Great Balls of Fire

By Ed Staskus

   The steamy summer evening my wife brother-in-law and I went to the Lorain County Speedway what I didn’t expect was how loud the cars were going to be when the drivers stepped on the fast pedal, how bad the oil gasoline and rubber smelled in the humidity, how many crashes there were, and the fight that broke out on the track immediately after one of the crashes.

   The minute Matt my brother-in law sat down he pulled a pair of earplugs out of his pocket and pushed them firmly into his ears. We tried asking him where ours were, but he couldn’t hear a word we were saying. My wife Vanessa and I finally decided to soak in the full experience, not like some people who couldn’t bear to hear the primal roar of engines going all out.

   The Speedway is more-or-less in South Amherst not far from Lorain, 30-some miles west of Cleveland, Ohio. It opened in 1949 as a third of a mile dirt oval. It was paved over in 1960. The night we were there the track had long since been upgraded to a 3/8-mile oval with 12-degree banking in the turns and a slight bank on the straightaways. It wasn’t NASCAR by any means, although NASCAR was the reason we were there.

   The racing at the Speedway that night was billed as street stock. I had never been closer to race cars than a TV screen, and the only reason I had ever gotten that close was because Matt came over our house every Saturday afternoon during the racing season, plopped himself down on our sofa, and for the next three four five hours watched handmade cars built from flat sheet metal with engines assembled from a bare block and frames constructed from steel tubing take tight left turns over and over and over at 200 MPH. The NASCAR four-wheelers resembled street stock about as much as wart hogs resemble cheetahs, even though both kinds of cars were essentially doing the same thing.

   The big story was Jeff Gordon going up against Dale Earnhardt until it became the Jeff Gordon story. Dale Earnhardt won his seventh Winston Cup Championship in 1994 tying Richard Petty’s record for Cup Championships. Everybody was looking for him to win his eighth in 1995 and make history. It wasn’t to be.

   Jeff Gordon was young, only 24, but he had won the Coca-Cola 600 and the Brickyard 400 the year before. He wasn’t exactly wet behind the ears. He was off to the races. He landed in victory lane in three of the first six races of 1995. As the season wore on, he racked up 14 straight top ten finishes. Earnhardt was game, but the game was up. Jeff Gordon finished on top of the leader board, the youngest champion since 1971. He toasted Dale Earnhardt with a glass of milk instead of champagne, being barely legal.

   When he wasn’t watching NASCAR on TV Matt and a friend of his spent weekends driving to and camping out at nearby NASCAR events. They went to the Miller Genuine Draft 400 at the Michigan International Speedway, the Bud at the Glen at Watkins Glen, and the Mountain Dew Southern 500 at the Darlington Raceway. One weekend Matt asked if we wanted to go see some real racing. We said alright, we’re not doing anything tonight, so long as it’s not out of state.

   The grandstand at the Lorain County Speedway was right on top of the racing. The bleacher seats were half full, like a high school football game where the fans are family and friends. There was a screen between the front row and the track. When I looked it up and down, I thought it might keep a flock of seagulls from assaulting us, but not a crate engine or the whole 3000-pound car. 

   “If one of those cars rolls and flips and comes up into the stands, that screen is going to stand the same chance as toilet paper,” I told my wife.

   “What?” she asked trying in vain to hear me over the noise.

   Five years earlier a man was killed and five people hurt when a race car went out of control and crashed into the pit area of the Lorain County Speedway. The man who was killed was another driver from another race. The driver of the wayward car said the accelerator on his car stuck, causing him to lose control on a turn. Eight years earlier at Talladega driver Bobby Allison’s car going at the speed of light ran over debris and a tire burst. His car went airborne and smashed into the safety catch wall. Shrapnel sprayed the fans. From then on restrictor plates, which cap engine speeds from climbing too high, keeping all race cars at around the same speeds, were made mandatory.

   The thought of shrapnel gave me the heebie-jeebies. My brother-in-law must have thought it through because he had led us to the second-to-last row. Even though the stands were only fifteen twenty rows deep, it was better than nothing. The group of guys in front of us had their own cooler. They offered us some. My brother-in-law didn’t drink, and my wife didn’t drink beer.

   “What the hey,” I said, accepting a Budweiser, my least favorite beer. Beggars can’t be choosers. In the heat of the night, to my surprise, the cold suds were delicious.

   My brother-in-law was a chemical engineer working in a General Electric lab in Willowick, but was transitioning to mechanical engineering, which meant going back to school part-time. He didn’t have a girlfriend, which meant he had time outside of work and school to take up a hobby. He bought a hulk of scrap metal that was once a 1970 Monte Carlo. His plan was to tear it apart piece by piece and rebuild restore it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the space to get it done. Unfortunately, we did. The next thing I knew our two-car garage was a no-car garage. The hulk of scrap metal took up all the space. What space was left was devoted to a worktable, a tool locker, and an air compressor.

   He took the engine out. He took the seats out. He took the dash out. He took everything out and off the car. He built a rotisserie on wheels and fitted the frame to it, so he could wheel it in and out of the garage, working on it in our driveway. He sanded all the rust away and primed it. When the time came, he had it hauled away and painted Tuxedo Black.                                                     

   When the weather turned foul, he turned a room in our basement into a work room, working on the engine and God knows what all else. He fabricated a new dash from scratch. He slowly but surely bought original parts and started to put the Monte Carlo back together. It took years and tens of thousands of dollars. Some nights, drifting off to sleep, we could hear him through the back window still working in the driveway in the glow of a bank of lights he had fixed up for the purpose.

   NASCAR race cars have almost nothing in common with street cars. By the 1990s they were being built to optimize aerodynamics. The focus was on speed. They stopped looking like stock cars. Stock car racing uses production models somewhat customized for racing purposes. It got started in the 1930s when moonshiners transporting white lightning souped up their Fords to evade revenue agents. One thing led to another, and they started racing each other on weekends on tracks carved out of corn fields.

   Street stock is racing a car that can be bought off a dealer’s lot. It is sometimes called hobby stock or showroom stock. Most of the tracks are short ovals, less than a mile. The speeds at the Lorain County Speedway that night hit 80 to 90 MPH on the straightaways, but slower in the turns. There were crashes galore in the turns. One of them happened in the turn coming around to the grandstand, when two cars bumped tangled and tore into each other. The driver on the outside track ran out of talent halfway through the turn. They slid skidded to a stop in front of us. The drivers got out of their cars unhurt. When they did one of the drivers got hurt. When he did, event staff and policemen and an ambulance got called in to help and sort out what was the matter.

   When the two drivers got out of their banged-up cars, they started arguing. “What the hell, bumping me like that,” one of them yelled, his face red.

   “I didn’t bump you,” the older of the two drivers said. “I rubbed you. Rubbin’, son, is racin’.”

   They started pushing each other The younger driver got pushed too far out on the track and a car going slowly by under the caution flag ran over his foot. He fell to the ground and banged his head. When he did a woman bolted out of the stands down the stairs over the catch wall and onto the track. She made a beeline for the driver still standing.

   “This here is going to be trouble,” one of the men in front of us said cracking open another King of Beers.

   The 1970 two-door Chevrolet Monte Carlo was on a 116-inch wheelbase A-body platform with the longest hood Chevy had ever made. It stretched from the windshield to tomorrow. The styling was influenced by the Cadillac Eldorado, which came out in 1967. The Monte Carlo borrowed its firewall, dashboard, windshield, decklid, and rear window from the Chevelle. The base drivetrain for it was a 350-cubic inch Turbo-Fire V-8 fed by a two-barrel carburetor and rated at 250 horsepower. A column-shifted three-speed manual transmission was standard. My brother-in-law’s car was the upgrade with a console-shift four-speed manual and a four-barrel-topped Turbo-Fire V-8 350 rated at 300 horsepower. It approached 4,000 pounds at the curb. It wasn’t built for baby showers or baptisms. Shotgun weddings were more its speed. When I first heard the engine fire up so did all my neighbors within two or three blocks. Some of them came outside, standing on their lawns and in the street, looking up our driveway.

   “Mommy, what is that?” a boy driving a Little Tikes Cozy Coupe asked his mother.

   When the angry woman running onto the track got to the spot of the crash, she leapt onto the back of the driver who had pushed the other driver screamed like a banshee wrapped her legs around his midsection and started to pummel the top and back of his head with her fists. It took half a dozen drivers and security staff to pull her off and keep her off. A policeman finally handcuffed her to a fence post.

   An ambulance showed up, the driver with the pancake foot was put on a stretcher and put in the ambulance, wreckers drove onto the track, removed the damaged cars, and before we knew it the race was back on like nothing had ever happened. A policeman came back mid-way through the rest of race to retrieve the fists of fury, who everybody had forgotten about. They put her in a squad car, legs kicking and lips flapping, and drove away, lights flashing. The King of Beers saluted her.

   Thirteen years after Matt started work on the Monte Carlo it was ready to go. It was 2003. The day he put license plates on it was the day he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. 

   “Sure,” I said.

   The inside of the car smelled like a new car. It looked like a new car inside and out. He turned the key in the ignition and flipped a rocker switch. It was like cracking a bull whip. The car rumbled to life. It sounded like something after prey. He backed it out of the driveway and set off for Lake Rd. We went west through Rocky River Bay Village nearly to Avon Lake to the Huntington Reservation, where we turned around. When we got to the Clifton Blvd. bridge that crosses the Rocky River, he pulled over to the shoulder.

   “Do you want to drive it?” he asked.

   “You bet I do,” I said.

   As I got out of the car to walk around to the driver’s side, I noticed a red fire extinguisher bolted down in the back. It was a Kidde dry chemical vehicle extinguisher.

   “What’s that for?” I asked. “Do you expect this car to blow up?”

   “You never know,” he said. “If it does, pull aim squeeze and sweep.”

   I buckled in, buckling the five-point harness belt. The car was a bat out of hell of acceleration, but no matter what happened I wasn’t going anywhere. The belt was the kind used to restrain madmen.

  I waited until there was no traffic. “Fire in the hole,” I said. I put the car in first got started burned rubber put it in second third and fourth and flew across the bridge breathing fire. The engine was just as loud driving the car as it was standing beside the car. I got it up to sixty in about ten seconds before starting to slow down. The bridge was far behind us by then.

   “That was fun,” I said. It was like being Buckaroo Banzai for a couple of minutes. I checked for flashing red lights in the rearview mirror.

   We drove down Clifton Blvd. halfway through Lakewood before turning around. Heads turned when we approached, and heads followed our progress. At a stop light a graybeard alongside us said through his open window, “That is meat and potatoes.” He was driving a brand-new Toyota Prius. The Monte Carlo was several feet its length and heavy metal to its folk singing purr. 

   “So long as you don’t mind getting nine miles to the gallon,” I said.

   We got the car back in the garage without a scratch. That would have been a nightmare. My brother-in-law was fussy as a newborn with his old busted car reborn. As the garage door was closing itself, I noticed the license plate mounted on the chrome rear bumper.

   “NGHTMRE,” is what it 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.”

Fried Eggs on Toast

By Ed Staskus

   The first language I spoke was Lithuanian and until I started meeting other kids on the street it was the only language I spoke. All my first friends in Sudbury, Ontario, were other small change in the same boat, visiting my old country parents with their old country parents. When spring broke early my second year of life, I started meeting other children, boys and girls on the block of nine houses on our dead-end street. 

   They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. We spoke English on the street, which was how I picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion politics and popular culture. We didn’t know anything about those things, so we stuck to English.

   My close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who I called Lele, lived a block away. She and I played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she saw me dragging my red fleece blanket behind me. When she tried to take it away and I resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting me on the arm. It was then squabbling and pushing started in earnest, all hell breaking loose.

   Lele didn’t begin learning English until the first day she went to school.

   “All my friends were Lithuanian during my childhood in Sudbury,” she said. “When I started kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English. Many people over my lifetime had a chuckle when I told them I was born in Canada, but English is my second language.”

   Time is money is the watchword in the grown-up world, but time is candy is what works for many children. The young wife who lived next door to my parents had a daughter and they visited some afternoons. She always brought candy and while our mothers talked, Diana and I sat at the kitchen table with a paper bag of candy between us. Whenever one of us was ready for another piece, we jiggled the table vigorously before making a grab for the bag.

   My parents an immigrant couple bought a house as soon as they could, the same as every other Lithuanian who ended up in Sudbury. They had three children inside of five years. They didn’t have a TV, but they had a telephone and a radio, as well as a washing machine and a fridge. They knew their neighbors, but all their close friends were other post-war DP’s, most of them working in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a city, but it was a company town first and foremost.

   By 1950 it had long been associated with mining, smelting, and a broken-down landscape. The environment was said to be comparable to that of the moon. Decades of mining and smokestacks had acidified more than 7,000 lakes inside a circle of 10,000 square miles. 

   “I didn’t like Sudbury,” my mother said. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken as far as the eye could see.” 

   More than 50,000 acres of the hinterland were barren. Nothing grew there. Another 200,000 acres were semi-barren. There was substantial erosion everywhere. It wasn’t a wasteland, but it was a wasteland. All anyone had to do was walk up a rocky promontory and look around.

   As early as the 1920s “The Hub of the North” was open roasting more than twice as much rock ore as any other smelting location in North America. The aftermath poisoned crops. The result made it one of the worst environments in Ontario. It blackened the native pink granite, turning the rose and white quartz black. 

   “My husband worked two weeks during the day and two weeks during the night,” my mother said. “He walked to work, except when it was too cold, and whoever had a car would pick him and others up. In the morning he left at seven in the morning and got home at seven at night. When he worked nights, he got home at seven in the morning. The kids and I would wait by the window for him to get back.”

   Sudbury is in a basin. It is the third-largest impact crater on Earth. It was created about 200 million years ago when an enormous asteroid rocketed through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a blast. World-class deposits are found there and mined extensively.

   The city’s reputation as a rocky badlands was known far and wide by the time Angele and Vytas Staskevicius got married in 1949 and bought their house on Stanley Street a year later. Despite the industrial blight of the past half-century, there was a growing working-class population. They were a part of that population. The newlyweds were two of the displaced willing to take whatever work was offered in return for getting out of the Old World.

   “All our friends, the Zizai, Simkai, Bagdonai, all had children,” Angele said. “Since our living room was a little bigger than most, they often came over on Saturday nights. The men played bridge while we made dinner. The kids ran around, we drank, smoked, and danced. We put the kids away and talked all night.”

   Whoever had the opportunity to get married got married as fast as they could. There wasn’t an overabundance of eligible women in Sudbury. Henry and Maryte Zizys saw each other three times before they got hitched. The Simkai and Bagdonai stretched it out for a few months. The married men drank at home. The single men drank in bars, usually with other single men.

   The early Lithuanians who went to the New World weren’t Lithuanians, since the country didn’t exist at the time. It had once been its own empire but had since been taken over and was part of the Russian Empire. Many who fled to the United States were mistakenly documented as Polish, since there was a language ban in their homeland and scores of them spoke Polish as a second language.

   The first Lithuanians in Canada were men who fought in the British Army against the Americans in the War of 1812. For the next 130 years most of those who left the Baltics and went to Canada did so for economic reasons. After World War Two they fled toil and trouble after the Soviet Union reincorporated Lithuania into its realm. 

   “All of us hated the Russians for what they did” my mother said.

   The Russians deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps during and after the war. Sometimes they had their reasons. Other times the reason was slaphappy. The neighbors might have complained about you. The new Communist mayor might have taken a dislike to you. A cross-eyed apparatchik might have thought you were somebody else. It didn’t matter, because if you ended up in a boxcar going east, your future was over.

   The house Vytas and Angele moved into was on a newer extension of Stanley Street north of Poplar Street. It wasn’t in any of the city’s touted neighborhoods, but Donovan was nearby, and so was Little Britain. Downtown was less than two miles to the east. 

   Stanley Street started at Elm Street where there was a drug store, tobacconist, five-and-dime, fruit market, bakery and butcher shop, restaurants, a liquor store, and the Regent movie theater. The railcars were being replaced by busses and the tracks asphalted over. The other end of Stanley Street dead-ended at a sheer rock face on top of which were railroad tracks. The Canadian Pacific ran day and night hauling ore. When the train wailed, we wailed right back.

   My mother and her friends shopped on Elm Street. When I was still a toddler, I rode in a baby carriage. After my brother and sister were born, they rode in the carriage. I didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.

   “He was unhappy about it,” Angele said. “I told him he was a big boy now and had to walk to help his brother and sister, but he still didn’t like it. He made a sour face.”

   My father spread topsoil in the front yard of our new house and threw down grass seed. The backyard was forty feet deep but sandy and grass wouldn’t grow. He built a fence around it to discourage us from climbing the rocky rounded hill over which the railroad tracks curved west. 

   Even though children imitate their elders, they don’t always listen to them.

   “We always told the kids they weren’t allowed to climb the rock hills,” said Angele. “One day I couldn’t find Edvardas. He wasn’t in the house or in the yard or anywhere on our part of the street. I called and called for him. When he didn’t answer, all I could do was wait outside. When he finally came home, he had pebbles in his pockets. Where have you been? I asked him.”

   “I was looking for gold, mama,” I said, handing my mother pebbles that had a glint of shine. “I found some and brought them back for you.”

   Our house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at through the middle of the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact of decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees not being logged for the fires, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and our street.

   “We had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a nice living room,” said Angele. “Upstairs was a half bath and two rooms We rented those rooms. We usually rented to women or a couple who were new to Sudbury. Where they took a bath, I don’t know. We charged $11.00 a week for a room and saved all the money we got. Right before we left for America, my husband was able to buy a used car.”

   When Bruno and Ingrid Hauck came to Sudbury from Germany, they rented a room for several years. “She watched the kids sometimes, so Vytas and I could go to the Regency to see a movie,” said Angele. They saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” We saw “Lady and the Tramp” and fell in love with the movies.

   When I was four my parents had a New Year’s Eve party at our house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment my mother cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.

   “I had to lay down and didn’t see New Year’s Day,” she said, disappointed.

   When she woke up my father and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, and wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. We all went to church there once a month when the visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. My brother, sister, and I sat for free. Piety and silence were mandatory.

   “I was just in my twenties, but in one of Rimas’s plays I was the mother of a dying partisan,” Angele said. “I made myself cry by thinking about the time I cut my eye.”

   September through November are cold, December through February are freezing, and March into mid-May are cold in Sudbury. The first snow by and large falls in October, but it can show up as early as September. The season’s last snow comes and goes in April, although May sometimes sees a late icy shower. There are never any flurries in June, July, and August. 

   My father learned to ice skate and taught us on a rink in the front yard. He hosed water out on the lawn on bitter cold days where it started freezing in minutes. When it was frozen hard as rock, we laced up our skates and went skating. Whenever all the kids on the block joined in it got pell-mell fast. My two friends from across the street and I dazzled the girls with our figure 8s.

   In the 1950s in Sudbury sulfur dioxide formed a permanent, opaque, cloud-like formation across the horizon as seen from a distance. There was lead nickel arsenic and God knows what else in it. The ground-level pollution wasn’t as bad, a gray haze, but was worse on some days than others.

   When it got worse, my father built an igloo for us to play in.

   It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 4 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, he made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.

   As long as there was daylight there were daylong Eskimos in the igloo.

   Our furnace in the basement ran on coal. It was delivered once a week by truck, the coal man filling up the bin in the basement down a chute. Every morning my father shoveled coal into it, lit the fire, and stoked the coal. At night either my mother or he banked the furnace, salvaging unburned coal and putting the ashes in bags. They saved some in a container on the front porch for the steps whenever they got iced over.

   My mother told us to never go in the basement. She didn’t invent a Babadook in the basement, but she didn’t want us down there messing around. One day I started down the stairs to see what my dad exactly did every morning. I tripped over my own feet and tumbled the rest of the way down. I was back on my feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though I was unhurt.

   The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. We were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators. It was the basement all over again.

   “I didn’t have to worry about Richardas and Rita, they were too small, but Edvardas was always trying to climb up on the radiator in the living room. I told him he was going to fall off and one Sunday night, while I was cooking, he fell off and broke his collarbone, although he didn’t cry when it happened. He seemed more surprised than anything else.”

   For the rest of the next week, my arm in a sling, my mother fed me my favorite food every morning, fried eggs on toast. I was the envy of my sidekicks on the street, the two Canadian boys from whom I had learned most of my English. After finishing their pancakes or porridge, they ran to our back porch and watched me through our kitchen window go one-handed at my sunny side up breakfast.

   I always saluted my pals with half a piece of gooey toast before getting back to business.

Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.

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.”