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 Sudbury, Ontario.
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 blowing up.
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. 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,” and went to work raising her own family in her own house. The Lapalme’s had 13 kids.
“I spent all my time cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and watching my own kids,” she said.
The day she got married she knew how to boil pork and make 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 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,” 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 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,” she 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. Her husband 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. “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 her he would help get Vytas 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, 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 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, the 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 orian, 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.”
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 right in.” They might have been recent immigrants, DPs from Eastern Europe, but they didn’t need a weatherman to know which way the winter wind blew.
The builder had four children, two of them boys. We played with them in the summer, climbing the sloping rock hills behind our house, and planning on how to someday climb the steep rock cliff at the end of the street. Our parents forbade us the fantasy, while we bided our time.
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 the grapevine 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. 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 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 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,” 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 had 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 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 land. The last frost in spring was in May. It came back early in 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 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 you get 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 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 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 down, 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,” Angele 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, 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 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 down deep in the rock 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 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 had 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 diggers. None of the DP diggers wanted to be dug out of rubble.
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.
“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. My 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.
“My husband 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 on 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 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 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.” We got shoved into a bedroom to fend for ourselves.
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 Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes until the card table was under a pall 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, 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 us to bed when they spotted us listening. 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 and the windows. 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. 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 edits Theatre PEI. He posts feature stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.