Tarzier Memoirs

Part I   Old Latvia



Smelly pigs and scattering sheep had already tarnished the golden days of my childhood. Now the civilized world made a new claim on my free time. First grade loomed closer, and I must learn the ABC’s. This happened literally at Mother’s knee, sitting next to her on a short wooden bench, polished to a shine by the bottoms of my older siblings. She sat at the spinning wheel, turning flax into thin thread which would eventually become linen cloth, at the same time turning me from innocent child into a reader. She would produce a worn book with a picture of a red rooster on the cover, the family's ABCs. I guess the book was new when Osvalds arrived, but when my turn came, some of the letters had almost been rubbed out. I got to say aloud the letters Mother pointed out with a wooden dowel. The hardest story in the book was a piece about a hoot owl. I knew I could never, ever learn it. It was my uncle Janis who broke the stalemate between me and the hoot owl story, as I said earlier.

Religion was another plague of my childhood. I hated memorizing the Ten Commandments, or Three Articles of Faith as they are called in the Lutheran church manual. I had no idea what they meant, I didn’t understand the point of religion, nobody bothered to explain anything to me, and first grade approached like a summer storm. The idea of separating church and state hadn’t reached Latvia back then—in order to begin school I would have to pass religion as well as reading. The examiner was the new pastor of the Tirza parish, a rumpled old man called Ozolins who didn’t even speak good Latvian. He was ugly, he stammered, “nam, nam, nam,” and he showered us innocent children with smelly saliva when he talked. On exam day, he sat in his special chair, wrapped in a black robe like a vulture. We approached him one by one, respectful-like, to be tested in reading. I feared the worst, but I did pass the test, just barely, so I didn’t get the reward: a booklet. Big deal. I ran back to freedom as fast as my legs would carry me, wiping Ozolins’ spittle off my face

I was seven when I began the serious learning phase of my life. I arrived, combed, freshly scrubbed and dried to a shine, at the Pagasts school on a chilly fall morning. The schoolhouse was a two-story wooden building that creaked gently in the wind and smelled, comfortably, of old shoes. The ground floor was a dormitory for the boarding kids and the top floor housed the two classrooms, a small one for the “first winter” kids, those who like me were beginning their education. Second- through fourth-winter kids met in the larger upstairs hall. A center aisle separated second and fourth winter pupils from the third winter class, which was the largest. Boys sat in the front rows, the girls in the back. Before even touching the three R’s, we learned to stand at attention when the teacher marched into the room, and again when he left. Rule breakers stood interminably in the corner, facing the class. The school day ran from seven AM to noon, and two to four PM.

The boarding kids, those who lived far away or whose father wasn’t willing to provide transportation as ours did, arrived early on Monday and went home at noon on Saturday. Accommodations at school were basic at best. The school had no kitchen and no refrigeration, so cold water from the tap was all the boarding kids had to drink. Their food boxes were kept in the school cupboard, located in the hallway on the second floor. They brought food for a week: rye bread, boiled meat, and bacon fat to spread on the bread. The food stayed fairly fresh in the cupboard, cooler than our classrooms. Mice helped themselves if a food box was left open—we often caught sight of a gray tail disappearing behind the cupboard when we burst out of the classroom at recess. The dormitory, especially the boys’ section, was messy and smelly. A janitor cleaned the grit from the stairs and the classrooms once a week, usually on Saturday, so whatever trash we generated during the week remained where it had fallen—not that we dropped much. We were too well behaved for that, and we had no packaged foods or canned drinks to generate litter.

Robert and I were lucky to live less than a kilometer away, so we could go home for a hot lunch. On the downside, we walked to school in temperatures down to -15 degrees centigrade, blizzard, snow or sleet, it didn’t matter. Snow closure did not exist — classes were always on for the boarding kids anyway. In severe blizzard conditions, or high winds which happened pretty often, Father would harness a horse and drive us on the sleigh. One time a storm had completely erased the main road under snowdrifts. Father harnessed Masha, our old mare, to the work sled, to take us to school. Masha bravely pulled the sled through the snow drifts, but when we got to the uphill part, she completely sank in the snow. The story of Masha’s disappearance, her tail sticking out of the snow like a flag and showering us with snowflakes, warmed our bellies with laughter for months after. We had to get off the sled and drop into the drifts ourselves, to lighten up her load. Eventually we made it over the hill and the road was clear all the way to the school.
The elementary school of the Druviena Pagasts was one of the best in the county of Valka. We had two well-trained teachers and a three-shelf library of folk tales, stories of good and evil, and adventure stories such as Robinson Crusoe. My favorite was a story about how God chased the Devil and how the Devil was thrown in the Rijas kiln and a fire made at the opening so he couldn’t get out. We could take books home over the weekend, but mostly it was the grownups who read them. We were too busy having fun to spend time reading.
In that “first winter” I learned arithmetic, Russian and Lettish language, Bible stories and Lutheran hymns, gymnastics and calligraphy. School was not easy for a reluctant scholar like me. I especially loathed the long Bible stories that we had to memorize, though I did pretty well in Russian and arithmetic. Classes began at the rude hour of seven AM, in the pitch darkness of winter. We ran home at four, at six we ate Mother’s hot supper, and before our nine o’clock bedtime we hit the books again, to prepare the next day’s lessons. The whole thing started all over again next day.
One morning, opening my book bag, I realized I hadn’t done a stitch of religion homework. What now? Glued to my seat, I waited for the ax to fall—surely I’d have to stand in the corner for the whole religion period. But, when all else fails, fake illness. I squirmed, clutching my head in agony. The boy next to me —there must be a God after all! — obligingly reported my “headache” to the teacher, and I was promptly dispatched to get some rest in the dormitory. I shuffled painfully out the door, but as soon as I turned the corner of the hall, I broke into a run. I didn’t dare to take my fake sickness home, because Father would take one long look at me and know the truth—he always did. When Bible class was over my “headache” was miraculously cured, and I rejoined my classmates for the other lessons. Father never found me out.

With the arrival of the second winter, I watched the new “first winter” kids’ arrive. They now occupied the special room, and I was placed in the larger hall. The third winter class was the largest. By the fourth winter, class size was down, because many dropped out of school for good at the end of the third winter in order to work on the farms. The Tarzier children attended the fourth and fifth winter classes to prepare for the advanced state exam.

I think of my school years, between the ages of seven and fifteen, as the happiest time of my life, full of mischief but full of love, too. In squirrel hunt, one of our school games, we divided ourselves into squirrels, hunters, and dogs. The squirrels had to stay up on trees—we played in an area of young trees growing close to each other, so it was easy to jump from tree to tree. Anyone falling off a tree was out of the game. The dogs would bark if they sighted a squirrel, and the hunters would then shoot the squirrel with a snowball. Whoever scored the greatest number of snowball hits won the game.

After school or during the two-hour lunch we released pent-up energy in ferocious snow battles. We built snow fortresses, solidified with buckets of water, and from the safety of our fortress we hurled frozen snowballs at the other camp. The teachers tried to control the mayhem, but we sometimes returned to class with cut lips and eyes swollen shut. Our snowball fights were so earnest and bloody that one of our classmates, Janis Poruks, immortalized them in his book, The Battle at Knipska. His story takes the reader on a retreat across the open field, toward the deep gully, across the bridge and into the woodlands beyond. In one final show of bravery, the retreating party makes its final stand at the bridge before surrender and the end of the great snow war. The final battle to defend the bridge at Knipska is desperate and almost too real. After the humiliating retreat through the woods, the warring parties shake the snow and ice off their clothes and go back to class to be schoolchildren again.
The school held two main social events each year. One was the folk play evening that we started by petitioning to celebrate the names of our two teachers—the Lettish calendar has a name for every day of the year. How could the teachers refuse! So we lined the long class benches along the walls of the big room and we had a large dance floor. We danced (a sort of square dance) until midnight.

The last day of the school year was field trip day. We usually went to Vellins, “Devil’s Lake,” in thick dark woods. We walked along the forest road and then through the woods for a short stretch to the Vellins grounds, where the woods opened up into dry, high ground good for all sorts of games. The place was surrounded by swampy meadows through which flowed a small creek. To the north one could see a mountain ridge called the Devil’s Mountain. The whole area had a spooky quality, good for freaking out the first graders. Pleasure and play were mixed with sadness on this last day of school. We wrote in each other’s albums and exchanged small gifts. We looked forward to the summer, but we must say good-bye to our friends and foes of the third grade, most of whom were out of school for good. After four winters, in the spring of 1914 I finished community school. I was the best in the boys’ class, though a girl got better grades than I did.

On June 28 of that year Archduke Francis Ferdinand was assassinated in Bosnia, and by August the conflict had engulfed Russia and become World War I. It would eventually involve 32 nations around the globe.

Karlis Tarziers, A Eulogy

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