By Ed Staskus
The day push came to shove I had no idea what was going on. I was born 9 months 7 days and some hours after my mom and dad were done with the art of romance on a smile of a summer night. The day before I was born everything was so far so good. I was curled up warm and cozy in my mom’s womb. But before the day ended I was unexpectedly twisting and turning. I was restless all evening. The next thing I knew my mom and dad were in a taxi in the middle of the night on their way to the hospital.
I was born in the Sudbury General Hospital of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Everybody called it ‘The General.’ The hospital had opened the year before. There were 200 beds, and it was modern as could be. The Sisters of St. Joseph used their own money to get northern Ontario’s first English-speaking hospital built. They mortgaged their properties to get the loan for the construction.
“They used to do this cool thing,” Ginette Tobodo, a Sudbury mother, said. “On the walls they painted certain colors, one color for the lab, another color for the cardiac department, and you just followed the color to where you needed to go. It was easy to find your way around.” My dad was sure I was going to be a boy, so he followed the color blue. It took him to the cardiac department where he explained he was going to have a heart attack if he didn’t find the maternity ward.
In the end, when I was born a boy, he was on cloud nine. Courtney Lapointe’s three brothers were born at the same hospital. She was down in the dumps every time. “I wanted a sister so bad, I bawled my eyes out at the hospital when each one of the boys was born.”
Being born is no business for babies. It’s a man’s job. When the squeezing and pushing were all over, and I looked around, I didn’t see anything recognizable. There were plenty of colors and shapes. The colors and shapes moved and made sounds. Everything more than a foot away was a mystery. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. I was washed and swaddled and went to sleep. After I woke up I wanted to suck on something. When I smelled my mother’s milk I liked the smell and taste of it.
My parents had moved to a new house on a new length of Stanley Street. It was just west of downtown, and dead ended at a cliff face of nearly 2-billion-year-old rock. My mom and dad had emigrated to Canada in the late 1940s, like many other Lithuanians after World War Two. Canada was admitting DP’s who were willing to do the dirty work. My dad was a miner for INCO. He loaded bore holes with black powder charges and stood back. My mom had been a nanny for a family of 13 but was now her own homemaker.
Sudbury is not a large city, but it is the largest city in northern Ontario. It is about 70 miles north of the Georgian Bay and about 250 miles northwest of Toronto. There are 330 lakes within the city limits. It came into being after the discovery of useful ore in 1883. The Canadian Pacific Railway was being constructed when excavations revealed vast stores of nickel and copper on the edge of the Sudbury Basin. Something crashed there from outer space a long time ago. Few craters are as old or as large anywhere on the planet. It wasn’t long before mines were being dug and settlers were arriving to work in the mines. 42,000 people lived there the year I was born.
My first two years of life after coming home were uneventful. In the event, I couldn’t remember much of what happened from day to day, much less the week before. I was like a yogi living in the moment. I was about two and a half years old before I came into my own. I started busting out of my toddler bed so often my dad put a lock on it.
I found out there were rules. One rule was no climbing on the radiators. Another rule was no going into the basement. The basement was where the coal-fired boiler was. A third rule was absolutely no scaling the rock cliffs at the back end of our backyard.
“Behave, or Baubas will come and get you,” my mom repeatedly warned me.
Baubas is an evil spirit from Lithuania with bloodshot eyes, long skinny arms, and wrinkly fingers. He came from the Old World to Canada with the DP’s to keep their kids in line. He wears a dark hat and hides his face. He supposedly slept in our basement behind the octopus furnace. According to my mom he kept a close watch on my behavior. I had never seen him and never wanted to see him. Whenever I balked at eating my beet soup, my mom would knock on the underside of the kitchen table, pretending somebody was knocking on the door, and say, “Here comes Baubas. He must know there’s a child here who won’t eat his soup.”
When I told my friend Lele about Baubas, she laughed and tried to steal my security blanket. Lele lived one block over on Beatty St. We played together every day when we weren’t fighting. Whenever we fought it was always about my blanket. Whenever I was hard on her heels trying to get it back, she waited to the last minute before laughing maniacally, tossing it to the side, and running even faster, knowing full well I would rescue my blanket first before trying to exact revenge on her.
Most of my friends were Lithuanian kids like her. The man who built our house lived across the street in a house he built for his own family. He was French Canadian. Sudbury was the hub of Franco-Ontarian culture. He had two sons who were my age. We ran up and down the street playing make believe. There weren’t many cars and even less traffic. The Palm Dairies milk delivery truck rolled up the street every morning going about 5 MPH. The driver drove standing up. The throttle and brake were on the steering column. Their bottles of chocolate milk had tabs on the top through which a straw could be stuck. In the wintertime we skated in our yards when our fathers flooded them to make rinks. Sometimes in the morning in the sunlight hoarfrost sizzled. We practiced falling down and trying to get back up hundreds of times a day. I only spoke Lithuanian. My two friends spoke French and English. I learned to speak English from them. They said French was for art critics.
They slept over one Monday night when their parents went out to dinner and later to a wrestling match at the INCO Club. Dinty Parks and Rocco Colombo were the gladiators that night. They bumped heads hard in the third round, and both went down. Rocco shook it off but was drop kicked by Dinty when he tried to get up. The next second Dinty got the same treatment from Rocco. It went back and forth, each man pinning the other for a two-count until the referee finally called it a draw. When he did the two wrestlers violated one of the most holy canons of pro wrestling by shaking hands before leaving the ring. Nobody in the audience could believe it.
Sometime after our dinner my two friends showed me what they had brought with them. They were magic markers. We drew a picture of Baubas pierced with arrows. We drew a picture of him running on the Canadian Pacific tracks behind our house being chased by a raging locomotive. We drew a picture of him hitchhiking out of town in the direction of Gogama way up north.
“Do you remember the mean green dinosaur?” my friend Frankie asked. His name was Francois, but he got red in the face whenever anybody called him that. We had seen “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” earlier that summer at the Regent Theatre on Elm St. We walked there with some older boys and girls and paper bags full of popcorn my mom popped for us. We sat in the front row so we could see as much as possible. The movie was about a hibernating dinosaur woken up by an atomic bomb test. When he wakes up he becomes ferocious. He ends up in New York City where he terrorizes everything and everybody.
When we got tired of drawing pictures they convinced me to strip down to my skivvies and drew wavy lines all over me with a green magic marker. They drew a life-size dot on the tip of my nose. When they heard my mom outside the door the next thing I knew the marker was in my hand and my mom was demanding an explanation from me. I tried to tell her it wasn’t my fault, but my mom had no patience for explaining and complaining.
“Go wash that off,” she said and pointed to the bathroom.
The green marker, however, wouldn’t wash off. The ink was indelible. I called to my friends for help, and although they tried they were more hurt than help. They scrubbed enthusiastically until those parts of me not green were red with irritation. When they were done I was red and green all over.
The tenth or twelfth time I climbed on a chair on the sly to get on top of the radiator to look out the side window was the time I lost my balance and went over the side. I stuck my arm out to break my fall and broke my collarbone. Before I knew it I was on my way back to ‘The General.’ I had to wear a sling for two weeks. That wasn’t the worst of it, though.
My mom never bought anything from the Rawleigh salesman who went door to door selling snake oils. The next time he knocked on our door she did buy something, however. It was a bottle of PolyMusion, a yellow syrup with a horrible orange rind after taste. The Rawleigh man said it was a cure-all. There was no hiding when my mom came looking for me with a tablespoon of the thick liquid. She was nice enough afterwards to serve me blueberries soaking in a bowl of Multi-Milk.
My brother was born when I was a year and a half old. After he got home our mom unretired our enameled diaper pail. When the time came his poop got scooped away and his diapers went into the pail to soak in water and bleach. The pail had a lid. We were thankful for that. When he went off his liquid diet after six months she put him on baby pablum, which was like sweet-tasting instant mashed potatoes.
I was feeling better by Canada Day, what everybody called Firecracker Day. One of the bad boys on Stanley Street got his hands on a pack of Blockbuster firecrackers. They were five inches long and a half inch in diameter. “Do not hold in hand after lighting” was printed on top of the 4-pack. We snuck behind the last house on the other side of the street and behind some bushes at the base of the cliff. One of us had brought an old bushel basket and another of us brought an old teddy bear. The bear had a hard rubber face. We lit a Blockbuster, turned the basket upside down over it, and ran to the side. The Blockbuster blew the basket to smithereens. When it was the teddy bear’s turn we pushed a Blockbuster into a rip in his belly and ran to the side. The blast blew the stuffing out of the bear, which caught fire, some of it starting the bushes on fire. The man who lived in the last house put the fire out with his lawn hose. There was hell to pay up and down Stanley Street that night.
No matter how many times I was warned to stay away from the rock cliffs was as many times I went scuttling up them. There were Canadian Pacific tracks at the top that curled around the backside of Stanley Street. One day I was exploring and lost track of time. My pockets were full of black pebbles by the time I realized what time it was. One of them was different. It was a shiny pinkish gray. Sudbury’s rock, which was everywhere, wasn’t naturally black. It was naturally pale gray. Smelter emissions contain sulphur dioxide and metal particulates. Sulphur dioxide mixed with atmospheric moisture creates acid rain that corrodes rock. A coating of silica gel trapped particulates that coated the rock black as pitch.
I ran home, jumped the railroad tracks, and scrambled down the rock face. When I burst through the back door into the kitchen I saw my mom sitting at the kitchen table. She looked distressed.
“Where have you been?” she asked, angry. “I’ve been looking for you for hours. I was worried sick.” She looked like she wanted to hit me. I pulled the shiny rock from my pocket.
“I was searching for treasure,” I said. “I found this. It’s for you.” After that everything was forgiven, thank God.
The day I screwed up my courage to find out what was down in the basement was the day I turned clumsy stunt man. My dad was blasting rock deep in the mines and my mom was taking a nap on the sofa. My brother was in a rocking baby Moses basket next to the sofa. He had been crying his head off lately and the only thing that stopped the flood of tears was the basket. One of my mom’s arms was over her face and her other arm was unconsciously rocking the basket. I snuck past to the basement door. I quietly opened the door. I took a step down, which turned out to be a misstep, and tumbled down the rest of the stairs to the bottom. When I came to a stop after backflipping the last step I was surprised I hadn’t cried or screamed. I was also surprised to find I was unhurt. I looked in all directions for Baubas. I thought I saw something move in the shadows. I heard hissing and whispering. It felt like something was pulling my hair. I raced back up the stairs and burst into the living room. I was in a cold sweat. My mom was still asleep. My brother opened his eyes and winked at me.
When I looked behind me there was no Baubas anywhere in sight. I closed and fastened the door to make sure. I needed fresh air. I went outside and sat on the front steps. Frankie and his younger brother Johnny came over. Johnny was short for Jean. The towhead had a dime in his hand.
“Look what I found,” he said. A sailboat was on one side of the coin and King George VI was on the other side.
“Let’s go to the candy store,” Frankie said, taking the dime. There was a store around the corner on Elm St.
“There’s a monster in our basement,” I told Frankie and Johnny while we were walking there. “We almost got into a fight.”
“I have nightmares about an unstoppable monster,” Johnny said.
“The way to fight monsters is with your brain, not your fists,” Frankie said.
“How do you do that?” I asked.
“You think up a plan.”
“What’s thinking?” I asked.
“It’s what you do with your brain,” he said. “No problem can stand up to thinking.”
Frankie was almost a year older than me and knew everything. Johnny was half a year younger than me. He didn’t know much. He stared at the dime not in his hand anymore. I liked what Frankie said. I could stay out of the basement but still do battle with scary old Baubas. I couldn’t wait to get home and outwit the monster. I was going to think him back to where he came from.
Ed Staskus posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”