The Longest Journey
Lars was ten when he lost his parents.
He remembered it well. He had spent his first seven years of life on the island of Samar in the Philippines. His father was a fisherman, his mother the daughter of an American missionary. He lived in a tumultuous time - the Spanish flag lowered, the Stars and Stripes rose - but it never really affected him much. He figured being half-American would protect him - and the Americans loved freedom and democracy, didn’t they?
He was too young to know the specifics - that an ambush of US soldiers by freedom fighters had left the American public baying for blood, and that a general named Smith had come to enact terrible revenge. “I want no prisoners,” he told his underlings, “I wish you to kill and burn, the more you kill and burn the better it will please me.” And when the marines came to his village, it wasn’t to free them; it was to burn them.
At the age of ten, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a bayonet wound in his thigh, he was alone in the world. And so began his journey.
He drifted to Manila for the next three years, and worked odd jobs there - then, at thirteen, he was hired on a Russian steamship running from there to Port Arthur, a Russian port in Manchuria - but when they arrived, the port had been seized by Japan, and the captain and ship were impounded. Once again, Lars was out of work, and he drifted south towards Peking.
For another two years, he worked as help at the British consulate - and boy, wasn’t that a barrel of laughs. Some people were nice enough, but there was a deep undercurrent of casual disregard for the ‘little Filipino boy’ among the diplomats and officers there. Beyond the consulate, he found himself in a world so diverse it boggled his mind - turbaned Sikh soldiers, traders from Vietnam, Cambodia and Mongolia, sailors from Morocco and Algeria, people from Brazil to Bhutan.
Most of the Chinese he met were porters and servants - the European Powers, in concert in America and Japan, had largely segregated them from their ‘quarters’ of the city after the Boxer Rebellion. Their country had been carved into spheres of influence, and apparently they were expected to accept that. Lars would hear them talk, when the white men had their backs turned - one day, they said, they’d get their country back.
Perking grew intolerable for a boy who was now well into his teens - he could no longer abide ‘staying in his place.’ An out came in the form of an enthusiastic Russian clerk who needed workers for a great engineering project - the Trans-Siberian Railway. Lars signed on immediately, and bid farewell to Peking.
He soon regretted that. Most of the construction of the railway had long been done, and his work was to maintain the track around Lake Baikal. It was boring and back-breaking work, done in scorching summer days, torrential autumn rains and freezing winter blizzards. Mounted cossacks - Ukrainian horsemen who had long served the Tsar - served as foreman, and discipline was brutal. If a labour died of heatstroke or frostbite - well, that simply happened. And as they were now servants of the Tsar, there wasn’t exactly an option to walk off.
By the middle of winter, Lars had had enough. If Peking was stifling, well, this was hell. One night he slipped the cossack patrols and began to trek west, from village to village. It was long, gruelling walk, and many times he’d have died of exposure if it weren’t for the kindness of the peasants along the way. Some whispered discontented grumblings and mentioned names like Lenin and Trotsky; others revered the Tsar, his portrait their most prized possession. It was a country lurching towards something, but Lars couldn’t quite tell what.
After six months of walking, he arrived in Tsarytsin, and managed to sneak on a train further west to Kharkov. There he languished on the streets for another year, begging to survive. Eventually, he had enough money to cross the border by train into the Austro-Hungarian Empire - only it had only gone a short way over the border before it was blown up by a bomber resisting the recent annexation of Bosnia. He came away with a scar over his eye and a concrete conviction that he must be cursed. There could be no other explanation for his luck.
He couldn’t speak Czech, and so languished again in Prague, and this carried on for the next few years. He begged in Vienna, he begged in Munich, he begged in Strasbourg, he begged in Paris, and eventually he begged in London. And that was when, finally, his luck picked up.
It was March 1912. Lars had found work as a porter on the South Eastern and Chatham Railway when he happened to witness a wealthy man having his wallet picked on the train to Southampton. Figuring that he’d be sacked if it were found that he’d failed to recover the gentleman’s wallet, he gave chase and managed to grab it back.
The gentleman, as it turned out, was a Captain Herbert Haddock, who had been in discussion in London with his superiors in the White Star Line, and was now travelling back to his ship, the Olympic, for it’s voyage to New York. He was deeply grateful, but could offer no place aboard his ship - but he could pull strings for a Third Class berth aboard the next ship…
Lars had heard of New York - a city paved with gold, where anyone had a chance. Maybe this was his moment. Maybe things were picking up!
And so, on the 10th of April, Lars found himself boarding what he hoped would be the last leg of this longest journey - the mighty, brand-new liner, the pride of the White Star Line.