Back in the USSR

By Ed Staskus

   Lithuania has got loads of historical show-and-tell. There is the Ninth Fort, Trakai Island Castle, and the Hill of Crosses. The capital city Vilnius has the Gates of Dawn, the Palace of the Grand Duke of Lithuania, and the Bernardine Cemetery. The cemetery can be heavy going, though, since after heavy rain bones from older graves tend to float to the top and stick out of the ground tripping up passers-by.

   Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings are extant all around the city. There are 16th and 17th century churches. Winding narrow streets characterize the oldest stretches of Vilnius. The historic center was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1990s, soon after the country lost its Commie overlords. 

   There are dozens of tour groups, from Baltic Holidays to Discover Lithuania to Vilnius with Locals. There are hundreds of tour guides who will guide you to places in plain sight and off the beaten path, brimming with anecdotes and history and the know-how of when and where to stop for a cup of coffee and lunch.

   Pavelas Puzyna, a native of the city, got his start while studying archaeology at Vilnius University. He dug up something new. It was a small rusty metal box. “I was at the market and saw a box with the Sigma logo on it. Inside the box was the flash for a camera. They made cameras and the first Lithuanian computers. Finding the box was like a drug to me. I immediately started to research Soviet-era factories and got interested in the history of industrial Vilnius. I’m a big fan of the city. I thought it would be a good idea to make a tour.”

   He had already been having second thoughts about archaeology. “There are some job problems with it,” he said. Never underestimate the cold feet of an empty piggybank or the pedal to the metal of cold cash.

   The Age of Discovery led to the Age of Colonialism, when European countries went far and wide to Asia Africa and the Americas, trading conquering controlling the natural resources, benefitting themselves strategically and economically. They created sugar plantations in the West Indies and rubber plantations in the East Indies. They commanded herds of elephants to explore and exploit India. 

   The world was their oyster. It was tasty, but it was risky hard work, no matter that they were playing the natives for suckers. Caravan routes thousands of miles long were an uphill struggle and boats routinely sank in storms, their treasures gone for good.

   That wasn’t for the Russians. “Why bother?” the tsars said, downing strong coffee and chain-smoking. “We’ll just go next door.” They sent their conscripts, whose military service was for life, or the end of the soldier’s life, to the Ukraine, the Khanates, and the kingdom of Poland Lithuania. The faceless minions of the Empire followed, sucking the life out of whatever the Imperial Army had won.

   The Iron Curtain got drawn in Eastern Europe in 1945. After the clampdown in Lithuania was history, when the Russians were pushed out once and for all in 1990, they left much of their reign behind. Some of the things they left behind, besides a bad taste, were zavody, Eastern Bloc factories.

   Even though Pavelas went looking for zavody, the first thing he found was a 1975-built civil defense bunker beneath a socialist sweat shop in Naujamiestis, a former industrial district next to Naujaninkai, the district where he lives.

   “The bunker was underneath a factory that used to make sliding electric garage doors,” he said. “It was all trashed out. I thought maybe I could talk to the person in charge and offer to look after it. Small enterprises were renting space in the former factory and one of them, a car repair shop, gave me the phone number of the owner of the whole place.”

   He called and was able to get through. “He’s a real millionaire, a Lithuanian guy, and I was able to talk to him. I told him your bunker is a mess, can I maybe look after it, clean it up, be like the overseer?” Although he didn’t expect an answer that very minute, the big man on the other end of the line said yes. 

   “It was bizarre but after that I was like a little kid on Christmas.”

   The Russians started building A-bomb storm cellars in the early 1950s, especially beneath schools, apartment complexes, government buildings, railway stations, and smokestack enterprises. “There was an all-important rule then, that big factories had to have a bunker,” Pavelas said. They were equipped with steel doors, filtered ventilation, food water and medical supplies. Participation in civil defense training was compulsory for all able-bodied men and women.

   “If World War Three had started, like the Russians were afraid of, people would have had to live there.” Nobody said anything about what they were going to do in their shelters after a rocket from the tombs had wiped Lithuania off the map.

   Nuclear weapons in the mid-1980s blasted holes in the ground 200 feet deep and 1,000 feet in diameter, blowing everything within a half mile to smithereens. Only skeletal remains would have remained within three miles of impact. After a month-or-two of radiation decay it would be safe enough to go outside, except it wouldn’t be safe.

   There wouldn’t be any power for light heat refrigeration, no running water, no sanitary systems, millions of unburied dead, and an ecological balance gone out of its mind. Stress, malnutrition, and damaged immune systems would be fecund ground for the contraction and transmission of disease among survivors.

   Pavelas took rags brooms and candles to the bunker. “The place didn’t have electricity. It was dark, but I cleaned it” He came back with wiring and light bulbs. He came back with curtains for the no-windows. A year later he was conducting his first tours of the air raid shelter.

   Tour guides escort people on sightseeing excursions, cruises, or through public buildings, art galleries, and native places of significance. They describe points of interest and respond to questions. Many of them research topics related to their site, such as history and culture.

   “What’s special about our shelter is it’s almost all authentic, just like from the Soviet times,” he said. Some bunkers have been transformed into Cold War and KGB museums, but Pavelas played it close to the vest. “Ours is original, what you would have seen in those days. It’s the only one in Vilnius like it.”

   A year after his first tour Pavelas cooperated with Albertas Kazlauskas to form Gatves Gyvos, which means Streets Alive, and Albertas bought the bunker. “He was working for a bank and when the Litas was being converted to the Euro, he thought it would be an opportunity to make a tour company. He’s the owner, a great guy and a great friend. I’m the main tour guide and main handyman.” They upgraded the bunker tour and made it a success, at least until the Covid-19 pandemic brought it to a standstill in 2020.

   “We did non-stop tours,” said Pavelas. “I was working nine in the morning until ten at night. The bunker was a money maker although it also eats money.”

   Despite his success, or perhaps because of it, Pavelas expanded his tours to include Soviet-era factories located in the Naujamiestu and Zirmunu districts. “They used to make everything, from vodka to electronics. After learning a lot about Soviet Lithuanian factories, I thought people would be interested in them, too.” His favorite is the former ELFA factory.   

   When the Russians occupied Lithuania during World War Two, the country was largely agricultural. To communize it, they industrialized it. From 1940 to 1959 industrial production in Lithuania increased 9.1 times, while in Russia itself it increased only half as much. Much of the work was in automobiles, tools, and metal processing, and most of it was exported to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

   It was full speed ahead in 1963, with plans on the books to build more than 700 new factories, including a synthetic materials factory in Kaunas, a refrigerator plant in Ukmergė, and a glass factory in Panevėžys. A furniture factory in Vilnius was going to be one of the largest in the USSR.

   “When the Soviet Union collapsed all the factories were owned by the government, by Moscow,” Pavelas said. “It became like a race after independence, about who could take over the factories first. ELFA was bought and sold and bought until the last CEO standing, who wasn’t that great of a person, shut it down. There’s still a small office on the fifth floor, but it doesn’t exist anymore.”

   After the Soviets went belly up Lithuania suffered a significant recession as well as a corrective inflation. It was a mess. There were major trade disruptions because the Russians had been the country’s main trade partner. Radical privatization didn’t helpsince much of it was out and out piracy, resulting in a 40% drop in GDP in the first half of the 1990s.

   “The ELFA factory produced electric motors for fridges, washing machines, and drills. They made reel to reel tape recorders and record players, by the millions a year. They were shitty compared to Japanese and American production but in Soviet terms the quality was as good as it got.” 

   The Lithuanians who worked there worked at what was in effect a company town. Entire families were employed in the factories, fathers and mothers and their progeny. “It was child, son, and grandpa and great grandpa,” Pavelas recounted. Some of the factories had their own campgrounds, on their own lakes, and sponsored soccer teams and singing chorales. Instead of a baton the Muscovites led sing-a-longs with a truncheon. Chin music was the consequence of being out of tune.

   “The complex takes up about 5 hectares of space and had more than five thousand workers, many of them women. The most memorable item they made is the ELFA-001 reel to reel machine. It cost thousands and only 50 of them were ever made. Another is a small and very powerful motor made for Soviet submarines. Subs have a tower and towers have windows. The windows needed windshield wipers like in a car.”

   Another of his favorites is the Sparta plant. “It means speed and fast work,” he said. “Their main product was socks, which they made millions of them year after year. Now the factory is being demolished. I’m glad I had the opportunity to save some items, like stained glasses from the canteen.”

   Albertas makes traditional tours of the Old Town, his wife Victoria leads tours for children, mixing entertainment with snippets of history, and Pavelas makes what he calls non-traditional tours, both on the job and privately.

   “My main goal is to research industry in Vilnius, its economics mostly during the Soviet times, why and what it was doing here,” he said. “I’m also interested in the industrial history of Lithuania, from the end of the Industrial Revolution, through the inter-war years, and into today.”

   The Covid-19 pandemic threw businesses of every kind everywhere for a loop, although if anyone needed to isolate, an underground bunker built with two-foot-thick reinforced concrete walls just might be the ideal place. In the meantime, waiting for vaccination efforts to ramp up and results to happen, they sat it out.

   “My guess is that if not for the pandemic our bunker would be one of the famous places in Lithuania,” Pavelas said. “What we opened is the only one in Vilnius and the very first. We had different people come and see it, from deaf people to many foreigners. The bad days came when the lockdown started.” It was all hanging by a thread.

   During the second lockdown in Lithuania the sightseeing business was declared out of bounds. “We don’t get any money right now, and we are just trying to survive, but when it is over, people are going to be pouring back in. Our site is unique, in a class by itself.” He felt they were on the edge of something.

   It doesn’t always pay to call it a day. The smart money is usually on history repeating itself, which it usually does. The sticks and stones thread is a long unbroken line to a bunker somewhere.

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

Tracks of My Tears

By Ed Staskus

   I didn’t watch TV growing up because we didn’t have a TV. It wasn’t until a couple of years after we moved from Sudbury, Ontario to Cleveland, Ohio that my parents bought a used 1955 Philco Custom 400. It was a 21-inch model in a cabinet of white oak with a finger-tip tuning system. It had a Double Gated Automatic Picture Control tuner that never worked during storms of any kind, whether it was breezy and slightly damp or thunderstorms.

   At first, I wasn’t impressed. The shows were the likes of “McHale’s Navy,” “Car 54, Where Are You,” and “My Three Sons.” I had no use for “Hazel” and “I Love Lucy” drove me nuts. Lucy was a nut, and everybody hollered and played pratfall like there was no tomorrow. I liked watching baseball and football games, although baseball games went on forever and football games were only broadcast on Sundays. The Cleveland Browns were a powerhouse, and everybody stayed patriotically stuck to the tube when they were playing.

   Cartoons were fun and Westerns were my favorite, especially “Maverick,” “Bart Masterson,” and “Have Gun – Will Travel.” My parents enjoyed “Bonanza” and watched it every Sunday night which meant my sister, brother, and I watched it almost every Sunday night. They took in all 431 episodes, whether we were there, or not. I didn’t care for it, the Cartwright’s being hopeless do-gooders, but I couldn’t and didn’t say anything to my parents about my point of view.

   My favorite was “Route 66.” It was about two young men driving around the country in a Chevy Corvette convertible. Besides the adventures, what I liked about the show was that it was shot on location in a new state every episode. 

   I had been to the Shaw-Hayden Theater plenty of times and seen plenty of space adventure and monster movies. My friends and I always sat in the front row. Movies were the real deal and TV was lame compared to the big screen. Movies were stupendous while TV was furniture.

   At about the same time the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave a speech to the National Association of Broadcasters. After praising the professionals in the room, he said that television should uphold the public interest. Then he said TV was a “vast wasteland. When television is bad, nothing is worse.” 

   When I started watching “Queen for a Day” I watched it every day. It didn’t matter that my friends were riding bikes playing ball messing around outside. I watched it laying on my stomach on the floor a few feet from the TV. When I stopped watching it, I went cold turkey and never watched it again. I only watched it for two or three weeks one summer, although it was more than enough to make me sweat bullets. I wasn’t growing much older watching the sob show, but I seemed to be growing up way too fast.

   It was originally a local affair on radio in Los Angeles but became popular enough that NBC picked it up and started broadcasting it nationally on television. The show’s ratings got so high that the network increased its running time from 30 to 45 minutes so they could sell more commercials. They were raking in $4,000 a minute, a premium price nobody else was getting. Sponsorships poured in. Every single prize came from sponsors. Models in slutty faux medieval outfits plugged the advertisers. They had to put up with Jack Bailey the host saying things like, “Let’s give Mary Ann a big hand for finally doing something right.” Pre-recorded commercials ran between segments. Naming all the sponsors at the end of the show took more than five minutes.

   The show went to ABC from 1960 to 1964 until it finally folded up its circus tent. The television writer Mark Evanier has called it “one of the ghastliest programs ever produced, tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting, and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”

   The idea behind the show was simple and savage. 

   “Queen for a Day” was about four women sharing their stories of unhappiness and tribulation in front of an all-female audience. There was always a box of Kleenex on the curtained table behind which the women sat. The host was a pencil mustached smarmy man who always looked like he needed another drink. The stories were about dead husbands and sons crippled with polio. One woman wanted to win so she could repair the bullet holes in her bedroom walls where her husband had committed suicide. He missed several times before getting it right. Determined widows with healthcare problems were a staple. If they had, to boot, a small dying child, they were sure to win. 

   “I had two handicapped sons,” one woman said. “I lost them, and then I took care of an elderly lady in a wheelchair. She passed away, along with my mother and my father, and then my husband passed away. I feel that I would like to have a vacation.” She got her vacation.

   A threadlike woman related the tale of her legally blind uncle. They were a poor farm family in Kansas. Everybody in the family had serious eye troubles.

   “On the show when Jack Bailey introduced my mother, he made a big deal about her being a long-lost cousin because her last name was Bailey,” the woman’s daughter recalled. “Since she was a farm girl, he asked her if she milked cows, and she demonstrated on his fingers. She became the queen that day. My uncle was given everything my mother asked for and more. He got a complete piano tuning tool set and a scholarship to a piano tuning school in Seattle. My mom got a full set of living room furniture and an Amana freezer that lasted for twenty-five years.”

   “My husband died,” one contestant explained. “Then we were evicted and were out in the cold winter.”

   “Well, ha, ha, ha!” Jack Bailey laughed like a drain. “Today is your lucky day, getting to tell your story here and having the chance at being chosen QUEEN FOR A DAY!” Sometimes, unable to help himself, he guffawed and threw out sarcastic remarks, immediately explaining that he was just kidding.

   After the ladies finished, the audience applauded for the woman they wanted to see become “Queen for a Day.” The winner was determined by a decibel-reading Applause Meter, what I called the Thing-O-Meter. I didn’t always agree with the contraption, but what did I know. The winner was crowned with a jeweled crown and robed in a sable-trimmed robe. She got money, appliances, clothes, and a vacation, among other things.

   “I always thought losing was the worst,” said Bill Costello, who like me found himself glued to the boob tube. “Your life sucks, but not enough.”

   Not just anyone was picked to be on the show. They had to somehow appeal to the live audience and the tens of millions watching at home. One woman explained she wanted to be on the show because “it would help me to regain my identity, which I seem to have lost somewhere between the maternity ward and the washing machine.” The best approach was delivering enough pathos and bawling to turn the trick. One woman said she would give her right arm to be on the show.

   My mother spotted me on the living room floor one day staring up at the TV, engrossed in the black and white. She put her dish towel away and sat down in a sofa chair behind me. When the day’s episode was over, she shut the TV off. “Don’t watch that show anymore, ever,” she said.

   She had never forbidden me to watch anything before. I knew there was something wrong with the show but couldn’t put my finger on it. It held me in its morbid grip. The women told fantastic stories, whoever got the most applause for her miserable tale won, got crowned, and walked away with prizes up the wazoo.

   One winner said her husband was killed in a car crash, the family was poor as church mice, their savings exhausted, and needed help bad. “My mother was 28, pregnant, my sister was 8, and I was 5,” her daughter remembered years later. “My father promised my sister that if she got good grades, he would buy her a pony. She did but he died before he could fill his promise. My mother won two bedroom sets, a living room set, a dining room set complete with a set of dishes for a service for eight, a set of silver ware, a cook-set, a built in mixer, a hot water heater, a 7-piece patio set, a complete set of Tupperware, twelve complete outfits that included dress, matching shoes and handbags, twelve pairs of stockings, a complete set of Sarah Coventry jewelry, a complete set of rhinestone jewelry, a diamond encrusted watch, a four piece matching mother-daughter outfit, a swimsuit, a check for $1,000, and a Shetland pony.”

   Jack Bailey always said in his trademark signoff, “Make every woman a queen, for every single day.” He never said what the losers got, although I always assumed they got nothing. Once my mother put her finger on the show, she disliked it instantly. My parents were World War Two refugees from Lithuania and didn’t believe a word about getting something for nothing.

   “I was babysitting my aunt’s four children in 1944 when the Russians came,” she said. “We ran away on a cart pulled by a horse with a cow tied to the back. On our way through East Prussia, we had to sell the cow for food. There was no milk for the baby. We slept under the cart every night and every night either the Germans or Russians bombed us. After the war I lived in Nuremberg in one room with three other women and worked at the Army Hospital. When I went to Sudbury where I had gotten a visa and a job, the job was as a nanny for a family of thirteen. When your father joined me the next year, he had no money and went to work in a cement factory the next day. When we got married, we had no money, but we had the three of you and bought a small house. It’s shameful to go on a TV show, telling all the world your troubles for prizes and money.”

   She hadn’t seen her parents uncles aunts brothers sisters cousins for almost twenty years. The Iron Curtain was locked up tight. My parents never complained about it. They both went to work weekdays and on weekends worked around the house when they weren’t doing something at the church or with the scouts. They didn’t help us with our homework or drive us to the library. We did our own homework and walked to the library.

   She wasn’t telling me anything about “Queen for a Day” I didn’t already know, although I couldn’t if my life depended on it have put it into words. I knew I didn’t like the clapping like crazy for the most miserable story of the day. I suspected there was something wrong with that. 

   “Sure, the show was vulgar and sleazy and filled with bathos and bad taste,” the producer Howard Blake said after the program’s nine-year run ended. “That was why it was so successful. It was exactly what the public wanted.”

   He didn’t stop there. He knew it was a trashy reality show that played on people’s misery, while those same people played out their tearjerkers to cash in on the American Dream.

   “Everybody was on the make, NBC and later ABC, the producers, the sponsors, and the suppliers of gifts. And how about all the down-on-their-luck women who we used to further our money-grubbing ends? Weren’t they all on the make? Weren’t they willing to wash their dirty linen on coast-to-coast TV for a chance at big money, for a chance to ride in our chauffeured Cadillac, for the free tour of Disneyland and the Hollywood nightclubs? What about one of the most common wishes they turned in? ‘I’d like to pay back my mother for all the wonderful things she’s done for me.’ The women who made that wish didn’t want to pay back their mothers at all. They wanted us to do that.”

   We never clapped when anybody in our grade school class at St. George’s had a bad day. None of us clapped when a nun slapped one of us and made him or her stand in the hall. Nobody clapped when somebody was a step slow getting to the CTS streetcar taking us home. We yelled and slapped on the windows for the driver to stop. 

   None of us wanted to be a sleazeball.

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.”