Category Archives: Accidental Realism

Lay of the Land

By Ed Staskus

   When I moved to Carpenter, Ohio the post office had been gone more than ten years. The Baptist church was still there, but the minister didn’t live in town. He drove in on Sundays, performed his mission, and drove away after shaking a few hands. I went to the service one morning, but the minister looked like a talent scout for a graveyard, and it was the last time I went. The general store had closed even before the post office, which was good for Virginia Sustarsic and me, because that is what we moved into, staying the spring summer and into the early fall.

   The post office was opened in 1883 and stayed there until 1963. Nobody knew who the town was named for, although three men who had been natives of the place took credit. There was Amos Carpenter, an old geezer who talked too much, Jesse Carpenter, a farmer who hardly ever talked, and State Senator J. L. Carpenter, who only talked when it counted. He brought tracks and a railroad station to the town. Those were long gone, too.

   It wasn’t my idea to go live local yokel on the banks of Leading Creek, but Virginia argued living in the country was the way to go. She was a hippie and wore its ethos of going back to the roots on her sleeve. I countered that the hippies happened in coastal cities like San Francisco and New York, flowered in college towns like Austin and Ann Arbor, and were trucking along in cities like Omaha, Atlanta, and Cleveland. We were both from Cleveland, born of immigrant stock, she Slovenian and me Lithuanian.

   My reasoning fell on deaf ears.

   A friend of ours with a van drove us and our stuff to Carpenter, dropped us off, and waved goodbye. I had never been there before. Virginia had been there twice, having a friend who lived in that neck of the woods. It took less than ten seconds to look the town over. There wasn’t much to see. We stashed everything away in the sturdy but dilapidated 19th century-era store and walked up Carpenter Hill Rd. to Five Mile Run, detouring down what passed for a driveway to a small house where Virginia’s friend and his bloodhound lived.

   He was somewhere between not young and middle-aged, lean and scraggly, literate and friendly. He was the kind of man who was a hippie long before there were hippies. He read lots of books and smoked lots of weed. There was a Colt cap and ball pistol on his coffee table, laying there as relaxed as could be. It was a Walker .44. It was big, old as dirt, spic-n-span workable. 

   “That’s an imposing handgun,” I said.

   “They call it the Peacemaker,” he said. “Even though it can get you into a load of trouble the same as not.”

   He shot rabbits with it for his stew pot. The large percussion revolver could have taken deer in season. He let me shoot it at a tree later that summer. It was heavy when I lifted it. I shot it stiff-armed expecting more recoil, which turned out to be modest. What I didn’t expect was the “BOOM!” at the end of my arm. I was glad I missed the tree. Even though it was a full-grown maple the ball hitting it might have put it on the woodpile.

   We spent a week sweeping dusting cleaning arranging the ground floor front room of the general store. There were two storerooms in the back and an upstairs we didn’t mess with. Two long broad oak tables served as platforms for working and preparing food. We ate in rocking chairs we set up at one of the windows. We found a braided round rug in a closet, beat the hell out of it, and rolled it out in the middle of the floor.

   After laying in a garden, we stuck Grace Slick on a stick to guard the plot. The scarecrow, however, fell down on the job. Birds shat on her and rabbits ran riot. We ended up hunting and gathering.

   A kitten walked in out of the blue one morning, worn out and hungry as a horse. He was white with a black blob on his chest and a masked face. Virginia gave it a bowl of water, but we didn’t have cat food. “We should go into town, get some, and some food for us, too,” I said.

   Virginia was a genius at living off the land, but we still needed some store-bought stuff, salt pepper coffee pasta peanut butter and pancake mix, as well as toilet paper. The outhouse was bad enough without the comfort of Charmin.

   There were two municipalities within driving distance, Athens, which was 15 miles northeast of us, and Pomeroy, which was 17 miles southeast. Ohio University was in Athens, had several grocery stores, and plenty of citizens our own age. Pomeroy was on the Ohio River, was notorious for being repeatedly destroyed, and there was nobody our age there. We never went to Pomeroy except once to look around.

   The town was consumed by fire in 1851, 1856, 1884, and 1927. The floods of 1884, 1913, and 1937 were even more disastrous. 1884 was an especially bad year, what with fire and flood both. Why the residents kept rebuilding the place was beyond us, although we speculated they must have been plain stubborn.

   We stopped at the courthouse to lay eyes on the excitement. We had read in “Ripley’s Believe or Not!” that there is a ground floor entrance to each of its three stories, the only one of its kind in the world The sight of the phenomenon wasn’t all that exciting. A plaque explaining that the courthouse served as a jail for more than 200 of Morgan’s Raiders after their capture in the Battle of Buffington Island during the Civil War caught our attention. It was exciting to learn that Ohio boys had gotten the better of Johnny Reb when they ventured north.

   The county seat of Meigs County is mentioned in Ripley’s a second time for not having any cross streets. We took a stroll and didn’t see any. It didn’t seem deserving of mention in Ripley’s, but what did we know?

   Once he had a steady supply of food, out kitten got better and bigger. He spent his days outside and after sunset inside. He learned fast there were plenty of hungry owls, racoons, and coyotes in the dark. At first, when he was a tyke, he slept on top of my head at night. As he grew, I had to move him to the side. It was like wearing a Davey Crocket racoon hat to bed. 

   Meigs County, in which Carpenter lay, is 433 square miles with a population of around 20,000, or 54 people per square mile. Where we came from, Cuyahoga County, it was more like 3,000 people per square mile. At night in the middle of Meigs County it often seemed like 2 people per square mile, Virginia and me.

   There wasn’t much crime in the county, thank goodness, because the law enforcement amounted to one sheriff, one lieutenant, one sergeant, and six deputies. We had been in town a week-or-so when the sheriff stopped by to say hello. He was a pot-bellied man with fly belly blue eyes. He made sure we had the cop and fire department phone numbers even though we didn’t have a phone. He warned us not to mess around with the marijuana market. Virginia made roach clips for sale in head shops, but didn’t smoke much, and said so. 

   “No, I don’t mean that girlie,” he said. “I don’t care what you do on your own time. What I mean is, don’t mess with the growers. They’ve got it tucked in all around here. Some of them have been to Vietnam and back, and they learned a thing or two from Charlie. Even the DEA is careful when they chopper around these hills spraying their crop.”

   He pronounced Vietnam like scram.

   Meigs County is on the Allegheny Plateau. It is especially hilly where we were. The soil isn’t the greatest. The top crop by far is forage, followed by soybeans and corn. Layers and cattle are the top livestock. The marijuana growers hid their fruitage in corn fields, where it was hard to spot.

   Moonshine was made from the first day Meigs County was settled, for themselves and for whenever a farmer needed hard cash in a hurry, as long as they were near water and could haul a barrel of yeast and a hundred feet of copper line to the still. The yeast is stirred with sugar and cracked corn until it ripens. When the mash is ready it’s poured into an airtight still and heated. When it vaporizes it spirals through copper pipes, is shocked by cold water, returns to its original liquid form, and drips into a collection barrel.

   After that it is ready to go and all anyone needed was a fast Dodge to get it to market.

   The marijuana growers were young, a loose-knit group known as the Meigs County Varmits, which was also the name of their championship softball team. They drove Chevy and Ford pick-ups. They stopped by and said hello, just like the sheriff. One of them told us to keep our heads down the middle of October.

   “What’s that all about?” I asked.

   “That’s when we harvest our green and that’s when the state cops and Feds get busy. You’ll see their cars and spotter planes. They ask you any questions, play dumb. You hear any noise, ignore it.”

   Meigs County Gold was high quality highly sought weed. It was the strain of choice for the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson when they toured Ohio and West Virginia. Meigs County folk learned to not lock their cars and to keep their windows partly rolled down when they went to the Ohio State Fair in Columbus or Kings Island near Cincinnati.

   When I asked why, a man said, “Because people see the Meigs County tag and it’s almost for sure you’ll have busted windows if you don’t. They will be looking for your pot.”

   Our pots and pans were always filled with grub Virginia gleaned in the forest lands where she found nuts greens fruits and tubers. She collected walnuts chestnuts papaws raspberries blueberries and strawberries. She dressed up salads with dandelions fiddleheads and cattails. In the late summer she hunted for ginseng, selling it to a health food store in Athens.

   She kept two goats in a shed. I fed them and cleaned up after them. They were more trouble than they were worth, especially after one of them head butted the minister who walked over late one Sunday morning inquiring about my spiritual frame of mind. The goat lowered his head and got him from behind, in the butt, knocking him down. He scuffed up his hands breaking his fall and got mad as the devil. He told the sheriff about it and the sheriff had to stop by and warn us to keep our goats civil.

   “Yes, sir,” I said.

   Carpenter was the kind of place where tomorrow wasn’t any different than a week ago. But it had its moments. A week-or-so after the sheriff paid us his official visit, we watched him drive slowly past our grocery store summer home on State Route 143 dragging an upright piano on rollers behind him, chained to his rear bumper. A deputy was walking beside the piano trying to keep it from falling over. It looked like a bad idea on the way to going wrong. We waved but didn’t ask any questions.

   Our nearest neighbor was Jack, his two brothers, and their mother, on the other side of Leading Creek, a quarter mile down the state route. Velma looked like she could have been their grandmother, but Jack Jerome and Jesse called her mam. It was a one-story house with a front porch. They had running water and a bathroom, but no cooking stove or furnace. Velma did the cooking in the fireplace and they heated the house with the fireplace and a cast-iron potbelly stove. It was more than we had, which was just the potbelly thing.

   “Food cooked in a fireplace tastes better than food cooked any other way, including charcoal grills,” Velma said. It was big talk, but she backed it up. She might not have been able to whip up a cake or a souffle, but she made just about everything else. We never turned down an invitation to dinner.

   There were always half-dozen-or-more barely alive cars and trucks in their backyard, which was more like a field. There was a chicken house and a pen for pigs. They slaughtered and smoked their own pork. There was a big deep pond near enough to the house and they let us go floating and swimming in it whenever we wanted. They had an arsenal of rifles and shotguns, even though they didn’t mess around with marijuana. Moonshine might have been a different matter. 

   “How come you’ve got all those guns?” I asked Jack.

   “That’s how our daddy raised us,” he said.

   They were born and bred right there. The folks in the ranch-style houses up Carpenter Hill Rd. avoided them. Sometimes when we went swimming the sheriff’s car was there. I had the impression he wasn’t there on lawman business, but rather visiting.

   By the end of summer, we realized we couldn’t stay. The Velma family already had enough cords of dried wood beside their house to keep themselves warm if winter went Siberian in Ohio. We didn’t even have a pile of twigs. We could have ordered coal, which was plentiful, but neither of us had ever started and stoked a coal furnace. We didn’t know anything about air vents. All we knew was dial-up thermostats for natural gas furnaces.

   Our friend returned with his van and helped us move back to Cleveland. We said goodbye to Virginia’s hippie friend and his bloodhound, and to Jack up the hill. Jerome and Jesse had gone hunting waterfowl, the first day for it. Velma gave us an apple pie for the drive home.

   The cat, who was left-handed and so named Lefty, decided to stay. He wasn’t a city boy. He wouldn’t have been able to make sense of the Cuyahoga River catching fire. Lefty had made friends with all the cats and dogs a half-mile in every direction, knew how to sneak into the grocery store closed doors or no doors, and had grown up enough to take care of himself. We slit open the 20-pound cat food bag and opened it like a book. We left it on the floor so he and his friends could have a party.

   When we drove away, he was sitting on his haunches on the gravel in front of the store’s double front doors. I watched him in the rearview mirror and Virginia waved goodbye through the open passenger window. The last I saw of him he was sauntering into the high yellow grass.

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.”

Brand New Plan

By Ed Staskus

   The year my class graduated from St Joseph’s High School was the high point of the Vietnam War. It was the low point of the American War, which was what the North Vietnamese called it. It was 1968, the year nearly 600,000 American troops were fighting Victor Charlie up and down the country and the year 80,000 Victor Charlies struck back during the Tet Offensive. They hoped to ignite a popular uprising. It didn’t happen. During the month-long battle for the city of Hue, the city was destroyed.

   In 1964, nine years after the start of the Cold War-era undeclared proxy war, it got roaring with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Just ten-some years since the end of the Korean War, the United States military began bleeding back into Asia in force. By the time the war ended in 1975, nearly 60,000 servicemen lost their lives, along with 250,000 South Vietnamese troops, as well as a million Viet Cong and North Vietnamese fighters, and more than two million civilians.

   There was no use trying to count the maimed fractured shrapnel-scarred napalmed and dismembered. Eight million tons of bombs, two-and-a-half times as much as was dropped on Europe from 1940 to 1945, was dropped by the US Air Force. Who knows who was down there?

   I didn’t know the Gulf of Tonkin from the man in the moon the summer before my freshman year. I barely knew anything about the Vietnam War. I had a vague idea where Vietnam was, which was somewhere near China. I had never heard of the domino theory or the idea of dying for it. Four years later I knew more, although sometimes it did me more harm than good. I knew enough to stay away from the dean’s office and the kind of trouble officialdom could bring to bear, which was at least something.

   Many of my friends at St. Joe’s, on the east side of Cleveland, were Lithuanian Americans. The neighborhood was crawling with us. We were all Roman Catholic and the school was Roman Catholic, within walking distance for most of us.

   We were taught math history religion science civics and English. There were vocational classes and there was an honors program. The football team was big and bad, playing for titles. We were taught to be good Catholics and good citizens, God and country.

   None of us worried about the Vietnam War as freshmen and sophomores. We had other things to worry about, like getting to the next class on time, homework, pep rallies and school assemblies, dances in the gym, our status and looks, part-time jobs, outside activities, and summer vacation. The greasers had cars and we could only look on enviously. The jocks had good looks and never mind getting a good look at their girlfriends. The smarty pants had brains and were looking towards the future.

   It changed fast our junior and senior years. President Lyndon Johnson’s State of the Union address in 1967 was bleak. It was bad no matter if you were the parent of a draft-age young man or if you were the young man.

   “I recommend to the Congress a surcharge of 6 percent on both corporate and individual income taxes, to last for 2 years or for so long as the unusual expenditures associated with our efforts in Vietnam continue. I wish I could report to you that the conflict is almost over. This I cannot do. We face more cost, more loss, and more agony,” he said.

   Nobody liked the cost part. He proposed a record-breaking $135 billion-dollar federal government budget. My father, an accountant, was shocked. I didn’t know how to count that high and kept quiet. I didn’t like the agony part.

   Our last two years in high school, nobody wanted to not be going to college. A student deferment wasn’t a sure thing, but it was better than nothing. In 1965 Lyndon Johnson ordered the country’s young men to get up stand up and fight. It didn’t matter that twenty-five years earlier LBJ had largely avoided WW2. What mattered was what he said now.

   Lewis Hershey, the head of the Selective Service, ordered draft boards to stop granting deferments so that more men would have to join up. College students found themselves being reclassified. When the Selective Service Qualifying Test came into play for everyone who wanted to keep their deferments, students took to the streets. The next year “Hershey’s Directives” ordered draft board to punish anyone who protested against the Vietnam War.

   After that the shit hit the fan until the Paris Peace Agreement was signed in 1973.

   The year after we graduated was the year the Selective Service started drawing lottery numbers determining who would or would not be drafted. The drawing was televised live. Everybody aged 19 to 26 stayed glued to the tube. If you were born on September 14th, your number was number one and you were going to be drafted the next day, or sooner. If you were born on March 14th, like me, your number was 354 and you weren’t going to be drafted and weren’t going anywhere more dangerous than your own backyard. No Victor Charlies were going to be firing 1,800 MPH lead-filled dominoes at you in dozing your hammock.

   I was dismayed when I found out the lottery in 1969 didn’t apply to me. I entered high school early and wasn’t quite 19 years old. I would have to wait a year. I was worried that lightning might not strike twice. Was it possible to replicate the luck of a number like 354 out of 365?

   Two of my friends, John Degutis and Algis Karsokas, were shipped to Vietnam as riflemen for tours of duty fighting Commies in God-forsaken jungles. They didn’t know what they were getting into until they got there. When they came back, they weren’t the same. Another one of my friends, John Skardis, a National Honor Society student, enrolled in Columbia University and joined Students for a Democratic Society, later splintering off into the radical Weathermen, and then the even more extremist bomb-throwing Weather Underground. If he ever came back from the anarchist trenches to Cleveland it was under lock and key. He thought he knew the plan for fighting the man, but he was wrong.

   When Mark Rudd, a national leader of the Weathermen, snuck into Cleveland for a February 1970 meeting with the local boys and girls, he said they were going underground for “strategic sabotage against all symbols of authority” according to an informer.

   He called for urban guerilla warfare.

   From 1965 to 1972, 150,000-and-more men of draft age lived in Cleveland and within surrounding Cuyahoga County. About 60,000 of them served in the military, many of whom enlisted, the others drafted. More than 90,000 never served in the armed forces. Nearly 4,000 of them were draft dodgers and the rest deferred, exempted, or disqualified from service. Of those who served 47,000 never went to Vietnam, 3,000 were stationed in Vietnam but saw no fighting, and some 10,000 experienced combat. 427 of them were killed and more than 2,000 were wounded.

   The odds weren’t bad, but who wants to roll snake eyes in the crap game of a meaningless war? 

   Kent State happened in May 1970. The spring quarter was coming to an end. Warm weather was busting out all over and everybody wanted to be out in the sun. Some three hundred students were protesting the war when Jim Rhodes, the four-term “Get It Done” governor, had enough and ordered the Ohio National Guard to put down the fanfare. When they had enough, they started shooting. Four students were killed and nine wounded. 

   Before the shooting the Tower of Rhodes said the squawkers were “the worst type of people that we harbor in America.” After the shooting he said, “We deeply regret those events and are profoundly saddened by the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine others.”

   The bloodshed turned the mess into a place on the map busting out across the country. Crosby Stills Nash & Young wrote a song about it.

   “Tin soldiers and Nixon’s coming,
   We’re finally on our own,
   This summer I hear the drumming,
   Four dead in Ohio.”

   Gerald Casale, who later became lead singer and bassist for the rock band Devo, was there. 

   “All I can tell you is that it completely changed my life. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeff Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. I was a hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles on two people I knew. We were all running our asses off from those motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition, none of us knew, none of us could have imagined. They shot into a crowd that was running away from them. I stopped being a hippie and started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

   The shootings ignited outrage on campuses around the country. More than 4 million students participated in walk outs at hundreds of high schools, colleges, and universities. It was the largest student strike in the history of the United States. Everything at Cleveland State University, where I was a student, stopped dead in its tracks. Kent State University was 30-some miles southeast of our downtown campus.

   We all thought it was a horrible thing. Everybody knew Kent State was a chill campus, and even though somebody had burned down the ROTC building the night before, the demonstration was restrained as far as riots go. Coarse words and billy clubs would have done the trick.

   I was shocked the next week when a Gallup Poll revealed that 58% of respondents blamed the students, 11% blamed the National Guard, and 31% expressed no opinion. I was surprised that one of three people didn’t know what to think about it. Many people confuse feeling with thinking. Didn’t they even feel bad about what happened?

   The tabloids sided with the soldiers, but the national press didn’t agree.

   “The National Guard insisted that their men fired as they were about to be overrun by the students. But if the troops were so closely surrounded, how was it that nobody closer than 75 feet away was hit? And if the rocks and bricks presented such overwhelming danger, how did the troops avoid even one injury serious enough to require hospital treatment?” wrote Newsweek magazine.

   The average distance from the soldiers to those killed and wounded was the length of a football field. It was a turkey shoot, especially since the students didn’t have two derringers to rub together. In the end, none of the triggermen took the dead undergraduates home for their roasting pans, turkey shoot or not.

   “It took 13 terrifying seconds last week to convert the traditionally conformist campus into a bloodstained symbol of the rising student rebellion against the Nixon Administration and the war in Southeast Asia. When National Guardsmen fired indiscriminately into a crowd of unarmed civilians, killing four students, the bullets wounded the nation,” wrote Time magazine.

   Less than a week after the shootings, 100,000 people demonstrated in Washington, D.C., protesting the war and the killing of unarmed if unruly students.

   “The city was an armed camp. Mobs were smashing windows, slashing tires, dragging parked cars into intersections, even throwing bedsprings off overpasses into the traffic down below. That was the student protest. That’s not student protest, that’s civil war,” said Ray Price, Richard Nixon’s chief speechwriter from 1969 to 1974.

   President Nixon was whisked away to Camp David for two days for his own protection.

   John Skardis went on the run after he and a gang of Weathermen rampaged through a new indoor mall in Cleveland Heights, smashing plate glass windows and terrorizing mid-day shoppers. He was arrested but after his parents made bail for him, fled the state. The FBI got involved, naming him a Federal fugitive charged with Unlawful Flight to Avoid Prosecution. 

  “Attended Columbia University in 1968 and 1969 and was involved in student disorders. Joined the revolutionary Weatherman group and took part in several violent Weatherman demonstrations in Chicago and Ohio. Entered the Weather Underground in early 1970. He has used the alias Jonas Rytis Skardis,” said the dryly worded wanted man poster.

   In 1975 he was named by United States Senate investigators as one of 37 members of the Weather Underground who the FBI were still looking for after 19 politically motivated bombings since 1970. The year before the group had managed to plant a bomb in the State Department building in Washington. Although they avoided blowing people up, they scared the hell out of a lot of people in power suits.

   When John Skardis and a companion surrendered the following year, they had been traveling for many months in several European countries under U.S. passports issued in false names on false ID’s. After he was extradited, he disappeared down the rabbit hole. 

   Although I went to an anti-war demonstration on Public Square, I avoided the clouds of tear gas and confrontations with the Cleveland Police Department, especially the cops on horseback. I bided my time until next December and the next Selective Service drawing. When the time came, I found my hopes for another draft-defying lottery number were fool’s gold. My number came up 12. I was going to Vietnam to fight in a failing war that most people, whether they said so or not, didn’t believe in anymore. In 1965 about 80% of the American public supported the war. Six years later it was down to 40%. By the end of the war, it was 30%.

   I had to appear at my draft board for a physical, which went well, thanks to my having been a Boy Scout for many years. But I was determined to not go to Vietnam. “Hell No! We Won’t Go!” was the handwriting on the wall. I was willing to volunteer if the Viet Cong invaded the United States, but I wasn’t willing to put myself in harm’s way in anybody else’s civil war, especially not insurgents nine thousand miles away in Southeast Asia who had been fighting for self-determination since 1943. It didn’t seem like they were about to give up anytime soon.

   Young men were burning their draft cards coast to coast. I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that. I didn’t even have a lighter.

   I had to pull out all the stops. First, I declared myself a conscientious objector. The draft board laughed it off. Then I told them I had been an altar boy and objected on religious grounds. They laughed that off, too. Finally, I told them I was just as likely to shoot an officer as I was to shoot a gook if I was shipped overseas. That was no laughing matter to them.

   They sent me to a Master Sergeant who chewed me out, who sent me to psychiatrist, who finally wrote me up as hopeless. He gave me a 4F deferment, meaning I was “physically, mentally, or morally unfit to serve.”

   I was OK with the snub.

   In the meantime, my father a God-fearing faithful Republican, and I got into several mean- spirited arguments and I moved out. I dropped out of Cleveland State University for half-a-year and discovered the bohemian beatnik hippie enclave on the city’s near east side. I had grown from one end of high school to the other, but I hadn’t grown up as much. Cooking and cleaning, making the rent, and meeting folks in my new haunts outside of my old world started me up that road.

   I hoped Johnny came marching home, but I got to thinking the lockstep mindset might not be the best and brightest way for me to go when catching a ride at the crossroad.

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.”

Borderland

BORDERCROSSING1950S_02_1000 2.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

   Over the river and through the woods, crossing the border from the north at Buffalo, New York, and going west in the 1950s meant crossing the Niagara River on the Peace Bridge and driving down Route 5 along the lakeshore to Athol Springs, and then jumping onto Route 20. They are state routes and were heavily wooded on both sides of both the two-lane roads.

   Route 20 parallels a borderland, running along the south shore of Lake Erie. The frontier is in the middle of the lake. Hardly anybody pays any attention to it. Walleye, carp, yellow perch, rainbow trout, smallmouth bass and bigmouth buffalo fish crisscross the border every minute of every day.

   The Peace Bridge is the international overpass between Canada and the United States at the east end of Lake Erie at the source of the river, about 12 miles up the river from Niagara Falls. It connects Fort Erie, Ontario, in Canada to Buffalo.

   When Angele Staskevicius, her husband Vytas, and their three kids, Ed, Rick, and Rita, crossed the bridge in late summer 1957, thirty years after it was built, they were crossing the busiest entry from Canada into the United States. They were within weeks of being the fifty millionth car going that way. They were a family of immigrants on the road from Ontario on their way to Cleveland, Ohio, by way of Lithuania.

   “Vytas bought an old Buick in Cleveland, drove back to Sudbury, and picked us up,” said Angele. “We shipped everything else by train, our Connor washing machine, beds, dressers and tables and chairs.”

   Construction on the Peace bridge started in 1925 and was finished in 1927. A major problem building the bridge was the swift river current. Edward Lupfer, the chief engineer, drove the first test car slowly across the bridge. When it didn’t collapse, they were cheered and three months later it opened to everybody in both directions. The official opening ceremony had almost 100,000 in attendance. The festivities were transmitted by radio in the first ever international coast-to-coast broadcast. 

   “We stopped in Hamilton with friends for a short while, picking up our mail from Customs. We all had Canadian passports but only Vytas had a visa, for him, not his wife and kids, but in the end, nobody said anything at the crossing.”

   When her husband went to the United States, Angele stayed behind in Sudbury all spring and most of the summer. She couldn’t call him those months because long distance calls were too expensive. Instead, they wrote each other, waiting a week-and-more for a reply.

   “The kids have been good. I forgot to call the lawyer about the house. I have to go buy food tomorrow,” she wrote.

   He wrote back that he was working but making less than half what he had been making in Sudbury’s nickel mines. “There are many Lithuanians here and I have been meeting some of them.” He looked for a second job.

   “I had almost no money,” she said. “Vytas was gone and there were no paychecks. I sold the house while he was gone and sent him the money. I spent all the rent money from the room upstairs and was waiting to go as soon as possible. When Rita’s birthday came, we couldn’t have anybody over for a party, but she was so young anyway. Edvardas was mad that I didn’t invite all the neighborhood kids, but Richardas didn’t care, thank goodness.”

   They drove through Buffalo in mid-morning, passing a junkman driving a beat-up truck, a milkman in a new white truck, and a sweet-smelling bread truck delivering door to door. Wash was hanging in yards and kids were on the streets walking running riding bikes and scooters jumping rope and kicking the can and fighting with rubber band guns made out of used tire tubes.

   “Ziurek, jis yra juodas!” Eddie exclaimed pointing out the back window of the car at a boy. “He’s all black, his skin is black!”

   Neither he, his brother or sister had ever seen a Negro in Sudbury. Sixty years later there were about a thousand blacks in Sudbury, but sixty years earlier there weren’t a handful. Visible minorities of all kinds even nowadays have a small share in the city, less than 4%. In mid-century the share was close to zero.

   Leaving Buffalo, the houses thinning out, they idled over to the curb to listen to a man playing an accordion, wearing a red shirt black shorts with a white belt and argyle socks, sitting on a wooden folding chair in the front frame of his garage the door open, his two friends drinking from cans of Stein Beer and body bobbing foot peddling.

   South of the city Vytas pulled his bucket of bolts over at Minerva’s Red Top in Athol Springs and got ice cream cones for the kids at the refreshment stand. He and Angele had sausage dogs and kraut. It was a short jog from there to Route 20, the road they drove the rest of the way the rest of the day to Cleveland.

   They rented a two-bedroom second floor suite on East 61st Street between Superior and St. Clair Avenues from a fellow Lithuanian and stayed for two months, living out of suitcases, sleeping on metal platform beds, and cooking on a hot plate.

   “I cut my leg on the metal one morning and had to get stitches,” Ed said. “My mom stopped the bleeding, since she had been a nurse before I was born.”

   “I dont remember a thing,” Rita said.

   “There was a candy store on the corner,” Rick said.

   “I liked it here until July,” Vytas said. “My God, it got hot!” The weather was hot hazy humid. There were no fans in the house. He lived on ice water.

   The months of July August September in Cleveland are sultry, when it gets into the 80s and 90s and stays there. Vytas was from Siauliai, Lithuania, where it stays in the low 70s. He had lived in Sudbury for eight years after the Second World War, where it stays in the mid-70s.

   “We visited Vytas’s sister Genute and her husband Andrius the next day,” Angele said. “They had three daughters, two of them were teenagers already, and we decided to buy a house together.”

   They bought a duplex on Bartfield Avenue, a two-block stretch of street between East 129th Street and Coronado Avenue with nineteen houses on it. There were coal sheds in the basement and a set of tornado doors in the back. There were two bedrooms in both units of the duplex, one for sleeping the children and the other the grown-ups. 

   “It was horrible,” Rita said. “I didn’t have my own bedroom. My brothers fought all the time.”

   A blind man’s house on a knoll anchored one end of the street, a three-pump two-bay Gulf gas station anchored Coronado and St. Clair, and a broad one-story log house building behind the gas station doubled as home for the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars and the Boy Scouts. It was fronted by a weedy tree-filled lot.

   “We messed around there all the time, in the old cars behind the gas station, pretending to be gangsters, and on the field in front of the log cabin, playing red light green light,” Ed said. “We played kickball in the street, and in the winter, we built snow forts on the blind man’s mound, since he had a big yard, and if you ruled the fort you could throw snowballs down at everybody while they had to throw up.”

   Ed went to first grade and Rick went to kindergarten at the Iowa-Maple public school that winter, walking the fifteen minutes up East 127th Street to Maple Avenue. The first school there was demolished in 1951. Their school was brand spanking new.

   They didn’t know and didn’t find out that a stone’s throw away across Eddy Road, the thoroughfare north to Bratenahl, the city’s wealthy lakeside suburb, was the footprint of the house the last president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona, lived and died in on January 9, 1944, when the house caught fire and burned down. Five years later, when they moved out of the neighborhood, Rita’s mother took her to see Birute Nasvytyte, who had been a concert pianist in Europe before the war, from whom she started taking lessons. Birute was married to Julius Smetona, one of the ex-president’s sons.

   “I woke up one day after the New Year 1963 and found out we were going to be moving in the spring,” said Ed. “My parents told us we were living in a bad neighborhood and had to move. Until that day I didn’t know that where we were living was a bad place. I liked our neighborhood and my friends.” 

   But by then his neck of the woods had become a borderland.

   New interstate highways, slum clearance, and urban renewal were changing Cleveland in ways he didn’t know anything about. Some large parts of downtown and tracts of the east side were being torn down. Entire neighborhoods disappeared. Blacks started moving east. Whites started moving farther east. Everybody was saying, “The niggers are coming.” They made it sound like the plague. Everybody was asking, “When are they going to get here?”

   Whenever a real estate sign went up everybody was suddenly afraid there would be a dozen signs inside of a month and that property values would fall near to nothing. Nobody wanted to be the white face in a sea of black, not if they could help it. Nobody wanted to be the last man standing. All the ethnics, Ukrainians and Romanians, Slovenes, Slavs, Balts, started moving out.

   “I felt threatened that my neighborhood was being invaded by these people,” said Walt Zielinski, a local Polish boy. “I made it tough for one new black kid. We had a big fight. I beat the crap out of him, and that was it. But, as time went on, we became best friends. Then as the neighborhood started to change the first black families moved away just like the white families did, and they started to be replaced by a lower class of black people, and it started to get rough. I got beat up a lot. I was the little white kid. I was really intimidated. All my friends were gone. I felt very alone.”

   Most of the African Americans who moved to Cleveland during the Great Migration lived in the Cedar-Central neighborhood, bounded by Euclid Avenue to the north, East 71st Street to the east, Woodland Avenue to the south, and East 22nd Street to the west. Those frontiers were rapidly changing. The dynamics weren’t the same.

   “There were some hillbillies who lived next door, and one of their kids hit my brother with a rake one day, and my friends and I had to rescue him, but I hardly ever saw any black people, except on the bus,” Ed said. “We were only in the Iowa-Maple school for a year. After that we went to the St. George Catholic School on East 67th Street and Superior. We had to take two city buses there and back every day. Everybody was going to work at the same time we were going to school, white and colored all mixed together.”

   There were nearly 900,000 people living in Cleveland in 1960, a quarter million of them black. Twenty years later there were only 570,000 residents. Black people were still, for the most part, living in the city, but more than 300,000 white people had moved away.

   “In the summer we rounded up what bikes we could find, balls and bats and mitts and rode up Eddy Road to Glenview Park where we played ball all day. We could see Lake Erie and it was windy a lot. If somebody hit a pop-up into the wind, catching it got tricky. Bobby Noga, who lived on the other side of us from the hillbillies, caught a pop-up with the top of his head one day.”

   Tens of thousands of refugees from Europe settled in Cleveland after 1949. They all wanted to assimilate with the Anglo Americans. Nobody wanted to assimilate with the African Americans. In 1964 picketers at a segregated school in Little Italy were attacked by a mob of more than 400 white men wielding knives and clubs. Nearly a hundred policemen on foot and horseback tried to keep the riot in check.

   “You would have to be crazy to picket,” Cleveland Police Inspector Jerry Rademacker said.

   After the mid-50s immigrants in the east-side neighborhoods started moving to the East 185th Street, Lakeshore Boulevard, and Euclid neighborhoods. They moved to Parma, which by 1960 was fastest-growing city in the United States. Ukrainians filled up State Road and Poles filled up Ridge Road. Jews moved up the hill, filling up Cleveland Heights. The Cleveland metropolitan area became one of the most segregated in the country. It is still one of the most segregated in the country.

   After the White Flight was over it was all over.

   When they lived on Bartfield Avenue Ed and Rick and their friends walked to the Shaw-Hayden Theater on Saturday afternoons to see double features, paper bags of popcorn their moms made hidden under sweaters and jackets. There were comedy and tragedy masks lit up in purple leading the way. The movie house sat 1200, but they always sat as close as they could, the better to see the monsters and cowboys and spacemen. It’s where they saw the B & W 3D “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on the recently installed CinemaScope screen. The auditorium was dark, but the lobby was all white wood, a kind of knotty pine. 

   In the winter they went to Forest Hill Park to skate on the frozen lagoon, lacing up in the boathouse, tottering down to the ice. They went sledding on Knob Hill, scaring themselves silly going as fast as they could hitting the bump screaming at the bottom of the long downhill. After they moved, they didn’t do that anymore. 

   “Rita, Rick and I had to go to a new school, Holy Cross, where we didn’t know anybody,” Ed said. “It took twice as long to walk there, too. Everywhere else all of a sudden was too far to go.”

   Vytas and Angele Staskevicius bought a single house on a street starting at East 185th Street on the border of Cleveland and ending at East 200th Street on the border of Euclid. There were more than a hundred houses from one end of the street to the other. The new Lithuanian Community Center and the new Lithuanian church and school were nearby. There weren’t any tornado doors leading into the basement from the back yard, but it had three bedrooms on the second floor.

   “I was so happy,” Rita said. “I finally had my own bedroom.”

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.”

Making the House

By Ed Staskus

   Dave Bloomquist ran the show at the Plaza Apartments, trying to make it work on the near east side, on the fringe of Cleveland State University. What we called the house was on Prospect Avenue, a $.25 fare on a creaky CTS bus ten minutes downtown to Public Square. The ghetto was uptown. The house was its own place.

   Dave was from Sandusky. “The town, which is sluggish and uninteresting, is something like an English watering-place out of season,” Charles Dickens wrote after visiting it. A hundred years later it was known for Cedar Point, a big amusement park on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. After high school Dave moved to Cleveland to study visual and fine arts at CSU.

   “Art held a natural attraction for me, and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said. “My dad was an electrician, and I helped him run wires and other simple tasks. I also worked during college, renovations, painting, things like that. After graduation, my business partner and I scraped together a down payment on the 48-unit Victorian-style Plaza. We decided to restore it ourselves.”

   Dave was always in in and around the building. Whenever anything went wrong, it didn’t take long to find the owner superintendent maintenance man. If he wasn’t nearby, his ex-wife-to- be, Annie, tall slim, her hair done up in braids, was right there cooking cleaning taking care of their baby boy. Built in 1901 for middle-class residents, something was always making trouble at the Plaza.

   “We learned to sweat pipe, patch the roof, and fix windows,” Dave said. “We had to operate with just rent money. We couldn’t afford to call on anyone for help.”

   Back in the day Upper Prospect was the second most prestigious place to live in Cleveland, next to Millionaire’s Row on Euclid Avenue. Prospect and Euclid were where to be, smoking rooms of the city’s economic and social elite. Most of the homes on Prospect were brick two-story single-family houses in the Italianate style. The street was lined with elm trees.

   By the time I moved into the Plaza, all the rich folks were long gone, and Dutch elm disease had killed most of the trees. It was killing most of the elms in all but two states east of the Missouri River. What hadn’t died was being sprayed with DDT or removed.

   The entry point for the bug was Northeast Ohio in 1929, on a train bringing in a shipment of elm veneer logs from France. The train stopped south of Cleveland to load up on coal and water. Not long afterwards elm trees along the railroad tracks started to die. The elm bark beetle doesn’t hurt the tree, but the fungus it carries is deadly.

   There were rowhouses scattered among the single-family homes, which included the Prospect Avenue Rowhouses, still there, that Dave was throwing his eye on. He had more than enough work on his hands, but he was a no slouch go-getter. Preservation and restoration efforts on Upper Prospect were just beginning to pick up steam.

   The Plaza was home to students secretaries hippies machinists artists bikers clerks musicians court reporters anarchists activists warehouse men and writers, some in full swing, some shaking and baking the wolf at the door, everybody coming and going.

   “We were urban pioneers before the term was coined,” said Scott Krauss, a drummer for the art-rock band Pere Ubu. “Like the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead had their band houses, we had the Plaza.”

   “There were scores of wonderful community dinners, insipid and treacherous burglars,” Dave Bloomquist said years later when it was all over. “Innocence was lost. There were raucousoutrageous parties. Families were formed and raised and there were tragic early deaths of close friends. But music, art and life were in joyful abundance all the time.”

   There was an abundance of old-fashioned seediness, too.

   “I remember coming home at four in the morning and there would still be people in the courtyard drinking beer and playing music,” said Larry Collins. “We would watch the hookers and their customers play hide-and-seek with the undercover vice cops.”

   One of the first friends I made was Virginia Sustarsic. I had seen her around Dixon Hall up the street before I moved to the Plaza. She was close to John McGraw, a trim bohemian who lived alone on the third floor, read obscure European poets, drank Jack Daniels from the bottle, and drove a 1950s windowless black Chevy panel truck.

   Virginia had interned at the Cleveland Press, worked on CSU’s student newspaper, and wrote for the school’s poetry magazine. Since she was settled in at the Plaza, was friendly, and worked for herself, she made friends easily, and I subsequently found friends by hanging around with her.

   She knew all about art. I didn’t know anything. When she showed me a picture of an American flag by Jasper Johns, I found a big used flag and thumbtacked it to the wall at the head of my bed. When she showed me a picture of a Jackson Pollack painting, I thought, what a mess.

   Virginia made candles, incense, and roach clips for a head shop on the near west side. The owner of the shop, Jamie, was a little older than us and square-jawed. He wore a red checked bandana and liked to go barefoot. He pulled up in a mid-60s VW T2 bus, Virginia delivered the goods, he would say he had a great idea for going someplace fun, as many people who could fit would pile into the Splittie, and he would drive to a park a beach or a grassy knoll overlooking a cemetery.  

   Jamie always played The Who’s “Magic Bus” at least once every trip, there and back. “Thank you, driver, for getting me here, too much, Magic Bus, now I’ve got my Magic Bus.” The speakers were tinny, but the volume made up for it.

   We went to see “Woodstock” the movie, since none of us had gone to the music festival, at a drive-in. Virginia’s roach clips came in handy. The Splittie’s back and middle seats could be pulled out. It was groovy at drive-ins, backing the bus in to face the screen, some of us in the seats on the ground, others in the open rear of the bus, and Jamie with his gal on top, an umbrella at the ready. 

   Nobody wanted to be sitting behind Mike Cassidy, who was skinny enough, but had a massive head of long fuzzy electrified red hair.

   Virginia was hooked on photography and showed me the ropes, letting me use her camera. When a photography contest was announced at Cleveland State University, she entered a picture she had taken in San Francisco and I entered a picture of Mr. Flood.

   Bob Flood lived on the second floor, like me. None of us knew what he did, exactly, although he wore a hat suggesting he was a locomotive engineer. Virginia thought he was a professor of some kind. Everybody called him Mr. Flood. Nobody knew why. He was a lean careful man, sported a shaggy looking beard, was divorced, but had visitation rights to his two kids, who came and played in his apartment weekends.

   My picture was a portrait and Virginia’s a full-scale shot of two homeless men in Golden Gate Park, passing a bottle of booze between them. The trees in the background disappeared into a triangle. After I won the blue ribbon, Virginia went to the art department and talked to one of the judges.

   She told him she had been trying to conjure the Pointillism of Georges Seurat.

   “Well,” he said. “The portrait and your picture were our top picks. But yours was kind of grainy.”

   “That was the whole point,” she said. 

   Virginia’s best friend at the Plaza was Diane Straub.

   Diane had a straight job. She was a secretary downtown. She got up every morning, got on the bus, went to work, and came back at night. Monday through Friday she took care of her apartment and her cats. But, on weekends she got psychedelic. She also got up as Bogie’s old lady.

   Bogie was Diane’s live-in boyfriend. He was rangy and always wore black, tip to toe. He had a Harley Davidson he kept in the back lot. Nobody ever tried to steal it, because everybody knew that would be a big mistake.

   He was one of the Animals, although he and the other Animals had been forced to go freelance. They used to have a clubhouse, its walls pockmarked with bullet holes, on Euclid Avenue in Willoughby, until the day the Willoughby police raided it.

   “The police couldn’t get anything on us, so they hot-wired the landlord to force us out,” one of the Animals, Gaby, told the Cleveland Press. “We never did anything worse than use the clubhouse walls for target practice.”

   Gaby knew there was more to the story. His biker clubmate Don Griswold had been arrested the day before for being involved in a shooting with members of Cleveland’s Hells Angels that left two dead.

   “The Angels were going to take care of me if the cops didn’t do it first,” he said. “Misery loves company.”

   The spring before my first full summer at the Plaza, Cleveland’s Breed and Violators got into it at a motorcycle show at the Polish Women’s Hall southeast of the Flats. The 10‐minute riot with fists clubs knives chains left 5 men dead 20 Injured and 84 arrested.

  The dead were buried, the hurt rushed to hospitals, and the arrested hauled away to the Central Police Station on Payne Avenue. The Black Panthers were always demonstrating outside the front doors, but they had to make way. Extra armed guards were posted in hallways and doorways as a precaution. When the injured bikers recovered, they were arrested.

   Art Zaccone, headman of the Chosen Few, said the fight broke out because of trouble between the two groups going back to a rumble in Philly two years earlier. The biker gangs didn’t ride on magic busses. They rode hogs. They made their own black magic. They had long memories and never forgotten forgiven grievances.

   After Bogie moved out, Diane took up with Igor, a math wizard. He was tall, had long dark wiry hair, and played air guitar. Even though he was egg-headed about numbers, he often looked like he was half there.

   “We all thought he was tripping a lot,” Virginia said.

   I lived in a back apartment on the second floor, Virginia lived in a side apartment on the same floor, and an older Italian couple Angeline and Charlie Beale lived in the front. They always had their apartment door open. Charlie was short and stocky, a retired mailman. He read newspapers and magazines all day long.  Angie was stout with wavy hair. She stayed in the kitchen all day long cooking in a black slip. 

   They had a parrot. Whenever Angie spied Virginia walking by, she called out, “Oh, honey, honey, come in, let me see if I can get him to talk to you.” She would coo and try to convince the parrot to talk. He never did, even when she poked him with a stick. When she did, he whistled and squawked. He sounded offended and tone-deaf.

   “How long have you had that parrot?” Virginia asked, thinking they were still training him.

   “Oh, we’ve had him for sixteen years, honey.”

   Angie and Charlie went shopping for foodstuffs a few times a week. They walked down Prospect Avenue to the Central Market. “They started out together, but ended up a block or more apart,” Dave said. They both carried handmade cotton shopping bags, one in each hand.

   The Central Market was on East 4th St., nearly two miles away by foot. The only people who went there were people who couldn’t get to the West Side Market. It was grimy, and the roof leaked. “Some panels are out, and when it rains, we have to put plastic tarp down. That looks like hell,” said produce stall owner Tony LoSchiavo.

    “She always walked twenty feet behind him,” Virginia said. “A couple of hours later, same thing, both of them their two bags full, he would be walking twenty feet ahead of her as they came back to the Plaza.”

   He waited at the front door, holding it open for her. She trudged up, he followed her, and the parrot every time said, “Welcome back!” when they stepped into their apartment. Angie returned with vegetables like asparagus and nuts like filberts for the thick billed brightly colored bird.

   Most of the tenants at the Plaza were on good terms with one another. Many of us were single and sought out company up and down the floors and down the hallways, especially in January and February when snow piled up. We visited one another and chewed the fat.

   “Friends would just drop in,” said Virginia.

   One Siberian Sunday Mr. Flood’s kids were visiting and went exploring in the basement. They found a red metal and wood Flexible Flyer. Their father bundled them up and carried the sled outside. When they got tired of pushing each other back and forth in the parking lot, they found a shovel and scooped snow onto the back stairs as far up as the first landing. They shoveled enough snow on the stairs to make a ramp and spent the rest of the day running across the landing, throwing themselves on the sled, racing down the ramp and zooming across the icy lot.

   Mr. Flood and I watched them from the second-floor landing.

   “They’re up to snow good,” he joked laconically when they hit bottom bumped up and got some air under their sled.

   “They’re on their own magic carpet ride,” I said.

   “It takes one to snow one,” the kids whooped back at us.

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.”

Mumble the Peg

By Ed Staskus

   The week we went to our last Boy Scout camp at Lake Pymatuning State Park wasn’t any seven days longer than any other summer camp we had gone to, but since it was going to be our last camp, my friends and I were determined to make the most of it, stay up most of the time, lengthen the days and nights, mess around in the woods and water, raid the girl’s side, and play mumble the peg.

   We weren’t supposed to, even though all of us had jackknives and some of us had fixed-blade sheath knives.

   “No mumbledy peg,” our scoutmaster told us in no uncertain terms, in uncertain English, in his strong Lithuanian accent, speaking through his Chiclet teeth.

   One way we played mumble the peg was to first pound a twig, a peg, into the ground. We threw our knives at the ground, flipping from the palm, back of the hand, twist of the fist, and every which way. Whatever the other scout did, if he threw it backward over his head, and it stuck, you had to do it, too. If you failed, then you had to mumble the peg. You had to get on your hands and knees and pull the twig out of the ground with your teeth.

   The other way we played was to stand opposite each other with our legs shoulder-width. Taking turns, we would flip and try to stick our knife into the ground as close to our own foot as possible. The first toss was always in the middle, but when the other guy got closer, you had to get closer, and the closer and closer it went. Whoever stuck his knife closest to his own foot, and the other guy chickened out, was the winner.

   If you stuck the knife into your own foot you won on the spot, although nobody ever wanted to win that way.

It was why everyone who had not gotten their first aid merit badge and was going to get in on mumble the peg at camp, took the class at the park ranger cabin a half mile away. It was taught by an older scout who wore leopard-print cammo-style pants and shirt. One of us read from the only available Red Cross manual, while he was the hands-on guy.

   It was the only book-learning merit badge on the program. Sticking our noses in a book at summer camp was the last thing anybody except the bookworms wanted to do. They read what somebody else dreamed up about fun. We dreamed up our own fun.

   We were going to look for Bigfoot and nab him if we could. He was the hide and seek world champion, but we knew he was somewhere around the lake. What we were going to do with him once we got him, none of us knew. We thought, if we did find him, and he was friendly, we would ask him where he lived and what he did all day. 

   “His name is Sasquatch,” the cammo scout told us, looking like he thought we were retards.

   There were more of us than Bigfoot, or whatever his name was, for sure. There were seven of us, first-generation immigrant children like all the boys and girls at the camp, and we were all Eagle Scouts. None of us had earned any Palms, though, since none of us had gotten more than the twenty-one merit badges needed to get to Eagle, but all of us were going for twenty-two, since Ginty’s dad had brought two canoes. We were looking forward to it after we heard what getting a canoeing badge was all about.

   What it was about was getting out of a canoe in deep water and getting back in without capsizing, then performing a controlled capsize, and swimming, towing, or pushing a swamped canoe fifty feet to shallow water. In the shallow water, empty the swamped canoe and reenter it. Back in deep water, rescue a swamped canoe and its paddlers by emptying it and helping the paddlers reenter their boat without capsizing.

   We were all about that.

   We had searched for Bigfoot at camp before, but sporadically, never having a plan. This time we had a plan. We brought flashlights, we had a map of the landscape north of our camp, and a compass, and we made sure all of us had sharpened our knives, just in case Bigfoot tried to mess with us.

   It would put Troop 311 on the map.

   Seven years earlier Bigfoot had terrorized a weekend Cub Scout camp at the park in the middle of the night. The scoutmaster was jolted out of a sound sleep by the screams of his boys. He stumbled out of his tent to find the 11-year-olds crying and running around in circles. Using a whistle and a flashlight he got them to stop and form a line. He then asked them what was going on.

   It turned out four of the boys had been woken up suddenly by a loud noise. Their tent started to shake. They thought it was a prank being played by their friends, until the tent was ripped from the ground and thrown into a tree. A creature bellowed at them. It was Bigfoot. Two of the boys immediately shut their eyes. The other two were mesmerized by its glowing eyes. They couldn’t look away.

   The beast was satisfied with scaring them and left. The scoutmaster searched, but only found the tent high in the tree. He built a fire and gathered all the boys around him. In the morning he cut the camping weekend short.

   Troop 311 was the Lithuanian American scout troop on the east side of town. Our headquarters was the community hall at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church, just off East 185th Street, the principal road, and the spine of Lithuanian life and culture in Cleveland. Our group was all 15 and 16 years old, and scouting was phasing out of our minds and lives. 

   The younger kids didn’t know anything. The older guys who were still scouts were Explorers, in it for life. We knew this was our last camp at Lake Pymatuning. Next year we were hoping to go out on a high note at the 12th World Scout Jamboree at Farragut State Park in the Rocky Mountains.

   “I will bust a gut if we make it there,” said Linas, our camel train’s crack wise.

    The first thing we did when we got to Lake Pymatuning late Sunday morning was haul our stuff, clothes, sleeping bags, tents, food and supplies out of the fleet of Ford station wagons, Chevy station wagons, and  Pontiac station wagons our parents had driven us in to the camp site. We set up our tents in a perpendicular line to the lake, hoisted the communal tent, dug a fire pit and a latrine trench. We built a 30-foot high abstract frame sculpture out of dead tree branches. Everybody went for a swim when we were done.

   The lake is partly in Ohio and partly in Pennsylvania, on land that used to be a swamp. It is named for Pihmtomink, the chief of the tribe who lived in the swamp. When the Indians were pushed off their land, and told to go somewhere else, the first farmers had a hell of a time. The swamp was infested by mosquitoes carrying yellow fever. Farm animals were eaten by bears and mountain lions or sank in quicksand. There was a massive flood in 1913. Finally, the Pymatuning Land Company bought all the land, thousands of men worked from 1931 to 1934, and built a dam. The lake they made is 17 miles long and 2 miles wide.

   There’s a spot called “Where the Ducks Walk on the Fish,” where people throw bread to thousands of carp and Canada geese and birds of a feather rush around on top of the fish to snag their share of it.

   Our scoutmaster’s tent was nearest to the lake. Vytautas Jokubaitis was a stubby-legged barrel-chested man with blondish hair and a red face. He wore a khaki campaign hat, the same kind that Robert Baden-Powell wore, to keep the sun off his face. But that wasn’t why his face was usually red. He wasn’t a bad man, but he had a bad temper. Nobody ever wanted to get on the wrong side of the scout oath, or scout motto, or scout code with him. 

   There was the devil to pay when that happened.

   He was our Scoutmaster, or Scouter, so we called him Scooter, since we couldn’t call him Vito. He didn’t like that. He was a grown man and we were kids. He didn’t like us calling him Scooter, either, but what could he do? Besides, we never called him that to his face. He was a “Yes sir” and “No sir” kind of man.

   He was from Alytus, the same town where my mother had been baby-sitting when the Russians stormed into Lithuania. She got out in the nick of time with her aunt and her aunt’s four kids on a horse drawn wagon with a cow tied to the back. By 1966 it had been 22 years since she had seen anyone from her family, who were all stuck behind the Iron Curtain.

   When he was young Vito weightlifted and wrestled. Nobody screwed around with him, but he beat it out of the Baltics in 1944 like tens of thousands of others, met his wife Onute in Germany, got married, and emigrated to the United States in 1949. They had three children, Milda, who was older than us and ignored us, Ruta, who was our age and eye-catching, and who we pretended to ignore, and a boy who was small fry and ignored by everybody except his small fry friends.

   Vytautas Jokubaitis organized Zaibas and the Lithuanian American Club in Cleveland, and had gotten medals, although he never wore them to camp. The CYO gave him the “Saint John Bosco Award.” We all went to Catholic schools, but none of knew who John Bosco was. He sounded like Ovaltine.

   Ona was just as industrious, and not about to be outdone by her husband. She ran the camp as much as he did, although she stayed on the girl’s side. She was the head of the Parents Committee of Zaibas, raised mounds of money for the Lithuanian Relief Fund, and was Outstanding Citizen of the Year in 1960. Cleveland mayor Ralph Locher gave her the award in person.

   They talked about Lithuania at the night-time campfire like it was the best place in the world, but none of had ever been there. Lithuania was like Bigfoot, something we heard about, but didn’t know if it was real or not.  When they talked about the Baltic and the dunes, all we could picture were the dunes at Mentor Headlands State Park on Lake Erie. That’s what we knew. We didn’t know Lithuania from the man in the moon.

   We got up early every morning, raised our flags on poles we had brought, did exercises in a field, made breakfast, and took a break after that. We washed out clothes in the lake and dried them on our tent lines. Scooter was focused on physical fitness, so before lunch we had to go on a forced march. The only consolation was being let loose afterwards to run and dive into the lake.

   The younger scouts worked on merit badges in the afternoon. We were free to drift off, which we did, fooling around, exploring the shoreline, and mumbling the peg in secluded spots.

   We did service projects, planting seedlings, and raking out the beach. We climbed trees and had our own “Big Time Wrestling” match with a Negro Scout Troop from Louisville. We went on more hikes before dinner. They were supposed to be short, two to three miles, but Scooter always took us out four and five miles. We hiked every day, rain or shine. We went on a night hike and got lost every which way.

   “It’s like training to be a mailman,” Linas grumbled.

   The last night of camp started after the campfire and lights out. A half hour later we snuck out of our sleeping bags, out of the campsite, and to the grove of crabapple trees on the other side of the girl’s side. There were plenty of last year’s old hard two-inch crabapples littering the ground that squirrels hadn’t gotten, and we filled our pockets with them. When we got close to the girl’s tents, we unleashed our barrage of missiles. They thunked the canvas and the girls woke up screaming. The next second, though, they were screaming mad. As soon as we were out of ammo, they rushed from their tents, led by the irate Milda, followed by the fetching Ruta, picked up the sour fruits, and started throwing them back at us. We scattered and they ran after us, pelting us, but stopped when they ran out of fireworks. 

   Algis had a lump on his head where he got hit. We rubbed it to rub it away, but he said, “Cut it out, you’re making it hurt even more,” and that he was good to go. We went looking for Bigfoot, following the beams of our flashlights. We thought he had to be somewhere in the woods, away from the water, where there were tents and trailers all summer long. 

   Bigfoot was beyond any doubt a loner.

   We knew he was going to be hard to find in the dark even though he was probably nine feet tall. He was covered head-to-toe in swarthy hair. We were hoping to find footprints, which had to be enormous. We tramped around for hours looking for him, but all we found was a skunk, who raised his tail before we backed off, and two racoons on their hind legs, peering at us from behind their masks.

   “Maybe he avoids white people, since they chased off his ancestors,” said Gediminas.

   “You think he’s an Indian?” asked Andrius. We called him Andy since calling him Andrius annoyed the crap out of him.

   “He’s got to be. Why would he live in the woods, all naked, no furniture or TV? Only Indians do that.” 

   “That makes sense to me,” said Linas.

   Looking for Bigfoot turned out to be a wild-goose chase. We stumbled into tree branches, tripped over roots, looked high and low, left no stone unturned, but he wasn’t anywhere to be found. We trudged back to camp, tired and disappointed.

   I don’t know what got into us. One minute we were sneaking back to our tents and the next minute we were sneaking up to Scooter’s car. It was a four-door Ford Country Sedan. After checking the driver’s door, it was unlocked, and quietly opening it, putting the manual gear into neutral, the next minute we were all at the back pushing the car down the slope toward the lake.

   Nobody said a word when it got stuck in the muck. The water slurped up to the front bumper. Nobody said a word when we slouched back to our tents and threw ourselves down on our sleeping bags.

   The next morning, we were woken up by ferocious bursts of anger and dismay. We were bum rushed out of our tents and lined up in a row. We could see the shipwrecked Ford down the bank. Scooter read us the riot act. 

  He gave each of us the third-degree, face to face, glaring, but nobody was talking.

   “I will give you one last chance,” he finally said. “Whoever did this step forward, apologize, know that you broke the code of scouting, and we will forgive.”

   We all knew that wasn’t possible. Scooter wasn’t one to ever forgive and forget. His face was getting redder and redder. Then Linas stepped forward.

   It was hard to believe he was going to spill the beans. He was the least tame scout among us. He was no chicken, either. He proved that every day. He had thrown down the mumble the peg gauntlet the first day and fended off all challengers. Playing the peg was forbidden but he played it more than anyone else and played it best, yet there he was, ready to tell all about pushing the car into Lake Pymatuning.

   “Yes?” asked Scooter.

   “I think it was Bigfoot, sir,” said Linas.

A version of this story appeared in Lithuanian Heritage Magazine.

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.”

Wheel in the Sky

By Ed Staskus

   “Mom, can you write me a note for school tomorrow saying I can’t be an altar boy,” I asked my mother after we had finished watching every minute of “The Wide World of Disney” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” She gave me a sharp frown. I gave her my best first-born smile.

   Every Sunday night my parents nibbled sliced-up smoked eel while my brother, sister, and I munched handfuls of popcorn from paper bags sitting in front of the Zenith TV console in the basement. It was a family ritual. We loved Walt Disney, but The Great Stone Face wasn’t a chip off the old block. The circus acts and comedians were fun, but the opera singers and dramatic monologues were dull as turned off. None of us understood what the Little Italian Mouse was up to, either.

   I asked my mom for the note after we were out of the tub, in pj’s, and book bags ready for Monday. I wanted it to be short and sweet, as though it were no big deal, routine, really. I thought something along the line of all my spare time was already being spent on my studies would be appropriate.

   I knew I was on shaky ground, though. My parents went to mass every Sunday, which meant we all went. “Everybody went to church back then,” my mother says. “There were two masses every Sunday. The church was full of people. We went early to get a pew.”

   My mother always went to church because she had always gone. “I grew up that way,” she said. My father was a true believer. He was an accountant and counted on getting to heaven. Even though he wasn’t a betting man, he put his money on Pascal’s wager. 

   The wager argues that a thinking person should live as though God exists and try to believe in him. If God doesn’t exist, there will only be a few finite losses, like good times with too much money and too many girlfriends. When you are dead and gone you won’t miss them. But if God does exist, there are infinite gains, like spending eternity in heaven, and no infinite losses, like spending eternity in hell. 

   After he told me about the parlay there was no arguing with him about whether I was going to faithfully serve out my altar boy time. “St. George is one of the Holy Helpers,” he said. I helped myself by biting my tongue. Everybody at school knew George was a stud, the Trophy Bearer.

   The most embarrassed I ever was as a child was when my parents made me go to Sunday mass dressed up in a Buster Brown sailor suit. Something criminal happened to the costume before the next service. It was never found alive again. I had to go to confession after telling my mom I had no idea what happened to it. 

   The fashion show took months to live down at school. I had to fight my way out of several mean-spirited jibes. There will be blood in grade school.

   The St. George church school and parish hall were all in a package, a rectangular two-and-a-half story brick building on Superior Avenue and East 67th Street. The church was on the top floor, the school on the middle floor, and the hall on the half-in-the-ground floor. The hall doubled as a civil defense shelter in case of nuclear war, even though it was unclear what we going to do down there after the atomic bomb had blown Cleveland, Ohio, to kingdom come.

   I was glad my mom didn’t down-press me about it, but wrote a note, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it, and finishing it off with my teacher’s name on the front. A small whitecap of uncertainty took shape in my mind at my mom’s readiness to do my bidding, but I put my doubts to rest and slept the sleep of the blessed.

  The next day I gave the envelope to my third-grade teacher, Sister Matilda, a gnarly disciplinarian who had press-ganged me and a half-dozen other boys the second week of school. I found out later it was an annual recruitment drive.

   She read the note, smiled, and said, “Very good, you start next Monday.”

   How could that be? What happened between last night and now? My own mother had betrayed me, I realized.

   The St. George edifice was the biggest Lithuanian building in Cleveland, built in 1921. It was at the center of the ethnic district and many parishioners had businesses and institutions, like the newspaper and some kind of historical outfit, nearby. The east side along Lake Erie was full of Poles, Serbs and Slovenians, and Lithuanians.

   The parish priest, Father Ivan, short for his civilian name Balys Ivanauskas, lived in a seven-bedroom Italianate-style rectory a stone’s throw from the church. It had been built for a big family in the 1880s. Our teachers, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Providence of God, lived together in a slightly smaller house on Superior Avenue two or three minutes away. There were eight of them, not including the Mother Superior. They could have used some of Father Ivan’s empty bedrooms.

   The sisters were a hard-boiled bunch. They were serious as could be about us taking our studies seriously and behaving in class. Those were rules number one and two. There were no other rules. They weren’t above hitting us with rulers riding crops rolled-up Catholic Universe Bulletins and their hands. Nobody’s parents ever complained about it, so none of us ever complained about it to them.

   What would have been the point? They would only have asked, “What did you do?”

   The nuns never sweated getting the job done. In fact, they never sweated at all. Wearing thick bulky habits, they should have been the first to perspire whenever it got hot, but they never did. Nobody knew how they did it, if it was part of their training or some kind of black magic.

   Even though I wasn’t baptized at St. George, I acted as a bump on a log at many baptismal fonts. One time a baby spit a stream of pea green apple sauce puke on my surplice and another time another one burped and farted and messed up Father Ivan. I had to run back to headquarters and get wet rags. I sprayed the boss with the new-fangled aerosol Lysol a busybody had donated.

   I received my First Communion there and was confirmed there. The First Communion happens when as a Catholic you attain the Age of Reason. I don’t know how any of us were ever given the host when we were, because I definitely had not attained the Age of Reason, nor had anyone in my class, unless they were faking it.

   My reason was affected by reading boy’s books in my spare time, adventures about running for your life full moons spies foreign lands secrets ray guns tommy guns spitfires hooded supervillains risky back alleys conspiracies and the bad guys foiled at the last minute by the good guys. The paperbacks seeded my dreams and I cooked up twisty exploits every night, waking up happy I had survived. 

   Once we were thrown to the lions, we got trained in the basics, how to dress, the call and response, and how to arrange the corporal, the purificator, the chalice, the pall, and the big Missal. We learned how to hold liturgical books for Father Ivan when he wasn’t at the altar, when he was proclaiming prayers with outstretched hands. We brought him thuribles, the lavabo water and towel, and the vessels to hold the consecrated bread.

   We helped with communion, presenting cruets of wine and water for him to pour into the chalice.  When he washed his hands standing at the side of the altar, we poured the water over them. If incense was used, we presented the thurible and incense to Father Ivan, who smoked the offerings, the cross and altar, after which we smoked the priest and people. It had one flavor, a sickly-sweet rotting pomegranate smell.

   The thurible was a two-piece metal chalice with a chain that we swung side to side. God forbid anybody got slap happy and swung it too high, hitting something with it, and spilling the hot coals, threatening to burn the church down. That was when Father Ivan became Ivan the Terrible.

   We rang a handbell before the consecration, when the priest extended his hands above the gifts. We rang the bell again when, after the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest showed the host and then the chalice. 

   “Ring dem’ bells” is what we liked doing best.

   I started low man on the totem pole which meant the 7 o’clock morning shift. Even though everybody went to church, nobody went to church first thing in the morning Monday through Friday. At least, almost nobody. The big man was always there and at least one of his altar boys. I had to get up at 5:30 in the morning, pour myself a bowl of Cheerios and a glass of orange juice, catch a CTS bus on the corner of St. Clair Avenue and East 127th Street, toss exact change into the fare box, stay away from the crazy people, run through the church to the sacristy, get into my uniform, and make sure I had my cheat sheet.

   The mass was performed in Latin, most of the time the priest’s back to the congregation, and we followed his lead. There were prescribed times we had to respond by voice to something Father Ivan recited. It was when we offered Holy Communion that I finally faced the nave and saw the only people in church were old older oldest unemployed worried about something or in the wrong place. 

   One benefit to hardly anybody being in the pews first thing in the morning was whenever I made a mistake, it usually stayed between me and my maker. That is, unless Ivan the Terrible, who had eyes in the back of his head and hearing better than a moth, saw and heard what I had done wrong.

   Moths have the best hearing in the world, next to priests, who are accustomed to listening to whispers in the confessional. I was waiting for my turn one afternoon after school when I heard Father Ivan bellow, “What did you say?” and the next thing I knew a red-faced boy burst out of the booth running followed by the dark-faced priest. 

   I quietly slipped away. There was no need to put myself in harm’s way for somebody else’s mortal sins.

   When I started Father Bartis was in charge, but the next year Father Ivan became the parish priest. He was a burly man. None of us knew where he came from or how old he was, although we guessed he was between 30 and 60. He ran the parish until 1980. He smoked, we could smell it on his breath when he got close to us, and sometimes we caught a whiff of spirits. We all knew what strong drink smelled like because almost everybody’s parents drank.

   He liked to take walks and mind his own business, unless he was minding ours. We were always under the gun. He was irascible to begin with and screwing around with his life’s work brought out the worst in him. Our school janitor said he never met anyone worth a damn who wasn’t irascible. Father Ivan was short-tempered, but his bark was worse than his bite. The nuns put him to shame when it came to crime and punishment.

   All of us carried cheat sheets. Latin was a foreign language, as well as a dead language. None of us were taking classes in it and none of us knew what we were saying. Our responses during mass were rote, except when something went wrong, when we improvised with mumbles. It wasn’t speaking in tongues, but Father Ivan warned us exorcism was imminent if we didn’t learn our lines.

   The Eucharist was the high point of mass. It got us off our knees and on our feet. We helped in the distribution by holding a communion plate under everybody’s chin when the priest gave them the wafer. There would have been hell to pay if there was an accident, the wafer falling out of somebody’s mouth, landing on the floor.

   It would have meant saying a million Hail Mary’s and a thousand turns around the Stations of the Cross.

   After acquiring seniority, I was promoted off the morning shift and started serving at Sunday masses, funerals, and weddings. Sunday mass was more of the same, only longer and more elaborate, but at least I got to sleep in and go to church in the family car instead of the city bus with strangers.

   Funerals seemed to always be scheduled on Mondays and Fridays. It happened so often I began to think weekends coming and going were a dangerous time. At one Friday funeral Father Ivan spoke glowingly of all the good works the deceased had done and how he was sure the man was going to heaven. “The way to the brightness is through good works,” he said. “The first thing we all have got to do is do good.”

   We were standing on either side of the dead man. The other altar boy leaned over the open casket and said to me, “What you got to do first is be dead.”

   The corpses didn’t bother us over much, but the mewling coffin sounds freaked us out.

   None of us especially enjoyed funerals, not because we were near at hand to the dead, but because they were sad dismal and mournful and on top of everything else we rarely were gifted with cash. It dismayed us to see the family light twenty thirty candles at a votive stand and push folded ones and fives into the offering box.

   Weddings were a different story. It was festive. Everybody was in a good mood. It was always a sunny day. The brides looked great in their white dresses with trains. Heaven help the altar boy who stepped on a moving train and yanked it off.

   The number one perk of serving at a wedding was we were always rewarded in hard cash. The best man was usually the man who slipped us an envelope and told us what a great job we had done, even though we never did anything special beyond kneeling and standing around most of the time, like we always did.

   Weddings in July and August were often hot and humid. Before one of them the groom himself paid us in advance in Morgan silver dollars, ten of them for each of us. It was a windfall. We stowed them away carefully. I wrapped mine up in a handkerchief. Everyone was sweating during the ceremony, and when it came time for communion, I reached into my pocket for the handkerchief to dry my hands. It would have been bad if I let the cruet slip. 

   When I did, the silver dollars fell out pell-mell from my handkerchief, rolled down the two steps in the gap between the altar rail, past the bride and groom, and down the center aisle of the nave. A man stuck his foot out and corralled them with his shoe. I was alarmed until I saw it was my uncle, who was an accountant like my father.

   My tour of duty ended at the end of sixth grade, when my parents moved out of the neighborhood and I transferred to another Catholic school. They already had a full complement of altar boys, so my services weren’t needed there. I was happy enough to go back to being a spectator.

   When St. George closed in 2009 it was the oldest Lithuanian parish in North America. 

   At the last mass three priests presided and there was a host of altar boys and girls. Back in the day we would have welcomed girls. They were better at cleaning than us and we knew we could boss them around, although they were also getting to be nice sweet friendly to have as friends.

   The altar was given away to another church. The playground and parking lot were sold, and the grounds converted to greenhouses. The rectory was boarded up. The convent was long gone, since the school had closed long before. A chain link fence was set up all around the building, and that was that.

    There were no more dragons real or imagined for the soldier saint to slay. The day of the Trophy Bearer was done. George took a knee.

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.”

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 bumping into Arunas Petkus a few days later. 

   I was living at Dixon Hall up the road, a stone’s throw from East 40th Street. 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 any great shakes 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 spirits 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 booze 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 a card game in his free time. He was Lithuanian like me. 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 art-rock 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?”

   Charles George 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 in the 1960s. “He spiked it with whiskey from time to time.” He snagged 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 looked like a soul mate to the stairs. It was pock-marked with rust and seemed 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.”

Down on Dirva

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By Ed Staskus

I was surprised and dismayed the day my father told me that, other than Ausra, the two-week sun and sand Lithuanian camp in Wasaga Beach, and our one-week boy scout camp, I would be working at Dirva the rest of the summer. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since my father believed in the work ethic and worked like a dog himself, but I was. He gave me a grave stern annoyed look when I blurted out it would disturb my time off from school.

I kept most of my dismay to myself.

It wouldn’t have helped, anyway. I knew once he told me, I would be working at Dirva from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Thank God it was only part-time. I would be home by three o’clock and didn’t have to work on Fridays. I was going to be getting three-day weekends before I even knew what three-day weekends were.

Before the newspaper Dirva, which means field, was Dirva, it was Santaika, which means peace. Kazys Karpius was the editor, and stayed on the job for thirty years, from the end of World War One through the Great Depression to the end of World War Two, getting the weekly editions out without fail. The paper was anti-communist, pro-democracy, and true-blue the homeland.

Kazys Karpius wrote poems, plays, and histories about Lithuania, especially about beating off the Vikings and Teutonic Knights back in the day. The Teutonic Knights were always tramping into the Baltics for plunder and conversion, not their own conversion, but that of the natives they regarded as pagans. The Lithuanians didn’t see eye to eye with the Germans about it, insisting it was none of their business. They fought with longswords, battles axes, crossbows, maces, picks and war hammers, knives, clubs, slings, and hand-to-hand.

The first day I slouched into work was a brisk early summer morning. I was down on Dirva but resigned. I rode the CTS bus from St. Clair to East 105th Street over Liberty Boulevard down Superior Avenue. It was the same bus and same route I took going to school, to St. George’s, on East 67th and Superior.

Lithuanian immigrants came to Cleveland, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, in two waves, the first one in the late 19th century. They were cheap labor for emerging industries. They needed their own newspaper and church. At the turn of the century Father Joe Jankus threw up a small wooden church near downtown. The next pastor bought the land St. George’s was going to stand on and after it was built Father Vincent Vilkutaitis ran the parish for forty years. His last year was my first year of five years there.

The church was on the top floor of the 2½ story brick building, the grade school on the middle floor, and the community hall on the ground floor, which was partially below ground.  Since it was the Atomic Age, and the Cold War was in full swing, the hall doubled as a Nuclear Fallout Shelter. Every few months we had a Civil Defense drill and had to file out of our classes and down to the hall, where we shuffled around until the drill was over.

If we had somehow survived the blast, even though we all brought our own sandwiches in Flintstone Dudley-Do-right Jetson lunch boxes, we would have all died trying to live on the crumbs.

Jonas Ciuberkis was our neighbor two houses down from where we lived at the corner of Bartfield and Coronado, in a Polish double my mom and dad had bought with my dad’s sister and her family, all of us getting started in the United States. He was the editor of Dirva, in a small office at the front. A quiet man, balding, careful in manner, he was married to a woman fifteen-some years his junior, a woman who had given him three children, and who was fleshy vivacious gregarious.

Regina Ciuberkiene had an opinion about everything and could talk your ear off. It didn’t matter that we were just kids. We avoided her. My mother never called her Regina. She called her Ciuberkiene, even to her face. Many of his friends called Jonas Janis, which is Latvian for Jonas. He studied law in Lithuania and worked in Latvia before the war. Their two daughters were either too old or too young, but their son, Arunas, was just right, and we played together.

Dirva was in a one-story brick building on Superior, next to the haunted house that was next to St. George’s. The Lithuanian Hall Society was next door. It was where all the civic and cultural business was done. It was also where there were dances and heavy drinking. Jonas Ciuberkis wasn’t sure what to do with me, so the first few days I didn’t do anything. After that I started cleaning up the mess, starting with the bathroom. After that I helped with the press and folding and mailing.

My job was to do this do that, whatever I was told to do.

The printing press looked like it belonged in a museum. It worked, sort of, but it was my archenemy, always threatening my mitts. It was a hand-fed flat-bed cylinder press. There was metal type for headings and an intertype machine for news and features. When the paper was ready for print, I got the machine rolling, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. As the copies came off the belt, I changed hats, becoming the press-boy who checked for defects. If and when the press got everything done, I became the mail-boy, wrapping the papers in bundles. Then I became the push-boy, carting them to beside the back door for pick-up.

By World War One there were almost ten thousand Lithuanians in Cleveland. St. George’s was their church. Dirva was their newspaper. It was put out by the Ohio Lithuanian Publishing Company, which was run by Apdonas Bartusevicius. In 1925 Kazys Karpius gained a controlling interest.

He was involved in Lithuanian projects all his life, including the Unification of Lithuanians in America and the Lithuanian National League of America. He helped found the American Lithuanian Cultural Center. After World War Two boatloads of displaced Lithuanians made it to Cleveland. Dirva published local, national and international news, as well as keeping everybody informed about what was going on back in the land. We sent the paper to Detroit and Pittsburgh and other places wherever there was a church or a bendruomene.

Our editor went out most days for lunch and sometimes came back smelling like whiskey. One day he was walking out the door, I was sitting on a crate doing nothing, when he waved at me and said, “Ateik.” I must have been daydreaming, because he had to say it again before I realized he wanted me to go with him.

He usually wore a white shirt and brown pleated pants. His thin hair was gray brownish. He drove a brown car. The interior was tan, clean and anonymous. No one would ever have suspected he had a wife and three kids. He turned right on Norwood Road, six blocks later turned right on St. Clair, past the Slovenian National Home, to the Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern. It took five minutes. He parked on the street and we went in.

Nothing was going on in the bowling alley, but he wasn’t going to the bowling alley, anyway. He walked into the bar, checking to see that I was trailing him, and took a stool at the bar.

“Atsisesk,” he said, adding, “Don’t tell your mother.”

I sat down next to him. The bartender stepped up. He was wearing a bow tie and looked like a new mattress wearing a bow tie. I couldn’t see around him.

Jonas Ciuberkis ordered a shot and a water back and asked me what I wanted. I wanted an ice-cold Coca-Cola. It was in the 90s and humid. There was a big glass jar of pickled eggs at his elbow. He took one out for himself and nodded at the jar, looking at me. I said aciu, but no thanks.

Pickled eggs are eggs hard boiled, the shell removed, and submerged in a solution of vinegar, salt, spices, and seasonings. The eggs are left in the brine anywhere from one day to several months. They get rubbery the longer they are in the pickling solution.

“They’re Pennsylvania Dutch,” my boss said. “Try a bite.”

Pennsylvania Dutch style means whole beets, onions, vinegar, sugar, salt, cloves and a cinnamon stick are used as the brine. The eggs look either pink purple from the beets and have a sweet and sour taste.

I took a bite, gingerly. It wasn’t bad, it was actually good, far better than the koseliena, chopped meat in cold aspic, like headcheese, my mother was always trying to get us to eat. Some food from the old country should have been left in the old country, dead and buried.

When the bartender moved to the side, I saw the painting. It was on the wall above the paneling and top shelf of liquor bottles. It was of a half-naked woman reclining on her side on a chaise, her head up, looking down on the drinkers, her long golden hair hanging loose. Her eyes were wide set and her lips pouty luscious red.

It was Lili St. Cyr, a burlesque dancer forty-some years ago. She was a pioneer in the striptease trade, known for her cutting-edge performances. One of her most famous tricks was ‘the Flying G.’ While she was doing her burlesque striptease, the lights slowly going down, just at the instant when everything went completely dark, a man in the wings with a fishing pole would snag her g-string and pull it off. Even if you didn’t blink it looked like it had disappeared just like that.

A man who had seen her perform many times painted the mural in 1954. Maple Lanes paid him off in beer. Above the burlesque queen’s legs in the painting was an English proverb, “A woman is an angel at ten, a saint at fifteen, a devil at forty, and a witch at fourscore.”

Jonas Ciuberkis flicked his eyes at the painting ten twenty times, while I kept my eyes away from it. I was an altar boy at St. George’s on the side. He had another shot, this time with a beer chaser. My mother always told us an apple a day, not a bottle of pop, kept the doctor away, so, I turned down more Coca-Cola.

My boss talked about the “Great Books,” one of his favorite subjects, so I didn’t tell him about my reading habits, and about Lithuania, his other favorite subject, its history, the commies, and how to restore its freedom. I didn’t tell him it was going in one ear and out the other. He talked in a gloomy milk and water way. It was hard to pay attention, so I gave up, and set my sights back on Lili St. Cyr.

She started looking familiar. I finally realized, if she were wearing clothes, she looked just like Regina Ciuberkiene, wide set eyes and full mouth, buxom, calves of salami.  She wasn’t a spitting image but as close as spit got.

My boss never invited me to Maple Lanes again, and Mondays through Thursdays the summer crawled by, while Fridays through Sundays flew by. I messed around with my friends, rode my bike, and played a boatload of pick-up sandlot baseball.

By the time my employment was coming to an end, Labor Day fast approaching, I had come to an accommodation with my job. The printing press and I were on speaking terms. I was no longer down on Dirva. I almost enjoyed it. I asked about my paychecks. I hadn’t seen a single one.

“I gave them to your father every two weeks,” Jonas Ciuberkis said.

“Oh,” I said.

I didn’t ask my father about the paychecks. My mother and he were fanatical savers, putting every spare penny in the bank. I knew what he was going to be doing with the money, clothes and tuition for school.

By the next year we had moved past Five Points to the Lithuanian neighborhood on the farther east side. Everybody was moving there because, with urban renewal in full swing, black people were slowly steadily shifting east, moving into our neighborhood. “We like them less than the Americans,” my mother told me. “They’re lazy.” If you weren’t a workaholic my parents thought you were lazy.

The first Lithuanians in Cleveland lived near downtown, but fifty years later were relocating to the Superior-St. Clair area around St. George’s. The new community emerged in the Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood, near the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Neff Road off East 185th Street. Most Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, although some are Jews, and a few are Lutherans. A small group of Cleveland’s Lithuanians broke off to live among working-class Poles on the south side, even though there is no love lost between Poles and Lithuanians.

I enrolled in St. Joseph’s High School where the main road, a couple of miles of every kind of shop and store, intersected Lakeshore Boulevard. It was an all-boy’s school. It was still summer, the next summer, but fall was coming up. I looked at Dirva now and then, but when classes started all I read were my schoolbooks and Doc Savage adventure books from the library. I read them on weekends. There were twenty-four of them in all. I read them all. My favorite was “The Secret of Satan’s Spine.”

Jonas Ciuberkis was fired from his job and Vytautas Gedgaudas took over. I didn’t know him and nobody I knew ever told me anything about him. He expanded the publication schedule to three times a week, but it went back to its original weekly frequency soon enough. Working that much must have driven the printing press crazy, and driven whoever was operating it crazy, too.

Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern was sold that same summer of 1964. Ann Abranovich and Josephine Reeves, sisters and working mothers, bought it so they could make more money and spend more time with their sprouting growing families. Josephine lived a few blocks from the bowling alley and walked to work. Ann moved her family into the apartment upstairs. The noise downstairs was money in the bank.

When I heard the St. Joseph’s bowling team was going there for a tournament, I told them I knew all about the bowling alley and they let me tag along. Everybody asked me about the painting, which the new owners hadn’t messed with. I told them I knew everything about it.  I didn’t know bowling from polo, although I knew you rolled the ball trying to knock all the pins down, so I sat in the back and watched. The St. Joe’s and Padua and Ignatius teams rolled the worst scores of their lives.

The kingpin kids from upstairs were the pinsetters. You had to be careful not to roll while they were still setting up. They screamed and sent pins flying at you if you did. The alleys weren’t even and smooth. They were wood, not laminate, old wood, and there were warps bumps gouges divots waves from one end to the other. It was hard if not impossible to tell what your ball was going to do. The talk was that no one had ever rolled a three hundred score perfect game at Maple Lanes, and that no ever would, unless they made a deal with the devil.

That was unlikely to happen, because everybody in that old neighborhood neck of the woods went to church on Sundays. There weren’t as many churches as bars, but it was close enough. There would have been talk, the news would have spread like wildfire, and there would have been hell to pay if you did roll a perfect game.

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.”

My Two Best Friends

By Ed Staskus

   When Nick Goga met Wayne Biddell, the burly man had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. He had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years and a uniformed officer before that. He told Nick in all that time he only drew his service handgun three times and never once fired it. He lived with the same bullets on his belt all his life.

   He had bad knees from playing handball at the downtown YMCA.

   “I probably never should have played that game, but I loved it, although it and my job cost me my legs and my marriage,” he said.

   Nick met Wayne after his marriage fell apart and he lost his house, which was a lot like what happened to Wayne. They met on the grassy courtyard of the apartment complex on East 222nd Street in Euclid, where they both lived, when Nick saw him messing around with his golf clubs on a warm dry spring day. The ex-cop was retired and living alone.

  Nick wasn’t retired, not exactly, but he lived alone, too.

  They played golf together for the next three years. He was the best friend Nick ever had, even more than Mattie Haylor, even though Mattie ended up doing more for him later on. Wayne was affable and did many things for him that he never even asked him to do. After Nick moved to Lakewood, Wayne got him a car, convincing his lady friend to give him the old Ford she was planning on trading in when she got her new car. He later mailed him a check for five hundred dollars, to live on, knowing Nick was strapped, knowing his ex-wife had taken him to the cleaners.

   It wasn’t his fault the Ford’s transmission blew out, stranding him in Tremont, and his son-in-law wouldn’t lend him the money to get it repaired.

   “Fixing it will cost more than the car is worth,” he said. “You’re better off sending it to the scrap yard.”

   He knew Jack was right but knew he didn’t want to lend him even one dollar, at the same time. He could tell Jack didn’t trust him, even though he had always been an honest man. All his friends said so. He wasn’t sure what his daughter Agnes thought, whether she was just backing her husband up, or not.

   He junked the heap and got a hundred bucks for it.

   After that he had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop all that winter, the winter Wayne blew his head off, and all the next spring until Mattie died and left him a hundred thousand dollars, after all was said and done. The trust sold Mattie’s house and old furniture and threw everything else out. He was able to buy a new car, a two-door Suzuki that never ran out of gas.

   When his wife Eva Giedraityte walked out on him, and took all the money out of their joint accounts, swooping up the kids and talking him into taking a second mortgage out on their house so she and her new boyfriend from Rochester could open a restaurant, and Palmer Bearings went bankrupt, putting him out of the only work he had ever done since getting shipped home from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, it was then he played more golf than he ever played in his life, and waited to be thrown out of his house.

   When he finally got the boot and moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to Euclid, he was in his late 50s.

   “I was hanging on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get my Social Security early. I needed the money bad. When I worked for Palmer Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, with an expense account no one ever questioned, and I was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the Shylocks closed the doors without a word of warning to me.”

   Nick had a chip on his shoulder about it. He was aggrieved and bitter. Sometimes he went for a walk to cool down.

   “There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in cash in my pockets every day. Those days were gone. I had made the day for the Jews who ran the business. In the end they took it all away from me, just like my wife did. Eva broke me down inside.”

   When he moved to Euclid he moved into a no-rent apartment, an apartment that Angelo, the maintenance man at the apartment complex, who he met through Stan, a Pole he often had breakfast with at the railroad car diner on Green Road, not far from the giant Fisher Body and TRW plants, got for him when he was hired to be his helper.

   “Stan and I talked all the time over cups of coffee. We got to be good friends, even though he was a thick Polack. He was a hell of a bowler. He was good enough to bowl in tournaments, and I went to a couple of them to watch him. It was hop, skip, and glide to the line. He was always pounding out strikes. It got old, though, and I stopped going, except when the beer and pretzels were free.”

   Angelo was from Texas and was a Korean War veteran, like Nick. He talked the man who was the boss, who owned the apartment complex, into hiring him. Nick didn’t like the man, didn’t like his shrewd face, but he kept his mouth shut.

   “He was Hebrew, and that’s who runs the country. They run the money, which means they run everything else, too. They own most of the gold in the world. They marry inside the family, keeping it all together for themselves.”

   He shoveled snow, did some of the gardening, and vacuumed the hallways. He cleaned apartments when they went vacant and got paid extra whenever he had to clean kitchens, scrubbing the stove and emptying out the fridge, throwing away spoiled food. He made a few bucks here and there, one way or another. He stayed quick on the uptake. He kept his head above water.

   The apartment complex had been built during the Second World War for government workers. It was built like a tank, sturdy as a fort. The brown brick buildings were three stories with garages in the back. Fox Avenue intersected the complex and ran all the way to Babbitt Avenue, where there was a golf course. Wayne and he shuttled to it on good days, getting in eighteen holes.

   “He wasn’t any good, and complained about the walking, but we got along. I always went looking for the balls he shanked.”

   Wayne worked part-time at night, in a booth selling betting slips at the Thistledown horse track in North Randall. He was on his own during the day, which was how he and Nick were able to go golfing together whenever Nick was free to go. They went to tournaments in Akron, to watch the professionals. Stan went with them once, but he wasn’t used to hiking more than a bowling lane and got worn out.

   After Nick lost his car Wayne always drove. He had gotten a new dark blue Mercury four-door sedan. “He loved that car and talked his lady friend into getting one, too. That was how I got her old Ford.”

   When he moved to Lakewood, on the west side, to a no-frills apartment across the street from St. Ed’s High School, Wayne visited him a few times, even though he didn’t like the small apartment or the building.

   “It’s a dump,” he said.

    Nick took him to Joe’s Diner for breakfast. “I could tell he was suffering. It wasn’t just his knees. He had prostate cancer and was hurting. It was just a matter of time. I called him on Christmas Eve and wished him happy holidays. He didn’t sound good, but he didn’t sound bad, either. At least, that’s what I thought. I was dead wrong.”

   Wayne’s son was a pre-law student at Miami University. He had tried out for the football team as a walk-on and made the cut. That fall he saw playing time as the team’s back-up quarterback when the starter was injured. “He was a hell of an athlete,” Nick said. He drove up to Euclid from Oxford to see his dad the Christmas weekend. Wayne told him all about his new Mercury.

   “Take my car and give it a little ride,” he said. “I haven’t driven it for a while. It needs to be out on the road.”

   His son got the car and drove it up and down Lakeshore Boulevard. It had snowed overnight, but not much, and what snow there was had been plowed to the side. When he got back, he found his father in bed. Wayne had put a pillow over his head and a gun in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, it was the first and last time he ever shot a gun at a human being.

   After the funeral Nick hoofed it around Lakewood until summer, when Mattie, his golfing buddy for many years, who was in his 80s, got sick. He was taken to Fairview Hospital, and when there wasn’t anything else the doctors could do, they moved him to the Welsh Home in Rocky River.

   “Mattie was a great guy and great friend of mine, my other best friend for a long time. He was on our golf team in the Cleveland Metropolitan Golf Association. We had about ninety members and most of us were friends. We played golf until it was too cold to walk the courses. After that, any of us who could afford it went south to play. I went to sunny parts of the country to play golf many times, when I was married, in the clover, and even afterwards, until I couldn’t afford to go anymore.”

   Mattie passed away in his sleep and a month after his funeral Nick got a registered letter from a lawyer saying he had been included in the will. “He left me his house. It surprised me but didn’t surprise me. I was the only person who ever listened to what he had to say, who stuck around when he lost track of his thoughts, who waited for him to reminisce about something else he was bound to remember sooner or later, even though it was a lot of nothing. After the house was sold, I got a check for a bundle.”

   He bought his new car, paying cash for it. He paid off his credit card debt, the plastic he had been living on, and bought a new laptop computer, so he didn’t have to always go to the library to work on his get-rich schemes. He stopped sending e-mails to his son-in-law when Jack exploded about them one day, saying he was sick of the schemes. He told his father-in-law he was never going to buy in to any of them.

   “I always was a good friend with different people, including Wayne and Mattie, who were my two best friends. It’s good to be best friends with your friends. Otherwise, you end up with duck eggs. My ship is coming in one day. When it does, I’ll dump the Suzuki in the blink of an eye and get an Audi convertible.  I’ll go to Florida every winter. I’ll play golf in the sunshine again.”

   He bought new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Mattie’s money away he was in good shape. He stayed in his dog-eared apartment to keep costs down. He thought about buying birthday presents for his grandson and granddaughter, even though he hardly ever saw them, and when he did, hardly paid any attention to them.  He didn’t work at much of anything and played golf all the next summer at new nicer courses. He went to both Wayne and Mattie’s graves and paid his respects. He only went once, but it was enough.

   He made some new best friends.

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.”