Tag Archives: Matti Lavikka

From Here to Someday

By Ed Staskus

   Sylvester drifted into the kitchen where I was making pancakes, stood up on his hind legs, and slapped his tongue against the side of my face. I didn’t mind. His mouth was probably cleaner than that of most of my friends. His kiss was less risky than kissing another human being, like my girlfriend. Whatever germs were in his cavernous mouth were mostly incompatible to human beings. I never caught the flu from him since he never coughed or sneezed. Sometimes it seemed he had more of a soft spot for me than any living person.

   My brother left his Great Dane behind when he moved out. The dog cost me an arm and a leg to feed. I had to walk him twice a day. I had to shove him out of my bed whenever he tried to sleep next to me. His germs might have been harmless, but his bad breath was like sewer gas. He was good-natured, though, and we got along. I called him Sly, and he called me the boss. He didn’t know how to talk, but I knew what he meant when he barked.

   Sly was in his formative years and fascinated by cars. He chased them recklessly. I put a stop to it by sitting him down on the tree lawn and driving slowly past with a squirt gun in my lap. The gun was loaded with vinegar. Whenever he lunged at the car, I squirted him in the face through the open window. It only took ten minutes to teach him cars were dangerous and guns even more dangerous. After that I rarely put him on a lead when we walked to the pocket park on the lake for runaround time. He walked beside me and the only time I grabbed for his collar was when I spied another dog coming our way.

   I was living upstairs in a Polish double on the west end of North Collinwood, on a forgotten street, a couple of blocks from Lake Erie. Ray Sabaliauskas lived downstairs with his prize German Shepherd and the wife he brought back from the Vietnam War. I was going to Cleveland State University and paying for it by taking a quarter off every now and then to work for an electro-static painting outfit. They did most of their work on-site out of town. Ray fed and walked my dog whenever I was on the road.

   The day the dog became my dog was the week after my brother’s fiancée Brenda, a girl from Vermont who my brother met while in the U. S. Army at Fort Riley in Kansas, was killed on Route 20 coming home from her part-time job at a restaurant in Mentor. She had been enrolled full-time at Cuyahoga Community College the rest of the time.

   The night Brenda didn’t come home was the night I woke up at two in the morning from a bad dream with a bad feeling. I got up and sat looking out window. It had rained earlier, and the backyard grass glistened. The lettuce in the garden was fat and bright. A cat sat under the eaves of the garage, keeping an eye out for a late-night snack.

   When I noticed Brenda’s Subaru station wagon wasn’t in the driveway, I somehow felt certain something terrible had happened to her. I couldn’t shake the feeling. I stayed up, sitting by the window, until I finally went back to bed, thinking it was the dream that had upset me. Even so, I couldn’t fall back asleep, and when I did, I slept fitfully.

   The next morning a Cleveland Police squad car pulled up outside the house and broke the news to my brother. At first, I thought he hadn’t heard what the policeman said. He stood stock still. But then he asked where Brenda was and reached for his car keys. I didn’t see him the rest of the day or the next day. Brenda’s parents arrived later in the week and took her back to Vermont for burial in the family’s hometown cemetery. When my brother got back from the funeral he moved out.

   Brenda fell asleep at the wheel coming home the night she died, but that wasn’t what killed her. She wasn’t even hurt when the car drifted off the highway and halfway down the embankment. She was able to stomp on the brakes and stop the car from overturning. She even coaxed it back up to the shoulder, where she discovered she had a flat tire. She flicked on the flashers and was getting the jack and spare tire out of the back of the car when a drunkard going her way slipped out of his lane and rear-ended her. She was propelled into and over the Subaru. She died on the spot, blind-sided, never knowing what hit her.

   When I finished my pancakes, I took Sly for a short walk. Brenda and my brother were gone, and the dog was my roommate now. He didn’t say much, which suited me, but he needed tending. I was running late for school. Back home I left him on the front porch to sleep the day away and made my way to Lakeshore Blvd, where I caught the 39B bus downtown for a class. It was cheaper than taking my bucket of bolts and paying for parking. It was Friday and I was looking forward to babysitting a friend’s motorcycle for the weekend.

   Saturday morning, I scarfed down a cream cheese bagel and a glass of Joe Wieder’s. The motorcycle was in the driveway behind the house where nobody could see it. The streets were sketchy, brothers from the hood and hoodlums from the neighborhood prowling for loot. It was a big Honda, slung low like a club racer. My friend had dropped it that spring when the front wheel locked up. A handlebar was bent and made tight right turns tricky. But it handled well, overall, had great acceleration, and was painted a dark ochre.

   I tied my backpack down across the handlebars, turned the key, and pressed the start button. The four-stroke engine made a humming happy sound. I dropped it into gear. At the sidewalk I tipped my helmet to a blonde walking by. She turned her nose up.

   I rode west on Lakeshore Blvd, halfway through Bratenahl, and turned south on East 105th St. I meant to connect with Euclid Ave. I wanted to get an eyeful of the urban decay in Glenville I had been hearing about. It was still there. I took in the ruins. The mess was a place, no place to live, I thought.

   I met my friend Matti Lavikka at our friend Mary Jane’s gray-colored Gothic-style clapboard house on East 33rd St. off Payne Ave. Matti was in the back with MJ, taking it easy in her deep-set narrow backyard. It was a tangle of overgrown hedges, monstrous bean plants, super-sized sunflowers, roses run riot, dwarf trees, and carnations trying to make sense of it all.

   Twin blue-eyed albino cats ran past from next door, across the lawn and over a low fence. One of them was cross-eyed. The hippie artist next door let them do their own thing. They were rolling stones who only ate and slept at home. Matti’s motorcycle was in the drive, a stripped-down 1965 Triumph with short pipes and a glossy black paint job. We decided to ride west along the lake, nowhere special, just drifting in the direction the sun was going

   We gassed up across the Cuyahoga River and stopped at a diner for coffee. Matti was a fireman in Bay Village, where fires were far and few between. He knew his laydown jobs better than most. He graduated from Cleveland State University that spring. He was in a philosophical frame of mind all summer, trying to remember something that had never happened in the way of exercising his mind. 

   We rode on Lake Rd. through Lakewood, Rocky River and Bay Village. We were riding into a strong headwind, but it was no match for our bikes. The sun reached its zenith and kept going. We kept going, too, until we reached Vermilion. There were crowds milling in the streets. We slowed down to almost nothing. Children gamboled here and there. We inched our way to the harbor. A rail thin lady with a perky face told us it was the annual Fish Festival. 

   We caught a break coming into town that day. There were vintage cars on parade, men wearing fezzes and sashes, marching high school bands in starched uniforms, a covey of Boy Scouts, floats carrying gals looking like stars, garish looking clowns, and oafish looking town officials.

   Brenda had been an outdoorsman kind of girl. She would have jumped at the chance to cruise the Fish Festival. She had just turned legal that year. Now she was gone with no future. I couldn’t get her out of my mind.

   We had heaping plates of buttered perch with potatoes and sage. Matti wanted to talk about the future, but I didn’t. I scorned the past as nothing but debris, and the present as grist for the mill. I left the future to chance. Now that Matti had a college degree, he told me I was being irresponsible. 

   “Mind your own business,” I said.

   “That kind of attitude is even more irresponsible,” he said.

   “You’ll be an old man soon enough. Wait until then to talk that way.”

   “I’ll have to look you up when that happens,” he said.

   A shapely gal wearing a bikini with ruffles came our way. She was topped off with a peaked hat two feet high, four feet wide, made of wire mesh and adorned with red, white, and blue rosettes. We admired her glide. When we left Vermilion, we followed a road along the shore winding past small frame houses and cottage resorts. There were big trees everywhere and the air smelled sweet.

   After we reached Marblehead, we took the ferry to Kelly’s Island. We saw sailboats bobbing up and down, leaning to one side of the wind. The ferry rode rough on the choppy water. Matti’s Triumph didn’t have a center stand and he had to lean on it to keep it from falling over. A tow-headed boy getting soaked at the bow laughed like Soupy Sales every time a wave crashed onto the deck. When he saw Perry’s Monument he jumped and pointed that way.

   “Don’t Give Up the Ship” was on Commander Oliver Perry’s battle flag during the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813. It commemorated the dying words of a fellow commander who fell in an earlier naval engagement against the British. Oliver Perry didn’t give up and the British squadron was sent packing.

   We rode around the island aimlessly with our helmets off and the sunny breeze in our hair. The blacktop dipped and curved. There were boats stashed in harbors tied to docks all over the place. We took a break at a public beach, ogling babes sizzling in baby oil from behind our sunglasses. Back on our bikes we rode across a field to an abandoned baseball field. The chain link of the backstop was rusted, and the painted stands weathered cracking peeling. The pitcher’s mound was overgrown with weeds.

   We shared some weed sitting on the outfield grass. Matti started waxing about the problem of good and evil. I suspected I was in for it and took a deep drag on the reefer. “The Nazi’s thought their actions towards the Jews were both righteous and warranted, while at the same time many other people didn’t,” he said.

   “Especially the Jews,” I said.

   “Who was right?”  

   I said we both knew Adolf Hitler and his supporters were monsters.

   “Sure, but that’s not the point,” he said. 

   “What is the point?”

   “Just trying to touch on something metaphysical here.”

   “All right, but metaphysics is a branch of the literature of fantasy. Arguments about good and evil are useless. Hardly anything except engineering is not relative. Most of it is all made up.”

   “What about your brother’s girlfriend who got killed? Did the drunk driver have the right to determine her life and death?”

   “I hope they hang that guy like they hung the Nazi’s.”

   We took a quarry road back to the ferry dock. We were early for our return ride and walked to a nearby tavern. It had a Louisiana ceiling and wide plank floor. Fishing paraphernalia filled the walls. Teenagers were playing pinball and yukking it up They looked too young to drink but had bottles of Blatz at hand. Over the cash register somebody had scrawled in magic marker that an Irishman was not drunk so long as he could hold on to a blade of grass and not fall off the edge of the planet.

   Matti and I each had a pint of lager while we waited for our boat. Back on the mainland, we took secondary roads as far as Avon, where Matti waved goodbye and roared off for home. I laced up my skates and got on the highway. I crossed the Flats going 75 MPH. Passing the dark Municipal Stadium I fell in with three other motorcycles who were hauling ass.

   I hit 105 MPH keeping up, leaning low over my handlebars. Every part of me was focused on the road flowing backwards in front of me. I had never gone that fast on a car or motorcycle or anything else other than a jet plane. Nothing mattered except keeping my tail on the seat and not wiping out. It took less than three minutes to pass the Cleveland Aquarium and veer away from the pack down the ramp of my exit onto Waterloo Rd. I caught my breath at the stop sign before an impatient blaring horn behind me made me jump and I tapped the gear shift.

   Back home I tucked the motorcycle away out of sight in the backyard. I watered and fed Sly before throwing myself down on the sofa. My legs felt like abused rubber bands. My left palm was puffy from handling the clutch all day. I wasn’t used to it. I wasn’t used to anybody my age dying, either, but Brenda had died and there wasn’t anything anybody could do about it. 

   A good idea is to die young as late as possible. The real pay dirt is to not be there when it happens, although that never happens. It hadn’t worked out for her. Her life was still in the memory of the living, though. Nobody had forgotten her, yet. When it happens, it happens for a long time, the long lights out of becoming zero. It was a shame, I thought, before I stopped thinking about time and fate and fell into a simple as ABC dreamless sleep.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Swimming With the Fish

By Ed Staskus

   There are thousands of restaurants in Cleveland Ohio. Captain Frank’s isn’t one of them. It used to be and when it was it was one of the best places to eat if you liked seafood and Lake Erie waves and wind and waves shaking the building on the East 9th St. pier. Every so often somebody full of cheer and careless after a hearty meal or drunk as a skunk drove off the pier into the lake. 

   “It was my last stop after a night of drinking in the Flats,” said Nancy Wasen. “Every night I was surprised no one fell off the pier and drowned.” It wasn’t for want of trying.

   In 1964 Mary Jane Jereb was 16 years old. She was in a car with her cousin and a neighbor and a driver’s ed instructor. “He took us downtown, to prepare for city driving. I wasn’t driving, my neighbor was. He directed her to this particular parking lot.” It was Captain Frank’s parking lot. They drove straight to the edge of the slick slimy pier. Spray from the Great Lake spotted their windshield.

   “The instructor told my neighbor to turn around and head back to Parma. My short young life flashed before me as she pulled into a parking space and backed out and headed home.” They slowly carefully left the dark deep behind.

   Captain Frank’s was a “Lobster House” or a “Sea Food House” depending on the signage of the year. It changed now and then. There was a panhandler who called himself Captain Frank who hung around outside the restaurant day and night, his hand stuck out. Demoted cops who kept quiet about hidden rooms in gambling joints and pocketed cash in job-buying schemes were assigned to seagull patrol on the pier, always in the dead of winter. They ignored the panhandler and did their best to walk the chill off. Sometimes they helped the innocent just to stay on the move.

   Francesco Visconti was the Captain Frank who ran the restaurant. He was a Sicilian from Palermo whose parents beat it out of Europe the year World War One started. At first, as soon as he could handle a horse, he sold fish from a wagon. After that he operated the Fulton Fish Market on East 22nd St. He was 40 years old in 1940 and lived with his wife, Rose, a son, as well as three daughters.

   He bought a beat-up passenger ferry building on the East 9th pier in 1953 and opened Captain Frank’s. I was a baby living the easy life in Sudbury, Ontario at the time and missed the grand opening. Kim Rifici Augustine’s grandfather was the original chef at Captain Frank’s. “The wax matches he used for flambé caused a fire back in the late 1950s,” she said. The fish shack burned down in 1958. Frank Visconti built it back bigger and better the next year.

   By the late 1950s my family had emigrated from Canada to Cleveland Ohio. We lived nearby, but never went to the restaurant. My parents were Lithuanians and ate bowls of beetroot soup and plates of potato pancakes and zeppelins at their own table. They didn’t know a Mediterranean Diet from Micky Mouse.

   In the Old Country they had feasted on pigs and crows. My mother’s father was a family farmer who kept porkers, slaughtering them himself, and smoking them in a box he built in the attic of the house, the box built around their fireplace chimney.

   “It was the best bacon and sausage I ever had in my life,” my mother said eighty years later.

   They hunted wild crows. “Those birds were tasty,” my mother said. The younger the birds the better. Those still in the nest and unable to get away were considered delicacies. Their crow cookouts involved breaking necks and boiling the birds in cooking oil over a bonfire, serving them with whatever vegetables they had at hand.

   Since I was part of the family, I ate with my parents my brother and sister. My mother prepared every meal. I ate whatever she made, even the fried liver and God-awful ethnic headcheese, although we never, thank God, had carrion-loving crows. Even if I had wanted to go to the Lobster House, I didn’t have a dime to my name

   Captain Frank’s boomed in the 1960s and 1970s. There were views of the lake out every window. There was an indoor waterfall. If you had water on the brain, it was the place to be. The food was terrific. Judy Garland, Nelson Eddy, and Flip Wilson ate there whenever they were in town doing a show. The Shah of Iran and Mott the Hoople partied there, although not at the same time. They weren’t any which way on the same wavelength, other than under the spell of Frank. He never asked them to leave, no matter how late it was.

   There was a luncheonette behind the restaurant that doubled as a custard stand in the summer. When the Shah or Mott the Hoople stayed later than ever, they could sit in the back in the morning in the breezy sunshine with a cup of custard while lake freighters went back-and-forth. “I never went inside Captain Frank’s, but I remember the ice cream shop in the back well,” recalled Bob Peake, a homegrown boy who was a frozen sweets connoisseur.

   Frank Visconti was a made member of the Cleveland Mob. His criminal record dated back to 1931, including arrests for narcotics, bootlegging, and counterfeiting. The restaurant was frequented by high echelon hoods and politician pals alike. Many family meetings were held there. 

   “It was the hangout for Cleveland Mafia Enterprises,” said Tom James on Cleveland Crime Watch.

   Longshoremen went to Kindler’s and Dugan’s to drink before and after work, but between their double shifts went to Captain Frank’s for power cocktails. When they were done it was only a short walk back to the docks. When the weather was bad, they were warmed up and sobered up by the time they clocked back in.

   The restaurant was a football field’s length from Lakefront Stadium, where Chief Wahoo and the Browns played. The ballpark sat nearly 80,000 fans. The Indians were always limping along, their glory days long gone, but the Browns were exciting, and on game day crazy loud cheering rocked the windows of the restaurant. Cold biting winds blew into the stadium in spring fall and winter. In the summer under the lights, swarms of midges and mayflies sometimes brought baseball games to a standstill.

   In 1966 the Beatles played the stadium and after that the Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones showed up to rock the home of rock-n-roll. In the 1980s U2 brought its big show to town, raking in millions singing about lovesickness.

   Even though I was grown-up by the 1970s, I still didn’t dine at Captain Frank’s. I was living in a rented house in a forgotten part of town, and it was all I could do to feed myself at home. I didn’t have pocket money to eat out. When I finally joined the way of the world and could afford to go whenever I had some spare change and wasn’t too tired from working with my hands all day long, I ate out. Most of my friends were racing to the top. I was starting at the bottom.

   There was a kind of magic eating at Captain Frank’s at night. I watched the lights of ships making their way slowly into Cleveland’s harbors while munching on scampi and warm rolls swimming in garlic butter. They served steaks the cooks seared, but the seafood was usually just threatened with heat and served. That’s why it was good. Students from St. John College on East 9th and Superior Ave. walked there to have midnight breakfast because it was good.

   The Friday night in September 1984 my friend Matti Lavikka and I treated my brother to dinner on his 31st birthday at Captain Frank’s was almost the last birthday he celebrated on this earth. We didn’t know Frank Visconti had died earlier that year, but in the car on the pier after dinner we thought my brother was dying. He was choking for air. The dinner had been very good, but he looked very bad. We were afraid he might end up swimming with Frank.

   He was getting over a marriage to a Columbus girl that had lasted 56 days. We picked him up in Mentor, where he was living alone, and went downtown. It was a starry late summer evening. We ordered a bottle of Chianti, some pasta, and lots of shellfish. We didn’t know, and he didn’t know, that he was allergic to shellfish. 

   “I don’t know why, but I hardly ever eat fish,” he said. “It doesn’t usually agree with me.” Our dinner at Frank’s that night included scallops, oysters, shrimp, and lobster. He might not have been allergic to all of them, but he was allergic to one of them, for sure.

   Halfway through coffee and dessert, which was sfogliatelle, layers of crispy puff pastry that bundle together in a lobster-like way, he was itching wheezing and his head was swelling. His lips, tongue, and throat were like silly putty. He was breaking out into hives. He was getting dizzy and dizzier. It was like he had eaten a poisoned apple.

   Shellfish allergy is an abnormal response by the body’s immune system to proteins in all manner of marine animals. Among those are crustaceans and mollusks. Some people with the allergy react to all shellfish. Others react to only some of them. It ranges from mild symptoms, like a stuffy nose, to life-threatening.

   Matti was a fireman and paramedic in Bay Village. Looking at my brother he didn’t like what he was seeing. We frog-marched him to the car and made a beeline for the nearest hospital. Matti put the pedal to the metal. The Cleveland Clinic wasn’t far, and we had him at the front door of the emergency room in ten minutes. Five minutes later a doctor was injecting him with epinephrine and a half-hour later he was his old self.

   “Thanks, guys,” he said when we dropped him off at his bachelor pad in Mentor.

   After Frank Visconti died the restaurant limped along. The service and food got worse and worse. The tables and chairs and walls looked like they needed to be scrubbed down. Fewer and fewer people went downtown for any reason other than work. I was working downtown near the Cleveland State University campus, where Matti and I had started a small two-man business. One evening when I got off work, I called my girlfriend fiancée wife-to-be, who was living in Reserve Square, and invited her to dinner at Captain Frank’s.  I had seen her eat buffets of seafood. She had a hollow leg. I knew she wasn’t allergic to any of it. When we got there, however, the pier was dark in all directions. There were no parked cars in the lot and no lights in any of the windows.

   Rudolph Hubka, Jr., the new owner the past five years, gave up the ghost and declared bankruptcy in 1989. Nobody said a word. Hardly anybody noticed. The building was demolished in 1994. The only thing left was litter blowing around in the wind.

   We drove to Little Italy and snagged a table at Guarino’s, a woman out front pointing the way. Sam Guarino had died two years earlier, but his wife Marilyn was carrying on with the help of Sam’s sister Marie, who lived upstairs and helped with the cooking in the basement kitchen.  “Marilyn sat in front, and she was like the captain on a ship, making sure everything was just right,” said Suzy Pacifico, who was a waitress at the eatery for fifty-two years.

   We had a farm-to-table dinner before there was farm-to-table, red wine, and coffee with tiramisu. Mama Guarino asked us how we liked the cake. We didn’t see any fishy characters. When I drove my gal home, we were both happy as clams.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Going Harbor Lights

By Ed Staskus

When Matti Lavikka and I slowly but surely stopped playing chess and started playing Go we didn’t know we were sitting down to the oldest board game played continuously to the present day. The game was invented in China almost 3,000 years ago. It is a strategy contest for two players in which the goal is to surround more territory than your opponent. 

   The playing pieces are called stones. One player uses the white ones and the other one the black ones, taking turns placing them on the vacant intersections of the board. The stones can’t be moved once placed, but are removed from the board if it, or a group of stones, is surrounded on all adjacent points, in which case it is captured. The game goes on until both players survey the pickings and agree it’s not worth playing anymore. The winner is determined by counting each player’s surrounded territory along with captured stones. 

   Games also can and do end when one player spent exhausted brain dead simply gives up.

    The chess board starts with everything on it. The last man standing wins. The Go board starts with nothing on it. Whoever is the more cunning craftsman inevitably ends up on top. It’s the way of the world.

   Even though the rules of Go are simple, the play is complex, especially the longer the game goes on. It has a larger board than chess with more scope for play and more alternatives to consider per move. The number of board positions in Go has been calculated to be greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe. The Japanese believe no two matches have ever been or ever will be the same. They consider the game to be a microcosm of everything.

   If we had known that we probably would never have started playing. By the time we found out it was too late. We had been sucked into the black hole of Go. Getting out of the hole for a pick-me-up meant going down to the Harbor Inn, another hole, on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River in the Flats. It either was or wasn’t the oldest bar in town. Either way, the place wore its reputation on its sleeve.

   “The place was always shoulder to shoulder with bikers and their molls,” said Dan Coughlin, a sportswriter for The Plain Dealer. “Wally had a virtual armory behind the bar. He had pistols and shotguns. One night in the middle of the summer we stacked up cases of beer bottles and fired at them from the hip, with shotguns blasting away. I put a hole in the stop sign in front of his bar.”

   Wally was Vlado Pisorn, an immigrant from Slovenia who had recently taken over the bar. We called him Vlady. He had the kind of beer we liked, the kind from Germany and Czechoslovakia. The wine came from a hose and died on the tongue. After a couple of deaths we never drank it again.

   Matti had served a tour of duty in the armed forces, was on a prolonged run of R & R, and was boning up for the entrance exams for mailman, fireman, and policeman. He finally found work with the Bay Village Fire Department, which was like working at a posh nursery school. There were hardly ever any fires anywhere near the upper end lakefront suburb. There were, however, lots of old folks having heart attacks and strokes and the EMS trucks kept up their back and forth to St. John West Shore Hospital.

   One night Matti and his partner Chuck were called to a house where the husband was having chest pains. He was on his back in bed, his eyes closed. When they stepped into the bedroom his wife whispered to them that she thought he was dead, “the poor man.” Chuck was in the lead. When he walked up to the bed, he slipped on a throw rug and went head over heels on top of the man, body slamming him, the bedsprings groaning and complaining.

   “If he’s not dead yet, he’s dead now,” Matti thought. “Is he OK?” the woman asked, alarmed. “Your husband will be OK,” Matti said. “No, not him,” the woman said. “I meant the other fireman.” 

   “What the hell is going on!” the man suddenly spat jolting awake. “Get your fat ass off me.” He rolled Chuck off the bed, who fell to the floor. From then on, he was known as One Alarm Lazarus at headquarters.

   My friend Virginia Sustarsic introduced me to Matti. How they knew each other was beyond me. She was Slovenian and a hippie through and through. He wasn’t, not by a long shot. On top of that, he was cool customer Finnish. He played chess, like me, and we played now and then. I had moved out of the Plaza Apartment, where Virginia still lived, and was living on a forgotten street in North Collinwood, near Bratenahl, a couple of blocks south of Lake Erie. I lived upstairs in a two-bedroom. It was a Polish double. Ray Sabaliauskas, a fellow Lithuanian, owned the house and lived downstairs with his Southeast Asian wife and prize German Shepherd. He had come back safe and sound from the mess that was Vietnam.

   I found my Go game at a garage sale in the neighborhood. It was practically brand new, the instruction sheet still in the box. I paid a dollar for it in quarters. Reading the rules took less than five minutes. Explaining the rules to Matti took less than one minute. Our first game took four hours and was suspended due to darkness. We were playing on the front porch when the sun went down.

   “The best strategy is to spread the pieces far apart and stretch them out, to encircle and attack the opponent, and thus win by having the most points vacant,” Huan Tan said nearly two thousand years ago.

   We were both bug-eyed after our first game. We didn’t know strategy from a seesaw. It was like wrestling a gorilla. You don’t quit when you’re tired, you quit when the gorilla is tired. Go is considered the most difficult board game in the world. Sleeping became my new go-to after a long game.

   I started jogging on Lakeshore Blvd. from North Collinwood, where everybody was a working man in one way or another, through the village of Bratenahl, where everybody was tall thin proud wealthy, to build stamina for the struggle. I had put exercise on the back burner in my early 20s. I never thought I would be working out to be able to sit quietly hour after hour staring at a square board of intersecting lines.

   When I was a teenager, I ran track and field as part and parcel of Zaibas. The Cleveland Lithuanian sports club was formed in 1950. In 1951, at the 1st North American Lithuanian Games, members participated in basketball, volleyball, and table tennis. The next year the club hosted the games in our hometown and fielded a team in track and field. 

   In the 1960s I ran around in circles encouraged by Algirdas Bielskus. He was the director of a men’s vocal ensemble, co-founder of a choir, and concertmaster of the Ciurlonis Ensemble. He was also the community’s track and field coach for sixty years. He had the voice to make himself heard loud and clear from the far end of a quarter-mile track. Every weekend fair or foul all I heard was “Go! Go! Go!”

   He always carried a briefcase, briefcases he was always losing, stuffed with notes about how we were progressing. Rita Kliorys made him a Christmas gift of a new one in 1966. “It was the accordion kind,” she said. “I remember it cost $100.00, and I collected one dollar from many people. He actually did not lose it, either.”

   He coached hundreds of youngsters who ran hundreds of thousands of miles. “I thought of him afterwards whenever I saw the turquoise and orange Howard Johnsons and would remember how he took us there for ice cream sometimes,” said Regina Thomas. “Although I was a talentless klutz at sports, he never made me feel like one. I never thought much about it as a kid, but what a commitment to youth and sports.” The small man with the big voice was seemingly tireless, championing fitness among Cleveland’s Baltic off-spring.

   “He worked for my dad’s company, Transmission Research, in the basement of our house,” said Dalia Nasvytis. “Sometimes we would hear noises downstairs late at night and realize he was still down there running off schedules for the next athletic meet he was organizing.”

   Once we started playing Go, Matti and I made a commitment to it. We played all that spring summer and through the winter, two and three games a week. It wasn’t an obsession although it was. We played on the front porch until it got too cold to play outside. After that we played in the living room at a coffee table, sitting opposite one another, all four of our eyes glued to the board.

   We hardly talked, going for hours without saying a word. Every so often Matti smoked a Marlboro. After another hour he would tap another one out of the red and white flip-top box. Whenever I joined him, the living room filled with smoke, a gray-white cloud stewing over the entanglements of Go.

   The game demands concentration, which is born out of silence. Some of our best moves and long-term maneuvers were made quietly. I found out the more time I spent in the quiet, the more surprised I was about what came into my head.

   When we first started playing the plan of attack was capturing stones. We both saw that surrounding other stones and taking them prisoner yielded points. It was like taking a piece in chess. After a while we discovered the object of Go is not to surround and capture the opponent’s stones. The object is to surround empty territory on the board. The way to do it is by building walls around empty intersections. If your territory includes some opposing stones, all the better. From then on it became a contest to capture territory rather than capture stones.

   In the Eastern world Go was the war strategist’s game of choice for a long time. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” reads as an introduction and exposition to the game. Warlords of every stripe were always big on blockading their enemies and capturing territory back in the day. The times they are not a-changing, not anytime soon. 

   There’s an old saying, “Chess is a battle. Go is a war.” The more we played the more we discovered it was a war of attrition. It was like breaking stones in the hot sun. There was no fighting the law of Go.

   Oskar Korschelt, a German chemist, brought the game from Japan to Europe in the 1880s. Even though it was slow to catch on, by the 1950s championship-level tournaments were being organized. By the mid-70s it was filtering into the United States. I didn’t meet another Lithuanian who played the game.

   Lithuanians are instinctively suspicious, somewhat superstitious, sometimes curious, usually sensible, always pragmatic, hard-working, conformist communal and punctual. They are often reserved except when they get together. Once they establish their bona fides it’s pick up a drink and run off at the mouth. They play volleyball and basketball. They probably couldn’t stand the prolonged silence of Go.

   One night after a protracted back-and-forth game Matti and I drove to the Harbor Inn. We were looking for some down time. Lights were blazing in the handful of windows. The two-story building used to be a home-away-from-home for dockworkers and salt-miners. Anyone who didn’t mind a lumpy mattress could even sleep upstairs. It might have been a dive back in the day, but it was no ifs ands or buts about it a dive now, slinging suds to third shifters in the morning and anybody else who had a buck the rest of the day and night. There was a coin operated bowling arcade game and mangled dart boards upstairs. We got bottles of Pride of Cleveland beer, being short on spare change, and a handful of beat-up bar darts.

  Nobody knew how long the Harbor Inn had been there, but we reckoned it had to be from the day after Moses Cleaveland settled the land centuries before. It smelled rank, like standing water hundreds of years old. It smelled like bad smoke from long-gone cigars and cigarettes. It smelled like sweat. Looking around there was no doubt some of the men in the bar only bathed once a month.

   The beer was cold and refreshing and playing darts was fun. We played 501 Up. Both players start with a score of 501 and take turns throwing three darts. Bullseye scores 50, the outer ring scores 25, and a dart in the double or treble ring counts double or triple. The tally is calculated and deducted from the player’s total. The goal is to be the first dartist to reduce the score to exactly zero, the only hitch being that the last missile thrown must land in a double or the bullseye. 

   Darts are front-weighted flighted weapons a few inches long with a sharp point. A part of playing darts is the throwing part. The rest of it is mental toughness, staying on the button, stinging the cork like a bee. It was like Go except we could let ourselves go. We wrote our names in chalk on the brick wall, adding them to the hundreds of other names reaching to the ceiling. After a couple more P. O. C.’s we got sloppy, but it was no matter.

   There weren’t a hundred-or-more darts crowding the dart board, like all the stones on a Go board. Every throw was always at an empty target, every throw a new chance to get it right, unencumbered by the past. Go was all about the past of all the stones placed on the board. It was a relief to see the target and hit the target, except when we missed, and the dart bounced off the brick wall.

   When that happened, we yukked it up, not like the game of Go, which is no laughing matter.

Photograph by Lisa DeJeng.

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”