Category Archives: Lithuanian Journal

Age of Discovery

By Ed Staskus

   I was nearly three years old before I got my first good look at Sudbury. My brother had been born the year before, and lately had been crying at night, keeping us all awake. My father was a miner, working day shifts for two weeks and then night shifts for two weeks. He was one of the explosives men, setting black powder charges a mile down. He needed his nerves rock solid. He needed to sleep like a baby. He didn’t need the echo of crying in his brain.

   At first, my mother thought it was a passing thing. When it didn’t pass, she took to sleeping in the living room, on the sofa, with my brother on the floor beside her in a wooden rocking cradle. Whenever he started crying, she reached down and rocked him, settling him down. She didn’t get much sleep, although my father and I got all the shuteye we needed.

   One day, when my father was at work, and my mother had an appointment with their doctor for my brother’s one year check-up, my godfather Juozas Dzenkaitis showed up to babysit me for the afternoon. He was on the night shift in the nickel mines and had time to kill. He showed up on a 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.

   “I borrowed it from my neighbor,” he explained.

   Most of the Lithuanian immigrants who came hat in hand to Sudbury in the late 1940s and early 1950s worked in the mines. They got out of the black hole that Europe was for them and ended up in another black hole. Most of them were saving every penny they could so they wouldn’t have to work in the mines a minute more than they had to. Most of them owned their homes, but didn’t own a car, a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.

   The Vincent had a black tank and black frame. The chrome pipes were nickel chrome steel. The nickel came from Sudbury. The small city south of North Bay in Ontario sat on top of a big hole in the ground overflowing with ore. Some people called it the ‘Valley.’ Others called it the ‘Basin’. An asteroid or comet smashed into the spot in Canada hundreds of millions of years before with a payload of vital metals. Nickel took the first prize.

   During the Korean War, which ended the year before, nickel was regulated. Whenever there was combat anywhere in the world Sudbury boomed. Nickel was vital for making modern mechanized warfare. When the ripping and snorting stopped Sudbury went back to scuffling. It wasn’t boom or bust, but it was a one-basket economy, so it was boom or bust.

   After World War Two the open pits were almost exhausted and new underground mines were being dug. Nickel was being used for more and more civilian purposes. More technologically advanced smelters started seeing the light of day. While Sudbury slowly progressed from being the most polluted city in the country, starting to clean itself up, I was just getting my legs under me. My friends and I played on the black rock outcroppings all the time and never noticed the ever-present haze of ash and smoke.

   When I was born in 1951, I didn’t see much of my hometown at first. I was homesick for my old home. I saw a lot of my crib, the kitchen and living room, and my parents and their friends when there were kitchen parties at our house. I only spoke Lithuanian until the spring of 1953, when I started meeting kids my own age on the street. They all spoke English and French although none of them spoke French among themselves. English was the language out on the street.

   The Vincent my godfather was riding was plenty fast enough, but it wasn’t the Black Lightning, which was the racing version of the Black Shadow. Every steel part on the Lightning that could be remade in aluminum was remade in aluminum. Everything not essential was removed, reducing the weight by almost a hundred pounds. It had a single racing seat and rear footrests.

   In 1948 Rollie Free broke the North American motorcycle land speed record riding a Black Lightning on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He did it wearing a bathing suit, laying prone like a swimmer flat on his stomach, his legs dangling off the back end, hanging on to the handlebars for dear life. He took a deep breath when it was all over.

   I sat on the motorcycle behind my godfather, who I called Uncle Joe. I couldn’t get my arms around him and had to hang on to his shirt. He burped the bike down Stanley Street to Elm Street and took a left towards downtown. We lived on a new stretch of Stanley Street. Houses were being built as fast as could be because Sudbury was the most congested city in Canada. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics reported there were “42, 410 people jammed into 9, 450 units.”  More than a third of the housing was officially designated as “overcrowded.”

   We glided past the Regent Theatre where my parents went to see movies on weekends. My father learned to speak English in Lithuania, but my mother lived on an out-of-the-way family farm of sugar beets and pigs near the East Prussian border. The movies were a way for her to learn English. A twin bill was showing, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

   The movie house was operated by Herbert Sutherland. Three years later it became home to a colony of rats. It got so it was hard to tell if somebody was screaming because of the monsters on the screen or because of a rat nibbling on their ankles. Herb Sutherland found several homeless cats and invited them to make the theater their home. The city sent him a letter saying, “We do not feel the use of cats is sufficient to eliminate the menace.” He threw the hired guns out and set out poison instead, making the problem disappear. 

   We went past the new Sudbury Arena which replaced the old Palace Rink the year I was born. Uncle Joe rode carefully, watching for mud, threading the needle. The Junction Creek overflowed its banks every year, flooding the northern and central parts of Sudbury. We rode around the General Hospital where I was born. Outside the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes we stopped for ice cream cones.

  Frederic Romanet du Caillaud, known as the Count of Sudbury, had a six-foot tall 1500-pound bronze statue of the Virgin Mary erected at the mouth of the grotto in 1907. “Queen of the Gauls” was inscribed on the statue. At first, an Italian family by the name of Drago took care of it, wiping off grime and bird shit. In the 1950s the Rosary Club was formed and with Omer Naqult. a local barber and devout Catholic, watched over the pilgrimage site.

   One year earlier almost 10,000 people gathered at the site, coming from all the various parishes of the Sault-Ste-Marie diocese. New lighting was installed to light up the shrine at night. At the start of summer more than 10,000 residents of Sudbury took part in the moveable feast of Corpus Christi procession that ended up at the grotto. My parents weren’t able to go to the parade and so I didn’t know anything about it at the time.

   The statue was an inch or two shorter than Uncle Joe, who wore his hair wavy and was strong as an ox. He could bend nails with his hands. He and his wife Brone didn’t have any kids, but I saw plenty of them, anyway. My parents had the biggest living room among their Lithuanian immigrant friends and our house was where card playing, dancing, and eating and drinking happened on many weekends.

   We set off for Ramsey Lake. Before there ever was a Sudbury the natives called it Bitimagamasing, which means “water that lies on the side of the hill.” Everybody agreed Ramsey was easier to pronounce and that is what everybody called it. Everybody also agreed the lake was dead. Sewage from Minnow Lake drained into Ramsey Lake. Open roast emissions had been going on for so long and led to so much pollution that the lake, which has few water flow outlets, had given up the ghost. Even though it was still the largest lake in the world located entirely within the boundaries of a single city, it was a shell of its former self.

   There weren’t many fish in the lake. By the 1950s, despite three decades of stocking, angling was bad. Besides the pollution, fishermen had long since been dynamiting for fish, wiping out some species like bass. When Lands and Forest biologist R. E. Whitefield went netting it took him four full days to catch five pike and one yellow perch. Lake trout were re-stocked in 1952, but that was the end of stocking for the next twenty-five years.

   Before my father showed up to sweep her off her feet, her Canadian boyfriend often took her out on the lake in his speedboat, until the day he started showing off, racing and zig zagging, and she fell off the back of it without him noticing. An evil-looking northern pike watched her bob up to the surface. By the time her boyfriend looked for her she was floating on her back waiting for him, hoping the weight of her wet clothes wouldn’t drag her under.    

   The lake is named after William Ramsey, the chief of a survey party in the late 1800s who got lost in heavy fog. After finding himself he named it Lost Lake. Others decided it would be better to name it after him but misspelled his name, calling it Lake Ramsay. Somebody finally noticed the mistake forty years later and corrected the spelling.

   When we got to the lake, I begged Uncle Joe to let me go swimming, but there was an purple-red greasy substance on the surface of the water as far out as we could see. “It’s probably some poisonous waste, or something Inco is up to,” he said. I had no idea what Inco was, but I had heard “What are you up to?” from my mother often enough that I knew it couldn’t be anything good. We went for a walk instead. When I got tired my godfather carried me sitting on his shoulders, my fingers grasping his thick head of hair.

   It was an early fall day and trees were starting to change color. There weren’t many of them, but the yellows and reds got me going and I begged Uncle Joe to take me to a forest. He said there weren’t any, but finally relented when I wouldn’t leave it alone. We roared out of Sudbury on the Vincent and into the countryside.

   It turned out my godfather was right. There were hardly any trees anywhere, at all. The first thing to happen to them was the Great Chicago Fire. Lumber camps popped up all over providing wood for the American city’s reconstruction. Then the ore discoveries and smelting got rolling, releasing sulfur, which combined with water forms sulfuric acid leading to acid rain. Saplings struggling to reforest the landscape didn’t have a chance and died by the millions. The hinterland of Sudbury looked like a wasteland. 

   Our street in the city had trees and grass and gardens but the only vegetation I saw outside the city was wild blueberry patches and paper birch. What other trees there were, were giving it their best shot against long odds. They were like the crippled kid on Pine Street we sometimes played with, although never for long. He couldn’t hop skip or run. He couldn’t keep up.

   When my godfather checked his watch, he suddenly said we had to go. We raced back to Sudbury, to Stanley Street, to our house. My father wasn’t home from work, yet. Neither was my mother.

   “When she asks you what we did today, just tell her we went sightseeing, OK?” Uncle Joe said.

   “OK,” I said.

   After my mother came home, I told her we had a great time, and while she and my godfather had coffee on the front porch, I watched my baby brother crawl around in the back yard. Our lot dead-ended in a face of dark pitted rock. I wasn’t allowed to climb it because it was steep, even though I had already gone up and down it with some of my friends.

   When they ran across the street into our yard after dinner and asked me where I had been all day, I told them all about it, all the places I had been to, and how Sudbury was bigger, better, and more exciting than I had ever imagined. Stanley Street was our world, but we couldn’t wait to see more. We ran around the back yard pretending to be riding motorcycles. 

   The sunset was a livid orange that evening. When my mother put me to bed, saying I looked tired, I slept like the rock of ages.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Fried Eggs on Toast

By Ed Staskus

   The first language Edvardas Staskevicius spoke was Lithuanian and until he started meeting Canadian children it was the only language he spoke. All his first friends in Sudbury, Ontario, were other small change in the same boat, visiting his parents with their parents. When spring broke early his second year of life, he started meeting other youngsters, boys and girls on the block of nine houses on their dead-end street. 

   They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. They stuck to English on the street, which was how he picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion politics and popular culture.

   His close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who he called Lele, lived a block away. Eddie and Lele played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she spied him dragging his red fleece blanket behind him. When she tried to take it away and he resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting him on the arm. It was then the squabbling and pushing started in earnest.

   Lele didn’t begin learning English until the first day she went to school.

   “All my friends were Lithuanian during my childhood in Sudbury,” she said. “When I entered kindergarten, I didn’t speak a word of English. Many people over my lifetime had a chuckle when I told them I was born in Canada, but English is my second language.”

   Time is money is the watchword in the grown-up world, but time is candy is what works for many children. The young wife who lived next door to Eddie’s parents, Angele and Vytas, had a daughter and they visited together some afternoons. She always brought candy and while the women talked, Diana and Eddie sat at the kitchen table with a paper bag of candy between them. Whenever one of them was ready for another piece, they jiggled the table vigorously before making a grab for the bag.

   The immigrant couple bought a house as soon as they could, the same as every other Lithuanian who ended up in Sudbury. They had three children inside of five years. They didn’t have a TV, but they had a telephone and a radio, as well as a washing machine and a fridge. They knew their neighbors, but all their close friends were other post-war DP’s, most of them working in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a city, but it was a company town, too.

   By 1950 it had long been associated with mining, smelting, and a broken-down landscape. The environment was said to be comparable to that of the moon. Decades of mining and smokestacks had acidified more than 7,000 lakes inside a circle of 10,000 square miles. 

   “I didn’t like Sudbury,” said Angele. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken.” 

   More than 50,000 acres of the hinterland were barren. Nothing grew there. Another 200,000 acres were semi-barren. There was substantial erosion everywhere. It wasn’t a wasteland, but it was a wasteland. All anyone had to do was walk up a rocky promontory and look around.

   As early as the 1920s “The Hub of the North” was open roasting more than twice as much rock ore as any other smelting location in North America. The result poisoned crops. The result made it one of the worst environments in Ontario. It blackened the native pink granite, turning the rose and white quartz black. 

   “Vytas worked two weeks during the day and two weeks during the night,” said Angele. “He walked to work, except when it was too cold, and whoever had a car would pick him and others up. In the morning he left at seven and got home at seven at night. When he worked nights, he got home at seven in the morning. The kids and I would wait by the window for him to get back.”

   Sudbury is in a basin. It is the third-largest impact crater on Earth. It was created about 200 million years ago when an enormous asteroid rocketed through the atmosphere and hit the ground with a blast. World-class deposits are found there and mined extensively.

   The city’s reputation as a rocky badlands was known far and wide by the time Angele and Vytas got married in 1949 and bought their house on Stanley Street a year later. Despite the industrial blight of the past half-century, there was a growing working-class population. They were a part of that population. The newlyweds were two of the displaced willing to take whatever work was offered in return for getting out of the Old World.

   “All our friends, the Zizai, Simkai, Bagdonai, all had children,” Angele said. “Since our living room was a little bigger than most, they often came over on Saturday nights. The men played bridge while we made dinner. The kids ran around, we drank, lots of it, smoked and danced. We put the kids away and talked all night.”

   Whoever had the opportunity to get married got married as fast as they could. There wasn’t an overabundance of single women in Sudbury. Henry and Maryte Zizys saw each other three times before they got hitched. The Simkai and Bagdonai stretched it out for a few months. The married men drank at home. The single men drank in bars, usually with other single men.

   The early Lithuanians who went to the New World weren’t Lithuanians, since the country didn’t exist at the time. It had once been its own empire but had since been taken over and was part of the Russian Empire. Many who fled to the United States were mistakenly documented as Polish, since there was a language ban in their homeland and scores of them spoke Polish as a second language.

   The first Lithuanians in Canada were men who fought in the British Army in the War of 1812 against the Americans. For the next 130 years most of those who left the Baltics and went to Canada did so for economic reasons. After World War Two they fled toil and trouble after the Soviet Union reincorporated Lithuania into its realm.

   “All of us hated the Russians for what they did” Angele said.

   The Russians deported hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians to Siberian labor camps during and after the war. Sometimes they had their reasons. Other times the reason was slaphappy. The neighbors might have complained about you. The new Communist mayor might have taken a dislike to you. A cross-eyed apparatchik might have thought you were somebody else. It didn’t matter, because if you ended up in a boxcar going east, your future was over.

   The house Vytas and Angele moved into was on a newer extension of Stanley Street north of Poplar Street. It wasn’t in any of the city’s touted neighborhoods, but Donovan was nearby, and so was Little Britain. Downtown was less than two miles to the east. 

   Stanley Street started at Elm Street where there was a drug store, tobacconist, five-and-dime, fruit market, bakery and butcher shop, restaurants and a liquor store, and the Regent movie theater. The railcars were being replaced by busses and the tracks asphalted over. The other end dead-ended at a sheer rock face on top of which were railroad tracks. The Canadian Pacific ran day and night hauling ore. When the train wailed, the kids wailed right back.

   Angele shopped on Elm Street. When Eddie was still a toddler, he rode in a baby carriage. After his siblings were born, they rode in the carriage. He didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.

   “He was unhappy about it,” Angele said. “I told him he was a big boy now and had to walk to help his brother and sister, but he still didn’t like it.”

   Vytas spread topsoil in the front yard of their new house and threw down grass seed. The backyard was forty feet deep but sandy and grass wouldn’t grow. He built a fence around it to discourage their kids from climbing the rocky rounded hill over which the railroad tracks curved west. 

   Even though children imitate their elders, they don’t always listen to them.

   “We always told the kids they weren’t allowed to climb the rock hills,” said Angele. “One day I couldn’t find Edvardas. He wasn’t in the house or in the yard or anywhere on our part of the street. I called and called for him. When he didn’t answer, all I could do was wait outside. When he finally came home, he had pebbles in his pockets. Where have you been? I asked him.”

   “I was looking for gold, mama,” he said, handing his mother pebbles that had a glint of shine. “I found some and brought them back for you.”

   Their house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at in the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact over decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and their street.

   “We had two bedrooms, a small kitchen, and a nice living room,” said Angele. “Upstairs was a half bath and two rooms We rented those rooms. We usually rented to women or a couple who were new to Sudbury. Where they took a bath, I don’t know. Vytas charged $11.00 a week for a room and he saved all the money we got. Right before we left for America, he was able to buy a used car.”

   When Bruno and Ingrid Hauck came to Sudbury from Germany, they rented a room for several years. “She watched the kids sometimes, so Vytas and I could go to the Regency to see a movie,” said Angele. They saw “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” The kids saw “Lady and the Tramp.”

   They had a New Year’s party at their house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment Angele cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.

   “I had to lay down and didn’t see New Year’s Day,” she said, disappointed.

   When she woke up her husband and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, but wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. They went to church there once a month when their visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. The children sat for free. Piety was mandatory.

   “I was just in my twenties, but in one of Rimas’s plays I was the mother of a dying partisan,” Angele said. “I made myself cry by thinking about the time I cut my eye.”

   September through November are cold, December through February are freezing, and March into mid-May are cold in Sudbury. The first snow by and large falls in October, but it can show up as early as September. The season’s last snow comes and goes in April, although May sometimes sees a late snow shower. There are never any flurries in June, July, and August. 

   Vytas learned to ice skate and taught his children on a rink in the front yard. He hosed water out on the lawn on bitter cold days where it started freezing in minutes. When it was frozen hard as rock, he and the children laced up their skates and went skating. Whenever all the kids on the block joined in it got pell-mell fast. Eddie and his two friends across the street dazzled the girls with their figure 8s.

   In the 1950s in Sudbury sulfur dioxide formed a permanent, opaque, cloud-like formation across the horizon as seen from a distance. There was lead nickel arsenic and God knows what else in it. The ground-level pollution wasn’t as bad, a gray haze, but was worse on some days than others.

   When it was worse, Vytas built igloos for the kids to play in.

   It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 2 feet long 12 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, Vytas made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.

   As long as there was daylight there were daylong Eskimos in the igloo.

   The furnace in the basement ran on coal. It was delivered once a week by truck, the coal man filling up the bin in the basement down a chute. Every morning Vytas shoveled coal into it, lit the fire, and stoked the coal. At night either Angele or he banked the furnace, salvaging unburned coal and putting the ashes in bags. They saved some in a container on the front porch for the steps whenever they got iced over.

   Angele told the kids to never go in the basement. One day Eddie started down the stairs to see what his dad did exactly every morning, tripped over his own feet, and tumbled the rest of the way down. He was back on his feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though he was unhurt.

   The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. The kids were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators.

   “I didn’t have to worry about Richardas and Rita, they were too small, but Edvardas was always trying to climb up on the radiator in the living room. I told him he was going to fall off and one Sunday night, while I was cooking, he fell off and broke his collarbone, although he didn’t cry when it happened. He seemed more surprised than anything else.”

   For the rest of the next week, his arm in a sling, Angele fed him his favorite food every morning, fried eggs on toast. He was the envy of his sidekicks, the two Canadian boys from whom he had learned most of his English. After finishing their pancakes or porridge, they ran to his back porch and watched him through the window go one-handed at his sunny side up breakfast.

   He saluted his pals with half a piece of gooey toast.

Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Kitchen Party

HOMESPUN.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

Some years later living in a Polish double in Cleveland, Ohio, the last winter they lived in the old neighborhood before moving to the new neighborhood where a school and convent adjoining the Lithuanian church had just been built, Eddie Staskevicius watched his 9-year-old sister Rita walk up the stairs in her new American winter coat and remembered the blimp-style snow suit his mother made for her earlier in Sudbury, Ontario.

“She looked like one of the astronauts in ‘Destination Moon,’” the 12-year-old boy said. He had seen the Technicolor sci-fi movie on a 15” black and white “Atomic Age” Zenith. It had a sharp picture, at least until it warmed up, when it would sooner or later start arcing and hissing.

it was space, the new frontier, brought to life by space the old frontier, at least until the TV fritzed off. Rockets were hot. Project Mercury was gone and done, launching the first American astronaut on a suborbital flight in 1961. John Glenn lifted off on an Atlas rocket in 1962 to become the first American to orbit the Earth.

Rita wore her space suit winters in Sudbury. It was where Angele Jurgelaityte married Vytas Staskevicius in 1949 and gave birth to Edvardas in 1951, Ricardas in 1952, and Rita in 1954. It was the trifecta. When she did, she gave up her job as a nanny for the Lapalme’s, known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury,” and went to work raising her own family in her own house.

“I spent all my time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and watching my kids,” she said.

The day she got married she knew how to boil pork and make soup. “I didn’t know how to make any other food.” The first time she bought ground meat for a meatloaf, she bought too many pounds of it. “We didn’t have a refrigerator at first and I had to ask one of our neighbors to keep it for me.” She stuck to the basics, fruit in season, fresh meat from a butcher shop, eggs, cheese, bread, milk, and coffee.

“No matter how much I ate I couldn’t put on weight,” Angele said. “I was thin as a pencil.” She saw a doctor who told her not to overthink nor overeat her slender figure. “You’ll want it back some day.” he said.

They rented an upstairs room to a German couple recently arrived, Bruno and Ingrid Hauck, in order to bring in a little income. Vytas charged $11.00 a week and soon converted a second upstairs bedroom to accommodate boarders. There was a half bath.

“I don’t know where they went for a real bath,” said Angele. The Staskevicius family lived on the ground floor. They had a full bath.

“I loved having kids, but we still had to go out sometimes,” Angele said. Vytas bought her a fur coat after Rita’s birth. Fur was more a necessity in Sudbury than some kind of big city luxury, and didn’t cost an arm and a leg, especially since it wasn’t mink and came from the nearby outdoors.

They couldn’t afford a babysitter but made friends with the Hauck’s. “Ingrid loved the kids, especially Rick. She watched them so we could go out.” They walked to the movie theater on Elm Street on Saturday nights. After the movie they took a stroll.

Angele worked for the Laplame’s as a mother’s helper one winter, spring, and summer. J. A. Lapalme, a local businessman, had promised Angele he would help get Vytas Staskevicius out of Germany and into Canada. He went to his office every day and she waited for word about the sponsorship.

“One week he was in Montreal,” she said. “When he got home, he didn’t say anything about it. I was in the kitchen washing dishes. I asked him if he had done it, sponsored Vytas, but he said he forgot. I got so mad I threw the washcloth on the floor.”

She ran upstairs, down the hallway to the back, into her room, slammed the door, and threw herself on the bed.

He knocked on the door, came in, and said, “I’ll fix it tomorrow.”

“He did it the next day,” she said.

Vytas went to work in the nickel mines. Sudbury was a mining town, where work meant not seeing the light. Either you worked in the mines or you worked in an ancillary business. He wasn’t low man on the totem pole, like pick-axe men, but he had to watch his step in the 3,000-foot-deep hot dim damp mineshafts. A wrong step could be a last step. His first job was packing black powder. He worked as a blaster, the man responsible for loading, priming, and detonating blastholes, breaking rock for excavation, creating rock cuts.

Sudbury is the regional capital of northeastern Ontario, 230 miles north of Toronto and 140 miles east of Sault Ste. Marie. It lays in a 200-million-year-old crater, surrounded by the Canadian Shield, and has hundreds of lakes within its boundaries. Lake Wanapitei is the largest city-contained lake in the world.

Sudbury’s mining economy went boom and bust through the years as demand for nickel fluctuated. It was high during World War One, bottomed out when the war ended, and rose again in the 1920s and 30s. It was one of the richest and fastest-growing cities in Canada through the 1930s. During World War Two one mine alone accounted for all the nickel used in Allied artillery. With the advent of the Cold War Sudbury supplied the United States with most of its military grade nickel.

Angele and Vytas lived in an old two-story clapboard house on Pine Street after their wedding and five-hour afternoon honeymoon at a nearby lakeshore park. They saved everything they could and couldn’t afford, and with the help of a loan from J. A. Lapalme, were able to buy a new house on a new dead-end length of Stanley Street.

Stanley Street stretched four blocks from Elm Street, the commercial thoroughfare, past Pine Street to Poplar Street. When it was extended to the nearly sheer rock face on top of which railroad tracks ran, it became five blocks. Several new homes were built.

“There were three on our side of the street and three on the other side when we moved in,” said Angele. There were no sidewalks. “One of the houses on the other side was bigger. It was the builder’s home.”

He neglected to install storm windows on their new house, regardless of the long winters.  “We hadn’t signed for the house, yet, and Vytas insisted he put in second windows. He put them in.” They might have been recent settlers, DPs from Eastern Europe, but they didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the winter storm systems blew.

The builder had four children, two of them boys. Angele’s sons played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind their house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep rock cliff at the end of the street. Their parents forbade them the fantasy.

Angele spoke Lithuanian fluently, Russian and German competently, English just barely, and French not at all. Everybody in Sudbury spoke English and French. It was grapevine with the neighbors and listen some more for her to be able to go shopping.

“I listened to people. I learned English by talking to them.”

The first Lithuanians came to Canada in the early 1900s to work in Nova Scotia’s mines. They established a parish and built a church in 1913. A wave of immigration, tens of thousands, took place after World War Two. Most of them went to Ontario. They spread out to London, Hamilton, and Toronto. Some of them went to Sudbury. There was ready employment there.

For all its work and prosperity, the mining town was known as one of the ugliest cities in Canada. Logging for the purpose of roasting ore on open fires and the smoke that resulted despoiled the landscape, leaving behind scattered poplars and birches, the only trees able to endure the harm. The small city and its vast environs were often compared to the landscape of the faraway moon.

What birds there were carried their nut and seed lunch boxes from tree to tree because the trees were so far and few between. They never said goodbye, though. The nest is where the heart is.

“The summers were short and hot,” Angele said. “There were no trees anywhere. The rock would get hot and make everything hotter. The winters started in October and they were cold.”

When spring came, there wasn’t much to it. Decades of indiscriminate logging, massive mining operations, and smelter emissions wiped out almost all of the vegetation. The pollution poisoned lakes and streams. The dearth of trees meant a dearth of mulch, leading to widespread soil erosion. As a result, frost was severe in the winter and it was too hot in the summer.

It was colder than cold in winter. The average temperature was below zero. “Our best friends, Henry and Maryte Zizys, had to go home on the bus one weekend after visiting us and it was 45 degrees below zero.” The average snowfall was above average for northern land. The last frost in spring was in late May. It came back the second week of autumn.

In the winter, once she got the hang of it, Angele sewed clothes. When she started, she had sewn little except a button back on a shirt or skirt. “But when you have to do something, I did it,” she said.

She learned to sew the same way she learned to speak English. She rummaged cheap clothes from second-hand stores and took them apart to see how they had been put together. She cut up adult pants, reusing the zippers, and made children’s pants. “The zipper in pants was hard to figure out.” She learned by doing what she was doing.

“I found out it was just common sense,” she said.

She bought an old foot-powered Treadle Singer sewing machine in good condition. A rubber belt operated it. The belt stretched from the balance wheel to a flat metal bigfoot pedal at the bottom. The power came from the rhythm of the sewer’s feet. The stitch length couldn’t be adjusted. Only a single straight stitch is possible with treadle machines. But once you get into the swing of things, both delicate and durable stiches are more than workable.

Within a few years she was making curtains and tablecloths for herself and their neighbors.

She sewed dresses for her friends. She made a dress for Irma Hauck. “I sewed a coat for Maryte Zizys.” She learned to make pants for the men, cuffs and all.

She sewed winter suits for her kids. Eddie got a German army winter field coat and matching wool pants. Rick got a Space Cadet zip up one-piece suit. Both boys wore snug form-fitting hats based on “Atomic Rulers of the World.”  Rita’s snow suit was puffed up like a dirigible, cinched at the waist, and paired with a white rabbit furry hat. She was “The Thing from Stanley Street.”

Eddie and Rick chased her with ray guns.

When Vytas learned how to ice skate at a local rink, he bought his kids skates. He flooded the front yard with hose water, and when it froze solid in seconds taught them how to skate. Whenever Rita fell down, she never felt a thing, her puffy suit protecting her. But sometimes she couldn’t get back up, lacking leverage, the stiff winter wind rolling her over and over.

She never got hurt, reassuring her mother that the puffiness was serving its purpose.

“When I lived in Nuremberg, at the Army Hospital, one of my roommates, Monica, read my palm, and said I would have three children, but one of them would die young. When it was time to take the taxi to the hospital for Rita, my third child, I was so scared I fell down on the living room floor and couldn’t go.”

Vytas got her to her feet and inside the car. In the event, Rita survived, fortune teller or no fortune teller, ray guns or no ray guns, rock solid ice or not.

In the spring, between pregnancies and births, Angele performed in plays resurrected from Lithuania. She danced with a folk-dance group. They practiced in the church hall and did turns on local stages, once going to Sault Ste. Marie for an outdoor dance jamboree.

“Rimas Bagdonas was always my partner,” she said. “He was tall and a good dancer.”

Vytas and Angele met Rimas and Regina Bagdonas in Sudbury. They met everyone they knew in Sudbury, since everyone else they had known in Lithuania was either stuck fast in the homeland behind the Iron Curtain or had emigrated to one corner of the wide world-or-other or had died in the war.

Rimas worked for Murray Mines and hosted a Lithuanian radio program Sundays in his spare time. He sang and danced and played the piano, violin, harmonica, accordion, and organ. He was one of the church organists and one of the accordionists for folk dancing performances.

He worked underground for eight years. In 1957 he was told in order to be promoted he would have to change his last name. A manager suggested Rimas Bags or Rimas Bagas. He didn’t like the idea. He worked in the dark but was starting to see the light.

“My dad told them he was born a Bagdonas and would die a Bagdonas,” said his daughter Lele. “So, a family decision was made that he would leave to find a job. We stayed in Sudbury. That November after he found work, we moved to Hamilton. My dad’s first job was at the Ford plant in nearby Oakville.”

By 1957 most of the Lithuanians in Sudbury were thinking about talking about planning on leaving or had already left for greener pastures. They were moving to Toronto Montreal and the northern United States. Vytas had already made a foray south of the border, exploring where they might go to live and work.

Mining has been and is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Some of the worst workplace disasters ever have been collapses and explosions. Hard rock mining is hazardous work. The most common accidents are the result of poisonous or volatile gases and the misuse of explosives for blasting operations. Especially dangerous below ground is mine-induced instability. It is a major threat for all diggers. None of the DP diggers wanted to be tunneling the rest of their lives.

At the start of the 1950s Sudbury had a population of about 40,000 and of the 14,000 men in the labor force more than 8,000 of them worked in mining and smelting. Ten years later, due to the high demand for labor, the population of the city doubled. But at the outset of the new millennium Sudbury had the smallest proportion of immigrants of any city in Ontario, the Italians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians almost all gone.

In the meantime, Sudbury modernized its mining and reclaimed its landscape. Nearly 9 million trees were planted over a 30-year period. It was one of the largest re-greening projects in the world.

“I hated my husband having to work in the mines,” said Angele. “Whenever a miner died, you never heard it on the news or read about it in the newspaper. We only ever found out by word- of-mouth, one to the other.”

Rita’s godfather moved to Chicago. Rick’s godfather moved to San Diego. Ed’s godfather moved to Los Angeles. Henry and Maryte Zizys moved to Montreal. The Hauck’s moved to Detroit. Almost everyone who had come to Sudbury for the chance to get out of Europe and for the available work went somewhere else.

“Vytas worked nine hours a day for two weeks and then nine hours a night for two weeks,” said Angele. His days of getting up, shoveling coal into the furnace cold mornings, having breakfast, walking or hitching a ride to the mine, working his shift, getting home, having dinner, seeing his kids for few minutes, took most up most of his day. “When he worked nights, we hardly saw him. He would come home in the morning, have a bite to eat, and go to bed.”

Refugees displaced people immigrants believe in hard work as the way to get ahead. It’s often the only thing to believe in. Everything else has been left behind.

“When the men were working day shifts, we had parties on weekends at our house,” Angele said. “We had a big living room and the Simkiai, Povilaiciai, and Dzenkaiciai would come over.” The kids got shoved into a bedroom to fend for themselves.

The men played bridge in the kitchen long into the night, drinking beer and homemade krupnickas, which is a kind of Lithuanian moonshine, smoking Export “A” and Pall Mall cigarettes until the card table was under a cloud of smoke. The women put food out, mixed cocktails, and kibitzed the card players. They danced to records. They kicked back and talked.

“We didn’t have TV’s, so we talked.”

They talked about their kids, their neighbors and friends, their baznycia and bendruomene, other women, who was getting married and who was getting dumped, the movies, shopping cooking the butcher baker and candlestick maker. They talked about local doings. The men talked about their jobs, who knew and didn’t know what they were doing. They put the kids to sleep. They talked long into the night in the living room.

Outside when it got dark, and started snowing, the black rock face of Sudbury got muffled in white. When the wind picked up drifts built up against the side of the house. After that there wasn’t much to see. They didn’t talk about what had been, so much, but about what was going to be.

“One day a door will open and let the future in,” Angele said. In the meantime, she made sure the front door was securely latched. There was no sense in letting Old Man Winter crash the party.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Farm Girl

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By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte was born in January 1928, it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the first week of February and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze there would be acres of ice rink.

“I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija,” said Angele.

Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north. The region‘s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania was almost half that in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.

“My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. We lived on a small farm. It was three miles from Marijampole.”

Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918.

Their farm was thirty-seven acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were hard by. Woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce and copses of Birch were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.

Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It has been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming.

Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.

“My mother was tall and thin and pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.”

Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Those that did survived World War Two, the forty-six year subsequent Soviet occupation, and lived to see Lithuania regain its freedom.

Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas would invite his friends, and girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.

Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prominent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world, falling behind most nearby countries in the prevalence of the disease.

“She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.”

When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.

“Irena and I went to school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.”

The family farm was five miles from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest from Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the capital, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.

“We all had to work on the farm, but my father did everything. We had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched the two horses and took the beets to Marijampole.”

The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was only an attic for storage and for smoking pork.

“We had another small house, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was hay for the animals and rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.”

A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the farmhouse fireplace to the barn. Still and all, in the winter the young men gathered their blankets up and warmed them before going to bed. In deep winter the nights are 17 hours long.

Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from December to mid-March.

“We had a dog, in a house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis means beware, watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though, they were only for outside.”

Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long.

The family knew everyone in their neck of the woods. Everyone was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance.

”When my mother made potato pancakes, she would sometimes give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.

The family fed itself.

“We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edges of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, they still canned pickles and beets. “We grew our own pigs and my father killed them.”

When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, marched it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal between the eyes hard with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.

“We never sold our pigs to anyone. We ate all of them.”

Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, they cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting the shoulders of the pig off. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find.

They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney on the second floor of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet.

“I was scared of the upstairs, although the meat was delicious. When we ran out, we killed another pig.”

Whenever her mother got sick, from the time she was ten years old, Angele cooked for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked up pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day.

After Justinas apprenticed to a tailor, and learned the trade, he joined the army. Everyone knew a war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one.

When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by tanks, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war sewing and mending, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.

A woman whose husband had died, who had no children and who lived on a nearby farm, helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made five and six loaves at a time, working up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been burning for several hours, pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side.

“We always had bread. We never had tea or coffee, just water. When we could, we collected herbs, and had herbal tea.”

The house did not have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink in the kitchen. “The well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.”

In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it dove to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 in the Baltics were severely frostbitten.

When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium, but returned home soon after in the fall. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she ran down and became bedridden.

Jonas laid down rough wide planks over the packed dirt floor in one of the three rooms. He moved a metal stove into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed at the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.

Her father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai.

“It was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy there.”

Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay.

“My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”

It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and set off in the morning at first light for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and giving birth to a fourth.

Even though two German army groups had smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from Siberia for fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.

“I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alvitas, but I had to go.”

Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took her most of the day to walk there. She passed a small prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was near to setting.

“I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.”

When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my mamyte now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning was an Indian summer.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

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

One Man Army

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

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

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

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

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

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

As the hard-fought civilization-saving decade of the 1940s wound itself down, Leonas Lucauskas emigrated to North America, finding work as a lumberjack near Sudbury, Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” said Leo. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land area the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was.” He wasn’t, at least, a mike down in Sudbury’s nickel mines.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Spanky and Our Gang

By Ed Staskus

When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. But as soon as they were gone in December 1991, it was a different story. The next day the Lithuanian Mob popped up like poisonous mushrooms after a spring rain.

You couldn’t operate a pint-sized kiosk built onto the side of your house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. They would appear in their track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except or else meant they would burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.

Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, he was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about.

If you paid up, you could sleep quietly at night. If somebody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they could point the way.

It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, although everyone else called it extortion. It was like 1930s Chicago, set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.

“Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at Birute’s bouse, who was a friend of my mother,” said Rita Staskus. “Her husband built her a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, although they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”

Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania achieved independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force.

Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe has long prided itself on its trustworthy police services. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement. Lithuania introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country continued to believe crooked lawmen were still widespread.

If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining. Unless he’s Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.

“One of my cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”

It was winter when she picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out. She didn’t notice, sloshing through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. There wasn’t a badge in sight. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness.

Another cousin had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and got involved with the Mob.

He owed them money but wasn’t able to pay up. They were looking for their loot. When they got tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to explode. The next morning, when he started it, it blew up, but they hadn’t used enough explosive. Gytis was burned and hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.

“I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking and coughing up a storm.”

They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which aged fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were barely roads, at all. They ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

“Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.

“It was dark as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere.  I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”

After more than hour, Gytis and his friend came back with a bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of her Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly flinging the Trabant’s back door off the hinges.

By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left the first one after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. She was unhurt, although he was a mess.

Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant there melted down into a core fire. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, decorating and cleaning it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress to find him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she gave up and stayed a widow.

“My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”

“Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.

“You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”

“No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day until you do.”

Her cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. They will stop you even if you haven’t done anything.”

The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed him home. They were after his birthday money.

“Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” said Mikolas.

The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window.

“You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky and Our Gang used to say.

When Mikolas asked what he had done, they said, “Nothing, really, and make sure it stays that way.”

Edvardas was an honest policeman and he couldn’t handle or condone the corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you have to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way.

When Rita asked her Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts.”

But there were lots of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.

After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up.

In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including scooping up public property for themselves. Everything was on tap on hand on deck. In the new century the worm turned. They put away their tracksuits and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t stealing cars. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It was the high life cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering.

They stashed their brickbats and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.

Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Three years ago, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.

They operated out of Kaunas, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy.

The mobsters used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a police statement reported.

The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary.

In the end, inside police stations and in the dock, few kind words were spoken. There was rude spanking on the horizon on the way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, had the last word when asked if he had any last words for the evildoers.

“Yeah, uh, see ya!”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Out of Time

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By Ed Staskus

His mother was a Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in the Penza, four hundred miles southeast of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius, a Lithuanian, was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army.

Saransk later became the capital city of the Republic of Soviet Monrovia, but long before that happened Antanas Staskevicius had returned to Lithuania.

Saransk was founded as a fortress, on the left bank of the river Isar, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before First World War its commercial life revolved around leather, meat, and honey. After the war its factories were closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available. fuels or raw materials

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there in the Czar’s army with an infantry regiment,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.”

The Imperial Russian Army had more than a million men, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called her by the name of Genute. My sister Gaile was born the next year.”

Vytas was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai. “My father named me after King Vytautas the Great.” His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince.

Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had once been a fort less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Czarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first crosses appeared.

By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. In late 1919 , when Russia was being consumed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home to newly independent Lithuania.

“Lithuania didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war. My father fought in the post-war battles around Klaipeda and after that he served in the secret service in Kaunas, which was the capital.”

Lithuania declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviets, West Russians, and Poles for their land. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little warfare until the start of World War Two.

“After the fighting my father got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. We lived on a farm.”

During World war One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century Siauliai had burned down seven times, had been struck by plague seven times, and World War Two was the seventh conflict that wrecked the town.

“We lived in Siauliai for several years, but then my father became the governor of the Panevezys district and we moved to the city there.”

Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor.

“My father was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.”

Vytas went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but then his father was transferred to Zerasai, a place that was a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after the Great War the name was expunged.

“When my father became the governor of Zerasai, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was more than seventy-five miles east of where we lived, so I stayed with her. But I didn’t get along with the students at the high school there. It was a strict school and everyone had to dress nice. On my first day of classes I was dressed up too nice, like I was going to a party, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. Where are you from, they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

He told everyone, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father.

“We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying it was easy for me. But when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”

All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

“The Soviets came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and the Russians selected new people who they wanted to run the country. They always said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was actually the Russians.”

The Staskevicius family went to their farm, while renting a house in Siauliai, dividing their time between town and country.

“It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town. I used to walk or bicycle to Siauliai. But the mood was bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

The Russian annexation of Lithuania was completed by the late summer of 1940. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Russian presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics.

“Why don’t we go to Germany?” asked his mother Antonina.

“We had a chance to leave the country then and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often, about going to Germany.”

But his father didn’t want to leave Lithuania.

“I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always good to the people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”

In the fall of 1940 a passing troop of Soviet infantry commandeered their farm for several days.

“They didn’t do anything bad, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk bad. and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the house.”

The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of almost 2-,000 Lithuanian policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began in June 1941, Antanas Staskevicius was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen.

“He was gardening in our yard, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine. I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them and never came back. They shoved him into their car and drove him to jail.”

Vytas was in school in Siauliai taking his final exams that morning.

“My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.”

His mother packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day.

“The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us he said the times have changed.”

There was a new order.

“He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of his political activities. He was always in trouble. My father usually let him go after a few days, telling him to not get involved in politics anymore. Just be a nice boy, he would tell him, but then the next thing we knew he would be in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. Everything’s different now, he said. Times have changed. Everybody is looking out for themselves, only themselves.”

The man who had once commanded the local police stayed in his jail cell.

“They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went to the jail several times, but they never let us see him. We never saw him again.”

Antanas Staskevicius was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and loaded onto a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, between June 23 and 27, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, finished the almost complete destruction of Russian armored forces in Lithuania.

Within a week Nazi Germany seized Lithuania.

His father was transported to Russia’s far east to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He worked logging in the thick forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

“The morning after my father was arrested I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, help take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon, he and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that day I never saw them again or ever found out what happened to them.

“The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family, they were worried about all of them. They were afraid high-class people were against them. “

When Russian NKVD men began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red.

“If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

His mother, sister Genute, and Vytas stayed on the farm after his father’s arrest. His sister Gaile was then living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified they became alarmed.

“We were determined on leaving the farm. It was dangerous. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted Gaile to know to be very careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested.

“When I got back to Siauliai I was told she was being deported. Somebody probably complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. I went to the train station, but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”

His mother was released from the Gulag in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai.

“My God, you’ve gotten older,” was the first thing Antonina said when she saw her son Vytas again in 1979, thirty-eight years after being transported to Siberia.

After his mother’s arrest and exile Vytas, not yet 17-years-old, left Siauliai and moved to Vilnius, staying with his sister Gaile and her husband. At the time almost everyone living in Vilnius was either Polish or Jewish. Lithuanians in the former capital city of Vilnius were strangers in their own land.

“The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork, all kinds of food, and took everything home. When the Germans arrived they put a stop to it.”

He stayed in Vilnius for several months, but then decided to go home before the end of summer. The family farm had to be cared for, but, first, he had to get a travel permit.

“I couldn’t get in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father, and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any more and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”

He took a train back to Siauliai and walked home, but when he got there he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm.

“They were there about three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank wine together at night.”

His father’s business practice had been to have a foreman run the farm. The foreman hired three men and three women every spring. Although the farm had chickens and pigs, and horses to do the heavy work, it was mostly a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.

“It was a model farm,” said Vytas. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back, my sister Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work.

“I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything, nothing. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything.

“But I worked as though I knew what I was doing.”

That fall he sent his farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working he ran across the road to him.

“What in the hell are you doing?” he yelled.

“I told him we were preparing the ground for next year. He said, you’re ruining this year’s seed and you won’t have any grass next year. We stopped right away. I learned what to do.”

A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat.

“As I hopped down I stumbled and fell right on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped dead. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my injured hand, he passed out.

As the war dragged on he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land.

“I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew they used to give Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night. One morning after a month I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone.

“I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there until the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had five minutes to decide whether or not he was coming with them as they retreated.

“They told me the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. They were in a hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.”

His sister Genute, not at the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His other sister, Gaile, wasn’t able to escape Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Soviets had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a little town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. In the end the three of them were forced to stay there.

“She finished school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Russians never found out anything about her.”

In July the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. Two months later the counterattacking German 3rd Panzer Army was destroyed and for the next nearly fifty years Lithuania became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

“I was glad to get out of Siauliai in 1944,” said Vytas “I was very glad to get out in time.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Smoking Out the Scouts

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By Ed Staskus

“Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.”  Robert Baden-Powell

Vytas Staskevicius was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The small city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a spiritual and folk-art site of about one hundred thousand Christian crosses.

Siauliai goes back to 1236 to the Battle of Saule against the Teutonic Knights. The war between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania was one of the longest in the history of Europe. The first church was built in 1445. In the 19th century Jews were encouraged to go Lithuania for its entrée and their success. The city was majority Jewish by 1910. Šiauliai was known for its leather industry. The biggest leather factory in the Russian Empire was there.

A battleground during both World Wars, Šiauliai saw thousands of its citizens run for their lives during the wars, never to come back.

Vytas’s father was a native and a former officer in the Czarist Army. His mother was Russian and a former schoolteacher. His father met his mother while stationed far southeast of Moscow. “In those days drunks went into the navy and dimwits into the infantry,” he said. He thanked God every day he had at least been impressed as an officer by Lithuania’s overlords.

Vytas was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, Antanas Staskevicius involved his in scouting as soon as he grew to school age.

Ed Staskevicius found himself a Boy Scout in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio, troop his father, Vytas, became Scoutmaster of in the 1960s. They wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial knives in scabbards on their belts. They hiked trails and through woods, although most of them were hapless with a compass, instead relying on American ingenuity, stamina, and dumb luck to find their way.

Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote “Scouting for Boys.” That same year more than ten thousand Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.

The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and another for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60,000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among the youth culture at that time. In 1939, just before the start of World War Two, there were 22,000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.

Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what probably accounts for Vytas’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was Scoutmaster at later on, when World War Two was over. After first fleeing to Germany, then immigrating to Canada, he finally re-located to the United States. It’s where he went back to scouting.

They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.

Winter Blasts were camps in non-insulated cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which the scouts earned cold weather Merit Badges and were assured exploring outdoors in December was able-bodied, wholesome, and fun. They always built a fire first thing in the morning in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well stoked, and hoped they wouldn’t freeze to death in the long, long night.

In the summer a grab bag of Merit Badges was up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. Ed learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned his Pioneering Badge, although he never learned to properly knot a tie, even later on in life, when his wife always helped him with it.

Vytas was forever putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading his wife to repair rips in canvas. He told his scouts sleeping outdoors was manly robust healthy, no matter how much rain leaked onto their sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.

He led them finding adventure in duck puddles. He had a maxim that a week of camp was worth six months of theory. To this day some of his former scouts are lousy at theory but always vacation in either the woods or at the seashore.

It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts, either.

For many years he was the vadovas at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Franciscan-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although the campers did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever they had to, what they actually did most of the time was run around in the woods, play tackle football in the bay, and sing off-key long into the night at the nightly bonfires.

Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.

When Vytas was nine years old he was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.

Vytas never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion. “He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” he said.

Baden-Powell’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.

In 1938, five years later and by then in his teens, Vytas was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

Things change fast. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed.

During the war and successive occupations, first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian forced labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.

In 1ate 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced people. He met his wife-to-be in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and where he was being operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.

He found passage to Canada in 1949, married Angele Jurgelaityte, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a black powder blaster and then as a hauler of ore, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His wife and children followed a half-year later. He worked as an elevator operator for seventy -ive cents an hour, less than half of what he had been earning in the mines, swept floors stocked warehouses did whatever he could for a paycheck, and took classes in accounting at Western Reserve University at night.

While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting.

When Angele was asked why not, she said, “There weren’t any children, or they were all still babies. All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us then in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, and getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up and become scouts.”

Robert Baden-Powell counseled that scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens,” he said. By that guiding light scouting stood Vytas Staskevicius in good stead through the 1940s.

When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm. He was 17 years old. When he fled their farm in 1944 with twenty minutes notice about the Red Army being on the horizon, he barely crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were five dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had his five dollars when he knocked on Angele’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

The more the unexpected happened the more he knew he had to do something to anticipate it. “The unexpected always happens,” he said. “The minute you put money away for a rainy day, it rains.”

In Cleveland, living in a Polish double he bought and shared with his sister’s family, who had also fled Lithuania, he found work full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, kept going to school at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder, finally managing his division’s overseas sales in both South America and the Middle East.

After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was well into his 80s.

He thought the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said. He believed there was value in work. He believed work without effort was valueless.

Because of World War Two and its dislocations, living rough and subsequent emigration overseas, as well as the demands of rebuilding a life and building a family, he didn’t participate in scouting for some time. But once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.

When he took over from Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Vic Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994.

Vytas worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although even after giving up scouting, until his death in 2011, he never really stopped scouting.

While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening up many camping and jamboree venues for it, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide. In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the Lithuanian-Franciscan campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they ever experienced.

“Dad loved bonfires,” recalled Rick Staskevicius, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style bonfires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our morning exercises and raising the flags.”

When asked what bonfires meant to him Vytas said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”

Although they never warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking to his troop, even encouraging them to try snowshoes.

“I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes,” recalled one of the scouts. “But he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.”

He stressed study and achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and taking your chances.

“One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” Rick said. “We were supervised, but given only a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without their help. They told us it was both a duty and a  challenge to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”

In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see near what girl they will land, which is an old-school way of predicting the future.

Another annual event he was invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.

Even after retiring from active scouting he never missed a Kazuke Muge.

Although he did much for the movement, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his young charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them.

“When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be true.

“There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”

Gintaras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was Vytas Staskevicius.

“Brother Vytautas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong, he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”

After World War Two the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in Isar Horn of the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a small Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

In 2014 Gintaras Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C.  “Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.

“I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President-Elect of the Boy Scouts of America.

The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting was celebrated in 2018. Vytas Staskevicius was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he has since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at, he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a huge heavenly bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Waking Up On Wasaga Beach

By Ed Staskus

“There might be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us.” Traditional Camp Song

It was a late summer afternoon, crisp and sunny, when I visited my brother. My wife and I had gotten back from three weeks on the north coast of Canada’s Prince Edward Island the Tuesday before. We unwound from the 24-hour drive. We were unpacked, the grass was mown, and the junk mail thrown away. It was the weekend now.

I asked my 14-year-old nephew, who was playing Wii basketball in the living room, one foot in front of the other knees bent control at the ready, about the camp at Kretinga on Wasaga Beach that summer.

“We weren’t last in the clean cabin contest, like last year, which was a good thing,” he said, his eyes fixed on the flat-screen TV on the wall.

“We ran around in the woods like maniacs, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with my friends.” He made an imaginary slam dunk. “I would trade any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.”

He had been going to Kretinga since he was a greenhorn of seven. It is a Lithuanian American Candian summer camp in Wasaga Beach, ninety miles up from Toronto. It is just north of the provincial park and the town’s honky-tonk boardwalk.

“I didn’t write any letters to my dad, either,” he added, laughing. “I might have sent a text, but we’re not allowed to bring any devices.”

My brother and I exchanged looks.

“Did you write letters home after our first year at Ausra?” I asked him.

“Nope, not me.”

“Me neither.”

We both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was then known, starting in the early 1960s, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s, after my brother and I had grown older than the cut-off. There was never any love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for summer camp, while we ate crumbs at home.

Everybody who was going waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later, when it was over, saying goodbye to your friends felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July.

Founded in 1957, Ausra was a Franciscan, Lithuanian, sports and culture camp all wrapped up in a package deal on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand and copse. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day of camp and only drops out of sight after you get home. The trees surrounding our camp are what we disappeared into for two weeks, far from home.

The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp was longer then. The highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. My father had bought a Chevrolet Brookwood as soon as there were three of us, a blue and white station wagon that was twice as big and long as any passenger car my nephew has ever ridden in. The third-row seat faced backwards. We called it the way back window, playing the license plate game and cows on my side.

The rear window was where my brother and I always sat. Our little sister had to sit alone in the middle bench seat. She wasn’t allowed in the back with us, although we let her play rock paper scissors with us, since she was so bad at it.

My brother and I found out from a friend of a friend she counted her lucky stars to have the middle seat to herself. When we asked her why, she just laughed like Woody Woodpecker.

We were always so excited about going to camp we couldn’t sit still. It took forever to get there. To this day, I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father carried a compass in the glove compartment and a plastic St. Christopher figurine stood fixed on the dashboard.

When the camp opened it slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister went to camp, wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in roughhewn twin barracks. There were close to two hundred of us. In between were the sports field, a parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs. The amphitheater was where we sang songs, acted out skits, and had a lauzas, or bonfire.

Everyone ran down to the bonfire and sing-along as soon as it started getting dark. There was so much wood we had a fire every night, as big as a log cabin burning down. “It’s not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” my nephew said. “We only have bonfires on weekends, and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.”

Our camp activities director had been in the Foreign Legion. Bruno wore a black beret, a kerchief tied around his neck, and carried a hand axe on his belt. He mostly just picked up wood from the forest floor. Our woodpile was always sky high for a rainy day. Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a box of stick matches and a half-gallon of gasoline to start the fire.

Everybody cheered when the whoosh happened.

The days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often massively starlit and frequently damp. The summer sky at summer camp is big and windy. It’s clean and full of life, too. We didn’t shower when we were at camp. Everybody was expected to clean themselves at the communal sink in the latrine. It wasn’t just a pit, but a cinder block building that teemed with daddy long-leg spiders at night, but it was a latrine.

Some kids hardly ever washed anything besides their hands and face, and it could get disgusting, but none of us cared too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when his two weeks were up, and he hadn’t cleaned all over even once.

“No, go back, go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother asked through her nose.

One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.

The Beagle was so good at his work he sniffed out a bedbug hiding in the folded page of a paperback book. The next day everyone whose tents were plagued by the bugs piled their stuff in garbage bags and threw the bags inside whatever cars were at the camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

Bruno told us that a Canadian had invented plastic garbage bags. He was proud of that because he had become a Canadian citizen. He always had something historic to tell us. Sometimes we heard what he had to say. Most of the time we didn’t.

In the morning every morning at seven o’clock we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. We stretched and did jumping jacks and ran the track. Afterwards we ran back to our tents, changed into a clean shirt, and after raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags – sometimes preceded by lowering underpants hoisted in the night – we raced to breakfast.

We had porridge and scrambled eggs and Post Top 3 cereal. We always had PB&J on Wonder Bread. Sometimes we had sandwich’s all day if something went wrong and there wasn’t anything else.

The sweet jelly was a hit with bees and wasps. Metallic colored dragonflies, agile and powerful fliers, had the run of camp. If spring had been soggy there were mosquitos.

After breakfast we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and sat down for mass. Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass every day on a makeshift altar. He didn’t have any kids, being a priest, but he was good with kids. He cemented his reputation in the early days when a camper swiped the wine for communion.

“I was about 12 and drank it with a girlfriend” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us with the stars that night.”

She had to go to confession the next morning. Father Paul let her off the hook with less than a million Hail Mary’s and a solemn vow to never do it again.

“Knowing him, he probably hid a smile,” she said. Since the confessional was out in the open, he had to turn his head to the side to hide it.

Late mornings we were free. We cleaned up our tents, messed around, and played volleyball, the national game, according to our sports counselor. One day we played volleybat, which was baseball but with a volleyball. We found out it was hairier than it sounds when the pitcher, who was closer to home plate since he had to lob the volleyball, broke his wrist fending off a line drive.

Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day, which was going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and towels and tramped through a stand of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to the New Wasaga Beach coastline.

Whenever we could, we made a run for it, breaking out of our two-by-two ranks, and sneaking into the variety store for bottles of Bubble-Up and bags of Maltesers.

Bruno was unlike most of the other counselors. He wasn’t a parent or a young adult. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and led our formation to the beach. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during World War Two and every summer thought he knew how to assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scatter pell-mell as soon we got close to the dunes.

Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and fat family cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out, the water flat as a pancake. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.

“You’re getting us wet,” they yelled, even though they were in the lake the same as us. One girl I liked hated getting water in her eyes and up her nose. She wore enormous green goggles and said they were for swimming, even though she always just stood and floated around in one spot.

What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played.

Walking back to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back. Sometimes I walked with the goggle girl.

Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, served by eight volunteer cooks, older ladies, who made burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.

Potatoes were a staple, like Wonder Bread.

Going to the bay shore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. Everybody feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk and given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks.

He chose a top bunk in the barracks, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-old’s.

Two other boys who had messed up did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, and finally Kaunas.

That night, with the whole camp assembled at the amphitheater, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the spellbinding story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas, they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane careened backwards and went plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire, exploding into flames.

Everybody hooted hollered groaned wolf whistled. It was the buzz talk of the camp for days. The green goggle girl was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots was her great uncle. I bought her a bottle of Orange Crush from the variety store to cheer her up.

Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.

Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection bought the land for the camp from a parishioner for a nominal amount in the 1950s and operated it until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps. There are two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.

There is a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain.

Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return to Kretinga. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”

“I love this camp so much and I have been going since forever,” another camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.

My nephew eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles.

I asked him if he was going back next summer.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, tossing the Nintendo Wii on the sofa.

“My friends and I have been together for five years in the same cabin. Waking up and being at camp is the best time of the year,” he said. “We get there the first day and there are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. We punch each other and laugh it up. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech.”

He had made his plans for when the talking was over.

“After the next two summers, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing. I can’t wait to go back.”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 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.”

Welcome to Sudbury

By Ed Staskus

   When Angele Jurgelaityte first saw Vytautas Staskevicius at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany, he was 23 years old and out cold on a surgical table underneath a white sheet. She was 19 and wearing a cotton nurse’s dress with a button-on apron. It was 1947.

   The military hospital had been built in 1937 and personally dedicated by Adolf Hitler. Just like 90 percent of Nuremberg, the city that was Hitler’s favorite and the ideological capital of the National Socialists, it had been hit hard by strategic bombing. One night more than 500 British Lancasters carpet bombed the city and the six-story central section of the hospital was severely damaged.

   By the time Angele and Vytas met it had been taken over and re-built by the United States Army.

   He was living in a refugee camp near Hanau, 200 kilometers north of Nuremberg, and Angele was a nurse trainee at the Army Hospital. She shared a single room with a bath down the hall in an adjoining building with three other young women. They were officially known as displaced persons, displaced from Lithuania, which had first been annexed by the Russians in 1940, then invaded by the Germans in 1941, and finally re-occupied by the Russians during the Baltic Offensive of 1944.

   They both fled Lithuania like jumping out of a window. He was jump started by a truck-full of Wehrmacht soldiers, stationed at a Russian prisoner-of-war camp nearby, who stopped at his farm and told him he had five minutes to decide whether or not to come with them as they retreated from the rapidly advancing Red Army.

   “I was born in Siauliai. My father was the Director of the Department of Citizen Protection there. He was in charge of the police, and the police chief,” he said. “We had a farm, too, in Dainai. It was a model farm. We had all the newest tools, cutting and sowing implements. Excursions would come to our farm from all over the country.”

   Angele woke up the same morning while babysitting her aunt’s kids to find the family hitching their horse to a cart, tossing in rucksacks, clothes, a small trunk of valuables, tying the family cow to the back of it, and hurriedly jumping in. They trudged away, one grown-up and five children.

   “I was from Suvalkija, in the southwest, from the farm of Gizai, five kilometers from Marijampole. My family was all still there, but I couldn’t go back, so I went with my aunt. There wasn’t anything else I could do. On the way we had to sell the cow and jump into ditches when planes bombed us.”

   She never saw her parents again and only re-united with any of her family more than forty years later.

   Vytas lost his parents to political persecution as the Nazis and Communists traded ideological blows, and Angele lost her parents to the vagaries of a world war, and both were then cut off from what remained of their families and homes by what was fast becoming the Iron Curtain.

   “The Communists took my father in 1940 because he was a government official,” Vytas said. “They took him in the summer just as he was, with only the shirt on his back and wearing sandals. Later the mass deportations started, and my mother was arrested. She spent fifteen years in Siberia and when she was released after Stalin’s death she wasn’t allowed to return to Siauliai. My father was sent to Krasnojarsk and starved to death in a labor camp there in 1942.”

   Anton Chekhov, one of the greatest writers of short stories in history, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

   Three years after fleeing Lithuania they were both in central Bavaria, biding time, like almost 10 million other Eastern Europeans who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945.

   Vytas severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18 years-old and had to take over the operation of the family farm. He was at the Nuremberg hospital for a series of what would be mostly successful operations to restore the use of the hand to him.

   “In 1940 in Siauliai the mood was very bad,” he said. “We felt that something terrible was going to happen. When my parents were sent to Siberia, I had to maintain the family farm. I was on a horse drawn mower cutting hay when I saw that rain was coming, so I jumped down and walked with the horses so they would pull the mower faster. As we went, I tripped and fell down right on the blades.”

   The horses stopped. It started raining. Blood gushed from his arm.

   “My hand was almost cut off. The farmhand who was helping me ran over, and seeing my injured hand, passed out.”

   One of Angele’s roommates told her there was a new arrival, teasing her that he was a young and good-looking man from Lithuania, but it wasn’t until she was transferred to the bone section of the hospital that she met him. When she finally saw him, he was in an operating theater, having a small part of a bone taken from his leg and put into his hand.

   She saw him every day for the next three months on her rounds as he recovered, now fully conscious, and more than ever conscious of her. “She took care of me,” he said, while she remembers that, “It felt so right to be with that guy.” As winter gave way to spring, they began to take walks on the hospital grounds, and in the nearby wooded parks, and then into Nuremberg to the zoo and downtown to watch American movies.

   He was eventually discharged and went back to Hanau, where he gave up black-marketing cigarettes and chocolate he was liberating from troops in the American Zone and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch. In the middle of the year, he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months as he recovered, as well as romancing Angele with long walks and talks. When he went back to Hanau, they continued to write one another, dating by mail, like people had done in an earlier age.

   By 1948 Europe’s refugee camps were rapidly emptying as people left for Canada, Australia, the United States, or anywhere they could get a visa and a fresh start. “No one knew where they would end up,” Angele said. “You couldn’t go home and there was no future in Germany. We had nothing and there were no opportunities.”

   She chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their expansive brood. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytas about where she was.

   He already had papers allowing him to enter the United States, papers that had been hard to get. He had an uncle and friends there and was tempted by the prospect. His best friend wanted to emigrate to Australia and suggested they go together. He debated with himself about what to do. Angele won the debate. In January 1949 he wrote her a letter and proposed he come to Canada, they get married, start a family, and try the hands at a chicken farm, since they had both grown up on farms. She knew how to get dinner started by breaking their necks, since that had been one of her chores.

   Two months later he got her return letter and started searching for a way to get to Canada, rather than the United States. Almost 4000 miles away in Sudbury, but on almost the same latitude as Hanau, Angele was sure she had made the right decision.

   “He wasn’t a lady killer and I liked that,” she said. “He was a steady man. And he was interesting. I didn’t want a boring man. He was the right guy for me.”

   Once Vytas secured permission to go to Canada, he took a train to Bremen in northwestern Germany, but couldn’t get a boat, passing the time in a boarding house in the Altstadt. After several more dead ends he found himself traveling back through Bavaria, across the Alps, and south of Rome to Naples. He waited for three weeks, living on espressos and cheap Neapolitan pizzas, and finally managed to secure a berth on a boat going to Nova Scotia.

   “There were millions of us trying to get out of Europe,” he said.

   He arrived in Sudbury after a two-day train ride from Halifax early on the morning of September 7, 1949, with the clothes on his back, five dollars in American money in his wallet, and a small suitcase more empty than full. When no one met him at the train station he asked a policeman for directions to Angele’s address on Pine Street. He walked the three miles from the Canada Pacific terminal to her doorstep.

   He found the house, stepped up to the door, and knocked. “What are you doing here,” she asked opening the door, wiping her wet hands on a kitchen towel, surprised to see him. She hadn’t been expecting him until the next day, September 8th.

   Standing on the steps, looking up at her, nonplussed, he said, “I came to marry you.”

   The next day he moved into a nearby one-room apartment, sharing it with another man for the next two weeks. There was only one bed, but he worked during the day and slept at night, while the other man worked at night and slept during the day.

   His first job in Sudbury was making cement cinder blocks for the LaPalme Cement Works, owned and operated by the large family for whom Angele was the domestic. The day after his initiation into cement-making he appeared again at her door and told her he ached from tip-to-toe and was going back to Germany. “Save your breath to cool your soup,” she said. She gave him a back rub and sent him back to the cement factory.

   They were married two weeks later, on a Saturday, on a sunny day in what was usually an overcast month, in a ceremony presided over by two Catholic priests, one French-speaking and the other Lithuanian-speaking. The following afternoon they went on a picnic and took a room at the Coulson Hotel for their honeymoon. The hotel was John D’Arcy Coulson’s, a Sudbury native who played one year in the NHL for the Philadelphia Quakers, scoring no goals but ranking third in the league in penalty minutes.

   Neither Vytas nor Angele spent a minute in the penalty box that night.

   Monday morning both of them went back to work. Within a year they bought a house on Stanley Street and started a family, but set aside their plans for a chicken farm, since Sudbury’s landscape was more suited to rock collecting than farming. Vytas went to work in the city’s vast network of mines, judging the work easier than cement making. It wasn’t, at first, but he eventually rose in the ranks, driving underground loaders and ore trains.

   “I worked in the nickel mines for seven years, 3300 hundred feet underground,” he said. “There were many Lithuanians working in Canada. Some cut down forests, which was very hard, and some worked in the mines, which was dangerous. I started by laying track for the trains that carried the rocks, but later I got an easier job driving the tractors.”

   Angele became her own au pair within a couple of years, at the end of the day raising three children. In 1957 they left Sudbury behind and went to the United States, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they lived together for the next fifty years.

   “Most of the Lithuanians we knew in Sudbury started looking for better work.” There was only so far up they could go in the company town. “Many of us left for Montreal, Toronto, and south of the border. We all started to go our separate ways. As soon as our turn came up to go to the United States, Angele and I started getting ready.”

   He earned a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University. They bought their first home. He got a good job with TRW and helped found Cleveland’s Lithuanian Credit Union in the early 1980s.

   In 1979, after almost four decades, he saw his mother again.

   “It was the first time I went to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel there secretly, but were caught in Ukmerge and told to return to Vilnius. The next day I got permission to go for one day and I was able to get a car. I visited my mother and we spent three hours together.”

   Angele and Vytas went back to Sudbury several times to visit their sponsors.  They went to Lithuania after the country’s declaration of independence in 1990, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but never again to the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, which had survived the war but was closed and torn down in 1994, there being no further need for it. The grounds were used to build apartments and homes for the burgeoning city. A new generation had come of age.

   “We never forgot where we met, all we had to do was close our eyes and go there’” Vytas said. “But, where we came from and where we were going, our family, home, and community, was always more important to us. Everything else was in the past. We had our own place now.”

   Home is where you hang your hayseed hat miner’s helmet accountant’s visor and foul weather gear.

A version of this story appeared in Bridges Magazine.

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