“Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.” Robert Baden-Powell
My father was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The city, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a folk art site of 100, 000 Christian crosses.
His father was Lithuanian and a former officer in the Czarist Army. His mother was a Russian schoolteacher his father met while stationed southeast of Moscow.
He was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, my grandfather involved my father in scouting as soon as he grew to be of school age.
I was a Boy Scout in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio, troop my father became Scoutmaster of in the 1960s. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial small knives in scabbards on our belts. We often hiked on trails and through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on pluck and stamina to find our way.
Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote Scouting for Boys. That same year more than 10, 000 Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.
The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and one for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60, 000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among the young at that time. In 1939, just before the start of WW2, there were 22, 000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.
Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what probably accounts for my father’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was Scoutmaster at later on, after WW2.
They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.
Winter Blasts were camps in non-insulated cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which we earned cold weather Merit Badges and were told exploring outdoors in December was able-bodied and wholesome. But, we always built a fire first thing in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well-stoked, and hoped we wouldn’t freeze to death in the long, long night.
In summer many Merit Badges were up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. I learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned my Pioneering Badge, although I never learned to properly tie a tie, even later in life.
My father was always putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading my mother to repair rips in canvas. He said sleeping outdoors was robust, no matter how much rain leaked into our sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.
He led us finding adventure in duck puddles.
I know he convinced some of us, myself included. To this day my wife, who went to her own summer camps, and I vacation mostly in the woods or at the seashore.
It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts. A maxim of camping is that a week of camp is worth six months of theory.
For many years he was the lead commander at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Jesuit-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although we did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever we had to, what we actually did most of the time was run around in the woods, swim in the bay, and sing off-key long into the night at the nightly bonfire.
Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.
When he was nine-years-old my father was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.
My father never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion.
“He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” said my father.
Mr. Baden-Powell’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.
In 1938, five years older and a teenager, my father was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.
Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed.
During the war and successive occupations, first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian forced labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.
In 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced Europeans. He met my mother in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and where he was operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.
He found passage to Canada in 1949, married my mother, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a hauler and then as a dynamite man, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. He took classes in accounting at Case Western Reserve University. My mother, brother, sister, and I followed a year later.
While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting. When I asked my mother why not, she said, “There weren’t any children. All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us then in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, and getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up and become scouts.”
Robert Baden-Powell counseled that scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens.” By that guiding light scouting stood my father in good stead through the 1940s.
When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm, while still in his teens, When he fled their farm in 1944 with twenty minutes notice that the Red Army was on the horizon, he crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were five dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had his five dollars when he knocked on my not-yet-mother’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.
The more the unexpected happened the more he knew what he had to do to anticipate it. “The unexpected always happens,” he said. “The minute you put money away for a rainy day, it rains.”
In Cleveland, Ohio, he worked full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, attended CWRU at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder to managing his division’s overseas sales in both South America and the Middle East.
After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was well into his 80s.
My father thought the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said.
Because of WW2 and its dislocations, living rough and emigration overseas, and the demands of rebuilding a life as well as building a family, my father didn’t participate in scouting for a long time.
But, once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.
When he succeeded Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Mr. Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian-American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994
My father worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although until his death in 2011 he never really stopped scouting.
While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening many camping and jamboree venues for it, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide.
In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the Lithuanian-Jesuit campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they were ever to experience.
“Dad loved bonfires,” recalled my brother, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style bonfires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our morning exercises and raising the flag.”
When asked what bonfires meant to him my father said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”
Although we never warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking, even encouraging us to try snowshoes.
I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes. But, he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.
He stressed study and achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and adventure.
“One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” said my brother. “We were supervised, but given only a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip way up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without their help. They told us it was both a challenge and a duty to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”
In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see near what girl they will land, which is a very old-school way of predicting the future.
Another annual event he invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.
Even after retiring from active scouting he never missed a Kazuke Muge.
Although he did much for scouting, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his young charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them.
“When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be true.
“There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”
Mr. Taoras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was my father.
“Brother Vytautas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”
After WW2 the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in Isar Horn of the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a small Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 2014 Mr. Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C.
“I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President-Elect of the Boy Scouts of America.
“Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.
The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting will be celebrated in 2018. My father was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he has since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a very large bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.