Dangerous Passage

By Ed Staskus

   The Police Department’s Central Station was the end of the line for many criminals. It was also the end of the line for some policemen. The police force had been created in 1866 by the Metropolitan Police Act. Before that there were a few constables and night watchmen. Cleveland wasn’t a safe place even with them doing the best they could. The Cleveland Grays, a private military-style company, took over in 1837 but they couldn’t keep suspicions and arrests in the right order. In the 110 years since the police became official one hundred and eight of them had died in the line of duty. Seventy-five of them were gunned down by handguns, rifles, and shotguns. The rest died of assault and battery. All the policemen who were killed were men.

   When Frank Gwozdz’s partner was shot and killed his badge was retired, like the badges of all the other policemen who had been killed. Patrolmen wear numbered silver-colored badges. Detectives carry numbered gold-colored badges on their person. The rest of the force, Sergeant and higher, wear unnumbered gold-colored badges. The Badge Case was on the wall of a landing between the first and second floors. Frank never took the elevator to the third floor where the desks of the General Duty Detective Squad were. He always took the stairs. He saw his partner’s badge every day.

   Frank had been on the landing with other detectives when his partner’s badge was put in the case. The Police Chief, his partner’s wife, and partner’s son had been there. too. The boy wore a little boy’s man suit, bow tie, and a fresh haircut. He frowned through the ceremony and frowned when Frank told him his father was a brave man who died protecting Cleveland’s citizens. He was the first detective on the force to be shot and killed since 1960, fifteen years earlier.

   “Did you catch the bad man?”

   “Not yet, son, but we will.”

   The boy frowned more than ever. He looked like he wanted to kill the man who had murdered his father. Frank wanted to nail the man who had murdered his partner. There will be blood. Frank knew that and the man who killed his partner knew that.

   His partner’s bloated body had been found floating in Lake Erie with a bullet in his face near the White Beach City Park. Two days earlier Danny Greene had shot and killed Mike Frato, with whom he had been disagreeing about garbage collecting, at the same place. Danny Greene, who ran the Celtic Club, had set up a sham union. He meant to strong-arm garbagemen for their dues and anything else he could get. Mike Frato didn’t want to join any mob union. He had ten children and meant to keep the family money in the family. Danny Greene sent his personal bomber, Art Sneperger, to plant a bomb underneath  Mike Frato’s car. Something went wrong and the bomber blew himself to kingdom come. Two months later Mike Frato drove into the park and shot at Danny Greene, who was walking his dog, shooting through the open passenger window of his car. He emptied his gun, shooting wildly. The Irishman dropped to the ground. He shot back. His aim was true. He killed Mike Frato with a single shot. He was later acquitted of all charges after pleading self-defense.

   Not a day went by that Frank didn’t think about it. He was still standing on the landing looking at the Badge Case when another plainclothes man walking past said, “The captain is looking for you,” he said. “He’s in the dep’s office.”

   “OK, thanks” Frank said, turning to go down the stairs to the Deputy Commander’s office. It was on the first floor. He stopped at the snack stand run by the Society for the Blind and bought a pack of Beech-Nut chewing gum. There were five sticks in the pack. He unwrapped two sticks and pulled them into his mouth with his tongue. Chewing gum kept his blood pressure under control and raised the blood pressure of his superior officer. It helped keep their meetings short and sweet.

   The Central Station was built of white limestone with pinkish pillars fronting the main entrance. It was five floors of command and control. On the first floor were the information bureau, traffic division, chief’s office, inspector’s office, record room, property room, and newspaper reporters’ room. One floor up were the municipal courts and rooms for prosecutors and probation officers. Several holding cells serviced the four courtrooms. Bondsmen, lawyers, and private dicks did their dirty work in the bathrooms at the back end of the second floor. The third floor housed the detectives, with offices for the inspector, superintendent of criminal identification, and lieutenants. There were rooms for photographic equipment and record keeping. There were seven small airless rooms for detectives to interview their prisoners. The fourth floor was the jail. The fifth floor housed the radio department and battery rooms. 

   There was a line up room on the fourth floor. It was divided by a screened wall and bright lights. Suspects couldn’t see into the other side. Detectives were supposed to attend lineups before roll call three days a week. Newly arrested men and women were marched behind the screen. Detectives and witnesses sat in the dark less than three feet away. Many run-of-the-mill street crimes were solved this way. 

   When Frank walked into the Deputy Commander’s office his captain was there, as well as a black man dressed like a detective. It wasn’t a uniform but any detective could sniff the suit out.

   “Have a seat,” the Deputy Commander said.

   “Thanks, I’ll stand,” Frank said.

   “I said have a seat.”

   Frank sat down and waited. His captain had on a poker face. The black man had on a poker face. He put one on, too.

   “You’ve been doing a good job running down the numbers, but we are going to reassign you,” the Deputy Commander said. “There are too many bombings in this city. It’s gotten so the papers are calling us ‘Bomb City USA.’ I want you to get up to speed on it and then find out where the bombings are coming from. When you find names that can be prosecuted report to me first before filing your report. Is that clear?”

   “It’s clear enough, but everybody knows it’s the micks and dagos killing each other.”

   “Don’t tell me what I know and don’t know,” the Deputy Commander said. “And while we’re at it, this new assignment is not shoot first and ask questions later. Put the bounty hunter attitude away. We want answers, not DOA’s piling up.”

   “Yes, sir.”

   “You’ve been working alone, but there’s an element of more danger involved in your new assignment, so we are assigning you a partner.” He nodded at the black man.

    Frank looked the man up and down, looked at his hands, and shook his head from side to side.

   “That’s not going to work,” he said.

   “What’s not going to work?”

   “The Negro is not going to work,” Frank said pointing at the baby-faced man sitting next to him. “First, I don’t need a partner. I work better alone. Second, he’s too young. I’m not a babysitter. The last thing is, he’s the wrong color. He’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

   “We determine whether you need a partner, or not,” the Deputy Commander said. “It’s not up to you. Second, he’s old enough to be a police detective, which is what he is. And the last thing, I don’t like his color any better than you do, but orders are to get him out in the field. There’s no other Negro we can pair him with. You drew the short straw because nobody else is champing at the bit to work with you.”

   “Yes, sir,” Frank said.

   “You and you partner will be running a parallel investigation with the Bomb Unit. When you’ve got something to report, report it to Ed Kovacic, and me personally. Is that understood?”

   “Loud and clear, sir.”

  “Whatever extra you need for this assignment, go to your captain. He’ll make sure you get it.”

   The short and sweet conference was over. Frank stood in the hallway with his new partner. He tossed the wad of now tasteless Beech-Nut gum in the trash. It disappeared without a trace, sticking to a court summons somebody had thrown away.

   “Don’t call me Negro again,” Tyrone said.

   “What should I call you?” Frank asked.

   “Call me partner or call me by my name, which is Tyrone Walker. Drop the Negro thing. You’re behind the times. We’re called black now.”

   “Like in black and white?”

   “That’s right, like in black and white.”

   They took the stairs to the third floor. When they walked into the bullpen, Frank saw that an old unused desk had been pushed in place, its back butting up to the back of Frank’s desk.

   “It looks like we’re joined at the hip, brother,” Frank said.

   “I don’t think so,” Tyrone said. “This desk looks like a shack. And don’t call me brother.”

   “Don’t call you Negro and don’t call you brother?”

   “That’s right.”

   “Anything else?”

   “I’ll let you know.”

   “Let’s stop right there,” Frank said. “We need to get off the wrong foot and on the right foot. I’ll call you whatever you want to be called. I’ve got no problem with that. What I said downstairs stays downstairs. We are going to be working together. When we are on the street we have to trust one another. Most of the time it won’t matter, but sometimes it will. If we can’t or won’t watch one another’s backs, whether it matters or not, it will come back to bite us.”

   Tyrone sat at his new beat-up desk, leaning forward.

   “All right,” he said. “I can live with that. We don’t have to be friends. I get that. I’ll watch your back if you’ll watch mine.”

   “All right,” Frank said.

   “One thing you should know,” Tyrone said.

   “What’s that?”

    “I don’t like being called nigger. I hate it. It riles me up. I see red.”

   “Somebody calls you that, I will remind them you are servant of the law and deserve respect. If they disagree, we can try convincing them in other ways.”

   “What ways?”

   “Talking some sense into them might be one way. Getting in their face might be another way. Threatening them with thirty days in the hole on a trumped up charge might be the best way.”

   “It looks like I’m going to get the hang of big city police work my new partner’s way,” Tyrone laughed.

   “Where are you from?”

   “Montgomery, Alabama.”

   “That’s a big enough city.”

   “It’s small like a fishbowl when you’re one of the few black men on the city police force,” Tyrone said. “The first sheriff in Alabama was only elected nine years ago. Until D. C. imposed hiring quotas there weren’t any black uniformed state policemen. Now it’s all the way up to 5% of the force in a state where we are almost 30% of the population. In our state the governor says, ‘Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.’ He says D. C. can go to hell.”

   What Tyrone didn’t know was that Governor George Wallace had also said, “I look like a white man but my heart is as black as anyone’s.” He meant what he said, everything he said.

   “All right, let’s take a drive up to Little Italy,” Frank said.

   “That’s the launching pad, right?”

   “That’s right, but more like a shooting gallery,” Frank said. “Make sure you bring your peacemaker with you.”

Excerpted from “Bomb City.”

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.”


Independent People

By Ed Staskus

   “I started to help in the sugar beet fields when I was 9 years old,” my mother said. “My sister Irena started helping me two years later when she turned nine.” The year was 1939 when the sisters worked together for the first time. Six years later my mother was in a refugee camp outside of Nuremberg and my aunt was on her way to a slave labor camp in Siberia. My mother was lucky Americans ran the camp she ended up in. My aunt was unlucky Russians ran the camp she ended up in. She was lucky to survive her first year, much less the next decade.

   “We worked with our father, who had a one-row horse-drawn puller.” My grandfather Jonas Jurgelaitis followed on foot behind the puller, picked up the beets, scalping the tops with a small machete, and dropped them behind him as he went. He recycled the heads for animal feed. His daughters brought up the rear, shaking dirt off the beets, and loading them into a side slat cart. When it was full he made his way to Mariampole, the nearest market town, where there was a storehouse and a train station to later take the root vegetables to a sugar beet factory. 

   Their other major crop was cabbage. They could harvest upwards of ten thousand heads an acre. When they cut the cabbage head out of the plant they left the outer leaves and root in the ground. That way they got two crops. Jonas took them to Mariampole, too.

   “My older brothers Bronius and Justinas helped handle the livestock, and they did field work and repairs. Something always needed to be fixed. My younger brothers were still growing up. My father did everything outside the house and my mother did everything inside the house. All of us worked around the clock at harvest time, even the boys.” Most of the food and drink the family of eight ate and drank came from their own fields and pastures, although their sugar beets were grown on land they rented from a neighboring childless widow.

   The farm was in the Naujeji Gizai region hallway between Lake Paezeriu and Mariampole, although it was far closer in spirit to the lake than it was to the city. Some farmers had tractors. Most farmers had draft horses. They preferred tractors, but the Great Depression had put a dent into what they preferred. Some big land owners had cars. Everybody else had a horse and carriage to get the family to church on time on Sundays.

   My grandfather kept cows, pigs, and chickens. “We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edge of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, my grandmother Julija still canned pickles and beets and stored them in the well. “We raised our own pigs and my father killed them.” When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, walked it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal hard between the eyes with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons, he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.

   Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, he cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting off the shoulders of the pig. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find. They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney in the attic of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet. “I was scared to death of the upstairs, of the fire up there, although the pig meat was delicious,” my mother said. “When we ran out of food, my father killed another animal. He was a serious man.”

   The dining room was big enough for all of them at once. There were no chairs. There were two long benches. My mother always sat cross-legged when eating. “I was scared that a Jew would sneak under the table.” She was afraid he would bite her legs and suck her blood. “Everybody said the Jews had killed God and they drank the blood of Christians.”

   One of my mother’s chores was killing chickens for dinner. She didn’t like chopping their heads off, so she grabbed them by the neck instead and swung them in a circle around her until their necks snapped. There were barn cats and a watchdog. They chained the dog up at night. There were potatoes and fruit trees. They grew barley and summer wheat, putting in a barnful of hay every autumn. Sugar beets were my grandfather’s number one cash crop, followed by cabbage and hemp. He grew some stalks of marijuana and tobacco behind the barn. He didn’t puff on pot himself. He smoked his homegrown tobacco instead, packed in a pipe, taking a break at the end of a long hard day. 

   “I let the young men smoke their stinkweed and get silly,” he said. My grandfather got silly in a different way. He brewed his own beer and krupnickas. My grandmother didn’t smoke or drink. She kept a close eye on her husband. He kept a close eye on her, never smoking in the house. She had chronic tuberculosis, coughing and running a fever, and wasn’t long for this world.

   Making home brew is the simplest thing in the world. Sumerian farmers brewed beer from barley more than 5,000 years ago. The Codes of Hammurabi, that were the laws during the Babylonian Empire, decreed a daily beer ration to everybody from laborers to priests. Laborers got two liters a day. Priests got five liters a day. In the Middle Ages Christian monks were the artisanal beer makers of the time. Since my grandfather had water, malt and hops, and yeast within easy reach, he had beer within easy reach year-round.

   Krupnikas is a spiced honey liqueur. The Order of Saint Benedict whipped it up for the first time in the 16th century. It can be spiced with just about anything, including cardamon, cinnamon, and ginger. If they had them, farmers added lemons, oranges, and berries. Honey was essential, although not as essential as a gallon or two of 190 proof grain alcohol. There was grain as far as the eye could see, and everybody knew somebody who made moonshine, so making krupnikas full-bodied was never a problem. Lithuanians pour it down on holidays and weddings. Everybody likes a warm snort of it in the dead of winter, whether they have a cold or not.

   Next to the lowlands of central Lithuania, the carbonate soils of the west are the best. That is where my grandfather was. More than half of the country’s land area was farmland. Most of the rest of it was meadow and forest. What was left was where the towns and cities were. The agrarian reform of 1922 promoted farmsteads. Landless peasants got some acres of land, if not a mule. Most holdings, except those Polonized, were between 5 and 40 acres. The Poles were Lithuania’s rural aristocracy. My grandfather had been a landless peasant. He got 10-some acres of his own and rented more of it. During the interwar years more than 70% of the population depended on agriculture for its livelihood. In the 1930s Lithuanians fed themselves and were the source of 80% of the country’s export income. Lithuania is roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Maine. The small country was the sixth-largest butter exporter in the world.

   My grandfather didn’t know anything about the legality of cannabis. He didn’t know it was called “Sacred Grass” three thousand years ago in India. He didn’t know the Romans had used it as medicine. He didn’t know Queen Elizabeth in 1563 ordered all English land owners with 60 or more acres to grow it or face a 5 pound fine. One year later King Philip of Spain ordered cannabis be grown throughout his empire from Spain to Argentina. George Washington cultivated it at Mount Vernon and smoked it when his teeth hurt too much to bear.

   After World War One some nations began to outlaw marijuana. It became seriously illegal in the 1930s. The United States led the way. The plow breaking new ground was “Reefer Madness” and the man behind the plow was William Randolph Hearst. His chain of newspapers ran one article after another demonizing marijuana. There were articles about Mexicans gone crazy after smoking it, running around with a “lust for blood,” and articles about reefer-mad Negroes dancing to voodoo jazz music and raping white women.

   Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, turned the nativist, as well as racist, battle against marijuana into a war. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he said. He believed it had a bad effect on the weak-minded “degenerate races.” He was especially worried that white women might smoke it at parties and consort with black men. 

   “Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, and Filipinos,” he said. “Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from its usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, and entertainers, and many others. I consider it the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine.” The soft drink Coca-Cola contained cocaine from 1894 until 1929. It was why kids could walk five miles to school, both ways, uphill in the snow, jumping barbed wire fences. 

   The town of Gizai is situated at a crossroad. There was a small school, church, police station, hardware store, and a coffee shop in the 1930s. “We went to church every Sunday and my father went to the store whenever he needed a tool or something he couldn’t make himself,” my mother said. “When he took us along he treated us to candy at the coffee shop while he drank coffee and had a slice of lazy cake.”  

   Back on the farm everybody slept on the ground floor of the house. The bedrooms were three side rooms. One was for Jonas and Julija. One was for my mother and her sister. The third room was for the four boys. There was no electricity. The house was lit by kerosene lamps. The dining room was the biggest room. It was lit by a big kerosene lamp that was raised and lowered from the ceiling by a pulley attached to a counterweight. Everybody washed their meals down with tea. My grandfather bought tea from a German smuggler rather than pay the taxes levied on it. In the winter the fireplace was stuffed with wood and turf. The boys had the chore of making sure it never died out November through March.  Once a year a chimney cleaner came with ladders, brooms, and brushes. The sweep used a long rope attached to a weight for pushing out the soot.  

   In Washington, D. C. Harry Anslinger could blow smoke with the best of them. “Under the influence of marijuana men become beasts. It destroys life itself,” he declared. He called for a nationwide ban on the weed. Just in case anybody had missed the point, he added, “Smoking it leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” The top pot cop got the Marijuana Tax Act passed in 1937. It effectively made the weed illegal from coast to coast. Other countries worldwide got on the bandwagon. Even the Netherlands criminalized cannabis for a few years. The American law was declared unconstitutional in 1969, but Richard Nixon replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act the next year. Darkies couldn’t catch a break any which way.

   The Nixon administration quickly changed the name of the Controlled Substances Act to the War on Drugs. The next Republican president dragged out the big guns. “I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast,” said President Ronald Reagan. The First Lady consulted advertising executives and her astrologer and they came up with a snappy slogan: “Just Say No!” When asked what she meant she said she wasn’t talking about H-bombs but about marijuana.

   My grandparents couldn’t afford a washerwoman, so my grandmother did all the laundry. She put a tripod inside the fireplace and heated water in a copper kettle. After the clothes were washed she rinsed them in another kettle. She hung some of the clothes on a line in the attic to dry. She used a mangler on other laundry to get the wrinkles out. It was a wooden box with rollers like a wringer that squeezed and smoothed water-soaked clothes. When she was done she didn’t need any marijuana to help her relax. She fell asleep the minute she was done.

   My grandmother Julija died of tuberculosis in 1941. She had been in and out of a sanatorium in Kaunas. When she decided to go home for the last time it was to go home to die. My grandfather built an addition for her, which was a bedroom with a window. He built a new bed and stuffed a new mattress with clean straw. He moved their wedding cask to a corner of the bedroom. When the end was near he stood a coffin up beside the door. She was buried in a cemetery outside Gizai a few months before the German Army suddenly invaded.

   My grandfather Jonas died in 1947 after the Russians took the country over and collectivized everybody’s farms. The authorities told him he could keep one cow and one pig. They didn’t care about his chickens. They told him to stop growing marijuana and tobacco. All his crops had to be delivered to the state and the state would pay him whatever they thought was appropriate. He had differences with them about it, but what could he do? What he did was die soon afterwards of some kind of brain disease. His head probably exploded. Who wants to be a slave of the state? His farm disappeared down the Soviet sinkhole.

   Lithuania criminalized cannabis in 2017, a hundred years behind the times. The country was going against the grain. Almost everybody else in the world outside of China and Russia was decriminalizing it as fast as they could. They were sick of the drug gangs and lost tax revenue and prisons bulging with one-time losers. By then everybody knew marijuana didn’t make anybody sex-crazy or lust after blood. The country pivoted four years later and decriminalized small amounts for personal use. Growing any amount of jazzy stinkweed remains illegal. God forbid a seed in your personal Mason jar sprouts and flowers.

   My grandfather was a simple man with only a handful of overriding concerns, doing what had to be done, leaving the rest to take care of itself. He might have mulled the matter over on his front porch, drawing on his pipe to get it going, but I doubt he would have paid too much attention to whatever monocratic laws the boss men promulgated, unless it was at the point of a gun, regarding his farm and crops.

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.”