The Song of Latvia
How a young Latvian sailor outfoxed the Tsar of Russian and escaped to America.
If you sail beyond the English beaches,
The North Sea and the farthest Danish reaches,
And past the coast of Scandinavia,
You’ll find the shores of sandy Latvia.
The Tsarist Navy, in the eastern seas,
Grows wary of the rising Japanese;
So Russia, for her battlesips to crew,
Eyes her Baltic neighbors to subdue.
Little Johann, wandering in the park,
Plays accordion, till after dark;
An instrument he fashioned with his hand,
And so he pipes along the lengthy strand.
Rise and shine, all fish are biting;
Johann’s in his little boat, delighting,
In the rolling waves and heavy catch,
And plenitude of fishes in the hatch.
By eighteen, Johann is a steady mate,
He scans the Baltic Sea to Navigate;
But Providence reveals a different plan,
For this intelligent, young Latvian.
Tsar Nicholas, to mitigate defeat,
Seeks to reinforce his naval fleet,
So Johann’s plucked up by his collared coat,
And dropped onto a Russian Navy boat.
Johann gives his service and his voice
Voluntarily (without a choice);
First, the Gulf of Bothnia to strait,
And then the Globe to circumnavigate.
In Oulu, Finland, there he meets his lass,
While ashore, upon a routine pass;
Their words are few, their language is amiss,
But no words can describe their gentle kiss.
Past Gibraltar, through the Suez ditch,
Rounding the Maldives, without a hitch;
But when they get to China they’re amazed,
To find Japan is waiting there unfazed.
The Russians pass the point of no return,
And lurch their rusty hulls towards their stern,
To circumvent the sudden Asian threat,
Lest their ships the Japanese beset.
The coastal mountains pierce the lofty clouds,
And towering trees the morning-mist enshrouds;
And Portland stands, a City on a Hill,
Her businesses desiring those with skill.
Now, Nicholas the Emperor offends,
And in Manchuria over-extends;
So Russian ships are sent without delay
Sinking to the bottom of the bay.
The Japanese advantage seems to widen,
Her blazing gunboats dare to wake Poseidon;
And so, from the American Frontier,
Tsar Nicholas recalls his Volunteer.
From Portland, Johann’s vessel sets for war,
But near Astoria, he jumps for shore;
And from the trees, his eyes shed joyful tears,
As the Russian vessel disappears.
On borrowed visa, working at the mill,
Johann brings a special kind of skill,
Pulleys, gears and riggings redesigning,
Standards of production redefining.
In China’s sea the flames of war have sprouted,
The Tsarist fleet is very soundly routed;
The Tsar concedes, and lays another wreath,
A watery grave for many to bequeath.
Hilma weeps and mourns the countless losses
And, in her bed at night, sleeplessly tosses,
Then Johann’s letter earnestly accepts,
Rejoining, she’ll retrace his letter’s steps.
At the sawmill, Johann grabs a broom,
And contemplates an economic boom;
Pondering adjustments he can trace,
To launch the mass production of the place.
A metal belt affixed to the machine,
With faster wheels and cylinders combine,
With sharper, tougher blades hewn at the forge,
His new perfections imperfections purge.
The wide Columbia, a lumberjack,
Hoists the heavy logs onto the stack,
Squared and quartered, loaded all by hand,
Shipped away to meet the world’s demand.
And so he lives, his inspirations blessed,
Working long days, and one of rest;
His wages go to tithe and pay the rent,
Trusting more in God than good intent.
At New York Harbor, all humanity,
Lifts its heart to Lady Liberty;
On Ellis Island, Hilma is affirmed,
“Fit for entrance,” legally confirmed.
The Manifest says “servant girl” alas,
Her destination, “Portland… common class;”
But dignity bestrides her brand new nation,
As such, she marches on to New York Station.
Breathlessly, she boards the shiny coach,
A forward seat to hasten her approach,
Through Pennsylvania, via the Nickel Plate,
And then the final run to Oregon State.
The two will meet, at last, at Portland Station,
And then they walk toward her destination:
A Georgian mansion on the avenue,
From which her life’s ambitions will accrue.
An early evening, Johann comes to call;
To take her to a summer woodland ball;
Hilma, so contented by his side,
Finally consents to be his bride.
Within her heart, his trusting heart she locks;
Then finds a joy within a little box,
A golden ring, with clustered diamonds bright,
Dazzling in the early evening light.
A crown of flowers gilds her braided hair;
The two exchange their vows in open air;
And there they dance to the accordion,
And merry voices of the violin.
The happy couple casts away from shore,
In the boat, out for a gentle oar;
And Hilma’s carried o’er the ocean mild,
Months along, expecting with her child.
In the shade, under an umbrella,
Cradled in the bow; her stalwart fella’
Johann is, with all the world at ease,
Invigorated by the ocean breeze.
The rising moon, with setting sun, is full,
Exerting on the tide a gentle pull;
In labor, neither wanting, nor forlorn,
At sea is where their baby Jack is born.
In mother’s arms, in arms upon the sea,
The ocean rocks the little family;
As sure as every bow precedes a stern,
The two went out as one, and three return.
In second grade, Jack sits at his desk,
Weary of the same old school-burlesque;
Mourning hours, wasted without pay,
Therefore to the fishing boats, away!
On the sea, the deep and briny green,
He cleans the nets and stows the white sardine,
Silver dollars from the ocean deep,
Invested for his family to keep.
Years before he grows into a man,
He learns to spy across the ocean span,
Spotting fish, domestic and abroad,
Tuna, salmon, halibut and cod.
From Bandon town to Anchorage up north,
He’s learned to tie his knots and prove his worth,
On the open waves, or on the quay,
He grows into a young man of the sea.
Early in the morning, half past four,
He hears the seagulls singing on the shore;
And through his scope he spots a playful gull;
And so towards he pulls his wooden hull.
Whereupon he lays a sturdy net,
With single line and fishing-hook to set;
But then there came a gentle whale afloat,
Nudging at the bottom of his boat.
Curious what marvels may delight,
He cuts the net and yields the monster’s fight,
And in its jaws, the monster takes the lead,
As man and mammoth through the islands thread.
The whale gives the boat a mighty shove;
And from a mountain vineyard high above,
Marie espies a sailor within reach,
Grounded on her California beach.
The tide retreats; and Jack, across the ford,
Spots a place where he might thank the Lord;
A morning star, his bearings to align,
Guides him to the holy Christian sign.
The blessed cross, a steeple and a bell,
Ringing to defeat the gates of hell,
Suggest a congregation may amass;
And there he meets the Vintner and his lass.
“Excuse me, sir,” says he, “But I am lost,
My little boat, upon the sea was tossed,
But guided by a strange and mighty cause,
With ivory teeth and massive, iron jaws.
“In yonder cove, my little ship alighted,
And from the shore, your sacred house I sighted…
But then, away, my gentle mammoth swam…
Now can you tell me, kindly, where I am?”
The mission doctor verifies his test,
Concluding that the sailor needs some rest;
And so the Vintner’s daughter is content,
To nurse his dehydration in the tent.
A time has passed, and then another day,
And then another half a time and they
Have formed a friendship weathertight and rare
Like water in the desert of despair.
The humble Vintner seems to understand,
Why Jack has asked to hold his daughter’s hand,
Michael gives consent, but Jack is told,
That only as you would your sister’s hold.
Hand in hand, a greater love confines
The two, as they go walking through the vines,
With setting sun; no other sight may prove,
Such beauty which unites all things in love.
Now, Beauty binds in one all disparate pieces,
But then she disappears in hidden places,
And begs you to discover Her anew,
Offering new visions to pursue.
And so, the Vintner grants Jack’s next request,
To place his arm around his daughter’s waist;
But with consent, he surely must repeat,
That only as you would your sister treat.
The two embrace; and share a fond farewell,
His vessel poised to raise him o’er the swell;
And vowing to return to her again,
He heads for home, upon the bounding main.
At home, his parents probe into his love;
And help him organize a worthy trove;
And ever-captivated by his rose,
He charts an ocean voyage to propose.
Now, let us leave these two, so prematurely,
Despite their quirks, they’ll be a family surely;
Now let’s reverse the hands of time, once more,
So many years, a hundred and a score.