Age of Discovery

By Ed Staskus

   I was nearly three years old before I got my first good look at Sudbury. My brother had been born the year before, and lately had been crying at night, keeping us all awake. My father was a miner, working day shifts for two weeks and then night shifts for two weeks. He was one of the explosives men, setting black powder charges a mile down. He needed his nerves rock solid. He needed to sleep like a baby. He didn’t need the echo of crying in his brain.

   At first, my mother thought it was a passing thing. When it didn’t pass, she took to sleeping in the living room, on the sofa, with my brother on the floor beside her in a wooden rocking cradle. Whenever he started crying, she reached down and rocked him, settling him down. She didn’t get much sleep, although my father and I got all the shuteye we needed.

   One day, when my father was at work, and my mother had an appointment with their doctor for my brother’s one year check-up, my godfather Juozas Dzenkaitis showed up to babysit me for the afternoon. He was on the night shift in the nickel mines and had time to kill. He showed up on a 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.

   “I borrowed it from my neighbor,” he explained.

   Most of the Lithuanian immigrants who came hat in hand to Sudbury in the late 1940s and early 1950s worked in the mines. They got out of the black hole that Europe was for them and ended up in another black hole. Most of them were saving every penny they could so they wouldn’t have to work in the mines a minute more than they had to. Most of them owned their homes, but didn’t own a car, a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.

   The Vincent had a black tank and black frame. The chrome pipes were nickel chrome steel. The nickel came from Sudbury. The small city south of North Bay in Ontario sat on top of a big hole in the ground overflowing with ore. Some people called it the ‘Valley.’ Others called it the ‘Basin’. An asteroid or comet smashed into the spot in Canada hundreds of millions of years before with a payload of vital metals. Nickel took the first prize.

   During the Korean War, which ended the year before, nickel was regulated. Whenever there was combat anywhere in the world Sudbury boomed. Nickel was vital for making modern mechanized warfare. When the ripping and snorting stopped Sudbury went back to scuffling. It wasn’t boom or bust, but it was a one-basket economy, so it was boom or bust.

   After World War Two the open pits were almost exhausted and new underground mines were being dug. Nickel was being used for more and more civilian purposes. More technologically advanced smelters started seeing the light of day. While Sudbury slowly progressed from being the most polluted city in the country, starting to clean itself up, I was just getting my legs under me. My friends and I played on the black rock outcroppings all the time and never noticed the ever-present haze of ash and smoke.

   When I was born in 1951, I didn’t see much of my hometown at first. I was homesick for my old home. I saw a lot of my crib, the kitchen and living room, and my parents and their friends when there were kitchen parties at our house. I only spoke Lithuanian until the spring of 1953, when I started meeting kids my own age on the street. They all spoke English and French although none of them spoke French among themselves. English was the language out on the street.

   The Vincent my godfather was riding was plenty fast enough, but it wasn’t the Black Lightning, which was the racing version of the Black Shadow. Every steel part on the Lightning that could be remade in aluminum was remade in aluminum. Everything not essential was removed, reducing the weight by almost a hundred pounds. It had a single racing seat and rear footrests.

   In 1948 Rollie Free broke the North American motorcycle land speed record riding a Black Lightning on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He did it wearing a bathing suit, laying prone like a swimmer flat on his stomach, his legs dangling off the back end, hanging on to the handlebars for dear life. He took a deep breath when it was all over.

   I sat on the motorcycle behind my godfather, who I called Uncle Joe. I couldn’t get my arms around him and had to hang on to his shirt. He burped the bike down Stanley Street to Elm Street and took a left towards downtown. We lived on a new stretch of Stanley Street. Houses were being built as fast as could be because Sudbury was the most congested city in Canada. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics reported there were “42, 410 people jammed into 9, 450 units.”  More than a third of the housing was officially designated as “overcrowded.”

   We glided past the Regent Theatre where my parents went to see movies on weekends. My father learned to speak English in Lithuania, but my mother lived on an out-of-the-way family farm of sugar beets and pigs near the East Prussian border. The movies were a way for her to learn English. A twin bill was showing, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

   The movie house was operated by Herbert Sutherland. Three years later it became home to a colony of rats. It got so it was hard to tell if somebody was screaming because of the monsters on the screen or because of a rat nibbling on their ankles. Herb Sutherland found several homeless cats and invited them to make the theater their home. The city sent him a letter saying, “We do not feel the use of cats is sufficient to eliminate the menace.” He threw the hired guns out and set out poison instead, making the problem disappear. 

   We went past the new Sudbury Arena which replaced the old Palace Rink the year I was born. Uncle Joe rode carefully, watching for mud, threading the needle. The Junction Creek overflowed its banks every year, flooding the northern and central parts of Sudbury. We rode around the General Hospital where I was born. Outside the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes we stopped for ice cream cones.

  Frederic Romanet du Caillaud, known as the Count of Sudbury, had a six-foot tall 1500-pound bronze statue of the Virgin Mary erected at the mouth of the grotto in 1907. “Queen of the Gauls” was inscribed on the statue. At first, an Italian family by the name of Drago took care of it, wiping off grime and bird shit. In the 1950s the Rosary Club was formed and with Omer Naqult. a local barber and devout Catholic, watched over the pilgrimage site.

   One year earlier almost 10,000 people gathered at the site, coming from all the various parishes of the Sault-Ste-Marie diocese. New lighting was installed to light up the shrine at night. At the start of summer more than 10,000 residents of Sudbury took part in the moveable feast of Corpus Christi procession that ended up at the grotto. My parents weren’t able to go to the parade and so I didn’t know anything about it at the time.

   The statue was an inch or two shorter than Uncle Joe, who wore his hair wavy and was strong as an ox. He could bend nails with his hands. He and his wife Brone didn’t have any kids, but I saw plenty of them, anyway. My parents had the biggest living room among their Lithuanian immigrant friends and our house was where card playing, dancing, and eating and drinking happened on many weekends.

   We set off for Ramsey Lake. Before there ever was a Sudbury the natives called it Bitimagamasing, which means “water that lies on the side of the hill.” Everybody agreed Ramsey was easier to pronounce and that is what everybody called it. Everybody also agreed the lake was dead. Sewage from Minnow Lake drained into Ramsey Lake. Open roast emissions had been going on for so long and led to so much pollution that the lake, which has few water flow outlets, had given up the ghost. Even though it was still the largest lake in the world located entirely within the boundaries of a single city, it was a shell of its former self.

   There weren’t many fish in the lake. By the 1950s, despite three decades of stocking, angling was bad. Besides the pollution, fishermen had long since been dynamiting for fish, wiping out some species like bass. When Lands and Forest biologist R. E. Whitefield went netting it took him four full days to catch five pike and one yellow perch. Lake trout were re-stocked in 1952, but that was the end of stocking for the next twenty-five years.

   Before my father showed up to sweep her off her feet, her Canadian boyfriend often took her out on the lake in his speedboat, until the day he started showing off, racing and zig zagging, and she fell off the back of it without him noticing. An evil-looking northern pike watched her bob up to the surface. By the time her boyfriend looked for her she was floating on her back waiting for him, hoping the weight of her wet clothes wouldn’t drag her under.    

   The lake is named after William Ramsey, the chief of a survey party in the late 1800s who got lost in heavy fog. After finding himself he named it Lost Lake. Others decided it would be better to name it after him but misspelled his name, calling it Lake Ramsay. Somebody finally noticed the mistake forty years later and corrected the spelling.

   When we got to the lake, I begged Uncle Joe to let me go swimming, but there was an purple-red greasy substance on the surface of the water as far out as we could see. “It’s probably some poisonous waste, or something Inco is up to,” he said. I had no idea what Inco was, but I had heard “What are you up to?” from my mother often enough that I knew it couldn’t be anything good. We went for a walk instead. When I got tired my godfather carried me sitting on his shoulders, my fingers grasping his thick head of hair.

   It was an early fall day and trees were starting to change color. There weren’t many of them, but the yellows and reds got me going and I begged Uncle Joe to take me to a forest. He said there weren’t any, but finally relented when I wouldn’t leave it alone. We roared out of Sudbury on the Vincent and into the countryside.

   It turned out my godfather was right. There were hardly any trees anywhere, at all. The first thing to happen to them was the Great Chicago Fire. Lumber camps popped up all over providing wood for the American city’s reconstruction. Then the ore discoveries and smelting got rolling, releasing sulfur, which combined with water forms sulfuric acid leading to acid rain. Saplings struggling to reforest the landscape didn’t have a chance and died by the millions. The hinterland of Sudbury looked like a wasteland. 

   Our street in the city had trees and grass and gardens but the only vegetation I saw outside the city was wild blueberry patches and paper birch. What other trees there were, were giving it their best shot against long odds. They were like the crippled kid on Pine Street we sometimes played with, although never for long. He couldn’t hop skip or run. He couldn’t keep up.

   When my godfather checked his watch, he suddenly said we had to go. We raced back to Sudbury, to Stanley Street, to our house. My father wasn’t home from work, yet. Neither was my mother.

   “When she asks you what we did today, just tell her we went sightseeing, OK?” Uncle Joe said.

   “OK,” I said.

   After my mother came home, I told her we had a great time, and while she and my godfather had coffee on the front porch, I watched my baby brother crawl around in the back yard. Our lot dead-ended in a face of dark pitted rock. I wasn’t allowed to climb it because it was steep, even though I had already gone up and down it with some of my friends.

   When they ran across the street into our yard after dinner and asked me where I had been all day, I told them all about it, all the places I had been to, and how Sudbury was bigger, better, and more exciting than I had ever imagined. Stanley Street was our world, but we couldn’t wait to see more. We ran around the back yard pretending to be riding motorcycles. 

   The sunset was a livid orange that evening. When my mother put me to bed, saying I looked tired, I slept like the rock of ages.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

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