Tarzier Memoirs

Part IV  To a Far Shore


Settling Down

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, North Carolina.

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.”