All posts by Edward Staskus

Edward Staskus is a free-lance writer from Sudbury, Ontario, and lives in Lakewood, Ohio, on the north side of the Rocky River valley.

Scaring Up the Plaza

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved into the Plaza on Prospect Avenue at East 32nd Street, which wasn’t even a street since the other end of it dead-ended into a parking lot, it was by accident, including a car accident and hooking up with Arunas Petkus by accident a few days later. 

   I was living at Dixon Hall up the street, a stone’s throw from East 40th. A little more than a decade after I moved out it was designated a legacy building and historic location but when I lived there it was a rat’s nest, full of students, day laborers, and deadbeats. It was a solid four-story stone and brick apartment but was going to seed.

   Hookers and boozers roamed Prospect at night after the blue collars and shop owners went home. The junkies stayed in the shadows, harmless. I avoided the suburban toughs on the prowl.

   My roommate Gary was exactly ten years older than me and was drinking himself to death, day by day from the bottom of his heart. I first met him the day before moving in, when I answered a worse for wear note on a bulletin board at Cleveland State University, a ten-minute walk away. He was stocky, bearded, and sullen, but I needed a cheap room, and his second bedroom was available.

   It wasn’t much of an apartment, a living room, walk-in kitchen, and two small bedrooms. There were more cockroaches than crumbs in the kitchen. The sofa and upholstered chairs were a flop. Gary kept cases of beer stacked up by the back door and his whiskey under lock and key.

   I didn’t know much about drink except that all the grown-ups I knew, who were most of them Lithuanian, drank lots of it, some more than others. I didn’t know why Gary was going liquid off the bridge, but he was and wasn’t in much shape to do much more than sit around and drink.

   The day he told me he was going out to pick up his car surprised me, since he was living on some kind of inheritance and almost never went out. I didn’t even know he knew how to drive. I was even more surprised when he asked me if I wanted to go along.

   “Where is it?” I asked.

   “Down by 36th and Payne,” he said.

   We could walk since it was a sunny day and 36th and Payne Avenue was only about twenty minutes away by foot.

   “All right,” I said, my first mistake.

   The car was a 1963 VW Beetle with a new engine block and repainted a glossy lime. He paid cash and we drove off, down East 55th to the lake, up East 72nd to St. Clair, and back to Dixon Hall. When he pulled up to the curb, he asked me if I knew how to drive a standard shift.

   “Sure,” I said.

   “Do you want to try it?”

   “Sure,” I said, my second mistake.

   I didn’t get far, about a quarter mile. As we were approaching the intersection of East 30th and Prospect a flash of sunshine glancing off the glossy yellow-green hood of the car distracted me. I turned my head to the left. That was my third and last mistake.

   I didn’t see the four-door sedan going through the red light to my right and never touched the brake. He smashed into the front fender of the VW, sending us spinning, and a car behind us smashed into the rear engine compartment. The opposed 4 made a last gasp and went dead.

   When we came to a stop the VW Beetle was finished and I was finished as Gary’s roommate. I was just barely able to talk him into giving me a few days to scare up another roof over my head. The fall quarter at CSU was rolling along and winter wasn’t far away.

   I was playing beggar-my-neighbor with friends in the Stillwell Hall ground floor cafeteria when Arunas Petkus joined us, snagging some sport in his free time. We had gone to St. Joe’s together, a Catholic high school on the east side, and he was an art major at CSU. He had a deft hand drawing and painting. He piped up when he heard about my predicament.

“Try the Plaza,” he said. “There’s a one bedroom on the second floor that’s come open. Somebody I know had to move out in the middle of the night.”

   The Plaza was just down the street from Dixon Hall. I had never paid much attention to it, but when I gave it a closer look, I liked what I saw. It was built in 1901 in an eclectic style, on a stone foundation, with some blocks of the same stone in the exterior, and yellow brick in front and all around the courtyard. The top of the five stories was crenellated. It had a cool vibe when I walked around it, eyeballing the stamping ground.

   Dave Bloomquist and Allen Ravenstine, who was the synthesizer player for the Cleveland-based band Pere Ubu, owned and ran the building

   “I grew up at the Plaza. It’s where I became an adult,” said Allen.

   “I was a kid from the suburbs. When we bought this building in 1969, we did everything from paint to carpentry. When it was first built, it had 24 apartments. When we bought it in a land contract, there were 48 apartments. We tried to restore it unit by unit.”

   I knocked on Dave Bloomquist’s door. His apartment was at the crown, in the front, facing north, looking out across Chinatown, Burke Lakefront Airport, to Lake Erie. When he answered the door, I don’t know what I expected, but what I got was a large young man, maybe six and a half feet of him, a thick mop of black hair and a thick black beard.

   “I’m here about the apartment on the second floor,” I said.

   He led me through the kitchen, down a hallway, and into an office full of books records a big desk and sat me down in a beat-up leather armchair.

   I didn’t blanch when he told me what the rent was because it wasn’t much, but I didn’t have much. I could make the first month, maybe the second.

   I hemmed and hawed until he finally asked me if I was short.

   “More or less,” I said.

   “Would you be willing to work some of it off?”

   “Yes, you bet.”

   “Good, we can work that out. Do you play chess, by any chance? You look like you might.”

   “I know how to play,” I said, but didn’t say that I read books about chess openings.

   “Great, do you want to play a game?”

   “Sure.”

   He had a nice board, nice pieces, and played a nice game, but I finished him off in less than twenty moves.

   “Beginner’s luck,” I said.

   “After you’ve moved in stop by, we’ll talk about some work for you, and play again,” he said.

   I went down the front steps, out the door, and sat down on what passed for a stoop. A young woman stuck her head out a basement apartment window next to me.

   “I haven’t seen you around here before,” she said. “Are you moving in?”

   “Yes, in the next couple of days.”

   “Do you have a car?”

   “No.”

   “Good, I’ve lost two cars living here,” she said.

   “That’s too bad.”

   “I love living here, but it drives me crazy at night,” she said. Her name was Nancy, and she was studying art. She wanted to be a teacher. “The junkies sit right here on this ledge and party all night long. They never see anything happening.”

   The dopeheads didn’t have the wherewithal to steal cars. They didn’t have the smarts, either. The making off was happening when bad guys on a mission came down Cedar Road looking for easy pickings.

   I moved in over the course of one day, since I didn’t have much other than my clothes bedsheets kitchen dishes utensils pots and pans schoolbooks and a dining room table and chairs my parents bought for me. I lived on pancakes pasta and peanut butter. The apartment wasn’t furnished, but whoever had left in a hurry left a queen bed, a dresser, and a livable sofa. 

   A man by the name of Bob Flood, who lived on the same second floor, but in the front, not the back like me, helped me carry the table and chairs up. He was dressed in denim, wore a denim cap, making him look like a railroad engineer, had a little shaggy beard and bright eyes, and was on the rangy side. He walked in a purposeful way, like an older man, even though he was only twenty-or-so years older than me.

   Everybody called him Mr. Flood.

   I found out later he was divorced and had two nice kids who visited him, but I never found out if he worked for a railroad or what he did, not for a fact. He was either at home for days or he wasn’t. I had worked at the Collinwood Yards the winter before as a fill-in, sometimes unloading railcar wheels, sometimes walking the yard with a pencil and waybill clipboard. I didn’t remember ever seeing him there.

   “What kind of people live here?” I asked him.

   “All kinds,” he said. “There are a lot of musicians, artists, writers, some students and even a couple of professors.”

   “It’s an energy house,” said Scott Krause the drummer for Pere Ubu.

   “Not everybody’s in the arts,” Mr. Flood said. “There are beauticians, bartenders, and bookstore clerks, too.”

   “If you want to stick your head out the window and sing an aria, someone might listen, and someone might even applaud,” said Rich Clark from his window,

   I found out almost everybody was younger than older, except for the Italian couple and their parrot. The old parrot never sang or spoke outside the family, no matter how much the Italians coaxed and cajoled him. The bird was as stubborn as a mule.

   Once winter was done and spring was busting out all over, I was reading a book for fun in the courtyard when Arunas Petkus stepped up to the bench I was sprawled out on. He wanted to know if I wanted to go to California with him once classes at Cleveland State University were finished.

   “All that tie dye is finished there,” I said. “Even the hippies say so.”

   “I thought we could visit Chocolate George’s grave.”

   “Who’s Chocolate George?”

   Charley Hendricks was a Hells Angel in the San Francisco chapter who was hit by a car while swerving around a stray cat one August afternoon in 1967 as the Summer of Love was winding down. He was thrown from his motorcycle and died later that night from his injuries. He was known as Chocolate George because he was rarely seen without a quart of his favorite beverage, which was chocolate milk.

   “He drank chocolate milk because he had an ulcer,” explained Mary Handa, a friend of his. He routinely spiked the milk with whiskey. He took nips all day long.

   Charles George Hendricks was a strapping 34-year-old when he died. He was a favorite among the hippies in Haight-Ashbury because he was funny and friendly. Sometimes he sported a Russian fur hat, making him look like a Cossack. His mustache and goatee were almost as long as his long hair, he wore a pot-shaped helmet when riding his Harley, and his denim vest was dotted with an assortment of round tinny pin badges.

   One of the badges said, “Go Easy on Kesey.”

   The writer Ken Kesey had been the de facto head of the Merry Pranksters. Much of the hippie aesthetic traced back to them and their Magic Bus.

   “I bought a used car,” Arunas said.

   It was parked in the back next to the nerve-wracking back stairs. The stairs were sketchy. Going up and down them felt like it might be the last time all the time as they twitched and shook and seemed on the verge of yanking themselves off the brick façade. I avoided them whenever I could.

   The car was a two-door 1958 VW Karmann Ghia. 

   “You know how the Beetle has got a machine-welded body with bolt-on fenders,” Arunas said.

   I didn’t know, but I nodded agreement keeping my distance from the car. It was pock-marked with rust and looked like it might fall apart any second.

   “Well, the Karmann Ghia’s body panels are butt-welded, hand-shaped, and smoothed with English pewter.”

   I didn’t know what any of that meant, either, but nodded again.

   “Does it drive?”

   “It got me here.”

   “From where?”

   He bought the VW at a used car lot on East 78th and Carnegie. It was two or three miles away, on the Miracle Mile of used car lots.

   “Where is Chocolate George buried, exactly?” I asked.

   “He’s not buried, not exactly,” Arunas said.

   Five days after his death more than two hundred bikers trailed a hearse and the family car up and down San Francisco’s narrow streets, pausing and revving their engines at the Straight Theater, near where the accident happened. Two quarts of chocolate milk got warm slowly next to the cold body in the back of the hearse. The funeral ceremony was performed at the Cypress Lawn Cemetery, Chocolate George was cremated, and his ashes scattered over Twin Peaks, which are in the center of the city.

   The funeral procession became a motorcycle cavalcade, roaring to Golden Gate Park where, joined by hundreds of hippies from Haight-Ashbury, a daylong wake erupted. Big Brother & the Holding Company and the Grateful Dead were the live music send-offs. There was dancing and tripping.  

   “Sometimes the lights all shining on me, other times I can barely see, lately it occurs to me, what a long strange trip it’s been,” Jerry Garcia sang in his mid-western twang.   

   There was free beer courtesy of the Hells Angels and free food supplied by the Diggers.

   The Haight Street Diggers were said at the time to be a “hippie philanthropic organization.” They used the streets of San Francisco for theater, gatherings, and walkabouts. The organization fed the flock that made the scene in the Panhandle with surplus vegetables from the Farmer’s Market and meat they routinely stole from local stores.

   Two months after Chocolate George’s funeral the Diggers announced “The Death of the Hippie” by tearing down the store sign of the Psychedelic Shop and secretly burying it in the night.

   “So, do you want to go?” Arunas asked, his hand on the hood of the Karmann Ghia.

   “Sure,” I said, short on memory and long on summer.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Gone to German Land

MOM ALPS 1947

By Ed Staskus

“The bishop fixed it up for us,” said Angele Jurgelaityte

When Angele, 16 years old, Ona Kreivenas, her aunt, and Ona’s four children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the youngster Gema, got off one of the last trains the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from East Prussia to Berlin in late 1944 they were met at the station by Bishop Vincentas Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Her husband, a policeman, had been arrested by the Soviets Communists in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he was still in a labor camp. Bishop Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to the archbishop of Kaunas. In the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with retreating German forces.

In the fall a multitude of other Lithuanians followed as the Red Army swarmed the Wehrmacht and overran the Baltics. The fighting was thick tenacious terrible. Wartime losses of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were among the highest in Europe.

Ona had somehow located the bishop by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg. He was carrying a basket of hot buns. He didn’t look like the churchman he was.

“He gave one to each of us,” Angele said. “I was so happy.”

What the bishop had fixed up was for them was passage to Bavaria. They landed in the north of the southeastern state. Bavaria shares borders with Austria, Switzerland, and the Czechoslovak territories. The Danube and Main flow through it, the Bavarian Alps border Austria, and the highest peak in Germany is there. The major cities are Munich and Nuremberg and the Bavarian and Bohemian forests are in the south.

“The bishop found a pig farm for us, people he knew. We lived in a two-room apartment above the slaughterhouse. There was another Lithuanian with us, a woman in her 20s, a fancy woman,” said Angele.

One of the two rooms was a kitchen. They lived and slept in the larger room, two adults, two teenagers, and three children. There was barely room to stand. The fancy woman kept to herself.

“We slept on cots. We worked, helping with the cows, and cutting clover. There was no town, just country everywhere. The German family we stayed with fed us. They were good people.”

There was no combat in their corner of the world. “We didn’t see any fighting all winter long,” said Angele. “The war ended when the Americans came. They wore nice uniforms, not like the Russians, who were filthy. They were friendly, completely different. They threw candy to us as they went past.”

Bavaria was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite places during the twelve years of the one thousand year Third Reich. He had a lavish residence at the Obersalzberg. Bavaria had been the scene of protests against Nazi rule in the late 30s, but it didn’t matter to the Fuhrer. He had his own SS security force. After the war was over Nuremberg was chosen for the military tribunals trying Nazi war criminals because it had been the ceremonial birthplace of the party and their annual propaganda rallies were held there.

Allied air forces bombed the hell out of it in 1944 and 1945. In January 1945 521 British bombers dropped six thousand high-explosive bombs and more than a million incendiary devices on the city. The historic old town was destroyed. Half of the rest of the city was destroyed. What wasn’t blown to bits or burnt down was damaged. Surviving the bombardment meant you had to then try to survive. The city was left with almost no heat no electricity no water supply in the middle of winter.

The Palace of Justice and the large prison that was part of the complex were spared. It was a sign of what was in store. It was spared because retribution was in the air.

“In the fall after the war ended, we had to leave the pig farm and go  to an American refugee camp near Regensburg. We had two rooms, but there was a Lithuanian man in the other room, so we had one room. We lived there and didn’t do anything.”

Before the Red Army closed the borders, padlocking the Baltics behind the Iron Curtain, about 70,000 Lithuanians were able to escape the country, almost all of them ending up in Germany. When the war ended about 11 million refugees had flooded into Germany, more than the total population of Austria. Many of them ended up in Displaced Persons camps in Bad Worishofen, Nordlingen, and Regensberg.

in the spring of 1946, Angele, Ona, and the children moved to a new camp.

“It was a castle that you got to down a long road through a forest in front of a lake. There was a big chapel and two big barracks. There were no owners anymore, and no workers, nobody. There were only the Americans and refugees. We were more than two thousand. We were all Lithuanians.”

The Schwarzenberg castle on the outskirts of Scheinfeld in Bavaria is northwest of Nuremberg. From 1946 until 1949 many thousands of Lithuanians were housed at the DP camp there while they waited for their chance to get to Australia, Canada, the United States, anywhere else.

“There was no future for us in Germany,” said Angele.

There were no repatriation plans, either. There was no going back. The system of revolving displacement would have meant the end for many of them, suspicion and persecution for the rest. The Russians had no plans on letting returning Lithuanians off easy. They had no plans on letting any Lithuanians of any kind, unless they were natives who had converted to Communism, off easy.

The camp outside Nuremberg was administered by an American Army officer of Lithuanian descent. The military’s concern was providing shelter, nutrition, and basic health care. Although the Americans looked after vital supplies, everybody in the camp lent a hand, The DP’s prepared their own food, sewed new clothes from cloth and old clothes donated by the Red Cross, and published their own daily newspaper. They printed their own money. The currency could be earned by working around the camp and spent at the canteen, where you could buy shaving cream, combs, and cigarettes.

“We had our own doctors, our own church, and even a school. My best friend was Maryte. Her parents were teachers. They taught the high school classes in the camp. Her mother knew how to sew, too. She would take old clothes that had been donated to us, take them apart, and make new dresses. Whenever she made a dress for Maryte she made one for me, too.”

Angeles’s aunt talked to her about learning to become a seamstress.

“She wanted me to learn how to sew, like my older brother Justinas, so I would have some way to make a living. I said no.” She had turned down her aunt’s advice at home about becoming a farmer. She had no plans sewing for a living either. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she knew for sure what she didn’t want to do.

After her friend Maryte moved to Nuremberg, taking classes in x-ray technology, and was on the way to becoming a nurse assistant at the Army Hospital there, she wrote Angele.

“She told me about it, told me it was a 10-month course, and told me to come join her.”

Angele packed a satchel with her clothes and slipped away as the weather warmed one morning in 1947. She said goodbye to Ona and her four kids. “By then mamyte was teaching kindergarten at the camp and she had her children around her.” Mindaugas was grown a few years older, now a teenager, and could take care of his three sisters. When Angele left, she left more space for them in their quarters. She walked and hitchhiked the forty miles to Nuremberg. Even though there were travel restrictions, a German government barely existed to enforce its own laws, and the only thing she had to worry about was an over-zealous American officer in a Jeep.

When she got to Nuremberg she asked where the hospital was and found her way there. It had been rebuilt after the ferocious bombardments two years earlier. She was assigned a bed in a small room, twelve feet by twelve feet, sharing it with three other women.

“There were four of us, me, Ele, who was 24 and tall, Koste, who was 28 and stocky, and Monica, who was the oldest and had been a nurse in Kaunas. One of our teachers was a Lithuanian and she helped me. I lived in the barracks at the hospital. I worked in the hospital, cleaned, changed beds, and did whatever they told me to do. I studied whenever I could. There wasn’t time to do very much else.”

They had to do something, though. Many of them were young. They staged dances at the hospital. “Somebody would play the accordion.” Whenever they could they went into town on Saturdays.

“We took a train, went to the movies, and the music shows. We loved it. Everything was so clean. It was all smashed during the war but two years later you wouldn’t have believed there had even been a war.”

There had not only been repeated bombing and shelling of the city, especially the medieval part of it, there had been street-by-street house-to-house room-to-room fighting in April 1945. The city was rebuilt after the war and was partly restored to its pre-war aspect. “The Americans did it,” said Angele. “You could see them doing it every day.”

The German government was being resurrected, as well, and order was the order of the day.

“One day we were waiting in line for the movies, eating grapes, and spitting the seeds on the sidewalk. When a policeman saw us, he came over, and told us it was our responsibility to keep the city clean. He made us pick up all the seeds.”

The circus was even better than the movies or musical theater. It is in the movies and theater that people fall in love. It is the circus that leaves a fantasy memory.

“Whenever it came to town, none of us could sleep.”

The Nazi era was good for circuses since they were not considered subversive. They were left alone by the regime. Between the two wars, through the 1930s, Germany was the epicenter of the European companies and their large tents. There were more than forty travelling circuses with their clowns, acrobats, and animals. They were mostly family-run enterprises.

The last years of the Second World War, however, were bad for business, many circuses losing all their equipment and animals. The postwar years boomed again after 1946. Circus Europa toured Germany in 1947.

“I loved the circus. I would have gone alone if I had to,” Angele said.

In mid-summer 1948 Angele got a week’s vacation from the Army Hospital. She and her friend Benas, his friend Porcupine, and two of the Porcupine’s friends took a train the 170 miles to Zugspitze on the border of Germany and Austria. On two sides of the Zugspitze are glaciers, the largest in Germany. Mountain guides lead climbers up three different routes to the summit at nearly ten thousand feet.

“Benas had thick dark hair and his father was a minister back home. He was a good friend to me. Everybody called his friend Porcupine because Koste called him that. He thought he was Koste’s boyfriend, even though that’s not what she thought.”

They got there at night and stayed in a small hotel.

“There were two rooms at the end of the corridor. We three girls went into one of them. There were two beds, so we pushed them together and slept together. The boys took the other room. In the morning I went to the big window and threw open the heavy drapes. I had to take a step back. The mountain was right there. I was astonished and afraid. For a second I thought it was going to fall in on us.”

They rode a rack railway the next day up the northern flank of the mountain. “It went around and around.” At a landing they sunned themselves. “Even though there was snow everywhere, and people were skiing, looking like ants below us, we lay in the sun before going farther up.” They took the Eibsee cable car to an observation deck. “The gondola was all glass. You could see the whole world.” From the deck at the top a path led to a cross.

The 14-foot gilded iron cross had been lifted to the peak of the Zugspitze in 1851 by twenty-eight bearers under the direction of Karl Kiendl, a forester, and Christoph Ott, a priest. Father Ott was the brainstorm behind the cross, motivated by a vision of the mountain, “the greatest prince of the Bavarian mountains raising its head into the blue air towards heaven, bare and unadorned, waiting for the moment when patriotic fervor and courageous determination would see that his head too was crowned with dignity.”

The Porcupine and his two companions wouldn’t go to the cross. The path was icy and narrow. “Only Benas and I went. There was a ladder attached to a rock face you had to climb to get to it, where it stood on a flat space.”

In 1888 the cross had to be taken down and repaired after being struck numerous times by lightning. It was leaning and scarred, holes gouged out by the lightning. A year later it was taken back to the top, onto the East Summit, where it had stayed ever since.

The side rails of the metal ladder were secured by bolts to the rock.

“I was near the top when a bolt came loose and the ladder jerked free there,” Angele said. “I stopped and couldn’t go up or down. I stayed as still as I could. I was scared to death.”

She had survived a Russian invasion, her mother’s death, a subsequent German invasion, followed by another Russian invasion, making tracks out of Lithuania, implacable separation from her family, landing in DP camps in Bavaria, the American invasion of Germany, the collapse of the German government, and finding her way to work at the Army Hospital In Nuremberg, all in the last 8 years, all by the time she was 19 years old.

She was determined a broken ladder was not going to break her, not be the end of her. Benas helped her from the top, extending his belt, and another pilgrim helped her from beneath, coming partway up and slowly carefully easing her down. Benas quickly slid down the side rails without incident.

Faith can be churchy, or it can be personal. There isn’t anything that’s a matter of life and death except life and death. Life and death at ten thousand feet is personal, cross or no cross. They took their time on the icy path back to the observation deck.

The rest of the week they hiked, took local trains to nearby alpine towns, ate drank smoked talked had fun while it lasted.

At the end of their vacation they went back in Nuremberg. In her room, alone for a few minutes, Angele thought about the two men, Vladas the soldier and Vytas, working for a relief organization, both refugees from Lithuania, like her, who wanted to marry her. Vladas brought her food and Vytas played cards with her.

Getting married may not be a matter of life and death, except when it is. She thought she was probably going to marry one of them, and thought she knew which one it would be, but she knew for sure she wasn’t going to be staying in Europe. Making her way somewhere where there was a future was the most important thing on her mind.

She wanted a bright future, not a dark past. She had to go and find it. The man she married would have to be the man who wanted to go with her. No matter what, she was going to have to fix it up for herself.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Summertime Blues

By Ed Staskus

“Well, I called my congressman, and he said I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote, there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”  Eddie Cochran

   “Mom said you’re not leaving and you’re coming to my birthday party this year,” Maggie said, putting down her ear of corn, her lips peppered with flecks of salt and smeary with   butter.

   “That’s right,” said Frank Glass.

   Vera Glass’s brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece, Frank’s sister and her new boyfriend, a policeman who lived nearby, were visiting on the Fourth of July, in the backyard, a breezy sunny day in the shade, crowded around a folding table-clothed table doing double duty, food and drink and board games.

   Independence Day has been a federal holiday since 1941, but the tradition goes back to the American Revolution. Since then it’s been celebrated with festivities like fireworks parades concerts big and small and family barbecues. This year the fireworks parades concerts were scratched.

   Maggie was born seven almost eight years earlier. She was due to officially come to life the third week of September, four five days after Frank and Vera expected to be back from Atlantic Canada but was born on the first day of the month.

   She was a once in a blue moon baby. To do something once in a blue moon means to do it rarely. It is the appearance of a second full moon within a calendar month, which happens about once every three years.

   “Where do you go in the summer?” Maggie asked.

   “We go to Prince Edward Island, a small town called North Rustico, but we stay in a cottage in the National Park, a family owns the land, they’ve been there for almost two hundred years. We leave in mid-August and stay through the first couple of weeks of September, which is why we miss your birthday party.”

   “You always send me a present. I like that. But last year you sent me a sweatshirt with a red leaf on it that was ten times too big.”

   “You’ll grow into it,” said Frank.

   “Maybe I will, but maybe I won’t,” said Maggie. She was a genial child but could be a testy cuss. She thought she knew her own mind rounding out her seventh year, although it could go both ways.

   “Do you like it there?”

   “Yes, we like it a lot.”

   “Why aren’t you going? Is it the virus?”

   The 20th century was the American Century. The United States led the way socially economically brain-wise learning-wise and in every other wise way. In 2020 it led the way in virus infections, far outpacing the next two contenders, Brazil and India. The flat tires in charge nowadays can’t get anything right, from building their useless wall, all three miles of new wall, to securing a useful virus test.

   North Korea and Iran keep making atom bombs, there’s no China trade deal, the deficit has skyrocketed, and race relations have gotten worse. All that’s left is for the other shoe to drop. On top of that, Hilary Clinton still isn’t in jail.

   “Yes, the bug,” said Frank. “The Canadian border is closed, and even if we could get into Canada somehow, the bridge to the island is closed except for business.”

   In May President Trump said, “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere, cases are coming way down.” In June he said the pandemic is “fading away. It’s going to fade away.” On July 2nd he said, “99% of cases are totally harmless.” Four days later, on July 6th, he said, “We now have the lowest Fatality Rate in the World.”

   John Hopkins University subsequently reported that the United Sates has the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, with 41.33 deaths per 100,000 people. It was a bald-faced report. They didn’t capitalize the numbers.

   “Are you sad that you can’t go?”

   “Yes.”

   “They built a new bridge to our house. I know all about it, we drove over it two weeks ago. Mom was so happy. It’s a big bridge, too, the other one was small and always breaking.”

   “You know the bridge you go across from downtown, when you go up the rise past the baseball stadium where the Indians play ball, on your way to Lakewood?”

   “That’s a long bridge.”

   “It’s called the Main Avenue Bridge and it’s two miles long. The bridge that goes from Canada to Prince Edward Island is almost 5 times longer than that. It’s as long as the distance from downtown to our house.”

   “That’s far!”

   “That can’t be,” Frank’s nephew Ethan blurted out. “That bridge is too long!”

   “How do you know, Bud, you can hardly count,” said Maggie. She called Ethan Bud. They were buddies, although they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

   “I can so count, I know all the dinosaurs, there are a million of them,” said Ethan.

   “I’m going into third grade and we’re going to learn division. You’ve been learning to finger paint.”

   “What’s a million and a million?”

   “2 million.”

   “OK, what’s the biggest dinosaur ever?”

   “The Brontosaurus.”

   “No! It’s the Argentinosaurus, and he weighed a million pounds.”

   “That can’t be,” said Maggie.

   “My math is my math,” Ethan simply said.

   “If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough,” said Albert Einstein.

   As of July, there were more than 300,000 cases of the virus reported in children since the start of the pandemic. The Executive Office of the Federal Government has repeatedly maintained it poses almost no threat to them. “The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” President Trump said.

   “How do you know about the virus?” Frank asked.

   “Everybody knows about it. The whole world knows.”

   “They even know in Antarctica,” said Ethan.

   “Do you know anybody who got it?”

   “A girl in school got it from her mom,” Maggie said. “I took piano lessons with her.”

   “That’s too bad,” Frank said.

   “Are there going to be fireworks tonight?” Maggie asked.

   “No, the city cancelled them.”

   “Where we live, too.”

   “Here there were fireworks last night, we sat on the front porch, until after midnight, but it was just people in the street or their yards. There were some big pops over there by Madison Avenue. I think they were shooting them off from the empty lot. We could see bottle rockets over the trees.”

   “Wow!”

   “You said you knew about the virus, but how do you know?” asked Frank.

   “The news about it is on every day on TV,” said Maggie.

   “That’s right,” said Ethan.

   “We have a TV, but we don’t have TV,” said Frank. “We only have a couple of streaming services for movies.”

   “We have real TV,” said Maggie, “and it’s on all the time. The news is on every single hour every single day and all the news is about the virus.”

   “Do you watch TV all the time?”

   “We don’t watch TV, but we watch it all day,” said Ethan.

   “We don’t really watch it, but it’s always there,” said Maggie.

   Parents are urged to pay attention to what their children see and hear on radio online television. They are cautioned to reduce screen time focused on the virus since too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety in kids. Talk to them about how stories on the web might be rumors and wildly inaccurate.

   “That’s OK, it’s all in your head, anyway,” said Maggie.

   “All in your head?”

   “That’s what dad says.”

   “Well,” Frank said, “your father knows best.” He wasn’t going to get into a no-win argument with his brother-in-law. His sister’s boyfriend was a policeman at Metro Hospitals. Frank didn’t want his ears pricking up. He wouldn’t understand it’s all in your head.

   “Are you worried about the virus?” Frank asked.

   “Would that help?” Maggie asked, biting into a burger. “This is yummy good.”

   “No, it would probably just make you crazy.”

   “Dad said your name wasn’t always Frank Glass.”

   “Yes and no,” said Frank. “My given name has always been Frank, which is short for Francis, like we call you Maggie even though your name is Margaret, but my family name, what they say is your surname, used to be Kazukauskas.”

   “What happened to it?” asked Maggie. “Why is it different now.”

   “When my father came here, to America after World War Two, the immigration people said he should change it to something other people could pronounce, that they could say without too much trouble, so he changed it to Glass.”

   “Where did he come from?”

   “Lithuania, a little country, north of Germany.”

   “That’s a nice name,” Maggie said. “I like Glass.”

   “At least he didn’t have to climb another brick in the wall once he got here.”

   “What does that mean?”

   “I’ll tell you when you’re older. Are you staying home more because of the virus?”

   “Yes!” both of them exclaimed.

   “Do you have to wear a mask when you go somewhere?”

   “We cover up,” Maggie said. “My face gets hot, my head gets hot, and my hair get hot. It makes my glasses fog up.”

   “I have a tube mask with rhino’s and bronto’s on it,” Ethan said. “But I can’t breathe, so I just rip it off until mom sees.”

   There was a box of Charades for Kids on the table. “Three or More Players Ages Four and Up.” Frank pointed at it.

   “Are you ready to play?”

   Maggie rolled around on the lawn, flapped her arms, rolled her eyes, and hugged herself. Nobody had any idea what she was doing.

   “Going to bed!” she yelped.

   Ethan did a somersault.

   “Somersault?”

   “Yes!”

   Maggie rolled on the ground holding her head and grimacing like a mad chipmunk. Everybody watched with blank faces, stumped.

   “Headache!” she blared.

   Ethan slashed the air with his hands.

   “Karate?”

   “Yes!”

   Maggie jumped, waved her right arm in circles, flapped it back and forth, and licked her lips. As the one-minute hourglass dropped the last grain of sand to the bottom, she fell down on the grass. Everybody was stumped again.

   “Frosting a cake! I can’t believe nobody got it.”

   Ethan got on all fours like an anteater, pretended to be eating something with great chomping motions, and clomped to the driveway and back.

   “Argentinosaurus?”

   “Yes!”

   Summer signals freedom for children. It’s a break from the structure of school days, a time for more days spent at the pool, a time for more play, for exploring the outdoors.

   One day his mom asked Ethan if he wanted to go out on his scooter.

   “So much,” he said. “I have got to get out of this house.”

   “Every single day I see the Amazon truck and the FedEx and the white trucks go past me,” said Maggie. “They turn around at the cul-de-sac thing, they just rush back, driving crazy. I run to the backyard.”

   “There’s a big field and woods past our backyard,” Ethan said.

   “We’re stuck at home but it’s summer, it’s nice outside, the sun is shining, and we all go for walks,” Maggie said.

   She hadn’t been to school since April, studying remotely. Ethan hadn’t been to pre-school for just as long.

   “Are you going back to school in the fall?” asked Frank.

   “I hope so,” said Maggie. “I miss it.”

   “I’m supposed to start first grade,” said Ethan.

   About two months away from hopes there will be a return to school, many parents were looking to new findings which suggest children are less likely to get and spread the virus. In late June the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates for “having students physically present in school,” published reopening guidelines. They stated that children “may be less likely to become infected” with the coronavirus and to spread the infection.

   Living and breathing in-person face-to-face time is what makes school a school. “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher,” is what a Japanese proverb says.

   “I want to play something else,” Maggie said. “Can you teach us how to play Pictionary?”

   “Sure,” Frank said.

   They put the never-ending news of the pandemic away, cleared one end of the table, and unfolded the game board, setting out the pencils note pads special cards. “Quick Sketches, Hilarious Guesses” is what it said on the yellow box, and that is what they did the rest of Independence Day, the clear sky going twilight, lightning bugs flashing on off on off, and neighborhood kids shooting off Uncle Sam Phantom fire flowers in the alley behind them.

   There wasn’t a dud in the caboodle, not that they saw. Uncle Sam got it right, rockets red glare.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

High and Low

By Ed Staskus

   I’m a Bay Brat, which means I grew up in Bay Village and lived there my whole life until my dad died. When I was a girl, I picked up every lost bird and squirrel, every lost cat and dog, and every injured animal I found and brought it home to protect it.

   I was an animal lover from the get-go. I got it partly when I was born, in the blood, partly from my dad, but definitely not from my mom. My mom never liked any of the animals we had in our house garage backyard.

   My parents met at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, a few hours west of Philadelphia. My grandparents on my dad’s side had moved from Ohio to Philadelphia a few years earlier and he enrolled there after high school. My mom was working in the library, which is how they met. He fell head over heels for her, swept her off her feet, and then they got married.    

   “We’re out of here,” is what my dad said the minute they got married. They quickly and promptly moved right back to Cleveland.

   Even though they were married for more than forty years it might have been the worst thing either of them ever did.

   I had a mom who didn’t love my dad, and a dad who was frustrated about it, and the way he tried to make her happy was to beat the kids, which was us. So, it was a tough childhood. Either you were being totally ignored or you were being hit.

   There were four of us. First, there was Patty, and then two years later Betsy, and then me five years after that, and last, five years later, Brad. 

   Mom always said dad tricked her four times.

   My dad was from Cleveland, from the west side, where he grew up almost rich for his time. My mom was from Jersey Shore, just a few miles from Williamsport, where she grew up poor.  Jersey Shore isn’t anywhere near New Jersey, the Jersey coastline, or any real coast of any kind. There used to be silk mills and cigar factories in Jersey Shore. Later on, factories made steel rails there for train tracks.

   During the Depression my grandfather was the only teenager in his high school who had a car. He used to follow my grandmother down the street trying to get her to come in his car with him, saying he wanted to help carry her books, so what happened was they eventually got married.

   My other grandfather in Jersey Shore had three jobs the minute he stopped being a teenager. He was a coal miner, a school bus driver, and a milkman, but they were still poor. Even though they were moneyless they built their own home on the Susquehanna River. I honestly don’t know how they ever got it built since they were so strapped most of the time.

   The river was their front yard. Susquehanna means Oyster River and it was on the Susquehanna where the Mormons say they got their priesthood from heavenly beings. It was a huge beautiful comfortable house. It’s still standing, although it’s not been taken care of lately, so it’s falling apart.

   My grandmother lived in that house into her 80s, but then sold it and moved into a trailer, in a trailer park in the mountains above Jersey Shore. She started believing people in other trailers were trying to shoot her with laser guns. She slept wrapped up in foam rubber with an umbrella balanced above her head for protection. My mom never wanted to talk about her mom because she thought she was crazy, and a Jesus freak, too.

   I didn’t know my grandfather because he died young. He had rheumatoid arthritis bad and it finished him. It didn’t help working in the damp underground. I knew my grandmother well. Whenever my sisters and I visited her in her big house she taught us how to pull taffy and fudge. We played with her paper dolls. She didn’t have any real dolls for us. We sat on the front porch and waited for the bean truck.

   Sometime before dinnertime she sent my older sisters to the side of the road. When the bean truck, or sometimes the vegetable truck, went by on the rutted bumpy road beans would bounce off of the back of it and they would run and gather them up. My grandmother cooked them for dinner. If no beans fell off the truck, then there was no dinner, although she usually had a little something else in the house. 

   Most of the time it was something cold she had canned months earlier.

   My dad went to Upper Darby High School just outside Philadelphia, starting when he was a sophomore. His parents moved him to Philadelphia from Cleveland and he always said he hated it. He was a Cleveland Browns fan and wore their colors, so he got into fights every day with the other kids who were Philadelphia Eagles fans.

   He liked telling us stories when we were growing up, like the one about how one day he and his friends went onto the second story of their high school and jumped up and down all as a group until the second floor fell in on the first floor.

   The school’s mascot is a lion now, but when he was there it was a court jester.

   My father’s parents were from Akron, and lived in Lakewood for a long time, but had to move when the new I-90 was being built. It was called the “Main Street of Northern Ohio” back then. Afterwards dad would drive us to a bridge over the highway and show us the spot below the bridge where their house used to stand.

   It was when they had to sell the house to the state that they moved to Philadelphia. After my mom and dad came back to Ohio they lived in Lakewood in a rented house for a few years. My older sisters were born there, but by the time I came along we were living in Bay Village.

   We lived on Jefferson Court my whole life, which was a short cul-de-sac street, five blocks south of Lake Erie. My dad designed our house and it was built just the way he wanted it. My family lived there until the day he died, when I was thirty-three years old.

   We all had our own rooms, although my brother and I shared a room when we were tots because we were a room short. My sisters had their separate bedrooms just down the half-story stairway from us and my parents were at the other end of the hallway. We had the crow’s nest until Patty moved out and got married, when she was nineteen, and Brad was seven. 

   It was in the crow’s nest where I grew close to Brad, who looked just like the boy Bamm-Bamm in the Flintstones. We even called him Bamm-Bamm. I became his number one protector like I did with all the neighborhood’s lost cats and dogs.

   But I could never protect him from Coco, our poodle, who used to bite and tear off his diapers when Brad was little. He could never crawl away fast enough.

   Although, honestly, there were times I didn’t try to stop Coco. I had some of my mom’s tough love in me. Other times Brad had done something I didn’t like, and it was just his tough luck that Coco was on the rampage.

Excerpted from “Dogs Never Bite Me” at http://www.dogsneverbiteme.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Seven in the Bag

By Ed Staskus

   When Stan Riddman walked out from under the belly of the Flatiron Building it wasn’t dark, not exactly yet. It was the first day of the second week of fall, but it felt more like the middle of summer, except for the autumn-like light. He wore a short sleeve shirt and linen trousers. The thin wallet in his back pocket was flush with more fives and tens than it was with one-spots.

   He gave his wallet a friendly pat. The seven card stud they played in the basement next to the furnace room had been good to him. I can buy the kid some new clothes, get up front on the office rent, and score tickets for the Series, he thought.

   The Socialist Labor Party used to have offices in the Flatiron Building, but not down in the underground. He wondered if they would have banned gambling, making it out like it was exploitive, if they had ever come to power. You took your chances at poker, but it was only exploitive if you had no skill at it. You deserved to be taken if you played dreamland cards.

   He walked down 22nd Street to Lexington Avenue, turned right, walked through Gramercy Park to Irving Place, and looked for a phone booth

   The Yankees were in and the Indians were out, that was for sure. The Redlegs were running on an outside track, but the Braves were neck and neck with the Dodgers. Sal the Barber had no-hit the Phils earlier in the week at Ebbets Field and the Cardinals were going hard at the Braves out in the boondocks. It was all going to come down to the weekend as to whether there was going to be a subway series, the same as last year, or not.

    Last year it went seven games, and the oddball thing was the Yankees won three at Ebbets Field and the Dodgers won their four at Yankee Stadium. Neither team won on their home field. Nobody won that bet. Nobody took the backside odds on the seventh game, win or go home, either, especially since Jackie Robinson wasn’t penciled in to play the deciding nine.

   Nobody but Stan and Ezra, and anybody else who flipped a coin.

   Who would have thought the Cuban would be the difference-maker when he took over right field in the sixth inning? Stan was in the upper deck with his sometime partner, Ezra Aronson. The Yankee dugout was on the first base side, so most of the Bum fans were on the third base side. A client who was a Yankees fan, after Stan had gotten him the black and white’s he needed to get his divorce done, gave a sudden pair of passes to him, so they were on the wrong side.

   “Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ezra said, sitting in a sea of Bronx Bomber fans.

   When Yogi Berra hit an opposite field sure double, Ezra sprang out of his seat, like everyone else, but the lightning fast Sandy Amoros caught it coming out of nowhere. He fired a pill to Pee Wee Reese, who relayed it to Gil Hodges, who doubled up the retreating Gil McDougald off first, ending the last threat Stengel’s Squad made that afternoon. 

   Casey Stengel managed the Yankees. Back in his day, when he still had legs, he had been a good but streaky ballplayer. Good glove, fair bat.

   “I was erratic,” he said. “Some days I was amazing, some days I wasn’t.” When he wasn’t, he played it for laughs, catching fly balls behind his back. One afternoon he doffed his cap to the crowd and a sparrow flew out of it. Another day, playing the outfield, he hid in a drainage hole and popped out of it just in time to snag a fly ball.

   When he stood leaning over the top rail of the dugout, he looked like a cross of the scowling Jimmy Durante and Santa Claus in pinstripes. He managed the Braves and Dodgers for nine years and chalked up nine straight losing seasons. But after the Bombers hired him in 1948, the only year he hadn’t taken them to the World Series was 1954.

   Stan and Ezra were the only men in their section who hadn’t fallen back into their seats, stunned, after Sandy Amoros snagged Yogi Berra’s liner. Stan had to pull Ezra down so there wouldn’t be any hard feelings. As it was, Ezra was so excited there were hard feelings, and Stan had to drag him away to a beer stand.

   “This beer is bitter,” Ezra scowled, looking down at the bottle of Ballantine in his hand. Ballantine Beer was on the Yankee Stadium scoreboard, its three-ring sign shining bright, flashing “Purity, Body, Flavor.” Whenever a Yankee hit a homer, Mel Allen, the broadcaster, hollered, “There’s a drive, hit deep, that ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne! How about that?! It’s a Ballantine Blast!” 

   The Brooklyn Dodgers, Ezra’s home borough baseball team, played at Ebbets Field. Their scoreboard boasted a Schaefer Beer sign, with the ‘h’ and the ‘e’ lighting up whenever there was a hit or an error. Below the Schaefer Beer sign was an Abe Stark advertisement. 

   “Hit Sign Win Suit”.

   “That’s some super beer, that Schaeffer’s,” said Ezra, polishing off his bottle of Ballantine and spitting. 

   Stan Riddman didn’t have a home borough, even though he favored the Bums. He had an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, up from Times Square and down from the Central Park Zoo. He wasn’t from New York or New York City. He was from Chicago, although he wasn’t from there, either. He had been born in Chicago, but when his mother died two years later, in 1922, his father moved the family, himself a new Polish wife two boys two girls two dogs and all their belongings a year later to a small house behind St. Stanislaus Church in Cleveland, Ohio, in the Warszawa neighborhood south of the steel mills, where his father worked the rest of his life.

   Stan wasn’t working on anything he thought would bring him free Series passes this year. As long as I put most of this away, he thought to himself, walking down Irving Place, thinking of the jackpot in his pocket, I can blow some of it tonight, and still have enough for ballgames and more card games.

   Dottie was at Marie’s for the weekend. That happened about as often as the Series. It wasn’t too early or too late, and if Vicki hasn’t taken any work home, and is at home, and picks up the phone, maybe she could meet him for dinner.

   He found the phone booth he’d been looking for and called her. It rang once almost twice before Vicki answered. That’s a good sign, he thought.

   “Hello.”

   “Hey, Vee, it’s Stan.”

   “Stan, my man,” she laughed.

   “How’s Stuy Town tonight?” he asked.

   “Hot, quiet, lonely,” she said.

  “How about meeting me at Luchow’s for dinner?” he asked. “I’m buying.”

   “Stan, I love you for the dear German or Polack or whatever you are, but the food at Luchow’s is not so good, even if you can ever get though that insanely long menu of theirs.” 

   “That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “Only a dog-eared investigator like me will look into everything the kitchen’s got to offer.”

   “All right, but the other thing is, since they seat more than a thousand people, how am I going to find you? And if I do, with that strolling oompah band of theirs, if we do bump into each other and maybe get a table in that goulash and Wiener schnitzel palace, we’ll only be able to make ourselves heard some of the time and not the rest of the time.”

   “We can always take our coffee and their pancakes with lingonberry over to the square after dinner and chew the fat, it’ll be quiet there,” he said.

   “Chew the fat? What it is I like about you, sometimes I just don’t know.”

   “I’ll take that for a yes.”

   “Yes, give me a few minutes to change into something fun,” she said gaily. “I hope there’s no goose fest or beer festival going on.”

   “Meet me at the far end of Frank’s bar, he’ll find a low-pitched spot in the back for us. Frank says the new herring salad is out of this world.”

   “Don’t push your luck, Stan, don’t push your luck,” she said.

   Luchow’s was a three-story six-bay building with stone window surrounds, pilasters, and a balustrated parapet on top, while below a red awning led to the front door. The restaurant was near Union Square. It looked like the 19th century, or some more earlier century, heavy Teutonic, North German. A titanic painting of potato gatherers covered most of a wall in one of the seven dining rooms. Another of the rooms was lined with animal heads, their offspring being eaten at the tables below them, while another room was a temple of colorful beer steins. 

   There was a beer garden in the back.

   “Welcome back to the Citadel of Pilsner,” said Frank. He gestured Stan to the side.  “Did anybody tell you Hugo died?”

  “No, I hadn’t heard, although I heard he wasn’t feeling well,” said Stan. Hugo Schemke had been a waiter at Luchow’s for 50 years. He often said he wasn’t afraid of death. He had firmly no ifs ands or buts believed in reincarnation.

   “Did he say he was coming back?”

   “He did say that, but I haven’t seen him, yet,” said Frank. 

   “How’s Ernst doing?” asked Stan. Ernst Seute was the floor manager, a short stout man both friendly and cold-hearted. He had been at Luchow’s a long time, too, since World War One.

   “He took a couple days off,” said Frank. “Remember that parade back in April over in Queens, they’ve got some kind of committee now, he’s over there with them trying to make it an annual thing here in Little Germany, calling it the Steuben Parade.”

    “You going to be carrying the cornflower flag?’

   “Not me, Stan, not me.” Frank was from Czechoslovakia. “I’m an American now.”

   Frank led Vicki and Stan to a small round table at the far end of the bar. He brought them glass mugs of Wurzburger Beer and a plate of sardines. Vicki ordered noodle soup and salad. “Hold the herring,” she commanded. Stan asked for a broiled steak sirloin with roasted potatoes and horseradish sauce on the side.

   “I saw Barney the other day,” she said, cocking her head. “He told me you’ve made progress.”

  “I didn’t think there was anything to it the first day I saw him, that day you brought him over to the office,” said Stan. “I didn’t think there was much to it all that first week the top of the month. But then there was all that action, and Bettina finally got it worked out, that it was the shrink. So, I know who did the thing to get Pollack to drive himself into that tree. I know how they did it. What I don’t know is why they did it.”

   “Do you know who they are?’

   “No, I don’t, even though one of the two, a psychotic by the name of Ratso Moretti, who roughed up Ezra, is being held at the 17th. He doesn’t seem to know much, but what he does know says a lot. The shrink is going to tell me all about it. He doesn’t know about the talk we’re going to have, yet, but that doesn’t matter.”

   “You don’t think Jackson Pollack had anything to do with it?”

   “He was the wrong man, that’s all, if you look at it from his point of view. Bettina and I think he was a test run. We think they’re up to something bigger. It’s hard to figure. We can’t see the pay-off in it. You know Betty, though. She’ll piece it together.”

   After dinner they looked at the dessert menu, but it was only a peek. Vicki shook her head no.

   “How about coffee at my place?” asked Stan. “We can stop and get pastry at that Puerto Rican shop on the corner, sit up on the roof.” It was a clear sky night.

   “I can’t pass up that pass,” said Vicki.

   They hailed a Checker Cab. 

   “Take us up 5th to 59th, the corner of the park,” said Stan.

  The cabbie dropped them off at the Grand Army Plaza and they walked into the park, following the path below the pond towards the Central Park Driveway and Columbus Circle. He liked her loose breezy walk. They didn’t notice the two greasers, as they strolled on a quiet wooded path south of Center Drive, until the two of them were in front of them, blocking their way.

   One was taller and older, the other younger and thinner, their oiled hair combed back. Both of the dagos were wearing high tops, jeans, and white t-shirts, one of them dirtier than the other. The younger boy, he might have been fifteen, had a half-dozen inflamed pencil-thick pencil-long scratches down one side of his face and more of them on his forehead. Small capital SS’s topped with a halo drawn in red ink adorned the left sleeve of his t-shirt. The older dirtier dago had LAMF tattooed on his neck above the collar line to below his right ear.

   Stan knew what it meant. It meant ‘Like a Mother Fucker.’  He kept his attention on LAMF.

   “Hey, mister, got a double we can have for the subway, so we can make it back home,” he asked, smiling, his teeth big and white as Chiclets.

   They were part of the Seven Saints, thieves whose favorite easy pickings was holding back the door of a subway car just before it was ready to leave the station, one of them grabbing and running off with a passenger’s pocketbook, while the other released the door so the woman would be shut tight in the train.

   “Where’s home?” asked Stan, stepping forward a half step, nudging Vicki behind him with his left hand on her left hip. 

   “You writing a book?”

   Stan asked again, looking straight at the older boy.

   “East Harlem, where you think?”

   “Why do you need twenty dollars? The fare’s only fifteen cents.”

   “The extra is for in case we get lost.” 

   “It’d be best if you got lost starting now. “

   “I mean to get twenty, maybe more,” he said, smiling smirking, reaching into his back pocket.

   Stan took a fast step forward, his right foot coming down on the forefoot of the boy’s sneaker, grabbing his left wrist as it came out of the back pocket a flash of steel, and broke his nose with a short hard jab using his right elbow. Stepping away he let him fall backward and turned toward the younger boy, flipping the switchblade its business side face front.

   “Go,” he said. “Go right now.”

   The boy hesitated, looked down at the other Seven Saint on the ground, splattered with blood, and ran away like a squid on roller skates.

   Stan let the switchblade fall to the ground and broke the blade off the knife, stepping on it with his heel and pulling until it cracked at the hinge, and threw it at the older boy getting up. It hit him in the chest and bounced away. 

   “The next time I see you,” he spluttered, on his feet, choking, his mouth half-full of blood.

   “The next time I see you, you fill your hand with a knife, I’ll break your face again,” said Stan. He took a step up to the boy and spoke softly to him. “Actually, it won’t matter what you do, nosebleed, what you’re doing, who you’re with, where you are. The minute I see you is when I’ll stack you up. Make sure you never see me again, make sure I never see you.”

   He took Vicki by the arm, pushed the teenager to the side, and they walked away.

   “You didn’t have to do that,” said Vicki. “You won plenty of hands tonight. You could afford to give up a few chips. You might have tossed them a dollar-or-two.”

   “I know,” said Stan. 

   “But I don’t care about those cockroaches,” he added. “They were working themselves up to be dangerous and that had to stop. The sooner the better.”

   “They were just kids.”

   “You saw the scratches on the face of the kid who ran away.”

   “Of course, the whole side of his face was gruesome.”

   “The Seven Saints have an initiation to get into the club,” Stan said. “They find a stray cat and tie him to a telephone pole, about head high, and leave the cat’s four feet free. The kid getting initiated has his hands tied behind his back and he gets to become a Seven Saint if he can kill the cat, using his head as a club.”

   “Oh, my God!” Vicki exclaimed, stopping dead. “How do you even know that?”

   “I make it my business to know, so I don’t get taken by surprise.”

   Stan paused, then said, “I didn’t want them near me. I don’t give a damn about them. I care about you, Dottie, Ezra, Betty, the crew, what we do, not who we do it for or whatever they think it’s all about. I care about getting it done and getting paid. I like playing cards. Throw in a dinner, a dance, a drink, I’m all done. I don’t need anymore.”

   They passed the USS Maine Monument.

   “I don’t want greasers in my face.”

   They walked out of the park under a quarter moon, crossing Columbus Circle and strolling down Ninth Avenue. At West 56th Street they turned towards the river, stopping in front of a four-floor walk-up with a twin set of fire escapes bolted to the front of the flat face of the brick building.

  “Anyway, maybe it will do them some good,” said Stan, fitting his key into the door lock. “Not everyone is as nice as I am. Someday somebody will go ballistic on them.”

   “Ballistic?” she asked.

   “Like a rocket, a missile that goes haywire.”

   “I wish we had a rocket to take us upstairs” she said, as they took the stairs up to the fourth floor. “We forgot our pastry.”

   “Another time,” he said.

   At the door of the apartment Stan fitted his key into the lock, opened the door, reached for the light switch, and let Vicki go around him as he did. In the shadow of the back of the front room there was a low menacing growl and a sudden movement. It was Mr. Moto. He crossed the room fast. He lunged at Vicki’s lead leg as she stepped across the threshold.

   “Hey, watch out for my stockings,” she cried out. Vicki was wearing Dancing Daters. “I’ll smack you right on your pink nose if you make them run.”

   Mr. Moto skidded to a stop a whisker from her leg.

   “That’s better,” said Vicki, bending down to stroke his head.

   The big cat arched his back and purred.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

One Man Army

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By Ed Staskus

There has never been an excess of men who fight for a guerrilla group and three armies, one of them twice, during any single war. An army a day keeps most men busy enough. Leonas Lucauskas stayed busier than many other combatants during the titanic struggle that was World War II, serving in the Lithuanian, German, and American armed forces. He may not have had as many lives as a cat, but it was close enough.

“My father was born in 1916, in the Ukraine,” said Leo Lucas. “My grandfather Juozas and grandmother Stanislava were living in Poltava, insanely far from Marijampole, their home.” He meant the 700 miles was insanely far given the state of Russian roads and railroads. The Eastern Front, where millions of men were slaughtering each other at the time, was closer.

“He was a professor, teaching there during the war.” said Leo.

The school was the Poltava National Technical University. It was founded in 1818 by the wife of the governor-general of the province, the granddaughter of the last Ukrainian strongman before the Russian Empire absorbed the country in the 18th century. For hundreds of years Lithuanian and Polish freebooters had controlled vast tracts of the Ukraine and were a law unto themselves. They were no match for the Cossacks, however, who were later no match for the Russians.

The main building on campus was built in the early 1830s as the home of the Institute of Noble Maidens. It had an Empire-style look. When the institute became the technical university, women were forbidden to attend.

After the war the family, including Leonas’s older brother and sister, who were twins, went back to Lithuania. They settled near Iglauka, not far from Lake Yglos, His father taught school in Marijampole, 12 miles to the west, and they lived on a farm. His mother’s family were prosperous owners of acreage and property.

In 1924 the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and his older brother suddenly unexpectedly died. The next year his mother was shot dead at a wedding.

It had been Russian Imperial policy to leave the country in a non-industrial state. The inheritance system that was exercised after the land reform of 1863 forbade the partition of land plots. There were many landowners at the reception. They stuck tight together socially friends neighbors families bound by the old time way.

“A group of Communist agitators, people who wanted other people’s land, came to the wedding, started a ruckus, started shooting guns, and my grandmother was accidentally shot and killed,” said Leo.

The Communist party of Lithuania was formed in 1918 and remained illegal until 1940. They were out for blood, though. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries.

Years later, Leonas told his son the challenge of his life after his mother’s death was, would he take revenge when he grew up? They all lived in small towns, everybody knew everybody else, and everybody knew who the Communists were. Should he kill them when he grew up? He decided he wouldn’t.

When he grew up, he got married, had a daughter, was planning on going to school to study medicine, but then the Second World War happened. His father was shot and killed by fifth column Communists in his own home, Leonas joined the Lithuanian Army, and the Soviet Union invaded.

It was never a fair fight. In mid-June 1940 a half-million Red Army troops poured across the borders of Estonia and Latvia. Within a week the Baltics were overrun, one week before France fell to Nazi Germany. Josef Stalin blew his nose into his walrus mustache. Adolf Hitler did an awkward little jig grinning behind his square mustache.

Leonas took to the forest, joining a group of partisans, staying in the fight for the next year. It wasn’t any more dangerous than anything else in the dangerous times. He had been working in the fields when his father was killed. “They were killing landowners. My father’s luck was just the luck of being out working,” said Leo. They would have killed him all the next year if they had been able to track him down.

A year later Lithuania was invaded by two German army groups. Most Russian aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Wehrmacht advanced rapidly, assisted by Lithuanians, who saw them as liberators. They helped by bringing their weapons to bear, controlling railroads, bridges, and warehouses. The Lithuanian Activist Front and Lithuanian Territorial Corps formed the native backbone of the anti-Soviet fighting.

Leonas Lucauskas was one of many who joined the German Army, being assigned to a Baltic Unit. Three years later he was having second thoughts. The Baltic Offensive of 1944 was in full swing, the Red Army on the march to “liberate the Soviet Baltic peoples.” An NCO by then, Leonas and his men were ordered to man the front line and hold it at all costs. It was costing them more lives every day.

“The rich Lithuanians were officers,” Leo said. They weren’t in the tranches getting their heads shot off. “The enlisted men were getting endlessly killed.”

A small airstrip was nearby for reconnaissance and resupply. Junker 52s were flying in and out with ammunition first aid food and hope in the grim hopelessness. Leonas and three other men from his unit were unloading one of the planes at a side door by means of a ramp, the front prop and wing-mounted engines roaring, when with hardly a word spoken between them, they made up their minds to steal it and fly to safety.

Two of the men rushed up the ramp and threw the two German pilots out the door, while the other man and Leonas kept watch, guns at the ready. He was the last one to scramble into the plane and was shot in the back of the foot just before he slammed the door shut.

“I was playing on the floor one day,” Leo said. It was the late 1960s. “My dad was relaxing, shoes and socks off, sitting on the sofa in the living room reading a newspaper. I saw a scar on his heel and asked him what it was. He said it was a bullet wound. He rolled up his pants and showed me three more on both legs.”

One of the Lithuanians returned the shooting with a MG15 machine gun set in the dustbin turret, while the other two men dragged Leonas to the cockpit. None of them had ever flown an airplane. He was the only one of them who had ever even driven a car.

How hard can it be? he thought. With bullets slamming into the corrugated aluminum fuselage he found out it wasn’t hard at all. He pushed on the throttle, got the Junker going as fast as he thought it would go, raised the nose, and “Iron Annie” lifted up into the air.

They quickly came up with a plan, planning to fly to Switzerland. They got as far as the neighborhood of the Poland to Germany border when they ran out of gas. The plane wasn’t the fastest, 165 MPH its top speed, and it could go about 600 miles on a tankful. When they went down, they were headed in the right direction. All they needed was another full tank.

It solved their landing problem, since Leonas had already told his countrymen he had no idea how to land the plane. The Junker hit the ground hard and every part of it broke into pieces. When Leonas came back to life he was in a field hospital. He never found out what happened to his comrades.

The doctors and military men asked him who he was and what happened. He answered them in German, in High German, not Low. “My father spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German.” He was wearing the right uniform when found, was speaking like a householder, and they assumed he was one of them. Leonas bit his tongue about who he really was, thanking God for his good fortune.

After he got out of the hospital he was deemed not fit enough for combat and assigned to the motor pool. Soon after he drew a lucky number and was assigned to be the driver for a general. It was lucky enough until several months later, early one morning, in the middle of winter, when he got a wake-up call from one of his motor pool sidekicks.

“Don’t come to work today,” the man said.

“What does that mean?”

“Your general died late last night. One of the first people the Gestapo will want to talk to is you.”

He knew it was true. He knew what had happened to anybody and everybody involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in mid-July. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. He would never be able to stand up to scrutiny.

His general was probably out carousing in their Tatra 87, slid on ice and smashed into a tree, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether he died in the arms of his mother or was assassinated. His goose was cooked if the Geheime Staatspolizei got him. The SS literally cooked people to death.

The Tatra 87 was the car of the year the last five years. Sleek futuristic BMW-engine fast and high-tech as could be, it was the vehicle of choice for German officers. Unfortunately for them, it was sloppy, handling like pudding, killing its drivers right and left. Leonas always kept it under 40 MPH. It was the vehicle of choice of the Americans, too, for their mortal enemy. They thought of it as a secret weapon, killing more high German officers than died fighting the Red Army.

He jumped to his feet, hurriedly dressed in his uniform, threw on a winter coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 2-ton 4 x 4 Blitz Utility trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away unnoticed. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans.

He didn’t get shot by either side and that is what happened, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war was over he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.

“My grandfather Juozas was a gigantic guy,” said Leo. “I’m six foot four. My father Leonas was five nine and maybe one forty pounds.” In the end, what counts is what you do.

Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.

At the beginning of 1945 the Allied Expeditionary Force on the Western Front had 73 divisions ready to go. The Germans had 26 divisions. The Battle of the Bulge ended in an Allied victory. Adolf Hitler held a meeting with his top men, instructing them to hold the Americans and British off as long as possible. By that time, however, his top men were flat tires. He boarded a train and never went back to the Western Front again. At the end of January, he gave the last speech he was ever to give. It didn’t do any good.

After surrendering, Leonas spent time in a DP camp, until being recruited by the Americans. They were looking for men who spoke multiple languages and he fit the bill. He had been picking up bits and pieces of English. Russian and Polish are among the Top 10 hardest languages to learn. English is no slouch, either. He served as a Sergeant in a Baltic Unit. In 1946 and 1947 he was in Nuremberg, where war crime trials were being conducted. The evil men who propagated the National Socialist German Party either committed suicide, were executed, or locked up for a long time.

As the hard-fought civilization-saving decade of the 1940s wound itself down, Leonas Lucauskas emigrated to North America, finding work as a lumberjack in Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” said Leo. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land area the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was.”

Making it in a company town is unlikely. Since there is no competition, housing costs and groceries bills can become exorbitant, and workers build up large debts they are required to pay off before leaving. It can be slavery by another name. Leonas determined to find another way, his own way.

He and several other men pooled their resources, found a broken-down car, scavenged parts from other wrecks, filled the tires with enough cotton to get them to roll, and hit the road. He ended up in St. Catherine’s, near Niagara Falls, and later, finding the opportunity to go to the United States in 1950, took it and settled down outside Buffalo, New York, where he stayed the rest of his life.

He got married again. His wife Louise taught school. They raised a family. He went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store for more than thirty years, rarely missing a day.

He built their house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. Leo recalled, “I must have moved 5,000 wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our car parts factory friends went on strike, I delivered food to them in the morning before school.” His older sister Katherine still lives in the family home.

Leonas hung from his heels in the garage to prove he could still do it. “My father was a strong man.” said Leo. Sometimes men are strong because it’s the only choice they have. Spinning your wheels doesn’t get it done. He smoked and drank with his friends at the local Italian and Polish social clubs. He was an affable strong man.

Once he was done, he never enlisted in any other man’s army ever again.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Never Look Back

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By Ed Staskus

The new lightning war starting in 1939 won the Third Reich most of Europe and substantial parts of Russia. But five years later the Red Army was poised to take revenge on its enemy. When the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front tried to weather the storm and fight out of encirclements, the Russians did what the Germans would have done, fed armor into the attack, maintaining mobility, forcing the issue deep into rear areas, faster than their enemy could regroup.

“The Russians came fast,” said Angele Jurgelaityte. “We listened to the radio every day. We could hear booms in the distance, cannons. The Germans were on all the roads. The Russians were to the north and the east of us. We knew they were coming.”

The angelface of her aunt’s family, the family Angele was staying with near Alvitas, Lithuania, didn’t know, but everyone in the Baltics knew the Communists were coming back and there was going to be hell to pay.

It was the summer of 1944 that Soviet forces went on the offensive. The Germans were steadily implacably pushed back on a shifting front. A Red Army Tank Corps advanced to Vilkaviskis, four miles from their farm. The Russian 33rd Army entered the town and a few days later secured the rail depot at Marijampole. The Third Panzer Army mounted a counterattack, but after grim tank battles was finally forced to retreat to Kybartai, rolling back to a last-ditch defensive line in the Baltics.

“It was one day in the afternoon that a lady, a teacher, who was a friend of mamyte’s, with two kids, a small boy and a small girl, came to our farm from Vilnius,” Angele said. The woman and Angele’s aunt, Ona Kreivenas, had studied and graduated together from teacher’s college. She was in a horse drawn wagon with her children and what chattels and valuables she could pack and carry. She had come from the capital in a rush. She told them there were Russian tanks hiding on the nearby farm tracks.

The next morning Ona, Angele, and the children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the toddler Gema, loaded their wagon with clothes, blankets, and food. They hitched two horses to the wagon and tied a cow to the back. “We took milk with us when we left, for Gema, and hoped we would find more when we were gone.” They took whatever they could shoulder. They left their buggy behind and let the riding horse, the rest of the cows, and all the pigs and chickens loose.

“We let everything go. What could you do? The Russians would have just stolen all the animals.”

Ona took her money and what jewelry she possessed with her in a handbag she could keep close. She packed a trunk with her sewing machine, china, vases, artifacts, and family heirlooms. They lugged it behind the barn, where the remains of months of potatoes thrown down to feed the pigs were scattered.

They cleared a space, dug a four-foot deep hole, and buried the trunk. They threw potato scraps back over the overturned ground. When they were done, they left the family farm, in two wagons, two women and seven children on the move, sudden displaced refugees in their own country.

“We moved back about fifteen miles.”

They went southwest towards East Prussia. “We went to a big farm. When we got there, there were already hundreds of people in the fields, with their wagons, and their families. The farmer slaughtered and cut up pigs for us. All the women made food. Everybody was talking about the war, about what to do.”

There was heavy fighting between German and Soviet troops in the Baltics. As the fighting raged, more than 130,000 Latvians escaped to Sweden and Germany. In total, the country lost almost 20% of its population during the war, either dead or gone. The Great Escape in Estonia started in the summer and continued through the fall. It is estimated 80,000 Estonians fled from the Red Army to the West. Almost a 100,000 Lithuanians joined them, clogging the roads to Poland, Prussia, and Germany.

Ona stole back to her farm during the week the Panzer divisions were holding their own. The countryside was nearly deserted. She found the trunk they had buried underneath the pile of potato scraps behind the barn dug up and gone.

“There was just a big hole. The Russians took it. They used metal sticks to poke into the ground. Her sewing machine was gone, all gone.”

They slept rough, out of doors, like everybody else. “We slept on blankets on the ground. When it rained, we slept under the wagon and stretched a tarp out, to keep the water away.” Every day it got darker. Over the course of September, the length of the day in Lithuania rapidly decreases. By the end of the month the daylight is two hours less than it was at the start of the month.

The encampment stretched out for six weeks. They dug latrines and filled barrels with water. They picked apples off trees and blueberries from bushes. They took especial care of their horses. They greased the axles of their wagons, making sure the grease bucket was always full of animal fat and tar, and making sure they had a spare axle. Without one a broken axle would be a disaster, bringing them to a standstill.

The children played games whenever they had idle time.

“We played the ring game,” Angele said. “We all sat in a circle and passed around a pretend ring, like a twig or a pebble. Sometimes we passed it, but other times we didn’t. We just pretended to give it to who was next to us. One of us was it, like in tag, who had to guess who had the ring. If they were right, they got a prize, like a pencil. If they were wrong, they had to sing a song or do a dance in the middle of the circle.”

When they finally left the farm, they left in the early evening. They heard over the radio that morning that the Russians had come closer. They spent the day packing and preparing. It was now or never.

“Most of us left, although others of them stayed. Some of the farmers wanted their land back. They didn’t want to leave.” It was all they had. It was all they had ever known. They were loath to give it up. “Mamyte had to go, leave. The farm didn’t matter. Her husband had already been taken by the Communists. She knew they would take her, too, send her away to Siberia, and her children would be left behind, orphans.”

It rained that day and the rest of the night.

“The road was crowded on both sides. There were thousands of wagons, wagon after wagon, all going one way. There wasn’t a single car or truck, just horses. We knew the Germans were somewhere ahead of us and the Russians somewhere behind us. But we didn’t see any soldiers anywhere, at all.”

Ona was at the reins of the two-horse team, her seven-year-old daughter Ramute beside her holding the three-year-old Gema, and Carmen, Mindaugas, and Angele walking. Most of the refugees were walking, their wagons jam-packed with possessions and provisions. Their friend from Vilnius with her two small children was in the wagon behind them.

Before the war, Lithuania’s population was almost 3 million. After the war it was closer to 2 million. Some Lithuanians ended up dead. Many were deported. Others ran for their lives, displaced. The displaced were forced to make new lives in different countries all around the world, whatever country they could get to, whatever country would take them, whatever country they could slip into.

When the Soviet re-invasion happened, some Lithuanians tried to flee across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries, but only a few were successful. Patrol boats apprehended them, and they ended up imprisoned in labor camps. Most fled west, while others went south to Hungary, Romania, and the Balkans.

“On the way we met my uncle on the road, my mother’s brother, Uncle Jankauskas and his family.” Her uncle’s wagon fell into line with them. The progression of wagons stretched as far as the eye could see, forward and back. They soon crossed into East Prussia. There were no guards. They had all fled. The border lay forsaken.

“I was so sad leaving Lithuania,” Angele said.

Russian warplanes strafed and bombed the column of evacuees several times. The Red Air Force was bombing and strafing at will, both German Army and refugee columns alike. Forest and brush on both sides of the road were set on fire. There was dark smoke in the sky day and night. Wagons and carts wended their way around rain-filled craters.

“It was all just wagons. They knew we were refugees They dropped bombs and shot their machine guns. I don’t know why they did that. Whenever we heard airplanes, we all ran and jumped into ditches beside the road. I was afraid, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t be hurt by them.”

What was called the Baltic Gap had grown so large and menacing to the Reich that Adolf Hitler moved his headquarters from Berchtesgaden to Rastenburg in East Prussia. The German situation on the Eastern Front was desperate. The fighting was hard and bitter. It was a fight to the finish.

The hinterland was torn up, wrecked forlorn abandoned.

“Most of the people on the farms had run away. We would go into their houses and find dried fruit, pickles, mushrooms, pork, and wine.” They ransacked barns, pantries, and root cellars. “We took all the food we could find, all of it. It rained all the time, it was cold, we walked and walked, and everybody was hungry.”

The rain and asphalt were hurtful to their cow. The animal was as careful as could be on the poor traction of the wet road, stepping timidly with its rear feet spread wide. But the cow was walking with an arched back. They finally had to do something. They knew the long miles and pavement weren’t good for it. They thought she might be going lame. Angele’s uncle looked at the cow’s hooves and saw lesions. An ulcer was forming on one hoof.

“Mindaugas and I found a family that hadn’t run away. We went to their farmhouse and sold the cow to them.” They gave the money to Ona and she hid it on her person. She had plans for it.

One cold night when they stopped to rest her uncle said, “Kids, jump up and down to warm yourselves up.” When Angele hopped instead of jumped, he grasped her under the armpits. “He grabbed me. We were jumping up and down and he dropped me by accident.”

She broke her wrist. “It hurt bad, but there were no doctors to help me.”

When they got to a town with a railroad station, there weren’t any doctors there, either. The skilled and the smart had already left. Everybody else was hoping against hope. Angele’s wrist had to take care of itself.

After the New Year the German population of East Prussia, most of whom had not cut and run, began to evacuate as the Red Army rapidly advanced. Within weeks it turned into helter-skelter flight as more than two million of the two-and-half million men women children of the enclave bolted into the Polish Corridor heading for Germany. The winter weather was biting, the roads were a mess, and the civil authorities were overwhelmed. There was panic and quagmire and many thousands died, some caught in combat, others swept away in the chaos.

But before that happened, Ona Kreivenas had already sold their wagon and horses and everything they couldn’t carry and managed against the odds to get tickets for a train going to Berlin. The Prussian Eastern Railway connected Danzig and Konigsberg to Berlin. A month later, the last week of January 1945, the last train to Berlin ran the rails. There was no traffic on the line after that.

“The train was completely full. The corridors were full, too.” They stood in a tight group in the corridor. The passenger cars were red and had ten large windows on both sides. They were pressed against one of the windows. Some of the windows were smashed and the passageway was as cold as the outside.

“We had a pillow for Gema, who slept on the floor, but we stood all night and all the next day.”

The twin locomotives pulling the long line of passenger sleeping baggage cars and a caboose had been given camouflage livery. On the front was painted the Hoheitsadler, an eagle, Germany’s traditional symbol of national sovereignty, holding a swastika in its talons. By the time they crossed Poland and entered Germany, the talons and swastika were covered in coal soot.

Lehrter Bahnhof was the Berlin terminus, adjacent to Hamburger Bahnhof, built in the late 19th century just outside of what was then Berlin’s boundary on the Spree River.  It was in the French neo-Renaissance style, the façade covered in glazed tiles. The station had long been known as a “palace among stations.” But it had been severely damaged by Allied strategic bombing and was near to shambles.

When they finally got off the train in Berlin, tired and stiff from standing, they were met on the platform by Bishop Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to Juozapas Skvireckas, the archbishop of Kaunas. During the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with several retreating German divisions. Ona had somehow located him by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg and carrying a basket of hot buns.

“He gave one to each of us. I was so happy,” said Angele

The Third Reich’s war economy was on the verge of collapse. The whole country was in the same sinking ship. There was a shortage of hot buns and everything else. When they looked around, the buns the bishop had brought were the only cheer they could see. There wasn’t going to be any traditional roast goose this holiday season.

Angele looked at the four children and her aunt. She glanced up and down the platform. Bishop Brizgys led them out of the station into the city. The Red Army numbering over four million men was massing on the Vistula River and along the East Prussian border. Their superiority was ten to one in infantry and twenty to one in artillery and planes. Berlin and its three million residents were already a wreck, the day and night Allied bombing taking a monstrous toll.

The late afternoon was a gray haze. There was smoke in the sky. She looked past the rubble in the street. When she looked ahead, she thought it was going to be a bare-bones winter on German land.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly update in your in-box.

Champing at the Bit

By Ed Staskus

  Vicki, Bettina, and Dottie plunked down their fifteen cents apiece at a NYCTA booth and walked down the stairs. Dottie stopped to look at a yellow sign trimmed in red on the wall at the entrance to the tunnel.

   “Please cooperate. When in doubt, ask any employee. Help keep the subways clean. Use receptacles for paper. Do not rush. Let ‘em off first. Move away from doors. Keep to the right on stairways. Try to shop between 10 and 4. Always be courteous.”

   “Run!” she suddenly shouted, running up the platform. “It’s one of those air-conditioned cars!” 

   Two months earlier the transit system had rolled out the first experimental air-conditioned cars on the East Side IRT line. They were fitted with deodorizers and filters and piped-in soft music. The temperature was maintained in the mid-70s. Signs on every third window said, “Air-Conditioned Car. Please Keep Windows Closed.”

   They were taking the IND line across the river to Brooklyn, across Gravesend, to the end of the line. When they got off the train they walked, crossed Mermaid Avenue, and hoofed it to Coney Island Beach and the Boardwalk.

    Dottie felt light as lemonade.

   They stopped at the Sodamat on West 15th Street as they strolled on the Boardwalk. “Good Drinks Served Right. Skee Ball 5 cents.” There were prize games, hammer games, rifle ranges, freak shows, and fortune-tellers up and down Coney Island.

   “Look, they have waffles,” said Dottie, pointing to a sign on the front of a counter behind which a man in a white jacket and soda jerk cap was making waffles.

   “I thought you wanted a Nathan’s,” said Vicki.

   “I do, but later,” said Dottie.

   “Did you know hot dogs were invented right here on Coney Island, almost one hundred years ago?” asked Bettina.

   “Not so fast, how could Nathan have done that?” asked Dottie. 

   “It wasn’t Nathan, it was Charley Feltman, who used to boil sausages on a small charcoal stove inside his wagon and then slip them into a roll. He called them red hots at first, but later changed it to hot dogs.”

   “How about some ball hop before we eat?” asked Vicki, pointing into the arcade behind the food counter.

   “My game is stickball,” said Dottie. “Skee ball is for jellyfish. They don’t even play stickball here. They play coop-ball. That’s for jellyfish, too.”

   “Do you only play stickball?” asked Vicki. 

   “Oh, no, we play ringolevio and skelly, too, although some kids call it scummy top. Skelly is fun, but all you’ve got are your chalk and the squares and your caps. Ringolevio is way more fun, we run all over, and there’s a jail, and jailbreaks, and everything.  Chain, chain, double chain, no break away!” 

   “Let’s break the chain and go eat,” said Betty. They ordered waffles.

   “That was the best waffle I ever had,” Dottie said afterwards

    “You had two of them,” said Vicki.

   “She’s a growing girl,” said Betty.

   “Those were the best two waffles I ever had,” said Dottie.

   “Where to now?” asked Betty.

   “I want to jump off the Eiffel Tower!” exclaimed Dottie. 

   The Parachute Jump at Steeplechase Park had been built for the 1939 World’s Fair and later moved to Coney Island. It stood 250 feet high, was open-frame, and everyone called it the Eiffel Tower of Brooklyn. Twelve cantilevered steel arms sprouted from the top of the tower, eleven of them supporting two-person canvas seats and parachutes. The riders were belted down, hoisted to the top, then released into freefall, caught by the parachute, and floated to the ground. Shock absorbers were built into the seats, just in case.

   “I’m not going up on that thing,” said Betty.

   “Do you remember the parachute wedding?” Vicki asked her.

   “No, I never heard of it.”

   “A couple got married up there. The minister was in the seat next to them and the whole wedding party was on the rest of the seats. When the ceremony was over the married couple parachuted down first, and everyone else followed them, except for the minister. The cables on his seat got tangled and he was up there for more than five hours before firemen could get him down. The tower is right on the ocean, and it was windy, and he got sick as a dog, puking on the wedding party.”

   “That cinches it,” said Betty.

   “You and me both, sister,” said Vicki. “Time to plow back through the crowd.”

   “Why do they call it Coney Island?” asked Dottie, taking a last longing look up at the parachute ride she wasn’t going to ride.

   “It’s because of the Dutch,” said Bettina. “When they were here, maybe three hundred years ago, there were lots of rabbits in the dunes, so they called it Konijnen Eiland, which means Rabbit Island, which became Coney Island after the English took over.”

   “How did they take over?”

   “Somebody always takes over,” said Betty.

   “Why does somebody always take over?”

   “It’s the way of the world, child,” said Betty.

   “I want to go on the Wonder Wheel,” said Dottie. 

   “I think we’re up for that,” said Vicki.

   The Wonder Wheel at Luna Park was a Ferris wheel and a Chute-the Chutes and a slow-moving roller coaster all in one. It was once called Dip-the-Dip. Some of the cars were stationary, but more than less of them moved back and forth along tracks between a big outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel as all of it rotated.   

   They walked past an eight-foot high neon sign spelling out “Wonder Wheel.” Through the middle of the sign was an arrow blinking and pointing to the ride. “Thrills!” it said.

   Dottie sat between Vicki and Betty in one of the sliding cars. 

   “You can see Manhattan,” said Vicki when it was their turn at the top of the 150-foot-tall big wheel and it stopped for a few seconds.

  “Look, you can see the Rockaway,” said Betty.

   “It takes you low and it takes you high,” said Vicki.

   “When you reach the top it’s like you can touch the sky,” said Dottie. “You can see the whole world.”

   “One minute you’re on top, the next minute down you go,” said Betty. “I say, stay in your seat, it’s going to get bumpy, enjoy the ride.”

   “Top of the world, ma, top of the world,” said Vicki like a crazy person, bulging her eyeballs and throwing her arms up.

    Betty laughed.

   “One day he’s a mama’s boy mad dog killer and the next day, older and wiser, he’s Yankee Doodle Dandy.”

   Dottie wondered, what are they talking about? 

   The Wonder Wheel shuddered and started down again.

   “Can we go fast now?” Dottie asked when they were on the ground.

   The Cyclone was in Astroland at the corner of Surf Avenue and West 10th Street, almost 2700 feet long, with six fan turns and twelve drops. The lift hill was 85 feet high. Six years earlier a man who hadn’t spoken in fourteen years, riding a roller coaster for the first time, screamed while going down the first drop.

   “I feel sick,” he muttered when the train returned to the station. He dropped to the ground in a dead faint after realizing he had spoken.

   Dottie peeked over the front edge of the front car down at the track of the Cyclone as the train creaked to the top of the lift hill, where it was going to curve over the rails and hurtle down. Vicki and Betty were in the car behind her, after she had pleaded with them to go on the coaster, and she was with her new friend, Ronald, a boy her age whose parents had stayed behind on the platform. 

   “I have a friend who counts the seconds until the ride is over,” said Ronnie. 

   “Why does he do that?”

   “He can’t stand it.”

   “What’s the point of riding it in the first place?” 

   “I dunno,” said Ronnie. “Every time I ask if he wants to go with me, he says, sure, as soon as I’ve lost my mind, but he always goes anyway.”

   “The Cyclone is for when you want to be scared and thrilled all at the same time. Maybe he should stick to the merry-go-round.”

   “Yeah,” said Ronnie. “You don’t want to ride the roller coaster when you’ve got diarrhea.”

   “No way,” said Dottie, making sure their buzz bar was locked in place.

   “Did you hear about that girl who got hit in the face by a pigeon and broke her nose going down this hill?” asked Ronnie.

   “No!” said Dottie.

   “It was alright,” he said. “She had some Kleenex and stuffed it up her nose nostrils to keep the blood out of her eyes.”

   “Yikes!” said Dottie, as the Cyclone shimmied shook roared down the other side of the lift hill. “If that happens, I don’t have any Kleenex.”

   They laughed up and down the trick hill, leaned into the banked turns that twisted and tipped the train, ducked beneath the head-choppers, and inside of two minutes pulled back into the station where everybody clambered off. 

   “My legs feel like fried bacon,” said Ronnie.

   “Yeah, that was the mostest fun,” said Dottie.

   “Bye.”

   “Bye to you, too.”

   “That was sketchy,” said Vicki.

   “Shoot low, they’re sending Shetlands,” said Betty. “Did you feel that tower sway when we got to the top?”

   “You bet I did.”

   “I’m hungry,” said Dottie.

   “You’re always hungry,” said Bettina. “Doesn’t Stan feed you? Do you have a hollow leg, or what?”

   “So am I, hungry, I mean,” said Vicki.

   “How about a red hot at Nathan’s?” Betty suggested. 

   “Yippee ki yay!” exclaimed Dottie.

Excerpted from “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Crackerjack in the Mess Hall

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By Ed Staskus

“I see you’ve made it back,” said Michelle, sporting neato retro eyeglasses and handcrafted rings on nearly every finger of every hand. Waiting tables, delivering three four five plates at a time, is two-fisted three-fisted work.

“I have to try the pad Thai, after seeing the folks next to us digging into it the week before last,” said Vera.

‘That’s one of Emily’s best, definitely. Would you like to start with a drink?” she asked, one of the three grown-up servers on the floor the early September weekend evening.

“What is a good mixed drink?” asked Vera, running her eyes up and down the menu.

“Everything, but Kim can mix up anything if we don’t make it.”

“What is Straight Shine?”

“Shine.”

“Like moonshine?”

“It’s our island-made moonshine.”

“Like Ole Smoky in a mason jar?” asked Frank.

“Not the same, it’s served more like a margarita,” said Michelle.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” said Frank.

“My God, I might moonshine,” said Vera. “My grandfather used to make vodka at home. All his friends from Lithuania, who escaped during the war, would come over on Sunday afternoons after church, drinking the rest of the day, reminiscing, yakking it up, and singing their old country songs. OK, I’ll try it.”

“I’ll have a pint, something IPA,” said Frank.

Frank and Vera Glass were at The Mill, a restaurant on a high bank overlooking the River Clyde in New Glasgow, on Prince Edward Island, up the eastern Canadian coast. The eatery is in a two-story Dutch Colonial-like blue building built in 1896. It served as a community center and courthouse, among its many later incarnations. It was converted to a restaurant in the 1990s by the Larkin’s, nearby poultry farmers who are the largest turkey growers in the province.

“We used to have a guy in shipping, in the warehouse, from West Virginia, who brought back moonshine every time he went home for a visit,” said Frank, as Vera sipped her Straight Shine. “He always said you could tell it was good if you put a match to it and the flame burned blue. That meant it was good to go and wouldn’t make you go blind.”

Michelle walked up and lit the tea candle on their table.

“How is it,” she asked

“It looks good to me,” said Vera. “What I mean is, it tastes good.”

When the Larkin’s transitioned out of the dining room business twenty years later, The Mill stayed down home when PEI chef Emily Wells took over, putting her fusion-style stamp on the dining room.

Vera ordered the stir-fried garlic ginger cilantro lemon juice rice noodle fettucine pad Thai with lobster and Frank ordered the special, curry sweet potato soup, baby back ribs with mac and cheese, and dessert. It was East meets West meets Italy. Fusion cooking is the art of mixing ingredients and preparation styles from different cultures into a distinctive dish of tastiness.

The window Frank and Vera were sitting at had gone dark by the time they finished their dinners, although Vera was still on the last lap. She was a slow eater and her plate had been stacked. A quarter-moon in a cloudless sky reflected a milky light in the river. Frank leaned back in his chair as Vera lifted a final forkful to her mouth.

“Since we both ordered something new, why don’t we try something new for dessert, too?” Frank asked Vera.

They had eaten at The Mill several times the past three years and usually ordered coffee and carrot cake after dinner, since the carrot cake was about the best they had eaten anywhere.

“It’s better than my mom’s, and she’s a pro,” said Vera.

Vera’s mother was a freelance pastry chef in Cleveland, Ohio, who during the holiday season mixed in making website-ordered Russian Napoleon cakes, shipping them frozen solid all around the country by Fed-Ex next-day air.

“How about the chocolate cake that couple from Miami told us about?”  asked Vera.

“We move around the island a lot,” said the husband from Florida. “We’ve eaten at a lot of restaurants but overall this is our absolute favorite.”

“What’s so great?” said the lady of the house. “The unique combination of flavors and menu options, and there’s not a deep fryer in the kitchen! They’re dedicated to local food sourcing, which means super fresh food and vegetables. Make sure to try the chocolate cake even if you’re full. It’s made in-house and melts in your mouth.

“And the portions are large, too,” she added.

Unlike more than one restaurant with a swell reputation on Prince Edward Island, in the meantime serving prison camp portions at penthouse prices, The Mill gets it done with a square deal, even though it has as much, if not more, in the culinary arts to crow about.

“Do you bake this here?” asked Vera.

“Our baker does,” said Michelle.

“It’s totally delicious, the dark chocolate, if you want to let the baker know.”

A few minutes later a strapping young woman with disheveled hair walked up to their table.

“Did you make this?” asked Frank, pointing to the half-eaten slice of zuccotto he was sharing with his wife.

“Yeah,” said Anna, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Do you make the carrot cake, too?

“Yeah.”

“It’s our favorite carrot cake anywhere,” said Vera. “Your chocolate dessert is what chocolate dessert should taste like, up-to-the-minute. They can be boring, doing the same thing over and over again. This is definitely bomb cake, in more ways than one.”

“You seem awfully young to be making cake this good,” said Frank

“Yeah,” said Anna with a big smile.

“How old are you?”

“I’m 17-years-old,” said Anna. “I was 15 when I first started cooking here. I came in to work one day, I was bussing tables, and my boss said, you’re scaring everyone out there. You have to go into the kitchen. From that point on I’ve worked in the kitchen.”

“Scaring everyone?” asked Frank.

“Yeah, they said my personality was too big.”

“Too big?” said Vera.

“I was fourteen. How scary could I be?” asked Anna. “I guess I can be scary sometimes. Nothing’s really changed.”

“I told her when she worked out front that she was scaring the customers with her huge personality,” said Kim, the mixologist. “Now that she’s in the kitchen, she’s come up with pet names for all of us. We won’t talk about that, though. It can get gross.”

“What did you guys eat?” asked Anna.

“She had the Thai and I had the special. Last week we both had the big seafood chowder bowl,” said Frank.

“Ahhh,” said Anna.

“I’ve heard you have a name for it in the kitchen.”

“We have a pet name for it, yeah.”

“I tasted orange in the soup,” said Vera.

“Yup, there are orange peels, marinated, and bay leaves, that we take out right before service. We make our own fish broth, and our own vegetable broth, too.”

The new Mill, brainchild of Emily Wells, who was named one of the north’s top chefs by the Matador Network in 2016, serves fresh local food made with global flair. She works in a classic vein, adapting her recipes to what’s in place and on time. “You’re buying local lettuce, local tomatoes,” she said. “A huge chunk of it, it’s seafood season on PEI.” A graduate of the first class at the Culinary Institute of Canada, she cut her teeth in kitchens in Ontario and Prince Edward Island, and made a name for herself at The Dunes in Brackley Beach.

“I’ve been at it for thirty-five years,” she said.

“Oh, I’ve got mussels on the stove, back in a minute,” said Anna, striding out of the dining room.

“I thought Emily was making the desserts, or they were buying them from some high-end bakery,” said Vera.

“If that teenager is the pastry chef, all I can say is, she’s totally up to speed,” said Frank.

“Do you make all the desserts,” asked Vera, when Anna came back to their table.

“Yeah, I’m a line cook and the baker.”

“My mother is a pastry chef,” said Vera. “You’re very good.”

“How did you learn to bake so well?” asked Frank.

“Emily taught me. I‘m a quick learner. I learned a lot from my grandmother. I used to spend all my time with her when I was a kid. She taught me to pickle and bake.”

Not everyone is good with pastry, not by any means.

“I make no bones about it,” says Michael Symon, chef, author, and restaurateur. “I have no understanding of pastry.”

“Honestly, I hate to say this,” said Anna, “but my aunt makes an even better carrot cake than I do.”

“You’re early to be nearly as good as your aunt,” said Frank.

“Most of our staff is young,” said Anna. “Everyone in the kitchen is under 20, except Andrea and Emily. We have a 19-year-old, another 17-year-old, and a 13-year-old, who is my sister. Luke, our other prep, has three younger brothers who work here.”

“It’s like a family line on the line,” said Frank.

If you are under 16 in the province and want to work, you must have permission from your parents, only work between 7 AM and 11 PM, and not work in an environment that is harmful to your health, safety, moral or physical development, among other things. If you are over 16, those limits don’t apply.

“I’ll tell you about PEI and Atlantic Canada, it’s a culture of honest, hard work,” says Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Sometimes known as the “Million-Acre Farm,” farming is king on the island. Farming for a living is hard work. You won’t ever need a gym membership. There are some advantages. You are your own boss, you can go to work in boots and a dirty t-shirt, and you eat like a king.

“I started as a dishwasher,” said Anna.

Working the dish pit means long hours on your feet, getting wet a lot, and ending the day smelling like food and dirt. It’s not markedly different than farming.

“The kids are great,” said Kim. “Ours is a teaching kitchen, so they get an education, and get paid. They all have a great work ethic. The little hostess, she’s fifteen, a crackerjack like Anna. It’s great to see that they want to work. I’ve worked in other places, and it’s like pulling teeth, all standing around. Here, they’re eager to learn and do.”

“A lot of people, their idea of baking is buying a ready-made mix and throwing in an egg,” said Vera. “I make carrot cake at home, but it’s just carrots and stuff. One of our cats likes a piece now and then. Yours is both more subtle and more complex.”

“The main spices we use are ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, and a bit of all-spice, and that’s about it.”

“The cake isn’t heavy, which is what I like,” said Frank.

“There’s pineapple in it.”

“The frosting is terrific,” said Vera.

“I couldn’t come to work yesterday,” said Anna. “I decided my cat died.”

“Oh, my gosh, that’s too bad!” said Vera. “What happened?”

“She was an outdoor cat. I had her since I was six, I came home one day and asked, where’s my cat, but nobody had seen her for days. It’s been a month. I sat outside in my lawn chair until it got dark, but she never came back. I’m pretty sure she got eaten by a coyote.”

After paying the bill, Frank and Vera lingered at the rail on the front deck. The band that had been playing in the loft was in the parking lot, still hooting it up. The night air was damp but brisk. The moon hovered in the inky sky. Across the street, lights glowed over the bay doors of the New Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department.

“That girl might be one of the best 17-year-old pastry chefs no one has ever heard of, not anywhere, except for right here,” said Frank.

“Besides the known and the unknown, what else is there?” said Vera.

“That moonshine seems to have gone to your head,” said Frank.

“Ha, ha. Anyway, she’s got a big smile, big energy, and some scary cake talent. Somebody will hear about her, sooner or later.

There’s always a “Surprise Inside” every box of Cracker Jack.

They walked to the end of the deck leading to the side lot. Fluorescent lights blazed the windowpanes. Dishes clattered through the open windows, the kitchen staff having a gab fest as they cleaned up. They heard a rowdy high-spirited laugh, which followed them down the steps and stretch of gravel to their car.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Flesh and Blood

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By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte knocked on her aunt’s door in late September 1941, Ona Kreivenas lived on a farm near Alvitas, where she taught school, and had on her hands a growing family. There were three children and an infant. Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and Gema, the new baby come into being a year earlier, were not any of them older than Angele. Even Mindaugas, the eldest, was three years younger than their thirteen-year-old cousin from Gizai.

Alvitas is a village on a lake of the same name. It is on the main road. There was a parish church built of stone, an elementary school, more than thirty houses, and almost four hundred inhabitants.

When Ona came to the front door, she was by herself. She had lost her husband a year earlier. She had since that day become a stern woman. “She was pretty, like a doll, but I was afraid of her. I broke a dish once and was scared to death of what she would say when she found out.” Her aunt bid hello to the teenaged girl, who she had been half-expecting, if not warmly, at least with a measure of relief.

Angele had spent the day walking to her aunt’s farmhouse from her family’s farm, where she decided she could no longer live with the stepmother her father had married the month before, six months after her mother’s death. She left three brothers and a sister behind.

“He was a police chief,” she about her uncle, Jonas Kreivenas. “The Russians deported him. He didn’t do anything bad. It didn’t matter, they just took him away.”

The Russians started planning mass arrests and deportations the year before, in 1940, after the Red Army occupied Lithuania and the adjacent Baltic nations. Jonas Kreivenas was one of the first arrested in 1940. They targeted government officials, nationalists, the well-to-do, Catholics, policemen, and anyone they decided was an “anti-Soviet element.”

If you were a party member, you were going to prosper, rather than get sent to Siberia.

“I had a friend not far from our farm whose father was a blacksmith, who didn’t read or write. When the Russians came, they threw out the mayor, in the town where they lived, and made him the mayor, because he was a Communist. Everyone high up, they threw out.”

The mass arrests began a year later the night of Friday June 13 as NKVD troops fanned out across the country, scooping up men and entire families, carrying them to Vilnius. Nearly twenty thousand Lithuanians were forcibly marched into the boxcars of seventeen trains on Thursday June 19 and railroaded to the far end of Russia. Three days later the German army invaded Lithuania, the Luftwaffe catching the Russian air force unaware on the ground and destroying it. By mid-week the new Wehrmacht had swept the old Soviet resistance aside.

The Russians were out. The Germans were in. “The Germans weren’t good, but life was better for us. At least they didn’t deport us. Most of us hated the Russians.”

An independent Lithuanian government was put in place, but it shortly became clear that the German military held all the power. Lithuanian Jews began to bear the brunt of the occupation. They were forced to wear yellow stars and their money and property was taken away.

That spring, before Jonas Kreivenas was taken away by the Russians, he had gotten everything he needed to build an upstairs indoor bathroom, lumber, tiles, fixtures, a sink, and a bathtub. It was going to be his summer project. When the war came back to Lithuania three summers later, in 1944, the second floor was still torn up, and the bathroom was still not a bathroom.

“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”

Jonas had started work on his bathroom, working in his spare time, walls and floors opened, but everything was still in boxes stacked up in corners. Every month Ona hoped against hope for her husband’s return. The house was brick, fitted with large front windows, four rooms on the ground floor, a kitchen and dining room, and two bedrooms. The second floor was a floor.

“They lived on a farm that wasn’t big, but a little bigger and much nicer than my father’s. It wasn’t primitive,” said Angele.

“Everyone had either a large farm or a small farm, although almost everyone had small farms. Mamyte had a larger farm. She sometimes had men come and do work, but I still ended up having to work much harder than I ever did at my family’s farm.”

There was a cellar where they kept canned food and apples for the winter. There were chickens, cows, two work horses, a horse for riding, and lots of pigs. “She had a herd of them. Mamyte had a pig killed when we needed one, and we ate them.”

She had to feed the pigs while they lived and fattened.

“We kept a big pot in the kitchen where I boiled potatoes for the pigs every day. I had to bring all the water in from the well, not just for the pigs, but for everything.”

Earlier in the summer, within days of the Red Army’s collapse, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into Lithuania, their mission to liquidate Jews. Synagogues were set on fire and thousands of Jews killed in the streets. The Germans claimed rioting was a menace to public order and rounded up the country’s Jews, isolating them in ghettos to “protect them.”

By the end of the next summer Angele was still working hard but tired of being a hired hand. “I was young, and I had a lot of energy. I didn’t get tired. I watched the kids. Carmen was my best friend. I loved Gema the most. Ramute cried too much. She bent her fingers backwards until they hurt, and then started crying, saying that her hand hurt. I had to work all the time.”

She worked from before sunup to sundown. “I was the cook and made soup every day. I made the beds and I had to work all around the farm.” She washed dishes and put them away. She washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line outside to dry. She washed the kids, keeping them clean.

“I was her sister’s daughter, but I was her house maid, too.”

She made the fire that had to be made for eating every day. Coal had to to be hauled inside and ice knocked off the stairs in wintertime. Mindaugas was a strong boy and helped as much as he could. Carmen helped, too. Ramute was too small to do much and Gema was too small for anything. Ona went to town to teach school every day. In the summer she worked in the fields. Everybody did what they could.

One day when she was on the second floor, Angele overheard through an open window her aunt talking to a man in the front yard about that spring’s seeding.

“I have a servant, but she’s still young, and only so good to me,” said Ona.

She realized her aunt was talking about her, about her being more a servant, less a niece. “I promised myself from that moment that when I grew up, I would never be anyone’s servant, that no one would ever say that about me again.”

She put feed and water out for the chickens. She gathered eggs early and often. She collected them twice a day, so they stayed clean. It kept the chickens from eating them, as well. She herded cows to their milking stalls. She wore knee-high boots when walking knee-deep in pig mire. She put pebbles in the manger with the oats so the horses wouldn’t eat too fast. She mended fences the best she could when the pigs and cows bumped into them.

Angele and her father were sitting together under a gathering summer dusk in Gizai one day. “My father always called me Aneluke.” He told her his plans for the future. “Aneluke, when I die, I am going to leave the farm to you.”

Her aunt talked to her about vocational classes at a nearby farm school, where she could learn animal husbandry, vegetable production, and seasonal planning.

But after working on her father’s farm, and then working on her aunt’s farm, she had made up her mind farming wasn’t in her blood. “I didn’t like animals, and I hated the ground, the earth. I was never going to grow up to be a farmer.”

She was fourteen years old. She didn’t say anything to her father, but she told her aunt no.

When Angele’s grandfather died, Ona and her children went to Gizai for the funeral, but Angele had to stay behind and watch both the baby and the farm. “I was so unhappy,” she said.

She thought about her future, even though she was on between the war going on all around them. She thought about meeting boys. She thought about changing her name.

“I never liked my name. That’s why my father called me Aneluke.”

Her youngest brother didn’t like his name, either. Even though he been christened Mindaugas, after the legendary king, he changed it. When he told everybody far and wide young and old his new name was Jozukas, everybody went along with him, and he became Jozukas from then on.

She made friends with a boy she met at a dinner at a neighboring farm. They sat next to each other and talked. “I liked him, but one day Mindaugas and I were going to Vilkaviskis in the buggy when I saw him on the road. He was on a bike and a girl was walking beside him, walking towards us. They were holding hands. After that, I didn’t like him at all.”

No matter that the farmhouse remained unfinished, her aunt decided to wire up the farm. Although electricity was available in the cities, voltage drops over distance often made rural electrification impossible, or simply too costly. When farmers had the chance to tap into a network, they often jumped at the chance.

Their fertile croplands paved the way out of the dark for the Kreivenas family.

Ona arranged for the work to be done, making plans through her relations. They found an electrician for her. “Mamyte sent me to Vilkaviskis, to pick him up, the electrician from Kaunas, who was coming on the train.”

Vilkaviskis, on the banks of the Seimina River, is almost fifty miles northwest of Alytus. After she hitched up one of the horses to their wagon, it took her and Mindaugas all day to get there. They skirted the ruins of the Jewish quarter. That night they slept in the wagon, and the next morning set off for home, taking the electrician with them.

“He was hard to understand,” she said about him. Lithuanians from different regions of the country have accents and often have their own way of saying things. “There was a man from Zemaitija once, we could hardly understand what he was saying. They drop the endings of their words.”

Until 1941 Vilkaviskis had a large Jewish community. That summer SS death squads, helped by Lithuanian collaborators, killed more than three thousand Jews. It was virtually every single one of them in the town. The SS tore down and destroyed their homes afterwards. In 1943 more Jewish ghettos were demolished, and the living transferred to concentration camps. When the war ended almost all of them weren’t alive anymore.

The genocide rate in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism had been endemic for generations, was more than 90%, one of the highest in Europe.

There was a severe shortage of sugar throughout Europe, disrupted by worldwide conflict and blockade. The German military needed it to support its armed forces and its war effort at home. Sugar beet planting in Poland and the Baltics was ramped up. In 1942 more than 20% of Lithuanian farmers, the most ever, cultivated sugar beets. Production was expected to increase by 25% in 1943. Potatoes were in high demand. Grain was in high demand. The Axis paid in Reichsmarks, better money in Europe than anybody else’s.

Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.

“The electrician put in wires and lights. The black box was in the kitchen.” They were warned to never touch it. “We didn’t have to use oil lamps anymore. We were so happy.”

Carmen, Ramute, and Angele slept in the dining room, an improvised bedroom in the four-room house. To the left of the foyer was the kitchen and to the right was the dining room. Ona had the large bedroom and Mindaugas the small one. At the back of the house stairs led to a root cellar.

“We read books at night until mamyte told us lights out. She was a strict mother. We would always turn the light off right away. She knew when we did because she had a blinking light in her room which told her when the lights had been turned off. We pretended being quiet until we knew she was asleep, and then turned the light back on so we could read some more. After we got tired of reading, we turned the light off and talked until we finally fell asleep.”

In March 1943 the German authorities closed the Academy of Education and all Lithuanian schools of higher education. Ona taught grade school and wasn’t affected. She continued going to work. Everybody was uneasy. The war on the Eastern Front wasn’t going well for the Germans. The Wehrmachct was losing the ability to mount offensive operations.

“I couldn’t go to school because I had to work so much. I finished six grades, and I wanted to learn, so mamyte found a tutor for me. I went to her house for two years, studying high school.”

She wanted to be somebody other than a maid or farmhand.

Two months later in May the Gestapo outdated Lithuania’s local electorates. In September the last Jews in the ghetto of Vilnius were dragged out to the streets. Those who could work were sent to labor camps. The rest were shot.

When the New Year 1944 came, news was broadcast that Antanas Smetona, the first and last president of independent Lithuania, who fled his home and country in 1940, had died in a house fire in Cleveland, Ohio. His death closed the chapter on the interwar years, when Lithuania had been free and clear.

“We had a radio and listened to the news every day. We knew it was bad for the Germans. We knew the Russians were coming back.” Everybody was worried and scared about the return of the USSR. “We all knew something bad was going to happen.”

In early August 1944, the German army was driven out of most of Lithuania by Soviet forces and Russian hegemony was re-established. They were the same days of the war that marked the Battle of Normandy in the west, which soon led to French liberation and independence.

“When the Russians came, it all happened in one day. We got our wagon, the horses, the four children, and a cow. We needed the cow and left as fast as we could.”

They and hundreds of other families camped at a large farm only a few miles from the East Prussian border, biding their time. When the Red Army again pushed west in September, and what was left of the German army fled before them, the refugees crossed the frontier.

“We got across the border into East Prussia at night. It was a wet cold night. There wasn’t a single border guard. Nobody else in my family, none of my brothers and my sister, nobody, made it out before the border was closed by the Russians.”

She was free for the moment in German land, but her family kinsmen friends and the rest of the country were under the callused thumb of Moscow, now and for the next nearly fifty years.

Photograph by Antanas Sutkus

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get the monthly update in your in-box.