By Ed Staskus
“I started to help in the sugar beet fields when I was 9 years old,” my mother said. “My sister Irena started helping me two years later when she turned nine.” The year was 1939 when the sisters worked together for the first time. Six years later my mother was in a refugee camp outside of Nuremberg and my aunt was on her way to a slave labor camp in Siberia. My mother was lucky Americans ran the camp she ended up in. My aunt was unlucky Russians ran the camp she ended up in. She was lucky to survive her first year, much less the next decade.
“We worked with our father, who had a one-row horse-drawn puller.” My grandfather Jonas Jurgelaitis followed on foot behind the puller, picked up the beets, scalping the tops with a small machete, and dropped them behind him as he went. He recycled the heads for animal feed. His daughters brought up the rear, shaking dirt off the beets, and loading them into a side slat cart. When it was full he made his way to Mariampole, the nearest market town, where there was a storehouse and a train station to later take the root vegetables to a sugar beet factory.
Their other major crop was cabbage. They could harvest upwards of ten thousand heads an acre. When they cut the cabbage head out of the plant they left the outer leaves and root in the ground. That way they got two crops. Jonas took them to Mariampole, too.
“My older brothers Bronius and Justinas helped handle the livestock, and they did field work and repairs. Something always needed to be fixed. My younger brothers were still growing up. My father did everything outside the house and my mother did everything inside the house. All of us worked around the clock at harvest time, even the boys.” Most of the food and drink the family of eight ate and drank came from their own fields and pastures, although their sugar beets were grown on land they rented from a neighboring childless widow.
The farm was in the Naujeji Gizai region hallway between Lake Paezeriu and Mariampole, although it was far closer in spirit to the lake than it was to the city. Some farmers had tractors. Most farmers had draft horses. They preferred tractors, but the Great Depression had put a dent into what they preferred. Some big land owners had cars. Everybody else had a horse and carriage to get the family to church on time on Sundays.
My grandfather kept cows, pigs, and chickens. “We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edge of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, my grandmother Julija still canned pickles and beets and stored them in the well. “We raised our own pigs and my father killed them.” When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, walked it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal hard between the eyes with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons, he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.
Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, he cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting off the shoulders of the pig. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find. They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney in the attic of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet. “I was scared to death of the upstairs, of the fire up there, although the pig meat was delicious,” my mother said. “When we ran out of food, my father killed another animal. He was a serious man.”
The dining room was big enough for all of them at once. There were no chairs. There were two long benches. My mother always sat cross-legged when eating. “I was scared that a Jew would sneak under the table.” She was afraid he would bite her legs and suck her blood. “Everybody said the Jews had killed God and they drank the blood of Christians.”
One of my mother’s chores was killing chickens for dinner. She didn’t like chopping their heads off, so she grabbed them by the neck instead and swung them in a circle around her until their necks snapped. There were barn cats and a watchdog. They chained the dog up at night. There were potatoes and fruit trees. They grew barley and summer wheat, putting in a barnful of hay every autumn. Sugar beets were my grandfather’s number one cash crop, followed by cabbage and hemp. He grew some stalks of marijuana and tobacco behind the barn. He didn’t puff on pot himself. He smoked his homegrown tobacco instead, packed in a pipe, taking a break at the end of a long hard day.
“I let the young men smoke their stinkweed and get silly,” he said. My grandfather got silly in a different way. He brewed his own beer and krupnickas. My grandmother didn’t smoke or drink. She kept a close eye on her husband. He kept a close eye on her, never smoking in the house. She had chronic tuberculosis, coughing and running a fever, and wasn’t long for this world.
Making home brew is the simplest thing in the world. Sumerian farmers brewed beer from barley more than 5,000 years ago. The Codes of Hammurabi, that were the laws during the Babylonian Empire, decreed a daily beer ration to everybody from laborers to priests. Laborers got two liters a day. Priests got five liters a day. In the Middle Ages Christian monks were the artisanal beer makers of the time. Since my grandfather had water, malt and hops, and yeast within easy reach, he had beer within easy reach year-round.
Krupnikas is a spiced honey liqueur. The Order of Saint Benedict whipped it up for the first time in the 16th century. It can be spiced with just about anything, including cardamon, cinnamon, and ginger. If they had them, farmers added lemons, oranges, and berries. Honey was essential, although not as essential as a gallon or two of 190 proof grain alcohol. There was grain as far as the eye could see, and everybody knew somebody who made moonshine, so making krupnikas full-bodied was never a problem. Lithuanians pour it down on holidays and weddings. Everybody likes a warm snort of it in the dead of winter, whether they have a cold or not.
Next to the lowlands of central Lithuania, the carbonate soils of the west are the best. That is where my grandfather was. More than half of the country’s land area was farmland. Most of the rest of it was meadow and forest. What was left was where the towns and cities were. The agrarian reform of 1922 promoted farmsteads. Landless peasants got some acres of land, if not a mule. Most holdings, except those Polonized, were between 5 and 40 acres. The Poles were Lithuania’s rural aristocracy. My grandfather had been a landless peasant. He got 10-some acres of his own and rented more of it. During the interwar years more than 70% of the population depended on agriculture for its livelihood. In the 1930s Lithuanians fed themselves and were the source of 80% of the country’s export income. Lithuania is roughly two-thirds the size of the state of Maine. The small country was the sixth-largest butter exporter in the world.
My grandfather didn’t know anything about the legality of cannabis. He didn’t know it was called “Sacred Grass” three thousand years ago in India. He didn’t know the Romans had used it as medicine. He didn’t know Queen Elizabeth in 1563 ordered all English land owners with 60 or more acres to grow it or face a 5 pound fine. One year later King Philip of Spain ordered cannabis be grown throughout his empire from Spain to Argentina. George Washington cultivated it at Mount Vernon and smoked it when his teeth hurt too much to bear.
After World War One some nations began to outlaw marijuana. It became seriously illegal in the 1930s. The United States led the way. The plow breaking new ground was “Reefer Madness” and the man behind the plow was William Randolph Hearst. His chain of newspapers ran one article after another demonizing marijuana. There were articles about Mexicans gone crazy after smoking it, running around with a “lust for blood,” and articles about reefer-mad Negroes dancing to voodoo jazz music and raping white women.
Harry Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, turned the nativist, as well as racist, battle against marijuana into a war. “Reefer makes darkies think they’re as good as white men,” he said. He believed it had a bad effect on the weak-minded “degenerate races.” He was especially worried that white women might smoke it at parties and consort with black men.
“Most marijuana smokers are Negroes, Hispanics, and Filipinos,” he said. “Their satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from its usage. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, and entertainers, and many others. I consider it the worst of all narcotics, far worse than the use of morphine or cocaine.” The soft drink Coca-Cola contained cocaine from 1894 until 1929. It was why kids could walk five miles to school, both ways, uphill in the snow, jumping barbed wire fences.
“Under the influence of marijuana men become beasts. It destroys life itself,” Harry Anslinger declared. He called for a nationwide ban on the weed. Just in case anybody had missed the point, he added, “Smoking it leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing.” The top pot cop got the Marijuana Tax Act passed in 1937. It effectively made the weed illegal from coast to coast. Other countries worldwide got on the bandwagon. Even the Netherlands criminalized cannabis for a few years. The American law was declared unconstitutional in 1969, but Richard Nixon replaced it with the Controlled Substances Act the next year. Darkies couldn’t catch a break any which way.
The Nixon administration quickly changed the name of the Controlled Substances Act to the War on Drugs. The next Republican president dragged out the big guns. “I now have absolute proof that smoking even one marijuana cigarette is equal in brain damage to being on Bikini Island during an H-bomb blast,” said President Ronald Reagan. The First Lady consulted advertising executives and her astrologer and they came up with a snappy slogan: “Just Say No!” When asked what she meant she said she wasn’t talking about H-bombs but about marijuana.
The town of Gizai is situated at a crossroad. There was a church, a police station, a hardware store, and a coffee shop in the 1930s. “We went to church every Sunday without fail and my father went to the store whenever he needed a tool or something he couldn’t make himself,” my mother said. “When he took us along he treated us to candy at the coffee shop while he drank coffee and had a slice of lazy cake.”
Back on the farm everybody slept on the ground floor of the house. The bedrooms were three side rooms. One was for Jonas and Julija. One was for my mother and her sister. The third room was for the four boys. There was no electricity. The house was lit by kerosene lamps. The dining room was the biggest room. It was lit by a big kerosene lamp that was raised and lowered from the ceiling by a pulley attached to a counterweight. Everybody washed their meals down with tea. My grandfather bought tea from a German smuggler rather than pay the taxes levied on it. In the winter the fireplace was stuffed with wood and turf. The boys had the chore of making sure it never died out November through March. Once a year a chimney cleaner came with ladders, brooms, and brushes. The sweep used a long rope attached to a weight for pushing out the soot.
My grandparents couldn’t afford a washerwoman, so my grandmother did all the laundry. She put a tripod inside the fireplace and heated water in a copper kettle. After the clothes were washed she rinsed them in another kettle. She hung some of the clothes on a line in the attic to dry. She used a mangler on other laundry to get the wrinkles out. It was a wooden box with rollers like a wringer that squeezed and smoothed water-soaked clothes. When she was done she didn’t need any marijuana to help her relax. She fell asleep the minute she was done.
My grandmother Julija died of tuberculosis in 1941. She had been in and out of a sanatorium in Kaunas. When she decided to go home for the last time it was to go home to die. My grandfather built an addition for her, which was a bedroom with a window. He built a new bed and stuffed a new mattress with clean straw. He moved their wedding cask to a corner of the bedroom. When the end was near he stood a coffin up beside the door. She was buried in a cemetery outside Gizai a few months before the German Army suddenly invaded.
My grandfather Jonas died in 1947 after the Russians took the country over and collectivized everybody’s farms. The authorities told him he could keep one cow and one pig. They didn’t care about his chickens. They told him to stop growing marijuana and tobacco. All his crops had to be delivered to the state and the state would pay him whatever they thought was appropriate. He had differences with them about it, but what could he do? What he did was die soon afterwards of some kind of brain disease. His head probably exploded. Who wants to be a slave of the state? His farm disappeared down the Soviet sinkhole.
Lithuania criminalized cannabis in 2017, a hundred years behind the times. The country was going against the grain. Almost everybody else in the world outside of China and Russia was decriminalizing it as fast as they could. They were sick of the drug gangs and lost tax revenue and prisons bulging with one-time losers. By then everybody knew marijuana didn’t make anybody sex-crazy or lust after blood. The country pivoted four years later and decriminalized small amounts for personal use. Growing any amount of jazzy stinkweed remained illegal. My grandfather might have mulled the matter over on his front porch, puffing vigorously on his pipe to get it going, but I doubt he would have paid too much attention, unless it was at the point of a gun, to whatever monocratic laws the boss men promulgated regarding his crops.
Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.