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The life and adventures of Michael Plēsums

Genealogy - just a little

Older part - can be skipped

My great grandfather was Johann Plesum (no s), born about 1822 in Lifliandiia (northeast of Courland or Kurliandiia, the two areas that later became Latvia). He died in 1892 in Jelgava (also called Mitau), a city in Courland. I am told that the word "Plesum" means "ruffian" which may be part of why the name was changed to "Plesums". In turn Plēsums means separation, such as a seam coming apart or a plowed field.

His wife was Anka Ansohn born about 1824 in Courland, died 1894 in Courland.

My Grandfather was Carl (Karlis) Plēsums, born June 1, 1864, and died March 18, 1930 in Riga of heart problems. He was the postmater of Riga for over 40 years (in the service of the Russian Czar), reportedly was very domineering, and forced his sons into the military as a way for them to get a higher education.

My Grandmother was Katrine Francá Zillig (Ciklichs) Plēsums born May 3,1865, died February 1944 of heart problems at age 74-75. She was buried in German occupied Poland

Karlis and Katerine had 11 children by some accounts, although one family tree only shows 5 chidren. I have seen several lists of the names of the children, rarely including the same names or even the same number of children. There were reportedly about 17 years between the older children and the two younger - Michael and Elizabete (Lisel) Plesums Kosakewitz (born January 27, 1908, died April 9, 1984). The family tree that only lists 5 children suggests that Karlis and Katerina were almost 40 years old before they started having children - yeah, sure. Karl (my grandfather) gave Lisel (my aunt, the youngest child) the family farm and home, Rimeikas, to take care of Katerina her mother. They later exchanged that Latvian land for land in Germany.

If you don't like genealogy, start here

Michael John Paul Plesums was born Miķelis Janis Pauls Plēsums on June 28, 1905, in Riga, Latvia, and was known as Misha. He has a diesel engineering degree, was a graduate of the Latvian Naval Academy, an officer in the Latvian Navy, and a Master Mariner - a seaman licensed to be a captain of "All Ships, All Seas." One of his Naval assignments was as the aide to the (one) Admiral of the Latvian Navy. He was particularly proud of a group picture that included him with the President of Latvia.

Michael married Gerda Cinka, and had two or three children. After world war II, the oldest two, Nina and George, were located by the Red Cross in European displaced persons camps, and in 1949 were brought to the United States, where they spent the rest of their lives. But the third child, Gerhard, was in dispute... Michael said it wasn't his son. Gerda said it was. There were no DNA tests back then. There was no divorce in Latvia except by desertion for more than 5 years, so Michael left, never to return, and here the adventure begins.

Sailing across the Atlantic I

The first adventure was to take a leave of absence from the Latvian navy, to sail across the Atlantic, following the route of Christopher Columbus, in a small sailboat. The first sailboat, the "Sams" proved inadequate, so Michael started a fund drive among family, fellow officers, and friends. Finally the newspaper bought the "Lima," a 10 meter coastal sailer, for the crossing, in exchange for newspaper articles (I have those newspapers, of course written in Latvian). The Russian crew abandoned him, so he recruited his friend, Alex Oselin (Aleksandrs Ozolinš), to sail with him (Alex didn't make it in the Latvian Naval Academy.) Later Michael helped Alex pass his Captains (Master Mariner) exam, and Alex eventually had a career as a supertanker captain.

The newspaper apparently wasn't very happy with their investment in the Lima. As someone pointed out, a departure and arrival are interesting stories, but days and weeks alone at sea are boring, and don't sell newspapers.

Years ago parents of a friend visited the island of Tobago, and brought back a guidebook that, in the history of the island, described the arrival of Captain Mikelis Plesums in a mere cockleshell of a boat, from Courland, now an area within Latvia. Tobago had once been a colony of Courland (or Kurliandiia). Tobago was the place Columbus actually landed in North America. My friend's parents wondered if I knew of Captain Plesums. Yup. I even have my father's invitation to a state luncheon with the Governor of Tobago.

The boat was sailed back, but not all the way to Latvia - there were a lot of people waiting for a return on their investment, and there was no money. And by not returning home, the clock on the "5 year desertion equals divorce" kept running. Further, my father knew someone who had taken a different "famous voyage" and returned home expecting a hero's welcome, only to be arrested for his debts.

Sailing across the Atlantic II

Based on the publicity of the first crossing and return, Michael was hired (by a New York City banker Mr. A. Chandler) to ferry an ocean-going sailboat, the "Frenchman," from Portsmouth, England to Bar Harbor, Maine. Mission accomplished, although there is a little side story. The harbor at Bar Harbor was apparently treacherous (at least in those days) - rocky and difficult to navigate for those unfamiliar with the harbor. The Frenchman arrived in the middle of the night, and my father guided it into the harbor and dropped anchor. The harbor master was astonished to find a new large sailboat anchored in the harbor in the morning. My father had invented a navigation method (in the days long before GPS and radio navigation) that allowed him to get in safely. That method was adopted by navies throughout the world (until it was replaced by GPS and radio navigation).

A little speculation: In October 2009, Somali pirate captured a private sailing ship and took the owners hostage - Paul Chandler, 59, and his wife Rachel, 55, who are said to have a lifetime of experience in ocean sailing. (They were released over a year later.) That would be a likely age of a son of the Mr. Chandler who hired my father to ferry the Frenchman. Paul and Rachel got their boat back, repaired it, and restarted their Around the World trip in 2012, from their home in Turnbridge Wells, England. Paul's father Alfred died in England in 2010 at age 99. I am trying to reach them to see if there really is a connection between our fathers.

Hong Kong, and the So Fong

Subsequently Michael was hired by oilman (or stock broker) Alfred "Thornton" Baker (of Princeton, New Jersey) to go to Hong Kong to supervise the construction of the large (82 feet long, 17 feet wide) topsail gaff-rigged schooner sailing yacht, the So Fong. Recently I was contacted by Veith vonFürstenberg whose father had a friend, Ted Kilkenny, who had a similar assignment, as first mate, to oversee construction. He contracted with the A. King Shipyard Company of Hong Kong, which provided 250 workers for the seven months required to build the ship. I have a set of the original blueprints for that ship, in my father's suitcase of souvenirs. The roles of Kilkenny and Plesums are not clear.

After the So Fong was completed in May 1937, the plan I heard from my father was that he would remain as captain, or at least as the ranking professional seaman on board, and (with the owner, his two sons, and additional crew) bring the ship back to the United States. However, Michael didn't feel comfortable with the people involved as crew, so "jumped ship" in Java. Alex Ozolinš, who was often my father's first mate, also left, but returned to the ship a few weeks later, and stayed on as second mate for the rest of the voyage. Veith vonFürstenberg provided maps and articles about the So Fong's voyage home that have been added to a separate web page - which will be supplemented as I collect more.

I was surprised that, a couple years ago, the SoFong was on display on the web site of noted naval architects Sparkman and Stephens, and is now on their blog about their various ships. I was even more surprised to find that the So Fong won major sailing races in 2006 and 2009. I hear it is now available for charter in Mallorca (Spain).

General Motors Java

After he left the SoFong, my father went to work for General Motors in Java. How does someone get off a sailboat, find a job with General Motors, and become plant manager almost immediately (with recognition for doing the fastest model-year change-over in that auto factory)? The story doesn't make sense, but I have notes from his work, his pay record, and his General Motors employee ID badge.

After a time in Java, he realized that World War II was starting. Remember that it started elsewhere prior to Pearl Harbor in 1941, so it was around 1939 that he quit, "bummed a ride on a tramp steamer" to New Orleans, bought a used car, and drove to Detroit. Side story... he was stopped by the police on the drive to Detroit. Besides the difficulty of speaking through a German/English dictionary, he didn't have a driver's license. Finally he was let go because he had bought the car in New Orleans, and Louisiana was one of the states that, at that time, didn't license drivers.

General Motors Detroit was not anxious to see their former plant manager from Java, for at least two reasons I can think of:

There is a gap in the story that I never have understood. From Detroit, how did he find a job in Olean, western New York, over 400 miles away, as plant manager, working for a Dutchman who spoke his languages and wanted to be able to return to Europe? In those days there was no internet, and long distance phone calls were a "big deal"!

Van der Horst Corporation, Olean

Van der Horst corporation had an interesting niche. The chrome that makes old fashioned car bumpers shiny is very hard. Therefore the inside of the cylinders of diesel locomotives were chrome hardened by, you got it, van der Horst Corp. And Michael Plesums, the guy with the diesel engineering degree, was the new plant manager.

As was common in those days, Michael had a room in a boarding house... your own bedroom, but share the bathroom and eat meals with the other residents in the common dining room. Another resident was elementary school teacher Gertrude Rodgers. One Sunday afternoon or evening (December 7, 1941) Michael came out of his room and announced "we are at war... Pearl Harbor was just bombed." He had heard it on his short wave radio, long before it was in the newspapers, and CNN had not been invented yet. The teacher swooned at this worldly foreign guy who barely spoke English - a few months later (February 21, 1942) they were married, and in another year I was born (March 1943).

Locomotive cylinders are important during a war, but even more important are those huge ship guns that shoot 2000 pound "bullets." Shells 12 to 16 inches in diameter, the weight of a Volkswagen, and a range of 25 miles. So van der Horst corporation became a defense plant, part of the process of building and refurbishing naval gun barrels. Since Michael was married to an American, he quickly became a citizen so he could continue to manage that defense plant.

Towards the end of the war, a mysterious tube was brought to be chrome hardened. Nobody would say what it was, only that the war would be over in 30 days. 28 days later Hiroshima was bombed. When the plans for the atom bomb were declassified, my father identified the tube that his plant had processed. Unfortunately he felt guilty about his tiny role in building that bomb for the rest of his life.

After the war

Mr. van der Horst's kids were growing up, and wanted an increasing role in managing daddy's factory in Olean, so my father left. After a few years with General Electric in Bridgeport Connecticut and Trenton New Jersey (where I started kindergarten and first grade, respectively), he started a small office supply and gift store (Spring 1950) in Warsaw New York, near my mother's family. He ran that store for the rest of his life.

I went to college and later worked in Schenectady, New York, a town with a major General Electric presence (the local question wasn't "where do you work," it was "what department are you in"; it wasn't what is your work phone number, it was "what is your extension"). During that time I happened to hear the name Bill Helgeson. It sounded familiar, as a person who had worked with or for my father 25 years before. I made contact, and met him, not many miles from my home in Schenectady, and confirmed that it was the same person. Small world.

Is there more?

Nobody, especially my father, put these tales together chronologically. He was reluctant to tell any stories from his past. For example, it was only a few years ago that I realized I might have two older brothers, not just one. This has been assembled from lots of little pieces, and a suitcase of souvenirs from his world travels. I am sure there are more details that I will add from time to time. I welcome corrections from those who can help.


At one time I asked my father how many languages he spoke. "Just a couple, but I have forgotten most of them." Sure, but if a customer came into our store with, for example, a Russian accent, in minutes they were speaking Russian. So I quizzed him and came up with a list of 11 languages that he, at least at one point, spoke "well enough to get along." Okay, how many of them did he speak really well - fluently? Latvian, his native language, and Russian since that was where he went to school for many years, and German and French. Fluent French with those other languages? He told how one time in Paris a native woman "attacked" him for being a Frenchman in the Latvian Navy. Okay I guess maybe he was fluent. But notice English isn't in the totally fluent list. He never could pronounce the letter "V" - vinegar was always win-e-gar.

He is also the first recipient of the Latvian Boy Scout medal of honor and (I only recently learned) the leader of the Latvian Sea Scouting organization (he is in the coat and tie).

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