By Ed Staskus
“Man, I had a dreadful flight, I’m back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the USSR.” The Beatles
When Angele Staskus went to Lithuania in 1977 with her daughter, she had not been on native soil for thirty-three years. Her daughter, Rita, 17 years old, had never been there. They flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City to Moscow to Vilnius. It took two days of luggage lines airports to go the five thousand miles.
It was in 1944 that Angele Jurgelaiyte, then a 16-year-old farmer’s daughter, fled Alvitas near Marijampole in the south of the country, the German Army retreating pell-mell and the Red Army storming the front. She shared a wagon drawn by two horses with her aunt and her aunt’s four children. A milk cow was tied to the back of the wagon. She fled to East Prussia to Germany to Canada to America. Nobody else in her immediate family got out.
She got married to Vic Staskus, another Lithuanian refugee, in Sudbury, Ontario. They had three children and the family emigrated to the USA in the late 50s. They started at the bottom.
The first time Rita saw the Soviet airport, she wasn’t impressed.
“The Moscow airport was crappy, gray on gray, and there were birds and bats flying around inside the terminal. Everybody looked gray, like somebody had just died.”
“The color of truth is gray,” said the French writer Andre Gide. He was wrong. The Commies were wrong, too, and their favorite color was wrong. Us against them social culture political truth at any cost is more trouble than it’s worth, sparing no one. Not the 85 million who weren’t spared during the WW2 grab for naked power, for sure. It’s not black and white, either, no matter what the soapbox masterminds say. The color of truth is Crayola 64 Crayon Colors.
The Sheremetyevo airport served most of the international flights arriving and departing the capital city, Moskva, in the far western part of the country. The airport was originally built as a military airfield in the late 1950s with one runway. In the early 1970s a second runway was added. A single terminal still served both runways.
“We had to go through customs. The higher-ups, police, and soldiers all looked serious and grim. Everybody going to Lithuania was smuggling something. My mom kept telling me to flash a smile at the soldiers, most of whom were young, like me. We had gum and cigarettes in my suitcase, but they never went through it.”
A woman behind them wearing a baggy fur coat wasn’t so fortunate.
“She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the coat apart and took all of it.”
There were several eateries in the terminal, but neither mother nor daughter ate while waiting for their connection.
“The food looked horrible, and what was the point of bad food and bad service without a smile?” asked Rita.
They flew Aeroflot to Vilnius, less than a two-hour flight.
“They brought us food, butter and buns, but they were hard as rocks,” said Rita. “You couldn’t even bite into them.” She tossed them under her seat. “The stewardesses were all so surly, down at the mouth, that I started laughing about it.” The flight attendants did a slow burn.
When they landed in Vilnius, the stale exhausted buns rolling and bumping over and over to the front of the airplane, passenger loading stairs were rolled to the door. The terminal was built in 1954. “It was a gray rectangular building, like a warehouse, like in Moscow.” There were sculptures of soldiers and workers outside and wreaths, bay leaves and stars, and the Soviet hammer and sickle inside.
“It was even crappier than the Moscow airport.”
Inside the terminal was a tight-knit group of more than forty of their relatives and their children.
“They came running up to us. One of them asked, do you speak Lithuanian? When I said yes, everybody started talking at once.” Some of the people looked a little like her, while others looked a lot like her mother. They were her uncles, Justinas, Juozukas, Sigitas, and her aunt Irena. There were nieces and nephews. When the excitement died down, they drove to the Gintaras Hotel, near the railroad station.
The Gintaras was where foreigners stayed, all foreigners, who visited Lithuania.
“The kids were running up and down the hallway, while the adults were all in our room. It was crowded since it wasn’t a big room, at all.”
They had brought pens, gum, and cigarettes. “My uncle Justinas lost the pen I gave him, and when I offered him another one, he said, no, he wanted the pen I had given him before. Nobody could find it, so I pretended to find it, and gave him a new one.”
Everybody wanted the American cigarettes they had smuggled in. “Russian cigarettes were nasty. They smelled bad.” The Belomorkani cigarette didn’t come with a filter, but with a hollow cardboard tube attached to a thin paper tube filled with tobacco. The cardboard tube was like a disposable cigarette holder. They were popular in the Baltic’s because of their cheap price. They were notorious for being one of the strongest cigarettes in the world.
“Everybody was smoking in minutes, the men, the women, and the older kids. It was non-stop.” The Prima brand was produced in Bulgaria and used a better quality of tobacco, but since only the Belomorkani brand was available in most the hinterland, a low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everyone smoked. “After twenty minutes you couldn’t see across the room.”
Rita noticed one of her cousins was chain-smoking.
“I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t,” he said.
“We brought Bubble Yum because that’s what they wrote us they wanted. All they had was crappy hard gum that would break your teeth when you started to chew it.” Introduced just two years earlier by Life Savers, Bubble Yum was the first soft bubble gum ever created. “They would chew the Bubble Yum for a half hour and then put it back in its wrapper, putting it away in their pockets or purses.”
One afternoon Rita was sitting in a nearby park talking with her uncle Sigitas. He took his wallet out of his back pocket. He filled his hand with a wad of cash.
“We have money, but there’s nothing to buy,” he said.
“We went to a butcher shop. There were only two kinds of meat and both of them were marbled with loads of white fat. My aunts were always cutting fat off. It was gross. Even the herring was bad. I mostly hated the food. It turned my stomach.”
There was a store near the hotel. It was called the Dovana Krautuve, or Gift Store. It was for Western tourists. Lithuanians weren’t allowed to shop there, or even go inside it. They went there one day on a tour bus. “They had amber, wooden dolls, artsy stuff there. They just wanted our American dollars. When we were leaving, they gave each of us a bottle of Coca-Cola.”
Back on the bus, Rita asked the driver if he liked Coke.
“Yes, I had some in 1955,” he said. “It was good,”
“That was twenty-two years ago.”
“Yes, I understand,” said the bus driver.
She gave him her bottle of the dark sugary soda.
“The Young Communists were always following us around, telling us their world was just as good as ours, that they had everything we had, and more. When I had to take my contacts out on the bus, one of them said, we have those, too. None of my relatives had contacts and none of them knew where to get any unless it was the black market.”
She finally told the Young Communists to cut it out.
“Your propaganda isn’t going to do anything for me,” she said.
While inside the hotel, nobody could talk about anything that might compromise them. “All the rooms were bugged. Everything was bugged.” Everybody was constantly watched, one way or another. Telephones were tapped. Mail was opened. Black government sedans followed people around.
Everything in the Soviet Union was a stumbling block.
Angele and Rita stayed at the Ginraras Hotel for ten days. Everybody knew somebody was listening. Nobody said anything. Their room wasn’t small, but it wasn’t large, and the bathroom was even smaller. The whole bathroom was a bathroom and a shower. There weren’t any sliding doors or shower curtains. “There was a drain in the middle of the floor, and whenever we showered the spray would get all over the tiled walls and sink and toilet. Everything got wet. The whole room became a shower.”
When they were refreshed, they visited with their relatives more than anything else.
“You never asked anybody, even your own flesh and blood, what they did. They would always say, ‘I have responsibilities.’ If you lived in Vilnius, you probably had a normal job, but not in Marijampole.” Many of their kinsfolk lived in the country and farmlands southwest of the town. They finagled and horse traded, going to Poland, doing things that weren’t altogether legal, or so the Communists said, so you just didn’t ask.
The goal was to be a pasikaustes, which means being somebody who has the smarts prowess right stuff to make it happen. It literally means putting a horseshoe on yourself. That’s why they were always wheeling and dealing.
They were waiting for the Commies to get the hell out of their country. They had earlier waited more than a hundred years. They could wait another hundred if they had to, although who wanted to do that? They were already bitter and alienated. Laikiu nesulaukiu means not being able to wait for something to happen. It means I wait but I can’t wait. It’s like being in prison for a crime you didn’t commit.
They made plans to go to Silute to see their paternal grandmother, who was in her 80s. Angele had never met her. Rita had never seen her.
Silute is to the north and west of Marijampole, two-some hours away. The Nemunas River floods there almost every year, soaking the lowland pastures. Migrating birds call it home away from home because of the delta and all the water. A fifth of the area is forested and home to more than 300 villages.
Antonina was Angele’s husband’s mother. She was a Russian woman, had been a young schoolteacher in the middle of nowhere, and married Rita’s grandfather when he was an officer in the Imperial Army and stationed in the middle of nowhere. “She was taken away a few years after my grandfather was deported in 1941 and dragged to Siberia for more than ten years, for no good reason.”
Rita’s mother’s family, who lived in the south of the country, made plans to take them to Silute. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three brothers, three wives, three cars, Angele and Rita, and some of their cousins.
“My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that.”
The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits. When they asked about Silute, Siauliai, and Zarasai, the other points of the compass to Vilnius, they were told they were all out of bounds. Everywhere outside of Vilnius was off limits. The Intourist official, the Soviet tourism monopoly, at the front desk of the hotel leaned forward and told Angele and Rita it was because of missile installations.
“Are there missiles in every town in the whole country?” asked Angele.
The official scowled at her.
Their convoy didn’t get far the day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock outside Vilnius. The police were waiting for them.
“They knew,” said Rita. “Somebody had overheard something. They waved us off the road.”
The police glanced at Justinas’s papers and waved at him to go back.
They went to the second car. Everyone had to show their papers. Angele was the best dressed of everyone in all three cars. “She was all decked out.” They asked her where she lived.
“The Gintaras Hotel.”
“Turn around, go back.”
They went to the third car.
Sigitas and and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with three of her cousins. They showed their papers. When it was Rita’s turn, she said, “You’ve seen their papers. I live in the same place.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jurgelaitis, like them.”
He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word of it and glared at him.
“The next time your daughter is going to have to answer,” the policeman grumbled at Sigitas.
They turned around and the convoy drove back to Vilnius.
Undaunted, a few days later, before leaving the USSR, Sigitas picked Rita up before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run on empty stomachs to Silute. She skittered into the car and they sped off. The streets were deserted in the gloom.
“He was a crazy driver, always yelling out, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different streets. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took longer.”
It took five hours.
They were stopped several times, but every time Sigitas was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him on. When they got to Silute they found the house where Antonina Staskevicius was living. After Josef Stalin’s death many labor camp prisoners in Siberia were let go. She was one of them. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in another forest camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She was told to go live in Silute.
She found a two-room apartment in a rectangular four-unit one-story building, almost like a log cabin. “It looked like it was built hundreds of years ago,” said Rita. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The kitchen floor was packed earth. She was in her 80s. “She had gone through tough times, and it wasn’t much of a life in Silute, which was lousy, but she still had a lot of life in her.” She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave her a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman.
Antonina wasn’t the Man of Steel, the ringleader who squashed her under his thumb, but he was gone, a rusty memory, and she still had plenty of steel left in her, except when Rita told her about her son, more than thirty years gone to America. Tears ran down her face.
They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. Rita didn’t throw anything under the table. It was an old hat old-school roots buffet for Sigitas.
“It was the best food I had in Lithuania,” said Rita.
How you start isn’t always how you finish.
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.