Generations The Executioner
My father is obsessed with killing flies.
I bought my father an electric fly swatter for Christmas last year. Best in its class, The Executioner™ Bug Zapper looks like a tennis racket that delivers a lethal jolt of electricity to any insect that comes in contact with it. I knew my father would love it.
My father has had an obsession with killing flies my entire life. My sister says he trapezes through the room when he’s after flies. I’m pretty sure trapezes isn’t a real verb, but that’s a fairly accurate description. When I was a child, I remember him going into an all-out assault on any flying insect that deigned to enter our house. We had a fly swatter hanging in every room.
They were the simple wire kinds, with a flappy mesh striking surface, but they made a tremendous noise. My father seemed to relish the act of killing flies, wildly dancing across the room as if possessed, smacking the swatter onto objects until he exclaimed, “Got him! Hahaaaa! Bastard!” When I moved into a new apartment in Iowa as an adult, my father was there to help me. I remember his calling a time-out in the middle of unloading the U-Haul to run to the hardware store down the road, and returning with not one, but three fly swatters, because he had spotted a fly in my new apartment.
Some people smudge their new homes with sage, clearing out the evil spirits. My father blessed my new place by killing the flies.
My father is now in his eighties. A few years ago, he, my mother, and I went to Indonesia together. It was his first time visiting the country since he left the place on a Red Cross ship seventy years ago as a fourteen-year-old boy. I had received a grant to complete research for a book about war trauma in families, and specifically about my parents’ childhood experiences during World War II. So I asked my father to come along to provide much needed context while visiting the places of his youth.
My father was born on Java, the third generation of Dutch colonists, the privileged son of a doctor.
The Dutch had occupied Indonesia in the early 17th century to start sugar and spice plantations, imposing brutal labor conditions over the indigenous population and seizing their land. In 1901, the Dutch queen instituted policies to improve education levels and provide economic opportunity to the indigenous population. By 1931, when my father was born, colonial Indonesia was accustomed to socialization and intermarriage between Dutch and Indonesian families, and my father grew up attending school with Indonesian children and knowing an Indonesian woman as his aunt. My father was a towheaded kid who ran in the Alang-Alang swordgrass alongside Indonesian kids, scaled coconut trees, and played with a pet tiger cub his father rescued from poachers. This carefree childhood came to an abrupt end during the Second World War, in March of 1942, when the Japanese invaded Indonesia and transferred the Dutch to civilian internment camps.
My grandfather was taken away first, to a prison camp in West Java. Japanese soldiers ordered my grandmother and her four children out of the home, and moved their officers in. Several weeks later, my grandmother and my father and his siblings were taken by truck and then train to a civilian prison camp in Semarang, Central Java. A couple of years after that, my father was separated from his family and transferred by himself to a men’s labor camp. He was eleven years old. He spent two years there, starving to near death and being abused by the guards. Over a third of his campmates died. But my father did not. He survived.
When the war ended, the Indonesians immediately fought for and won independence, and the Dutch who survived the Japanese prison camps were ejected from the country and sent to the Netherlands. My father had never lived in the Netherlands before. It wasn’t home to him. It was cold and grey. At sixteen, he tried to sneak onto an American military base and stow away on a plane. He failed, but at eighteen, he finally boarded a ship for the United States, where he worked to put himself through Berkeley and became a nuclear physicist. He never looked back. But I saw the ways that the war carried on in him. It was with us all the time.
Indonesia has a tropical climate, and with tropical climates come flying insects. During my research trip, we hired a van and driver, and there were frequent mosquitos and flies caught inside the cabin with us. My father swatted at them passionately with a rolled up magazine, on the dashboard, over the seat backs in the direction of my mother and me, anywhere he could reach, fully committed. Our driver Joko gave him sidelong glances, unsure of what insane people he had agreed to transport.
“Ahh! Missed! Bastard!” my father shouted.
My parents and I stayed in one hotel in Yogyakarta where the employees did occasional sweeps of the lobby with tennis-racket bug zappers like The Executioner™ model I’d later buy my father. He was very enthusiastic about their method, watching the staff efficiently clear the lobby of flies with audible pops as the electricity fried the creatures instantly. “See, now that’s what we need,” he said. “One of those contraptions. Very clever. Electrocute the bastards.”
On our trip, we visited the site of the internment camp where my father spent most of the war. It was called Camp Bangkong. Before it was turned into a camp, it had been a convent. Today, it is a private school with manicured grounds and a paved playground where the dirt yard once was. The only indication of its dark past is a small plaque on the outer wall of the chapel, commemorating those who lost their lives there.
My dad remained stoic. He wandered around the school, lost in thought. “This classroom here was my Han, or block. I was in Han six. We slept in rows on the ground. Each Han had to count off every morning at roll call.” He wandered to a pillar in the courtyard. “There used to be a big clock here. Sometimes we were punished by being told to stand under the clock for a few hours in the sun. I was standing right here when I heard that the war ended. I was being punished for taking bananas from an Indonesian man on the other side of the fence, which was forbidden. The Indonesians had already heard. They were coming to the fence. While I was standing here people started shouting that the war was over, the war was over and we were free. I looked around, and all the guards had totally disappeared. John the Whacker, Hockeystick, Chubby Baby, all of them. So I left. I wasn’t going to stand under that clock for one more second.”
My father wandered down a corridor in his former prison camp, to the very last room. He tried the door handle, but it was locked. It looked like it might be a storage room for the school. “This was where the camp office was,” he said. “I remember coming here many times. There was a sanitation problem in the camp, so there were a lot of flies. The officers gave us a spoon full of sugar for every 100 flies we could kill. We brought them here to this office to be counted. We were all so hungry near the end. A spoonful of sugar was valuable. It had calories. You could eat it or trade it. Sometimes we managed to get some coffee brought in from the plantations, and mix it with the sugar to take away the hunger pains. I loved that. Sugar was like gold here.” He tried the door handle again, wiggling it back and forth. “I remember this room so well. I came here a lot. You know, I got really good at killing flies in the end. I was one of the best fly catchers around.”
Tonight, when I call my father, I ask him, “I was just wondering if you’ve used that electric fly zapper I got you for Christmas, Pop.”
“Of course,” he says. “In fact, just two weeks ago we had our first fly of the season in here, a big juicy one.”
“Does it work?” I ask.
“Oh you bet,” he says. “Pang! You can really hear them pop.”
I start laughing. I am pleased, swept up in my father’s enthusiasm. Survival doesn’t always show itself the way we expect it to.
I imagine my 86-year-old father dancing through the room with his lethal racket, engaged in an invisible tennis match to the death. 75 years drop away from him. No longer an old man, he is lithe on his feet. My father is a champion among fighters, the slayer of flies.