One of the life and death stories my friend Ralph from Estonia told me.
Introduction to Uprooted: The Ralph Kand Story
I met him down on Park Point at the beach (circa 1990). I’d brought my children to the lake to give my wife an evening free from the demands of infants. As the kids played in the sand near the water’s edge I lay on a blanket reading a book in the late evening sun.
At some point I looked up and noticed an old man limping toward me from the parking lot on his way to the water. He grabbed my attention the moment I saw him, somewhat stooped, one leg withered and the second strong and muscular. The old man seemed to glance down at me as he hobbled by but said nothing.
After removing his shirt, he entered the icy waters and like a great sea lion lolled about in the lake, bobbing there inelegantly for near twenty minutes after which he returned to land and picked up his belongings to begin the slow trek back to his car. As he neared me he slowed, then stopped. “You like to read,” he said with that thick tell-tale accent of Eastern Europeans.
“I do,” I said, and we struck up a conversation.
He said he loved libraries when he was growing up. At some point I told him that I was a writer.
“A writer,” he said with surprise. “I’ve been told many times that my life story should be made into a book.”
I could tell he was earnest, so I listened with greater care. He said he’d grown up in Estonia, outside Tallin on the Baltic Sea and was now in his seventies. “Would you like to hear how learning new languages saved my life? Come to my apartment and I will tell you more.”
Ralph Kand was born during Estonia’s War of Liberation on August 7, 1919. As a growing boy he lived with his father, mother and brother on the outskirts of Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia.
When Ralph was three years old he fell off a fence post and broke his hip. As a result he became crippled in his left leg which grew spindly and crooked. The rest of his life he would walk with a limp, and would never run again.
Even so, Ralph was quite determined and worked hard at whatever he put his mind to. When he learned typing, he practiced and practiced, claiming that he became the second fastest typist in Estonia.
The winters are long and cold in Estonia. When he was a teenager, he saw other children skiing and wanted to ski, too. Everyone in Estonia learns to ski. Ralph would not be stopped. He rigged a set of skis so that his crooked left leg and foot would be strapped in place. He loved swooshing down the mountainsides and became a very fast skier.
While Ralph was growing up, Estonia was an independent country with more than a million people living in freedom. Ralph especially loved reading and spent countless hours in the library. One of his favorite authors was Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain made a deep impression on him. He often thought about the hero Hans Castorp, studying the night sky and asking, “How high is high? How far is far?” as he contemplated the meaning of life. These were thoughts and images that stayed with Ralph for a long time.
Within the week of our meeting I visited Ralph in his Duluth apartment to hear the first of the stories which he had hinted at on the beach, how learning other languages saved his life. It was the beginning of a friendship that lasted years.
He had come to Duluth because his wife needed to be placed in a nursing home. He desired to be near Lake Superior because it reminded him of his homeland on the Baltic Sea. What follows is this first story Ralph told to me.
I was employed by a brewery (in Tallinn) called The Rooster. It had been built by the French in an earlier time and was located on the hillside facing the sea. My job was to type up the paperwork when orders were placed.
One day the Russians decided to whitewash all the windows in Tallinn that faced the sea. It was assumed that the Russians did not want Estonians to be able to see the naval activity in the harbor. They were afraid of spies. The inside of all the windows of the brewery had been painted white as well. The next day I took my thumbnail and scratched a tiny hole in the whitewash so we could watch the Russian navy ships in the bay. All over Tallinn people did the same.
The thing that made living under the Communists so terrible was that you could never feel free, never feel safe from fear. There was always the possibility that the secret police would one day come after you. My friends said that I had nothing to fear because of my bad leg.
Ralph’s friends, it turned out, were wrong. Ralph was working, typing up paperwork, when it happened. He was in charge of the order desk.
Since the Russian army had arrived, the brewery was doing more business than ever. The soldiers drank because they were lonely and away from home. And Estonians drank more because they remembered how things were before the Russians came. Little did Ralph know that a day would come when his ability to speak Russian would save his life.
The Russian Secret Police (NKVD) operated separately from the army. One day two vehicles pulled up behind the brewery and men in greatcoats came through the rear entrance into the small dining area. One of the men had a list with six names on it.
The secret police inquired where these various persons worked and one by one each was brought into this dining area for detention until all were assembled. One man, as he was being led down the narrow hall, saw the others with despairing, downcast eyes and tried to make a run for it. He was shot right there in the hall.
Ralph had been one of the first brought into the dining area because his workstation was located just down the corridor. As two NKVD agents went to the furthest end of the brewery to retrieve the last man on the list, a Russian soldier had come in to pick up his order for the unit of soldiers stationed nearby. Because no one was there at the order desk the soldier began shouting for service. As his shouts became more vehement and increased in volume, the NKVD agent told Ralph to go fill the order.
The Russian soldier had come to pick up a pallet of vodka. The cases needed to be carried to his truck. Ralph offered to help, but when they were outside he told the soldier that the man in the greatcoat behind the counter was NKVD and had come to take him away. Ralph, in Russian, asked the soldier to permit him to stack the cases of vodka so as to form a wall at the back of the truck, but to leave an opening so he could jump in when the last case was brought out. The Russian soldiers, like the Estonians, also hated the secret police and this one agreed to Ralph’s request.
As Ralph brought out the last case, the Russian was already in the driver seat. Ralph had already given instructions: drive through the gate without stopping once he’d climbed into the back. The secret police officer, when he realized what was happening, came running out and fired a couple shots, but the truck had already exceeded the accurate range of his pistol.
“If I hadn’t learned Russian I wouldn’t be here today,” Ralph said.
End Note: In 1993 I was an extra in the Disney film Iron Will. I pitched a movie idea to the producer Robert Schwartz. He said he would read my treatment when the film was in the can. When he read the treatment he gave me a call, saying he would read my screenplay if I wrote it. He sent me a book to teach me the proper formatting and how stories are told in film.
Upon completing the first script with my brother’s help, the producer said it was a good first effort. If I wrote something in a different genre, he would read this also. My second script was called Uprooted: The Ralph Kand Story.
Ralph had lived a remarkable life. I’m still trying to find the best avenue to share his story with a wider audience.