By Ed Staskus
Some years later living in a Polish double in Cleveland, Ohio, the last winter they lived in the old neighborhood before moving to the new neighborhood where a school and convent adjoining the Lithuanian church had just been built, Eddie Staskevicius watched his 9-year-old sister Rita walk up the stairs in her new American winter coat and remembered the blimp-style snow suit his mother made for her earlier in Sudbury, Ontario.
“She looked like one of the astronauts in ‘Destination Moon,’” the 12-year-old boy said. He 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 space, the new frontier, brought to life by space the old frontier, at least until the TV fritzed off. Rockets were hot. Project Mercury was gone and done, 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. It was where Angele Jurgelaityte married Vytas Staskevicius in 1949 and gave birth to Edvardas in 1951, Ricardas in 1952, and Rita 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,” and 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 knew how to boil pork and make soup. “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 of it. “We didn’t have a refrigerator at first and I had to ask one of our neighbors to keep it for me.” She stuck 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,” Angele 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 said.
They rented an upstairs room to a German couple recently arrived, Bruno and Ingrid Hauck, in order to bring in a little income. Vytas charged $11.00 a week and soon converted a second upstairs bedroom to accommodate boarders. There was a half bath.
“I don’t know where they went for a real bath,” said Angele. The Staskevicius family lived on the ground floor. They had a full bath.
“I loved having kids, but we still had to go out sometimes,” Angele said. Vytas bought her a fur coat after Rita’s birth. Fur was more a necessity in Sudbury than some kind of 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. “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.
Angele worked for the Laplame’s as a mother’s helper one winter, spring, and summer. J. A. Lapalme, a local businessman, had promised Angele he would help get Vytas Staskevicius out of Germany and into Canada. He went to his office every day and 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, 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, where work meant not seeing the light. Either you worked in the mines 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 hot 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 mining economy went boom and bust through the years as demand for nickel fluctuated. It was high during World War One, bottomed out 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 five-hour afternoon honeymoon at a nearby lakeshore park. 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 length of Stanley Street.
Stanley Street stretched four blocks from Elm Street, the commercial thoroughfare, past Pine Street to Poplar Street. When it was extended to the nearly sheer rock face on top of which railroad tracks ran, it became five blocks. Several new homes were built.
“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.”
He neglected to install storm windows 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 in.” They might have been recent settlers, DPs from Eastern Europe, but they didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the winter storm systems blew.
The builder had four children, two of them boys. Angele’s sons played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind their house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep rock cliff at the end of the street. Their parents forbade them the fantasy.
Angele spoke Lithuanian fluently, Russian and German competently, English just barely, and French not at all. Everybody in Sudbury spoke English and French. It was grapevine with the neighbors and listen 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. A 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 purpose 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 faraway 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 hot,” Angele said. “There were no trees anywhere. The rock would get hot and make everything hotter. The winters started in October and they were cold.”
When spring came, there wasn’t much to it. Decades of indiscriminate logging, massive mining operations, and smelter emissions wiped out almost all of 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 hot 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 land. The last frost in spring was in late May. It came back the second week of autumn.
In the winter, once she got the hang of it, Angele 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 an old foot-powered Treadle Singer sewing machine in good condition. A rubber belt operated it. The belt 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 you get into the swing of things, both delicate and durable stiches are more than workable.
Within a few years she was making curtains and tablecloths for herself and their neighbors.
She sewed dresses for her friends. She made a dress for Irma Hauck. “I sewed a coat for Maryte Zizys.” She learned to make pants for the men, cuffs and all.
She sewed winter suits for her kids. Eddie got a German army winter field coat and matching wool pants. Rick got a Space Cadet zip up one-piece suit. Both boys 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.”
Eddie and Rick chased her with ray guns.
When Vytas learned how to ice skate at a local rink, he bought his kids skates. He flooded the front yard with hose water, and when it froze solid in seconds taught them how to skate. Whenever Rita fell down, she never felt a thing, her puffy suit protecting her. But sometimes she couldn’t get back up, lacking leverage, the stiff winter wind rolling her over and over.
She never got hurt, reassuring her mother that the puffiness was serving its purpose.
“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. 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, Rita survived, fortune teller or no fortune teller, ray guns or no ray guns, rock solid ice or not.
In the spring, between pregnancies and births, Angele performed in plays resurrected from Lithuania. 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 in Sudbury, since everyone else they had known in Lithuania was either stuck fast in the homeland behind the Iron Curtain or had emigrated to one corner of the wide world-or-other or had died in the war.
Rimas worked for Murray Mines and hosted a Lithuanian radio program Sundays in his spare time. He sang and danced and played the piano, violin, harmonica, accordion, and organ. He was one of the church organists and one of the accordionists for folk dancing performances.
He worked underground for eight years. In 1957 he was told in order to be promoted he would have to change his last name. A manager suggested Rimas Bags or Rimas Bagas. He didn’t like the idea. He worked in the dark but was starting to see the light.
“My dad told them he was born a Bagdonas and would die a Bagdonas,” said his daughter Lele. “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. Vytas had already made a foray south of the border, exploring where they 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. Hard rock mining is hazardous work. 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 diggers. None of the DP diggers wanted to be tunneling the rest of their lives.
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 new millennium 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. Nearly 9 million trees were planted over a 30-year period. It was one of the largest re-greening projects in the world.
“I hated my husband having to work in the mines,” said Angele. “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, one to the other.”
Rita’s godfather moved to Chicago. Rick’s godfather moved to San Diego. Ed’s godfather moved to Los Angeles. Henry and Maryte Zizys moved to Montreal. The Hauck’s moved to Detroit. Almost everyone who had come to Sudbury for the chance to get out of Europe and for the available work went somewhere else.
“Vytas worked nine hours a day for two weeks and then nine hours a night for two weeks,” said Angele. His days of getting up, shoveling coal into the furnace cold 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 most up most of his day. “When he worked nights, we hardly saw him. He would come home in the morning, have a bite to eat, and go to bed.”
Refugees displaced people immigrants believe in hard work as the way to get ahead. It’s often the only thing to believe in. Everything else has been left behind.
“When the men were working day shifts, we had parties on weekends at our house,” Angele said. “We had a big living room and the Simkiai, Povilaiciai, and Dzenkaiciai would come over.” The kids got shoved into a bedroom to fend for themselves.
The men 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 Pall Mall cigarettes until the card table was under a cloud of smoke. The women 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, other women, who was getting married and who was getting dumped, the movies, shopping cooking the butcher baker and candlestick maker. They talked about local doings. The men talked about their jobs, who knew and didn’t know what they were doing. They put the kids to sleep. They talked long into the night in the living room.
Outside when it got dark, 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. After that there wasn’t much to see. They didn’t talk about what had been, so much, but about what was going to be.
“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.
Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”