Tarzier Memoirs

Part I   Old Latvia



As a farm family, we surrounded ourselves with animals--pigs, cattle, horses, and of course a cat. Mazers showed up on the farm one day, a feisty, bushy-tailed tomcat. We did not usually feed him—he supported himself on birds and mice, at least until winter came, when Mother would toss him leftovers from the kitchen. He kept the barn free of rats, but he never ate any. He only ate mice. In good weather he would lie in the middle of the yard, belly up, showing the sharp claws at the end of his outstretched feet. The swifts would try to chase him away. Sometimes their dives took them too close to Mazers, and they became cat food.

When we were bored, our amusement of last resort was to call Trezors, our dog: “Where is Mazers?” Trezors would get up from a sound sleep and immediately begin to sniff the air for fresh cat scent. Mazers would wheel around, forgetting all about the swifts, and jump up on the roof of the threshing floor building. This roof was low on one side, only two or three feet off the ground. Trezors would chase the cat right up to the highest point of the roof, where the two would have a standoff. Trezors’ nose got bloody more than once. If Mazers was not around the farm buildings, Trezors would run up the ladder to the feed storage area high in the barn. He would climb right up it and he never fell off. But he couldn’t quite get to Mazers, because the cat would swat him with his sharp claws. The two made a lot of noise.

Trezors came to a sad end. He was bitten in a fight with a rabid dog. Trezors was doomed, in those days before rabies vaccine. Father shot him when he was sound asleep so Trezors wouldn’t know. We buried him in the orchard, in the sunny place where he liked to stretch out for a nap.

Derbis was our best horse, part Arabian and very smart. When he was not in the mood for our tricks—we rode him bareback, holding on to his mane—he would lower his head to the ground, making us slide off down his neck. With his quiet eyes, he would then look at the two of us, sprawled in front of him, and I know what he was thinking: “I’m not in the mood for mane plucking today, boys.” We also had Masha, the slowest mare in Latvia according to Father. Robert and I used to ride around on her back too. She was was very patient with us, even though she was old and retired already.

In early spring we liked to gather snow flowers, blue and fragile and beautiful. We also collected maple sap. We hung a great number of bottles in the branches of the huge maple tree. The tree was good for hanging birdhouses for the starlings, too. Robert, better at woodworking than I, made the birdhouses. It was in the latter part of March that I ran out, hearing a commotion in the birdhouse. The starling couple, returning from wintering in the Gulf of Mexico, had found a sparrow sitting in their house. Winter lease was up, but the sparrow did not want to vacate. Papa starling went in. What followed was a ruffle of feathers, thumping noises, and indignant chirps. Eventually the sparrow flew out and sat on a nearby branch, still calling out insults as he straightened out his feathers. The starling then threw out everything the sparrow had brought in during the winter, like the landlord who tosses out on the sidewalk the furniture of a deadbeat tenant.

To the north of the Tent* up on the hill, stood a tall old pine that had been cut off high above ground. On the flat cut someone had built a platform for storks, because it was considered good luck to have a stork nesting in one’s property. We craned our necks for hours, watching the storks fight for nesting rights in early spring. When newcomers arrived they tried to push off the old storks. They jumped up and down in front of each other, making loud noises, and fought until one pair drove away the others. The winner then announced victory by standing tall and flapping its wings. We would much rather watch stork fights than to go to services at the Tent.

The first dog I remember owning was Lidors, the size of a small horse. Lidors mostly spent his days chained down, but at night we let him loose to guard the farm. You either loved or feared Lidors, depending on point of view. For us two scoundrels, he was a grand and wise friend. He assisted us in our pranks, and he snarled when Father got out the whip. No one dared challenge him. If strangers approached the farm during the day and Lidors happened to be on the loose, he would plant himself in the middle of the driveway. If the visitor tried to walk around him anyway, he let out a low growl and showed a magnificent set of yellow teeth. One time he threw an old woman down on the ground, even though she did her best to ingratiate herself. Father found Lidors standing on top of her, bare fangs inches away from her face. Fortunately she was not injured.

One time, we got invited to a wake, thanks to Lidors. We had read about huskies in the Pagasts school library. The smaller sled, meant to be used to slide down the snowy hill behind the house, was just the right size for big old Lidors with his long legs. Osvalds and Janis harnessed him to the sled and raced him on the road whenever the weather was calm and the road icy. On this occasion, the grownups had gone to the wake, but we hadn’t been invited, perhaps because we ate so much. Well, Osvalds harnessed Lidors, Robert and I climbed on the wagon, and together we paraded past the funeral house. I guess together we put on a rather unusual show. People weren’t used to dogs pulling sleds with people on board. They streamed out to see us. Nobody could deny us then—we were too cute. We got invited in and ate a bellyfull.

One winter, as Osvalds and Janis had harnessed the dog for a run, an old man with a white beard passed by in his horse-drawn work sleigh. Osvalds wanted to race the man, but he just snickered at us, or we thought he did. This was enough of a challenge. Osvalds lay down on the sleigh and shouted, Lidor, touy!—the command to give chase. The man was about to disappear around the bend, puffing on his homemade pipe. With Osvalds on his belly on the sleigh, Lidors sprung out like a bullet and covered the distance in an instant. He leapt up onto the sleigh, got his huge paws up on the man’s shoulders, and growled into his ear. Before Lidors could break his neck, the old man whipped the horse into a gallop and took off as if chased by the Evil One.

We could hardly contain our excitement as we walked the quarter-verst back home. Unfortunately, we could not share our triumph with Father. I don’t think he would have approved. We got into a lot of mischief that Father did not know about.

Robert and I once played an excellent trick on our neighbors. The people in question lived some three kilometers from our farm, in the southwest corner of the Pagasts. They were wealthier than the rest of us local farmers, and their children didn’t mingle much. They wore shoes to school, while the rest of us wore Pastalas, a home made moccasin of cowhide leather, and they never let us forget that fact. The water mill owner was especially nasty, and we detested his snobbish son, too. On this particular summer day, Peteris and I were playing in a high spot of the birch grove, where we had a good view of the road, when we saw a group of our young neighbors coming out of the woods. We had found an empty, good size leather purse along the road. We’d planned to take it home to Mother, but now we had a better use for it. We climbed into a rye field, a good hiding place since the rye was tall and in full bloom, and there one of us, I don’t remember whether it was Robert or I, heeded a call of nature and filled the purse with fresh, warm excrement. We then placed the bulging purse in the middle of the road and lay flat on our bellies in the rye. We didn’t have long to wait. As soon as our neighbors saw the purse, they each scrambled to be the first to pick it up. They then stood around in a circle while the winner checked out the contents. Fifty years later I still feel the joy of that moment.

Robert: I must have been twelve or so when the farm next to us was rented out to a man by the name of Abols and his two helpers, a shepherd and a young orphan boy. Back in those days, there were no orphanages, and orphaned children were adopted by local farmers, in exchange for a small stipend from the community. The shepherd was a young man from Prussia, large, heavy, and unfriendly. We called him all sorts of names when we were out of his reach. If he could get hold of us, he would beat us up for sure. Our pastures were adjacent to each other, and he would dive his cattle over to graze on our side. To top it off, he tore down our kiln. But he wasn’t just mean, he was sadistic. One time we heard cries coming from their farm, long cries that wouldn’t let up. Osvalds ran over to see what was wrong, followed by Peteris and myself. We found the orphan boy, wearing only a shirt, covered with ants. The Prussian bully had stripped off his pants and underwear and tied him to an anthill.

Peteris: One of my first experiments in sinning happened with the collection box. Father had just returned from Riga. He had attended Pastor Fetler’s revival meetings, and he was so taken with the revival movement that he brought home a collection box. The money was intended to help pay for the Russian Orthodox building which now was Baptist (see Pastor Wm. Fetler). To show us how serious he was about the whole thing, Father solemnly dropped ten kopeks in the box. Uncle Janis, not to be left behind, dropped in ten kopeks more.

I watched the silver coins with great interest. They beckoned me from the box. What a shame to leave money out of circulation! Not long afterwards everybody left. The collection box and I were alone in the house. With my pocketknife, I extracted ten kopeks and ran off, my heart beating fast, whether from fear or anticipation I do not know. That was the beginning of a dreadful two days. In my clumsy efforts to extract the money, I had torn the coin slot. Anyone could tell that the box had been broken into.

I hardly slept that night. No question, the folks would find me out. I couldn’t even return the coin, because I had lost it. Why didn’t they make sturdier collection boxes? It wasn’t my fault that it tore! Sure enough, the next day someone, probably Osvalds, saw the torn opening, shook the box, and figured out what had happened. All I had left now was punishment. But it was summer clover harvest time, and grownups were busy from dawn to dusk, too busy to whip me. My job was to stomp down the clover that the others stacked up in the barn behind the cattle stall. So busy were we, that Father did not find the time to whip me in the evening, either. He promised to do it tomorrow. By now I would have welcomed punishment. I endured another sleepless night. Next day, when I came in from clover stomping, Mother finally decided I needed a tongue lashing, at least. She told me:

“You should be ashamed to steal church money, to steal the ten kopeks that Uncle Janis put in the box. That was a lot of money for him.”

I lamely explained: “The. . . the ten kopeks I took, that was our coin. I wouldn’t touch Uncle Janis’ money.”
But I don’t think she even heard my explanation. Mother didn’t like to punish us anyway, and I expect that the long delay had cooled the fires of my parents’ wrath. I had some twinges of conscience, but I soon got over it. As Ecclesiastes says, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.”

In no time at all I was stealing a whole lot more than ten kopeks. Father had sent me to pay the janitor woman at the local school. I think she had done some sewing or knitting for us. But before I got to her, I had deducted twenty kopeks from her pay. I got away with it, because the woman did not complain, though for a while I lost my money near the pig corral. I dropped the coin and it disappeared in the sand. Easy come, easy go. Some time later, when I was bringing the cows home, I saw the coin shining on the side of the road. I told a lie about it at home: I had found the money on the woodland. It was kind of true, after all.

Robert was a master builder. I already mentioned the little stream which flowed past the orchard, by the huge maple tree, and under a bridge Father had built. Together we constructed a dam south of the bridge, where Robert installed a sluice and then a water wheel. When the sluice was opened the flowing water moved the wheel and from it a rope rotated the spinning wheel. To the spinning wheel we attached a spring which made noise when the wheel turned. It kept on going for days in the spring, until the stream dried out.

Robert also built a windmill on the higher field south of the orchard. Its wingspan was more than four feet in diameter. It had a drive shaft, at the end of which was attached a grooved wheel. A crude belt made of rope turned a wheel on the ground which was basically a noisemaker. Unfortunately, when spring plowing came around, Robert’s windmill was torn down to make way for seed grain.

Robert made skates from old scythes. The scythes we used on the farm were the very best, with a thin steel blade, imported from Austria. When the scythe was worn down and ready to be discarded, the blade became a pair of skates. Robert found a way to insert the blade into a small hardwood board that he tied to the sole of the shoe. These skates were very primitive, but we didn’t care—they worked. We also made our own skis and skied from the hilltop into the valley below.

We even built a merry-go-round. We made it out of a heavy work wheel with a large hub. A meadow on the property would flood and then freeze solid, like a lake. We cut a hole in the ice while it was still thin and inserted a strong hardwood rod, one end of which was sharpened and driven into the ground. After the hole had frozen solid we mounted the wheel on the rod. The hub of the wheel rested on the ice and it turned easily. Then we attached a sled to the wheel with a long shaft. One of us would ride the sled while the other turned the wheel with a long stick. We could get it to spin so fast that if the one in the sled did not hold on for dear life, he would be thrown out into the snowbank. We had a lot of fun with it, but eventually we got tired of our merry-go-round, which eventually disappeared beneath the snow.

Robert: Even though our family could be called Fundamentalist, and we considered ourselves “true believers,” we still had a lot of fun. As we grew into teenagers, we could attend dances as long as we respected the boundaries of propriety, which meant no smooching in the alleyway. In the summer we had open air dances, usually around the river bend, with a brass band and soft drinks. Occasionally someone smuggled in a bottle of moonshine. In fall and winter we attended concerts and plays by the local choir or theater group, usually followed by a dance.

I liked the Cupid post booth. Everyone at the dance would have a badge on the right side of their coat or dress, so we knew the girls’ names. If Itook a shine on a pretty face or wanted the next dance, I could write a Cupid letter and drop it in the box. Boys and girls lived by different rules. Girls were given far less slack, especially by the Lutheran clergy. If a girl got pregnant, her condition would be announced from the pulpit.

The Family

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