The Dutch government just honoured Rudi Hoenson and the timing — Thanksgiving — couldn’t be better. You might never meet someone with so much cause to be bitter, but so much gratitude for his life.
Rudi’s story has been told here before. The Dutchman was taken prisoner at age 18 when Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies in the Second World War. He spent 3 1/2 years in forced labour in Nagasaki. Was there when the atomic bomb went off, endured a living hell that reads like Dante’s Inferno.
He is also at the top of my No Whining Hall of Fame.
Rudi is who I think of when I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself when a rock chips the windshield, or my back goes out, or I miss the ferry, or the Maple Leafs win.
He — and a few others in the Hall — serve as reminders when I, exhibiting all the self-righteous indignation of a man who confuses blessing with birthright, do a Donald and start moaning about the whitecaps in Victoria’s sea of privilege: lids that won’t fit on my $4 cappuccino, hidden phone charges, the road closures for today’s marathon. (Trumpism is just a matter of selling people on the idea that A) they’re victims, B) they deserve more, and C) somebody else should pay.)
Rudi doesn’t moan. He witnessed unspeakable depravity in captivity, was beaten, had five teeth knocked out by a rifle butt, was starved almost to death — he weighed less than 80 pounds when liberated — and suffered radiation poisoning, yet at age 93 he greets every day with delight, wonder and a cheerful, slightly subversive good humour. He is the kind of guy who can find heaven in the first sip of a good cup of coffee.
Ask him about his contentment and he’ll say he got to come to Canada, got to meet his wife, Sylvia, the love of his life. What else would a man want?
Friday, the Netherlands’ military attache to Canada flew out from Ottawa to (somewhat belatedly, Rudi pointed out) pin a couple of medals on him. (“You’re not going to prick me, are you?” Rudi asked her.) The ceremony was at the Lodge at Broadmead, to which he has donated more than $1 million in the past eight years.
Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, who appears at a bazillion official events, teared up when she spoke at Rudi’s ceremony. She considers him a friend. She also said he’s who she thinks of when horrors like Aleppo cause her to despair for humankind (and, frankly, if you don’t despair and rage at what’s happening in Aleppo right now, you’re not paying attention or have become desensitized).
The other night, awakened at 3 a.m. by the kind of weighty problems (absence of milk in the fridge, Canucks’ lack of secondary scoring) that boot me out of bed in the wee hours, I went online and saw a friend was awake, too. Insomnia, I wrote? No, Aleppo, was her reply, God love her. She couldn’t get the images out of her head, couldn’t sleep knowing that children were dying while the world shrugged.
I thought of her when Guichon raised Aleppo and spoke about Rudi, about how his light offers relief from the darkness. It’s not an either-or proposition — despair or blissful ignorance. Rather, it’s about using the good in the world to counter the bad.
Not long after Rudi got his medals at Broadmead, the Tour de Rock rolled into Reynolds Secondary in Saanich. Just before the cyclists got there, a tiny 14-year-old girl named Shauntelle Dick-Charleson had her long, dark hair shaved off in middle of the gym as the entire school cheered. She was one of 80 staff and students to get shorn for the Cops for Cancer. In Shauntelle’s case, lopping her locks raised $2,385, most of it at an event at the Songhees longhouse.
“A lot of people I know have passed away from cancer or have survived cancer, and I felt I had to do it,” Shauntelle said in the Reynolds gym, her face flushed with emotion.
Actually, she was wrong: She didn’t have to do it. Nobody forced her to sacrifice her hair, yet she did it anyway. Imagine what it took for a Grade 9 girl to do that. Shauntelle just made my No Whining Hall of Fame, too.
© Copyright Times Colonist