Hunting Blind

hunting blind

My father, Abe, first spied my mother, Olive, through his first floor window at the Majestic Hotel. She was waiting on the corner of East 55th Street and Central Avenue for the CTS streetcar. It was a sunny summer day. My mother did pantry work and was on her way home.

My father spotted her from behind his venetian blind.

“I had just gotten back from Woodland Cemetery, where I did walking tours whenever my sergeant thought there was something I had done he didn’t care for. She was a sight for sore eyes and sore feet. I put my Colt Positive away in the dresser drawer and stepped outside.”

During the winter the Majestic allowed my father, who was a policeman, to have a small room on the East 55th Street side of the hotel. His room door let out onto a secret door beside the drug store, in case he saw anything happening. After a few years he kept the room in the summer, too.

The Majestic was called the apartments, but it was always a hotel. My father started going there when he was in his early 20s and the jazz club off the lobby was called the Furnace Room.

“Meeting your mother was a lot like jazz, it was improvised. That was it, to go ahead and see what happened.”

The club had dancers and crooners, too, and bands that came through on tour. The restaurant that served food was Mammy Louise’s Barbeque Café. Their house specialty was braised beef short ribs in gravy. Their ribs were like soul music.

My father was from a small town in the Florida Panhandle and never thought twice about eating chicken fried steak, candied sweet potatoes, and cheesy grits.

“We went to Mammy Louise’s for dinner and then next door to the club. The International Sweethearts of Rhythm were there the night we stepped out. They were an all-girl all-color orchestra. ‘Slick Chicks and Hot Licks’ was what it said on the billboard outside the doors. They raised the roof and we danced up a storm.”

The Furnace Room later became Elmer Waxman’s Ubangi Club, but when my father first took me there in the 1950s, when I was twelve-years-old, it was the Rose Room Cocktail Lounge. Before the Hough race riots and Glenville shoot-outs in the 1960s, even though it was already a colored neighborhood, the audiences were all races. Judges and politicians from downtown brought their wives to the Rose Room. It was the black and tan saloon scene.

But, by then no one danced to jazz anymore. That had already changed.

When my father applied to the Cleveland Police Department in the 1930s the merit system broke down, like it always did, because he was a man of color. They said he had poor eyesight, even though he didn’t start wearing glasses until he was in his 70s, almost fifty years after joining the force. He had to ask for help from his ward leader to have the rejection overruled.

He hunted moonshiners in the 1930s, which was dangerous work, before they gave him his own beat. He said you could always tell whether the moonshine was good if you set it on fire and blue flames came up.

“That’s when you knew it wouldn’t make you go blind.”

There weren’t many men of color on the police force, and most of those who were had to get certification from outside doctors to overrule the official exam of the police doctor. Jim Crow was subtler in the North than it was in the South. They kept separate eligibility lists, so that when one died, resigned, or retired, his replacement was always a Negro patrolman.

Duke Jenkins and his group was the house band at the Majestic. They were the first jazz band I ever heard. On Tuesday nights they had Cha Cha Night and on Thursdays they had Mambo Night. But, the big attraction was the early morning Blue Monday Parties.

“People lined up to get into those jam sessions. Sometimes you couldn’t even get a seat. All the players, the girl singers, the quartets, entertainers like Erroll Garner and Arthur Prysock and Nancy Wilson, they’d be there performing. People went crazy when Nancy Wilson was there because she was so good.”

I stayed overnight with my father in his hotel room on Sundays, and went to the Blue Monday parties with him when they started, which was at five in the morning. Afterwards he drove me to school. If we stayed too late at the jam session he would sometimes call and ask for a squad car to take me, with its lights flashing and siren whooping.

There were only a handful of Cleveland hotels listed in the Negro Travelers’ Green Book. The Majestic was one of them. All the rooms had two beds and a radio in every room, although my father’s had only one bed. He had the other one removed so we would have a table to eat at on Sunday nights. I slept on a folding rollaway he kept in the closet.

When I was a baby my mother kept my playpen next to the upright piano in the front room. It was so she would know where I was. As long as she heard me picking out notes she knew I wasn’t getting into anything else. When I was in third grade I found out they had music classes at my school. I was already eight-years-old.

“I’d like to do that,” I told my mother. I lived with her and my grandmother, and it was a surprise to both of them, although it shouldn’t have been. That’s just how things were.

There were class piano lessons at the Miles Standish School. I learned to play a Chopin waltz beneath a painting of Miles Standish, after who the school was named. He was a soldier for the Pilgrims when they came to the New World. In the painting he wore an ascot and armor and carried a matchlock rifle.

I played the piano and organ because my grandmother wanted me to. She was the matriarch of our family and was conservative about most things. She didn’t believe in bell house music. She was strict about church music, too, so she had a man, who was the organist at the New Liberty Hill Baptist Church, come to our house and give me lessons. When I got a little older I played there myself.

Mr. Paul John was the man who came to our house. He worked in the steel mills, where he knew my grandfather, who sang in the male chorus in the mill that Mr. John led on a cheap five rank pipe organ.

“Mr. John could play Rachmaninoff, and all, but he was ahead of his time, so he gave lessons. That was the incentive for him when he came to your mother’s house and got you started.”

I played sacred music for the rest my life and jazz music for the rest of the other part of my life. The sacred music came from my mother and grandmother, and the jazz music came from my father, who took me to the Majestic and later to clubs uptown like the Tijuana Café Society.

“When the Four Sounds came to audition at the Tijuana, they were just re-opening, and they didn’t even have a piano on the stage. It was in the corner. I helped them lift it up on the stage to do the audition. They had been the Four Sounds until they asked me to talk to the saxophone player one night. He had a habit of carrying a gun in his horn case. When he said he didn’t want to leave it behind, they left out the saxophone and became the Three Sounds.”

Some days you could hear a single trumpet through an open window down the street from Doan Square, where all the action was, a jazz musician reading their lines in the afternoon. Hotels weren’t open to musicians of color, so they stayed in rooming houses.

You couldn’t even go to the Five and Dime store and have a quiet lunch. My grandmother went to buy a hat one Saturday and when she tried it on she had to buy it. She had put it on her head to see if it fit and when a sales clerk saw her she had to pay for it. My grandfather was a mulatto from Cuba. Whenever a white man approached our house, selling something, or on some errand, my grandfather was polite, but as soon as the white man left the porch and was out of earshot he would spit and call him a cracker.

We lived on Pierpont Avenue in Glenville, what we called the Gold Coast, before Glenville fell apart and the Gold Coast moved to Lakewood in the 1960s. My grandmother died in 1968 and my mother sold the house, moving to Lost Nation Road in the suburbs. But, by then I had finished my studies at the Boston Conservatory and was playing the big organ at the Christian Science Mother Church. In the summer I played at jazz clubs on Martha’s Vineyard and Provincetown.

When I was a boy Glenville was crowded with immigrants, people of color, and Jews. There were orthodox Jews everywhere. I thought they were Santa Claus’s in black suits. There were clubs, movie houses, and department stores. There were churches, too, like the Cory United Methodist Church, which had been the Park Synagogue, and the Abyssinia Baptist Church, which had also been a synagogue.

There were little restaurants run by the Jews. There were no bad sandwich shops in Glenville, but my father always ate at Pirkle’s Deli. He said if he ever spied a Jewish woman from his room at the Majestic he was going to go after her so he could get up Sunday mornings and stroll out to the deli with her.

“Those folks never invented anything so fine as deli food. The corned beef at Pirkle’s is as tender as a young lady’s heart.”

My father and mother were never together. There were two different families, his and ours. They had their room at the Majestic, but in later years she felt he betrayed her. My father wanted to marry my mother, and she thought he was going to divorce his wife, but he didn’t do that. Afterwards she had difficulty in seeing my father in the light of a soul mate, or the light of any kind of mate.

“Your mother shot a hole in my soul, ” he said.

I lived with my mother and after she married another man she bore two more boys who were my brothers because we shared her. My father came to our house many a time, often in his police car, which was exciting. It wasn’t as if we were separated from him.

He was one of the first black farmers in Twinsburg, where he kept turkeys and pigs. Every Monday in November we got a turkey. He had a smokehouse, too, and when it came time to slaughter some of the fattening pigs he would do that himself. He castrated the male pigs a month beforehand. We would have bacon and ham all winter and into the spring.

My father often picked me up Friday and Saturday nights to help him forage for feed. We drove up and down Euclid Avenue, on the south side of Glenville, from E. 110th to E. 95th St, picking up refuse from the barrels and dumpsters behind the many clubs and restaurants on the strip. He would stick his hands into the slop and feel around the mash before filling up our barrels.

“Pigs will eat anything you give them. They can be stinky and filthy, even though their sausages smell great. I would rather cut myself than injure my animals.”

When our barrels were full we drove the pick-up to his farm. The pigs would hear the truck coming and know it was time to eat. They would start doing what pigs do, getting greedy and feisty. He would dump their food in the trough and they would go at it. That was why, knowing how they behaved, he picked through the slop, because they would have cut themselves, biting into anything.

I stopped gleaning slop when my mother told me I had to start being careful about hurting my hands.

I learned more sacred music and fewer blue notes after my mother put me in Empire High. Miss Bishop, my music teacher, had been there since the school opened. She had a nice hourglass figure and the only thing that gave her away was that she wore old lady comforters. But, she was spry and walked fast.

She was an old maid because she had become a teacher and couldn’t marry, and by the time that idea changed it was too late for her. One afternoon I found a dedicatory book for Empire, which was built in 1915. I took it to Miss Bishop’s office

“I see your name in this book, and your picture.”

She looked at me.

“Is this you?”

“Yes.”

“But, you’re old.”

I’m sure she wanted to pinch me.

But, Miss Bishop made sure I practiced my piano and later helped me get a scholarship to Ohio University, where I studied the organ. After that I never lived in Glenville again.

I lived in Chicago, New York, and Boston. I learned to live alone, like Duke Ellington, who said music was a mistress. I lived in my own world, detached, so I could practice. I had friends who kept me in tune, but on Saturday nights I didn’t go anywhere. I had to be ready for Sunday services. That kept me out of mischief. I tried it a few times, but it’s bad when you’re not feeling well in a church setting. I decided I had to do it alone.

I saw little of my mother, who had moved to California to live with my brother, a minister, and my father only when I was passing through the Midwest on my way to Chicago or St. Louis. We visited and had lunch at one or another deli in Cleveland Heights, where all the Jews had moved. Pirkle’s Deli had burned down.

My father was an industrious man his whole life. When he retired and his wife passed on he bought the last commercial building, next to Whitmore’s Bar-B-Q, on Kinsman Road before it snakes up into Shaker Heights. It was a barbershop and beauty salon and he lived upstairs in a one-bedroom apartment. He could have lived in a house, since he owned five of them, but he didn’t want to.

“I don’t want to get too comfortable because I may not be here long.”

His apartment had one bedroom, one bathroom, and one closet. It looked like no one lived in it.

He was industrious, but he became a less tidy custodian of his properties over the years. He would patchwork instead of getting things done the best way, so they deteriorated. He wasn’t willing to pay the price to get things done the right way. When you have that mindset you end up losing more money than you spend.

He lost his eyesight while he was visiting my brother in Texas. He stepped on a splinter and after a few days his big toe got infected. He had surgery for it, but in the end they had to amputate the toe. Afterwards he lost feeling in his leg. While he was still in the hospital convalescing he woke up one morning and had gone blind. He stayed in Texas for a month, and when he came back he moved in with my sister on his side, who took care of him.

He never recovered his eyesight, which was hard for him because he had always lived by his senses. The biggest problem, though, were the hallucinations he suffered, which were part of the side effects from medication he was taking. He would have them at night. He heard things and saw craziness and wasn’t able to sleep.

I never got my father and mother together, even at the end, when I was staying with him, playing old jazz records together. He listened to music all day towards the end. He stopped eating, drinking cold lemonade, instead. The last time my mother visited us my father was near death. I took her around to many of the places in Glenville that weren’t there anymore and tried to get her to go to the facility on Rockside Road where my father was. She fought me all the way and in the end wouldn’t go.

She just didn’t want anything to do with him.

My mother, Olive, and father, Abe, did what they had to do. I was just a cameo on that team of theirs. When my father died there was nothing left to do in Glenville and I moved back to Boston for good. In the summer I play jazz and popular tunes in clubs on Cape Cod. On Sunday mornings when the weather is good I brew a pot of strong coffee and toast a plate of spiced hot cross buns.

On my balcony sitting in the warmth and light of the rising sun I look for what is behind the brightness, on the other side of it, the blue note side of the Majestic my father peeked out of to spy on my mother.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

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On the Road

Road-Trip-4

We went on a 16-day car trip at the end of summer, first south to West Virginia, then North Carolina, then back north to Philadelphia, and finally Vermont, afterwards circling southwest to home by way of Iris and Wolfgang’s Bavarian-style inn on Lake Placid.

Before leaving home I called an exterminator about yellow jackets nesting in our eaves. Every morning it sounded like the Bee Gees, as they came and went, always humming, as though they had forgotten the words.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll put a spell on them. Those bees will be bewitched by the time I’m done with them.”

Unlike earlier in the summer, when we ran into bad weather the week we spent in the Adirondacks, rain was as scarce as hen’s teeth on our late season trip. We spent considerable time outdoors, hiking in parks, sprawling on beaches, and getting lost on sidewalks. We had different kinds of good weather, from the Cheat River to the Au Sable Chasm, which was white on rice.

The wettest we got was when Vanessa slipped on a patch of slime and fell on her butt crossing a rocky stream in Vermont. There’s no wading a river with dry breeches. And I went swimming in the Atlantic off Nag’s Head. The Spanish movie director Pedro Almodovar splashed us in Lake Placid, but that was different.

We left on a Friday afternoon for a bluegrass and gospel music festival in Elkins, West Virginia, 325 miles from home. Our weekend reservation was at the Cheat River Lodge. We had a hard time finding it, relying on a Rand McNally road atlas, in the solitary countryside, in the middle of nowhere, on the edge of the Monongahela National Forest. It was out of town on a dark road, up a big hill, then down a steep, even darker road, until Vanessa suddenly spotted it as easily as sliding off a greasy log backwards.

It wasn’t a lodge, but it was on the Cheat River.

On Saturday morning we drove down the mountain into Elkins to a crafts, arts, and music fair at the Elkins City Park, on 9 acres dotted with 300-year-old oaks. As I searched for parking Vanessa’s stomach began to grumble, and she quickly spied a run-down-looking diner called Scotty’s.

“There’s a parking spot,” she said, pointing.

Scotty’s was full of people eating breakfast. We got the last Formica-topped table in a back corner. Across from us a Metallica tee-shirted teenager wearing a backpack was explaining to his girlfriend and her mother how nice his new apartment was. I overheard the mother say, “What do you mean ‘we’? You got a mouse in your pocket?”

Three large and sweaty women were doing the cooking in an open kitchen and one woman was doing all the waiting. She was quicker than grease off a b-b-q biscuit. “Ya’ll ain’t from around here, are ya?” she asked, tossing menus down on the table and pouring us coffee without breaking stride.

Vanessa ordered a plate of grits, a plate of gravy biscuits, and a plate of chicken-fried steak, which came with a plate of mashed potatoes. Nevertheless, I was able to get my plate of eggs and home fries safely on the table, too. By the time she was done she was fuller than a tick on a 10-year-old dog.

Afterwards at the craft fair, while talking to a fiddle-maker at one of the booths, we mentioned eating at Scotty’s and how good it was. “If that ain’t true,” he said, “grits ain’t groceries, eggs ain’t poultry, and Mona Lisa was a man.”

We saw two bands at a show later that night at the Harmanson Center on the hillside campus of the Davis and Elkins College. The opening act was the Sweetback Sisters and the main show was Blue Highway. Both were good bands, but what we really liked was the young lady who came on stage before Blue Highway and whistled five songs. She didn’t sing or play a musical instrument. She just whistled. Introducing her last tune she invited everyone to whistle along with her.

I didn’t even try. It would have been like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

On Sunday morning we stopped at a small chapel in town that was hosting a workshop of Appalachian gospel songs. There were 60 or 70 people in attendance, guided by a conductor of sorts, a man who introduced the songs and led us by hand. We had been provided with a printout of the songs, and so prompted sang 18th and 19th century gospel truths for an hour-and-a half.

When we left West Virginia it was on a twisting, mountainous state road that crossed the Appalachian Plateau and wound up and over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Later in the day we drove onto the coastal plain and made our way through the Outer Banks, passing Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and finally arriving at Nag’s Head.

There are only two up-and-down roads on the Outer Banks, which are the beach road and Route 12, which is also the ‘Hurricane Evacuation Route’. We drove in on Route 12. It was new to us, it was dark, our Rand McNally was already looking dog-eared, and I was sure we were going to have a hard time finding our inn. But, again, Vanessa saw it in a flash. I don’t know how in the Sam Hill she did it.

We stayed four days at the First Colony Inn, a 28-room, 2-story roadhouse built in 1930, and re-built several times after hurricane disasters. It was a 2-minute walk from the ocean. We started every morning in the John White Breakfast Room and then retired to hammock chairs on the upper floor breezeway to read. Vanessa read books about Mesopotamia and I read books.

The weather at Nag’s Head was in the high 90s every day beneath a clear blue sky. It was hotter than a goat’s butt in a pepper patch and as humid as a prostitute in church. The constant ocean breeze tempered the heat and humidity a little, as did the shade of the veranda at mid-day. We went to the beach across the street and then down a narrow sand trail every afternoon, laying on our blankets in the sun and walking along the surf line.

We found a small yoga studio in Kitty Hawk and took classes, and at night went out to eat seafood. One night we stopped at a fish camp down the beach road called Owens, a family place that’s been there for more than 60 years and is still owned by the same founding family.

There was a crowd and we had to wait, but once seated and served I exclaimed, “Well, I swaney!” We had a basket of hush puppies, Carolina Jambalaya, Yellowfin Tuna, grits, and pecan pie. The portions were so enormous and so good it’d make you slap your mama. While walking back to our inn we agreed it was a great day in the morning.

Another night we drove to Roanoke Island, had catfish and wild rice on the outdoors patio of the Blue Moon, and were as happy as clams at high tide. Afterwards we saw ‘The Lost Colony’ at the Waterside Theater in the Fort Raleigh National Historical Park. It was a musical, of all things, about the first English settlement in the Americas.

The show has been at the Waterside every summer since 1937. A man and wife well into their 50s who were sitting behind us talked about how the show hadn’t changed much since they had seen it as teenagers. The theater was under the stars. It had been rebuilt twice, once after it burned down in 1947, and again after a hurricane demolished it in the 60s. The only things saved in the 1947 fire were the costumes, which the actors threw into the water of the sound behind the main stage.

The story of ‘The Lost Colony’ concerned Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth, the motley colonists, and the still mysterious fate that befell them. To this day no one knows what happened. They all simply disappeared. The show itself was a bag of nails. The uncertainty and danger of the American wilderness in the 1580s was delivered in Disneyesque song-and-dance. On top of that, even though the expedition was English, a land that had broken with Rome, the narrative was by a Franciscan friar, of all people. I didn’t know whether to scratch my watch or wind my butt.

On the Friday afternoon we left Nag’s Head thunderstorms loomed in an uncertain sky. One of the ladies on the cleaning staff of the First Colony Inn, standing on the veranda with her hands on her hips, said, “ That sure nuff looks like a frog strangler comin’ in.”

Instead of taking I-95 to Philadelphia we decided to go around our elbows to get to our thumbs by taking Route 13, a state road that traces its way north to Norfolk, Virginia, up through the tidal flats of Delaware, and finally into Pennsylvania. It was the long way round, but worth the drive. There’s scenery everywhere, but it’s hard to see from the interstate. “Bless your pea picking heart,” I said to Vanessa for suggesting the local roads.

We traversed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel, which are three bridges and two tunnels, linked together by four man-made islands and spanning more than 17 miles. We lost sight of land for a few miles driving over the middle of the complex. It was like a drive over the open ocean.

The bridges and tunnels have to be inspected, according to federal law, every five years. It takes inspectors five years to do the job. The job never ends. Ain’t that the berries!

We cruised up the eastern shore of Virginia and along the tidal flats of Delaware and Maryland. The small towns looked like the 1940s rather than nowadays. Farms and marshes were spread out in all directions. Everyone, black and white alike, looked more ethnic than back home.

Gassing up at a filling station, I overheard two black men talking at the next pump. There was pepper in the gumbo of their talk. One of them said, “If a bullfrog had wings he wouldn’t bump his ass when he jumped.” When I asked they said they were arguing about the mayor.

We got to Philadelphia, although we later learned from a cabbie it’s really pronounced Fulladulfya, just past ten at night, and from the minute we got there it was yo, supp. When I got off the highway a couple of exits north of the senner siddy and turned left, faster than a knife fight in a phone booth I was stuck on railroad tracks facing the wrong end of a one-way sign.

“What the heck!” Vanessa squealed.

I thrust the CRV, Vanessa’s new Honda, into reverse and backed up, hoping and praying I wouldn’t hit anyone. Sometimes I can throw myself on the ground and miss, but this time I got the car going forward on the right road. After several more wrong turns on Philadelphia’s many one-way streets we finally found our bed-and-breakfast. We stayed at the Shippen Way Inn in the Society Hill neighborhood, the oldest residential area in the city. The inn was built in 1750, expanded in 1810, and again in 1900. After that they decided they had made all the improvements that needed to be made.

We had one of the upstairs 1750s rooms, tiny as a jail cell, under a low raftered ceiling, and slept on a lumpy twin bed. The inn itself was be yoo dee full, with a big communal breakfast room and a tree-shaded brick patio.

“Jeet yet?” our hostess asked us the next morning, pouring coffee.

One day we had breakfast with a couple from the state of Washington and their four children. Another day we ate with a young man and his girlfriend, both from Ireland, who were law students and had spent the summer interning in Chicago. Everyone was in town to see the historic sights, just like us.

We walked around the sites on Saturday afternoon: Independence Hall, Carpenter’s Hall, and Congress Hall. We strolled brick-lined arcades that used to be slave markets, historic churches from back when churches were a vital business, and then spent the rest of the day with Kathy Curnow, one of Vanessa’s idiosyncratic CSU teachers, who was working at the University of Pennsylvania for the summer. She is short and stout, 51-years-old, with a head of crazy thick long black hair, paints her nails purple, and walks really, really slow on very small feet. She doesn’t own or drive a car. She has a boyfriend, a police detective in Philadelphia, with whom she talks by phone every day but hasn’t actually seen in more than nine months.

She leads an imaginary existence on the web site Second Life. Her avatar, which is what she called her alter ego, is a lissome cocktail waitress in a nightclub in Thailand. In real life she is a middle-aged authority on West African art; she had recently returned from London, delivering a lecture there about it. When in Philadelphia she lives with her old parents in the suburbs. She is bothered by loneliness, or at least she said so half-a-dozen times over lunch and a walk afterwards.

On Saturday night Vanessa and I decided to have dinner at Morimoto’s, a swank Japanese fusion restaurant owned by one of the Iron Chefs on the Food Network. Even though it was a mild night, it was slightly too far to walk from our inn, so we took a cab.

“Niceta meechas,“ our driver said.

The streets, some of them cobblestone, were crowded with people and cars. We made our way past blocks of 18th and 19th century homes. While stuck in traffic and idling for a moment at the curb of a narrow one-way street two young women approached our cab.

“Hal ya doin’ ladies,” the cabbie said, leaning over his elbow out the open window. “What youse lookin’ for?”

They were looking for directions to paint the town.

“Deflee,” the cabbie said, and rattled off the names and streets of taverns and clubs.

Morimoto’s was a narrow and deep space with a curving, undulating wood ceiling that sloped down to an open kitchen. There were odd phallic-shaped lamps on the forty-or-so booths and tables. The seats were chic and illuminated and tube lights were embedded in the tables. The lights glowed and ever so slowly continually changed colors. We shared a fish appetizer. After a delicious chicken broth soup, Vanessa had Kobe beef and I had seafood, each of us sampling the other’s plate, and we split a bottle of red wine.

After dessert and coffee we rolled out of the restaurant jolly as bessy bugs and thought we would try walking back to the inn, finally finding it a few hours later and falling exhausted into our little bed.

The next morning following a light breakfast we headed for Stowe, driving as fast as possible through the horrible state of New Jersey, where God made the food but the devil made the cook. We stopped in Albany at an Einstein’s for coffee and bagels, and then crossed into Vermont, which we knew when we started seeing guyascutas, or cows whose legs are shorter on one side than they are on the other so they can walk comfortably along the steep hillsides.

Stowe is a small one-main-road town. We hung a Ralph at the mountain road that dead-ends at the base of Mt. Mansfield, where the skiing is. Every few miles a swamp donkey sign warned us to watch out for the beasts. We stayed at the Grey Fox Inn, in a sizable room with a balcony. It was very nice because of the Range Rover set, but affordable because it wasn’t winter, yet, although the Dairy Queens were closing in a few weeks.

The weather was refreshing, mild and sunny during the day, crisp and dry at dusk. The forecast for the nights was for darkness. We camped out at the pool every day after breakfast. We went on hikes on successive afternoons partway up Mt. Mansfield, one on the Long Trail, and the other on an unnamed branch trail. The trails were both steep and rocky. After a few hours on them we were both like toads in a tar bucket, wondering why we ever thought hiking in the woods would be fun.

In the evening my prayer handles were wicked achy.

One night we saw ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ at the local movie house, which was action-packed, derivative, and dim-witted, and another night we saw ‘Urinetown’ at the Stowe Community Center, which was funny, original, and loaded with engaging tunes. A 2001 Broadway musical, half the cast was high school students and the other half were adults who had once acted in high school, which goes to show it don’t make knee-odds the talent.

On our last night in Stowe we made a pizza and packie run and watched ‘The Adventures of Robin Hood’ on TMC.

The next day we drove to Burlington and took the car ferry across Lake Champlain to Port Kent, and from the landing through the Keene Valley made it to Lake Placid. We stayed at the Town House Motor Lodge, which is on Lake Placid, while the town of Lake Placid is actually on Mirror Lake. We read and sun-tanned at the 1960’s-style pool surrounded by cypress hedges and 100-foot-high white pines. Even the four bottom burping Quebecois men didn’t bother Vanessa overly much the one afternoon they were taking a break at the pool from their daily golf outings.

We went on two long hikes in the ADK wilderness area, more rolling than up-and-down paths, and had dinner one night at the Caribbean Cowboy, where there was a Caribbean waitress, but no cowboys. Another night we wandered into Nicola’s on Main, where we ate gobs of pasta and split a jug of Chianti. The best policy on pasta and wine is pro-eating it and pro-drinking it.

Friday evening we had Portuguese bread from the Price Chopper supermarket at a table beside the pool and then walked to the Lake Placid Center for the Arts, seeing an affecting but disturbing Spanish movie called ‘Volver’. It was like a fountain of magical tragicomedy, including a mother who comes back from the dead to tie up loose ends. We got wet.

They say the weather in New England is nine months of winter and three months of poor sledding. It was already into September, so when Saturday rolled around, even though we weren’t really ready to go home, we went home. We took the old road, through Tupper Lake, Blue Mountain Lake, and Racquette Lake, stopped in Old Forge at the Pied Piper ice cream stand, by-passed Utica, and made the rest of the long drive back to Lakewood on I-90.

It was late when we got home and after rubbing up our cat Snapper we threw ourselves into bed. We were tuckered out. The next morning we unpacked the car, I mowed the lawn, and we went through the mail. I found the bug man’s bill tucked into our front door. It said, “I have made the yellow jackets bee-gone.”

When I checked they were, indeed, gone.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.

 

 

Summer Camp

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I would trade any day in the real world for a minute at summer camp.

Those two weeks are what I wait for all year. It’s hard to believe, but my best friends and I and everyone who knows us best have been going to camp for half our lives, just after I turned seven. Since then I have gone every summer. The first day of camp is better than the rest of time.

I used to go to Camp Katahdin with my dad when he first started taking Katie and Sylvia. I went along to keep him company on the drive, because my mom wouldn’t go, and the girls were just girls. After dropping their duffels and backpacks off and getting them signed in, we would walk around the campground, to where it is fenced in along the lakeside, although most of the fence is now rusting and falling down.

My dad and his sister went to the camp in the 1960s, before there were real highways and it took forever. They rode in granddad’s Chevy Impala, a green woody wagon that was twice as big and long as the Hyundai dad drives to work. The third row seat faced backwards. That is where he and his sister sat, what they called the way-back seat, playing the license plate game and category abc’s.

They slept in Canadian Army tents at the camp in those days, not the A-frame cabins we sleep in now. They had bonfires and sing-a-longs every night and ate peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder Bread. “Some days we had sandwiches three times a day if there wasn’t anything else,” my dad says.

“There was so much wood we had bonfires every night, as big as a house burning down. Not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” he said, pushing the wrapped-up firewood packages with his foot. We only have bonfires on weekends and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.

“One of our camp commanders back then had been in the French Foreign Legion. He wore a black beret and a small hand axe on his belt. He just picked wood up in the forest. We always had more than we wanted, the woodpile was so high.”

When it was late afternoon and the girls were finished at the orientation we would leave for the ride home, driving all night, listening to talk shows and baseball games on AM radio, twisting the knob on the dashboard back and forth as the game or the talk show faded in and out. My dad likes talk shows so he only listens to AM radio.

I knew I wanted to go to summer camp the first time I saw it. Since the girls were already going I knew I probably would, too. I just had to wait to be at least seven-years-old. Every summer they told me how much fun it was to be at camp and not at home. That was the big thing, they always said, to be away, to be somewhere else for two weeks.

Summer camp is a different life than being at home. There are fewer adults than anywhere else and no parents. The counselors are almost like you. Some of them let you run amok and hope no one dies. All of your friends are together and there are even more of them than you have at home. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream if you do something really dumb, but you don’t get yelled at for just doing something wrong by mistake. Even when you do it’s all over in a few minutes, not like at home, where it never ends.

You can’t always go wherever you want, roam around the camp, or just run around in the forest, but you can be who you want to be almost all the time. When you’re at camp it’s like waking up on the roof. The nights are dark and everything smells damp, like a bottle of milk in the refrigerator. Although everyone is supposed to be in after lights out, and there’s a night guard, he isn’t able to watch all the cabins all of the time. In the forest in the middle of the night when it’s quiet it’s scary quiet, and the quieter you are, just breathing, everything’s a strange echo.  Sometimes it’s so dark walking is like feeling your way with your hands, but you never lose your way.

The sky at summer camp is clean and windy, not stuffy and dead like at home. Some kids don’t shower when they’re there and that’s disgusting, but nobody cares too much about it. Once somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when they came to pick him up. ”No, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth!” his mother yelled. The cabins are gnarly old, partly plywood and partly brown clapboard, and moldy in some spots. They never smell all good, even on sunny days. There is a beat-up screen and wood door in the front and a tilt window in the back, although most of the time the window won’t crank open.

But, it doesn’t matter. The camp is big and so are the lake, the dunes, and the woods. We hardly live in our cabins, anyway, only sleeping in them, unless it rains.

Camp Ketahdin is a long drive from Cleveland, to the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, on Little Traverse Bay. It’s past a town called Petoskey, which means ‘Where the light shines through the clouds’, hidden down a winding gravel lane from the main road. The boy’s cabins are on one side of the camp, the mess hall is in the middle, and on the backside of the drive-in and packed-dirt lot is the chapel. The girl’s cabins and nurse’s station are on the other side and the flagpoles and bonfire are down a sloped sandy hill from the hall. The lake is a one-mile walk from the sport’s field.

A year goes by and it’s like I never left. As soon as we get to camp we unload everything we’ve brought, our clothes, sleeping bags, and snacks. Everything we own has our initials on it written with a Sharpie. We find our cabins and claim our beds, and then your parents are gone before you know it. Sometimes I don’t even realize they’ve left. You see your friends again, your cabin mates and everyone you have ever camped with, and there are high-fives, knuckle-touches, and bro-hugs all around.

Everyone punches each other and laughs, “What’s up, dude.” We hang out, reunite with the girls, and get some overdue hugs from them. When everyone has gotten to the camp and all the parents are finally gone we have sandwiches in the dining hall. Father Elliott says a prayer for the kids and new campers, and afterwards the camp commander gives us a chalk talk about everything. He writes the rules in block letters on the blackboard.

Before nightfall we hike to the beach for our first look at it. We go to the lake every afternoon, unless the weather’s absolutely horrible. But, when the day’s cold and gusty it’s really the best time, because there are huge waves, the wind is blowing hard, and the surf is smashing you. When we come out for a break the counselors have a snack set up for us, and later we go back in the water a second time, or just lay around on our towels.

We have activities every night, like bonfires, mystery night, and sleep-outs under the stars. There are three dances, the big one on the last night of camp, which is the formal dance. Some nights we do things later than the kids, like the manhunt game, because they have to go to bed before us. They sleep in the long barracks, not the cabins like us, where they have their own sleep-in counselor.

The last couple of summers the kid’s barrack counselor has been an immigrant, who is tall and pretty, but has bad teeth, is very serious, and barely speaks English. She has twin girls who stay in her room. She sweeps the hallway with a broom for a long time after all the kids have gone to bed. Nobody ever thinks about sneaking out. Everybody knows what would happen, because she tells them all in her own way on the first day of camp.

As soon as we’re done with the night activities, but before going back to our cabins and staying up, or whatever we do, we gather in a circle and cross our arms with each other. A counselor says a prayer and everybody shouts good night. Then it’s a mad dash back to our cabins. We always flip our mattresses over to get the sand and wolf spiders out. The spiders aren’t poisonous, but they can be big as your hand, and they bite hard as if they had teeth.

One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We tried to kill them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood they left itchy clusters of bites on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. When the camp commander found out he hired a bedbug-sniffing dog. The next day everyone whose cabins had bugs put everything they had in plastic garbage bags and put them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

In our cabins we talk, jump into the middle of things, and beat each other up. We plan different ways to kill people, have wrestling matches, and see who can burp and fart the loudest.  Whenever anyone falls asleep they are fair game. My fourth-best friend Tomas is an open-mouth sleeper. One night we squirted minty toothpaste around his lips and watched bubbles form as he breathed. Another time we covered his face with lipstick and mascara. He didn’t like that, but later he thought it was funny. We don’t fight or talk the whole time, at least, not necessarily. We eat a boatload of candy, too.

The camp doesn’t let us bring our phones or tablets, or even video games, but everyone brings four or five pounds of candy. Some bring less, but some bring even more, which is ridiculous. One boy brought four cases of soda and a carton of family-size Lays Classic potato chips with him, and that was on top of the pickings at the camp store, where you get two treats every day. He is 14-years-old, like me, but built like a twig. He ate and drank everything he brought and didn’t share it with anybody.

We have a food-eating contest every summer after the Counselor Staff Show. The kids have to go to bed, but we stay up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers is blindfolded and has to eat whatever the counselors make. Everyone has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up with their mouth like a dog. Sometimes the other kids vomit, but I never throw up. Last year the counselors made bowls of Rice Krispies with ketchup, mustard, jelly, lots of salt, and it was mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. Everyone cheers you on and you have to eat it all as fast as you can if you want to win.

Some nights if we have stayed up until dawn the night before we try to go to sleep a little earlier than usual, no later than two or three in the morning. We don’t keep track, but we have to get some sleep because the counselors wake us up at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They march us to the sports field and make us do jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and run the track. If they see you are tired and slacking they will make you do more.

We get up every morning to dance music, like Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the counselors want, played loud on loudspeakers hidden in trees. Sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m sound asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream “Wakey wakey campers!”

After exercise hour on the sport’s field we go back to our cabins, clean up, and then raise all the flags before breakfast. Sometimes we don’t clean up and instead fall back asleep in our cabins and then are late for the flag raising, which means humiliation. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance, or whatever dance they tell you to do.

All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop when that happens, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching, and then they do their dumb dance, like cheerleaders, but they aren’t cheering for you. We have some pretty messed-up people at camp, but everybody gets their share.

Every cabin has to keep a diary for two weeks and we get graded on it every day. Whoever is the best writer wins Liberty Dollars. But, if you write something dumb, like “ugi, ugi, ugi” or anything that doesn’t make sense, you get a bad grade. The counselors tell us to be sincere. Matthew always makes up our diary because everyone else in our cabin is retarded. At the flag lowering one time, after Titus had written something stupid, we had to do the Rambo, running down the hill to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “cha, cha, cha” while everyone did the chop.

My friends and I are in cabin three, which is the smallest cabin of the nine boy’s cabins. There are eight of us and the only space we have to move around in is to walk back and forth to our beds. Matthew is my best friend and totally number one. He’s a little shorter than me, has dirty blond hair, and is stick slender. We like to relax, not get uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. We have been rooming together for seven years and know each other best.

Logan is my second best friend. He is a tad taller, funny, and chunky.  He chews green frog gummies and spits them out on the cabin floor. He likes to play paintball. I don’t paintball, but I think I’d be better, considering I’ve never done it. He’s strong, too, but not loud and belligerent. Once he punched someone who stomped on his bad toe. He has in-grown toenails. Logan was, like, “Dude!” and he pushed him, and then got punched in the stomach. Logan punched him back in the face, but without being mean. It was the Night of the Super Starz in the dining hall, we were just sitting there watching the show, and the rude boy started crying. He had a reddish bruise and a black eye at the end of the day.

There was a midnight mass afterwards, but Logan had to go back early and alone to our cabin, although all that happened the next day was they made him sweep the hall. That’s somebody’s job, anyway, so he just helped, but not too much.

After the morning activities we eat breakfast, and then clean up our areas. You don’t have to do it, but there is a cabin judging at the end of camp. We didn’t win last summer, but we didn’t come in last, either, which is a good thing, because then you would have to do something bad. We go to classes, sometimes, or you can say you aren’t feeling good, and then we have lunch, and later go to the beach. After dinner we lower the flags, there’s an evening program, and then we go back to our cabins and get naked, at least some of us. I don’t know why we do that, exactly.

We talk about movies, television shows, and our favorites on YouTube. We talk about girls, some of them more than others, and we talk about video games, even though we don’t have any at camp. It’s never been allowed. The one of us in our cabin who doesn’t talk much is Titus. He just sits in his corner all secluded, but he does play some games, so I talk to him about that, sometimes.

I used to play WoW, but I got addicted to it and didn’t like that. Call of Duty is my game now, except I don’t play it on my Xbox anymore, only on my computer. I love it when they say, “In war there is no prize for the runner-up.” I’m not sure what games Titus plays.

Nobody knows what is wrong with Titus. We love Titus, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re sitting in our cabin talking, he’ll start crying. He’ll just cry on his bed, and when we ask him what’s wrong, he says, “I don’t know.” We don’t ignore him and we never do anything to him. We punch him every once in awhile, but not hard. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he isn’t looking. He gets pinkeye every year. We don’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pinkeye

We were all, like, “God damn it, Titus.”

Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and then he cried, but not because of that, just because he’s Titus. Every year he sleeps in the corner by the door. That’s the problem, he doesn’t know. He is one sad, sad child.

We stage our wrestling matches in cabin two, which is the oldest boy’s cabin. It’s the coolest cabin, too, and the biggest. What we do is take our shirts off and duct tape a sleeping bag onto the wood floor. There is no punching allowed, no hammer blows, or anything like that, but you can kick and throw each other on the ground. We aren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commanders don’t like it, but everybody wrestles and gets bruised, and crap.

One night we had wrestle mania. The winner is the last man standing. Mason and Chase, two boys from cabin five where they’re younger, were locked together when Chase grabbed Mason’s head and flipped him over. Mason slammed hard into a bed and got knocked out. We let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up for twenty seconds we threw dirt on him. He was fine after that. The next day we were walking to the beach and Mason jumped on Chase’s back for no reason and almost cracked it. But, they didn’t punch each other, or anything like that. They’re both hardcore kids, everybody knows that, but not haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble.

Liam sleeps in the other corner opposite Titus by the door. He’s a serious douche bag. He thinks he can play guitar, but all he does is play the same part of Stairway to Heaven over and over. Who needs that? We are always yelling “Shut up!” and then we broke his guitar, but it was a piece of junk, anyway.

We broke the brand new fan his parents got him, too. Logan was angry, his toes hurt that day, and he started hitting it with a comb. We took the fan behind our cabin and beat it with a bat. It was hanging on rags when we were done. The spiny part was smashed, giant chunks were missing, and we just kept beating it. We beat it with a hockey stick and threw bottles of water at it. I mean, we did everything to it.

He wasn’t too happy about it, but he deserved it.

When his parents came mid-week they asked him what happened. He told them we did it, but not surprising to us, they didn’t believe him. After that he tipped a Diet Coke over on my bed in spite, so I poured the rest of it on his bed, and he pushed me, and I punched him back, and then he punched me, and I finally punched him in the jaw, but not crazy hard, and he stopped.

He thinks he is swagged, but since he is Liam, there is no reason.

Boys are never allowed to be in the girl’s cabins, ever. But, once a day we go over, one or two of my friends and me. We usually sneak peek there from the boy’s side, through the woods, to right behind the girl’s cabins. We know which one we want and go in through the rear window. Sometimes we run to the front door, but it is better all around to go the back way. That’s why all the screens in the back windows are ripped out. The counselors staple them back on every year.

We hang out, talk about life, and chill. We dream up rages, but never in our cabins, always in their cabins. It’s awesome and the music pumps. We just go up and down the walls. Sometimes fifteen people crowd into the cabin, having fun and out of control. We rage every day, mostly during the day, but sometimes at night, too, at least whenever we can. It’s better in the dark when we can turn on the Christmas lights and crazy dance to Skrillex. The counselors hear the music, but they don’t care. There’s music playing all the time. The wrong counselor coming in for a random reason might catch you, so you have to watch out for that.

When people knock on the doors we jump in-between any crack or under the beds. The girls say, hold on, we’re changing, and we just wait, hiding under the beds, or in the cracks where they can’t see you. All the time you’re hiding and you’re quiet so they won’t find you. Most of the counselors just laugh and call you pathetic if they see you. But, they always let you stay.

After the rages we talk and chill again, eat all of the girl’s candy, and then sneak back to our cabins. We’re only there for two weeks, so we have as much fun as we can, playing music and dancing to the beats. It pumps hard every day. It’s not melodic, trust me on that, although one time Logan slowed it down and sang I Did It My Way, and everybody loved it. For the rest of camp whenever we chanted his name he had to jump on a picnic table and lead a sing-along of My Way.

I am the boss of dance moves at the camp dances. There isn’t anyone or anything that doesn’t make me the boss; a picture of the boss busting moves is worth ten thousand words. The girls dance with me because I’m not a douche. The ones who are exactly that think they’re cool, but then nobody really likes them, or only a select few who are just like them. You can’t be the boss and a douche, too.

At the dances everybody makes a circle and I squirt into the middle. I break moves, and I’m dead serious about it. I’m out there every dance rocking it. I do the party boy, popping, liquiding, and electric shuffling. One of the counselors is teaching me. He goes to things called raves, like rages, except they’re gigantic, where people get wasted. He says they’re awesome.

My favorite dances are slow dances, of course, because you get to dance in a curve, your arms wrapped around your girl, soft and flowing. Everything is good about that. I love shuffling and going crazy on the dance floor, but it’s a close second. I slow dance with just about everybody, except cabin seven, the youngest girls, who once asked me to dance with them. I said no to that.

It was two or three years ago when I started noticing the chiquita’s at summer camp. At first it was just curiosity. Then it was like standing on the rim of the Rocky River Valley and feeling how great it would be to jump. They were there and they were nice. Being around them felt like something good was going to happen.

Happy girls are the prettiest girls, but some of them, especially the ones who think they’re stars, are mean. When you try to talk to them, they act, like, “Oh, my God, I’m so cool, and you’re so dumb, leave me alone.” They will say, “Just because you know my name doesn’t mean you know me,” and walk the other way. It’s then you know they’re down and snobby. They never smile when no one else is around because they would have to really mean it.

Natalya is one of the mean girls. She isn’t hot, although maybe she is, partly. She’s shorter, not fat, but not like a twig, either. She has some knockers, nice and big, but she wears a butt-load of make-up, which is weird. She prances around, like she is acting it out, and dyes her hair all the time in different colors, black, and then blonde, and then something else. She brought her own little folding table to summer camp so she could put make-up on in private. She wears a ton of it.

If you wear make-up it doesn’t mean you are snotty, but that’s just a thing with her. Most people can only whine for so long, but she whines over stupid things all day. We’re in the same morning classes, after cabin clean up and the inspections, so I know. She’s in my group, and whenever we have to do anything, she whines about it, saying, “Oh, my God, I’m not doing that.” She just wants to sit around and be annoying.

She has a lot of friends, but she has a lot of enemies, too. Logan said she deserves her enemies, but I think she deserves her friends, too. Some of my friends, girls who are nice, hate her a lot. They won’t be in the same cabin with her, even though they are the same age. I know she hates being ignored. I try not to care about her, but I can’t, not always.

The other mean girls, Alexis, Samantha, and Hannah, are all in my morning group, too, which sucks. Alexis doesn’t constantly whine, only most of the time, and she wears shiny bracelets and rings, too. She just wants to sit around and be looked at. Samantha is all drama, way into herself, and I don’t like her at all. Everything she says she starts by saying “Frankly…” She looks awkward when she’s not talking. I don’t even know about Hannah, she’s just kind of weird, glammed up like a puppet.

The nice girls are fun to be around. That’s the big difference about them. They’re not immature about things like having to play sports all day on sport days. They even play the dizzy bat with us between games on the soccer field, at the end the sidelines strewn with us lying on the ground, grabbing for the grass to keep from falling off the edge of the earth. The mean girls sit in their cabin and flame about it, and stupid stuff, like how small their cabin is, even though there are only four of them. Ours has eight of us in it, it’s the smallest boy’s cabin, and we never complain about it, ever.

The mean girls always want to be with the boys who are ripped. All they want to do is talk to them and then talk about them the rest of the time. The nice girls don’t like the boys who are mean and their girls. They don’t get along. There really is a divide and it’s serious. Last year one of the mean girls, Kayla, started cursing out another girl and charged her, and got kicked out of camp. Her parents had to come and get her. That was bad.

The nice girls don’t try so hard to be something they aren’t, slapping on a smile or a smirk. They’re not expert liars. The mean girls always look like they’re waiting to be discovered behind their cover up. But the nice girls, even if they have bandy legs and a lopsided face, when they laugh it’s one of the best sounds in the world.

One of the nicest girls at camp is Lauren, who is tall, has wavy brown hair, kind of long, and is a little chunky, but not like fat. At least, not too fat. She lives on the other side of the lake where it’s the Upper Peninsula. Lauren doesn’t try to be anything. She’s pretty, but not beautiful, not like she’s impersonating somebody, trying to fool you. Instead, she’s really kindhearted and friendly. She stays up at night, like me, listening to music.

Jessica is my age, the very nicest girl of all. She is fourteen, just a month younger and a bit shorter than me, blonde hair, but not dirty blonde. We have known each other for five years. She appreciates everything about me, the whole nine yards. We see each other every day. We go to the secret swings and talk, but I don’t remember about what. You never know what girls are going to say. I just stare at her. I don’t know what she talks about, girl stuff, I think, and her clothes. Anything they wear is fine, really. I heard her say once she likes the Detroit Tigers, and another time she said something about her room. She says all kinds of stuff and I just listen. Sitting in the woods with her at night feels like hanging loose. I never want it to end.

Last summer Raymond, the night guard, who is the weirdest man, was in the bushes when I was walking to the crapper from the swings after a night with Jessica. He was standing in the dark watching me, and my friend Logan saw him and started screaming at him, “Get out of here, man, what do you want?” He also used some select words. It was the funniest thing, because most of the time no one can talk to Raymond like that.

Raymond is the night guard, not a counselor, or even one of the camp commanders. His hair is long and greasy, he always wears a baseball cap, and he smells terrible. He’s one of the older adults, for sure in his 50s, and he told us he’s an ex-Spetsnaz.  Titus was stung in the ear by a hornet once, and was crying, and Raymond told him to “tough it out.”

He sleeps during the day and patrols the camp at night, and will stand behind your cabin, just looking in at you for a long time, like a freak. He’s very patient. Nobody wants him chasing you when you have snuck out. You can’t break away from him, ever; he’s just a beast. He has a birch branch that he whips your feet out from under you when you’re running, and will seriously manhandle you when he catches you, which is every time.

The best night of camp is the night of the manhunt game we play with the counselors on the 4th of July. It’s called Nazis and Jews. The older campers are the Jews and the counselors are the Nazis. We call it that because the Jews run from the Nazis. The kids have to go to bed. They aren’t allowed to play. We start running as soon as it gets completely dark, so we have a chance, and then the counselors come after us. If they catch you they railroad you back to a jail where you have to sit and wait.

You can try to get away, but it’s hard because the counselors who catch you are the strong, fast ones, and the ones who don’t catch you are the slow ones, the ones who are mostly unfit. The strong ones don’t like it when anyone makes them look bad by busting out. You can try to break free when no one’s looking, but if they grab you then you have to stay longer. The longer you sit there the less chance you have to win Liberty Dollars for the auction after the game, which isn’t a good thing. It is intense. I am dead serious.

One summer during the manhunt Simon, who is from Maine, jumped out of a tree on me. Whenever he talks it’s with a slurry, toothless accent. He was ten feet up in a quiet, dark shadow where I couldn’t see him, and he jumped down and tackled me. I got up and ran, but he started chasing me. He was like a monster, coming to get me, and I ran into a branch. Everything just went SHING! I almost got knocked out because it hit me right in the face and tore my neck, which really hurt. There is still a scar on my Adam’s apple to this day.

On another game night Matilda, who plays for a college basketball team and is seriously fast, blind-sided me, decking me. At first I wasn’t sure what happened. I didn’t mean to, but when I got up I tripped her, and started running away. You try to run away whenever anyone catches you. When she caught me I fell on the ground like I was out cold. She was forced to drag me by my arms and legs. While she was dragging me, huffing and puffing, I noticed a large lump on her chest. When I asked her what it was she gave me a sly look and said, “It’s a tumor, I have cancer.” I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so healthy. I jumped to my feet so she wouldn’t have to drag me. While we were walking the tumor started to jerk back and forth. I didn’t know what to do, since it wasn’t anything we’d learned about in first-aid training. I thought she might collapse. Then, just as we walked up to the jail, her baby pet gerbil poked its head out of her bra.

Last summer the jail was inside the art house, where all the supplies and costumes are stored. It’s at the farthest end from the sand dunes. Makayla was the guard that night, and although she isn’t very big, she’s strong. There are two rooms, so she had to patrol both of them. We had to sit in chairs and be quiet. If you talked too much you had to sit there longer. If you got up from your chair for any reason you had to stay in there longer, too. You could try to escape, but it wasn’t easy. Makayla would hit you, not really hard, but hard enough, with a twine broom, usually with the soft end. She would push the broom down on you and yell the whole time.

You don’t want to try escaping too many times, either, because if you try a couple of times and they catch you each time, they might kick you out of the game for the night. It isn’t fair, but that’s what they do if they get annoyed about it. If you sat there quietly, or told Makayla you’d be good, sometimes she let you out before the others.

The game starts once it gets dark and everybody is assembled at the bonfire pit in the sand arena. The counselors change the game a little every year. One summer whoever was a Jew child had to go out to find passports for their family. That was the main prize. When they got caught, and they all got caught because there were traps everywhere, the rest of us, their family, had to break them out of jail somehow. It was like capture the flag, but trickier.

This summer the counselors took us to the dining hall, closed the doors, darkened the windows, turned off all the lights, and made us sit on the concrete floor. There were two people giving news broadcasts, but then a counselor warned us they were going to censor the station. It got quiet. You couldn’t hear anything.

When the counselors came back they were dressed in black, charcoal from the bonfire smeared on their faces, and screaming, acting like they were mad. They split us up into groups and gave us directions. We had to find books and save them from being burned. They gave us clues and we had to find them. They weren’t real books, just pieces of paper. The more we brought back the more Liberty Dollars we got for the auction. The more of us in our group, our family, that got caught the more of our Liberty Dollars were taken away.

The papers were scattered around the camp in the pockets of a couple of special counselors, who were hidden in the forest, and kept moving around. You had to find them and when you did they would give you the paper. But, sometimes you had to beg them. If the Nazis captured you they would take the paper away from you, rip it up right in front of you, and you would have to start all over. A lot of people hid them in their shoes, or their underwear, or different places no one would look.

It can be a dirty game. One time I was by myself, not far from the art house, but on the edge of the woods, and one of the counselors came walking past, and I dropped flat. I was lying in a bunch of crap, leaves, twigs, bugs, mud, and stuff, and he just walked right up to me, but didn’t see me. I was, like, “Oh, man.”

Everybody gets the same number of campers for their group, and they are your family. The mom and dad of the family are the two oldest from the girl and boy side, and the children are the trickles from the other cabins. You have to find the books, but you have to protect each other, too. If anyone in your family gets sent to jail you have to rescue them. But, it’s best to be careful, so that you don’t get caught yourself.

They called us out family-by-family and yelled at us if we didn’t listen. They were hitting the floor with brooms, yelling at us, dressed all in black. Most of us were dressed in black, too, or camouflage, because it gets intense. They gave the moms and dads a lit candle, lined us up, and marched us to the sports field. They were telling us the rules, when Gregory, who has an anger problem, and wasn’t even in my family, snuck up behind me and snapped at me because I was laughing, “Shut up!” and then slammed me. I slammed him back on the ground. I was, like, “What the hell?” The counselors were shouting, “Gregory, get over here!” and they started chewing him out, because I hadn’t done anything.

Gregory has crazy anger problems. He might not make it. His brother used to come to the camp, but he was kicked out one year for the same thing. They called his parents to pick him up and he has never been back. That’s the worst thing that can happen at camp.

The counselors were being all serious, spitting out commands, when out of nowhere, out of all directions, they just started screaming and sprinting at us, without even telling us that it was starting. We booked it in every direction. That’s how the game started. It was crazy.

I had already planned to go with my friends, because you don’t really want to stay with your group. It’s stupid then, since you’re just trying to have fun, anyway. We hustled to one of the boy’s cabins and hid there, and then started running around, dodging the counselors. Some of them are fast, and there are two girl counselors, too, who can catch you if you don’t see them coming and they are already sprinting towards you.

You can push the counselors away, out of your way, but not punch them, although you can punch them, just not all of them, only the ones who don’t care. Your friends can come help you, and if the counselors try to catch both of you, you have a good chance of getting away, because they can’t get both of you at the same time, no matter how big they are.

The counselors tackle you hard when they want to. They can be stealthy rockets and they don’t mess around. Sometimes they’ll use you as a distraction so they can catch someone else. If they’re your counselor they’ll cut you some slack. You act like you’re getting caught when one of your friends is walking by, and yell, “Help me!” and your counselor will throw you to the side and run to get them, and you can then dash free.

I had to help when Noah explained he needed me to go along with one of his plans. When I was little I would slip into his cabin and his friends would let me sit on their beds and give me candy. Besides, he had me pinned down. He pretended to capture me, but he really wanted to capture one of my friends. He had his own reasons. They are usually not going to let you go just to capture somebody else, because then you can run off. But, I did what he wanted, and I begged one of my friends, “Dude, come help me,” and Noah let me go and took him.

This summer the jail was on the sports field, which was a pressboard box used to store basketball backboards. It was small, the size of a dining room table, but tall and deep to the back. Last summer the jail cell was the boy’s bathroom. It was dark and clammy, the light bulb missing, with only one door, so it was hard to escape from. We had to sit in there with the daddy long-legs and rotten smells.

The pressboard box was even worse. It was out in the open with a pole lamp over it. The counselors squeezed eight people in there, around the edges, and then made more people stand in the middle like cattle. They nailed two-by-fours to the sides so we wouldn’t spill out. Everybody was packed tight inside it. You could try to crawl out, but they would have already gotten you by then.

We escaped when some counselors grabbed new runners and were bringing them in, but there wasn’t any room left because it was so crowded. Someone pushed us out. We had a couple of seconds of leeway. They can’t just grab you again that minute, so we ran into the forest to the Hill of Crosses.

The Hill of Crosses is on a small dirt hill in the woods. There are trees all around it, and nothing but crosses on the hill, hundreds of them, some bigger than life. Everybody’s parents know all about it. It has something to do with their past. It’s been there a long time, but no new crosses have been added so long as I can remember. There’s a white fence around the hill and a gate, but it’s never locked. We go there for fun sometimes, to talk, and chill, because almost no one ever goes there anymore, and it’s secluded.

We were cutting through the Hill of Crosses, talking out what we were going to do, when Lovett, who is very fast and really fit, jumped out of a sand dune right at us, waving a flashlight. We just flipped out, everybody started running, none of us going the same way.  Somebody smashed into Lovett, who singled out Mark for it, running after him.

A lanky kid named Norville, from another cabin but who was with us, sprinted to the border of the camp where there is a crappy old fence. He didn’t know it was there and when he jumped on it he got all tangled. He ended up stuck on it, his hands were gashed, his clothes ripped, and he couldn’t get off. He was bloody after that, not like gushing, but it was bad.

Later, when we all found each other, we saw Lovett with his big flashlight, looking for Mark. We lay down in the sand; we were so afraid, but he ran right past us. We stayed there behind the little hill where we hang our clothes after coming back from the lake, and then snuck back into our cabin. We were sitting on our beds, laughing, but Mark was freaking out. He was so afraid he got on his knees, put his hands together on his bunk bed, and started praying out loud. He was praying there, crying, saying, “I don’t feel good,” when Lovett walked in.

“What’s wrong with Mark?” he asked.

“I don’t feel good,” Mark said, and walked outside the cabin and threw up. He tried to throw up in the trashcans, at least it looked that way, but he didn’t get any in the trashcans, at all. The next morning we dogged Mark, because he’s an idiot, but all he said was he really didn’t feel good, anyway.

After Mark threw up we heard one of the counselors squawk on the loudspeakers that the game was over. That’s how it really ends. They broadcast all during the game, about how much time is left, and what we have to do, and then it just ends. I don’t know what time that is. I don’t wear a watch at camp. Everybody just has to report to the dining hall.

After the game is over we get a five-minute break to mess around, and then we all go to the hall, laugh with our friends, and tell them how crazy it was. We’re still getting our breath back when Father Elliott starts his talk. He always speaks after the game. This summer he told us about Siberia, how he went on a memorial train ride there, to commemorate our grandparents who were taken away by the Communists in the 1940s.

He talked about the train cars, how there were so many people in the freight cars that nobody had any space to move around in, and how they had to go to the bathroom in the train itself. He was very serious. It was kind of sad, actually, how serious it was, but I was glad he told us about it. He had pictures on his laptop, lots of them of the little broken-down villages where people had to live in the freezing cold. I remember one picture, there were wooden railroad tracks, old rusted bolts, and the snow was blazing white. The tracks were all nasty and messed up. I don’t know why I remember that one. He said we should be thankful we didn’t have to go through that, that we were lucky.

Father Elliott is our priest at the camp. He runs the religion classes, says mass, and organizes the Faith Nights. We build bonfires all around the camp for Faith Night, in the dunes, by the art house, and everyone goes to one of the bonfires with their morning group. Our two counselors have a list, they ask us questions, and we talk. I used to think it was stupid, but I like some things about religion now. Some people take it as a joke. They are smart-asses.

In my class at St. Mel’s I hate my religion teacher, but at summer camp I try to express myself. Some of the questions are dumb, but a lot of them are intriguing. How do you see God? What does God mean to you? How do you communicate with God? When I was a kid they taught us to go to church and pray, and everybody would be happy. But, is that truly enough, to pray once in awhile, and that will please God? I’m not sure.

Father Elliott goes to each group on Faith Night carrying chairs for confession. I don’t really like that. You’re sitting by your fire, talking about God and all, and he comes by with his two folding chairs. He doesn’t make you confess, but you basically have to. You have to sit face-to-face with him in the open. He stares straight into your soul while you’re giving confession. I don’t want the priest to know it’s me because you see him every day. You know he thinks of you differently afterwards, at least for a few days.

This summer we almost didn’t play Nazis and Jews. We heard rumors the camp commander wanted to stop it, or change it, but the counselors said you couldn’t just stop it. It’s a legend at camp. It’s the most fun night of the two weeks. It was probably somebody’s parents, the counselors said, complaining about calling the manhunt game Nazis and Jews, or something like that. Everybody was worried. At least we got the game back, and it was the same, although we might call it something else next summer.

They were playing it when I first started going to camp. I used to want to play it so bad then. When we were kids in the long barracks we would get together, go somewhere, and play our own manhunt game for hours. We stood in a circle and chanted “bit, burp, poop, you, are, not, it” until only one kid was left, and he was it and had to go and catch people. If you saw one of your friends you could try to tag him and he would be it.

One summer my third-best friend Adrian was it and he was mad because he had been it twice that day. “I‘m not playing anymore,” he said. We said, “Stop being a baby and just be it.” He started chasing Luke, who was still really small. He ran and Adrian tore after him, and then slammed him onto his back. Luke broke his arm and had to go to the hospital. He wore a cast for the rest of camp, which was bad. Adrian told everybody he was sorry. He was crying about it and explaining he hadn’t meant to do it.

Summer camp goes by fast. You wake up one morning and it’s over. Where did it go? We’re always wasting our time, but we never waste a minute. You’re hanging with your friends, everything is carefree, and then suddenly you have to go back to your normal life. It’s gone, it’s done, and you have to wait another year. You go see your girls and they’re all teary. You hang out with your bro’s and everybody is kind of sad.

After breakfast we raise the flags one last time. I know we won’t be the ones lowering them later that night and nobody feels good about that. We go back to our cabins, get all our stuff ready, and then everybody’s parents start arriving. We go to the bonfire pit and sing songs one more time, like The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day and Tin Tan Tin. I don’t know what the girls sing. It is something like “Tick a lick a lick, per diena zirgele, I am alone.“ But, the truth is, my friends and I don’t really sing anymore. When you’re a kid it’s fun, but now it sucks.

We always sing one last song. Everybody gets in a big circle at the end, the whole camp, after the awards are given out, and our arms all crossed together we sing I’m Leaving on a Jet Plane, and then say a prayer. It’s really sad, and then it’s over, and you say goodbye to everybody.

The next year when it’s time for summer camp again you are jonesing, it’s like getting the jitters. All the same people are there, all your girls and your cabin, and everything we do. It’s just a great experience. When I’m older, after my last year, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s for sure, at least until I finish college and have to get a real job.

I was the top dog at Nazis and Jews this summer. The next day I ran my stack of Liberty Dollars to the auction. The camp commander stands at a podium with a wood mallet. There is a chalkboard behind him with a list of all the things you can get and everyone starts bidding. There are t-shirts and baseball hats, breakfast in bed, and counselors cleaning your cabin. Sometimes it’s a mystery box, which can be good, like roasting marshmallows for two hours, or it can be not so good, like cleaning the urinals.

There’s stargazing with another cabin of your choice, which is always obviously a girl’s cabin, and that is a good thing. But, I put everything I had, all of my Liberty Dollars, on the first shower. Saturday was the night of the formal dance and I wanted to look my best for it. I made absolutely sure nobody outbid me because it was do-or-die for the hot water.

You get to shower first, all by yourself, for as long as you want to.  You’re in the shower and nobody can get you out. They post a counselor to stand guard at the door and they don’t let anyone in except you, and you can use as much hot water as you want. There is only so much of it at the camp, but you can take it all, and everybody else is left with the cold remains.

Oh, yeah, that is what you always do, because everybody else would do it to you.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Sudbury 1949

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When Angele Jurgelaityte first saw Vytautas Staskevicius at the Nuremberg Army Hospital in Germany, he was 23 years old and flat on his back on a surgical table underneath a white sheet. She was 19 and wearing a white 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 by strategic bombing. More than 500 British Lancaster bombers had 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 re-built and taken over by the United States Army.

Vytas 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 whisked up by a truck-full of young 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 Lithuania.”

Angele woke up the same morning while babysitting her aunt’s children to see the family hurriedly hitching their horse to a cart, tossing in rucksacks, clothes, and a small trunk of valuables, and tying the family cow to the back of it.

“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 large 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 the concentration 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 more than 7 million other Eastern Europeans who had decamped to Germany in 1944 and 1945.

Vytautas Staskevicius severely injured his right hand in a hay mower accident in 1942, when he was 18-years-old and compelled 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 fell down right on the blades.”

The horses stopped. It started raining.

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

One of Angele Jurgelaityte’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 unconscious 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 bought from troops in the American Zone, and found work as a bookkeeper for the International Refugee Organization. They stayed in touch by writing letters to each other once a week. In the middle of the year he returned to Nuremberg for more surgery, staying two months as he recovered, as well as romancing her again 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 finally chose to go to Canada, sponsored by a French-Canadian family in Sudbury, Ontario, to be an au pair for their 14 children. She sailed in December 1948, and after landing wrote Vytas about where she had gone.

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 break their necks for dinner, since that had been one of her chores on the family farm

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’s man 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 3 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 Jurgelaityte’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 said when she opened 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 returning to Germany. She gave him a long 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 for their honeymoon. Monday morning both of them went back to work. Within a year they bought a house at 147 Stanley Street and started a family, but set aside their plans for a chicken farm, since Sudbury’s landscape was more suited to mining than farming.

Vytas went to work in Sudbury’s vast 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 work 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-three years.

“Most of the Lithuanians we knew in Sudbury started looking for better work. Many left for Montreal and Toronto. We all started to go our separate ways. As soon as our turn came up to go to America, Angele and I started getting ready.”

He earned a degree in accounting from Case Western Reserve University and went to work for Weatherhead. They bought their first home. He got a better job with TRW and helped found Cleveland’s Taupa Credit Union in the early 1980s.

In 1979, after almost forty years, he saw his mother again.

“It was the first time I returned to Lithuania. She was living in Silute, and we tried to travel secretly there, 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 traveled to Lithuania many times 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.”

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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The End of Taupa

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When former CEO Alex Spirikaitis was arrested on the afternoon of Monday, October 21, 2013, he had been on the run for three months, accused of embezzling more than $10 million from the $23.6 million Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union in Cleveland, Ohio.

He had changed his appearance by growing hair on his formerly shaved head and shaving his goatee. Despite speculation he had fled to Europe or South America, he was apprehended in the Collinwood neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side.

“He was actually walking down the street when they spotted him,” said FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson. Although he had left behind multiple semi-automatic weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition stored at the credit union, he was arrested without incident. “He did not put up a fight.”

The FBI would not say how he been tracked to Collinwood, only that they had “developed information based upon advanced investigative techniques that led to his apprehension,” a brief statement said.

He was less than three miles from the shuttered Taupa Credit Union.

Modern credit unions date to mid-nineteenth century Germany, where they were conceived as ‘people’s banks’ leveraging social capital to serve farmers and the working class. The first credit union in North America began operations in 1901 with a ten-cent deposit. Today more than 8000 credit unions in the United States serve over 90 million members with total assets of nearly $800 billion.

Managed by their members, most credit unions are non-profit cooperatives taking in deposits, promoting thrift, and making loans.  Unlike banks, individuals combine in them to manage and control their own money. Credit unions range from corporate to community institutions serving local schools and churches.

When Augis Dicevicius emigrated from Lithuania to Cleveland in the early 2000s, he opened an account at Taupa. “It was like loyalty,” he said, describing why he kept an account there. The employees at Taupa were from the immigrant community, spoke Lithuanian, and over time became more like friends than bankers.

“There is a level of trust from both sides of the counter at Taupa because you know who you are dealing with,” explained Algis Gudenas, former chairman of the credit union’s board of directors, three years before the National Credit Union Association liquidated it. “I think the slogan of Taupa more or less says it: save with one of your own.”

From the 1930s when the federal government began to charter them, credit unions grew steadily, especially among immigrant groups. They were instrumental in helping establish Poles, Germans, Italians, and the more recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants in their new homeland. When creating the Office of Ethnic Affairs in 1976 President Ford cited “the ethnic church, school, and credit union” as fostering “a sense of neighborhood.”

Wherever Lithuanians have settled they have formed their own credit unions, from coast to coast. Founded in 1969, the California Lithuanian Credit Union has assets of $72 million. The Boston Lithuanian Federal Credit Union celebrated its 33rd anniversary in 2013. From its roots in the basement of a hall in the early 1950s, Toronto’s Parama has grown to be the word’s largest Lithuanian credit union.

Already by 1906 in Cleveland the Lithuanian Building and Loan Association, sometimes known as the Lithuanians’ bank, had been established, even though the community numbered less than 1000 at the time. After World War II it evolved into Superior Savings and Loan. In the 1980s, when Cleveland was by then home to more than sixteen thousand Lithuanian Americans and their descendants, Taupa was founded and served the community for almost thirty years.

With approximately 1100 members and $24 million in assets, located a short walk from both their church and the Lithuanian Village cultural center, Taupa was stable, healthy, and growing, year after year, even in an economy often troubled by bank failures and recessions.

Until the evening of July 16th, when police and federal agents surrounded Alex Spirikaitis’s $1.7 million home in Solon, a bedroom suburb 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. It was four days after the decision had been made by the state to liquidate the credit union, determining it was insolvent and had no prospect for restoring viable operations.

Armed with a warrant for his arrest for fraud, when authorities approached the home they were met by his family, who told them he was inside, but refused to come out.

“Family members left the house with us and we thought, from the information we gathered, that he was not going to willingly come out,” said Special Agent Vicki Anderson.

The police decided to regroup, the size and layout of the large house playing a big part in their decision to wait for daylight.

After a nightlong standoff, the neighborhood cordoned off for safety’s sake, and TV news crews at the ready, tactical teams entered the house in the morning.

But, the police came up empty. He was not there.

Before the first members made their first deposits in 1984, the credit union was just a hope and a dream. “We were in our kitchen having coffee one morning, talking about it like we had for months,” recalled Angele Staskus, ”when my husband suddenly said that yes, we were going to go ahead.” Believing Cleveland’s Lithuanians would be better off banding together for their savings and loan needs, Vic Staskus took his brainchild to an ad hoc committee made up of Vytautas Maurutis, Vacys Steponis, Gintaras Tauras, and Vincas Urbaitis. Taupa was coined as its name and chartered by the state.

At a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church attended by fewer than twenty people, they collected $4000 in deposits, convinced local Lithuanian attorney Algis Sirvaitis to donate space for an office, and hired Rimute Nasvitiene, who became Taupa’s first employee.

“At first we did everything by hand,” said Vic Staskus. Later that year the Toronto credit union offered them their old computing machine. “It took four of us to bring it into our office, since it was as big as a table, and on top of that we lost most of our small space to it.” Fortunately, through a friend at IBM, they were soon able to secure a more modern system.

After they purchased their own building from a retiring Lithuanian doctor in 1985, deposits began to pour in.  “That was a problem,” Vic Staskus recalled shortly before his death in January 2011. “We had no loans, so we were earning very little. We asked one of our board members to take out a loan. He said he didn’t need anything. Every time we asked him, he said no. But, we were finally able to convince him and he took a loan out for $500, and gradually people began to realize we were lending.”

By 1990, when Vic Staskus left Taupa, the credit union had nearly $8 million in assets and delivered most of the same services banks did. “I knew we could offer better rates and interest, and I always believed we could offer as many advantages as banks to our members,” he said.

Alex Spirikaitis joined Taupa in the early 1990s, at first working at the front counter as a clerk, later promoted to assistant manager, and eventually taking on the role of CEO, as the credit union quadrupled its assets in those years.

“He lived on the same street as we did, in the neighborhood, just down the street from the credit union, when we were children,” said Rita Zvirblis, who served as secretary for Taupa’s board of directors in its early years. “He was a really nice kid, really quiet.”

Former board director Ricardas Sirvinskas described Spirikaitis as well liked, especially by older members, because he spoke Lithuanian fluently. “The older generation of Lithuanians, they really liked Alex very much.”

After he was arrested, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth McHargh unsealed an affidavit revealing the extent of the embezzlement, more than $10 million, making it one of the largest cases of fraud against a credit union in the country. The largest, recently involving St. Paul Croatian Credit Union, was coincidentally also in Cleveland, Ohio.

The criminal complaint against Alex Spirikaitis is for allegedly making false statements to a credit union from 2011 through 2013.

“He printed out numbers he wanted to report to auditors and the National Credit Union Association and taped them over the real numbers from the true Corporate One Federal Credit Union bank account statements,” the affidavit states. “Spirikaitis then photocopied the altered documents resulting in a document that mimicked the appearance of a statement coming directly from Corporate One.”

“Everybody accepted the financial statements Alex provided us, and everybody appeared to be happy with them,” said Vincas Urbaitis, a founding member of the credit union who sat on its board for more than 25 years until resigning in 2011. “I guess everybody just got duped.”

During the summer as Spirikaitis remained at large federal prosecutors seized his wife’s luxury SUVs and moved to take legal possession of his home. Court documents reveal that the down payment for the house, the construction of which took a year, was paid with two checks totaling $100,000 from Alex Spirikaitis’s personal account at the credit union.

“All remaining checks, totaling approximately $1,555,132, came from Spirikaitis in the form of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union official checks,” court documents say. “While working at the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union, Spirikaitis never made in excess of $50,000.”

The Adirondack-style house on a five-acre lot features two full kitchens, indoor swimming pool, entertainment room with big screen and movie projectors, five-and-a-half bathrooms, and an elevator. “No Trespassing” signs surround it.

“I don’t think anybody from the board of directors knew or anyone within the Lithuanian community knew he was building a house,” said Vincas Urbaitis. “He was not very social. But he was not antisocial. He would talk to you about the business aspects of the credit union, but I don’t even know who his close friends were.”

Ricardas Sirvinskas described Spirikaitis as a quiet person, keeping to himself, and only rarely attending social events in the Lithuanian community.

Although court documents are not completely clear regarding the final tally of money missing, Vincas Urbaitis asked why examiners had not verified the statements prepared by Spirikaitis.

“They never went to the bank, Corporate One, and asked independently as to how much money was in the accounts,” he said.

Vytautas Kliorys, board president of Taupa at the time it was closed and liquidated, also questioned the credit union’s third-party audit firm and examiners. “The board believed that it had all the procedures in place to prevent this sort of event,” he said. “We had received excellent and very good reports from the annual state exams, and we had even gone one step further than required and used an outside CPA firm to perform annual independent audits.”

Paul Hixon, VP of marketing at Corporate One, had no comment other than to say the National Credit Union Association was investigating. Officials said it would take up to six months to complete a full forensic account process.

The Lithuanian community reacted to Taupa’s closing with dismay. “For those in Cleveland that have been watching the news for the last few days know that the Lithuanian community in Cleveland has been in the spotlight,” said Regina Motiejunas-McCarthy, co-host of Siaurinis Krantas: Lithuanian Radio. “Not because of something good but because of a tragedy.”

The unexpected closure of the credit union affected all its members, freezing their accounts for a month-and-more, even though they were insured, as well as severely impacting several businesses, including the Lithuanian Community Center.

“Like many other businesses that have their accounts there, we are all scrambling to open new checking accounts with basically no liquid cash other than from sales over the weekend,” Ruta Degutis, president of the center, said when the credit union was closed.

“Alex assumed a public trust when he became CEO of Taupa, to help better the lives of others,” said one of the members. “It was not given to him as an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” After 30 years Cleveland’s Lithuanian community had lost one of the pillars of its community.

After his arrest U.S. Magistrate Keneth McHargh found Alex Spirikaitis indigent and qualified for a court-appointed public defender. Since a “Go Bag” filled with blank identification cards, mobile phone cards, and stored value cards that could be used as cash had been found in Spirikaitis’s office, the magistrate also ruled he be held behind bars without bond. Assistant federal public defender Darin Thompson did not challenge the no-bond ruling. Spirikaitis agreed to waive his right to a detention hearing. The case was bound over to a federal grand jury.

Alex Spirikaitis left the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland as he had entered it, hands handcuffed behind his back, looking at no one in the crowded court.

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Here Comes the Sun

sign for Acropolis nestling beneath the fig tree

The temperature was in the 90’s, just like it had been for weeks, and the humidity was mosquito-like, which it had been for weeks, also, when my wife and I went for a walk on the multi-purpose path in the Rocky River Metropark.

The Metroparks, more than a hundred years in the making, are a series of nature preserves, more than 21,000 acres, which encircle Cleveland and its suburbs. There are hundreds of miles of paths and horse trails, picnic areas and fishing spots, and eight golf courses.

Our home is perched alongside the eastern edge of the Rocky River valley and we are able to get to the park in minutes, where it is considerably cooler in the shade of the forest and along the river.

We walked down the Detroit Road entrance to the park, past the marina, the Dog Park and the soccer fields, as far as Tyler Field, before turning around. As we neared Hogsback Hill, an isolated high point on the near bank of the Rocky River, I suggested we go up to see my friend Barron Cannon, whom we hadn’t seen since the spring.

“You know I don’t want to,” my wife said.

“I know,” I said.

Barron Cannon is a trim young man in his 30s who lives in a yurt he built in the backyard of his parent’s house at the top of Hogsback Lane. He has a Master’s Degree in Comparative Philosophy and is a committed yogi as well as a radical vegan.

“He needs to be committed,” my wife has said to me on several occasions, usually right after we have visited him and are out of earshot.

“Why can’t he occupy Wall Street instead of his mom’s backyard?” she likes to add.

Barron Cannon does not have a job or a car or a television. He has never voted.

“I’ll vote when anarchists are on the ballot,” he once told me.

I wanted to remind him that anarchists who vote are like atheists who pray, but I thought, what was the point?

We found Barron Cannon in the backyard, lying face-up in the sun on an Elmo Sesame Street beach blanket on the south side of his yurt. He was naked except for a fig leaf covering his private parts.

It was a literal fig leaf.

My wife looked away when he propped himself up on his elbows and the fig leaf rolled away

“Sorry,” he said, pulling on a pair of cargo shorts. “I was getting my daily dose of sunshine here on the acropolis.”

He was tan, from tip to toe. I could see he hadn’t been using an SPF lotion of any kind.

“You should be careful,” I suggested. “Too much sun isn’t good for you.”

“That’s where you’re right, but even more wrong,” he replied.

“Too much sun may be bad, depending on your skin and heredity, but avoiding the sun is not good for anyone. Remember, we evolved in the sun, living outdoors for almost all of our two million years on this planet.”

He put on a pair of old-fashioned Ray-Ban black frame sunglasses and leaned towards me.

“Then, not very long ago, we started messing with Mother Nature and started avoiding the sun. When you avoid the sun you may not get rickets, because you can always take a pill, but all the pills in the world can’t replace the real thing.”

He pointed up to the sky.

”When you strictly avoid the sun you increase the risk of dying from internal cancers,” he added.

I must have looked skeptical, because he tilted his dark glasses down his nose Lolita-style and exhaled.

“Look it up,” he said.

It turns out the International Journal of Epidemiology more than 30 years ago reported that colon cancer rates are nearly three times higher in New York than in New Mexico. Since then many other studies have found solar UVB induced vitamin D is also associated with reduced risks of breast and rectal cancers.

“When the government and our medical organizations started telling us to avoid the sun, they literally forgot to tell us we would need to get our vitamin D somewhere else,” he said`.

By this time my wife had wandered off and was commiserating with Barron Cannon’s mother about the flower garden her son had torn out and replaced with a root vegetable plot that spring.

“Vitamin D is a hormone,” he said, “and it’s produced naturally when skin is exposed to UVB in sunlight.”

He told me vitamin D sufficiency is linked to a reduction in 105 diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and many forms of cancer. Some researchers believe vitamin D deficiency contributes to nearly 400,000 premature deaths and adds a $100 billion dollar burden to the health care system.

By some estimates vitamin D deficiency is a worldwide epidemic, with some studies indicating greater than 50 percent of the global population at risk.

77 percent of Americans are considered vitamin D deficient, according to government data.

“Do you know why?” Barron Cannon asked me.

“No,” I said.

“I think overzealous sun avoidance is the only plausible explanation for the 50 percent increase in that figure in the past 15 years,” he said, slapping a fist into his palm for emphasis.

“I take vitamin D every morning,” I said. “I don’t have to go out in the sun. Besides, it’s been unbearably hot this summer and there are lots of bugs since we had such a mild winter.”

“You think science is complete and knows everything,” he said. “You assume modern science understands all the benefits of sunlight and that the only good it does is make vitamin D.”

“Yes,” I said.

“That is not true,” Barron Cannon said. “Let me give you an example.”

He told me about a recent study authored by Dr. Bryan Becklund and Professor Hector DeLuca of the University of Wisconsin and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. They discovered that vitamin D, or something in UV light, retarded progression of an animal model of multiple sclerosis, which is a painful neurological disease for which there is no cure. While vitamin D suppressed progression of the animal model, UV light worked even better. The report concluded that UV light was having an effect independent of vitamin D production.

“If it’s true in humans, it means that sunlight, or UV light, contains something good in addition to vitamin D,” he said. “We just don’t know what it is.”

Our ancestors evolved naked on the plains of equatorial Africa.

“The sun was directly overhead. We have a long, long evolutionary bond with the sun. Humans make thousands of units of vitamin D, and who knows what else, within minutes of whole body exposure to sunlight. It is unlikely such a system evolved by chance. When we sever the relationship between ourselves and sunlight, we proceed at our own peril.”

Barron Cannon gave me a sharp look and leaned back on his elbows

At a loss for words, I was grateful when my wife reappeared.

“I’m getting a little toasty in all this sunlight,” she said.

I agreed that we should be going. We both bid Barron Cannon goodbye and made our way home.

After dinner that night, as my wife watched ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ on Turner Classic Movies, sitting on the front porch in the orange-red light of a quiet sunset I skimmed a review of a paper in the British Medical Journal by Professor Simon Pearce.

“Some people are taking the safe sun message too far. Vitamin D levels are precarious in parts of the population. They stay at home on computer games. It’s good to have 20 to 30 minutes of exposure to the sun two to three times a week.”

As I put my iPad away I thought I might give it a try in our backyard, without slathering on any sunscreen as I normally did, but definitely wearing a pair of shorts.

Where did Barron Cannon get fig leaves, anyway, I wondered?

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Raise High the Roof Beam Mel and Berdie

golrghakola-e1449877325970.jpg

Every Sunday morning Mel Hakola, at the front of the auditorium, leads the congregation at the Christian Science Church in Rocky River, Ohio, across from the town’s high school, in three hymns during the service, as well as singing a solo, accompanied by his organist Berdie d’Aliberti.

“The church has a wonderful atmosphere,” said Mel. “It’s a fabulous place to sing.”

Berdie d’Aliberti plays a Schantz organ, manufactured in Orrville, Ohio, from a recessed nook to the side of the reader’s platform.

“It’s a small instrument, but it’s an excellent pipe organ,” she said. “And the pipes are real.”

“We’re the music,” said Mel. “We help the people have a good religious experience. My role as a singer is to create a spiritual atmosphere for the worship of the congregation.”

Mel Hakola began singing at the church in 1974, when its members were looking for a new soloist, and Berdie d’Aliberti joined him twenty years later.

“We were at college together, and when the organist left I talked her into coming here,” he said.

Mel Hakola began singing in churches in Painesville when he was nine-years-old. “I sang in a boy’s choir in an Episcopal church, although I’m not Episcopalian. I am Finnish, so I was raised in a Lutheran family.”

As a boy he spent his summers at Camp Waliro, a choir camp on South Bass Island, named after Warren Lincoln Rogers, an Episcopalian bishop. “I worked there in the summers, as a dishwasher, because my family didn’t have the money for lessons, from when I was nine until I was seventeen-years-old. The camp ran for eight weeks, and every week boy choirs from different churches would come to the camp, but since I worked there I stayed all summer. I learned so much about music, in general, and sacred music especially. It helped me become the musician I became.”

A professor emeritus at Baldwin Wallace University, Mel taught voice for 38 years before retiring. The Conservatory of Music at BW created the Mel Hakola Prize for Academic and Vocal Excellence to reward voice students who demonstrate vocal and musical abilities and ‘who have the potential to make a significant contribution to music performance.’

Berdie d’Aliberti was born in Brilliant, Ohio. “My father was a Methodist minister and I am his brilliant daughter. I played prayer meetings from when I was seven-years-old.” She is a distinguished alumna of the Baldwin Wallace Conservatory of Music. She has served on faculties at BW and the University of Akron, and is a piano accompanist at concerts throughout the Midwest, and most recently, at Carnegie Hall.

Neither Mel nor Berdie are Christian Scientists, which matters neither to them or the church. Music praises God, and in some respects music is a church’s greatest adornment. “In church, sacred music would make believers of us all,“ wrote the American journalist Mignon McLaughlin.

“I do a prelude before the service, ten minutes of organ music,” said Berdie. ”I play an offertory, a postlude at the end of the service, Mel leads the congregation in three hymns, and he sings a solo. The readers of the church pick the hymns, he picks his own solo, and I pick my own organ music.”

“We both have libraries of sacred songs, so many of them you wouldn’t believe it,” said Mel. “All the classical composers from Bach onward have written sacred songs, Handel, Mendelssohn, John Rudder. We have sung many songs by Ralph Vaughn Williams in this church.”

“You get good stuff here on Sundays,” said Berdie.

Mel Hakola sang in a G. I. chorus during his service in the army. “That’s when I decided I would go into what I always wanted to do, which was music.” After he was discharged he earned a degree at Baldwin Wallace and a Master’s from Case Western Reserve University. He began singing at the Old Stone Church in downtown Cleveland, and from there he migrated to the Jewish Temple on E. 107th Street. ”That was a huge place, and the organ in the temple was tremendous. I sang there from 1951 until I came here. I loved singing there. Even after I left I kept singing the high holy days.”

In the early 1950s he won a scholarship with the Singer’s Club, whose conductor was Robert Stulfert.

“He had a program at the Church of the Covenant, and one time he was talking about a piece of music, and said his job was to choose music that would create a spiritual atmosphere. That’s when I realized why I should be playing sacred music, so I could be an important part of the service.”

His career includes being a concert artist in more than 250 performances, a frequent guest artist with the Cleveland, Akron, and Columbus symphony orchestras, as well as a long-time church and synagogue soloist.

Berdie d’Aliberti has directed choirs and served as an organist in several area churches. She was the choir director at the Westlake Methodist Church for twelve years, and later played the Holtkamp organ, with its eleven racks of pipe, at the West Shore Unitarian Church. The Rocky River Christian Science Church might be her favorite. “I don’t know if it’s acoustically regulated, but it sounds just fine. It is a very comfortable place to play, and the people are just great.”

Music has always been an important element in Christian Science church services. In 1897 Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the religious movement that emerged in New England in the late 19th century, wrote, “congregational singing is the best song service for the Church of Christ, Scientist. Why? Because singing is, if harmony, an emotion more spiritual than material and must, to touch my heart, or ear, come from devout natures.”

Mary Baker Eddy wrote the lyrics to hymns that are still sung today, including ‘Christ My Refuge’ and ‘Communion Hymn’.

“Berdie and I choose the music for the services, planning it three months in advance,” said Mel Hakola, “so it meets the qualifications of the weekly lessons.”

“People come up and thank us for the music,” said Berdie, “for what we’ve chosen. That’s another nice thing about this church. You just don’t walk in and nobody gives you the time of day. I think it is because it is a Christian Science church, and nothing negative goes on in the church. Sometimes people have a hard time with chords in more contemporary sacred music, it doesn’t suit their harmonic specifications. But that’s all right, that’s how you grow.”

“It makes it interesting to do the singing, too, so you don’t fall into a rut, “said Mel. “We don’t have time to fall into ruts.”

Since retiring both Mel Hakola and Berdie d’Aliberti have remained active. “I have sung the Messiah more than 75 times, all over creation,” said Mel, “and Bach with the Columbus Symphony and at the BW Bach Festival.” Berdie d’Aliberti is a frequent collaborative pianist in vocal performances. Longtime friends, they are planning several recitals together.

“I sing when I am happy and I sing when I am unhappy to make myself happy, “ said Mel Hakola.

“I’m just glad to be singing at age 86.”

147 Stanley Street (short stories and non-fiction). If you enjoyed this story, consider supporting the site by clicking here to donate. 

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Non-Fiction and Short Stories