Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

On German Land

MOM ALPS 1947

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Searching for the Surfside

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By Ed Staskus

Whenever we leave home, to Ontario or New Brunswick, I always say we are crossing into another world, into a strange world, into Canada,” said Marie Bachand. “I always ask Louie did you bring our passports?” She always asks in French because her partner Louie Painchaund doesn’t speak English.

It was a cumulus cloud high sky day when they went to Prince Edward Island. They didn’t have their passports. Who wants to look like their passport picture on a sunny summer day, anyway?

They live in Saint-Gregorie in Quebec, a community of the city of Becancour, on the south side of the St. Lawrence River. Their house dates to the 1780s, built by refugee Acadians after the French and Indian War. “They came down the St Lawrence River, four hundred families. It was a rough time. They stopped, said OK, looks good, and settled here.”

It is about six hundred miles to Prince Edward Island, up the St. Lawrence, down New Brunswick, and across the Confederation Bridge to PEI. The first time they went they were touring the Maritimes. The island was a spur of the moment runaround. They drove across the Northumberland Straights on the nine-mile-long bridge to the other side.

“We thought we could run over and visit PEI in one or two days,” Marie said. “It’s so small.”

Even though it is pint-sized, the smallest of the ten Canadian provinces at just a little more than two thousand square miles, compared to Quebec’s almost six hundred thousand square miles, it goes over big.

Ten years later, even after Andy’s Surfside Inn is no more, they still go to Prince Edward Island two weeks in the summer, staying at the Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street, riding their bikes all over the place, still finding substantial fresh things to rack up on the to-do list.

The inn was on the ocean side of North Rustico, near the entrance to the harbor, a white clapboard two-story house with a dozen windows, two dormers and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs. It wasn’t always the Surfside Inn and isn’t the Surfside Inn anymore, having since taken up where it left off, back to being a home.

“The first house was bigger,” said Kelly Doyle.

Kelly’s grandparents, Mike and Loretta Doyle, were visiting and playing cards at a neighbor’s house one winter night in 1929. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they crested a frozen hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared across the flat cove below them.

The house was being swallowed up by fire. The pitch-dark night was blazing. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest.

“It was a flue fire,” said Kelly. “It burnt down because of the stove.”

By the time the Doyle’s raced their sled down to the house, and finding all the children safe and sound outside, there wasn’t much they could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Mike Doyle was able to drag some furniture from the first floor out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.

The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year.

“The foxes my grandfather saved built the new house.” Kelly’s grandfather was a fox farmer. What he sold the pelts for paid for the work of the itinerant immigrant tradesmen who built the house.

Furry garments are made of furry animal hides. Even though it has lately fallen on hard times, fur is one of the oldest forms of clothing. Once we started globe-trotting out of Africa, to where everywhere else was colder, we started wearing furs. Ever since, people have worn beaver racoon sable rabbit coyote wolf chinchilla opossum mink and foxes.

Mountain men wore the bears they shot and killed.

In the 1880s foxes were bred for the first time, accomplished on Prince Edward Island by locals Charlie Dalton and Robert Oulton. Theirs was the original fur farm in 1884. Within several years the rush was on. But the rush didn’t really and truly mushroom until after a pelt sale a few years later when their harvest of 25 skins brought them nearly $35 thousand dollars. It was a boat load of a barn door of money, bearing in mind that the average island farm worker those days made less than $30 dollars a month.

In 1926 nearly nine hundred live silver foxes were shipped from Summerside to the United States. It was the most valuable shipment in the history of Prince Edward Island up to that time and is still called the ‘Million Dollar Train’. Andy Doyle was born the same year, spunky and healthy, although nobody ever called him the ‘Million Dollar Baby’.

By the 1930s the fox farm industry was strong as a bull, raking in multi-millions of dollars. There were hundreds of thousands of foxes being farmed and skinned coast to coast throughout Canada and the United States.

“The furs my grandfather was able to rescue from the fire were worth five thousand. In the end the new house cost five thousand,” said Kelly.

“We stayed at a country inn, at the information center at the bridge they said it was nice, but it was a little room, yuk,” said Marie. She picked up the official PEI tourist book. Where to stay next? She thumbed through the book. She put her finger on Andy’s Surfside Inn. “I say to Louie, what’s that, the north shore? We had already decided to stay three or four more days. We went looking for it.”

Gavan Andrew “Andy” Doyle was 81 years old in 2007 when Marie and Louie went driving up and down the north shore looking for his eponymous inn. Andy had been born in the white house that was the inn. Years later, grown-up a young man, pushing off after World War Two, he landed in Montreal, married, brought up three stepchildren, and years later, when his wife Vivienne died, went back to Prince Edward Island.

His mother died shortly after and he inherited the house on Doyle’s Cove. “My aunt, his sister in Montreal, always had a soft spot for Gavan. She helped him get the place up and running. She bought a bunch of nice furniture for him,” said Kelly Doyle. It was the late 80s. Andy Doyle resurrected the Surfside Inn that had been his mother’s brainchild in the late 40’s.

“When my grandfather died in 1948, my grandmother wanted to make some money with the house and started taking in tourists,” said Kelly. “There was a white picket fence, she had ducks and geese and sheep in a big barnyard, and she kept a garden.” It was a large working garden. “She fed the bed and breakfasts herself.”

As her six girls and two boys grew up and left home, she converted their rooms to guest rooms.

“She filled those rooms all through the 50s and 60s,” said Kelly. “PEI wasn’t like the rest of the world back then. Tourists found the way of life interesting, honest and down-to-earth. There wasn’t much entertainment, but there was always lots to do. They just liked the place.”

When Marie telephoned the Surfside Inn, a Japanese woman answered the call.

“Andy always had Japanese girls, three girls, housekeepers for the season who were exchange students who wanted to learn English. They shared a small bedroom over the kitchen. She told us, yes, we have a room.”

Louie and Marie drove up and down Route 6 between Cavendish and North Rustico searching for the Surfside Inn. When they couldn’t find it, they finally stopped at a National Parks kiosk and got directions. It was in the park, although on private land, Doyle’s Land on Doyle’s Cove. They drove down the Gulf Shore Parkway, past Cape Turner and Orby Head, and down to the coastal inlet.

When they got there, there wasn’t a room. There were four rooms that shared a bath. They were all taken. What Marie and Louie didn’t know was that there was a fifth room on the ground floor, which was Andy’s bedroom with a private bath.

“When we are full, he gives you that room,” explained the young woman.

“We’ll take that,” said Marie. “Where does Andy go to sleep?”

“He sleeps in the boat.”

The Japanese girls did the heavy lifting in return for being able to learn English. “I don’t know where they learned it, but it wasn’t from Andy,” said Marie. “He never talked to them.”

Outside the house was a castaway wooden lobster boat. The hull and forward cabin were worthy enough, although it needed some planks and rib work. it looked like it still had some spirit to it, like it could still make a living at sea.

“It smelled bad, all old stuff papers tools junk a small bed,” said Marie. “It should have been burned long ago.”

The Surfside Inn had a kitchen with several refrigerators. “We thought it was just for breakfast, but we saw other people storing food and making supper.” They started shopping at Doiron’s Fish Market on the harbor road. One suppertime Andy saw them coming into the kitchen with lobsters.

“Let me fix those for you,” he said.

“Oh, my God,” said Marie, “he was good. Tack, tack, tack, all done.”

They started bringing their own wine from home, though.

“I don’t like PEI Liquor wines. We brought Italian and French whites and rose for the fish.”

Coming back from Doiron’s one day, putting away fresh cod wrapped in Kraft paper, Marie noticed small buckets of frozen milk in the freezer.

“There was a Muslim couple staying at Andy’s, the guy was always in the living room, but she was wrapped up, always going to the bedroom. She didn’t talk. At breakfast, no words. She looked at her iPad, that’s all.”

The mother was expressing her breast milk and storing it. She kept it in the back of the freezer, the coldest part of fridges. One day all the milk was gone.

“We never saw the baby, though, maybe it was somewhere else, with a grandma.”

“Tourists in the 50s and 60s weren’t from Monkton or Toronto,” said Kelly. “Some were from the States, but a lot of them were from Europe. We lived next door and ran around the yard, having fun, meeting people. In 1970 my grandmother got a little bit ill and couldn’t keep it going. She lived alone for seven years until my dad moved her into the senior citizen’s home in North Rustico.”

The white house was empty for about ten years, for most of the 80s. It came back to life as the rooms filled up. In summertime it was never vacant.

“You could see the sea right in front of you,” said Marie. “We sat on the porch every day. It was a special place. After a week we would say, let’s stay another day, then another day. Other people, too, were crazy about this place.”

One day Andy asked Louie to help him take an old heavy bicycle out of the lobster boat. “You’re a big guy, you can do it,” said Andy.

When the bike was on the ground Andy straddled it and pedaled to the downhill on the all-purpose path. “He was going down the hill, but Louie told me there were no brakes. Stop! Stop! I yelled but he yelled back, I’ve been riding this bike for thirty years!”

Whenever Andy pulled his four-door sedan out to run errands or go to the grocery, Marie and Louie kept their distance. “I don’t think there were any brakes on his car, either,” she said.

He seemed to own only three short-sleeve shirts. “I have three nice ones,” he said. “I got them for a dollar each at the Salvation Army.” One was yellow, one green and one blue. The blue shirt was his favorite. He dried all his laundry on an outside clothesline, in the sun and ocean breeze.

“All the guests, they were from Canada, the United States, Italy, England, all over. A Chinese couple had a four-year-old who had been born in Quebec, so they named him Denis. Whenever we saw a Chinese child after that we always called the child Denis Wong. There was a couple from Boston, they lived in the harbor on a boat there. He was 80 and she was in her 70s.”

“I didn’t come with my boat. I came with my girlfriend,” he said.

“There is no age,” said Marie. Until you find out your grade school class is running the town city province country.

Aging and its consequences usually happen step-by-step, sometimes without warning. One minute you’re only as old as you feel and the next minute you don’t feel good. It’s like going on a cruise. It can be smooth sailing or a shipwreck. Once you’re on board, though, there’s not much you can do about it.

“There were always many guests, but suddenly a few years ago Andy started getting mixed up. He forgot reservations, there were two Japanese girls instead of three, it wasn’t the same.” What it takes to make an inn work wasn’t getting done. By 2016 it was far more vacant than occupied and Marie and Louie were staying at Kelly Doyle’s Coastline Cottages up the hill across the street.

“Andy introduced us to him,” Marie said.

Like Dorothy said at the end of ‘The Marvelous Land of Oz’, “Everything has to come to an end, sometime.”

In 2018 Andy Doyle moved to the Garden Home in Charlottetown and his nephew Erik Brown took the house over, renovating it and transforming it into his home. In November Andy died. He was 92. It was the end of the Surfside Inn.

“On the ocean was wonderful,” said Marie. “Once we found it, Louie and I loved the Surfside.”

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Never Look Back

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We moved back about fifteen miles.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The children played games whenever they had idle time.

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

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

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

It rained that day and the rest of the night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hinterland was torn up, wrecked forlorn abandoned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

Big Ass Bowl

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By Ed Staskus

There is plenty of good better best seafood chowder on Prince Edward Island, since there is plenty of seafood on all sides of the crescent-shaped province. There are cultured mussels and lean white halibut and wild-caught lobster. The chowder comes in cups and bowls. Some of the bowls are bigger than others and can be meals in themselves.

There is only one Big Ass Bowl, however.

“We had a large bowl of chowder last year, but I don’t see it on the menu anymore,” said Frank Glass to the young man who was putting glasses of water down on their table.

“We have a really good seafood chowder,” he said, pointing to the menu.

“Is it a big bowl?” asked Frank.

The young man sized up an imaginary bowl with his hands.

“No, the chowder we had was in a bowl about twice that size,” said Frank.

“Oh, you mean the big ass bowl.”

“The what bowl?” asked Vera Glass, sitting across from her husband. They were at a table at one of the windows overlooking the Clyde River. On the far bank the red roof of the PEI Preserve Company, where jams and jellies are made, glowed in the roll-up of dusk.

“That’s what we call it in the kitchen,” the young man said. “We don’t call it that on the menu, obviously. If you want it, I can ask, and I’m sure we can make it for you.”

“You’ll just clear the decks and whip it up, even though it’s not on the menu?” asked Vera.

“Sure,” said the young man.

“Sweet,” she said.

Vera and Frank Glass were at the Mill, a snug as a bug up-to-speed restaurant in New Glasgow on Prince Edward Island.

It is neither a small nor big roadhouse, seating maybe fifty diners, right on the road, on a zigzag of Route 13 as it runs south from coastal Cavendish through New Glasgow to Hunter River. There is a performance space on the second floor and a deli case just inside the front door full of pies and meat pies. The building is blue, two–story, and wide front-porched. It is kitty-corner to the bridge that crosses the snaky river. The Mill describes itself as “carefully sourcing seafood, steaks and entrees served in a rustic yet refined space with scenic views.”

That’s hitting the nail on the head.

It was the night before Hurricane Dorian slammed into PEI, even though it wasn’t a hurricane anymore when it did. It was a post-tropical storm, which is like saying you took it on the chin from a cruiserweight rather than a heavyweight boxer.

“Under the right conditions, post-tropical storms can produce hurricane-strength winds,” said CBC meteorologist Jay Scotland the day after the storm. “Dorian serves as a good example that the difference between a hurricane and a post-tropical storm is more about the storm’s structure and not its intensity.”

On Saturday morning, moving north, it sucked up energy from another weather system moving in from the west. The winds spreading over the island grew to hurricane strength during the day and the storm unrolled over a larger area than Hurricane Juan, the “storm of the century,” had done in 2003.

“Look who’s back,” said Vera, looking over Frank’s shoulder.

“Who?”

“Michelle.”

“Good, maybe she’ll be our waitress.”

“She looks better tonight, not so spaced.”

“Didn’t she have to go home the last time we were here?”

“I think so.”

“Hi, how are you?”

“Good,” said Michelle. “I see you two have made it back again.”

“This is our third time here in three weeks, although we’re leaving for home on Sunday,” said Vera.

“So, you’ll be here for the storm.”

“It looks like it.”

“Where’s home?”

“In Ohio, Lakewood, which is right on the lake, just west of Cleveland,” said Frank. “We get thunderstorms that come across Lake Erie from Canada, but nothing like what we’ve been hearing is going to blow up here in your neck of the woods.”

Hurricane Dorian hit home like a battle-ax.

“The result was much higher rainfall and more widespread destructive winds across PEI with Dorian compared to Juan,” said Jay Scotland, the weatherman.

On Monday Blair Campbell, the chief executive officer of PEI Mutual Insurance, said they logged the most claims ever on Sunday, the day after the storm. More than four hundred policy holders called in property damage.

“These are damage claims in the frequency and magnitude that we have not seen before,’’ he said.

Fishing boats from Stanley Bridge to Covehead were smashed submerged.

“Sobeys in Charlottetown this morning was worse than Christmas,” said Michelle. “You couldn’t get anywhere with your cart. Everybody was buying dry cereal, canned fruit, ready-to-eat, and cases of water.”

Frances MacLure was stocking up.

“So far I have just bought batteries,” she said.

“I have two radios and I’m just going to make sure one of them is going to work. It’s always nice to be able to keep in touch if the power is out for any length of time,” she said.

There were water and sandwich makings on her list, as well.

“Just for a quick bite if the power goes off.”

“Everybody was buying batteries,” said Michelle. “The last time a hurricane came to the island, power was out for more than a week.”

“We are very concerned, we’ve certainly spent the last three days in readiness, in going through all of our checklist and checking our equipment,” said Kim Griffin of Maritime Electric as the weekend approached.

“There is a lot of greenery and foliage on the trees, that is a concern to us. So, we are really asking our customers to make sure they are prepared and ready.”

“When was that?” asked Frank.

“About fifteen years ago,” said Michelle. “Summerside has its own power, but if it goes out in New Brunswick, this whole part of the island won’t have any power.”

“Do you still have that moonshine cocktail?” asked Vera.

“We do,” said Michelle.

Vera had an Island Shine and Frank had a pint of lager.

“Are you going to have the big chowder?” asked Vera.

“Yes,” said Frank.

“I’m going to have a small bowl of soup and the ribs,” said Vera. “What about going halves on the lamb and feta appetizer? It’s good with everything.”

“Sure,” said Frank, agreeably. “You can’t go wrong with the ribs, and the mac and cheese they come with. That cheese from Glasgow Glen, it’s good. I had it the last time we were here.”

“I hope Emily has the sweet potato curry soup tonight,” said Vera. “Curry is my number one favorite thing in the world.”

“What about me?”

“You’re close, maybe third or fourth.”

“That close, huh?”

“You don’t like curry, which is a problem. I think Emily is a curry person, like me. She probably does a great Fall Flavors menu.”

The Mill’s owner and chef Emily Wells was born in England and lived on the continent before coming to Prince Edward Island in 1974 when her parents bought Cold Comfort Farm. She is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, committed to healthy local food and ethical food production. She has worked in restaurants in PEI and Ontario for more than three decades and is a key contributor to the River Clyde Pageant.

The pageant, four years running, is about the tidal river, and features great blue herons, trout puppets, schools of dressed-up jellyfish, bridge trolls and mermaids and fishermen.

“I love it when you put curry in things, but then all of a sudden you don’t taste anything else. I feel like you can taste everything else in her soups.”

“It’s like her chowder, it’s chock-full, but nothing’s drowned out, all the parts stand out,” said Frank. “It’s not too busy.”

“Everything here is always better than I expect, even though I always expect it to be good,” said Vera.

“My boyfriend is a chef at the Blue Mussel in North Rustico, and it’s hard for us to get a day off in the summer on the same day, so we hardly ever eat out,” said Michelle.

“After eating here and at the Mussel, we don’t always want to go, anyway, but we ate out in Charlottetown a few weeks ago, and the chowder we got was mostly a milky liquid, with so little fish in it. We poked around for whatever we could find but ended up asking for another loaf of bread. We got it to dunk into the chowder, because there were hardly any pieces of anything.”

From one end of PEI to the other pieces of preparation were coming together.

“We have been busy as a team,” said Randy MacDonald, chief of the Charlottetown Fire Department, the day before the storm. “Our team has been making preparations for tomorrow’s storm.”

He said chainsaws and generators were on hand. “We may see trees down, branches down, large branches taking down power lines, that sort of thing.” Rapid response cars, trucks, and ambulances were gassed full and staff was on the alert, ready to go.

While the tempest was rolling up the coast, Michelle didn’t just rush to Sobeys. She took matters into her own hands, in her own kitchen, in her own house.  “I live just down the road from here, next to the Gouda place. I send my son there for pizza, since he can walk over.”

The Gouda place makes artisan cheese.

“I’ve passed my name and my expertise on to Jeff McCourt and his new company Glasgow Glen Cheese,” said the former Cheese Lady, Martina ter Beek.

Glasgow Glen Farm slaps out skins from scratch, down the line doing the dough to sprinkling homegrown veggies and meats on the pie, featuring their own made from scratch gouda, working behind the front counter at two long tables just inside the door, wood firing the pizzas in a brick oven.

In the summer there are picnic tables alongside the gravel parking lot, a grassy field sloping away from a pile of cordwood.

“I made chowder,” said Michelle. “It was a fishy stew, like Mel does. I ended up using cod, clams, and scallops. I made everything else, clam juice, potatoes, carrots, onions, and tomatoes out of my garden. Once the potatoes were almost completely cooked, I took the pieces of cod and sat them on top. I put a lid on it and all the flavor, yeah, of the cod went into it.”

She didn’t need any bread to help her chowder out, either.

While Vera pulled gently at her baby back ribs, Frank started scooping out his large bowl of broth and seafood.

“How’s the sinkhole?“ asked Vera.

“So far so good,” said Frank. “It’s sort of like a Manhattan clam chowder, like the Portuguese make, and like a seafood goulash at the same time.”

“Like a cioppino.”

“Like a what?”

“That’s the official name of it,” said Vera.

“Anyway, I can taste bay leaves and thyme, and there might be some oregano in it. It’s loaded with stuff. She must have hit the motherload at the fish market. There are mussels, halibut, lobster, a chuck of salmon, and mini-shrimps.”

“Emily probably uses whatever she has on hand,” said Vera.

“On top there’s a red pepper rouille, almost like a pesto, which gives it a kick,” said Frank.

“Are you going to be able to finish it?”

“I’m going to give it my best shot.”

Halfway through their meal, when Vera spotted a plate of maple mousse walking by, she said to Frank, “That’s what I want to try for dessert tonight. It’s frozen mousse, like ice cream. I thought it might not be good for sharing, but that thing is more than big enough.”

“All right,” said Frank, “since that Anna kid is a wizard. First, we eat well, then we face tomorrow, no matter what happens.”

The Mill was almost vacated evacuated when they paid their bill of fare and left.

“You wouldn’t know a hurricane is blowing in,” Frank said to Vera as they lingered in the front lot after dinner, leaning against the back hatch of their Hyundai, watching the no traffic on the quiet road, the starry northern sky quiet above them.

When Saturday morning rolled around, it started getting dark, and by noon it started raining. It got windy and windier. The Coastline Cottages and the Doyle houses on the other side of the park road lost power in the late afternoon. Churchill Avenue in town was closed down. The Gulf Shore Parkway east from Brackley was closed down. Roads in all directions were closed down, as utility wires and branches blew away. Fences were flattened, roofs torn off, and hundred-year-old trees toppled.

The damage to the Cavendish Campground, seven-some miles away from where Frank and Vera were staying, was so bad it was closed for the rest of the year. An arc from Cavendish to Kensington to Summerside was walloped. Islanders tarped roofs, sawed up tree limbs, and hauled away debris for days afterwards. On Sunday morning all the trails administered by Parks Canada everywhere on PEI were shut down until they could be assessed.

After their cottage lost power, Frank and Vera packed for their drive home the next day and tidied up while there was still some light. “At least we know the mondo bridge is as sturdy as it gets,” said Vera. When it got dark, 19th century-style dark, they popped open the remains of a bottle of red wine and spent the rest of the night riding out the lashing all-out rain and gusting big ass wind.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Flesh and Blood

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by Antanas Sutkus

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

The Hittbone Rules

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By Ed Staskus

You never want to fall asleep in Mr. Hittbone’s second period math class, no matter what, because he will leave you full stop asleep until you eventually wake up, whenever that is. It’s one of the rules written on his personal rules board at the front of the class. NO WAKING SLEEPERS!

Classes will come and go and no one is ever allowed to wake up anybody sleeping.

If you fall asleep he just lets you sleep, no shaking you up, and you miss the next class, and even the class after that. You wake up and it’s, oh, MY GOD! You get major detentions for missing classes at St. Mel’s. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t your fault. Mr. Hittbone doesn’t care that maybe you had homework for six classes and had to do work around the house, too, and walk the dog.

Nobody cares when you’re explaining. They care even less when you’re complaining.

A guy once fell dead asleep for three straight periods. When he woke up Mr. Hittbone was at his podium lecturing, just like always, but after the guy blinked shook his head looked around, he saw there weren’t any familiar faces. There were all different guys in the class. He flash bolted out of the room. He hadn’t technically skipped any classes, but he got a butt load of detentions.

It’s not a school rule. It’s Mr. Hittbone’s rule.

I woke up halfway through his class one day after a long night at home. “Did you sleep good?” he asked. He smirked down at me.

“No, I made a few mistakes,” I said. He didn’t like that. I got a detention.

“You boys grow up without rules, without boundaries,” he told us the first class the first day of school. “You need discipline. You can be yourself, whatever you think that is, once you’ve learned the rules.”

Lots of rules and no mercy, that’s Mr. Hittbone, like he just stepped out of the Old Testament. Mr. Rote and the rest of the religion teachers teach the New Testament, but that news flash has never reached Mr. Hittbone.

It’s not ten thousand years ago, Mr. Hittbone! But, he doesn’t care about that, either.

Everyone says he’s been at the school since it opened, or maybe even before that. He was probably waiting for the big day to happen. He’s only ever taken two days off in all those years. He told us about them on the third day of school. “It wasn’t because I was sick,” he said. The Legend of the Bone says he’s never been sick. Someone else was sick on those two days.

Maybe he ever only feels like crap in private.

Mr. Hittbone’s a short man with a beach ball belly and big lips, like weiners. He pulls his pants up almost to his nipples. He doesn’t wear a sports acket. He only ever wears a dress shirt. He has grayish brown hair and eyes the color of an old telephone pole. He’s a grumpy dude. Everybody hates him, the upper classmen, and us, just everybody, really.

Some of the upper classmen add an S to the front of his name, but never out loud to his face. That would be a disaster if it slipped out. Mr. Hittbone is the MASTER OF DETENTIONS. It’s not even funny.

He’s married, but told us he can’t stand his wife because she never turns off the house lights and watches TV all the time. “She even shops in bed, thanks to television,” he said. We all thought, “So what?”

He has a son and daughter, but he never talks about his son. When he told us about his daughter he said he was mad angry about how in the first year of whatever job she got she was making more money than him.

He always says money is a “masterpiece in the eye of a masterpiece,” whatever that means.

“God wants us to prosper and have plenty of money,” he said. “Money is how you keep score. That’s why you don’t want to stop at simple math, because then you’ll only make simple money.”

Nobody ever knows what he’s talking about.

He smokes between classes, in front of the gold dome chapel, ripping the filters off his cigarettes. I’ve never seen another teacher smoke on campus, only him. He throws the butts on the ground, mashes them, and lights up another one.

Whenever anybody tells him cigarettes are bad for you, he scowls.

“When it looks like I’ll live longer than my next cigarette I’ll scrape it off the bottom of my shoe,” he says.

Whenever anybody tells him cigarettes are practically illegal, he gets mad about that, too.

“The government tells you smoking is bad for your health, but when you Ben Franklin it, the government has killed more people than cigarettes ever did, or ever will.”

One morning he told us he was in a gas station buying cigarettes down on Detroit Road, just down from the school, when somebody tried to rip off the attendant with some kind of money trick.

“I wanted to beat him with a bat,” said Mr. Hittbone, making fists, his hands shaking.

He said beat him WITH A BAT to beat the hell out of him. Every day the forecast for Mr. Hittbone is clouds, rain, and grump. We all laughed, though. He couldn’t beat himself out of a paper bag.

He teaches from a podium at the front of the class. He’s the only teacher in the school who has one. How does he rate? It’s because he’s an OLD DINOSAUR and gets his way. He puts his papers and things on the podium and hardly moves all period, unless he wants to tear up something that’s on your desk. That’s another one of his rules. MATH ONLY!

Even if you’re not doing anything with whatever is on your desk, like a science assignment from Mr. Strappas, if he sees it he’ll just stoop down on you and take it.

“I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” he says, and rips it up.

He’s constantly looking for things to rip up, even if it’s something for one of your other classes, not even his class, something you were just looking at. He’s always showing up all of a sudden and tearing your work into shreds.

He has a ton of rules on his board, more than fifty of them, a boat load of them. NO CHEWING GUM!

If you chew gum anywhere on campus, not just in his class, watch out for him spying you doing it. He scribbles your name in his little black spiral notebook and reports you. He gives you a full detention, which is forty-five minutes. He never gives out minor detentions. Mr. Hittbone told us chewing gum is rotten and should be banned from the school.

“If you can’t swallow it, don’t chew it.”

No one is allowed to touch anything in his classroom, either. NO TOUCHING!

If you pass by one of his special teacher books and you sort of graze it with your leg, you get a major detention. If you pick up a marker at the board without first asking his permission, you get a major detention. If you punch somebody’s arm, even though it’s none of his business, you get a major detention.

It’s nothing like my third period class, which is our science class. The teacher is Mr. Strappas, who’s one of the varsity football coaches. He’s young, has blond hair he combs back, and is super fit. He played football in college and he’s a nice cool man. He encourages us to touch things, do things, get into the projects, and the only rule he has is no talking when he’s talking.

I don’t know why some guys can’t get it right. It’s always the same guys who get it wrong, who do all the talking in class, breaking the rules. We sit a pair to a table and those two guys are somewhere in the middle of the room. They talk about video games, sports, and all their other dumb stuff. Mr. Strappas will say, no talking, and they will say, sorry, but they don’t stop. They don’t even get good grades on their quizzes and tests. They don’t turn their homework in on time and get bad marks for effort. They’re just stupids.

Mr. Strappas doesn’t stand at his lectern. He roams back-and-forth, to the sinks, the whiteboard, and all around the room. He’s always on the move. It’s my favorite class of the day. I actually like learning in it. It’s fun finding out about atoms and geology and everything he’s interested in.

Mr. Strappas expects us to be in our seats when his class starts, but he doesn’t sweat it if it doesn’t happen. But if you’re not in your seat when the bell rings at the instant Mr. Hittbone’s class starts, you get a full detention. Everybody should be in their seats when class starts, we all know that, but if you’re standing there for a second, just fixing your belt, he gives you a detention, anyway. It’s totally retarded, but that’s another one of his rules.

Because it’s Mr. Hittbone, you absolutely want to make sure you’re all good. You want to be perfect. LOOK PROPER! We wear ties, dress shirts, dress pants, a belt, undershirt, and black shoes. We have to make sure we’re all buttoned up for him. If any button is even half unbuttoned it means a full detention. He really hates it if the second button on your shirt is undone.

Even though Mr. Hittbone is a hundred years older than Mr. Rote, our first period religion teacher, who is young and thinks he’s all there, but is a doofus, it’s one for the button in first period and two for the button in second period.

He hates casual dress days, too. “It’s like a casual walk through the insane asylum,” he says.

If there is any piece of paper on the floor around or near your desk at any time of the class he’ll give you a detention, even if it’s not yours, and even if you didn’t see it in the first place. NO LITTER! If the paper has your name on it, it’s even worse, because he rips it up before giving you the detention.

Mr. Hittbohm is his own Bible of Rules.

DON’T LOOK THROUGH THE WINDOWS! We’re supposed to face front when we’re in class, but there are some guys who sit right by the windows and sometimes they can’t help shifting their faces to the glass.

FULL DETENTION!

If Mr. Hittbone and I looked out the same window, I don’t think we would see the same thing, no matter how you do the math.

Sometimes I think that since I didn’t have a hand in making his rules, the rules have nothing to do with me. If you say Cloud 9 is amazing, he’ll say, what’s wrong with Cloud 8? No matter what, you can’t fight Mr. Hittbone. He’s like a Godzilla. He swats you down with his horny tail.

At the end of class we can’t jump up and leave like in any of our other classes. His rule about the bell for ending class is that it isn’t the school bell, but his bell that matters. When the school bell goes off, we have to stay in our seats until he says we can go.

At the end of class I’ll say, “See you tomorrow Mr. Hittbone.” And he’ll say, “Thanks for the warning, Mr. Who It.”

My middle name is Wyatt, so he calls me Who It, as in Why It, Who It, and then he laughs.

Sometimes it seems like he wants you to lay down at his feet like a guinea pig and say, “Yes, sir, I’ll go dig up those apples, sir, whatever you say.” His rules have nothing to do with anything. He’s just a cranky old-fangled downpresser. He’s got us for fifty minutes, and that’s that.

I’m counting the days until my sophomore year and I’m none of Mr. Hittbone’s business anymore.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

 

 

On the Ropes

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By Ed Staskus

I was always excited by Catholic girls. My mother was a Lutheran, and she raised my brother Billy and me as Lutherans, but Catholic girls were for me. That’s why I married one. But they had to be a nine or a ten on the looks side at the same time they were Catholic. If they weren’t, they didn’t count, not in my eyes.

All of us guys rated girls, one way or another.

I went to Florida every winter after I got back to Cleveland, before I got married. I came back from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, and after I got back on my feet, went to work for Chamber Bearings. They put me in sales the minute they saw me. I was 22-years-old, clean-cut, proportioned, and full of pep.

My sunshine pals, the guys I knew who had the dough to go, would get mad at me about being picky.

“All you do is keep looking for a number ten girl, and half the time you don’t got any girl on your arm,” one of them said. “Me, I get a number three or four, so I’ve always got a gal, and by the end of the week they all add up to more than ten.”

One of the guys, a wise guy, said, “If you ever land a ten, she’ll be out of your league, anyway.”

Eva was Catholic, between a nine and a ten, and 15-years-old when I met her. I was 25-years-old. She lied about her age to me, not that she had to. But after I found out I made sure she was eighteen before we eloped and got married. We missed out on the cash envelopes and presents, but her family was dead set on me staying single and Eva marrying somebody else.

We met at the Karamu Theater. I lived in the neighborhood, but Eva took a bus from Collinwood. I loved acting and trying out for parts. I looked like Paul Newman, which didn’t hurt my chances. I was always trying out for shows at the Chagrin Little Theater and Karamu.

I met a busload of good-looking girls that way.

Eva had been in one or two high school shows and danced ballet, too. She had taken dance classes ever since she was a little girl. She could straighten a leg, keep her foot on the ground, and raise the other one to the ceiling. I don’t know how the hell she did it.

I always liked ballet dancers. I fell in love with one when I was in high school. Her name was Margo. She was a beautiful girl with a beautiful body, the same age as me, but an inch taller. She was one of the gym leaders and danced ballet on stage at our school. Another guy liked her, a Serbian who played a hillbilly guitar, and he was always angling to get into the shows with her.

I started trying out, too, trying to get close to Mary, trying to elbow the Serb out.

Eva and I met auditioning for the same show at Karamu. I liked her right away. She came on to me and would do stuff like, “Can you give me a ride home?” It wasn’t far, I had a new convertible, and on starry summer nights it was a nice ride. Sometimes she would leave something in my car, like a wallet. She would call me and I would drive to her house to return it.

It was those little tricks women do.

Her parents were against us getting married. I was a Lutheran, ten years older, and Romanian, not German. I had a better job than either of her parents, making more money than them, but it didn’t matter. Eva and I eloped, driving across the Ohio state line to Indiana, where we found a justice-of-the-peace, and got married. We went to Florida for our honeymoon. We drove straight there in a new Mercedes Benz sports car I had just gotten. We stayed in the same motel my buddies and I used to go to. Our suite had a small kitchen and there was a big pool we went swimming in.

When we got back to Cleveland Eva’s parents disowned her, and she didn’t see them for years. We moved in with my mother, in the meantime, in the old neighborhood. I worked hard, saving my salary and commissions, and the next year we bought a three-bedroom house in Indian Hills, up from Euclid Avenue, near the park.

Our daughter Agnes was born the next year and our son Sammy two years after that. Our problems started three years later.

We started out great, got the year of living with my mother out of our systems, moved into a great house, three bedrooms, newer than not new, got the kids grown up enough to walk, and my job got great the more I worked. I took clients out for golf and dinner three and four times a week. My handicap took a nosedive.

I was making money hand over fist. I made a lot of money for Chamber Bearings, too. Those Heebs loved me.

Eva complained about my never being home.

“I do a lot of business on golf courses,” I said. “It’s work, not fun.”

When I did come home right after work, Eva came running out the front door, grabbing me, giving me a hug and a kiss. I’m thinking, this is embarrassing, the neighbors are watching.

“Cut it out.”

I took her to dinner and the theater, but it was never enough.

I always let Eva do whatever she wanted to do. I let her teach cooking at the high school. I let her get a job at a restaurant. I let her go to Cleveland State University. It became a problem, because no matter what I did, it was never nearly enough.

Eva was a good-looking gal and guys at the restaurant were always hitting on her, but the biggest problem was the guys she met at college. One time I found a note in a drawer from some guy named Dave, thanking her for the great time they had had. When I asked her about it, she said it was just him and some others from one of her theater classes going out for a drink.

“You’re not getting together with him?”

“No,” she said, “of course not.”

I didn’t believe her, not for a second.

I found out more, little things, about other guys she was cheating with. One night I got a call from a man, he sounded like he was from India, asking for her. She started coming home later and later at night, 10 o’clock, 11 o’clock. It started to seem like the babysitter was living in.

“Where the hell were you?” I sked one night when she got home close to midnight.

“Oh, my keys got locked in somebody’s trunk.”

It was always some bullshit story like that.

We got into an argument. We got into a lot of arguments.

“Not so loud,” she hissed at me. “You’ll wake up the kids.”

It was her idea to get separated. Later it was her idea to get divorced. I loved her. I loved my kids. I didn’t want it.

We could have settled our divorce between ourselves, but she had to go and get a lawyer, which meant I had to get a lawyer, too. Her mouthpiece must have put something in her ear. I stopped in at the Cleveland Trust on 9th Street downtown one day after lunch with clients on Short Vincent and tried to get some money, but they said, there’s no money in your account.

“What?”

“The account is at zero,” the teller said

Eva had taken it all. She raided our joint bank accounts and grabbed all the money in them. All I had left was what I had been keeping in a personal account she didn’t know about, and our insurance policies, and the scratch I kept separate. She charged all kinds of stuff on our credit cards before I wised up and cancelled them all.

I paid my lawyer five grand, in cash, since I had a separate business going, apart from Chamber Bearings. He was a golfing buddy of mine, but I still had to pay it up front, he said. The son-of-a bitch, right away he joined the Shaker Country Club with it, and never invited me to play golf there, not even once before I later almost punched him in the face.

When we went to court, I picked a fight there and then. Not with Eva, but with our two lawyers, hers and mine. The Saul Goodman’s get together with their crap, take all your money, and leave you with nothing. They are like morticians, just waiting for you to come back to life.

Between Eva and them, they left me with nothing.

I knew how to handle myself. I boxed Golden Gloves before going to Korea. I won in my weight class, but even though the other guy was all purple and bloody, the judges gave it to him. He was a Marine and I was just a draftee, so he got the prize.

I could have levelled both of the shysters in a minute flat. The bailiff, and a policeman, and the judge, had to restrain me. The judge gave me a hell of talking to after everyone was back in their seats.

They’re all the same, talking through their hats.

Eva had moved into the new Park Centre on Superior Avenue, the same building her new boyfriend lived in, and the same building one of Rich Hongisto’s San Francisco guys lived in. Hongisto was Cleveland’s new top lawman, although inside a couple of years Dennis Kucinich, the kid mayor of the city, fired him on live local television. It sparked a recall drive to remove the mayor from office, which was the least of his problems, since the city was going bankrupt.

I say a plague on all of them, except that whoever did whatever got me a last laugh on Eva, for what it was worth.

I had gotten her a brand new four-door Mercedes Benz, hoping it would make her happy. She loved that car, although it didn’t make her any happier about me any more than she wasn’t already. When we separated, she reported the car stolen. She called me about the insurance money. I told her I would let her know. I didn’t tell her the car was in my name.

A month later I got a letter from a parking garage in Buffalo, saying that we’ve got your car here, you owe so much for parking, come and get it. I was sure Eva’s cop neighbor had cooked it up with her, driving the car away, and leaving it in the garage. When I got the insurance check for the car, I tore the letter up.

Eva was a ten, or close to it, always worth another good look. I don’t know how she looked when she got older, since I didn’t see her after she lost her looks. I’m sure she did. They all do.

She had beautiful handwriting, but she used it to write me hate letters after our divorce. Your kids don’t want to see you, you haven’t sent me enough money, all that kind of crap. I had to pay child support, but I was used to a certain style of living for myself.

I had to go on dates, too, looking for another woman. But I couldn’t operate. I didn’t have much money. You’ve got to have money to do things. I was nearly broke. I wanted to take care of my kids. I didn’t want to be a deadbeat father. I did the best I could.

She took up with her new boyfriend, an Italian from Rochester, a Vietnam veteran. They moved in together, with my kids, like they were man and wife. They got it into their heads to go into the restaurant business. Eva asked me to take a second mortgage on the house. I said no, the restaurant business is the worst thing you can get into.

But I took a second mortgage on the house and gave her the money. It put me in a spot. I never saw that loan I gave her ever again, either.

The guy from Rochester, he was always telling me, take it easy, like he was trying to be my friend. I wanted to tell him how mad I was about not being able to get Eva back in the family, about never seeing my kids. I never said one bad thing about her, but the divorce hurt me bad.

After the mess in court, after we split up, I thought, if that’s the way it’s going to be, I don’t want anything to do with her anymore. I don’t want to talk to her, and I don’t want to see her. And I never did, except once.

Sammy and she came to our house. She wanted me to mortgage the house again, but I told her a second mortgage was all the bank would go for. She said she needed more investment money and that I should sell the house, splitting whatever I could get for it with her.

“If I do that, where am I going to live?”

“That’s up to you.”

She was living downtown, in her new high-rise. What did she care where I lay my head? It could be a slab of cardboard under a bridge, as much as she was concerned. We got into an argument about it. Sammy stuck up for his mom. I didn’t blame him, though. I liked that about him.

Eva slapped me hard in the face when I finally had enough, yelling at her that I wasn’t going to sell the house, we were through once and for all, and that was that. She scratched me with her fingernails, cutting me, and drawing blood. I pushed her away.

“Quit it.”

That was the last time I ever saw her.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

In Hot Water

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By Ed Staskus

My uncle Justinas Jurgelaitis was a short man with a long face and a bald dome fringed with tufts of gray. He lived in Marijampole, in southern Lithuania, and after I met him for the first time, every time I went back to Lithuania, I stayed at his house, even though they didn’t have any indoor plumbing or running water.

He was always in hot water, though. Everybody loved Justinas. That was the problem. At least, that was the way his wife saw it.

“He’s constantly coming home with bobby pins in his hair,” Janina complained.

Plenty of women liked him. Even Rasa Jurgelaityte, his niece, dolled herself up when she visited, in a bluish-purple shag rug kind of sweater, drinking strong tea with him. There wasn’t anything sinister in it. He had an Andy Kaufman meets Roger Moore vibe about him, niece or no niece.

When Justinas moved to Marijampole fewer than 20,000 people lived there. It was a small town. More than forty years later about 40,000 people lived there. It was still a small town.

He routinely wore a sports coat or a suit jacket. Whenever the weather was bad, he wore a herringbone newsboy cap. He was good with his hands, deft and quick on the uptake. His face was wrinkled, he could look gnomish, but he was always smiling. On the inside and outside Justinas was a keeping the faith man.

Nobody ever told him how young he looked, so he never heard how old he was. He was born a year after World War One ended, on a family farm near the border with East Prussia, one of eleven children, six of whom survived infancy. He was a cavalryman in the Lithuanian army when World War Two broke out. The war only lasted a few days, though, after the Red Army sent nearly a half million men and mechanized regiments into the Baltic states.

He had trained as a tailor when he was a teenager. He went back to it, and after the war, and all during the Soviet occupation, the forty-five years of it, practiced his trade. He got married and fathered four children.

Justinas played the piano accordion like it was time for a good time. He couldn’t read music. The playing was passed on generation to generation, one-on-one. He belted out songs, too, even though his voice was scratchy.  He was the life of the party. He wasn’t planning on going to the grave with any music left inside him.

He was in a good mood most of the time, which was surprising. Until 1990, ten years after I first went there, when the Soviets finally got the boot, Lithuania was a gray concrete country, unhappy Commies and unhappy Lithuanians in the grip of the Commies.

There were busts and statues of Lenin everywhere. Vladimir didn’t look cheery or even remotely happy in a single one of them. Justinas was glad to be alive, happy even in the dark behind the sourIron Curtain.

He was one of the nicest men I ever knew, although if you messed with his pigeons or his private Idaho museum, you would probably get yours. When a neighbor’s cat mauled one of his favorite pigeons, Justinas got his shotgun, and hunted the cat down. He killed it in the street where he found it. The neighbor never said anything about it, either to him or the police.

Their house was small, two-story, and green. It backed up to railroad tracks. They had an electric stove, but no basement or furnace or propane. They heated the house with a fireplace and a Franklin-style stove. They burned coal, although Justinas said the stove could burn anything with hardly any smell or even much smoke. The driveway and road in front of the house were made of packed dirt. The road was slightly higher than the terrain but there were no side ditches for rainwater to flow to. Whenever it stormed the pathway turned into a quagmire. When it was sunny and dry, except for an occasional gigantic pothole, it was like driving on asphalt.

Justinas owned a black four-door late-70s Lada, manufactured by Fiat in collaboration with the Soviets. It was built like a tank. It had heavy steel body panels and man of steel components to make it more reliable on the bumpy roads and hard winters. It was a manual four-speed with slightly elevated ground clearance. The Lada was made to be worked on by its owners, which is what Justinas did. He changed the oil and the muffler and replaced the drum brakes when he had to. He had installed a rack on the top and kept the car body reasonably clean, although the inside was usually a dump. It wasn’t filthy dirty, just trashed.

They got gasoline from half-size pumps set on cinder blocks with ten-foot long snaky hoses because the concrete island at their neighborhood gas station was so wide.

Lithuanians celebrate wolves, bears, and moose. According to legend, Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt an iron wolf told him to create Vilnius and make the city his capital. The bear is a symbol of Samogitia, one of the country’s regions, and is part of the coat of arms of Siauliai, another region. The Lazdijai region features a moose.

Birds don’t take a back seat, though. Everybody likes the cuckoo because its call is said to sweep away the last bits and parts of winter. The pigeon – balandis – gets its own month, which is April – balanzio menuo.

There was a barn-like garage behind the house. Justinas kept his old sewing machines and tailoring goods on the ground floor. Upstairs, up a ladder, he kept a coop of rock pigeons. Even though they can find their way back home, even when released blindfolded far away, navigating by the earth’s magnetic fields, and even though they had carried messages across battlefields for the United States Army Signal Corps during both world wars, Justinas never let his pigeons go anywhere without him. They weren’t prisoners, exactly, but they were there to stay.

He loved his pigeons and they loved him. He fed them as well as he fed himself. He and his friends traded and bred them. There had been thefts of prized birds, so he kept a padlock fixed to the garage door. He kept a dog chained up to a doghouse in front of the garage, just in case.

He barked at me every time I went to the outhouse, like it was the very first time he had ever seen me. I tried to be nice to the dog, but that was a mistake. “Shut up already!” I finally shouted one day, and that took care of it. Our relationship after that was one of sullen civility.

Behind the garage was a chicken wire enclosure full of white rabbits. They raised them for the dinner table. When the time came Justinas would catch and pin one of the rabbits to the ground, put a stick across its neck, step on one side of the stick, quickly step on the other side of it, and then pull the rabbit upward by its hind legs, breaking its neck. After cutting off the rabbit’s head he would hang it upside down to clean it.

His wife seasoned and cooked the bunnies, frying and braising them and making stews.

There was a one-room museum on the second floor of their house. Nobody had ever stolen anything from it, but God pity the fool who tried. Justinas would probably have been compelled to commit murder. It was never locked, but you had to be invited. He never gave anything in his museum away, either, not even to his own children, although he traded with his friends, just like he traded his birds.

There was a glass case filled with gold and silver coins, military medals, and men’s pocket watches. There were framed pictures of Catholic saints, Lithuanian kings and politicians, and luxury steamships on all the walls. He had carved figures, including a big eagle, talons flexed, wings outstretched, its head thrust forward. He had a mint Victrola with a new needle, new springs, new crank and motor, and a burnt orange sound horn.

There were a dozen clocks, his prized possessions. They were grandfather wood wall clocks with pendulums and chimes. Every one of them was set to a different random time. They all worked whenever he wanted them to work.

Two smaller rooms adjoined the museum on the second floor. They were bedrooms where his four children had grown up. Both of the rooms had pint-sized windows.

Justinas and his wife Janina were always accusing each other of having extra-marital affairs. She made great-tasting pancakes every morning. One morning while we were eating in the living room, since there wasn’t a dining room, she told her husband to go outside for a minute.

“Oh, my God, he’s such a womanizer, always chasing women,” she said out of the blue. I didn’t know what to say. She was in her late 60s and he was in his early 70s. He never talked about her, but she talked about him constantly. Somebody said she was the one having all the affairs. I never knew what to believe.

When he walked back in, he was smiling. He wasn’t planning on living a century and giving up all the things that make you want to live that long. “What were you talking about?” he asked innocently. He was the kind of man who believed it was best to die in the prime of life at a ripe old age.

I could have stayed at my other uncle’s house, Juozukas, who was younger by twenty years and lived nearby. They had running water and an indoor toilet. But I didn’t. Not that it wasn’t a pain in the butt. Justinas still used an old-school well wheel pulley. They had a beat-up red plastic bucket to get water and bring it into the house. Whenever I wanted to brush my teeth or wash my face, somebody brought me water in a glass bowl. The outhouse was beside the garage.  Everybody called it the little house. They kept cut-up scraps of Russian newspapers on a ledge inside the side door of the house. The first night I was there Janina gave me a bucket, in case I needed to go in the middle of the night and didn’t want to go outside.

I made sure to not drink anything too late into the evening.

They didn’t have a tub, either. The family went to a nearby public bath to take showers once a week. When I balked at that, telling him the outhouse was enough, Justinas told me he had a lady friend who had a bathtub. When we got there, it was full of potatoes. She took them all out, but when I ran the water it never warmed up above tepid. I took a bath anyway, since it was better than nothing.

Justinas was retired, but he was always out doing something, up to something.

”I have responsibilities,” he would say.

My uncle Sigitas and his wife had a big pig farm near Gizai, near where our entire mother’s side of the family had originally come from. Nobody knew what my uncle Juozukas did. He had a truck and could fix anything, including furnaces. He never got up in the morning at the same time and never went to work to the same place. Somebody said he worked for the government, but somebody else said that was crazy.

He had patched together a kiosk attached to the side of his house. The hand-painted sign said “Odds and Ends.” He and his wife sold soft drinks, chocolate bars, gum, and cigarettes. Every month he had to pay off the local Lithuanian Mafia. They got a cut of everything, including gum.

It was like Spanky and Our Gang.

Everybody complained about everything and they especially complained about money. I learned to never ask anybody what they did. “This and that,” is what almost everybody said. They were always going to Poland and across the Baltic Sea, bringing back clothes, food products, prescription drugs, as well as cigarettes and more cigarettes. They took contraband goods across borders without declaring anything or traversed woods and crossed rivers on the sly.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the empowerment of Lithuania, we collected donations from our family members and delivered enough cash on the barrel to Justinas so he and his family could get a proper bathroom built and running water installed. The lady of the house absolutely wanted a toilet and sinks with faucets.

When he came into the house from the garage, he said thanks, but no thanks. He said he had grown up and lived his whole life without it. He told me he wasn’t going to change anything more than he had to after all his years in this world. “I was coming down the ladder from the coop just now carrying a drink and a pigeon in the other hand,” he said. “Don’t try that when you get to be my age.”

I didn’t argue with him about the indoor plumbing. He asked if he could have the money, anyway. Since he was swimming upstream with Janina about the plumbing, I gave it to him, and we kept it between ourselves.

Juozukas Jurgelaitis, Justinas Jurgelaitis, and Rasa Jurgelaityte, 1994. Photograph by Rita Staskus.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

Farm Girl

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The family fed itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.

 

Crackerjack in the Mess Hall

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By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

“What is Straight Shine?”

“Shine.”

“Like moonshine?”

“It’s our island-made moonshine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How is it,” she asked

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you bake this here?” asked Vera.

“Our baker does,” said Michelle.

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

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

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

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

“Do you make the carrot cake, too?

“Yeah.”

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

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

“Yeah,” said Anna with a big smile.

“How old are you?”

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

“Scaring everyone?” asked Frank.

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

“Too big?” said Vera.

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

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

“What did you guys eat?” asked Anna.

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

“Ahhh,” said Anna.

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

“We have a pet name for it, yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I started as a dishwasher,” said Anna.

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

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

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

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

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

“There’s pineapple in it.”

“The frosting is terrific,” said Vera.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.