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Joe's Neighborhood

Stories about chocolate and death

10/9/2013

Holland for seven months. Can you believe it? My wife is volunteering to go over to The Hague for seven months to assist in the prosecution of war criminals. Not your run-of-the-mill bad guys, by the way. One of the defendants she is working on has a murder scene involving more than 8,000 bodies. Get your head around that. I can’t. Regardless, I’m along for the ride. I’m going to be a kept husband while my wife heads out each day to save the world. And, let’s face it, there are some advantages to that arrangement — do I drink coffee in the morning and wine in the afternoon or first wine and then coffee? Or do I just stay in bed reading trashy romance novels? Perhaps all three, you say?

Being an accessory to my wife’s career, however, does require some planning. And although Rick Steves is certainly the second coming, I felt the need for a bit more edge. Lo and behold, I had a vision while driving down Ingersoll.

“Stam — Fine European Chocolates Since 1913 — Amsterdam — Des Moines.”

Well, look at that. Amsterdam is just right up the road from The Hague. Since eating Dutch Letters is my present Dutch immersion strategy, maybe Stam’s can give me a better feel for Dutch culture. In I went.joes1

Stam’s is celebrating 100 years of being a chocolate-making family. Trust me, they have this down. When you step inside, the muted gold colors, reflected light, smell of chocolate and classical music playing in the background makes you a little faint. Don’t worry, just head for those soft chairs. I did.

Ton Stam is the mastermind behind Stam’s in the United States. A financial planner in Holland, he was recruited to come to America to continue in finance. While in Wisconsin, he met his future husband, David. David was asked by Bill Knapp to come work in Des Moines.

joes2“We said we’re not moving to Iowa,” Stam shared. “That’s just too scary for a couple of guys living in Wisconsin. That turned out to not be the case. It was just the opposite. And Des Moines is where we want to live. Listen, I thoroughly believe the places you live become what you want them to be. In fact, I turned down a job in San Francisco. A half-hour sitting in non-moving traffic did that.”

Eventually, Stam and David decided there was no chocolate in Des Moines like the family chocolate made back in Amsterdam, so they opened up their first shop in Valley West Mall. Stam built the kiosk, David decorated the little shop and they imported chocolate from his dad’s chocolaterie in Amsterdam. Before long they recruited Stam’s nephew, a master chocolatier, to move to Des Moines. With the chocolate made here, Stam’s business flourished. And why shouldn’t it? Eating their chocolate is certainly a venial sin — you’re not quite going to go to hell, but you’re flirting with it. Today there are nine different stores with the Stam logo. A wonderful chocolate success.

Ah, but of course there is another truffle in this box.

joes3Stam is one of those big men who exude sincerity. He shakes your hand, and you’re certain everything is going to be all right. He talks of his family with that same warmth. You soon learn that his husband, mother, six brothers, in-laws, nieces and nephews, and even his friends, are all considered family. And he speaks of them through stories. So he began.

“My father came to Iowa when he was 75 years old to help with the opening of the new store,” he said. “My father worked like a dog. He was putting windows together and putting displays together to make it look right. After questions by reporters at the opening, he started telling me stuff.

“In the fall of ’44, the Germans rounded up more and more kids to work in German factories,” he continued. “So he and his bosom buddy were picked up and transported to Germany. They escaped. They were walking back to Amsterdam. They were caught near the Dutch/German border by the Waffen–SS. My Dad was 22, and his buddy was 22. They’d known each other since they were 6. They made them dig a grave, and they flipped a coin. ‘One of you is going to be punished for this, and one of you is going to have to live with that.’ And they shot my father’s best friend in front of him.

“He was 75 years old, and it was the first time I ever heard about it. Ever.”

Stam sighed and sat quietly for a few moments.

But then he was warmed up, and eventually the stories began to tumble out, one upon the other. The theme was death.                 

“When my father died, he had it all planned out,” he said. “I had my dad on the phone on Wednesday. He said, ‘Come home on Saturday. On Sunday we’ll do Last Rites. I’ll pass away the next week, and you’ll do the funeral.’ But he passed on Thursday. A little early.

“Ever since my Dad died, every time we would do something wonderful with my mother, her comment will be, ‘Isn’t this great, another bonus, another extra.’ She thinks that everything she got after turning 80 was extra.

“When I had my mother on the phone a couple of days ago, she said, ‘You know what, Ton, I’m feeling great, but I hope the end comes soon.’

“Her brother died a while ago. When he turned 80 — he was a single guy — he called his godchildren together to talk about how to do the funeral. But he didn’t die. When he was 81, ‘Well, I’m still here, so I’ll just have another dinner with the godchildren.’ At 84, his best friend, a priest, said to him, ‘Oscar this dying thing is getting to be an awful lot of fun.’

“It’s comforting to grow up in a family where people just say, ‘Yeah, and then you eventually die.’ ”

Stam smiled with sad eyes. He pointed to the picture of him and his father on the wall. He’s “Frits” with an “s.”

Stories about chocolate and death.

As for me? I’m on my third chocolate and heading to Amsterdam. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands for several months.  He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.

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