Bumping Into Bigfoot

By Ed Staskus

   The week we went to our last Boy Scout camp at Lake Pymatuning State Park wasn’t any seven days longer than any other summer camp we had gone to, but since it was going to be our last camp, my friends and I were determined to make the most of it, stay up most of the time, lengthen the days and nights, mess around in the woods and water, raid the girl’s side, and play mumble the peg.

   We weren’t supposed to, even though all of us had jackknives and some of us had fixed-blade sheath knives. “No mumbledy peg,” our scoutmaster told us in no uncertain terms, in uncertain English, in his strong Lithuanian accent, speaking through his Chiclet teeth.

   One way we played mumble the peg was to first pound a twig, a peg, into the ground. We threw our knives at the ground, flipping from the palm, back of the hand, twist of the fist, and every which way. Whatever the other scout did, if he threw it backward over his head, and it stuck, you had to do it, too. If you failed, then you had to mumble the peg. You had to get on your hands and knees and pull the twig out of the ground with your teeth.

   The other way we played was to stand opposite each other with our legs shoulder-width. Taking turns, we would flip and try to stick our knife into the ground as close to our own foot as possible. The first toss was always in the middle, but when the other guy got closer, you had to get closer, and the closer and closer it went. Whoever stuck his knife closest to his own foot, and the other guy chickened out, was the winner.

   If you stuck the knife into your own foot you won on the spot, although nobody ever wanted to win that way. It was why everyone who had not gotten their first aid merit badge and was going to get in on mumble the peg at camp, took the class at the park ranger cabin a half mile away. It was taught by an older scout who wore leopard-print camouflage pants and shirt. One of us read from the only available Red Cross manual, while he was the hands-on guy.

   It was the only book-learning merit badge on the program. Sticking our noses in a book at summer camp was the last thing anybody except the bookworms wanted to do. They read what somebody else dreamed up about fun. We dreamed up our own fun.

   We were going to look for Bigfoot and nab him if we could. He was the hide and seek world champion, but we knew he was somewhere around the lake. What we were going to do with him once we got him, none of us knew. We thought, if we did find him, and he was friendly, we would ask him where he lived and what he did all day. 

   “His name is Sasquatch,” the cammo-clad scout told us, looking like he thought we were retards.

   There were more of us than Bigfoot, or whatever his name was, for sure. There were seven of us, first-generation immigrant children like all the boys and girls at the camp, and we were all Eagle Scouts. None of us had earned any Palms, though, since none of us had gotten more than the twenty-one merit badges needed to get to Eagle, but all of us were going for twenty-two, since Ginty’s dad had brought two canoes. We were looking forward to it after we heard what getting a canoeing badge was all about.

   What it was about was getting out of a canoe in deep water and getting back in without capsizing, then performing a controlled capsize, and swimming, towing, or pushing a swamped canoe fifty feet to shallow water. In the shallow water, empty the swamped canoe and reenter it. Back in deep water, rescue a swamped canoe and its paddlers by emptying it and helping the paddlers reenter their boat without capsizing.

   We were all about that.

   We had searched for Bigfoot at camp before, but sporadically, never having a plan. This time we had a plan. We brought flashlights, we had a map of the landscape north of our camp, and a compass, and we made sure all of us had sharpened our knives just in case Bigfoot tried to mess with us.

   It would put Troop 311 on the map.

   Seven years earlier Bigfoot had terrorized a weekend Cub Scout camp at the park in the middle of the night. The scoutmaster was jolted out of a sound sleep by the screams of his boys. He stumbled out of his tent to find the 11-year-olds crying and running around in circles. Using a whistle and a flashlight he got them to stop and form a line. He then asked them what was going on.

   It turned out four of the boys had been woken up suddenly by a loud noise. Their tent started to shake. They thought it was a prank being played by their friends, until the tent was ripped from the ground and thrown into a tree. A creature bellowed at them. It was Bigfoot. Two of the boys immediately shut their eyes. The other two were mesmerized by its glowing eyes. They couldn’t look away.

   The beast was satisfied with scaring them and left. The scoutmaster searched, but only found the tent high in the tree. He built a fire and gathered all the boys around him. In the morning he cut the camping weekend short.

   Troop 311 was the Lithuanian American scout troop on the east side of town. Our headquarters was the community hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, just off East 185th Street, the principal road, and the spine of Lithuanian life and culture in Cleveland. Our group was all 15 and 16 years old, and scouting was phasing out of our minds and lives. 

   The younger kids didn’t know anything. The older guys who were still scouts were Explorers, in it for life. We knew this was our last camp at Lake Pymatuning. Next year we were hoping to go out on a high note at the 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in the Rocky Mountains.

   “I will bust a gut if we make it there,” said Linas, our camel train’s crack wise.

    The first thing we did when we got to Lake Pymatuning late Sunday morning was haul our stuff, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food and supplies out of the fleet of Ford station wagons, Chevy station wagons, and Pontiac station wagons our parents had driven us in to the camp site. We set up our tents in a perpendicular line to the lake, hoisted the communal tent, dug a fire pit and a latrine trench. We built a 30-foot-high abstract frame sculpture out of dead tree branches. Everybody went for a swim when we were done.

   The lake is partly in Ohio and partly in Pennsylvania, on land that used to be a swamp. It is named for Pihmtomink, the chief of the tribe who lived in the swamp. When the Indians were pushed off their land, and told to go somewhere else, the first farmers had a hell of a time. The swamp was infested by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Farm animals were eaten by bears and mountain lions or sank in quicksand. There was a massive flood in 1913. Finally, the Pymatuning Land Company bought all the land, thousands of men worked from 1931 to 1934, and built a dam. The lake they made is 17 miles long and 2 miles wide.

   There’s a spot called “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish,” where people throw bread to thousands of carp and Canada geese and birds of a feather rush around on top of the fish to snag their share of it.

   Our scoutmaster’s tent was nearest to the lake. Vytautas Jokubaitis was a short barrel-chested man with blondish hair and a red face. He wore a wide-brimmed hat, the same kind that Robert Baden-Powell wore, to keep the sun off his face. But he usually had the front brim pushed up. That wasn’t why his face was red, anyway. He wasn’t a bad man, but he had a bad temper that boiled over at the drop of a hat. Nobody ever wanted to get on the wrong side of the scout oath, or scout motto, or scout code with him. 

   There was the devil to pay when that happened.

   He was our Scoutmaster, or Scouter, so we called him Scooter since we couldn’t call him Vito. He didn’t like that. He was a grown man, and we were kids. He didn’t like us calling him Scooter, either, but what could he do? Besides, we never called him that to his face. He was a “Yes, sir” and “No, sir” kind of man.

   He was from Alytus, the same town where my mother had been baby-sitting when the Russians stormed into Lithuania in 1944. She got out in the nick of time with her aunt and her aunt’s four kids on a horse drawn wagon with a cow tied to the back. By 1966 it had been 22 years since she had seen anyone from her family, who were all stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

   When he was young Vito weightlifted and wrestled. Nobody picked on him, but he beat it out of the Baltics when the Commies showed up like tens of thousands of others, met his wife Onute in Germany, got married, and emigrated to the United States in 1949. They had three children, Milda, who was older than us and ignored us, Ruta, who was our age and eye-catching, and who we pretended to ignore, and a boy who was small fry and ignored by everybody except his small fry friends.

   Vyto Jokubaitis organized Zaibas and the Lithuanian American Club in Cleveland, and had gotten medals, although he never wore them to camp. The CYO gave him the “Saint John Bosco Award.” We all went to Catholic schools, but none of knew who John Bosco was. He sounded like chocolate syrup.

   Ona was just as industrious, and not about to be outdone by her husband. She ran the camp as much as he did, although she stayed on the girl’s side. She was the head of the Parents Committee of Zaibas, raised mounds of money for the Lithuanian Relief Fund, and was Outstanding Citizen of the Year in 1960. Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher gave her the award and a handshake in person.

   They talked about Lithuania at the night-time campfire like it was the best place in the world, but none of had ever been there. Lithuania was like Bigfoot, something we heard about, but didn’t know if it was real or not.  When they talked about the Baltic and the dunes, all we could picture were the dunes at Mentor Headlands State Park on Lake Erie. That’s what we knew. We didn’t know Lithuania from the man in the moon.

   We got up early every morning, raised our flags on poles we had brought, did exercises in a field, made breakfast, and took a break after that. We washed out clothes in the lake and dried them on our tent lines. Scooter was focused on physical fitness, so before lunch we had to go on a forced march. We wore Lemon Squeezer campaign hats and uniform green knee socks and were burdened with backpacks full of responsibility. Our only consolation was being let loose afterwards to run and dive into the lake.

   The younger scouts worked on merit badges in the afternoon. We were free to drift off, which we did, fooling around, exploring the shoreline, and mumbling the peg in secluded top-secret spots.

   We did service projects, planting seedlings, and raking out the beach. We climbed trees and had our own “Big Time Wrestling” match with a Negro Scout Troop from Louisville. We went on more hikes before dinner. They were supposed to be short, two to three miles, but Scooter always took us out four and five miles. We hiked every day, rain or shine. We went on a night hike and got lost every which way.

   “It’s like training to be a mailman,” Linas grumbled.

   The last night of camp started after the campfire and lights out. A half hour later we snuck out of our sleeping bags, out of the campsite, and to the grove of crabapple trees on the other side of the girl’s side. There were plenty of last year’s old hard two-inch crabapples littering the ground that squirrels hadn’t gotten, and we filled our pockets with them. When we got close to the girl’s tents, we unleashed our barrage of missiles. They thunked the canvas and the girls woke up screaming. The next second, though, they were screaming mad. As soon as we were out of ammo, they rushed from their tents, led by the irate Milda, followed by the captivating Ruta, picked up the sour fruits, and started throwing them at us. We scattered and they ran after us, pelting us, but stopped when they ran out of fireworks. 

   Algis had a lump on his head where he got hit. We rubbed it to rub it away, but he said, “Cut it out, you’re making it hurt even more,” and that he was good to go. We went looking for Bigfoot, following the beams of our flashlights. We thought he had to be somewhere in the woods, away from the water, where there were tents and trailers all summer long. 

   Bigfoot was beyond any doubt a loner.

   We knew he was going to be hard to find in the dark even though he was probably nine feet tall. He was covered head-to-toe in swarthy hair. We were hoping to find footprints, which had to be enormous. We tramped around for hours looking for him, but all we found was a skunk, who raised his tail before we backed off, and two racoons on their hind legs, peering at us from behind their masks.

   “Maybe he avoids white people, since they chased off his ancestors,” Gediminas said.

   “You think he’s an Indian?” Andrius said . We called him Andy since calling him Andrius annoyed the crap out of him.

   “He’s got to be. Why would he live in the woods, all naked, no furniture or TV? Only Indians do that.” 

   “That makes sense to me,” Linas said.

   Looking for Bigfoot turned out to be a wild-goose chase. We stumbled into tree branches, tripped over roots, looked high and low, left no stone unturned, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. We trudged back to camp, tired and disappointed.

   I don’t know what got into us. One minute we were sneaking back to our tents and the next minute we were sneaking up to Scooter’s car. It was a four-door Ford Country Sedan. After checking the driver’s door, it was unlocked, and quietly opening it, putting the manual gear into neutral, the next minute we were all at the back pushing the car down the slope toward the lake.

   Nobody said a word when it got stuck in the muck. The water slurped up to the front bumper. Nobody said a word when we slouched back to our tents and threw ourselves down on our sleeping bags.

   The next morning, we were woken up by ferocious bursts of anger and dismay. We were bum rushed out of our tents and lined up in a row. We could see the shipwrecked Ford down the bank. Scooter read us the riot act. 

  He gave each of us the third-degree, face to face, glaring, but nobody was talking.

   “I will give you one last chance,” he finally said. “Whoever did this step forward, apologize, know that you broke the code of scouting, and we will forgive.”

   We all knew that wasn’t possible. Scooter wasn’t one to ever forgive and forget. His face was getting redder and redder. It looked like he might explode. Then Linas stepped forward.

   It was hard to believe he was going to spill the beans. He was the least tame scout among us. He was no chicken, either. He proved that every day. He had thrown down the mumble the peg gauntlet the first day and fended off all challengers. Playing the peg was forbidden but he played it more than anyone else and played it best, yet there he was, ready to tell all about pushing the car into Lake Pymatuning.

   “Yes?” asked Scooter.

   “I think it was Bigfoot, sir,” Linas said.

A version of this story appeared in Lithuanian Heritage Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Motor City Clampdown

By Ed Staskus

   Antanas Kairis was a year-or-two older than me, good-looking, and quick on the uptake. I met him at a party at a large house on Magnolia Dr. in University Circle, close to the Music Settlement. Dalia and Algis Nasvytis, who were near my age and who I knew through the community, lived there with their younger sister, Julia, and their parents. It was a week before Christmas.

   They sometimes threw their house open, clearing the big room in the back for kids teenagers young adults to dance to records. The grown-up adults mingled, smoking and drinking and chatting. It was cold and had snowed for days beforehand. The house was brick, two stories with a front facing slate roof and gables, and windows galore. All lit up it sparkled going up the walk in the frosty night.

   Andy was from Boston and had come to Cleveland, Ohio, to see his girlfriend, who was from Dearborn, Michigan. When I called him Tony, the lingo for Antanas, he said, “Call me Andy.” Aida was blonde and beautiful and visiting friends. She didn’t know the Nasvyciai, but her friends did, and she knew Andy.

   I didn’t know I was standing next to him until Aida sauntered off to dance with another boy. 

   “What do you know, I drive all day, and she slips off with somebody else,” he grumbled smiling devilishly.

   It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. I was wall flowering more than dancing. At least he had a girl to complain about. I didn’t often strike up conversations with strangers. Andy was more silver-tongued than me, by a long shot.

   He wanted a cigarette. We went out on the back terrace, and he lit up. I didn’t smoke. He did most of the talking. By the time we went back in it seemed like we were fast friends. I didn’t see much of him the rest of the night. He only had eyes for Aida. He clapped me on the back when I was leaving with my ride, saying he hoped we would meet again. I said sure, even though I didn’t expect to ever see him again.

   I don’t know how Andy got my number but just after the first of the year I found myself on the phone with him. He was driving to Dearborn to see Aida the next weekend and wanted to know if I wanted to go along. I cleared it with my parents, even though they didn’t know his family or him, and he picked me up the next Friday morning. He looked like he had driven all night.

   He was driving an almost new two-door GTO hardtop 428. GTO stands for The Great One. It was red, what Pontiac called Montero Red. It was a cool car inside a hot color. It had street cred, and more. I waved goodbye and piled in. When we got to the corner of our street, he asked me if I minded driving. I said I didn’t mind and drove all the way to Dearborn while he slept.

   Dearborn was 170 miles away. We made it in record time in the smooth as silk muscle car. The engine had a throaty sound and handled like doing simple arithmetic.

   Henry Ford was born on a farm in Dearborn and later built an estate there. He pioneered the mass production of automobiles, and his world headquarters was based there. He forged the River Rouge Complex there, the largest factory of his empire. He had a reconstructed historic village and museum built, immortalizing his youth. The open land is planted with sunflowers and his favorite crop, which was soybeans. The crops are never harvested.

   There were lots of Poles Germans Italians and Lithuanians in Dearborn. If there were any African Americans, I didn’t see them. “Negroes can’t get in here. Every time we hear of a Negro moving in, we respond quicker than reporters do to a fire,” said Orville Hubbard, the mayor from 1942 to 1978. “As far as I am concerned, it is against the law for a Negro to live in my suburb.” The Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1965 found Mother Hubbard guilty of posting racist newspaper clippings on City Hall bulletin boards. However, he was never taken to court on the issue. He was an equal opportunity bigot. He complained that “the Jews own this country,” that the Irish “are even more corrupt than the Dagos,” and when Middle Easterners started moving into Dearborn after the Six-Day War that “the Syrians are even worse than the niggers.” In 1970 his son John Jay Hubbard ran for mayor against him but got beaten to a pulp.

   The unofficial slogan of the lily of the valley burg was “The Sun Never Sets on a Negro in Dearborn.”

   We found Aida’s house without too much trouble, except for stopping at several gas stations and asking for directions. Her parents were suspicious of Antanas but brushed me off as a harmless sidekick. They agreed to let us sleep in their furnished basement that night and Saturday night and fed us lunch. It was hot beet soup with black rye bread and kugelis. I wasn’t surprised it wasn’t burgers and fries.

   We went out on the town, visiting the Automotive Hall of Fame. We went to the Henry Ford Museum and rode in a Model-T. We went to the Fairlane and sat in an old bus. We went to the movies and saw “In the Heat of the Night.” We stopped at a tavern with a neon sign in the window saying “EATS.” Andy explained I was with him, and they let me in. We had burgers and fries. Andy had a beer. Aida and I had Sprite.

   On the way back Double A sat in the back seat making out. We were at a stop light minding our own business waiting for the green to go when a car pulling up next to us got too close and broke off the GTO’s sideview mirror. There wasn’t one to begin with on the passenger side which meant now I didn’t have any. The young woman driving the white Chevy Corvair, one of the worst cars on the road, looked at me, looking chagrined. She put the car in park and got out. I noticed her compact car didn’t have side mirrors from the get-go.

   The Corvair is on most lists of “The Ten Most Questionable Cars of All Time.” 

   I was standing beside the driver’s door looking at the broken mirror lying in the road when I noticed Andy bolting out of the back seat and making a beeline to who-knows-where. He hit the pavement running and disappeared down a side street. When the police appeared, I pointed to the broken mirror and explained what happened. Aida and I sat in the car while they went about their business. They wrote a ticket and gave it to the guilty girl. She drove away in her Corvair waving goodbye.

   “We’ve called your parents and they’ll be here to pick you up soon,” one of the policemen told Aida. She looked worried. “Are your parents strict?” I asked. She nodded yes.

   “What about me?” I asked.

   “You’re coming with us,” the policeman said.

   “Where are we going?”

   “You’re going to jail,” he said.

   “Why? I didn’t do anything.”

   “This is a stolen car,” he said.

   The city hall the police station and the district court were all in a row on Michigan Ave. I was taken to the police station, photographed and fingerprinted. They put me in a holding tank. It smelled bad, like a toilet with a dead rat in it. A man in a suit showed up and took my statement. 

   “I didn’t steal that car,” I said. “Find Antanas. He’ll tell you.”

   “We already found him.”

   “And?”

   “He said you stole the car.”

   “What! That’s not true. Why did he run away if he didn’t steal it? I didn’t steal anything, he did.”

   “Have you ever been to Massachusetts.”

   “No, except once a couple of years ago when there was Boy Scout Jamboree there.”

   “All right, sit tight,” he said.

   I sat tight that night and the next night and the night after that until my court appearance on Monday. I was shuffled into a cell with three other men, two of them there for drunk and disorderly and one of them, an African American, for being in Dearborn after the sun went down. He called us honkies. We ignored him.

   “I don’t trust anyone that hasn’t been to jail at least once in their life. You should have been, or something’s the matter with you,” John Waters once said.

   I didn’t trust the two drunks and slept with one eye open. My fears were put to rest the next day when they sobered up. They built Ford Mustangs at River Rouge. The complex included 93 buildings with nearly 16 million square feet of factory floor space. It had its own docks on the dredged-our Rouge River, 100 miles of interior railroad track, its own electricity plant, and an integrated steel mill. It was able to turn raw materials into running vehicles within its own space. 

   “You leave your brain at the door,” one of them said. “Just bring your body, because they don’t need any other part. It’s a good thing, otherwise I would lose my mind. They tell you what to do and how to do it.”

   “Hey, there ain’t a lot of variety in the paint shop either,” the other one complained. “You clip on the color hose, bleed out the old color, and squirt. Clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, clip, bleed, squirt, scratch your nose. Only now the bosses have taken away the time to scratch my nose.” 

   “Yeah, the line speed used to be 40 or 45 cars an hour twenty years ago but now it’s working its way up to a 100. A lot of the time I have to get into the car and do my job sitting on raw metal. I was always going home with black and blue marks on the back of my legs. I made a padded apron to wear backwards so I would be more comfortable.”

   “I was a two-bolt man for a while,” the painter said. “There were two bolts and I put in one and secured it. Then I put in the other one and secured it. They came pretty fast, so it’s time after time. I always had a sore shoulder. It just wears you down in your bones.”

   A rolling rack of paperback books came by, and I grabbed a couple of Perry Mason mysteries. We were fed morning noon and night. I took naps whenever I wanted to. By Monday morning I had gained a pound or two, easing into my motel tan, and was well rested.

   On the way to the courtroom, I saw Dandy Andy in another group and jumped him, only to be separated from him in no time flat. I spit out he was a rotten goddamned fink. He gave me the finger and that ended our so-called friendship on the spot. In the courtroom I saw my father, who had taken the day off and driven to Dearborn. When my turn came a police detective and an assistant district attorney talked to the judge first. When they were done the judge crooked his finger at me to approach the bench.

   “Your friend has admitted stealing the car in Boston to go joyriding and so we are dropping the charges against you,” he said.

   “He’s not my friend,” I said.

   “In any case, you’re free to go.”

   Automobile theft was rampant all over the country, with almost a million of them going missing every year. Michigan was one of the states that led the way. My case was open and shut, thank God. Stealing cars was a trap door to prison. I left with my father, who wasn’t happy, but happy I had been sprung loose.

   “I still can’t believe another Lithuanian would do that to me, especially lying about stealing the car,” I said on our way home.

   My father brushed my naivete aside.

   “In Lithuania whenever anyone is driving, they are cautious of people on the side of the road trying to flag them down, trying to get them to pull over,” he said. “More often than not it’s a trick to get you out of your car so that a second man can either steal what’s in your unattended car or drive off with it. Everybody knows if you absolutely must leave your car, say you are involved in an accident, be sure to turn off the ignition, take the keys, and lock the car. Lietuviai are no saints, believe me.”

   He tapped out a Pall Mall, lit it, and drove in silence while he smoked.

   “What do you think the moral of your lost weekend might be?” he asked ten minutes later stubbing out his cigarette.

   I looked at the pivoting globe compass and small painted statue of St. Christopher on top of the dashboard, wiggling slightly on their magnetic bases. Even though the compass told him what direction he was going in, my father was terrible with directions, often getting lost. He didn’t like asking for them, in any case, and relied on St. Christopher, the patron saint of travelers. Unfortunately, St. Christopher never said a word about anything.

   I couldn’t think what the moral might or might not be. I knew it was going to be some kind of clampdown.

   “Never trust anybody driving a stolen car, not any Lithuanian, and not even yourself,” he said.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”