The last cigar factories (Hofnar and Willem II) closed in the eighties and nineties.
A period had ended. Valkenswaard no longer manufactures smoke.
Instead of being a riotously stinky fen-settlement filled with fingertip-stained law-breakers, thugs, and tobacco-connoisseurs, it is now a sleepy and rather boring satellite of Eindhoven, with little to recommend it to the visitor.
Well, except for bars. And frequent brawls. It has more crime than the entire surrounding area combined.
I’ve been back a few times in the years since returning to the States.
My high school no longer exists, the old homestead has become a rather pleasant bar-café, and housing in general has improved.
It is a cleaner, quieter, and pleasanter town than it once was.
Truth be told, I preferred it when it was seedy and unmanageable.
I remember the raid by over a hundred cops from the entire district which netted half a dozen drug smugglers and a fortune in illegal substances at a respected local drinking establishment four doors up from our house – the seized merchandise was destined for France, the enterprising businessmen were strictly local, and upstanding members of the community besides.
That event made conversation for days, until the next staggering bit of balls by the natives.
I should mention that the bar in question was right next to the police station.
Normal Dutch people tend towards a law-abiding life.
Brabanders from the border in those days did not understand the concept.
A sign saying “don’t walk on the grass” would inevitably create a shortcut right across the grass. Eventually that path became a street, with paving and lights. The final stage would be the inauguration of the “Grand Grasswalking Forbidden Boulevard” by proud city fathers.
Over the years, printing presses for counterfeit currency were discovered, illegal distilleries were raided, fake antiques destined for dealers in the first world were intercepted, gambling dens were shut down, guns were sold, vast indoor pot farms established………..
And a head got discovered in a beer vat.
That last incident happened many years after I left.
I had nothing to do with it, I swear.
ALAS, POOR YORICK
The only head I had a hand in was the beautiful skull on my desk. The person to whom it had originally belonged passed away many decades ago in Switzerland, and when they dug up one side of the village graveyard up in the Alps to make room for more recent departures, the skulls were placed on shelves in a chapel for doctoral students from Basel, Zurich, and Bern, while the other remains were interred in a common pit. Some of those mountain villages have extremely limited space, you must understand.
In the year that I first started taking tobacco, the caretaker of the chapels allowed me to choose a skull. Naturally I picked the one with the best features – all of the teeth, including the molars at the back of the mouth just coming in, no holes other than the openings approved by nature, no missing parts – and took it back to the Netherlands when we returned north.
From when I was twelve to when I was eighteen, that skull had pride of place on my desk, right next to the piperack and sliderule.
I made sure it was clean and polished. Showed it to the local dentist, who was delighted and marveled over the fine chompers.
When I came back to the United States I left my various scientific collections, including the bones, in the care of my father. It would have been problematic to bring a skull through U.S. customs, especially as it was undocumented – the provenance would have been impossible to establish, seeing as most people connected with it were deceased.
When my father relocated to Eindhoven, the skull went with him. He kept it on the shelf next to the microscope.
After he died, the executors of the estate had a problem. Private ownership of skulls or miscellaneous body parts other than one’s own is an iffy proposition in the Netherlands.
What to do with this?
At last they decided to go to the local police station, where the officer in charge invited them into his office, and politely listened to their tale of the skull.
In short: younger son of an engineer, Swiss vacations, a questing mind, collections of things (sidetrack into ‘the museum of mold’, which had been dismantled when my dad moved away from Valkenswaard), now the last ‘owner’ of the skull is no more….. and then they placed the object on his desk.
After several minutes of utter quiet, the police officer asked whether anyone else knew about the skull.
No, no one.
Is there any record of this skull? No paper trail?
No, there isn’t.
So there is nothing that proves its history and derivation?
You are sure of this?
Well, then, it doesn’t exist, and this meeting never happened. Good day.
They called me up the next morning.
Would I object if they gave my skull to a scientist they knew?
Somewhere, a fellow Brabander is holding my skull.
He’s had it longer than I.
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