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Last summer, we’d just passed the bridge at Nijmegen where, 600 yards to the west, hundreds of GIs paddled flimsy Brit boats with their rifle butts in order to cross a river flowing with current fast enough to knock you off your feet. What’s worse, all kinds of Nazi armaments were fixed and firing on them—and what’s even worse, it was daytime.
Somehow, some made it to the other side—about half with the first contingent. The other half perished. Somehow, they established a beachhead, then went on to take the bridge, if you can believe it, only to be joined by Brit tanks. But those tanks shut down. They were ordered not to go on.
The story goes that the commander of this miniature D-Day near-suicide mission was so incensed at their failure to move—he’d lost tons of his men because he knew Allied troops up river at Arnhem were pinned down and needed help badly—the man was so incensed that what he said to the Brits, having tea, really can’t be repeated.
And that’s the story I was thinking about—the whole story of Operation Market Garden—the story told in the novel and movie A Bridge Too Far, when we rolled up to Het Loo, the summer palace of the Dutch Royal Family, a monumental Baroque national treasure hidden neatly in the woods.
I will never understand royalty. I am too much an American. I have few links to the patriots who signed the Declaration of Independence, and I don’t really share their hatred for royalty either. I just don’t understand the whole concept—I’m too much a yankee, for better or for worse.
So I wasn’t impressed by Het Loo. Which is not to say it was hard to be impressed; after all, the place is stunning. There are so many Golden Age paintings on those walls that some visitors—I’m sure not all—get a headache from sensory overload. You could spend all day in any one of that mansion’s rooms and not see everything. Riches galore are on each wall, each ceiling, each floor.
Okay, I was impressed, but not enchanted. Opulence, after all, is by definition elitist. If you don’t mind asserting that some people are simply created more equal than others, then what you see in the royal palace is just wonderful. Okay.
But I got tired, fast. And I got to thinking that if I was the first lieutenant who’d just lost half his men in crossing the river and taking Nijmegen bridge, and if, trying to stay alive, I just happened to stumble in to Het Loo, just down the road, my uniform still stinking of river water, my hands still shaking from picking up the bodies of my men out of the river—if I just walked into all that opulence after all that death, I’d sit down and cry. I wouldn’t even swear. I’d just cry.
Maybe the two, juxtaposed the way they were today, were just two dissonant: the horrors of war and stench of riches. I wish I hadn’t been thinking about a hundred dead men.
The rules say no pix, but I just wanted one and I got it. Ten seconds later, a youthful guide reminded me that no cameras were premitted. I honestly felt like asking him if he had any idea how much American blood was forever sewn in country’s his soil.
This is a bedroom, a tiny one. Multiple the opulence here by about twenty or so–well, how about fifty–and you have Het Loo. It was impressive, but I was not enchanted because I have no history with endearing royal families. I’ve never sworn allegiance to a king or queen, and I don’t know what it’s like to live with a Queen Mother. I don’t get it. To me, a king or queen is just something other, just something other.
And then I came on a room upstairs where, in the corner, quite unobtrusively, a table stood, stacked with books, books about the Dutch Resistance in the Second World War. In addition, a couple of photographs stood there, one of them a group of six Dutch men, members of the underground, the other a woman who was herself deeply immersed in resistance work.
Two delft plates inscribed with Dutch words stood on that table—Al ware doot op de lippen daerommie moet men geen couragie verliegen, one of them said: “Even when death is very near there is no reason to lose courage.”
There was nothing gaudy about that table, no antiquities traceable to Holland’s Golden Age. It was little more than a black table holding aging books and a couple of framed mementos.
The Queen put it there, the note said. The Queen insisted that table be there, amid all the paunchy Rubens women, the darkened portraits of rich noblemen and their plump little high-collared children, amid enough tapestry to cover the walls of the Corn Palace three times over.
But that table was enough, enough for me to understand why women I know who were in Holland in 1940, who suffered through a quick five-day war and the near incineration of Rotterdam–why those women were devastated and heartbroken when Wilhelmina left the Netherlands for Britain after the blitzkrieg rolled through Holland, why those women felt abandoned, why they had all kinds of trouble not being angry with her leaving.
They loved their queen, which is something I have always had trouble understanding.
But that ordinary table, amid all the extraordinary splendor, amid all the antiquities, all the riches—that table, put there on the stubborn insistence of Queen Wilhelmina, that table told me that this wasn’t just any queen either, but someone who was, without a doubt, endowed with a heart for her people.
That table helped this ugly American appreciate Het Loo.