Tag Archives: Sudbury Ontario

Ground Zero

By Ed Staskus

   The General Hospital of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened in Sudbury on Paris Street in 1950. It was the first English speaking not just French hospital in northern Ontario. It had a brick façade with a steel beam grid system. The parking lot was close to hand right at the entrance, which was handy if you were dragging a broken leg behind you.

   Nobody needed to speak English or any other language to get around. “They used to do this cool thing,” Ginette Tobodo said. “On the walls they painted certain colors, one color for the lab, another color for the cardiac department, and you just followed the color to where you needed to go. It was easy to find your way around.”

  Susan Cameron was the lead blast off. “The hospital was not officially open, but my mother was in labor,” she said. It was unofficial but necessary vital time sensitive. When it’s your time to be born, it’s your time, no matter what anybody officially rules on the matter.

   When I was born the next year in March 1951 everybody was already calling the hospital the ‘General.’ I don’t remember a single second of being in my mother’s womb. The next thing I knew there were bright lights, voices, a pair of scissors, a slap on my butt, and I was being held up for inspection like a hunk of ham. I couldn’t make out what was happening. Everybody was wearing clothes and I was naked as a jaybird. It seemed like I had come into being not knowing anything.   

   The whole thing was such a shock I couldn’t bring myself to talk about it for almost two years, by which time nobody wanted to hear about it.

   A man wearing a mask counted my toes and fingers and pinched my arms and legs. He stopped when he seemed satisfied. I wanted to ask him what he was doing but didn’t know how to talk. That month’s issue of Sudbury’s Inco Triangle newsletter had a poem called “Man’s a Queer Animal” on one of its inside pages.

   “With a lid on each eye, and a bridge on his nose, with drums in his ears, and nails on his toes, with palms on his hands, and soles on his feet, and a large Adam’s apple, that helps him to eat, with a cap on each knee, on each shoulder a blade, he’s the queerest thing made.”

   I looked myself over. I didn’t seem queer, but what did I know? I checked the other newborns but couldn’t see any difference between them and me. Were we all off the wall? I was reassured when I heard a nurse say, “They are all such little miracles.”

   Inco was the corporation that ran most of the mining in Sudbury. Its head man died a month before I was born. Robert Crooks Stanley was a mining engineer who patented many new refining methods including the Stanley Process. He became president of Inco in 1922, when the company was at a low ebb. He had to close operations owing to a loss of war orders. Six years later, recovering his poise, he launched a $50 million dollar building and expansion project. 

   When I came down the chute the mines were booming. My mom was getting her bag ready for the hospital the day Len Turner and Nifty Jessup arrived at the Bank of Toronto in the Donovan neighborhood, one of Sudbury’s oldest neighborhoods, with Inco’s weekly payroll. Going up the steps of the bank, the pay clerks were suddenly brought up short by two men armed with revolvers.

   “Let me have that case,” one of them snarled.

   Len made a grab for the man’s gun. The gun went off, the bullet slamming into the bank building. The bank was unharmed. The gunman grabbed the payroll case and the thieves drove off in a stolen car towards North Bay. For all that, they made a wrong turn, got trapped on Fir Lane and the Sudbury police, more of them and better armed than the bandits, rounded them up.

   “A little of that excitement goes a long way,” Len said to Nifty after they got their company’s payroll back.

   Sudbury came into existence in the early 1880s as a construction site for Canadian Pacific Railway that was laying tracks for a transcontinental line. It was a company town and all the stores and boarding houses and everything else were operated by the company. W. J. Bell cut down every tree he could see to supply the railroad, at least until the day the railroad was done and left town. It looked like the end of Sudbury.

   It was saved from stillbirth by prospectors who found vast mineral deposits, what became known as the Sudbury Basin. It is the third largest impact crater on the planet, when something big from outer space crashed there about 2 billion years ago. “By 1886 we knew Sudbury was going to be a mining town,” Florence Howey wrote. In that year mining and smelting was started by Copper Cliff. Seven years later the town incorporated itself.

   Meanwhile, Sam Richie formed the Canadian Copper Company in Cleveland, Ohio, which was an unknown place to me in 1951, although by 1959 I was finding out all about it since my parents, with my brother, sister, and me in tow, migrated there. At the turn of the 20th century Canadian Copper was merged with International Nickel, controlled by J. P Morgan, and moved to New Jersey.

   Sudbury’s nickel plating on warships helped win the Spanish-American War for the United States. Afterwards, the British and their international military cousins sat up and took notice. The arms race was on, and Sudbury was rolling in dough.

   Even though my mother and I had been inseparable for nine months, the next thing I knew I was being separated from her. I was carried to a nursery and spent the next week in the company of a gaggle of strangers. Half the time half of us were crying. The rest of the time we were sleeping or looking around for food.

   The boy next to me seemed to be hungry 24 hours a day. Whenever anything edible was within reach, he reached for it. “He’s a nice boy but he’s got more nerve than a bum tooth,” I thought, even though he was far off from cutting his teeth. A girl on the other side of me wiggled her legs and giggled. She started wiggling her arms, too. 

   I couldn’t take my eyes off her, baby fat and all. “That girl is fidgety as a bubble dancer with a slow leak,” I tried to tell the hungry boy beside me, but the words wouldn’t come, and besides he was eating again.

   The nurses gave us a bath every morning and fed us every three hours. The nurse who scrubbed me from tip to toe was all business. She tested the temperature with her elbow, soaped me up, and I went gently down into the water. One day something scared me, and I jumped like an electric eel. I was crazy slippery from the soap and slipped out of her hands. I landed face down in the baby bath. The commotion I caused would have made anyone think she was trying to kill me.

   When we were done with breakfast lunch dinner and goodies, which was all the same mush, they bubbled us, changed us, and put us back to sleep. I wasn’t fussy or gassy and slept like a log. As soon as I woke up, I was hungry again.

   The boys took it easy in blue beds and the girls in pink beds, what the bosses in white uniforms called cots. My mother got to stay in a room with another woman, chatting it up, eating in bed, and reading Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, and Ladies’ Home Journal. I saw her twice a day for a few minutes for some real food. One day my dad showed up.

   “Who’s that?” I wanted to ask.

   My cot was near a window. When I looked out all I could see was ice and snow. More than a hundred inches of snow had fallen that winter and there were snowbanks as far as the eye could see. The month before the thermometer had gotten stuck between 30 and 40 below for a week. It was still bitter cold. I pulled my blanket tight around me when I heard one of the nurses say, “It’s too bad we can’t take them out for a little airing.”

   The minerals in the Sudbury Basin had a high sulphur content and needed to be roasted before smelting. The open pits burned for years. The roasting yards puffed yellow gray clouds all around the compass. There were slag and mine tailing piles, soil erosion and blackened hilltops. When I was born Sudbury was largely barren and treeless. Everybody said that was the way it was. Everybody cashed their paychecks and got on with it. Tourists on their way somewhere else called the Sudbury Basin the Canadian Death Valley.

   I was an infant and didn’t have a clue that engineers and corporate executives can be a burrito short of a combination plate. The executives were sly dogs, though. What their mines paid in taxes was the equivalent of about one-half the revenue that Sudbury would have gotten if it had been any other heavy-industrial city in that part of Ontario. The national press was always saying my hometown was a “slum” or “a smaller version of Katowice, Poland.”

   My dad belonged to Local 598 of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. It was the biggest trade union in Canada. Local 598 and Inco hated each other’s guts. The local built union halls and a children’s camp where we went to hear music and see movies. I saw Walt Disney’s “Treasure Island” and “The Littlest Outlaw.”

   It wasn’t like I needed a day off like my father and godfather, who worked long hours miles down in the ground. One day my godfather walked up to me at the camp and said, “What are you doing here relaxing? You haven’t worked a day in your life.”

   “You’ve got to love livin’,” I said.

   He coughed up a mouthful of mine dust and cigarette smoke and laughed. “If you aren’t laughing, you aren’t living, my baby boy,” he said, reaching for his Export A’s when my dad walked up, so they could kick back together for ten minutes.

   My baby days were behind me, but I let it slide.

   My parents didn’t live in Lively or Onaping Falls, where class and race paid the bills. Little Warsaw was where the Poles lived. Little Italy was under a line of smokestacks and the Italians lived there. I ended up living in the middle of town where the East Europeans and Finns lived. The Finns liked to wrestle and ski, although not at the same time. My parents and their friends liked to play cards smoke drink and dance. They worked like Puritans, though, saving their money, so they could get ahead. They left the DP camps of Europe in the late 1940s on separate freighters with a duffel bag and enough cash to buy a snack.

  When it came time to pack up, I wasn’t ready. I had gotten used to the nursery and had made friends. I learned soon enough that all good things come to an end. It was a sunny day towards the end of the month when my dad gathered my mom and me up and took us home. There weren’t any crocuses showing, but most of the snowpack had melted away.

   The General did fine work by me. I was hale and hearty when I got to what I found out was home. I had been living on the bottle, but my mom switched the menu up, feeding me herself. My parents lived in a small, rented house on Pine Street. My father was working in the tombs of outer space, taking all the overtime he could get, and was planning on buying a house on Stanley Street, just down the street.

   Sometimes the hospital couldn’t get it done and people took matters into their own hands. Edmond Paquette, an Inco pensioner in his 80s, had suffered a paralytic stroke that left him unable to walk. He vowed an act of penance, building a built-to-scale church inside a five-gallon glass carboy. When he was done, he stood up and walked across the room to tell his son-in-law Dusty that he had accomplished his mission.

   “You’re walking unaided,” Dusty exclaimed. 

   “It’s a miracle,” Edmond said.

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

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Fried Eggs on Toast

By Ed Staskus

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

   They all spoke English and many of them spoke French. We spoke English on the street, which was how I picked up enough of it to get by. French was for talking about cooking fashion politics and popular culture. We didn’t know anything about those things, so we stuck to English.

   My close friend and arch-enemy Regina Bagdonaite, who I called Lele, lived a block away. She and I played together, burning up the pavement, except for those times that she saw me dragging my red fleece blanket behind me. When she tried to take it away and I resisted, starting a tug of war, she resorted to biting me on the arm. It was then squabbling and pushing started in earnest, all hell breaking loose.

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

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

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

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

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

   “I didn’t like Sudbury,” my mother said. “All the trees were dried up and dead. It was god-forsaken as far as the eye could see.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   My mother and her friends shopped on Elm Street. When I was still a toddler, I rode in a baby carriage. After my brother and sister were born, they rode in the carriage. I didn’t fit anymore, having become a third wheel.

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

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

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

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

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

   Our house on Stanley Street was ten blocks from the vast open pits on the other side of Big Nickel Mine Drive. Logging and farming were what men worked at through the middle of the 19th century, but after 1885 big deposits of nickel, copper, and platinum were discovered in the basin. The impact of decades of roasting ore on open wood fires killed most of the trees not being logged for the fires, except poplar and birch, which dotted the city and our street.

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

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

   When I was four my parents had a New Year’s Eve party at our house, inviting their friends. A few minutes before the magic moment my mother cut her eye adjusting the elastic strap of a party hat under her chin while sliding it up over the front of her face.

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

   When she woke up my father and Rimas Bagdonas, her dancing partner in the local Lithuanian folk dancing group, were washing the night’s dishes. Rimas worked in the mines, and wrote plays in his spare time, staging them in the hall of the nearby French Catholic church hall. We all went to church there once a month when the visiting Lithuanian priest made his rounds. It cost ten cents to sit in a pew. My brother, sister, and I sat for free. Piety and silence were mandatory.

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

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

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

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

   When it got worse, my father built an igloo for us to play in.

   It snows a hundred and more inches in Sudbury. After the streets and sidewalks are cleared there is plenty of building material. He formed blocks 4 inches high and 6 inches thick. When there were enough blocks to start, he made a circle leaving space for a door. After he stacked them, he used loose snow like cement, packing it in. He put a board across the top of the igloo door and another at the top of the dome for support. Halfway up were small windows and around the top several air holes.

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

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

   My mother told us to never go in the basement. She didn’t invent a Babadook in the basement, but she didn’t want us down there messing around. One day I started down the stairs to see what my dad exactly did every morning. I tripped over my own feet and tumbled the rest of the way down. I was back on my feet in a second, ran up the stairs and into the kitchen, and started to bawl, even though I was unhurt.

   The furnace heated a boiler that created steam delivered by pipes to radiators throughout the house. We were forbidden to stand on the pipes or scale the radiators. It was the basement all over again.

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

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

   I always saluted my pals with half a piece of gooey toast before getting back to business.

Photograph by Rimas Bagdonas.

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.”

Kitchen Party

HOMESPUN.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

Some years later living in a Polish double in Cleveland, Ohio, the last winter we lived in the old neighborhood off St. Clair Ave., before moving to the new neighborhood in North Collinwood where a school and convent adjoining the Lithuanian church had just been built, I watched my 9-year-old sister Rita walk up the stairs in her new American winter coat and remembered the blimp-style snow suit my mother made for her in Canada.

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

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

   Rita wore her space suit winters in Sudbury, Ontario. It was where my mother Angele Jurgelaityte married Vytas Staskevicius in 1949 and gave birth to me in 1951, my brother in 1952, and my sister in 1954. It was the trifecta. When she did, she gave up her job as a nanny for the Lapalme’s, known as “The Largest Family in Sudbury.” The Lapalme’s had 13 kids. She went to work raising her own family in her own house. 

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

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

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

   My mom and dad rented an upstairs room to a German couple who were recently arrived in the country, Bruno and Ingrid Hauck, in order to bring in some income. They charged $11.00 a week and soon converted a second upstairs bedroom to accommodate more boarders. There was a half bath.

   “I don’t know where they went for a real bath,” my mom said. Our family lived on the ground floor. We had a full bath. Once a week in the tub was de rigueur at our house.

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

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

   When she worked for the Laplame’s it was as a mother’s helper for a year. J. A. Lapalme, a local businessman, promised her he would help get boyfriend out of Germany and into Canada. He went to his office every day and every day she waited for word about the sponsorship.

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

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

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

   “He did it the next day,” she said.  

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

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

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

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

    Stanley Street stretched four blocks from Elm Street, a commercial thoroughfare, past Pine Street to Poplar Street. When it was extended to the nearly sheer rock face on top of which the Canada Pacific ran hauling ore, it became five blocks. Several new homes were built. All of them had basements and coal furnaces.

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

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

   The builder had four children, two of them boys. I played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind our house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep cliff at the end of the street. Our parents forbade us the fantasy, while we bided our time, waiting for them to turn their backs for a second.

   My mother spoke Lithuanian fluently, Russian and German competently, English just barely, and French not at all. Everybody in Sudbury spoke English and French. It was hearing it on the grapevine and listening some more for her to be able to go shopping.

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

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

   For all its work and prosperity, the mining town was known as one of the ugliest cities in Canada. Logging for the reason of roasting ore on open fires and the smoke that resulted despoiled the landscape, leaving behind scattered poplars and birches, the only trees able to endure the harm. The small city and its vast environs were often compared to the landscape of the moon. What birds there were carried their nut and seed lunch boxes from tree to tree because the trees were so far and few between. They never said goodbye, though. The nest is where the heart is.

   “The summers were short and steamy,” my mom said. “There were no trees anywhere. There was one here and there. The rocks got hot and made everything hotter. Winter started in October, and it was cold.”

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

   It was colder than cold in winter. The average temperature was below zero. “Our best friends, Henry and Maryte Zizys, had to go home on the bus one weekend after visiting us and it was 45 degrees below zero.” The average snowfall was above average for northern lands. The last frost in spring was in May. It came back early in autumn, if it had ever gone away in the first place.

   In the winter, once she got the hang of it, my mom sewed clothes. When she started, she had sewn little except a button back on a shirt or skirt. “But when you have to do something, I did it,” she said. She learned to sew the same way she learned to speak English. She rummaged cheap clothes from second-hand stores and took them apart to see how they had been put together. She cut up adult pants, reusing the zippers, and made children’s pants. “The zipper in pants was hard to figure out.” She learned by doing what she was doing.

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

   She bought a used foot-powered Treadle Singer sewing machine in good condition. A rubber belt operated it. It stretched from the balance wheel to a flat metal bigfoot pedal at the bottom. The power came from the rhythm of the sewer’s feet. The stitch length couldn’t be adjusted. Only a single straight stitch is possible with treadle machines. But once she got into the swing of things, both delicate and durable stiches become more workable. Within a few years she was making curtains and tablecloths for herself and her neighbors.

   She sewed dresses for her friends. She made a dress for Irma Hauck. “I sewed a coat for Maryte Zizys and other Lithuanians.” She learned to make pants for the men, cuffs and all. She sewed winter suits for us. I got a German army winter field coat and matching wool pants. Rick got a Space Cadet zip up one-piece suit. Both of us wore snug form-fitting hats based on “Atomic Rulers of the World.”  Rita’s snow suit was puffed up like a dirigible, cinched at the waist, and paired with a white rabbit furry hat. She was “The Thing from Stanley Street.” We chased her with make-believe ray guns.

   When my father learned how to ice skate at a local rink, he bought us skates. He flooded the front yard with hose water, and when it froze solid taught us how to skate. Whenever Rita fell she never felt a thing, her puffy suit protecting her. But sometimes she couldn’t get back up, lacking leverage, the sharp gusty wind rolling her over and over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   He worked deep down in the rock for eight years. In 1957 he was told in order to get promoted he would have to change his last name. A manager suggested Rimas Bags or Rimas Bagas. He didn’t like the idea, at all. He worked in the dark but was beginning to see the light.

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

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

   Mining has been and is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world. Some of the worst workplace disasters ever have been collapses and explosions. The most common accidents are the result of poisonous or volatile gases and the misuse of explosives for blasting operations. Especially dangerous below ground is mine-induced instability. It is a major threat for all miners. None of the DP diggers wanted to be dug out of rubble after surviving WW2.

   At the start of the 1950s Sudbury had a population of about 40,000 and of the 14,000 men in the labor force more than 8,000 of them worked in mining and smelting. Ten years later, due to the high demand for labor, the population of the city doubled. But at the outset of the 2000s Sudbury had the smallest proportion of immigrants of any city in Ontario, the Italians, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians almost all gone.

   In the meantime, Sudbury modernized its mining and reclaimed its landscape. They changed the climate. Nearly 9 million trees were planted over a 30-year period. It was one of the largest re-greening projects in the world. Better late than never.

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

   My sister’s godfather moved to Chicago. My brother’s godfather moved to San Diego. My godfather moved to Los Angeles. Henry and Maryte Zizys moved to Montreal. The Hauck’s moved to Detroit. Almost every DP who came to Sudbury for the chance to get out of Europe and for the available work went somewhere else.

   “My husband worked nine hours a day for two weeks and then nine hours a night for two weeks,” Angele said. His days of getting up, shoveling coal into the furnace on bitter mornings, having breakfast, walking or hitching a ride to the mine, working his shift, getting home, having dinner, seeing his kids for few minutes, took up most of his day. 

   “When he worked nights, we barely saw him. He would come home in the morning, have a bite to eat, and go to bed.”

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

   “When the men were working day shifts, we had parties on weekends at our house,” my mom said. “We had a big living room and the Simkiai, Povilaiciai, and Dzenkaiciai would come over.” Rita, Rick, and I got shoved into a bedroom to fend for ourselves.

   The husbands played bridge in the kitchen long into the night, drinking beer and homemade krupnickas, which is a kind of Lithuanian moonshine, smoking Export “A” and Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes until the card table was under a pall of smoke. The wives put food out, mixed cocktails, and kibitzed the card players. They danced to records. They kicked back and talked.

   “We didn’t have TV’s so we talked.”

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

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

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

Photograph by Vytas Staskevicius.

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.”

Welcome to Sudbury

By Ed Staskus

 

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

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

   By the time Angele Jurgelaityte and Vytas Staskevicius met it had been taken over and rebuilt by the United States Army.

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

   They both fled Lithuania like jumping out of a window. He was jump started by a truck-full of Wehrmacht soldiers, stationed at a Russian prisoner-of-war camp nearby, who stopped at his farm and told him he had five minutes to decide whether to come with them as they retreated from the rapidly advancing Red Army.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Bridges Magazine.

Ed Staskus posts 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.”