A Writer’s Notebook: Capt. Snoek, the elder: Adventures at sea with Ted Snoek’s father (Pt. 1)

Because we’re in the Netherlands, land of my ancestors, I thought I’d continue the story of my great-grandfather William Karel Snoek, Sr., who left his home in Hoorn, Holland at the age of 12 and took to a life at sea.  There is no new exercise this week, though–I’m still working from the basic interview-storytelling exercise I mentioned in the previous “Capt. Snoek” entry.

When my Papa signed on as cabin boy of his first ship, where he’d been found a stowaway, he did so with seriousness and purpose.  He worked that ship and others, worked hard and worked smart until he became a captain.  While working his way up, Papa learned to speak seven languages, sailed around the world three times, and was heavyweight champion fighter of the Australian Navy, where he lived before emigrating to America. Papa was also an artist. He did macramé with beads, painted in oil on canvas, made belts out of twine for us lads and purses out of twine for the girls. Carpentry, playing the spoons and making saws sound like sad violins, collecting postage stamps and foreign coins—Papa was a poor man’s Renaissance man.

After leaving Australia, Papa emigrated to America from England on the SS United States, arriving at Ellis Island in New York. Somewhere along the way he heard that the Revenue Cutter Service (the forerunner of the Coast Guard) was hiring. He signed on and, with his experience and quick mind, immediately started working his way up, first to an ordinary seaman, then a coxswain and a petty officer, then a boatswain and finally to warrant officer, and it was as a warrant officer that he became captain of the RC Windom stationed out of Norfolk, Virginia.

While in Norfolk one balmy day in 1909 or 1910, as Papa ventured onto Granby Street (which later would become the Hub of Norfolk), the street being muddy from recent rains, he spotted a runaway horse and wagon coming in his direction with a small child onboard.  He dashed through the mud, grabbed the reins as the horse attempted to pass him by, quieted the horse and rescued the young girl, who was the sister of a man named Bruce Shaffer.  Afterward, Papa and Bruce became close friends, and it was in his honor that I received my middle name.

On one of my trips to Norfolk, I looked up, phoned, and met Mr. Bruce Shaffer at a coffee shop. I explained to him that I was his namesake.  It turned out that by that time Bruce had become a millionaire, and he explained to me he’d made his fortune in real estate.  He would scout out an town that was growing into a city, and he would buy up all the outlaying land cheap, then as the city expanded he’d resell it at a profit. Bruce Shaffer also was the author of the Veterans Bonus Bill and spent a quarter of a million dollars lobbying for the in Congress.  He spent days speaking as many as twelve hours at a time before Congress and was aided by Senator Huey P. Long, of Louisiana.

After Papa ran away from home, he never returned, even though there were opportunities to do so, but he and his mother did communicate and though his parents never came to America, they were kept informed about us children. Wooden shoes of different sizes arrived for each of the children; Henrietta’s and Karl’s were large, Flora Belle’s was child size and mine a baby’s size.

I’ll post part 2 of my great-grandfather’s story next Friday.  Stay tuned!

UPDATE: I had written this post early and scheduled it, since I hadn’t planned to write in this blog while on vacation.  But I have to note that on this very day, I was in The Hague, visiting the Central Bureau of Genealogy to research my family history.  Sure enough, I not only found tons of fascinating new information on my ancestors, but I also discovered a letter the Bureau wrote my grandfather in 1982, responding to his own requests for family records!  It was a thrilling moment, and I love that I was able to find my family roots on the same day that I’d scheduled this post to appear.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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