Up in Smoke

By Ed Staskus

   When my father died the funeral service was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Lithuanian church on Cleveland’s east side, the memorial service was at the Lithuanian Club up the street, and he was buried on the grounds of All Souls in Chardon, forty miles farther east, where many Lithuanian Catholics ending their days on the south shore of Lake Erie end up.

   All Souls Cemetery covers some 250 acres, features over 109 developed acres and 7 mausoleums, and could be a golf course if it wasn’t a boneyard. If someone’s got the blues, it’s where to go. It’s the place to bury your troubles.

   Two years later, paying my respects on a sunny summer day, visiting my father in the mausoleum where he is interned, and later wandering about the cemetery, I stumbled on the burial place of Antanas Smetona. The name rang a bell. When it came to me, I remembered he was the first and last president of Lithuania during the inter-war years.

   Walking back to my car I passed a headstone 50-some years old. Red and white artificial flowers lay on the ground. Engraved on the stone was a man’s name, his date of birth and death, and the inscription “He Done His Damnest.” It wasn’t the kind of epitaph I expected, which would have been more along the lines of “Always in Our Hearts” and “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Had the man gone to Heaven or Hell?

   Antanas Smetona did his damnest, too. 

   He was born into a family of farmers, former serfs, the eighth of nine children. Their homestead was near a small lake, almost dead center in the middle of Lithuania. His father died when he was eleven, making a last wish that his youngest son be sent to school. He was the only one of his brothers and sisters to ever get an education. The instruction was in Russian, because the Russians were in charge and Lithuanian talk was forbidden. Lithuanian literature was closed down. Lithuanian history was closed down.

   He was a top student and won a tuition waiver. He supported himself by superintending his dormitory and giving private lessons. After graduation he made his way to Latvia, got involved with the Lithuanian National Revival, got into trouble, made his way to St. Petersburg, got involved in the February 1899 student protests, and got deported back to Lithuania.

   After he was allowed to return, he got involved with Lithuanian book smugglers, got arrested, got thrown into a castle that doubled as a prison, somehow got acquitted, cracked his books, graduated university, and made his way out of Russia. He never went back. He went back to the homeland.

   Russia was like a cemetery with a big fence around it. Those inside couldn’t leave unless they were thrown out. Those outside didn’t want to scale the fence to get inside unless it was a matter of life and death.

   Antanas Smetona got married and went to work for the Vilnius Land Bank. When he wasn’t working, he was working with several Lithuanian nationalist groups and writing editing publishing circulating news and editorials advocating national unity and independence.

   When the First World War started, he chaired the Central Committee Relief Society and pressed demands on the Germans, who had pushed the Russians out of the country in 1915, that Lithuania be granted its independence. A year later he began editing and publishing the newspaper Lithuania’s Echo. His message, stated in the first issue, was the speedy establishment of an autonomous and sovereign Lithuanian state.

   Russia didn’t like that, since they had controlled the country for more than a hundred years, but they had their own problems, namely the Eastern Front, where they were busy suffering six million casualties and three-and-a-half million captured. On top of that more than a million civilians were dying of war-related causes. Adding to the anvil chorus, the Bolsheviks were breathing down their necks.

   When the Council of Lithuania was formed, Antanas Smetona was elected Chairman and in February 1918 he signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania. The next year he was elected the first President of the Republic of Lithuania. His tenure didn’t last long. The next year a new man was elected, and he was out. He taught classes at the University of Vilnius and got involved with the paramilitary group the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.

   Five years later he led a coup d’etat, deposing the then president and seizing the office for himself. A year later he suppressed the parliament. Two years later he assumed dictatorial powers. For all his editorializing about autocratic czars, he became an autocratic czar. For the next nine years he ruled by decree, his own new constitution vesting in him both executive and legislative powers. Whenever there were new elections he ran as the only candidate.

   He added his name to the rise of totalitarianism and dictatorship in the 1930s, joining Benito Mussolini, Francesco Franco, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He went from idealism and high-mindedness to cynicism and the inside track. Realpolitik is not about democracy and human rights. It is the struggle for power. It’s like Adolf Hitler said, “It is not truth that matters but victory. If you win, you need not have to explain. If you lose, you should not be there to explain.”

   Although there aren’t many children nowadays who would accept guidance counseling from Adolf Hitler, there were plenty of men and women eighty and ninety years ago who were all ears. That’s why cemeteries by 1945 were overflowing with indispensable people, not including the dictators. They make their own beds.

   Antanas Smetona may have been a patriot and a loyalist, doing his best to restore Lithuania to nation statehood, but he was nonetheless a dictator. He may have repressed the Iron Wolves, a radical rightist movement led by his former Prime Minister who he had earlier removed from office, but his own Lithuanian Nationalist Union took part in the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference. He may have believed in political parties, but his was one-party rule and he was the host boss ringleader of the party. He styled himself as the Tautos Vadas, or Leader of the People.

   Under his rule Lithuania “moved decisively towards a dictatorship of what might be termed the ‘fascism from above’ variety,” according to Martin Blinkhorn, British historian and author of “Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919 – 1945.” The Russians, the Muddy Mississippi of Fascism themselves, said he was trying to “adapt Italian Fascist concepts to Lithuanian conditions.” He was more centrist and moderate in his authoritarianism than many others, but he also believed he was the most qualified and experienced person to run the country, and he rigged the elections to make sure it stayed that way.

   Not that it did him any good. By 1938 he was being squeezed by Nazi Germany and the Commies. He had never been able to get Vilnius back from the Poles. Now he had to surrender Memel to the Germans. When the Russians presented an ultimatum to his government in 1940, he urged armed resistance, but nobody agreed that Lithuania’s armed forces, numbering some twenty thousand, was up to the task of going toe to toe with the five-million-man Red Army.

   “I do not want to make Lithuania a Bolshevik country with my own hands,” he said from the steps of the Presidential Palace in Kaunas and left the country. A month later Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. He wasn’t on hand to try to stop it.

   When he got to the border Antanas Smetona and his bodyguard waded across the Liepona rivulet into Nazi Germany. When he did, he went from lightning rod to lightning bug. The next day his family convinced the Lithuanian crossing guards to let them go, too, since the big fish was already gone. The provisional government wanted him back, but what could they do?

   The Germans put him up in a hunting lodge in the Masurian Lake District. From there he was moved to Berlin, then traveled to Bern, Switzerland, and lastly to Rio de Janeiro. He finally landed on his feet in the United States where four hundred guests greeted him at New York City’s Pierre Hotel for dinner and an evening function. He briefly lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago before finally settling down on the east side of Cleveland.

   When I grew up on the east side in the late 1950s and 60s, Eastern Europe was right across the street. There were Serbs Slovenians Croatians, plenty of Poles, and lots of Lithuanians. Everybody had their own church and their own watering holes. Everybody had their own talk in their own language about the mother land and their new place new lives new future in the USA.

   Antanas Smetona and his wife Sofija moved in with their son Julius on Ablewhite Avenue on the northeast side of the city, off Eddy Road, near Lake Erie. Julius worked as a grinder for Standard Tool and was married to Birute Nasvytyte, a former concert pianist, raising their two children. The self-styled President-in-Exile worked on his memoirs and visited Lithuanian communities across America speaking about the plight of the mother country and his hopes for its post-war independence.

   “What the Magna Carta was to the English, what the rights of man of the French Revolution were to personal liberty, the Atlantic Charter is to nations, especially small nations like ours,” he said.

   When my parents bought a two-and-a-half story duplex with a backyard big enough for a pack of kids, their first house in the United States, doubling up with my father’s sister and her family in 1958, all of us recent immigrants, it was about a mile from the exile’s residence. When I attended the Iowa-Maple Elementary School my first school year in Cleveland I sat in a classroom a stone’s throw from the house. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that the ex-president of Lithuania died in that house less than twenty years earlier.

  The day he died, Sunday January 9, 1944, he and his wife were in their upstairs bedroom relaxing. It had snowed lightly on Saturday and the windows were frosty, below freezing. They smelled something foul and saw smoke oozing into their room from under the door. 

   The furnace had been acting up lately. “The night before yesterday coal fumes made me dizzy. I could not think clearly. Now I have completely recovered,” he wrote in his journal two months earlier. This was worse. His thinking days were soon going to be over.

   The overheated furnace caught fire, leapt up the chimney, and swept through the house. The man and wife bolted out of the room and down the stairs, but he turned around, stepping back into the bedroom, grabbing a fur-lined overcoat to throw over his head. By the time he turned again to flee his wife was in the front yard. He never made it out of the house alive.

   Fire Battalion Chief Tom O’Brien said afterwards the fire had a “head start,” making it difficult to fight. The coal room was red-hot. By the time they extinguished the blaze and accounted for everyone, they went looking for Antanas Smetona. They saved the house but found him face down in the second-floor kitchen dead of suffocation. Police outlined in chalk where his body was found, and other policemen carried him out on a stiff board.

   The pull out the stops funeral was at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and was presided over by Bishop Edward Hoban. The Cleveland Police Mounted Unit saluted as his coffin was carried out the front door. He was buried in Cleveland’s Knollwood Cemetery but in 1975 was moved to Chardon, next to his wife, who died in 1968.

   Although the inter-war years in Lithuania are often referred to as the Smetonian years, there is no monument to the man in Vilnius. “I really wouldn’t want to say whether I’d approve a monument to Smetona, or not,” Remigius Simasius the mayor of the city said. In the end he didn’t say. There is still some bad blood about the putsch and his authoritarianism.

   “Perhaps not so much for the coup itself than for disbanding political parties and essentially destroying the opposition,” said Vilnius University historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.

   When I went back the next summer to visit my father, I walked to where I knew Antanas Smetona was six feet up. The polished granite slabs are on a wall above Grace and Philip McGarry and below Michael and Anna Pula. Someone had fixed fresh flowers to both Antanas and Sofija’s facings. The sepulchral stone was spic-and-span.

   I thought of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “There’s just one kind favor I’ll ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean.”

   No matter what, whether he had done the best he could, or not, whether he was a statesman or a tyrant, whether he was in Heaven or Hell, the earthly remains of the man were beyond reproach in his neat as a pin final resting place at All Souls. 

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.”

Thrills and Spills

By Ed Staskus

   Two days after we got married in the Lithuanian Catholic church on Cleveland’s east side my wife and I drove over the Rainbow Bridge to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. It used to be called the Honeymoon Bridge, but it collapsed in 1938. When the new one opened in 1941 a quote from the Book of Genesis about a “bow in the clouds” was engraved on the side of the bridge. Forty-eight years later the span was still standing.

   We must have looked happy as larks when we got to the other side of the crossing. After paying the toll, and showing the border patrol our driver’s licenses, we were told to join a line of cars off to the side. Ten minutes later German Shepherds and their handlers showed up, sniffing the cars up and down for drugs. One of the uniforms used a tactical mirror to inspect the underside of the cars. When it was over and done with and they told us we were free to go, I said, “Love is the drug, man.”

   The lawman at my driver’s side window didn’t like it and scowled but Rin Tin Tin gave me a forty-two-tooth smile. He was glad to be going back for grub. We were glad to be on the lip of the Honeymoon Capital of the World.

   After lunch we went to Goat Island, bought tickets, got outfitted in bright yellow ponchos, and were elevatored 18 stories down to the Niagara Gorge. The Cave of the Winds started life as a rock overhang that was like a cave. It was an overhanging ledge of Lockport Dolostone at the top of the gorge which stuck out more than 100 feet. The overhang wasn’t there anymore but the Hurricane Deck was. We followed a guide on a series of wood walkways to it, stopping standing staring at the thundering water 20 feet away. It sprayed us in the face. There was a rainbow right there. We could almost touch it.

   “Did you bring a camera?” my wife asked.

   “No,” I said.

   “That’s all right, better to remember it the way we want to,” she said.

   Since we were soggy as all get out, we decided to go to the Journey Behind the Falls. An elevator whooshed down 13 stories through bedrock to tunnels that led to the Cataract Portal and the Great Falls Portal. We walked to the Lower Observation Deck at the foot of the Falls and watched one-fifth of the world’s freshwater crash down at 40 MPH into the basin below. We left dripping freshwater.

   There was still some daylight left in the day, and waterlogged as we were with nothing to lose, we boarded the Maid of the Mist. The first boat in 1846 was called Maid of the Mist and the name had never changed although the ships had. The first ones were steam powered. Ours was a diesel-powered vessel put into service in 1955. It was two years after Marilyn Monroe cuckolded and tried to murder her husband Joseph Cotton in the movie “Niagara.”

   The first Maid of the Mist was a barge-like steamer that was more ferry than anything else. It was a 72-foot-long side-wheeler powered by a wood- and coal-fired boiler. The ferrying only lasted two years, when a suspension bridge opened and slashed the traffic. Not knowing what to do with the boat, the owners finally decided to make it a sightseeing wheeler.

   We took the Incline Railway from street level down to the boat dock. The new Maid was looking good, having replaced the old Maid in 1983. The old namesake was plying the Amazon River as a missionary ship under an assumed name. She had been a trooper in her day. In 1960 the Maid wheeled to the starboard and the crew rescued Roger Woodward, a seven-year-old who became the first person to survive going over the Horseshoe Falls wearing only a life jacket.

   Getting on the boat we were both handed blue ponchos and advised to wear them, or else.

   “Or else what?” I asked. 

   “You’re free to not wear it and soak in the experience,” the man said.

   We both put our blue ponchos on and cinched the hoods.

   The boat chugged to the base of the American Falls. It started to rock and roll. We kept our balance hanging on to a rail. I never knew water droplets could pummel or that half a million gallons of water pouring out of the faucet at once could be so loud. We should have worn flip flops. The Maid went on to the basin of the Canadian Horseshoe Falls. We stood at the front of the boat on the upper level up close and personal. The captain took her closer and closer. We got as close as it gets. The waterfall was in our faces. We could barely keep our eyes open. It might as well have been raining, even though the sky was sunny and blue. When the boat turned to go back, she spun around in place, spray coming at us from every direction.

   There was a full moon that night. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”

   The next day we went high and dry. We were done with getting wet and took a helicopter ride. The chopper was an Enstrom, operated by Pan-Air. They had a “Chapel in the Sky” service although since we were freshly minted, there was no need for more vows. The helicopter sat six, but my wife and I and two Japanese men were the only ones on the flight. We sat in the front with the pilot and the Japs sat in back, where they took a million pictures. The front of the chopper was plexiglass. When I looked down the sky was right under our feet. Rainbows shot up at us from the rapids and falls.

   The ride was only ten or fifteen minutes long, but we got a bird’s eye eyeful. The view was nothing if not breath-taking. We saw the American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, Horseshoe Falls, Whirlpool Rapids, the Rainbow Bridge, and Queen Victoria Park.

   “Ooh-wee,” we both said when the helicopter landed. We got our land legs back and went back to the Howard Johnson’s for a nap and dinner.

   The next day we left Niagara Falls, messed around in Toronto, and drove to Ottawa in our VW Golf. The city is the capital of Canada, on the south bank of the Ottawa River, straddling the provinces of Ontario and Quebec. It’s been there since 1826 and by 1989 was the fourth-largest city in the country. A big part of it burned down in 1900 and had to be re-built for the better. We stayed at a small motel near Pig Island. The drive to Byward Market, and Lower Town was a short one up Colonel By Dr. along the Rideau Canal. We discovered a Portuguese bakery in Lower Town and pigged out.

   We visited the Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica, Parliament Hill, the neo-Gothic home of the law of the land, checked out the Centennial Flame and the statue of Queen Victoria, took a stroll through Major’s Hill Park, and had dinner two nights at two terrific restaurants near Confederation Park, walking the food and drink off afterwards, tossing a Loonie in the fountain, the one-dollar coin introduced two years earlier.

   One afternoon we were standing on the Mackenzie King Bridge watching boats going to and from the locks when we noticed a houseboat coming our way. The canal was built starting in 1826. More than a thousand Irish, Scottish, and French laborers died of malaria digging it out. It opened in 1832. The idea behind the canal was a lifeline between Montreal and the naval base at Kingston in case Canada went to war with the United States. 

   The Pumper was the first steamboat to make the trip, carrying Colonel By and his family. John By was the man who made the canal happen. Canada and the USA never went to war and the canal became a major way for shipping grain, timber, and minerals from the hinterland to the east. Immigrants used it moving westward. After railroads appropriated the shipping trade, the canal was mostly used by pleasure craft.

   It was a pleasure watching the houseboat approach. A man was sitting in a folding chair at the bow. His legs were crossed, he was reading a newspaper, and smoking a cigar. A woman was standing at the stern with a long pole. She was slowly leaning into the pole and pushing the forty-foot flat bottomed houseboat forward. She kept her push pole lined up with the center line of the boat to keep it moving in a straight line. I could see they had an inboard motor but weren’t using it. Smoke from her husband’s cigar drifted back to her. She waved it away.

   “Take notes,” I told my new bride. 

   “That’ll be the day,” she grumbled.

   After we got home from our honeymoon, we often went back to Canada, to Montreal and Quebec City, up the St Lawrence River, and to Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. We never went back to Ottawa, not for any especial reason. One morning while I was looking out our living room window at yet another winter storm blowing through town, my wife asked me if I had seen the news about the protests in Ottawa. We didn’t have cable TV, never listened to the radio, but read the New York Times online. I flipped an iPad open and read the news. Sure enough, protests were roiling the capital.

   A convoy of truckers had descended on the city three weeks earlier protesting a regulation requiring drivers moving goods across the USA Canada border be vaccinated against the 19. Other truckers were blocking bridges between Windsor and Detroit and another bridge linking Alberta to North Dakota. The federal police had already arrested more than a dozen drivers out west and seized all their guns and ammo. They had been planning on ambushing and shooting down law enforcement officers.

   When the Ottawa camel train pulled into town to throw gasoline on the fire they rumbled straight to Wellington St. and Parliament Hill and surrounded it. Their $100 grand travel trailers, $150 grand recreational vehicles, and $200 grand heavy trucks brought traffic to a standstill. Businesses shut down for the duration. There wasn’t any money coming in, anyway. Flatbed trucks became stages. Organizers clapped themselves on the back and made misinformation speeches. DJ’s spun rap cranked up so everybody within miles could hear it. Bouncy castles were plopped down in the streets for kids playing hooky. Some drivers had brought their children with them. An inflatable hot tub was pumped up and set up for rest and recreation. They flew QAnon and Confederate flags, even though QAnon is a Whac-A-Mole, and Johnny Reb got his ass kicked a long time ago.

   Who flies slaveholder-or-die flags to prove how virtuous they are?

   Drivers put their air horns on autopilot 24/7. It didn’t take long for everybody living nearby to get sick of it. “You just got vehicles laying on their horns for hours and hours and hours at a time,” said Peter Simpson. “We don’t even live on Parliament Hill. It’s very difficult to work or relax or to do anything. All you can do is focus on calming yourself down.”

   The morning I read about the protests was the morning things were coming to a head. The police sat on their hands for weeks until the mayor got tired of it, fired the police chief, put a by the book man in charge, and a few days later the cops were showing up in force. “It’s horrific,” said Dagny Pawlak, a protestor spokeswoman. “It’s a dark moment in Canadian history. Never in my life would I have believed anyone if they told me that our own Prime Minister would refuse dialogue and choose violence against peaceful protesters instead.”

   When I was student at Cleveland State University, we went marching from our campus down Euclid Ave. to Public Square every spring to protest the Vietnam War. We never marched in wintertime because it was too cold and snowy. Nobody wanted to be plowed under by a snowplow. We wore buttons saying, “How ManyMore?” and “I’m a Viet Nam Dropout” and “Ship the GI’s Home Now!”  Most of the GI’s shooting it out with Charlie were true believers who volunteered, and the rest were unlucky trailer trash. We were college students with draft deferments and wanted to keep it that way.

   We carried banners and damp handkerchiefs in our pockets. Everybody wore sensible shoes. One springtime I noticed two coeds next to me wearing pumps with two-inch heels and straps that looked like they would snap at the slightest provocation.

   “You might want to change into flats,” I said. 

   “Why would we want to do that?” one of them asked.

   “In case you’ve got to run.”

   They giggled and skipped away. The last time I saw them they were skinning their knees trying to run and getting themselves easily arrested.

    When we got to the Sailors and Soldiers Monument, firebrands made fiery speeches, we chanted slogans, listened to more speeches about justice and freedom, half of us high on weed, and waited for the cops to show up. When they did and ordered us to disperse and we didn’t, they lobbed tear gas at us. We gave them the finger. They beat us with rubber batons. We threw cherry bombs at them. They sent in the mounted police. Nobody wanted to be trampled by a horse. We usually ran for the train station in the Terminal Tower trying to lose ourselves in the workaday crowd.

   I never went on a Civil Rights march. They had it worse. Vigilantes and police used whips, Billy clubs, guns, dogs, Cossack-style horses, fire hoses, and tear gas. When we were protesting the Vietnam War, we were white kids being corralled by white policemen. They didn’t like us but weren’t trying to kill us. Even Women’s Liberation had it rough when they started marching and demanding equal rights.

    The Freedom Convoy in Ottawa had plenty of banners and slogans. Reading them was like trying to find meaning in a bowl of alphabet soup. Mandate Freedom 4 All. He Will Not Divide. Hold the Line. Take Back Our Freedom. We Will Not Acquiesce. Were they trying to dam up Niagara Falls with toothpicks? One of the signs said they were willing to take a bullet for their country. What about taking a shot for your neighbors?

   Matthew Wall, an electrician from Manitoba, joined the Freedom Convoy after popping psychedelics and having a vision. “I’m here for the rights of our kids, for parents’ rights, for everyone’s rights,” he said. “It is so kids can live in a future where they don’t have to have something covering their face, lose emotion. You don’t have the human connection, don’t see them smile anymore. It’s dehumanizing. They’re taking away the love!”

   Many of Ottawa’s residents had their own slogan: Make Ottawa Boring Again!

   “I wonder what would be going on if it was the 1340s and 1350s?” I wondered aloud to my wife.

   “What do you mean?” she asked.

   “I mean, I wonder how long the lines would be to get vaccinated against the Bubonic Plague if it was the plague instead of the 19,” I said.

   Five years into the pandemic at the beginning of the Middle Ages almost 50 million Europeans were dead, more than half of the population. They called it the Great Pestilence. They didn’t have vaccines. They resorted to mixing tree resin, roots of white lilies, and human excrement into a porridge and slathering it all over themselves. If you caught the Black Death, your chances of making it back alive were almost zero. Nobody died peacefully in an ICU. There were no ICU’s. They got crazy feverish, their joints like a ten-alarm fire. They broke out in buboes, oozing pus and blood, vomiting non-stop, and got non-stop diarrhea. The suffering went on non-stop for a week-or-so. When it was over, they fell down dead in the streets, glad it was over.

   “I bet the spaghetti o’s with their portable spas in Ottawa would be the first ones pushing their way to the head of the vaccination line while crying there is a conspiracy to push them to the back. They would be going 100 MPH to get somewhere anywhere to snag a shot, not complaining about government overreach.”

   “Maybe you’re right,” she said. “Thank goodness we’re on the far side of the Middle Ages.”

   “Hats off to that, sugar, although now and then when there’s a full moon it’s back to the Dark Ages,” I 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.”