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Cutting Spooks Down to Size

By Ed Staskus

   It was pitch when Oliver, Emma, and Jimmy the Jet glided onto the campus of Lake Erie College in Painesville. It had taken them a half hour on their roller blades to go the 6 miles from Perry with Jimmy leading the way. He wasn’t winded in the least, although Emma was puffing from fright. Jimmy had broken every State of Ohio and County of Lake and City of Painesville rule of the road.

   They went by way of Richmond St., Liberty St., and Washington St. When they got to Gillet St. they swung south until they saw Royce Hall. They took a right and right away saw Old Joe Croaker. He was leaning on a black slab of nothing. When he straightened up he was taller than Oliver and Emma put together. Jimmy rolled to an unlit spot to the side. It wasn’t his duel to the death.

   “I’ve been waiting for you,” Old Joe said.

   “We’ve been looking for you,” Oliver said.

    “All right, sonny boy, now that you’ve found me, what are you going to do about it.” 

   “I’m going to put you on the first bus back to where you came from.”

   “I come from here,” Old Joe said.

   “You came from here once, but those days are long gone. Besides, you can’t go back to where you came from because that place doesn’t exist anymore.”

   “Hell ain’t disappearing anytime soon,” Old Joe said.

   “That’s where you need to go back to,” Oliver said.

   “The pit is no good for my constitution, such as it is.” He shrugged and flakes of straw made a halo around his head. They saw exactly what Old Joe meant. Hell was too hot to handle for the likes of what he was made of.

   “Does that mean you won’t leave?”

   “Not unless you make me, which looks like it it’s not going to happen, you being the young ‘un you are.”

   “All right, I challenge you to a knife fight in a phone booth,” Oliver said. “Your machete against my sister’s jackknife.” Emma handed the jackknife to Oliver. Old Joe started laughing. Before long he was laughing like ten thousand maniacs and choking from laughing so hard. Jimmy the Jet gave him a slap on the back. Old Joe coughed, spit out a mouthful of phlegm mixed with dust, and calmed down.

   “Boy, you’re blowing hard but you ain’t making any sense. You wouldn’t stand the no-chance of a snowball in hell.”

   Oliver rose up to his full height. He stood on a bench and slapped Old Joe across the face, challenging him in a way all men and monsters understood. “Only cowards don’t accept challenges,” he said. “Or would you rather throw words at each other and leave it at that?”

   “You have made the last mistake you’re ever going make, sonny boy,” Old Joe said, whipping out his machete and  carving pumpkins in the air with it. When a lightning bug flitted past he cut it in half in mid-air without even looking. He plucked a straw out of his sleeve and split is lengthwise with his blade like a razor. “My Spine-Splitter had never failed me,” he said.

   Emma pulled her brother aside. “Maybe we should call 911 from that phone booth,” she suggested, nervously looking Old Joe up and down. They could hear Tiberius barking in the distance. “I‘ve got a quarter,” Jimmy said wobbling on his skates. “He can’t be all bad,” Emma added.

   “He comes the closest,” Oliver said. “Besides, there’s no jail that can hold Old Joe.” He fixed the scarecrow with a look. “Can I borrow your whetstone?” he asked. When he had it in his hands he used it to sharpen the cutting edge of Emma’s jackknife. The scarecrow watched him with what seemed to be pity in his eyes.

   “I’ll take my chances,” Oliver said. “What about you, bird brain? Are you going to stand and deliver, or not?”

   Old Joe’s intelligence had been questioned every day every month of every year of his life. He had spent years trying to find the Emerald City, hoping to find a brain, but to no avail. He still didn’t have a single IQ. Even though he was dumb as play dough, he was smart enough to take offense when offense was given. It didn’t matter that it was coming from the mouth of an 8-year-old. He stepped to the door of the phone booth.

   “Your days are numbered,” he said looking down at Oliver. “It’s going to be zero hour soon enough.”

   “Age before beauty,” Oliver said, gesturing at the phone booth.  Old Joe glared at him but stepped into it. The second step was harder than the first one. It was tight quarters for him. When he was inside it took him a few minutes to turn around. When he finally did, hunched over, the top of his head bumping the top of the booth, his elbows smooshed, Oliver stepped in and closed the door. He snapped his jackknife open. The scarecrow brought his machete to bear, except he didn’t.

   The machete was bigger than the phone booth was wide. When Old Joe tried to pivot the blade, it got stuck. When he yanked on it, it stayed wedged in place. No matter what he tried he couldn’t get it free. He looked down at the towhead who was slicing open the legs of his pants and pulling straw out. It didn’t take long before Old Joe’s legs looked like toothpicks. He soon didn’t have enough strength in them to stay standing. He didn’t like the looks of what was happening. He began to collapse in slow motion. When he did Oliver started pulling straw out of the rest of him. Old Joe grimly realized the jam he was in.

   “Give me a break,” he said.

   “We’re not going to give you the skin off a grape,” Oliver retorted.

    The scarecrow tried beating Oliver with his arms. Tiberius ran up barking like a mad dog and ripped one of his arms off. Old Joe tried to clobber the dog with his remaining arm. Tiberius sank his teeth into it and ripped it off like he had the other one. Old Joe tried to bite Tiberius, who shrugged it off. He got what was left of the scarecrow by the back of the neck and dragged him out of the phone booth. He shook him, straw flying in all directions, until there was hardly anything left of Old Joe except a snarl.

   “I can do better than that by a country mile,” Tiberius said, and unleashed a snarl to make all dogs proud. The scarecrow groaned. “Is this the end of Old Joe?” he asked, bitter and exhausted. Emma walked up with the box of kitchen matches Oliver had entrusted her with. Oliver gave the jackknife back to his sister and lit a match. There was straw scattered everywhere. It caught fire. Oliver lit another match. More straw got fire. Before long all of Old Joe was on fire. He stank like armpits and sulphur.

   Oliver, Emma, and Jimmy the Jet stood back and watched the fire burn itself out. Oliver rubbed Tiberius’s head. The dog purred like a cat taking a nap. Before long there were only ashes where there had once been a fearsome spook.

   “He brought it on himself,” Oliver said, lacing up his roller blades. Emma laced her skates up, too, as did Jimmy. It was getting near to morning.

   “How did you know a knife fight in a phone booth was going to get it done?” she asked her little brother.

   “I didn’t, at least, not exactly,” Oliver said. “You never know where you are going to end up, but you’ve got to be ready to make it happen when you get there.”

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Spooks on the Loose

By Ed Staskus

   “When you heard toilets flushing by themselves, where were you?” Oliver asked his sister Emma after she came home from visiting Lake Erie College in Painesville. She was chewing on an old pretzel. She cleared her throat.

   “I was in the Kilcawley Dorm,” Emma said.

   “Were you in the bathroom?”

   “I had to go to the toilet so that’s where I was.” 

   “Was there anybody else in the bathroom?”

   “No.”

   “Nobody knows who she is, but there’s a girl who haunts the bathrooms there,” Oliver said. “The toilets are the kind you have to push the handle down, but they are always flushing themselves. Sometimes when somebody is fixing their face in the mirror, they catch sight of her right behind them, but when they turn to see who it is, she’s going out the door.”

   Oliver was the Unofficial Monster Hunter of Lake County and Emma was his older sister and right-hand man. She had been visiting Lake Erie College with her mother. The college is near where Oliver and Emma lived in Perry, Ohio and it is where their mother went to school. The day Emma was there she heard a ghost dog barking and doors slamming themselves shut. There were hot and cold spots where there shouldn’t have been. The water fountain water tasted hot.

   “Were you in Morley Music Hall when you walked through the hot and cold spots?”

   “That’s where I was.” Emma said. “The cold was freezing cold and the hot was boiling hot.”

   “The music hall is named after Helen Morley, who most of the time is seen in a white gown floating down staircases,” Oliver said. “She plays the organ, usually old creepy songs.” The hall is one of the best in Ohio, housing a 64-rank E. M. Skinner organ built in 1927. When the security guards hear the organ at night, they stay away. 

   “One time a guard went inside to see who was playing the organ in the middle of the night. She yelled at him to get out. She was even louder than the organ. When he didn’t leave right away she chased him out. After that the guards went on strike. Students in the pep band say they hear a woman screaming when they are practicing, but when they told a security guard about it, he said it was probably because their playing was bad, and besides, he wasn’t going to be doing anything about it anytime soon.”

   “How come mom never told us about any of this?” Emma asked. “She went to school there.” After graduating from Lake Erie College their mom went to a law school in Tennessee and practiced corporate law before having her two kids, first Emma and then Oliver. She was planning on going back to work once they were both in high school.

   “You know how mom is, everything is practical this and practical that,” Oliver said. “She’s always telling me monsters don’t exist, even when there’s a troll in our backyard looking in through our windows and watching her every move.”

   Oliver and Emma sat in silence, thinking about their mother and the brave new world they lived in. Sometimes they couldn’t make sense of it. Sometimes they thought the train of the future was going to run them over.

   “Fortune favors the brave,” Oliver said.

   “I’m going to have to check my piggy bank,” Emma said.

   “Were you in Andrews Dorm when you saw doors opening and shutting themselves?” Oliver asked.

   “Yes, that’s where I was,” Emma said.

   “That was Mary Evans,” Oliver said. “She used to be president of the college a long time ago. Nobody knows why she haunts that dorm, but she’s always knocking things off shelves, moving furniture around, and slamming doors. Did you visit College Hall or the Fowler Dorm?”

   “No.”

   “There’s ghost named Stephanie who haunts the fourth floor of College Hall. She killed herself in the belfry way back when. She gets downstairs through a mirror in the parlor. The ghost in Fowler Dorm died there. She drowned in a bathtub. She has a bad habit of staring at people who are looking at themselves in mirrors. When they turn around she’s gone.”

   “That would give me the willies,” Emma said. “They should call it that place Lake College of Eerie Women.”

   “Was Tiberius barking all the time you were on campus,” Oliver asked.

   “No, only when I was passing the Fine Arts Building.”

   “Did you see anything there?”  

   “I thought I did, but I’m not sure. I thought I saw a scarecrow, but every time I looked he wasn’t where I thought he was. He seemed to be ten feet tall and was reaching for me. His hands were like branches.”

   “That’s Old Joe Croaker. He’s not a school ghost, not exactly. He’s an old school ghost. He used to sleep in any of backyards around the campus that would have him until none of them would have him anymore. He once lived where the school is today, back when it was all farmland. I heard he was long gone, but he must be back. He’s going to have go back to where he came from.”

   “Why was Tiberius barking?”

   “He was barking because Old Joe Croaker croaks anybody who gets in his way. If he’s come back he’s got a good reason, although it won’t be good for anybody who messes with him. He has a machete he uses to cut hay and stuff himself with it. He knows how to use his blade, for sure. We’ve got to get  him to go back through the mirror he used to get here. He’s a dangerous straw man.”

   “Why is he dangerous?”

   “Because he’s mad every which way, and he’s got nothing to lose. Running into him is like walking in the middle of the road. You get hit by cars from both sides.”

   “What are we going to do?” Emma asked.

   “We are going to have to go to the school and take care of business. But it’s too far to pedal on our go-karts and besides, mom would hit the roof if we even tried.“

   “Maybe Jimmy the Jet could help us.”

   “What do you mean?” Oliver asked

   “Jimmy is fast as lightning on his roller blades. If we wore ours and made a conga line behind him we could get to the school in no time. We could go at night when everybody’s asleep and the streets are empty. Mom wouldn’t even know we were gone.”

   Two days later Oliver, Emma, and Jimmy met in the middle of the night in the nearby Perry Cemetery on Middle Ridge Rd. It was around the corner from where they lived. The remains of Princess Mona, who was the granddaughter of Cleveland’s Chief Thunderwater, were buried there. They stood at the foot of her headstone. Emma had her jackknife. Oliver had a box of kitchen matches. They made sure their skates were laced on tight.

   “Fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy night,” Jimmy the Jet said as Oliver gripped his waist from behind and Emma gripped Oliver’s waist. They set off for Lake Erie College and their showdown with Old Joe Croaker. He knew they were coming. He leaned against a shadow, chewing on a straw he had pulled out of the back of his head. A cloud obscured the moon. Tiberius’s nose twitched as he sniffed for menace in the night.

   Next: Cutting Spooks Down to Size

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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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 edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

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Snow Globe

By Ed Staskus

   When I was a kid growing up in Sudbury, Ontario it started snowing the last day of summer, snowed through Halloween Thanksgiving Christmas, and got down to business on New Year’s Eve. The next day barreling into the new year it snowed some more. It kept up its business until mid-April with a fire sale now and then in the month of May. All told between 100 and 140 inches of snow fell every winter during my childhood. 

   My father built an igloo in the back yard so that when we were snowballing, we would have someplace to shelter if a blizzard roared down from the Northwest Territories. My brother sister and I sat inside on crates looking out of windowless windows as heavy clouds lowered the boom on us. When Canadian Pacific trains hauling nickel rumbling past on top of the cliff face behind our house on Stanley Street wailed, we wailed right back. 

   Snow cover in Sudbury starts to get deep in December and remains deep through most of January to mid-March. By the end of April, the snow is usually gone. The city is free of snow every year in July and August. Extreme cold and winter storms kill more Canadians than floods, lightning, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes combined.

   A year before I was born the Great Appalachian Storm struck. It was Thanksgiving weekend. It dumped nearly a foot of snow on my hometown every day for a couple of days. A blustery wind made sure everybody got their fair share. Ramsey Lake froze solid. My father-to-be went skating. He wasn’t able to get to the INCO mine where he worked as a blaster, but he was able to get to the lake with his ice skates. When the snowfall was finally cleared away, it was December.

   After we moved to Cleveland, I sent a postcard to my friends back on Stanley Street saying Americans were snowflakes when it came to snow. “They complain about a couple of inches. Most days there isn’t nearly enough of it to make a decent snow angel.” It wasn’t exactly true, but it was true enough. In general, snowfall in northern Ohio is about 50 inches a year. 

   Twenty years later I had to eat my words. The Blizzard of 1978 started in Indiana near the end of January. The Hoosiers might have kept it to themselves, but they didn’t. The day after the storm buried their state it buried Ohio. More than a foot of snow fell in one day, on top of a foot-and-a-half that was already on the ground. The wind huffed and puffed. Snowdrifts buried cars trucks homes businesses. The wind chill made it feel like 60 below zero. East Ohio Gas pumped record amounts of natural gas to needy furnaces.

   My parents were living in Sagamore Hills. When the weather cleared, they called me about the snow on the roof of their ranch-style house. My father was afraid the snow load would damage the roof, maybe even make it cave in. I thought he was exaggerating, until my brother and I climbed a ladder to see for ourselves. The roofline was long and low-pitched. We found ourselves thigh-deep in heavy snow. We spent the rest of the day slowly shoveling and pushing it over the side of the eaves.

   “My dad made me shovel a path out the back door for our dachshund so he wouldn’t do his business in the house,” Joe Bennett said. “I got about two feet out and called it a day.” The storm was characterized by an unusual merger of two weather systems. Warm moist air slammed into bitter ice-cold air. “The result was a very strong area of low pressure that reached its lowest pressure over Cleveland,” the National Weather Service reported. That day’s barometric pressure reading of 28.28 inches is the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and one of the lowest readings in American history.

   By the end of the month, a few days later, Cleveland recorded 43 inches of snowfall for the month, which is still a record. It was called “The Storm of the Century” or simply “The Superbomb.” The wind averaged nearly 70 MPH the day it started. Gusts hit 120 MPH-and-more on Lake Erie. Ore boats coming from Lake Superior hunkered down, and crewmen stayed close to oil heaters. “I was a deckhand on a lake freighter,” said August Zeizing. “We were stuck in ice about 9 miles off Pelee Point when the storm hit. We had steady 111 MPH winds gusting up to 127 MPH for about six hours. Our orders were to stay below decks and keep our movements to a minimum.” 

   More than 50 people died, trapped in wayward cars and unheated houses. A woman froze to death walking her dog. There was more than $100 million in property damage, what many said was a conservative estimate. The governor called up more than 5,000 National Guardsmen, who struggled to reach the cities they were assigned to. The Guardsmen used bulldozers and tanks outfitted with plows to clear roads streets highways and rescue the stranded.

   “My dad and I drove down I-71, which was closed, to get to our farm in Loudonville,” said Paula Boehm.  “We had chains on all four tires of our Buick station wagon.” The only other traffic was National Guard M113 personnel carriers. “We made it.” Car owners stuck homemade signs saying “Car Here” on top of mounds of snow. It alerted snowplow drivers to what was under the pile of white. Motorists abandoned their cars and pick-ups helter-skelter. It was a three-dog Siberian day night and the next day. In some places it went on and on, often in the dark, as power wires were blown loose or broke off poles from the weight of ice.

   I was in Akron the morning the storm struck. I had no idea a blizzard was on the way. The forecast the night before didn’t sound awful. “Rain tonight, possibly mixed with snow at times. Windy and cold Thursday with snow flurries.” I was visiting a friend, had stayed overnight, and was driving my sister’s 1970 Ford Maverick. I needed to get the car back to her that day.

   National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Alto got to work at six in the morning Thursday at the Akron-Canton Airport. He was able to go home late Sunday night. “Nobody could get in and nobody could get out,” he said. “The roads were all closed. There were three of us and we had to ride it out there at the airport.” Cessna and Beechcraft two-seaters were flipped over like paper airplanes. Meteorologists didn’t call the storm a “Superbomb.” They called it a “Bombogenesis.” It was their term for an area of low pressure that “bombs out.” 

   I got up early and got going. When I did the temperature started falling fast. By the time I got coffee and an egg sandwich and got on I-77 to go home the temperature had fallen from the mid-30s to the mid-teens. It was a fast cold snap. The rain turned to ice and snow, snowing like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t see any lane markers and could barely see the road. The Maverick was a rear wheel-drive with no traction to speak of. I kept it at a steady 25 MPH unless I slowed down, which I did plenty of. Jack-knifed tractor trailers littered the shoulders. One truck and its trailer were upside down. There were spun-out in the lurch cars everywhere. When I passed the Ohio Turnpike, I saw it was closed, the first time that had ever happened in the history of the turnpike. I found out later that I-77 was the only highway that didn’t close. 

   Marge Barner’s husband-to-be drove a yellow bus full of kids to school as the blizzard started. He dropped them off. Not long afterwards he got a call saying the school was closing. He went back and that afternoon started plowing parking lots. “He was out for 13 hours in an open tractor and ran out of gas several times. He didn’t have a radio to call for help,” Marge said. He had to help himself, walking with a can to gas stations. “He lost feeling in his arms when he got home, which finally came back as he warmed up. His ears were frostbitten.”

   I kept on slow poking north. I had plenty of gas, having filled up the tank the night before after noticing I was driving on fumes. The car radio was no help, broadcasting the same bad news over and over. The car heater wheezed and groaned but stayed alive. Driving in the swirling snow hour after hour straining to see and stay on the road was nerve-wracking. I kept my gloves on and my eyes glued to the road.

   “I was 7 years-old and we lived in a drafty, old farmhouse in Fremont,” said Susan Beech. “The power went out, so the furnace went out, but our oven ran on propane, so it still worked. My dad set up cots and sleeping bags in our kitchen, and stapled blankets over the doorways. We ran the stove around the clock, leaving the oven open so the heat filled the room. It was like winter camping in the kitchen.” 

   After I passed another overturned truck I thought, if that happens dead center on the road somewhere in front of me, I am a goner. I am going to end up in a miles long traffic jam. ODOT’s plows won’t be able to get around the mess. Wreckers won’t be able to get to the wreck to move it out of the way. We will all be at a standstill and run out of gas and either freeze or starve to death. I saved half my egg sandwich for later. I checked my gas gauge and was relieved to see I still had more than half a tank.

   “I was a teenager living four miles from the nearest town during the 1978 Blizzard,” said John Knueve. “We lost power the first night and had to rely on a small generator, which could power just one appliance at a time.” They fed the generator drops of gasoline at a time. “A two-lane state highway ran in front of our house, but even when they finally managed to clear it, an 18-wheeler would pass by, and we’d never see it for the thirteen fourteen-foot drifts which encircled the entire house. We were trapped for most of a week before my brother-in-law made it down with his tractor to break through.” In some parts of the state massive snowdrifts as high as 25 feet buried dog houses sheds garages and two-story homes.

   I got close to Cleveland before nightfall. I-90 looked closed, so I took St. Clair Ave. to Lakeshore Blvd. to North Collinwood. I lived two blocks from Lake Erie. When I pulled into my driveway the Maverick got stuck immediately. I didn’t try digging it out. My sister would have to wait for her car. Spring was only a few months away, anyway.

   It was even windier and colder in our neighborhood on the lakeshore than the rest of the world. The furnace was trying hard, but the house stayed cold no matter how hard it tried. I wrapped myself up in a comforter. The windows rattled and the house shook whenever a hurricane-like blast of wind hit it. 

   “Oh, that was awful,” Mary Jo Anderson said about the howl of the wind. “Nobody slept much that night. We had never heard that kind of noise. You know, how your house shakes and squeals.” Her husband, Rich, set off in his Ford Pinto for work that morning. The Pinto wasn’t the ugliest and most unsafe car ever made, but it was a close call. The seats made for sore asses after an hour-or-so and God forbid getting rear-ended. The gas tank had a design flaw that made it prone to exploding on impact. Two years earlier news had broken that Ford’s company policy was that it was cheaper to pay the lawsuits of the car’s fire victims rather than re-design the problem. After that news flash there was hell to pay.

   Rich was about a mile up the road in his Pinto when he was brought to a standstill. He couldn’t drive any farther because the wind was ferocious. The car was a lightweight, barely breaking two thousand pounds. “The ice was on the window of his car, and he was trying to reach his arm out and scrape the ice off,” Mary said. “He opened the car door, and the wind almost ripped it off. The car spun around in a circle. The door wouldn’t close. It was broken. He had to hold it shut while he drove home with the other hand. He was happy to make it back.”

   That night I watched the WEWS Channel 5 news show. There wasn’t a lot of footage of the storm even though a film crew had gone searching for news on downtown streets. “It was impossible to see. Wind howling. Bitter, bitter cold,” Don Webster the weatherman said. “They couldn’t shoot anything because of the cold and wind. I couldn’t even talk because I got so cold. I couldn’t say anything.” When I changed the station to WJW Chanel 8, Dick Goddard called it a “white hurricane.”

   Susan Downing-Nevling drove a Chevy Chevette to work. It was a basic reliable car. Her boss was mad because she hadn’t made it in to work on Thursday, even though she told him people couldn’t get to their cars because the wind was knocking them down as they tried to walk to their vehicles. “So, on Friday I got up, dug my Chevette out, and drove to work on W. 44th St. and Lorain from Middleburg Hts. I didn’t stop once but it still took me four hours. When I got to work, it was closed. My boss was stuck at home. A couple of others who made it like me and I went to the Ohio City Tavern for the afternoon.” They cheered the bartender who had walked over from up the street.

   When the storm moved on that weekend it moved northeast, hooked up with a nor’easter, and walloped New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Instead of “Superbomb” it was called “Storm Larry” up and down the east coast. Philadelphia got 16 inches of snow, Atlantic City got 20 inches, and Boston was buried by 27 inches. The ice snow wind killed almost 100 people and injured about 4,500. It caused more than $500 million in damage.

   Once it was all over local stores started selling t-shirts that read, “I Survived the ’78 Blizzard!” I didn’t buy one. What would have been the point? It wasn’t going to keep me warm and dry if the blizzard came back. I bought a puff coat. I was hedging my bets. The Blizzard of 1978 might have been “The Storm of the Century,” but there were 22 more years left in the century. I wasn’t expecting to see it’s like anytime soon, but you never can tell. If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Tough as Nails

By Ed Staskus

   My grandmother hit the deck pretty as a prayer book the day she was born. She didn’t come into the world tough as nails. She wasn’t that way as a girl, a young woman, a schoolteacher, a newlywed, or a wife and mother. But that was the way she was when World War Two ended and she was waking up to her second year in a Siberian prison camp. She survived by being that way for more than ten years, in the middle of nowhere, slaving away. She stayed alive, though it was no way of life stuck in the Soviet dark ages.

   She was born near the tail end of the Gilded Age, although it wasn’t anywhere near Wall Street. She missed out on the mischief of the robber barons. She was born in Russia during the fin de siècle. She missed the debates convulsing Europe concerning the moral responsibility of art. Even if she had heard the arguments, it’s doubtful she would have cared. She missed the Boxer Rebellion, the Second Boer War, and the Philippine-American War. But when the pea shooters of those conflicts were put away, she got to live through the blitzkrieg of World War Two.

   Growing up she had an inkling most Lithuanians hated Muscovites, for taking over the homeland, forbidding the native language, and exploiting everything they touched. By the time she was grown up and gone to Lithuania she knew for sure Russia was feared and distrusted on all its borders.

   My grandmother Antonina met my grandfather Antanas when he was stationed in Saransk. It is in the Volga basin where the Saranka and Insar Rivers meet. The garrison was four hundred miles east of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius was a Lithuanian officer in the Russian Imperial Army. He was more than a thousand miles from home. My grandmother came from a nearby small town. She earned her teacher’s certificate in Saransk. She was teaching kids their Cyrillic ABC’s.

   The whistle-stop was founded as a fort, on the left bank of the Isar River, at the crossroads of Moscow and the Crimea. Before World War One its commercial life revolved around honey, meat, and leather. After the war its factories stayed closed for more than ten years when there weren’t any available fuels or raw materials.

   “My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there with an infantry regiment,” my father said. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits go to the infantry.” The Imperial Army had more than a million men in uniform, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

   Antanas courted Antonina and they got married sooner than later. They had a daughter, Eugenia, in 1917. They called her Genute. Another daughter, Gaile, was born the next year. My father was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai in the north of Lithuania. He was named after King Vytautas the Great. His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince, the pickle prince, and the rotten prince.

   Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, which is a hill less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of wooden crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Tsarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first of them appeared.

   By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than a hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. Late that year, when the war finally ended, and Russia was being convulsed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas and his new family went home to a newly independent country.

   “Lithuania didn’t have many officers when they formed their own army,” my father said. “Most of them were men who had been conscripted into the Imperial Army before the war.” Most of them burned their Russian uniforms as soon as they could. “My father fought in the post-war battles around Klaipeda and after that he served in the secret service in Kaunas, which was the capital.”

   Lithuania had declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviet Russians, West Russians, and Poles for their homeland. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little bloodshed. In September 1939 the Poles found out they were in the frying pan and Vilnius was off the menu.

   After the fighting my grandfather was awarded land for serving his country. The family had a house in town but lived on a farm most of the time. They spoke Russian at home. Except for what he picked up among his friends, so that he had a sprinkle of street cred, my father spoke little Lithuanian until he started school.

   During World War One most of Siauliai’s buildings were destroyed and the city center was obliterated. Since its founding in the 13th century, it had burned down seven times, been struck by pandemics seven times, and World War Two was the seventh war that wrecked it. It was a winsome town between disasters.

   “When my father became the governor of the district, we moved to the city there,” Vytas said. It is a royal town founded in the early 16th century on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor. Antanas was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.

   Vytas went to grade school and high school there, but then his father was made governor of Zerasai, which was more-or-less a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Tsar Alexander’s son, but after the war to end all wars was over and done with the name was thrown out the window.

   “When my father became the governor, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was far from where we lived, so I stayed with her,” Vytas said. “But I didn’t get along with the other students in town. It was a strict school, and everybody had to dress nice. On my first day of high school, I was dressed too nice, like I was going to a wedding, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. ‘Where are you from, the sticks?’ they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

   He told them, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father. “We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying that was easy for me. But when I got there, I found out they only had English as a second language. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.” He soon spoke Lithuanian, Russian, and English.

   All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. It changed a lot faster the last year of the decade. Father and son moved back to Siauliai. “The Russians came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and they selected new people who they wanted in the driver’s seat. They said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was the Russians.”

   The family spent more and more time on their farm, renting out their house in Siauliai. “It was only a few miles from our farm to town. I used to walk or bicycle there. But the mood was bad. Everybody was on edge. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

   The Russian invasion of Lithuania was completed by the late summer. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Soviet presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics. “Why don’t we go to Germany?” Antonina asked. She wasn’t a fan of her Muscovite kith and kin. She had an insider’s track making judgment calls about them.

   “We had a chance to leave the country and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often.” But my grandfather didn’t want to leave his native land. “I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always been good to people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”

   In the fall of 1940, a company of Red Army infantry commandeered their house and farm for several days. “They didn’t do anything crazy, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took us a week to air out the house.”

   The family stayed on the farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of more than17,000 Lithuanians began in June 1941, my grandfather was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen. “He was gardening in our yard, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine,” Vytas said. “I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them. They pushed him into it and drove away.”

   Vytas was in school taking his final exams that morning. “My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.” His mother packed up clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. They went to see him the next day.

   “The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us, he said times have changed.” The old order was out. There was a new order. Asking for help meant getting nowhere.

   “He was a Communist and had been in and out of jail because of it. He was always in trouble. My father always let him go after a few days, telling him to not get involved in politics anymore. Just be a nice boy, he would tell him, but then the next thing we knew he would be in jail again. He wouldn’t help my father when he was arrested. Everything’s different now, he said.”

   My grandfather, who had once commanded the local police, stayed stuck in his jail cell. “They didn’t let my mother talk to my father,” Vytas said. “We went there several times, but they didn’t let us see him. We never saw him again.”

   Antanas Snieckus, the top dog of the Lithuanian Commies, supervised the mass deportations. He decided who was an “Enemy of the People.” Teachers, priests, policemen, civil servants, politicians, anybody who was a member of the Nationalist Union or the Rifleman’s Union, and landowners were on the list. More than 17,000 of them were deported. When they checked their tickets, they discovered the deportations had no expiration date.

   My grandfather was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and shoved into a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, wrapped up the complete destruction of the Red Army armor and air forces in Lithuania. Within a week the Nazi’s controlled the stomping grounds.

   Antanas Staskevicius was transported to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He was put to work sawing down trees in the middle of winter. He starved to death the next winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the “most beautiful city in Siberia.”

   “The morning after my father was arrested, I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, please take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon. It was him and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that I never saw them again. The next day one of our neighbors told me the secret police had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Anybody from an educated family, the Russians were worried about all of them. They were afraid all the high-class people were against them.”

   When the NKVD began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting, especially by the body politic. It was every man for himself and God against all, unless you were a dyed in the wool comrade. “If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read and write, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

   My father’s mother Antonina, sister Genute, and he stayed on the farm after the Nazi takeover. His sister Gaile was living in Vilnius. There was an uneasy peace. “The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, I was in Vilnius,” Vytas said. “Everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork, all kinds of food, and took everything home. When the Germans arrived, they put a stop to it.”

   He stayed in Vilnius for several months, but then decided to go home before the end of summer. The family farm had to be cared for, but first, he had to get a travel permit. “I couldn’t get to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to somebody who had known my father and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any for the time being and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”

   He took a train north and walked home, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm. “They were there three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own tents and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank beer together at night.”

   His father’s practice had been to have a foreman run the farm. The foreman hired three men and three women every spring. Although the farm had chickens and pigs, and draft horses to do the heavy work, it was mostly a dairy farm with more than twenty cows.

   “When I came back, my sister Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work. I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything. But I did everything as though I knew what I was doing.”

   That fall he sent farmhands out to till the ground in a nearby field. When his nearest neighbor saw them working, he ran across the road towards them.

   “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted waving his arms.

   “I told him we were preparing the ground for next year. He said, you’re ruining this year’s seed and you won’t have any grass next year. We stopped right away. I learned what to do.”

   A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat. “As I hopped down, I stumbled and fell on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my injured hand, he passed out.”

   While the war dragged on across Europe, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his impaired hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land. “I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew the Germans gave Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night while they got drunk. One morning I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone. I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer exploded, shouting that I hadn’t looked after them, shouting that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouting that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there when the Russians came back.”

   In 1944 the Red Army stormed back into Lithuania. My father escaped with a mechanized company of Wehrmacht, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had five minutes to decide whether he was coming with them as they retreated.

   “An officer said the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses.” The hill was on fire. “They were in a big hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.” It was time to go, come hell or high water.

   His sister Genute, not on the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His sister Gaile didn’t make it out. “She had a problem at the border. The Russians had taken that area, so she was forced to stop in a town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her. After the war she finished trade school, became a nurse, and never told anybody where she was from. The Communists never found out anything about her.”

   In July the Red Army captured Panevezys. Later that month they took Siauliai, inflicting heavy damage on the city. Two months later the counterattacking German 3rd Panzer Army was destroyed and for the next nearly fifty years Lithuania became part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

   “I was glad to get out of Lithuania in 1944,” my father said.

   He found out his mother my grandmother had been deported. “Somebody complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. She was sent to a prison camp.”

   Between the tail end of World War Two and 1950 more than 87,000 Lithuanians were deported, forced to work in logging and gold mines, forced to live in barracks with leaky roofs and drafty windows, if there were any windows. More than a third of them died. Some of them resigned themselves. A few escaped.

   My grandmother was released from the Gulag in the early 1960s, one of the last deportees to be let go. She was not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai. She was forced to relocate to Silute, to an aboveground bomb shelter-style apartment. She was still on somebody’s shit list. 

   Silute is to the west of Marijampole, in the south of the country. The Nemunas River floods there almost every year, soaking the lowland pastures. Migrating birds call it home away from home because of the delta and all the water. A large part is forested and home to more than three hundred villages.

   My mother’s family, none of whom escaped the country during the war, lived near there. When she and my sister visited Lithuania in the early 1980s, they made plans to visit Antonina. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three of our uncles, three wives, my mother and sister, and some of our cousins in three cars. “My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that,” my sister Rita said.

   The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits of Vilnius, where they were staying. When they asked about Silute and Siauliai, they were told they were out of bounds. Every place outside of Vilnius was out of bounds. The Intourist official at the front desk of the Gintaras Hotel leaned forward and told my mother it was because of missile installations.

   “Are there missile installations in every town in the whole country?” she asked.

   “I know sarcasm from naïve American when I listen to it,” the official sneered.

   Their convoy didn’t get far the first day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock on the outskirts of Vilnius. The police were waiting for them. “They knew,” said Rita. “Somebody had overheard something. Somebody talked. They waved us off the road.”

   The police glanced at my Uncle Justinas’s papers and told him to go back. They went to the second car. Everybody had to show their papers. My mother was the best dressed of anybody in all three cars. She was all decked out. They asked her where she lived.

   “The Gintaras Hotel.”

   “Turn around, fancy lady, go back to the hotel.”

   They went to the third car.

   My Uncle Sigitas and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with our cousins. They showed their papers. When it was Rita’s turn, she said, “You’ve seen their papers. I live in the same place.”

   “What’s your name?”

   “Jurgelaitis, just like them,” she lied.

   He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word of it and glared at him. The stare-down between Soviet cop and American gal took a few minutes. It was a stalemate.

   “The next time I see this one she is going to have to answer,” the policeman warned my uncle. “Turn back.”

   They turned around and the convoy went back to Vilnius.

   Undaunted, a few days later, a day before leaving the USSR, Rita was picked up by Uncle Sigitas before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run to Silute. She skittered into the car, and they sped off. The streets were empty in the autumn gloom.

   “He was a crazy driver, always yelling, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different ways. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took much longer.” It took five hours on empty stomachs. It was worse than the Aeroflot flight from Moscow, which had been bad enough. Rita had tossed the bad food tray under her seat in mid-flight.

   They were stopped several times, but every time Uncle Sigitas was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him onward. When they got to Silute they asked around and found the house where Antonina was living.

   “She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a concrete log cabin, that looked like it was built hundreds of years before there even was concrete,” said Rita. She had a low-tech security system, a rusty nail she used to lock the front door. There wasn’t a back door. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The windows needed caulking. The roof was long overdue.

   She was in her late 80s. She had gone through tough times, but she still had a lot of life in her. She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave my sister a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman and had to reach up. She was barely five feet tall.

   She wasn’t the Man of Steel, like the ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was dead and gone, a downspout memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start is how you finish. They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. It was a roots buffet on a beat-up wood table. Rita didn’t throw anything under her chair.

   “How did you like it?” Uncle Sigitas asked on their way back to Vilnius.

   “It’s the best food I’ve had in Lithuania so far,” Rita answered.

   Antonina passed away in 1985. She didn’t die of anything special, dying in her sleep. She was in her early 90s. She had fought tooth and nail to survive in a no mercy Siberia and was worn out. Even the toughest nails one day become the last nail in the coffin. Her time was up.

   When she died my father bought a mass for her at our Lithuanian American church in Cleveland, Ohio. He had been raised a Catholic and was still a true believer. I wasn’t on the same page, but I wasn’t going to slam the good book shut that day. When my turn came to say a prayer, I said a prayer for the dead, asking God to grant my grandmother eternal peace.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Behind the Mask

By Ed Staskus

   Most law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Interpol thought Dr. Mabuse was long gone and never gave him another thought. They were glad to see him go. They believed he died in 1933 in Dr. Baum’s asylum outside Berlin. They didn’t know that he had been controlling Dr. Baum’s mind for years before his death. Many years earlier, minutes before the minute he went to meet his maker, he had used his powers of body transference to become the asylum’s head honcho.

   Before Dr. Baum died he used those same powers and made a new Dr. Mabuse. The Reign of Crime didn’t miss a beat. It kept up the drumbeat until it crossed the Potomac River. When it did the snare drums played rat-a-tat-tat for his new soulmate, at least until Dr. Mabuse belatedly realized the face on the dollar was chump change. The criminal mastermind hated wasting his time with flat tires who spent all their time complaining and explaining. He was going to have to find somebody new, especially after the ill-fated attack on the U. S. Capital.  

   Dr. Mabuse was able to project his spirit into the bodies of other people. If things got too hot to handle, he could escape his host, leaving him alive but insane, and move on to a replacement. If need be, he could inhabit several people at once and whip up a crime wave. In the 1890s he became Professor James Moriarty, the master criminal running riot in London. “He was a man of good birth endowed by nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty,” said Sherlock Holmes. “But he had tendencies of the most diabolical kind. A criminal strain ran in his blood. He was the Napoleon of crime. He was the organizer of half that was evil and of nearly all that was undetected in this great city.”

   Dr. Mabuse was sad to see the evil professor go when Sherlock Holmes bested him at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. “If you are clever enough to bring destruction upon me, rest assured that I shall do as much to you,” the professor had warned the consulting detective. “I want to end the world, but I’ll settle for ending yours.” When push came to shove, however, at the end of their hand-to-hand grappling, it was Professor Moriarty who went over the side of the waterfall, and it was Sherlock Holmes who went back safe and sound to Baker Street.

   In 1920 the criminal mastermind briefly body transferred into Dr. Caligari, a hypnotist who employed sleepwalkers to commit murders. Dr. Mabuse was himself a master hypnotist. It didn’t work out, though. Dr. Caligari went off the deep end, got himself strapped into a straight jacket, and became an inmate in his own clinic.

   The next year Dr. Mabuse transferred into Al Capone, where he stayed for more than decade. He was pleased with the ruthless man’s ruthlessness. He especially liked the timing of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. He bid Scarface a fond farewell when he was convicted of tax evasion and sent to Alcatraz. He was later disappointed to hear that Public Enemy No. 1 had taken up playing a banjo with the prison band at their Sunday concerts for other inmates.

   He was looking for somebody new when all hell broke loose. He had to put his plans and ambitions on the back burner during World War Two. He didn’t have the firepower to fight good on that scale, no matter how much he admired the strong men of the Axis Powers. He thought Adolph Hitler was Wagnerian, even in his toothbrush mustache. He thought Mussolini’s chin wag was big and bold. In any  event, he knew when to lay low, and stayed close to home for the duration. When the war ended he got busy again.

   In 1947 Dr. Mabuse body transferred into Tony Accardo, who had become the Boss of the Chicago Outfit, where he stayed until the gangster’s death in 1992. The gang was the most successful crime organization in the country for many years. They realized profits of $1 billion annually and controlled Las Vegas. He never spent a minute in jail. He spread misfortune far and wide. Who says crime doesn’t pay? He lived in the lap of luxury.

   Dr. Mabuse didn’t care about cement overshoes, or the needle and the damage done. What he cared about was creating a Society of Crime. “When humanity, subjugated by the terror of crime, has been driven insane by fear and horror and when chaos has become supreme law, then the time will have come for the Empire of Crime,” he said. If there was anything he believed in, it was that. “I am everywhere and nowhere at once,” he liked to say. It was no childish boast. Everybody walks in the garden of good and evil, light and dark.

   When Dr. Mabuse first became aware of Donald Trump, all he knew about the man was that he was a notorious womanizer and much-rumored fraudster. He didn’t care about the womanizing, but he liked the rumors of shady dealing and crooked doings. He liked the gambling. He had himself once been known as “The Gambler.” He explained to an associate, “Nothing is interesting in the long run, except for one thing, which is gambling with the fates of people.”

   He liked Donald Trump’s braggadocio. Bragging about untruths was a stroke of genius. He was disappointed in himself for not having thought of it first. He went to New York City the summer of 2015 to hear the mogul’s presidential campaign announcement speech. He sat in the front row at Trump Tower. Hardly a soul noticed him.

   “Whoa, whoa, this is some group of people, thousands,” Donald Trump said. “It’s great to be here at Trump Tower. There’s never been no crowd like this. Some of the other candidates, they didn’t know the air-conditioning wasn’t working. They sweated like dogs. Our country is in serious trouble. When was the last time anybody saw us beating China in a trade deal? They kill us! I beat China all the time, all the time. When Mexico sends us its people, they’re rapists. They’re sending us not the right people.”

   “He is going to be silly putty in my hands,” Dr. Mabuse chortled, trying to keep ahead of the big wig’s stream-of-consciousness. “I can finally realize my dream, so long as he doesn’t run off the rails. He knows how to point the Finger of Blame, though. I will give him that.”

   “Hey, I know what I’m doing,” Donald Trump whined.

   “Just remember,” Dr. Mabuse said. “There is no love. There is only desire! There is no happiness. There is only the will to power!”

   “Damn right!” the presidential candidate exclaimed, making small fists with his small hands. His face got red. Flecks of spit landed on his tie. “Humanity’s soul must be shaken to its very depths, frightened by unfathomable and seemingly senseless crimes, crimes that benefit no one, whose only objective is to inspire fear and terror,” Dr. Mabuse said, his thumb on the button. There was a big thumb’s up from the would-be Caesar with the trifling hands. Dr. Mabuse wormed his way into Donald Trump on the spot.

   Dr. Mabuse never committed any crimes himself. He was more careful about that than even Donald Trump. The mastermind’s network of agents carried out his schemes. They never knew they were doing what he wanted them to do. “About to make a fuss, you swine?” he sneered whenever his henchmen screwed up. “What am I paying you for if you flounder around like schoolgirls?” He saw himself in Donald Trump, a real estate wheeler-dealer bred on greed and deceit, who portrayed himself being more sinned against than sinner. Dr. Mabuse liked the topsy turvy nature of the man. What he especially liked about the man was that no matter what, no faultfinding ever stuck to him. He huffed and he puffed, and everything blew away in a cloud of swamp gas.  

   Donald Trump believed he was a Nietzsche-like Superman who could rip open the social fabric of society. He was childish that way in his red tie and smug smile. He wore a MAGA baseball cap at his airport rallies, proclaiming his greatness, whipping crowds into a frenzy, dreaming up straw men and excoriating them. He was going to expose and drain the swamp, he said. His mind was a jack-in-the-box. Confusion and mayhem were the tools of his trade. He was opportunistic and unrepentant. He swallowed Delmonico steaks whole whenever he saw one on somebody’s plate. 

   The Donald’s Loyalty Street was notorious for being a one-way street. He had nothing on Dr. Mabuse, though. The doctor had the market cornered on my way or the highway. The mad mogul was always ready with Twitter in hand to destroy a man. Dr. Mabuse, on the other hand, was always ready with a Heckler & Koch. Insults are one thing. Hot lead is another thing.

  The test of Donald Trump’s reign came when COVID-19 arrived early in 2020. Dr. Mabuse could not have been more pleased. Epidemics and the fear they arouse were part of his game plan. The World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control were urging social distancing and wearing masks in public. Donald Trump waved them away. He had his own ideas. He made sure everybody knew what his ideas were.

   “I think the virus is going to be, it’s going to be fine,” he said in February. “It looks like by April, when it gets a little warmer, it’s going to disappear, like a miracle.” In March the United States had the most confirmed cases in the world. By the end of April POTUS was promoting Hydroxychloroquine as a cure-all. It treats malaria caused by mosquito bites. It does nothing for COVID-19 unless you’re a mosquito. After the national death toll passed 40,000 he recommended trying bleach and shining UV light on people’s insides. He had ideas up the wazoo. “I am the hardest working president in history,” he said.

   “This is going to go away without a vaccine,” he declared while pharmaceutical manufacturers worked around the clock to develop a vaccine. “We’re doing a great job on COVID response. We are in a good place.” Deaths passed 130,000 in May. “It is what it is,” he said. As the year ended, the death toll passed 330,000. 

   “I think we’re rounding the corner very much,” the Donald concluded. He thought he was rounding the corner on a second term, too, but it wasn’t to be. Joe Biden beat him at the polls in November. Dr. Mabuse was disappointed. The still-warm officeholder reassured him, saying he had some tricks up his sleeve. Dr. Mabuse agreed to be patient. When the trick popped its top he found himself more disappointed than ever.

   Early in January POTUS fomented a riot among his supporters to overturn the 2020 election results and put him back in power. “Stop the Steal” was their chant, although the lack of firepower they brought to bear was their downfall. The weapons they brought to the fray were stun guns, pepper spray, and  baseball bats. One of them wielded a flagpole as a club. They stormed Congress. There were Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and Three Percenters.  QAnon was there in disguise. Jacob Chansley, a QAnon shaman, sported a bearskin headdress, horns, and red, white, and blue face paint. “I came with other patriots at Donald Trump’s request,” he said, heating up an old slice of pizza with a cigarette lighter.

   It made Dr. Mabuse sick. He had done consulting work for the Gestapo back in the day. He knew the feeble goings-on at the Capital weren’t going to accomplish anything. They should have burned it down like the Reichstag had been torched in 1933. Then they could have blamed it on the liberal elite and suspended everybody’s constitutional rights. They had taken the capital lawmen by surprise, but by the end of the day they were being chased away and rounded up. Those who weren’t immediately arrested had filmed their antics and posted them on social media. The cops went on social media and wrote down their names. All Dr. Mabuse could do was shake his head. How had he ever believed in the silver spoon boy? The boy had been born on third base and gone through life pretending he had hit a triple.

   Dr. Mabuse swallowed his pride and stuck with his namesake until the 2022 mid-term elections. They didn’t go well for his man. It looked like his kingmaker days were over. After the elections mis-fired he entertained Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist poobah, and Kanye West, a celebrity antisemite, at his mansion on the Florida coast. Dr. Mabuse like that. He floated a plan to rip up parts of the Constitution. Dr. Mabuse liked that, too. But his handpicked candidate for the Senate in a run-off Georgia election stumbled and fumbled. Dr Mabuse didn’t like that. His business corporation was convicted on all 17 counts in a tax-fraud case. Dr. Mabuse didn’t like that, either.

   “I know a lot of people in our party love the former president,” Senator Mitt Romney said in Washington, D. C. “But he is, if you will, the kiss of death for somebody who wants to win a general election. And at some point, we’ve got to move on and look for new leaders that will lead us to win.”

   When he heard that, Dr. Mabuse knew for sure it was time to move on. He hastily body transferred down the throat of a Camp Fire Jewish Laser Beam conspiracy theorist, on the assumption the congresswoman was so dim-witted she wouldn’t notice, biding his time until he found the right host. “Mein Gott, this woman has bad breath,” he muttered. When he became aware of Vladimir Putin, he realized his mistake of taking a flier on the Donald. He asked Tucker Carlson for advice, which the gab show host was happy to supply, for a price. The Russian Federation’s top dog was the man to cozy up to. Dr. Mabuse jumped on the first plane to Moscow. He was greeted with open arms. He was hoisted on to the back of a missile and immediately rocketed to the Kremlin.

   “What can I do for you?” Vladimir Putin asked.

   “It’s not what you can do for me but what I can do for you,” Dr. Mabuse replied. The tyrant slapped the master criminal on the back. They laughed heartily at the inside joke. They both hated idealistic rhetoric, especially from the 1960s. They both knew they were going to be the best of friends, and it was going to be bread, water, and barbed wire in Siberia for their enemies.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Stand and Deliver

By Ed Staskus

   It was supposed to be a ten-thousand-dollar door, but I got lucky, and got in and out for two hundred fifty dollars. I never went back. One shake down is more than enough. There weren’t that many apples on my apple tree that I could afford to give bushels of them away for nothing in return.

   When I first started going to Toronto by myself in my late teens it was by Greyhound. I rode the bus to Buffalo and walked across the Peace Bridge. When I got to the Canadian side, the border police asked me where I was from and for identification. I showed them my driver’s license. They waved me through. When I went home I did the same thing. The American border police waved me through.

   After I got married my wife and I often went to Canada, to Wasaga Beach, to Penetanguishene, to Nova Scotia, and finally to Prince Edward Island, which we liked and made a habit of returning to. We did, at least, until a band of towelheads went nuts and flew jetliners into the Twin Towers. We had just gotten back from PEI a few days earlier. After that, crossing borders slowly but surely became more officious. We found out soon enough we would need passports to get into Canada and back into the USA.

   My wife applied for and got her passport in five weeks. I didn’t apply at first because I wasn’t sure of my citizenship status. I had never been sure, no matter how sure I sounded at the border, asserting I was an American citizen. My parents grew up in Lithuania, fled the Red Army to Germany in 1944, emigrated to Canada after the war, and finally settled in the United States in the late 1950s. They were naturalized in the mid-1960s. I knew my brother and sister were citizens, but I wasn’t certain where I stood because of my age when my parents became citizens.

   We spent a few summers vacationing on the Eastern Seaboard, but when we decided Prince Edward Island was the place to be, I resolved to settle my body politic issue. Push came to shove, and I asked one of our ethnic community’s poohbahs if she knew anybody she could recommend to help me out. She gave me a tip about a friend of hers who was a lawyer. The lawyer had been in the import export business for more than 30 years and was herself an immigrant. 

   I made an appointment and went to her office. The lobby was sizable and almost full, full of colored people sitting and waiting their turn. Most of them looked like they were from Asia or the Indian sub-continent. The citizenship business seemed to be booming. When my number was called I was shown into the boss lawyer’s office. That was my first surprise. I had not thought I would be talking to the main man, even though he was a woman. 

   She was round with a round face. Her lips were dolled up. She looked at the paperwork and documentation I had brought with me and said, “I will be your helping hand.” She shot me a cherry bomb smile. “All right,” I said. I thought she would be working on my behalf going forward. I found out she was working me over.

   She told me I had a problem with my citizenship and might be deported at any time. She said she wanted to get started right away. She explained the initial consultation fee was going to be $250.00 and the balance to resolve my problem was going to be $9,750.00. 

   “This is going to cost me ten thousand dollars?” I asked, incredulous. It was my second surprise. It was an unwelcome bombshell. Back in the day highwaymen stuck a gun in your back and hissed, “Stand and deliver, your money, or else.” Nowadays they stick a fountain pen in your back.

   “Yes,” she said mildly and ushered me out. I had been in her office for five minutes. It took me fifteen minutes to drive home, where I mulled over the problem of finding ten thousand dollars. It was winter and we weren’t planning on going back to Canada until the next summer, so there was no rush on that account. But what she had said about being deported was worrisome. I had fond memories of my hometown of Sudbury, Ontario, but being uprooted was not what I wanted to happen. We had bought a house which we were renovating, and I had both full-time and part-time jobs. We had a mortgage and friends and family in town. We had a cat who would miss roaming the backyards of our neighborhood.

   I went back to the law office the next month. I was introduced to an associate and escorted to a small room in the back. A table and two chairs were in the room. I sat in one of the chairs and the young associate sat in the other chair. He handed me a contract for the work they were going to be doing. I handed him the same paperwork and documentation I had shown the top dog. I started to peruse the contract. After a few minutes he looked up, cleared his throat, and said, “I don’t exactly know why you’re here. According to what I am looking at, you already are a citizen.” It was my third surprise.

   “Are you sure?” I asked.

   “I think so, but I better doublecheck with my boss,” he said, backtracking, but the cat was out of the bag.

   “All right,” I said, and as soon as I said it I wanted to be gone.

   “I can’t stay,” I said white lying and standing up. “I’ve got to get to work. Let me know what you find out and in the meantime I will read this contract.” We shook hands, I gave him a cold smile, got into my car, and drove away.

   The next day I drove to a post office where I knew they processed passport applications. When the line in front of me thinned out and I found myself at the counter, I said I wanted to apply for a passport. A middle-aged woman in a drab uniform walked up from the back and motioned me towards a chair and a camera. She handed me an application and told me how much applying for a passport was going to cost. It was ninety-seven dollars.

   “All right, but would you look at my birth certificate and this other paper work first. I was born in Canada and I’m not sure I am actually an American citizen.” She spread everything out on the counter and looked it over. It didn’t take her long. Five minutes into it she said, “Sure, honey, you’re a citizen, no doubt about it.”

   I filled out the application, got my picture taken, paid the fee, and thanked the woman for her help. I got my passport in the mail about a month and a half later. The passport had my stone-faced picture in it and was good for ten years. I could go anywhere in the world with it.

   A few weeks later the associate called. He wanted to know if I had read the contract and was ready to go ahead with it. “No, I am going to pass on that.” I had thrown the contract away long since.

   “That could mean a lot of problems for you,” he cautioned. “The State Department is cracking down, what with all this terrorism.”

   “I don’t think so,” I said, and hung up when he kept it up.

   Somebody else from the firm called me the following week. I told her goodbye the minute she started into her song and dance. After that the phone calls stopped. We went to Prince Edward Island for two weeks the following June. Except for the long lines at the border crossings, everything went off without a hitch. The Canadian border police said, “Welcome to Canada.” The American border police said, “Welcome back to the United States.”

   My wife and I bumped into the poohbah at a get together a few years later. I mentioned the immigration attorney. My wife tugged on my sleeve. I told my tipster how her legal beagle had tried to pull the wool over my eyes. I told her about getting my passport with no run around. I told her ten grand was hard cash and how fortunate it was I hadn’t lost more than the consultation fee, never mind the dodge that made me cross. Most of the time the only way to beat a lawyer is to die with nothing.

   “I know her well, she’s a friend, and she would never do anything like that,” the woman explained and complained. She might as well have called me a liar. “She’s nationally known for helping immigrants. She’s helped thousands of people and is one of our city’s leading citizens. Don’t say bad things about her.”

   She wasn’t somebody who listened to anything I ever said, so I didn’t argue. What would have been the point? It was a swinging door, in one ear and out the other. It was her way of letting you know you didn’t matter much. After that, though, I never took anything she said at face value, just how I learned to never take what any lawyer ever says at face value.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Made in Cleveland http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

Theatre PEI

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Getting a Groove On

By Ed Staskus

   Not everyone was too big at Born to Travel, but except for Sally Steiger, the office secretary, and my sister, they were either full to the brim or getting close to it. Sharon Karen and Vivian were in love with the feedbag. Gino had a strong hankering for the beefy. Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker had fallen into the trough a long time ago and weren’t coming up for air.

   The travel agency was in Beachwood, a far east side suburb of Cleveland. The office wasn’t the biggest to begin with, making it a tight fit. It was a squeeze coming and going to their desks. The staff of six had to wiggle sideways to make their way past the two boss ladies.

   Everybody except Rita and Gino were Jewish. Gino was Italian, a gay man, and hated Sandy and Sima. Even so he was there before Rita started working at the agency and he was still there when she quit after the gasoline tanker truck flipped over and she had had enough.

   Rita was the immigrant blonde girl who was good for business.

   Before she went to work at Born to Travel, she worked at another travel agency on Fairmount Circle, not far from John Carroll University. A jug-eared man who lived down the street owned the business. He put her desk in the window. He wasn’t hiding it. He thought she would attract whitish waspy people from the college.

   “Oh, look, they have a Christian girl there,” is what he hoped everyone would say.

   Sandy Eisen and Sima Zucker were sisters. They owned the agency. They were from Israel, like their cousin, who was sweet-natured, but ultra-Orthodox. Sandy and Sima were on the lighter side of Reformed. They didn’t take it seriously, although they could get serious in a second, if need be. They came to the United States when they were children. By the time they were teenagers it was as though they had always lived in McMansions in Beachwood. They only ever talked about the homeland when one of their tour groups was going there.

   In the 1970s Sandy was a dancer in downtown Cleveland. She worked at a disco bar serving drinks and dancing in a cage. The Mad Hatter had a bubble machine, a strobed multi-colored dance floor, and sticky red-shag carpeting. She wore white go-go boots. Twenty-five years and 200 pounds later she showed Rita a picture of herself, in a shimmering sleeveless fringe dress, doing the funky chicken.

   Rita could hardly believe it and said so. Sandy didn’t like her tone. She lit a Virginia Slim cigarette and puffed on it, vexed.

   Sandy and Sima’s world revolved around food. They loved the buffet. Their favorite time of day was breakfast lunch dinner. They weren’t food snobs. Their motto was, eat up now. They were supposed to fast during the Jewish holidays, but because they were fat, they were diabetic and had to take medication. They had to take their pills with food, so they couldn’t fast. But they were sticklers about breaking the fast. Sandy would rush home right away and make a batch of potato latkes.

   Sima had two sons in high school. Her husband worked at a grocery store. He was the head butcher. He brought kosher cows and sheep home. Sandy had three daughters and her husband, a tall balding man with a nice smile, was a porno movie wholesaler. He sold them to video stores around the state. He made a good living selling glossy naked girls.

   All of Sandy’s daughters were pudgy-cheeked fat and fluffy. The youngest one was 22 years old and clocked in at close to three hundred pounds. The oldest one’s neck was turning black because oxygen was being blocked by blubber. When they started hunting for husbands all three got gastric bypass surgery and lost weight by the boat load.

   No one ever knew what got into her, but Sima went to Weight Watchers for a month. She kept a journal and wrote down what she ate morning, noon, night, and snacks. But she lied to her journal.

   “I’m not going to say I ate all that,” she explained.

   “They’re not going to be checking up on you,” Rita said. “You’re just lying to yourself.”

   Gino didn’t believe she was going to lose any weight. “It’s a pipe dream,” he said. He chewed his cud about it. Rita encouraged her to keep it up, but Sima didn’t lose any weight.

   Sandy went on the Adkins Diet. She loved meat and started eating a slab of bacon every day. She brought it to the office in the morning. There was a microwave in the fax machine room. She tossed slices of bacon into it every morning, heated them up, and ate all of it. The office smelled like fried meat for hours.

   “I don’t know about all that bacon,” Rita said. “It can’t be good for you.”

   “I’m on the Adkins Diet,” Sandy said. “I’m allowed to eat as much of it as I want.”

   “She’s double-crossing herself,” said Gino. Everybody looked the other way. Sandy didn’t lose any weight, the same as Sima.

   Whenever Sandy had to go to the bathroom, she would hoist herself up from the desk. It took a minute. She could have used a crane. “Oy, vey” she complained. Her knees were giving out. When she came back and flopped down in her chair, it bounced, the hydraulic hissing and groaning.

   Every year, two or three times a year, Sandy and Sima went on cruises. They loved cruises for two reasons, which were all the food you could eat, and gambling. They didn’t care what cruise line it was, so long as it was the cheapest. No matter how cut-rate it was, you could still eat all you wanted, and they all had casinos. The nightlife didn’t matter, either. The ports they stopped at didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that it was a floating chuck wagon with one-armed bandits.

   Rita went on one of their dime-a-dozen cruises. The ship was creaky old but not yet rusty. It sailed out of Miami into the Caribbean for a week. Sandy and Sima spent every waking minute eating and betting. Rita got sun poisoning at the pool the first day and couldn’t sit there after that. The rest of the trip she had to stay on the shady side of the ship with the 70-year-olds.

   She was bitter about it every minute of the cruise.

   When gambling started showing up on computers, Sandy started gambling at work. She played winning and losing games at her desk and made Sima do all the work. She bossed Sima around most of the time, anyway. Sandy was the older of the two, although Sima was the harder worker, so Sandy could throw everything at her without caring too much about it.

   They bought clothes from magazines because they couldn’t find their sizes at department stores. Catalogs came in the mail to the office every day. Their clothes were XXL, but nice looking. They didn’t wear sack dresses. Most of the clothes were sets, coordinated stretchy pants and a top, like turquoise pants and a turquoise blouse.

   Sandy and Sima were both top-heavy, even though both had skinny legs. Sandy talked about her legs all the time. “Look how thin I am,” she said, pulling up her pants. “My legs are so thin.” But from the waist up she was huge. She never pulled her top up or down. It would have been indecent.

   It was when Sima got false teeth that she finally lost weight. Her real teeth were a mess from smoking and eating sugary greasy processed food and not brushing and flossing nearly enough. She was in pain for months because of the new teeth and hardly ate anything. Her dentist told her to stop smoking, too. She wasn’t happy about it, but she lost weight for a while.

   She didn’t like having to buy new shoes before their time, but she had to. Her fat feet had gotten skinnier, and she needed them. She only ever had one pair of shoes, a kind of basic black loafer. When they wore out, she would buy another pair the same as before. “I can’t live with sore feet,” she said.

   Sandy wasn’t happy about the change in her sister. She didn’t like Sima losing weight, especially whenever she sprang out of her chair to go to the bathroom. Sima started saying, “Oh, I can’t stand that smell,” whenever Sandy lit up, since she had stopped smoking. They were sisters, but they bickered most of the time, arguing about whoever did whatever it was they were doing better than the other.

   Everybody in the office smoked, except for Rita. Sima went back to blazing. They were always blowing smoke out of their mouths and noses. They were in a non-smoking building, but nobody cared. They were all addicted to tobacco. Besides opening the windows to air out the office, they bought devices that supposedly sucked smoke out of the air. One was next to Rita’s desk, although she was never sure it did any good.

   One day after work she met one of her friends for dinner. When they got to the restaurant her friend said, “We can sit in the smoking section if you want to.”

   “Have you ever seen me smoke?” Rita asked.

   “No,” she said.

   “OK then.”

   Gadi Galilli, Rita’s boyfriend, made her change her clothes the minute she stepped into the house after work. He didn’t smoke and didn’t like the smell. “I know they are well off, but it smells like poverty,” he said.

   She always smelled like smoke, since she sat in the office all day, an office where someone was always lighting up. Gino’s desk faced hers, which made it worse. She had a cloud of smoke over her head most of the day. It wasn’t just them, either. Most of their clients had the same bad habit, as though the agency specialized in people who smoked cigarettes.

   If Sandy wasn’t lighting up a Virginia Slims, Sima was lighting one up. One or the other was always huffing and puffing. They were a pair of choo-choo’s.

   Sandy’s wastebasket under her desk caught fire one afternoon. She absentmindedly flicked a butt into it instead of stubbing it out in the ashtray. They had to call the building’s security guard, who had to find a fire extinguisher, and by the time he got it under control the fire burned the underside of the desk and all the wires to her computer.

   She never said she hadn’t done it, at least not to anyone in the office. She never said anything about it. But she denied it to the insurance company. She didn’t want to pay for a new desk and a new computer. She didn’t start the fire purposely, which made it all right in her mind, and she got her settlement in the end.

   One day a few days before Halloween a gasoline tanker truck overturned on Chagrin Blvd., turning too fast on the ramp coming up I-271, just outside the office building. The street slopes downward for a quarter mile as it wends east. The gasoline from the ruptured tanker ran down the road like smeary water. None of them knew anything about it until a fireman with all his gear burst in.

   “Everybody out!” he said. “We’re evacuating the building.”

   Gino Sally and Rita grabbed their coats.

   Sandy leaned halfway up from her chair.

   “Nobody takes their car,” the fireman said. “The ignition could spark the gas. If anybody even tries to start a car, you’re going to get arrested.”

   Sandy and Sima wrestled themselves up to their feet.

   They all went into the hallway, everybody from the upstairs offices coming down the emergency stairs, shuffling towards the front door, stopping, and waiting their turn to go outside. Standing in line, rocking back and forth, Sandy pulled out her hard box pack of cigarettes, her BIC lighter, shook out a Virginia Slims Luxury Light 120, flicked the lighter, and lit up.

   The fireman came running over to them.

   “Stop!” he yelled. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

   He pulled the cigarette out from Sandy’s lips and crushed it between his gloved fingers. “Give me that lighter,” he said. Sandy gave it to him. She was furious but didn’t say anything. Rita thought she was going to burst, but she gave the fireman the stink eye, instead. 

   He didn’t care. He threw the BIC lighter in the trash. He kept his eye on her.

   When they got outside everybody was walking up the road, up to the bridge over the highway, away from the gasoline. Sandy and Sima turned the other way. The office followed them. As they walked past the gas pooling on Chagrin Boulevard where it levels off, splashing down into the storm drains, Rita realized why they were walking in the opposite direction from everybody else. Sandy and Sima couldn’t walk far and besides, they had trouble walking uphill. They could walk farther if they were going downhill. They were also going towards the stretch of fast-food restaurants where all the fire trucks and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing, were blocking the road.

   They stopped at Burger King and had burgers and fries. Firemen tramped in and evacuated them. They had to move on. They stopped at Taco Bell and had chicken tacos. The next thing they knew firemen were evacuating them again. They stopped at Wendy’s, and everybody had a frosty.

   The gas smelled like more gasoline than Rita had ever smelled in her life. She didn’t have an appetite, although she had a strawberry frosty. Sally had one, too. The rest of the office had the empty feeling, a hunger that got bigger and bigger, and scarfed the menu up.

   Sandy called her husband from the phone booth outside Wendy’s, and he came and picked them up in his family van. He deposited Sandy and Sima at home, drove Gino to his apartment, and dropped Rita off in Cleveland Heights.

   While parked in front of Rita’s up and down double, the engine running, he turned in his seat and said, “You’re a very pretty girl, have you ever thought about being in dirty pictures?”

   He flashed her a warm smile.

   “No,” she said.

   “You could make a lot of money,” he said. “We’re always looking for sick minds in healthy bodies.”

   “No thanks,” she said.

   He looked down in the mouth for a minute but took it like a man.

   Walking up the sidewalk to her front door, as Sandy’s husband drove away, she thought, “I’m going to have to quit my job soon. Who needs a sex maniac, and all those stinky butts? That can’t be good for me.”

   That’s what she did, finally, the week after New Year’s. “Where there’s smoke, there’s smoke blowing in my face,” she said to Gadi, peeved. “They don’t even pay me hazard pay.” 

   They never asked her, “Do you mind if we have a cigarette?” She was just the blonde girl to get the goys to cough up. They were topping off the tank, Virginia Slimming, smoke screening it, gasoline flood or no gasoline flood, rolling in the dough, while she was saving every spare penny to get ahead.

“I don’t care if they are spoiled rotten, or not,” she told Gadi after clearing her throat and breaking the news. “They don’t pay me enough to stay. I’m not bringing home the bacon I need. These boots are made for walkin’. I’ve got to go.” 

   Gadi waved his hand, brushing away imaginary smoke. “Go change your clothes,” he said.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Stalking the Ukraine

By Ed Stasku

   Even though Ukraine wasn’t Ukraine in the 14th century lots of folks called it that so that is what it was. The word itself means borderland. The Lithuanians visited every summer. They did it for their health, if not for the health of the natives. When they did they had good times marauding and looting and drinking too much whenever the devil got the better of them. They didn’t control the land so much as take advantage of it. The less governance the better is the way they saw it. “We do not change old traditions and do not introduce new ones,” they said.

   They were freebooters who became empire builders. The boyars rode fast horses, big and fit, were outfitted in chain mail, wore conical metal helmets, were armed with lances, swords, and knives, and carried a black shield emblazoned with the red emblem of the Columns of Gediminas. They weren’t draftees or recruits. Those who were, walked and died where they stood. The boyars were tough men who could be dangerous in the blink of an eye. The Golden Horde warned would-be enemies of them, “Beware the Lithuanians.” That was all they ever said.

   They had to be rough and tough. When they went to war they didn’t launch cruise missiles and kill their enemies at great distance, checking the body count with drones. They hacked their enemies to pieces with long swords face to face and watched them bleed to death in the mud at their feet.

   By the end of the 14th century the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was the biggest country in Europe. Today it is one of the smallest countries in Europe. When they were growing fast and furious they didn’t do it by being soul brothers or good trading partners. They did it by getting on their horses and taking what they wanted. They didn’t bother explaining.

   The Grand Duchy got started in the early 13th century when Prince Mindaugas united his Baltic forest clans, swamp tribes, and fiefdoms into a feudal state. They were desperate times. The Teutonic Knights were on a rampage. They wanted to incorporate all of Lithuania into the Teutonic Order. They never stopped trying. Between 1305 and 1409 they launched 300-some military campaigns. They slaughtered more peasants than anything else. The Lithuanians beat them back time and again. Finally, in 1410, at the Battle of Grunwald the Lithuanians and Poles destroyed the Teutonic Knights. Most of the order’s leadership was killed or taken prisoner. The Grand Master ran away. They never recovered their former power. When the carnage was over, the Lithuanian-Polish alliance became the dominant political and military force in the region.

   When I was a kid almost everybody called the Ukrainians Russians. We didn’t call them that because we knew what was up with the Reds. They had done the same thing to Lithuania, enslaving the country, and reaping something anything everything for nothing. Both of my parents came from there after WW2, so we knew what was up. We didn’t have to read between the lines of whatever Washington and Moscow were forever saying.

   Even though Ukraine didn’t become a nation-state until 1991, after getting their feet wet for a few years after WW1, it was extant in the 14th century, and well before that. We all knew about the Ukrainians when I was growing up, The first Ukes came to Cleveland, Ohio in the 1880s. They settled in the Tremont neighborhood. Their idea was work hard in the factories of the industrial valley, get rich, go back home, buy some land, and live happily ever after. Between the world wars lots of former freedom fighters came. They were goners if they had stayed. Stalin was itching to get his hands on them. Most of them settled in Parma, a southwest suburb, where they built churches, schools, and started their own aid associations and credit unions.

   We didn’t live in Parma, but on the east side along the lake. Nevertheless, among the Poles, Hungarians, Croatians and Slovenians, and anybody else who could sneak into the country when the Statue of Liberty wasn’t looking, there were some Ukrainian families in our neck of the woods. One of them operated a gas station on St. Clair Ave. not far from where we lived. One of their handful of sons who was our age messed around with us summers, when we had three no-school months to mess around in. His name was Lyaksandra. It sounded like a girl’s name, so we called him Alex.

   We played pick-up baseball at Gordon Park, from where we could see Lake Erie. We once asked him, taking a break in the action, what he thought about the Russians. He growled, made an obscene gesture, spit sideways, and said, “There are lots of Russki’s in Ukraine. They are liars about everything. They aren’t all bad, but they all hate themselves. We hate them, too.”

   Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. It is bordered by Russia and Belarus, as well as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, among others. It has coastlines along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. It has its own language. Most people speak Russian, as well. The Muscovites are always trying to convince them to drop the Uke talk and speak only Russian.

   “We don’t talk that Russki talk anymore,” Alex said. “Not here, no way.”

   In the Middle Ages Ukraine, which is about the size of Texas, was the epicenter of East Slavic culture. It was, at least, until the Kievan Rus was destroyed by Mongol invasions in the 13th century. Somebody is always trying to beat up on Ukraine. From then to the 20th century Ukraine was variously ruled by the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth, the Ottoman Empire, the Austrian Empire, and the Tsars of Russia. Everybody wanted to be the boss of the Ukes. It’s a miracle they have prevailed and are still prevailing, facing the long odds of going against the vaunted Red Army.

   The Russians are finding out what it is like to go toe to toe with somebody who is not afraid of them and has the up-to-date American rockets and artillery to back up their bravado. The Ukrainians are fighting an existential battle. Their backs are against the wall. They have nowhere to fall. The Red Army is fighting to save its skin and make it home alive for Defenders of the Fatherland Day. The soldiers throw their uniforms into the nearest sewer when they desert.

   When I was a boy I played with toy soldiers. There wasn’t any such thing as a Lithuanian mounted  boyar toy soldier, so I pretended that anybody on a horse was a Lithuanian knight. They were always the good guys. They won every fight battle and war. They were my heroes. I didn’t know what sons of bitches they must have been. They weren’t any different than anybody else in power back then. They were all sons of bitches, including the Holy Roman Church, whose popes ruled by the sword whenever the pen wasn’t convincing enough. 

   In the early 16th century Pope Julius I, the Fearsome Pope, imported Swiss Guards to be his personal bodyguards. He strapped on armor and led the Papal State armies against the Venetians, the French, and the Spanish. His armor plating covered every inch of him just in case the grace of God didn’t get it done, including a helmet made to look like a miter. Everybody on his side was allowed to join the Holy League. Everybody else was badmouthed and excommunicated.

  After Pope Julius died a rumor had it that if he was denied entrance at the Pearly Gates, there would be hell to pay. He would storm them, St. Peter or no St. Peter, and never mind his set of silver and gold keys. It was every man for himself and God against all.

   Until the end of the 14th century Lithuanians didn’t give a damn what the Vatican did. They were pagans. They were the last pagans in Europe. The word “Lithuania” is first mentioned in 1009, in an account of the murder of Saint Bruno by “pagans on the border of Lithuania and Rus.” He was trying to convert them. That was a mistake. Their headman, whose name was Dievas, ruled the universe from his kingdom in the sky. He didn’t like anybody popping up with new ideas about Heaven and Hell. Perkunas, the god of thunder and lightning, was his right-hand man and enforcer. The holy fires were guarded by Vaidilutès, the Lithuanian equivalent of Vestal Virgins. They buried their dead with food and household goods. The last pagan grand duke was buried with his hounds, horses, and falcons.

   When they finally joined the God-fearing club it was a political move. They were doing a dynastic union with Poland, and one of the conditions the Poles laid down was that the Lithuanians had to convert to church-going and dump their veneration of the forces of nature. It didn’t change their business plan in Ukraine, other than to make them more organized. They transitioned from frat parties to fancy dress balls.

   The Grand Duchy of Lithuania had controlled Belarus for some time and when they went after Ukraine they got it, extending their control to the open steppe and eventually to the Black Sea. The Ukes learned to “Beware the Lithuanians.” When they started to get what they wanted they left their freebooting days behind and started building castles to keep their loot secure. It was  a ten-day ride from Vilnius to Kiev. Why not ditch the seasonal exploitation and make the most of the four seasons?

   It wasn’t their land, but it is finders keepers. They meant to keep what they had subjugated. The Ukrainians didn’t have a say in the matter. They told the Ukes, “We may not be perfect but we’re Lithuanians so it’s almost the same.” The Ukes said, “We promise not to laugh when your oven is on fire.” The Lithuanians weren’t offended. They just said, “Show us the goats.”

   They built the Lutsk Castle, which later became a museum. They built the Olyka Palace, which later became an insane asylum. They built the Kremenets Castle, which later fell into ruins after the Cossacks sacked the city at the bottom of the hill. In the meantime, the boyars lived the high life. They started with red borscht, green borscht, and cold borscht. They feasted on holubtsi, cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, and stewed in tomato sauce. They ate slabs of kholodets, a cold jellied meat broth. They drank vodka between courses. Ukrainians to this day drink more vodka than beer. When they were done with dinner they went to bed, snoring and cabbage farting in their sleep.

   Even though the Lithuanians always said the Ukrainians welcomed them with open arms, they built their castle-fortresses on high hills with steep inclines, the rockier the better, fitted with one main gate and plenty of towers, arrow slits, battlements, and dungeons. They kept big rocks and hot oil handy to toss down on door-to-door salesmen. If you ended up in the dungeon you found out soon enough they weren’t playing Dungeons and Dragons.

   Imperialism is never cozy and consensual. It’s more like assault and battery. The movers and shakers of power politics don’t get thrown in jail until long after they are dead. My friend Alex had never heard of Lithuanians living it up in Ukraine. He was surprised to hear they had once been a super power. He was chagrined to find out there were more invaders of his homeland than he had realized.

   “How come the Lithuanians push us around back then?” he asked. Most of us playing ball at Gordon Park were second generation Lithuanian Americans. We weren’t even teenagers, yet. None of us had a good answer, much less a sensible answer of any kind.

   “Somebody always wants to be the top dog,” Kesty said.

   “No, that wasn’t it,” Arunas said. “They just wanted to have somebody else do all the work, like make dinner and clean the toilets.”

   “It was the Ukrainian girls,” Romas said. “Ukrainian girls are hot.”

   Romas was over-sexed, and everybody knew it. Nobody had any other ideas. We went back to playing ball in the summer sun. When we got overheated we walked to the shore and sat on the edge of a cliff in the breeze. Lake Erie was in front of us, the water rippling, the tips of the waves white.

   “Can we see Ukraine from here?” Alex asked.

   “No, it’s that way,” Arunas said pointing over his right shoulder. When we looked all we could see was Bratenahl, where rich people lived in mansions. They made the rules, for what they were worth. Our grade school class practiced duck and cover once a month, just in case the Russki’s dropped an atomic bomb on Cleveland. We brought our own lunches every day but wondered where our next lunch was going to come from if all the food stores got blown up. Many of the Bratenahl bluebloods had their own fallout shelters. They didn’t worry overmuch about starving.

   All good things must come to an end. The Lithuanians were strong in Ukraine for several centuries, but the deal they made with Poland reaped a better harvest for their next-door neighbors than my ancestors. The Poles say, “A good appetite needs no sauce.” By the mid-16th century Lithuanians were sauce. Their goose was cooked. The dynastic link was changed to a constitutional one by the Union of Lublin in 1569. Ukraine was set free of the Lithuanians but was annexed by Poland the next day.

   The more things change the more they stay the same, until they don’t. The new would-be colonialists calling the shots in the Kremlin are finding that out, to their discomfiture. They make a wasteland and call it New Russia. They have been looking grim lately. Meanwhile, Lithuania has joined NATO and gone out of the plunder and pillage business. The boyars are rolling over in their graves.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com

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Hammer the Sickle Blues

By Ed Staskus

   “Man, I had a dreadful flight, I’m back in the USSR, you don’t know how lucky you are, boy, back in the USSR.”  The Beatles

   When Angele Staskus went to Lithuania in 1977 with her daughter, she had not been on native ground for thirty-three years. Her daughter, Rita, 17 years old, had never been there. They flew from Cleveland, Ohio, to New York City to Moscow to Vilnius. It took two days to travel the five thousand miles.

   It was in 1944 that Angele Jurgelaiyte, then a 16-year-old farmer’s daughter, fled Alvitas near Marijampole in the south of the country, the German Army retreating pell-mell and the Red Army storming the front. She shared a wagon drawn by two horses with her aunt and her aunt’s four children. A milk cow was tied to the back of the wagon. She fled to East Prussia to Germany to Canada. Nobody else in her immediate family got away before the clampdown. They got to stay in the USSR for the next five decades.

   Angele got married to Vic Staskevicius, another Lithuanian refugee, in Sudbury, Ontario. They had three children and the family emigrated to the USA in the late 1950s. After they got there they became Mr. and Mrs. Staskus. They started at the bottom. Everything looked like up to them.

   The first time Rita saw her first Russian  airport, she wasn’t impressed. “The Moscow airport was crappy, gray on gray, and there were birds and bats flying around inside the terminal. Everybody looked sick, like stomach flu was going around.”

   “The color of truth is gray,” said the French writer Andre Gide. He was wrong. The Commies were wrong, too, and their favorite color was wrong. Social material political truth at any cost is more trouble than it’s worth, sparing no one, not during the countless bloodthirsty 20th century grabs for glory and power, for sure. It’s not black and white either, no matter what the insincere masterminds say. The color of truth is more like Sgt. Pepper’s Crayola 64 Colors. 

   The Sheremetyevo airport served most of the international flights arriving and departing the capital city. The airport was originally built as a military airfield in the late 1950s with one runway. In the early 1970s a second runway was added. A single terminal still served both runways. Half the people waiting for their flights looked like they might commit suicide any second.

   “We had to go through customs. The higher-ups, police, and soldiers all looked grim. Everybody going to Lithuania was smuggling something. My mom kept telling me to flash a smile at the soldiers, most of whom were young, like me. We had gum and cigarettes in my suitcase, but they never went through it.”

   A woman behind them wearing an oversized fur coat wasn’t so lucky. “She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the lining apart and took all of it.” The police put her stuff in their pockets.

   There were several eateries in the terminal, but neither mother nor daughter ate while waiting for their connection. “The food looked horrible, and what was the point of bad food and bad service without a smile?” asked Rita.

   They flew Aeroflot to Vilnius. “They brought us food, butter and buns, but they were hard as rocks,” Rita said. “You couldn’t even bite into them.” She tossed them under her seat. “The stewardesses were all so surly, down at the mouth, that I started laughing about it.” The flight attendants did a slow burn.

   When they landed in Vilnius, the stale buns rolling to the front of the airplane, passenger loading stairs were rolled to the door. The terminal was built in 1954. “It was a gray rectangular building, like a warehouse, like in Moscow.” There were sculptures of soldiers and workers outside and wreaths, bay leaves and stars, and the Soviet hammer and sickle inside.

   “It was even crappier than the Moscow airport.”

   Inside the terminal was a tight-knit group of more than forty of their relatives. “They came running up to us. One of them asked, do you speak Lithuanian? When I said yes, everybody started talking at once.” Some of the people looked a little like her, while others looked a lot like her mother. They were her uncles, Justinas, Juozukas, Sigitas, and her aunt Irena. There were nieces and nephews. When the excitement died down, they drove to the Gintaras Hotel, near the railroad station.

   The Gintaras was where foreigners stayed, all foreigners from anywhere, who visited Lithuania. It was a hard and fast rule. Signs warned against making a commotion. “The kids were running up and down the hallway, while the adults were all in our room. It was crowded since it wasn’t a big room, at all.”

   They had brought pens, gum, and cigarettes. “My uncle Justinas lost the pen I gave him, and when I offered him another one, he said, no, he wanted the same pen I had given him. Nobody could find it, so I pretended to find it, and gave him a new one.”

   Everybody wanted the American cigarettes they had smuggled in. “Russian cigarettes were nasty. They smelled bad.” The Belomorkani cigarettes didn’t come with a filter, but with a hollow cardboard tube attached to a thin paper tube filled with tobacco. The tube was like a disposable cigarette holder. They were popular in the Baltics because of their cheap price. They were notorious for being the strongest cigarette in the world.

   “Everybody was smoking in minutes, the men, the women, and the older kids. It was non-stop.” 

   The Prima brand was imported from Bulgaria. It was a better quality of tobacco. But since the Belomorkani was the only available fag in most of the hinterland, that is what everybody smoked. A low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everybody smoked. 

   “After twenty minutes you couldn’t see across the room.” Rita noticed one of her cousins was chain-smoking. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

   “I don’t,” he said.

   “We brought Bubble Yum because that’s what they wrote us they wanted. All they had was crappy hard gum that would break your teeth when you started to chew it.” Introduced just two years earlier by Life Savers, Bubble Yum was the first soft bubble gum ever created. “They would chew the Bubble Yum for a half hour and then put it back in its wrapper, putting it away in their pockets or purses.”

   One afternoon Rita was sitting in a nearby park talking with her uncle Sigitas. He took his wallet out of his back pocket. He filled his hand with a wad of cash.

   “We have money, but there’s nothing to buy,” he said.

   “We went to a butcher shop. There were only two kinds of meat and both of them were loads of white fat. My aunts were always cutting fat off. It was gross. Even the herring was bad. I mostly hated the food. It turned my stomach.”

    There was a store near the hotel. It was called the Dovana Krautuve, or Gift Store. It was for Western tourists only. Lithuanians weren’t allowed to shop there, or even go inside it. They went there one day on a tour bus. “They had amber, wooden dolls, artsy stuff there. They just wanted our American dollars. When we were leaving, they gave each of us a bottle of Coca-Cola.”

   Back on the bus, Rita asked the driver if he liked Coke.

   “Yes, I had some in 1955,” he said. “It was good.”

   “That was twenty-two years ago,” she said. 

   “Yes, I understand,” said the bus driver.

   She gave him her bottle of the sweet soda.

   “The Young Communists were always following us around, telling us their world was just as good as ours, that they had everything we had, and more. When I had to take my contacts out on the bus, one of them said, we have those, too. That was wacky because none of my relatives had contacts and none of them knew where to get any unless it was the black market.” She finally told the Young Communists to cut it out. “Your BS isn’t doing anything for me,” she said.

   While inside the hotel, nobody talked about anything that might compromise them. “All the rooms were bugged. Everything was bugged.” Everybody was constantly watched, one way or another. Telephones were tapped. Mail was opened. Black government sedans followed people around.

   Angele and Rita stayed at the Ginraras Hotel for a week. Everybody knew somebody was always listening in. Nobody said anything. Their room wasn’t small, but it wasn’t large, and the bathroom was even smaller. The room was a bathroom and a shower all at once. There weren’t any sliding doors or shower curtains. “There was a drain in the middle of the floor, and whenever we showered the spray would get all over the tiled walls and sink and toilet. Everything got wet. The whole room became a shower.”

   After they towel dried the room and themselves off, they visited with their relatives. It was what they did more than anything else. There weren’t many sights to see in Vilnius, even if you could go there.

   “You never asked anybody, even your own flesh and blood, what they did. They would always say, ‘I have responsibilities.’ If you lived in Vilnius, you probably had a normal job, but not in Marijampole.” Most of her kinfolk lived in the country and farmlands southwest of the rural town. They finagled and horse traded, going to Poland, smuggling whatever they could, doing things that weren’t altogether legal, or so the Russians said, so it wasn’t prudent to ask them too much

   The goal was to be a ‘pasikaustes,’ somebody who has the smarts prowess right stuff to make it happen. It literally means putting a horseshoe on yourself. Everybody needed good luck in the clampdown. That’s why they were always wheeling and dealing.

   They were waiting for the Russians to get the hell out of their country. They had once waited more than a hundred years. They could wait another hundred if they had to, although who wanted to do that? They were already bitter and alienated. ‘Laikiu nesulaukiu’ means not being able to wait for something to happen. “I wait but I can’t wait.” It’s like being in jail for a crime you didn’t know you had committed.

   They made plans to go to Silute to see Rita’s paternal grandmother, who was in her 80s. Angele had never met her. Rita couldn’t imagine her.

   Silute is to the northwest of Marijampole, two-some hours away. The Nemunas River floods there almost every year, soaking the lowland pastures. Migrating birds call it home away from home because of the delta and all the water. A fifth of the area is forested. It is home to more than three hundred villages.

   Antonina was Angele’s husband’s mother. She was a Russian woman, had been a young schoolteacher in the middle of nowhere, and married Rita’s grandfather when he was an officer in the Imperial Army, stationed in the middle of nowhere. “She was taken a few years after my grandfather was deported in 1941 and dragged away to Siberia for more than ten years.”

   Rita’s mother’s family, who lived in the south of the country, made plans to take them to Silute. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three brothers, three wives, three cars, Angele and Rita, and some of their cousins. “My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that.”

   The secrecy was necessary because they weren’t allowed to go anywhere except within the city limits. When they asked about Silute, Siauliai, and Zarasai, the other points of the compass to Vilnius, they were told they were all out of bounds. Everywhere outside of Vilnius was off limits. The Intourist official, the Soviet tourism monopoly, at the front desk of the hotel leaned forward and told Angele and Rita it was because of missile installations.

   “Are there missiles in every town in the whole country?” asked Angele.

   “I know sarcasm from naïve American when I listen to it,” the official scowled.

   Their convoy didn’t get far the day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock on the outskirts of Vilnius. The police were waiting for them. “They knew,” Rita said. “Somebody had overheard something. Somebody talked. They waved us off the road.”

   The police glanced at Justinas’s papers and told him to go back.

   They went to the second car. Everybody had to show their papers. Angele was the best dressed of everyone in all three cars. She was all decked out. They asked her where she lived.

   “The Gintaras Hotel.”

   “Turn around, fancy lady, go back to the Gintaras.”

   They went to the third car.

   Sigitas and his wife Terese showed their papers. Rita was sitting in the back with three of her cousins. They all showed their papers. When it was Rita’s turn, she said, “You’ve seen their papers. I live in the same place.”

   “What’s your name?”

   “Jurgelaitis, just like them.”

   He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word and glared at him. The stare-down between cop and girl took a long minute.

   “The next time I see this one she is going to have to answer,” the policeman warned Rita’s uncle.

   “Turn back,” he said, shooting everybody a dirty look. They turned around and the convoy went back to Vilnius.

   Undaunted, a few days later, a day before leaving the USSR, Rita was picked up by Sigitas before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run to Silute. She skittered into the car, and they sped off. The streets were empty in the gloom.

   “He was a crazy driver, always yelling, ‘Somebody’s following us!’ He stayed off the highway, and the main roads, instead going up and down different streets. I thought the drive was going to take two hours, but it took much longer.” It took five hours on empty stomachs. It was worse than the Aeroflot flight.

   They were stopped several times, but every time her uncle was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him on. When they got to Silute they asked around and found the house where Antonina Staskevicius was living. 

   After Josef Stalin’s death many political prisoners in Siberia were set free. She was one of them. Her chain gang days were over. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in a forest labor camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She still wanted to go there but was told to go live in Silute. The Russians shrugged her off when she asked why.

   “She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a log cabin, that looked like it was built a thousand years ago,” said Rita. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. The floors were dirt. The windows needed caulking. The roof was several generations overdue.

   “She was in her 80s. She had gone through tough times, but still had a lot of life in her.” She had seven grandchildren in the United States. Rita was the first one she ever saw. She gave her granddaughter a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman and had to reach up.

   She wasn’t made of steel, like the Muscovite ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was gone, a tinhorn memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start isn’t always how you finish.

   They had lunch, cold beet soup, potato dumplings, and mushroom cookies with strong hot tea. Rita didn’t throw anything under the table. It was an old-school buffet on an old round wood table.

   “How did you like it?” her uncle asked on their way back to Vilnius.

   “It was the best food I’ve had since I left home,” Rita said.

Ed Staskus edits Theatre PEI. He posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com.

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