longer?’ I said, ‘my brother.’ He said, ‘was he the boss?’ I said as far as I was concerned, that day he was getting married, he was the boss. He said, ‘you tell your brother it’s not going to happen again.’ I said, ‘I can’t tell him, he is in Canada.’
Westenenk said his punishment lasted for two weeks.
“I went to my room, they took the laces out of my shoes, took the belt out of my pants, the straw back I was always sleeping on, and when I marched across the parade ground, everyone standing there [would yell] ‘jailbird, jailbird.’
“It didn’t feel good, but there was nothing I could do about it.”
Westenenk would follow his brother John to Canada and, eventually, Antigonish. John arrived in 1949 and he came in November of 1952.
Landing in Montreal before taking a train to Nova Scotia, Westenenk said his lack of English provided him his first memorable Canadian experience.
When asked by the conductor where he was going, Westenenk, in his Dutch accent, said ‘Antigonish,’ but did so creating his own syllables for the word.
“There is no such place,” the conductor answered back, using the exact same interpretation of the place name Westenenk had come up with.
Eventually, the displaying of the ticket settled things and when Westenenk had to transfer trains in Truro, the same gentleman came down to tell him he needed to get off this train and find his one for Antigonish … again in the same pronunciation Westenenk had created.
“I still get a kick out of that … my first experience,” he said.
He did make it to Antigonish and has been here ever since.
His employment was as a landscaper/gardener at St. F.X., a job he did for 40 years.
“I could have stayed a year longer but 40 years was a nice even number and I had a good fella to take over for me,” Westenenk said, noting he very much enjoyed his job and the people; the professors and priests around the university.
“And the most important person for me was my friend who I worked with, Leo DeWolfe,” he said. “He was French and a fiddle player and all day long he would be [makes a whistling noise] … all day long and I said ‘would you shut up,’” Westenenk said, chuckling at the memory.
“He was one big help. I had to learn English from him and if I did it wrong, he would damn well tell me. We worked together for 38 years and always got along very well, right from the beginning.”
Westenenk’s skills as a gardener have benefitted the local food bank as he has been contributing excess produce from his own garden on Church Street Extension.
“I loved gardening, especially when I retired,” he said. “Beans, peas, carrots, all of that stuff; I can only use so much, I live alone, so I brought a lot of it to the food bank.”
Westenenk is also well known as the pink flamingo planter.
He noted seeing the tradition on television one time, and when John and his wife were married 25 years, he decorated their lawn with 25 pink flamingos he made himself.
“I plastered them all over the place,” he said. “From then on people were asking ‘my parents are 50 years married, can you do 50?’ ‘Sure’ I would say. When my neighbour was 80, I put 80 on her lawn and last May, when she was 93, and I put 93 there,” laughing at the thought of their cat and mouse game, as she tried to catch him in the act but he, stealthily, waited for her to go to bed.
“You just have to put them close together,’ he said matter-of-factly, when asked about fitting 93 on a lawn.