IV To a Far Shore
Like guppies, little towboats circled around the Dröttningholm as
we entered New York harbor and proceeded to snuggle it against the pier.
America, so impossibly far away, was now a reality. Medical personnel
climbed on board to check immunization records and examine the passengers,
then immigration agents set up a table on deck to check our travel documents.
The first of my many troubles in the New Land began: where were the boys?
How embarrassing to tell the authorities to wait—I had lost two
of my children! Breathlessly, I ran the full length of the ship. I found
them in the engine room, squeezing in a last bit of travel fun.
We were the last to come ashore and, apparently, the only ones without
a reception. The noisy Jewish group was greeted in style by two bearded
rabbis and a band. Time passed, people left, and we eventually found ourselves
alone in that vast, cavernous hall, sitting on our dilapidated suitcases.
I finally called for reservations at an inexpensive hotel. We were about
to call a taxi when Oswald Blumit appeared out of nowhere. Oswald Blumit?
You may remember him as the young pastor of the Tilzha Baptist Church,
back in 1922—a lifetime before. He now lived in Boston. I have no
idea how he knew of our arrival, but he appeared like an angel, and just
as quickly left, after taking us to the home of a Latvian family in New
York. There we spent our first night in America.
The next day Pastor Fetler knocked on the door, having located us by God
knows how. Perhaps Blumit notified him. Under his wing, we traveled by
train to Washington, DC, headquarters of the Russian Bible Society and
Fetler’s base of operations.* After several days in Washington,
we headed south to Knoxville, Tennessee. Why Knoxville? Supposedly several
churches in that area had invited me to speak and were expecting us. They
had learned of our arrival from Pastor Reeves, an acquaintance of Pastor
Fetler. I was also invited to speak at the First Baptist Church in Asheville,
A young man called Howard Payne, pastor of the First Baptist Church in
Pocomoco City, Maryland, drove us to Knoxville in his model T Ford and
helped us get situated, more or less. He was a nice bachelor who worked
as field representative for the Russian Bible Society. I say “more
or less” because we first stayed at the Watauga Hotel on Gay Street,
which turned out to be a business address for women of easy virtue. $150
a month paid for two rooms at the hotel, and there was no way we could
keep that up even had we wanted to.
We joined a Baptist church. To this day, however, I do not understand
why that congregation did not value, respect, or support us. When we broached
the subject of housing, they suggested we live in a tent. I replied, “We
didn’t live in tents in Latvia. We don’t intend to live in
tents in America, either.” The Presbyterians were a lot friendlier.
Had we been willing to join the Little Presbyterian Church (which, by
the way, no longer exists), they would have been more than willing to
help us find a place to live. But we were still Baptists at heart, and
I wasn’t ready to turn Presbyterian in exchange for lodging.
With no help from the congregation, I set out to look for more permanent
quarters. I had no money, but God had gotten me this far, He was not about
to let me down now. Payne drove me around town in search of a home. We
eventually located a small house, more like a livestock shed, on the west
side of the city, on a dirt road outside the city limits. It was literally
a shack, built on wooden planks without a foundation or indoor plumbing.
The owner wanted $2150 for the property. As I look back on it, the building
was worth no more than five hundred dollars, but I did not know property
values then. It would provide a roof over our heads.
Someone suggested I borrow the $350 down payment from a Mr. Kirby at his
office on Market Square—“he has his own bank in the office
safe,” they said. I walked into a cluttered room to find a typical
Scotsman leaning back on a creaky leather chair. We chatted for a while.
He told me he was a Presbyterian and he distrusted banks. I told him some
of our adventures—especially our narrow escape from the Russian
claws. Unwilling to gloss over the truth, I told him that I was as poor
as a church mouse and had nothing to offer as collateral, but that my
children and wife were healthy. He sized me up from head to foot and then
said, “I think that you are worth three hundred and fifty dollars.”
He lent us that sum at 6%, due back in $25 payments. An owner mortgage
on the property financed the rest of the $2,150. So we owed the bank and
we owed the former owner, but we had our “palace.”
We called it Pleksnu iela--Pleksni Street--after a dirt street
in Rezekne, in the Latvian backcountry where I first set out to evangelize
Latgalia. It was built of rough lumber and scrapwood like a typical backwoods
cabin. The east and south sides of the “bedroom” were made
of cardboard. In winter, snowdrifts accumulated under the bed; an iron
pipe out the window served as smokestack for the fireplace. The ceiling
was so low that Janis had to bend over to enter the house. But it was
home to us, so we set out to make the place livable. We built an outdoor
pit toilet and a cinder block fireplace, and finished the inside as best
we could. The telephone company extended service to us, at no small expense,
I am sure. The property was outside the city limits and they had to add
a line. It must have seemed odd to them that our “mansion”
needed a phone when it didn’t have a flush toilet, but I was the
representative of the Russian Bible Society in the area, with the job
of making personal contact with pastors throughout the Southern states.
Our monthly bill was $10. We lived at Pleksnu iela from 1946 to 1951,
when I bought our little house on Banks Avenue.
*For a while, following the end of the war, the Society held hopes
of distributing the Holy Bible throughout Russia. But we got word to give
up that effort, because Stalin’s KGB supposedly confiscated and
sent to pulp mills every single Bible that arrived at post offices in
Russia, before they ever got to the addressees’ hands. To quote
an old Latvian proverb, “A wolf sheds its fur but not its habits
or its wildness.”