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 Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Getting a Groove On

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Born to Travel, but except for Sally Steiger, the office secretary, and my sister, they were either full to the brim or getting close to it. Sharon Karen and Vivian were in love with the feedbag. Gino had a strong hankering for the beefy. Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker had fallen into the trough a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The travel agency was in Beachwood, a far east side suburb of Cleveland. The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of six had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the two boss ladies.

   Everybody except Rita and Gino were Jewish. Gino was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sandy and Sima. Even so he was there before Rita started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline tanker truck flipped over and she had had enough.

   Rita was the immigrant blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Born to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she would attract whitish waspy people from the college.

   “Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sandy and Sima were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if need be. They came to the United States when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sandy was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Rita a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Rita could hardly believe it and said so. Sandy didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim cigarette and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sandy and Sima’s world revolved around food. They loved the buffet. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up now. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish holidays, but because they were fat, they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sandy would rush home right away and make a batch of potato latkes.

   Sima had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep home. Sandy had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sandy’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. When they started hunting for husbands all three got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight by the boat load.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Sima went to Weight Watchers for a month. She kept a journal and wrote down what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she explained.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Rita said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Gino didn’t believe she was going to lose any weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. He chewed his cud about it. Rita encouraged her to keep it up, but Sima didn’t lose any weight.

   Sandy went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into it every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like fried meat for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Rita said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sandy said. “I’m allowed to eat as much of it as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Gino. Everybody looked the other way. Sandy didn’t lose any weight, the same as Sima.

   Whenever Sandy had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. She could have used a crane. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and groaning.

   Every year, two or three times a year, Sandy and Sima went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, so long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos. The nightlife didn’t matter, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating chuck wagon with one-armed bandits.

   Rita went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was creaky old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sandy and Sima spent every waking minute eating and betting. Rita got sun poisoning at the pool the first day and couldn’t sit there after that. The rest of the trip she had to stay on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started showing up on computers, Sandy started gambling at work. She played winning and losing games at her desk and made Sima do all the work. She bossed Sima around most of the time, anyway. Sandy was the older of the two, although Sima was the harder worker, so Sandy could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

   They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at department stores. Catalogs came in the mail to the office every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

   Sandy and Sima were both top-heavy, even though both had skinny legs. Sandy talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down. It would have been indecent.

   It was when Sima got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing nearly enough. She was in pain for months because of the new teeth and hardly ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet had gotten skinnier, and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sandy wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Sima losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Sima started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sandy lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, arguing about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Rita. Sima went back to blazing. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the office, they bought devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Rita’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Rita asked.

   “No,” she said.

   “OK then.”

   Gadi Galilli, Rita’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they are well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Gino’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head most of the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

   If Sandy wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Sima was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing. They were a pair of choo-choo’s.

   Sandy’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked a butt into it instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Blvd., turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Gino Sally and Rita grabbed their coats.

   Sandy leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Sandy and Sima wrestled themselves up to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping, and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sandy pulled out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Virginia Slims Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

   The fireman came running over to them.

   “Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

   He pulled the cigarette out from Sandy’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sandy gave it to him. She was furious but didn’t say anything. Rita thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sandy and Sima turned the other way. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Rita realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sandy and Sima couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They were also going towards the stretch of fast-food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s, and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Rita had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, although she had a strawberry frosty. Sally had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed the menu up.

   Sandy called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s, and he came and picked them up in his family van. He deposited Sandy and Sima at home, drove Gino to his apartment, and dropped Rita off in Cleveland Heights.

   While parked in front of Rita’s up and down double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute but took it like a man.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sandy’s husband drove away, she thought, “I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.”

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Gadi, peeved. “They don’t even pay me hazard pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she was saving every spare penny to get ahead.

“I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Gadi after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon I need. These boots are made for walkin’. I’ve got to go.”

   Gadi waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

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.”