The End of Taupa

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By Ed Staskus

   When one-time CEO Alex Spirikaitis was arrested on the afternoon of Monday, October 21, 2013, he had been on the run for ninety-some days, accused of embezzling more than $10 million from the Taupa Lithuanian-American Credit Union in Cleveland, Ohio.

   It was almost half of the cash, assets, and member deposits of the small non-profit bank.

   He had changed his appearance by growing hair on his formerly shaved head and shaving his goatee. Despite speculation that he had fled to Europe or South America, he was apprehended in the Collinwood neighborhood on Cleveland’s east side.

   “He was actually walking down the street when we spotted him,” said FBI Special Agent Vicki Anderson. His disguise had only gotten him so far. Although he had left behind multiple semi-automatic weapons and 10,000 rounds of ammunition secreted away at the credit union, he was arrested without incident.

   “He did not put up a fight.”

   Stealing money with a smile and a fountain pen is one thing. Shooting it out with the Federal Bureau of Investigation is another thing. They aren’t the same thing, by a long shot.

   The FBI would not reveal how he been tracked to Collinwood, only that they had “developed information based upon advanced investigative techniques that led to his apprehension,” a brief statement said.

   He was less than three miles from closed down boarded up Taupa Credit Union.

   Modern credit unions date to mid-nineteenth century Germany, where they were conceived as people’s banks leveraging social capital to serve farmers and the working class. The first credit union in North America began operations in 1901 with a ten-cent deposit. Today more than 8000 of them in the United States serve over 90 million members with total assets of nearly $800 billion.

   Managed by their members, most credit unions are not-for profit cooperatives taking in deposits, promoting thrift, and making loans. Unlike banks, individuals combine to manage and control their own money. They are near and far in many shapes and sizes. Credit unions range from corporate entities to community institutions serving local schools and churches.

   When Augis Dicevicius emigrated from the homeland to Cleveland in the early 2000s, he soon opened an account at Taupa. It was in the neighborhood, the employees at the credit union were from the immigrant community, spoke Lithuanian, and over time became more like friends than bankers.

   “It was like loyalty,” he said, describing why he kept an account there.

   “There is a level of trust from both sides of the counter at Taupa because you know who you are dealing with,” said Algis Gudenas, former chairman of the credit union’s board of directors, three years before the National Credit Union Association liquidated it. “I think the slogan of Taupa more or less says it all, save with one of your own.”

   From the 1930s on when the federal government began to charter them, credit unions grew steadily, especially among immigrant groups. They were instrumental in helping establish Poles, Germans, Italians, and the more recent Asian and Hispanic immigrants in their new locales. When creating the Office of Ethnic Affairs in 1976 President Ford cited “the ethnic church, school, and credit union” as fostering “a sense of neighborhood.”

   Wherever Lithuanians have settled in the United States, from coast to coast, they have formed their own credit unions. Founded in 1969, the California Lithuanian Credit Union has assets of $72 million. The thriving Boston Lithuanian Federal Credit Union celebrated its 33rd anniversary in 2013. From its roots in the basement of a church hall in the early 1950s, Toronto’s Parama has grown to become the world’s largest Lithuanian credit unions.

   Already by 1906 in Cleveland the Lithuanian Building and Loan Association, sometimes simply known as the Lit bank, had been established, even though the community numbered less than a thousand at the time. After World War Two it evolved into the Superior Savings and Loan. In the 1980s, when Cleveland was by then home to more than sixteen thousand former Lithuanian natives and their children, Taupa was founded.

   It served the community for almost three decades.

   With approximately 1100 members and $24 million in assets, located a short walk from both their church and the Lithuanian Village cultural center, Taupa was a stable institution, healthy and growing, year after year, even in an economy often troubled by bank failures and recessions.

   At least it was until the evening of July 16, 2013, when police and federal agents surrounded Alex Spirikaitis’s $1.7 million home in Solon, a bedroom suburb 25 miles southeast of Cleveland. It was four days after the decision had been made by the state to liquidate the credit union, determining it was insolvent and had no viable prospect for restoring operations.

   Armed with a warrant for his arrest for fraud, when authorities approached the home they were met by his family, who told them he was inside, but was refusing to come out. He was going to tough it out.

   “Family members left the house with us and we thought, from the information we gathered, that he was not going to willingly come out,” said Special Agent Vicki Anderson.

   The police decided to regroup, the size and layout of the large house playing a big part in their decision to wait for daylight. After a night-long standoff, the neighborhood cordoned off for safety’s sake, and TV news crews at the ready, tactical teams entered the house in the morning.

   But the police came up empty. He was not there. He had run away, fled from the consequences, not that it did much good. “A horse may run quickly but it cannot escape its tail,” is how a Lithuanian proverb puts it.

   Before the first members made their first deposits in 1984, the credit union was just a hope and a dream.

   “We were in our kitchen having coffee one morning, talking about it like we had for months,” recalled Angele Staskus. “That was when my husband suddenly said yes, we were going to go ahead.”

   Believing Cleveland’s Lithuanian immigrants and descendants would be better off banding together for their savings and loan needs, Vic Staskus took his brainchild to an ad hoc committee made up of Vytautas Maurutis, Vacys Steponis, Gintaras Taoras, and Vincas Urbaitis. Taupa was coined as the bank’s name and they were shortly chartered by the state.

   At a meeting at Our Lady of Perpetual Help church attended by fewer than twenty people, they collected $4000.00 in deposits, convinced local Lithuanian attorney Algis Sirvaitis to donate space for an office, and hired Rimute Nasvitiene, who became Taupa’s first employee.

   “At first we did everything by hand,” said Vic Staskus. Later that year the Toronto credit union offered them their old computing machine. “It took four of us to bring it into our office, since it was as big as a table, and on top of that we lost most of our small office space to it.” Fortunately, through a friend at IBM, they were shortly able to secure a more modern system.

   After they purchased their own building from a retiring Lithuanian doctor in 1985, deposits began to pour in.  “That was a problem,” Vic Staskus recalled shortly before his death in January 2011. “We had no loans, so we were earning very little. We asked one of our board members to take out a loan. But he said he didn’t need anything. Every time we asked him, he said no. We were finally able to convince him and he took a loan out for $500, and gradually people began to realize we were lending.”

   By 1990, when Vic Staskus left Taupa, the credit union had nearly $8 million in assets and delivered most of the same services all banks did. “I knew we could offer better rates and interest, and I always believed we could offer as many advantages as banks to our members,” he said. Taupe was on solid footing and growing.

   Alex Spirikaitis joined Taupa in the early 1990s, at first working at the front counter as a clerk, later promoted to assistant manager, and eventually taking on the role of CEO, as the credit union quadrupled its assets in those years.

   “He lived on the same street as we did, in the neighborhood, just down the street from the credit union, when we were children,” said Rita Zvirblis, who served as secretary for Taupa’s board of directors in its early years. “He was a really nice kid, really quiet.”

   Former board director Ricardas Sirvinskas described the new CEO as well liked, especially by older members, because he spoke Lithuanian fluently. “The older generation of Lithuanians, they really liked Alex very much.”

   After he was arrested, U.S. Magistrate Judge Kenneth McHargh unsealed an affidavit revealing the extent of the embezzlement, which was more than $10 million, making it one of the largest cases of fraud against a credit union ever n the country. The largest, involving the St. Paul Croatian Credit Union, was coincidentally also in Cleveland, Ohio.

   The criminal complaint against Alex Spirikaitis was for allegedly making false statements to a credit union from 2011 through 2013.

   “He printed out numbers he wanted to report to auditors and the National Credit Union Association and taped them over the real numbers from the true Corporate One Federal Credit Union bank account statements,” the affidavit states. “Mr. Spirikaitis then photocopied the altered documents resulting in a document that mimicked the appearance of a statement coming directly from Corporate One.”

   The machinations were on the order of “Get Smart.”

   “Everybody accepted the financial statements Alex provided us, and everybody appeared to be happy with them,” said Vincas Urbaitis, a founding member of the credit union who sat on its board for more than 25 years until resigning in 2011.

   “I guess everybody just got duped.”

   During the summer, as Alex Spirikaitis remained on the loose, federal prosecutors seized his wife’s luxury SUVs and moved to take legal possession of his home. Court documents revealed that the down payment for the house, the construction of which took a year, was paid with two checks totaling $100,000 from the former CEO’s personal account at the credit union.

   “All remaining checks, totaling approximately $1,555,132, came from Mr. Spirikaitis in the form of Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union official checks,” court documents said. “While working at the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union, Mr. Spirikaitis never made in excess of $50,000.”

   The luxury Adirondack-style house on a five-acre lot featured two full kitchens, an indoor swimming pool, entertainment room with big screen and movie projectors, five-and-a-half bathrooms, and an elevator.

   Alex and his wife had a luxury suite at FirstEnergy Stadium for Cleveland Browns football games. They drove one of their nine cars downtown for home games. They celebrated touchdowns with fancy drinks.

   “No Trespassing” signs surrounded the house on all sides.

   “I don’t think anybody from the board of directors knew or anyone within the Lithuanian community knew he was building a house,” said Vincas Urbaitis. “He was not very social. But he was not antisocial, either. He would talk to you about the business aspects of the credit union, but I don’t even know who his close friends were.”

   He was a kind of chameleon. Everybody noticed him, but nobody recognized him. He wasn’t a public man, after all. Ricardas Sirvinskas described Alex Spirikaitis as a quiet person, keeping to himself, and only rarely attending social events in the Lithuanian community.

   Although court documents were not completely clear regarding the final tally of money missing, Vincas Urbaitis was bewildered why examiners had not verified the statements prepared by Alex Spirikaitis.

   “They never went to the bank, Corporate One, and asked independently as to how much money was in the accounts,” he said.

   Vytautas Kliorys, board president of Taupa at the time it was closed and liquidated, also questioned the credit union’s third-party audit firm and examiners. “The board believed that it had all the procedures in place to prevent this sort of event,” he said. “We had received excellent and very good reports from the annual state exams, and we had even gone one step further than required and used an outside CPA firm to perform annual independent audits.”

   Paul Hixon, VP of marketing at Corporate One, had no comment other than to say the National Credit Union Association was investigating. Officials said it would take up to six months to complete a full forensic account process.

   The Lithuanian community reacted to the credit union’s closing with dismay. “For those in Cleveland that have been watching the news for the last few days know that the Lithuanian community in Cleveland has been in the spotlight,” said Regina Motiejunas-McCarthy, co-host of Siaurinis Krantas Lithuanian Radio.

   “Not because of something good but because of a tragedy.”

   The unexpected closure of the credit union affected all of its members, freezing their accounts for several months-and-more, even though they were insured, as well as severely impacting some businesses, including the Lithuanian Community Center.

   “Like many other businesses that have their accounts there, we are all scrambling to open new checking accounts with basically no liquid cash other than from sales over the weekend,” Ruta Degutis, president of the community center, said when news of the closure became official.

   “Alex assumed a public trust when he became CEO of Taupa, to help better the lives of others,” said one of the members. “It was not given to him as an opportunity to satisfy personal greed.” After thirty years Cleveland’s Lithuanian community lost one of the pillars of its community.

   Within days of his arrest U.S. Magistrate Kenneth McHargh found the former bank officer indigent and qualified for a court-appointed public defender. Since a “Go Bag” filled with blank identification cards, mobile phone cards, and stored value cards that could be used in lieu of cash had been found in his office, the magistrate also ruled he be held behind bars without bond. Assistant federal public defender Darin Thompson did not challenge the no-bond ruling.

   The defendant and his lawyer agreed to waive his right to a detention hearing. The case was bound over to a federal grand jury. Alex Spirikaitis left the U.S. District Court in downtown Cleveland as he had entered it, hands handcuffed behind him, a policeman beside him guiding him away.

   In the same courtroom the following year Alex Spirikaitis and Vytas Apanavicious pled guilty to bank fraud. Vytas Apanavicius of VPA Accounting, providing bookkeeping and accounting services, conspired with the group, depositing and transferring funds to hide overdrafts and withdrawals, according to Steven Dettlebach, United State Attorney. Michael Ruksenas of Naples, Florida, and John Struna of Concord Township, Ohio, were subsequently charged for their roles in the conspiracy.

   At the end of the day, Alex Spirikaitis was sentenced to eleven years in prison, not so much a punishment as a consequence, the wages not of sin but of breaking the faith.

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Close to the Bone

SCAN

By Ed Staskus

Afterwards, Angele could never remember exactly where she first met Vladas. “It was in Nuremberg, but I don’t know if I met him at one of the dances at the hospital or at a coffeehouse or out walking,” she said.

It might have been at the city zoo, where she went most days weather permitting, leading twenty thirty children from the ward where she worked, children who were recovering from the war, for a walk in the fresh air and sunshine. They threw groundnuts to the elephants, even though elephants don’t like nuts and hardly ever eat them.

Angele and her friend Maryte, her friend from the same DP camp in Bavaria, who was the friend who told her about starting over in Nuremberg, whenever the opportunity arose the two of them ran for the  tram for the two-mile ride to town, where they slipped into a restaurant or coffeehouse, ordered coffee and got an earful of music for an hour-or-so.

“Someone was always playing a piano. We would sit and listen and order another coffee if we had to so we could stay and listen some more.”

Angele Jurgelaityte was living at the Army Hospital in Nuremberg, studying to be a nurse assistant. She fled Lithuania in late 1944, when she was 16 years old, on her aunt’s horse-drawn wagon, in a line of carts and wagons miles long. Three other Lithuanian women and she shared a small room, all of them training and working, on the grounds of the hospital.

Vladas was a Lithuanian Army officer who served as a guard at the war crime trials a couple of years earlier and was still stationed in the city.

Many Baltic military officers, Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, were assigned security functions in the Allied zones after the war. They guarded bridges and buildings. Some of them kept an eye on Germany’s war criminals during the series of thirteen Nuremberg trials. After the suicides and executions of those Nazis judged to have committed genocide and crimes against humanity, some of the officers and their units stayed in the city, protecting weapon arsenals, food supplies, and the airport.

“Vladas was my first boyfriend. He was my friend, but he was a father to me, too,” Angele said. It was summer, three years after the end of the war. She was 20 and he was 33. He had access to food most Germans and no refugees had access to. He brought her some of it. He brought her oranges and apples. One day he brought bananas.

“I had never had one before.”

Vladas was married with a home and a six-year-old daughter in Lithuania. He told Angele his wife was dead. He explained how he had been deployed when the Russians swarmed the Baltics, got caught up in the retreat, and couldn’t rescue retrieve his wife and child. They were left behind to fend for themselves. When his wife died soon afterwards, his daughter was taken in by his mother.

“When he told me his wife was dead, I didn’t believe him. I told him that, about not believing him, but he didn’t say anything.” Instead of trying to explain, he wrote a letter to his mother. She sent him a letter in return. He took it to Angele.

“He brought it to me unopened. We sat down together on a sofa and he gave it to me. I opened it.” The only thing inside the envelope was a black and white snapshot of the headstone on the grave of his wife.

“I was dumbstruck, but no matter, I wasn’t ready to get married. At the same time, I was friends with Vytas.” She was getting only so close to Vladas. She hadn’t told and he didn’t know about Vytas, her other boyfriend in the making, a young man her own age, who was in the fast lane.

“I told Vladas, sorry, we have to end it. Besides, he had only talked to me about marriage once, while Vytas told me a hundred times we were going to get married.”

Vytas Staskevicius was from Siauliai. It is both a district and a city in northern Lithuania. The road getting there is the gateway to the Hill of Crosses, a pilgrimage site created in the 19th century as a symbol of resistance to Russian rule. There are more than 100,000 crosses on and around the hill.

His father, who had been governor of the province, was arrested in 1940 and died of starvation in a forest labor camp in Siberia. His mother, a native of Russia, was picked up and deported to Siberia in 1944, where she still was and would remain for another eight years.

He severely hurt his hand in an accident on the family farm during the war, and after fleeing Lithuania in early fall 1944, black marketed whatever he could get his hands on, worked on and off for the American Army, and was now working for a relief agency. He had gone to the Army Hospital in Nuremberg several times, starting in 1947, where Dr. Rudaitis, a Lithuanian specialist, was performing reconstructive surgery on his injury.

Angele met Vytas the second day he first came to the hospital. He was unconscious on an operating table. They met again and started talking and seeing each other after he was back on his feet. “We went for walks and to the movies,” she said. They didn’t go to any theaters, as much as Angele enjoyed musical theater. The show would have got in the way. They didn’t hold hands, being careful not to get off on the wrong foot, since his hand was healing.

“I liked him. He was a steady man, not a fancy man.” When he came back to the hospital in spring 1948, they got reacquainted, getting more intimate, growing closer. Intimacy is healing when the lifeline to your home has been broken and your bones broken, too. They heal better when they have a reason.

When he went back to Hanau, she put her nose to the grindstone. It was all she could do. She had gotten her certification and was saving everything she could for passage to North America, where she was determined to go to build a new life.

“I couldn’t go home, I couldn’t stay in Germany, and there wasn’t any future for us in Europe,” she said. “All of us were trying to go somewhere.”

She was being paid in the new Deutsche Marks for working at the hospital, unlike many others who were paid partly with money and partly with cigarettes, or only with cigarettes, which were a kind of currency in post-war Germany. Vytas was paid room and board and 32 packs of Turkish cigarettes a month working for an international relief outfit in Hanau.

“Everybody smoked,” said Angele.

She was smoking in a hallway one day when Vytas’s bone doctor approached her. “I put my hand behind my back,” she said. There was no hiding the smoke, however.

“Dr. Rudaitis gave me a long lecture about not smoking. Finally, he left.”

By the time he did the cigarette had smoldered down to a butt and she had to stub it out. It was like burning money. Deutsche Marks cost too much to burn, she thought, and thought about quitting, but didn’t, not just then.

Apart from study and work and more work, writing letters, breakfast dinner sleep, the four Lithuanian roommates, Ele, Koste, Monica, and Angele, talked, played cards, and talked some more in their single room.

“We played rummy and talked all the time, about our friends, politics, the future, and the movies.” They all enjoyed the circus, too, but only Angele went to the city’s theaters.

“I loved going to the musical shows. Maryte and I would go together.” One day on their way they stopped and got a strip of pictures taken of themselves, their heads close together, in a coin-operated photo booth kiosk.

“We were in our seats, during the show looking at our pictures, and laughing when someone behind us complained. An usher came and told us we had to move to the back row and be quiet or we would have to leave.”

They sat in the back row quiet as mice the rest of the show.

Their room at the Army Hospital was fitted with four twin beds, a sofa, and a table. The table barely sat the four of them. They played cards among themselves and sometimes with friends, although men rarely played with them, except Vytas.

“He would come to our room when he was having another operation on his hand and always play cards with us, squeezing himself in. He was the only man who did.”  By then she was almost certain he was the one she was going to marry.

“None of my friends wanted me to be friends with him. Koste and Monica thought he was the wrong man. Ele wanted me to be friends with her brother, but he and I both knew we didn’t like the other one, at all.”

She was hoping Vytas would be able to get a job at the Army Hospital. One of the maintenance men, a fellow Lithuanian refugee, told them he was moving on and had recommended Vytas. When the time came, though, he changed his mind at the last minute, deciding to stay.

“After that we weren’t friends,” Angele said. She was vexed her man was not going to be able to be nearby all the time. The more she thought about it the more ticked off she became.

One evening she saw the maintenance man walking down the long corridor towards their room. She dashed inside, poured a thick glass tumbler full of water, opened the door slightly, and positioned the glass on top of the door. She left it ajar. When she heard him passing, she called his name out. He pushed the door open, the glass tumbled over, and his head shoulders shirt were drenched with water.

“He got so mad!” said Angele.

“Who did this?” he yelled.

“The girls were all in the room. They saw what I had done but all of them said they didn’t know who did it.”

“This is so childish!”

It probably was a childish prank. At least it wasn’t deadly serious. He changed his shirt and toweled off his drenched head. Many heavy bombs had fallen on the heads of everyone in and around Nuremberg for more than a year. Better a tumbler of water than being rumbled by explosions. Better to be a rumble fish with a chance to swim away.

“You did it,” he said, pointing at Angele.

“I did not do it,” she lied.

During the war Nuremberg was a production center for armaments. It was densely populated, as well, well-suited for the purposes of the deadly area bombing strategy the British had devised. They used a mix of explosive and incendiary bombs, seeking to create firestorms on the ground.

From February 1944 until the end of the war nearly twenty major raids involving more than eight thousand USA Army Air Force and RAF Pathfinder planes bombed the city. B-17’s, B-24’s, and Lancaster’s attacked plants making motorcycles, engines for submarines, and parts for tanks. They destroyed more than a hundred other factories. They destroyed the marshaling yard, the main railway lines, and the Reichsbahn. They destroyed industrial and infrastructure targets everywhere, since by that time the Allies exercised air supremacy.

It was mess at the end of the war, blown up, torn apart, families lost and separated. Koste, Monica, and Angele were alone in Germany. Only Ele had family with her, two brothers. By 1947 all were looking for a way out.

At the end of summer 1948 Angele was ready to go. She had not been able to get permission to go to the United States. She was going to Canada, instead. She didn’t have a sponsor, but since she worked in the children’s ward at the Army Hospital, she had the skills to be a nanny once she was there.

All she had to do was get there. It was now or never. It was time to stop marking the time.

After VE Day there were about twelve million DP’s in Europe. Some half of them were repatriated to their homelands within a few months. Almost four hundred refugee camps were set up in the Allied zones in Germany for the rest.

Two years after the end of the war American policy was revised so that every refugee who wanted to emigrate had to have a sponsor. When not enough were found, Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, providing for more than 200,000 DP’s to enter the United States. Nearly half of those designated were Ukrainian, who under no circumstances wanted to go home, home meaning almost certain death.

Many Russian refugees flatly refused to board transports bound for Mother Russia. Some Baltics killed themselves rather than be repatriated. General Dwight Eisenhower banned the use of forced repatriation in the American zone.

By the 1950s about a million DP’s had been absorbed by Western European countries. Approximately half a million were accepted by the United States and a further half million by other nations, more than forty of them. Some refugees remained in camps through the decade. It was only near the end of 1960 that the last refugee camp was finally closed.

As she was packing to go to Hamburg, Angele got a note from Vladas. “Merry Christmas on the first day of the holidays. My squad visited my quarters to wish me a happy holiday, but I wasn’t happy with them or myself.”

On November 16, 1948, she caught a morning train for the Port of Hamburg, boarded a repurposed troop carrier, sailed up the Elbe River, the next day crossed the North Sea, and the rest of the week rode out the rough Atlantic Ocean. It was the second half of the month of Lapkritis.

Lapas means leaf in Lithuanian and kristi means fall.

“It took nine days to cross the ocean and I was sick for nine days,” Angele said. She landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, boarded a train with the Canada-bound refugees who had been on the S.S. Marine Flasher, disembarking 27 hours later in Montreal, where she was shuffled around like a second cousin for several weeks before getting her walking papers, and caught a second train to Sudbury, Ontario, riding the rails for another 24 hours.

Sudbury is the largest city in northern Ontario and by land area the largest in the province and the fifth largest in the country. Its economy was dominated by the mining industry for most of the 20th century. The big mining companies were the major employers in the city and the world’s leading producers of nickel. Outside the city proper the landscape looked like the landscape of the moon.

The use of open coke beds into the mid-20th century and logging for material to burn resulted in the nearly complete loss of trees far and wide. By the 1940s all the pink-gray granite for fifty miles had long been turned black by air pollution from the roasting yards.

She was going to be the nanny for the Lapalme’s, one of the leading families in the city, reportedly “the largest family in Sudbury.” Five of the children were under ten. They were going to be her responsibility. She celebrated Christmas alone that winter, at a desk writing a letter to Vytas.

“Two of the grown-up Lapalme’s, in their early 20s, are in the next room with their friends, young French couples, dancing, as I write to you. They invited me to join them since one of them had been in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany and speaks German, but I said thank you, no.”

She stayed by herself in her room. The song “Chattanooga Choo Choo” on the record player bubbled through the gap under the door. The Lapalme’s were dancing to the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The big-band man’s airplane had disappeared in bad weather over the English Channel four years earlier when he was traveling to France to entertain Allied troops. Only his music was still alive.

“You don’t understand how lonely it is to be here. I am waiting,” Angele wrote.

“She’s gonna cry, until I tell her that I’ll never roam, so Chattanooga choo choo, won’t you choo-choo me home?”

She skipped over the rest of the song as it began to skip, making the time making the future in her mind.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Spanky and Our Gang

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By Ed Staskus

When the Soviet Union was in charge, there wasn’t a Mafia in Lithuania. The Russians wouldn’t allow it, since they were the Black Hand themselves and didn’t brook any competition. But as soon as they were gone in December 1991, it was a different story. The next day the Lithuanian Mob popped up like poisonous mushrooms after a spring rain.

You couldn’t operate a pint-sized kiosk built onto the side of your house selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes without being on the lookout for them. They would appear in their track suits demanding protection money, or else. It was like Spanky and Our Gang, except or else meant they would burn your house down, whether you were in it, or not.

Little Scotty, Spanky’s best friend, always said, “That’ll learn ‘em.” Of course, he was only eight years old, and hardly knew what he was talking about.

If you paid up, you could sleep quietly at night. If somebody went into business across the street, all you had to do was tell your Mob man, and the competition disappeared. If you were looking for cheaper gum, they could point the way.

It wasn’t just businesses, big and small, that paid protection money. That’s what the Mob called it, although everyone else called it extortion. It was like 1930s Chicago, set in the new frontier world of Eastern Europe. It was all up for grabs.

“Whenever I stayed in Vilnius in those years, the 90s, I stayed at Birute’s bouse, who was a friend of my mother,” said Rita Staskus. “Her husband built her a big house and the first time I saw it I thought, the Lithuanian Mob has got to have their eyes on this house. I hope she has police protection, although they weren’t much better than the Mafia.”

Corruption was so endemic after Lithuania achieved independence that the Internal Investigation Service was established in 1998 with its own jurisdiction. It was on top of the Immunity Service, responsible for preventing and investigating corruption within the police force.

Targeting malfeasance became more urgent leading up to the country joining the European Union in 2004. Europe has long prided itself on its trustworthy police services. Only Croatia had more fast and loose law enforcement. Lithuania introduced a score of anti-corruption measures, to little apparent effect. More than 60% of the country continued to believe crooked lawmen were still widespread.

If you can’t trust the cops, who can you trust, although it’s best to never trust a policeman in a raincoat, especially if it’s not raining. Unless he’s Columbo, who always wore a raincoat, rain or shine. He always wore the same one. “Every once-in-a-while I think about getting a new coat, but there’s no rush on that, since there’s still plenty of wear in this fella,” he explained.

“One of my cousins could have used a policeman the day she lost her kid,” Rita said. “But they’re not always there when you need them.”

It was winter when she picked up her six-year-old from school, sitting him down in a little red wagon, and pulling him along behind her. Somewhere down the line he fell out. She didn’t notice, sloshing through the snow, until she got home. When she did, she rushed back, but he wasn’t anywhere on the path they had taken. Sunset in Lithuania in early January is at around four o’clock. There wasn’t a badge in sight. She finally found him making snow angels on a side street by himself in the darkness.

Another cousin had a son, Gytis, who was grown up, and got involved with the Mob.

He owed them money but wasn’t able to pay up. They were looking for their loot. When they got tired of waiting, they rigged his car up to explode. The next morning, when he started it, it blew up, but they hadn’t used enough explosive. Gytis was burned and hurt, breaking an arm in the blast, but survived.

“I had to go from Vilnius to Marijampole one night and my relatives sent Gytis,” Rita said. “I couldn’t believe it. Why Gytis? The Mob was after him! His arm was in a cast and he had a friend with him. His friend was from Samogitia and I could barely understand a word he said. It didn’t help that he was smoking and coughing up a storm.”

They were driving a beat-up Trabant, an East German car, which aged fast. It got old the minute it rolled off the assembly line. Car ownership was exploding in Lithuania, but it was the best they could do. Gytis put her in the back seat and told her to lay low. They didn’t take the highway or the secondary roads. They drove back roads, which were barely roads, at all. They ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere.

“Stay here,” Gytis said when he and his friend tramped away.

“It was dark as could be,” said Rita. “I stayed in the car because there was nothing anywhere.  I would have just been wandering around, having an out-of-body experience.”

After more than hour, Gytis and his friend came back with a bucket of gasoline. She didn’t ask where they found it. When they finally pulled into the driveway of her Uncle Justinas’s house, she jumped out of the car, nearly flinging the Trabant’s back door off the hinges.

By the time Gytis grew up, he was fatherless. His mother went through three husbands. She left the first one after he tried to kill her twice. One day he wired the front door lock so she would be electrocuted when she put her key into the lock. It didn’t work. Another day he veered off the road and rammed the passenger side of their car into a tree. She was unhurt, although he was a mess.

Her second husband was working at Chernobyl in 1986 when the nuclear power plant there melted down into a core fire. Even though he returned home, he suffered from radiation poisoning, and shortly afterwards committed suicide. She took care of his grave faithfully, decorating and cleaning it. Her third husband was a good man, but a year after their marriage she came home from her job as a seamstress to find him dead on the floor from a heart attack. After that she gave up and stayed a widow.

“My Uncle Juozukas had a son, Edvardas, who was a policeman, and he always told me to watch out for the police,” said Rita. “He said they were rotten through and through.”

“Make sure you always have cash with you if you’re ever driving alone, because if you get stopped by them, you will have to pay them,” Edvardas said.

“You mean I will have to pay the fine right on the spot?”

“No, you will have to pay them off right on the spot. Otherwise, they will keep you on the side of the road all day until you do.”

Her cousin Mikolas shook his head up and down and said, “That’s right. They will stop you even if you haven’t done anything.”

The year before, after the birthday party his parents threw for him, the police were waiting outside and followed him home. They were after his birthday money.

“Maybe somebody told them about the party, maybe not, but I had to hand all of it over,” said Mikolas.

The police car parked behind him when he pulled into his driveway. One of the policemen counted the money he finally handed over and said, “It’s not nearly enough, since I have to pay some of it out back at the station, but OK.” He threw the birthday cards and envelopes out the window.

“You are scum between my toes,” is what Spanky and Our Gang used to say.

When Mikolas asked what he had done, they said, “Nothing, really, and make sure it stays that way.”

Edvardas was an honest policeman and he couldn’t handle or condone the corruption. He quit the police force after a few years. Sometimes you have to live with yourself, not the rotten apples. There’s no sense in letting canker have its way.

When Rita asked her Uncle Juozukas how much he paid the Mob for protection when he was selling gum, chocolate, and cigarettes out of the kiosk he built onto the side of his house, he said, “Peanuts.”

But there were lots of peanuts up and down and all around the country, as well as bags of peanuts, and truckloads of peanuts, and it all added up to keep the crime wave going full steam ahead. At least until the engine got overheated. When it did there was hell to pay.

After journalists, businessmen, and prosecutors started getting murdered by the Mob, the country got good and shocked, and repercussions soon followed. The Vilnius “Godfather” Boris Dekanidze was put to death while the Kaunas “Godfather” Henrikas Daktaras was locked up.

In the 1990s the Mob employed persuasion, intimidation, and violence to get what they wanted, including scooping up public property for themselves. Everything was on tap on hand on deck. In the new century the worm turned. They put away their tracksuits and put on business suits, employing persuasion, intimidation, and bribery to get what they wanted. It wasn’t lowlifes cashing in on the gum and cigarette market anymore. It wasn’t stealing cars. It wasn’t bringing a trunkful of booze back from Poland. It was the high life cashing in on state and private legal and illegal deals, drugs, sex trafficking, internet gambling, and money laundering.

They stashed their brickbats and repositioned themselves as venture capitalists.

Not all of them, though. Some stayed true to their roots. Three years ago, more than three hundred armed policemen at the crack of dawn broke down the doors of a hundred homes and apartments and arrested members of ONG, the country’s most dangerous crime group. Lithuanian ARAS units dragged away dozens of groggy men wearing tracksuits, hands handcuffed behind them. The haul included “a large number of automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition and explosive substances,” according to a Europol press release, as well as a boatload of sports cars and luxury sedans.

They operated out of Kaunas, smuggling guns and drugs, keeping their shady lawyers and accountants busy.

The mobsters used “various money-laundering schemes that involved legal entities and limited ownership of assets worth millions of euros and maintained strong links with other organized criminal groups in Lithuania and abroad,” a police statement reported.

The way most crime lords see it, you can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone. Their guns gone, there wasn’t much they could say. Kindness wasn’t part of their vocabulary.

In the end, inside police stations and in the dock, few kind words were spoken. There was rude spanking on the horizon on the way to prison. Alfalfa, Spanky’s right-hand man, had the last word when asked if he had any last words for the evildoers.

“Yeah, uh, see ya!”

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Summertime Blues

By Ed Staskus

“Well, I called my congressman, and he said I’d like to help you, son, but you’re too young to vote, there ain’t no cure for the summertime blues.”  Eddie Cochran.

“Mom said you’re not leaving and you’re coming to my birthday party this year,” Maggie said, putting down her ear of corn, her lips peppered with flecks of salt and smeary with  butter.

“That’s right,” said Frank Glass.

Vera Glass’s brother, sister-in-law, nephew and niece, Frank’s sister and her new boyfriend, a policeman who lived nearby, were visiting on the Fourth of July, in the backyard, a breezy sunny day in the shade, crowded around a folding table-clothed table doing double duty, food and drink and board games.

Independence Day has been a federal holiday since 1941, but the tradition goes back to the American Revolution. Since then it’s been celebrated with festivities like fireworks parades concerts big and small and family barbecues. This year the fireworks parades concerts were scratched.

Maggie was born seven almost eight years earlier. She was due to officially come to life the third week of September, four five days after Frank and Vera expected to be back from Atlantic Canada but was born on the first day of the month.

She was a once in a blue moon baby. To do something once in a blue moon means to do it rarely. It is the appearance of a second full moon within a calendar month, which happens about once every three years.

“Where do you go in the summer?” Maggie asked.

“We go to Prince Edward Island, a small town called North Rustico, but we stay in a cottage in the National Park, a family owns the land, they’ve been there for almost two hundred years. We leave in mid-August and stay through the first couple of weeks of September, which is why we miss your birthday party.”

“You always send me a present. I like that. But last year you sent me a sweatshirt with a red leaf on it that was ten times too big.”

“You’ll grow into it,” said Frank.

“Maybe I will, but maybe I won’t,” said Maggie. She was a genial child but could be a testy cuss. She thought she knew her own mind rounding out her seventh year, although it could go both ways.

“Do you like it there?”

“Yes, we like it a lot.”

“Why aren’t you going? Is it the virus?”

The 20th century was the American Century. The United States led the way socially economically brain-wise learning-wise and in every other wise way. In 2020 it led the way in virus infections, far outpacing the next two contenders, Brazil and India. The flat tires in charge nowadays can’t get anything right, from building their useless wall, all three miles of new wall, to securing a useful virus test.

North Korea and Iran keep making atom bombs, there’s no China trade deal, the deficit has skyrocketed, and race relations have gotten worse. All that’s left is for the other shoe to drop. On top of that, Hilary Clinton still isn’t in jail.

“Yes, the bug,” said Frank. “The Canadian border is closed, and even if we could get into Canada somehow, the bridge to the island is closed except for business.”

In May President Trump said, “Coronavirus numbers are looking MUCH better, going down almost everywhere, cases are coming way down.” In June he said the pandemic is “fading away. It’s going to fade away.” On July 2nd he said, “99% of cases are totally harmless.” Four days later, on July 6th, he said, “We now have the lowest Fatality Rate in the World.”

John Hopkins University subsequently reported that the United Sates has the world’s ninth-worst mortality rate, with 41.33 deaths per 100,000 people. It was a bald-faced report. They didn’t capitalize the numbers.

“Are you sad that you can’t go?”

“Yes.”

“They built a new bridge to our house. I know all about it, we drove over it two weeks ago. Mom was so happy. It’s a big bridge, too, the other one was small and always breaking.”

“You know the bridge you go across from downtown, when you go up the rise past the baseball stadium where the Indians play ball, on your way to Lakewood?”

“That’s a long bridge.”

“It’s called the Main Avenue Bridge and it’s two miles long. The bridge that goes from Canada to Prince Edward Island is almost 5 times longer than that. It’s as long as the distance from downtown to our house.”

“That’s far!”

“That can’t be,” Frank’s nephew Ethan blurted out. “That bridge is too long!”

“How do you know, Bud, you can hardly count,” said Maggie. She called Ethan the Bud. They were buddies, although they didn’t always see eye-to-eye.

“I can so count, I know all the dinosaurs, there are a million of them,” said Ethan.

“I’m going into third grade and we’re going to learn division. You’ve been learning to finger paint.”

“What’s a million plus a million?”

“2 million.”

“OK, what’s the biggest dinosaur ever?”

“The Brontosaurus.”

“No! It’s the Argentinosaurus, and he weighed a million pounds.”

“That can’t be,” said Maggie.

“My math is my math,” Ethan simply said.

“If you can’t explain it simply you don’t understand it well enough,” said Albert Einstein.

As of July, there were more than 300,000 cases of the virus reported in children since the start of the pandemic. The Executive Office of the Federal Government has repeatedly maintained it poses almost no threat to them. “The fact is they are virtually immune from this problem,” President Trump said.

“How do you know about the virus?” Frank asked.

“Everybody knows about it. The whole world knows.”

“They even know in Antarctica,” said Ethan.

“Do you know anybody who got it?”

“A girl in school got it from her mom,” Maggie said. “I took piano lessons with her.”

“That’s too bad,” Frank said.

“Are there going to be fireworks tonight?” Maggie asked.

“No, the city cancelled them.”

“Where we live, too.”

“Here there were fireworks last night, we sat on the front porch, until after midnight, but it was just people in the street or their yards. There were some big pops over there by Madison Avenue. I think they were shooting them off from the empty lot. We could see bottle rockets over the trees.”

“Wow!”

“You said you knew about the virus, but how do you know?” asked Frank.

“The news about it is on every day on TV,” said Maggie.

“That’s right,” said Ethan.

“We have a TV, but we don’t have TV,” said Frank. “We only have a couple of streaming services for movies.”

“We have real TV,” said Maggie, “and it’s on all the time. The news is on every single hour every single day and all the news is about the virus.”

“Do you watch TV all the time?”

“We don’t watch TV, but we watch it all day,” said Ethan.

“We don’t really watch it, but it’s always there,” said Maggie.

Parents are urged to pay attention to what their children see and hear on radio online television. They are cautioned to reduce screen time focused on the virus since too much information on one topic can lead to anxiety in kids. Talk to them about how stories on the web might be rumors and wildly inaccurate.

“That’s OK, it’s all in your head, anyway,” said Maggie.

“All in your head?”

“That’s what dad says.”

“Well,” Frank said, “your father knows best.” He wasn’t going to get into a no-win argument with his brother-in-law. His sister’s boyfriend was a policeman at Metro Hospitals. Frank didn’t want his ears pricking up. He wouldn’t understand it’s all in your head.

“Are you worried about the virus?” Frank asked.

“Would that help?” Maggie asked, biting into a burger. “This is yummy good.”

“No, it would probably just make you crazy.”

“Dad said your name wasn’t always Frank Glass.”

“Yes and no,” said Frank. “My given name has always been Frank, which is short for Francis, like we call you Maggie even though your name is Margaret, but my family name, what they say is your surname, used to be Kazukauskas.”

“What happened to it?” asked Maggie. “Why is it different now.”

“When my father came here, to America after World War Two, the immigration people said he should change it to something other people could pronounce, that they could say without too much trouble, so he changed it to Glass.”

“Where did he come from?”

“Lithuania, a little country, north of Germany.”

“That’s a nice name,” Maggie said. “I like Glass.”

“At least he didn’t have to climb another brick in the  wall once he got here.”

“What does that mean?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older. Are you staying home more because of the virus?”

“Yes!” both of them exclaimed.

“Do you have to wear a mask when you go somewhere?”

“We cover up,” Maggie said. “My face gets hot, my head gets hot, and my hair get hot. It makes my glasses fog up.”

“I have a tube mask with rhino’s and bronto’s on it,” Ethan said. “But I can’t breathe, so I just rip it off until mom sees.”

There was a box of Charades for Kids on the table. “Three or More Players Ages Four and Up.” Frank pointed at it.

“Are you ready to play?”

Maggie rolled around on the lawn, flapped her arms, rolled her eyes, and hugged herself. Nobody had any idea what she was doing.

“Going to bed!” she yelped.

Ethan did a somersault.

“Somersault?”

“Yes!”

Maggie rolled on the ground holding her head and grimacing like a mad chipmunk. Everybody watched with blank faces, stumped.

“Headache!” she blared.

Ethan slashed the air with his hands.

“Karate?”

“Yes!”

Maggie jumped, waved her right arm in circles, flapped it back and forth, and licked her lips. As the one-minute hourglass dropped the last grain of sand to the bottom, she fell down on the grass. Everybody was stumped again.

“Frosting a cake! I can’t believe nobody got it.”

Ethan got on all fours like an anteater, pretended to be eating something with great chomping motions, and clomped to the driveway and back.

“Argentinosaurus?”

“Yes!”

Summer signals freedom for children. It’s a break from the structure of school days, a time for more days spent at the pool, a time for more play, for exploring the outdoors.

One day his mom asked Ethan if he wanted to go out on his scooter.

“So much,” he said. “I have got to get out of this house.”

“Every single day I see the Amazon truck and the FedEx and the white trucks go past me,” said Maggie. “They turn around at the cul-de-sac thing, they just rush back, driving crazy. I run to the backyard.”

“There’s a big field and woods past our backyard,” Ethan said.

“We’re stuck at home but it’s summer, it’s nice outside, the sun is shining, and we all go for walks,” Maggie said.

She hadn’t been to school since April, studying remotely. Ethan hadn’t been to pre-school for just as long.

“Are you going back to school in the fall?” asked Frank.

“I hope so,” said Maggie. “I miss it.”

“I’m supposed to start first grade,” said Ethan.

About two months away from hopes there will be a return to school, many parents were looking to new findings which suggest children are less likely to get and spread the virus. In late June the American Academy of Pediatrics, which advocates for “having students physically present in school,” published reopening guidelines. They stated that children “may be less likely to become infected” with the coronavirus and to spread the infection.

Living and breathing in-person face-to-face time is what makes school a school. “Better than a thousand days of diligent study is one day with a great teacher,” is what a Japanese proverb says.

“I want to play something else,” Maggie said. “Can you teach us how to play Pictionary?”

“Sure,” Frank said.

They put the never-ending news of the pandemic away, cleared one end of the table, and unfolded the game board, setting out the pencils note pads special cards. “Quick Sketches, Hilarious Guesses” is what it said on the yellow box, and that is what they did the rest of Independence Day, the clear sky going twilight, lightning bugs flashing on off on off, and neighborhood kids shooting off Uncle Sam Phantom fire flowers in the alley behind them.

There wasn’t a dud in the caboodle, not that they saw. Uncle Sam got it right, rockets red glare.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

One Man Army

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By Ed Staskus

There has never been an excess of men who fight for a guerrilla group and three armies, one of them twice, during any single war. An army a day keeps most men busy enough. Leonas Lucauskas stayed busier than many other combatants during the titanic struggle that was World War II, serving in the Lithuanian, German, and American armed forces. He may not have had as many lives as a cat, but it was close enough.

“My father was born in 1916, in the Ukraine,” said Leo Lucas. “My grandfather Juozas and grandmother Stanislava were living in Poltava, insanely far from Marijampole, their home.” He meant the 700 miles was insanely far given the state of Russian roads and railroads. The Eastern Front, where millions of men were slaughtering each other at the time, was closer.

“He was a professor, teaching there during the war.” said Leo.

The school was the Poltava National Technical University. It was founded in 1818 by the wife of the governor-general of the province, the granddaughter of the last Ukrainian strongman before the Russian Empire absorbed the country in the 18th century. For hundreds of years Lithuanian and Polish freebooters had controlled vast tracts of the Ukraine and were a law unto themselves. They were no match for the Cossacks, however, who were later no match for the Russians.

The main building on campus was built in the early 1830s as the home of the Institute of Noble Maidens. It had an Empire-style look. When the institute became the technical university, women were forbidden to attend.

After the war the family, including Leonas’s older brother and sister, who were twins, went back to Lithuania. They settled near Iglauka, not far from Lake Yglos, His father taught school in Marijampole, 12 miles to the west, and they lived on a farm. His mother’s family were prosperous owners of acreage and property.

In 1924 the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and his older brother suddenly unexpectedly died. The next year his mother was shot dead at a wedding.

It had been Russian Imperial policy to leave the country in a non-industrial state. The inheritance system that was exercised after the land reform of 1863 forbade the partition of land plots. There were many landowners at the reception. They stuck tight together socially friends neighbors families bound by the old time way.

“A group of Communist agitators, people who wanted other people’s land, came to the wedding, started a ruckus, started shooting guns, and my mother was accidentally shot and killed,” said Leo.

The Communist party of Lithuania was formed in 1918 and remained illegal until 1940. They were out for blood, though. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries.

Years later, Leonas told his son the challenge of his life after his mother’s death was, would he take revenge when he grew up? They all lived in small towns, everybody knew everybody else, and everybody knew who the Communists were. Should he kill them when he grew up? He decided he wouldn’t.

When he grew up, he got married, had a daughter, was planning on going to school to study medicine, but then the Second World War happened. His father was shot and killed by fifth column Communists in his own home, Leonas joined the Lithuanian Army, and the Soviet Union invaded.

It was never a fair fight. In mid-June 1940 a half-million Red Army troops poured across the borders of Estonia and Latvia. Within a week the Baltics were overrun, one week before France fell to Nazi Germany. Josef Stalin blew his nose into his walrus mustache. Adolf Hitler did an awkward little jig grinning behind his square mustache.

Leonas took to the forest, joining a group of partisans, staying in the fight for the next year. It wasn’t any more dangerous than anything else in the dangerous times. He had been working in the fields when his father was killed. “They were killing landowners. My father’s luck was just the luck of being out working,” said Leo. They would have killed him all the next year if they had been able to track him down.

A year later Lithuania was invaded by two German army groups. Most Russian aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Wehrmacht advanced rapidly, assisted by Lithuanians, who saw them as liberators. They helped by bringing their weapons to bear, controlling railroads, bridges, and warehouses. The Lithuanian Activist Front and Lithuanian Territorial Corps formed the native backbone of the anti-Soviet fighting.

Leonas Lucauskas was one of many who joined the German Army, being assigned to a Baltic Unit. Three years later he was having second thoughts. The Baltic Offensive of 1944 was in full swing, the Red Army on the march to “liberate the Soviet Baltic peoples.” An NCO by then, Leonas and his men were ordered to man the front line and hold it at all costs. It was costing them more lives every day.

“The rich Lithuanians were officers,” Leo said. They weren’t in the tranches getting their heads shot off. “The enlisted men were getting endlessly killed.”

A small airstrip was nearby for reconnaissance and resupply. Junker 52s were flying in and out with ammunition first aid food and hope in the grim hopelessness. Leonas and three other men from his unit were unloading one of the planes at a side door by means of a ramp, the front prop and wing-mounted engines roaring, when with hardly a word spoken between them, they made up their minds to steal it and fly to safety.

Two of the men rushed up the ramp and threw the two German pilots out the door, while the other man and Leonas kept watch, guns at the ready. He was the last one to scramble into the plane and was shot in the back of the foot just before he slammed the door shut.

“I was playing on the floor one day,” Leo said. It was the late 1960s. “My dad was relaxing, shoes and socks off, sitting on the sofa in the living room reading a newspaper. I saw a scar on his heel and asked him what it was. He said it was a bullet wound. He rolled up his pants and showed me three more on both legs.”

One of the Lithuanians returned the shooting with a MG15 machine gun set in the dustbin turret, while the other two men dragged Leonas to the cockpit. None of them had ever flown an airplane. He was the only one of them who had ever even driven a car.

How hard can it be? he thought. With bullets slamming into the corrugated aluminum fuselage he found out it wasn’t hard at all. He pushed on the throttle, got the Junker going as fast as he thought it would go, raised the nose, and “Iron Annie” lifted up into the air.

They quickly came up with a plan, planning to fly to Switzerland. They got as far as the neighborhood of the Poland to Germany border when they ran out of gas. The plane wasn’t the fastest, 165 MPH its top speed, and it could go about 600 miles on a tankful. When they went down, they were headed in the right direction. All they needed was another full tank.

It solved their landing problem, since Leonas had already told his countrymen he had no idea how to land the plane. The Junker hit the ground hard and every part of it broke into pieces. When Leonas came back to life he was in a field hospital. He never found out what happened to his comrades.

The doctors and military men asked him who he was and what happened. He answered them in German, in High German, not Low. “My father spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German.” He was wearing the right uniform when found, was speaking like a householder, and they assumed he was one of them. Leonas bit his tongue about who he really was, thanking God for his good fortune.

After he got out of the hospital he was deemed not fit enough for combat and assigned to the motor pool. Soon after he drew a lucky number and was assigned to be the driver for a general. It was lucky enough until several months later, early one morning, in the middle of winter, when he got a wake-up call from one of his motor pool sidekicks.

“Don’t come to work today,” the man said.

“What does that mean?”

“Your general died late last night. One of the first people the Gestapo will want to talk to is you.”

He knew it was true. He knew what had happened to anybody and everybody involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in mid-July. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. He would never be able to stand up to scrutiny.

His general was probably out carousing in their Tatra 87, slid on ice and smashed into a tree, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter whether he died in the arms of his mother or was assassinated. His goose was cooked if the Geheime Staatspolizei got him. The SS literally cooked people to death.

The Tatra 87 was the car of the year the last five years. Sleek futuristic BMW-engine fast and high-tech as could be, it was the vehicle of choice for German officers. Unfortunately for them, it was sloppy, handling like pudding, killing its drivers right and left. Leonas always kept it under 40 MPH. It was the vehicle of choice of the Americans, too, for their mortal enemy. They thought of it as a secret weapon, killing more high German officers than died fighting the Red Army.

He jumped to his feet, hurriedly dressed in his uniform, threw on a winter coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 2-ton 4 x 4 Blitz Utility trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away unnoticed. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans.

He didn’t get shot by either side and that is what happened, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war was over he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.

“My grandfather Juozas was a gigantic guy,” said Leo. “I’m six foot four. My father Leonas was five nine and maybe one forty pounds.” In the end, what counts is what you do.

Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.

At the beginning of 1945 the Allied Expeditionary Force on the Western Front had 73 divisions ready to go. The Germans had 26 divisions. The Battle of the Bulge ended in an Allied victory. Adolf Hitler held a meeting with his top men, instructing them to hold the Americans and British off as long as possible. By that time, however, his top men were flat tires. He boarded a train and never went back to the Western Front again. At the end of January, he gave the last speech he was ever to give. It didn’t do any good.

After surrendering, Leonas spent time in a DP camp, until being recruited by the Americans. They were looking for men who spoke multiple languages and he fit the bill. He had been picking up bits and pieces of English. Russian and Polish are among the Top 10 hardest languages to learn. English is no slouch, either. He served as a Sergeant in a Baltic Unit. In 1946 and 1947 he was in Nuremberg, where war crime trials were being conducted. The evil men who propagated the National Socialist German Party either committed suicide, were executed, or locked up for a long time.

As the hard-fought civilization-saving decade of the 1940s wound itself down, Leonas Lucauskas emigrated to North America, finding work as a lumberjack in Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” said Leo. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land area the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was.”

Making it in a company town is unlikely. Since there is no competition, housing costs and groceries bills can become exorbitant, and workers build up large debts they are required to pay off before leaving. It can be slavery by another name. Leonas determined to find another way, his own way.

He and several other men pooled their resources, found a broken-down car, scavenged parts from other wrecks, filled the tires with enough cotton to get them to roll, and hit the road. He ended up in St. Catherine’s, near Niagara Falls, and later, finding the opportunity to go to the United States in 1950, took it and settled down outside Buffalo, New York, where he stayed the rest of his life.

He got married again. His wife Louise taught school. They raised a family. He went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store for more than thirty years, rarely missing a day.

He built their house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. Leo recalled, “I must have moved 5,000 wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our car parts factory friends went on strike, I delivered food to them in the morning before school.” His older sister Katherine still lives in the family home.

Leonas hung from his heels in the garage to prove he could still do it. “My father was a strong man.” said Leo. Sometimes men are strong because it’s the only choice they have. Spinning your wheels doesn’t get it done. He smoked and drank with his friends at the local Italian and Polish social clubs. He was an affable strong man.

Once he was done, he never enlisted in any other man’s army ever again.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

 

Down on Dirva

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By Ed Staskus

I was surprised and dismayed the day my father told me that, other than Ausra, the two-week sun and sand Lithuanian camp in Wasaga Beach, and our one-week boy scout camp, I would be working at Dirva the rest of the summer. I shouldn’t have been surprised, since my father believed in the work ethic and worked like a dog himself, but I was. He gave me a grave stern annoyed look when I blurted out it would disturb my time off from school.

I kept most of my dismay to myself.

It wouldn’t have helped, anyway. I knew once he told me, I would be working at Dirva from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Thank God it was only part-time. I would be home by three o’clock and didn’t have to work on Fridays. I was going to be getting three-day weekends before I even knew what three-day weekends were.

Before the newspaper Dirva, which means field, was Dirva, it was Santaika, which means peace. Kazys Karpius was the editor, and stayed on the job for thirty years, from the end of World War One through the Great Depression to the end of World War Two, getting the weekly editions out without fail. The paper was anti-communist, pro-democracy, and true-blue the homeland.

Kazys Karpius wrote poems, plays, and histories about Lithuania, especially about beating off the Vikings and Teutonic Knights back in the day. The Teutonic Knights were always tramping into the Baltics for plunder and conversion, not their own conversion, but that of the natives they regarded as pagans. The Lithuanians didn’t see eye to eye with the Germans about it, insisting it was none of their business. They fought with longswords, battles axes, crossbows, maces, picks and war hammers, knives, clubs, slings, and hand-to-hand.

The first day I slouched into work was a brisk early summer morning. I was down on Dirva but resigned. I rode the CTS bus from St. Clair to East 105th Street over Liberty Boulevard down Superior Avenue. It was the same bus and same route I took going to school, to St. George’s, on East 67th and Superior.

Lithuanian immigrants came to Cleveland, Ohio, on the south shore of Lake Erie, in two waves, the first one in the late 19th century. They were cheap labor for emerging industries. They needed their own newspaper and church. At the turn of the century Father Joe Jankus threw up a small wooden church near downtown. The next pastor bought the land St. George’s was going to stand on and after it was built Father Vincent Vilkutaitis ran the parish for forty years. His last year was my first year of five years there.

The church was on the top floor of the 2½ story brick building, the grade school on the middle floor, and the community hall on the ground floor, which was partially below ground.  Since it was the Atomic Age, and the Cold War was in full swing, the hall doubled as a Nuclear Fallout Shelter. Every few months we had a Civil Defense drill and had to file out of our classes and down to the hall, where we shuffled around until the drill was over.

If we had somehow survived the blast, even though we all brought our own sandwiches in Flintstone Dudley-Do-right Jetson lunch boxes, we would have all died trying to live on the crumbs.

Jonas Ciuberkis was our neighbor two houses down from where we lived at the corner of Bartfield and Coronado, in a Polish double my mom and dad had bought with my dad’s sister and her family, all of us getting started in the United States. He was the editor of Dirva, in a small office at the front. A quiet man, balding, careful in manner, he was married to a woman fifteen-some years his junior, a woman who had given him three children, and who was fleshy vivacious gregarious.

Regina Ciuberkiene had an opinion about everything and could talk your ear off. It didn’t matter that we were just kids. We avoided her. My mother never called her Regina. She called her Ciuberkiene, even to her face. Many of his friends called Jonas Janis, which is Latvian for Jonas. He studied law in Lithuania and worked in Latvia before the war. Their two daughters were either too old or too young, but their son, Arunas, was just right, and we played together.

Dirva was in a one-story brick building on Superior, next to the haunted house that was next to St. George’s. The Lithuanian Hall Society was next door. It was where all the civic and cultural business was done. It was also where there were dances and heavy drinking. Jonas Ciuberkis wasn’t sure what to do with me, so the first few days I didn’t do anything. After that I started cleaning up the mess, starting with the bathroom. After that I helped with the press and folding and mailing.

My job was to do this do that, whatever I was told to do.

The printing press looked like it belonged in a museum. It worked, sort of, but it was my archenemy, always threatening my mitts. It was a hand-fed flat-bed cylinder press. There was metal type for headings and an intertype machine for news and features. When the paper was ready for print, I got the machine rolling, crossing my fingers, and hoping for the best. As the copies came off the belt, I changed hats, becoming the press-boy who checked for defects. If and when the press got everything done, I became the mail-boy, wrapping the papers in bundles. Then I became the push-boy, carting them to beside the back door for pick-up.

By World War One there were almost ten thousand Lithuanians in Cleveland. St. George’s was their church. Dirva was their newspaper. It was put out by the Ohio Lithuanian Publishing Company, which was run by Apdonas Bartusevicius. In 1925 Kazys Karpius gained a controlling interest.

He was involved in Lithuanian projects all his life, including the Unification of Lithuanians in America and the Lithuanian National League of America. He helped found the American Lithuanian Cultural Center. After World War Two boatloads of displaced Lithuanians made it to Cleveland. Dirva published local, national and international news, as well as keeping everybody informed about what was going on back in the land. We sent the paper to Detroit and Pittsburgh and other places wherever there was a church or a bendruomene.

Our editor went out most days for lunch and sometimes came back smelling like whiskey. One day he was walking out the door, I was sitting on a crate doing nothing, when he waved at me and said, “Ateik.” I must have been daydreaming, because he had to say it again before I realized he wanted me to go with him.

He usually wore a white shirt and brown pleated pants. His thin hair was gray brownish. He drove a brown car. The interior was tan, clean and anonymous. No one would ever have suspected he had a wife and three kids. He turned right on Norwood Road, six blocks later turned right on St. Clair, past the Slovenian National Home, to the Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern. It took five minutes. He parked on the street and we went in.

Nothing was going on in the bowling alley, but he wasn’t going to the bowling alley, anyway. He walked into the bar, checking to see that I was trailing him, and took a stool at the bar.

“Atsisesk,” he said, adding, “Don’t tell your mother.”

I sat down next to him. The bartender stepped up. He was wearing a bow tie and looked like a new mattress wearing a bow tie. I couldn’t see around him.

Jonas Ciuberkis ordered a shot and a water back and asked me what I wanted. I wanted an ice-cold Coca-Cola. It was in the 90s and humid. There was a big glass jar of pickled eggs at his elbow. He took one out for himself and nodded at the jar, looking at me. I said aciu, but no thanks.

Pickled eggs are eggs hard boiled, the shell removed, and submerged in a solution of vinegar, salt, spices, and seasonings. The eggs are left in the brine anywhere from one day to several months. They get rubbery the longer they are in the pickling solution.

“They’re Pennsylvania Dutch,” my boss said. “Try a bite.”

Pennsylvania Dutch style means whole beets, onions, vinegar, sugar, salt, cloves and a cinnamon stick are used as the brine. The eggs look either pink purple from the beets and have a sweet and sour taste.

I took a bite, gingerly. It wasn’t bad, it was actually good, far better than the koseliena, chopped meat in cold aspic, like headcheese, my mother was always trying to get us to eat. Some food from the old country should have been left in the old country, dead and buried.

When the bartender moved to the side, I saw the painting. It was on the wall above the paneling and top shelf of liquor bottles. It was of a half-naked woman reclining on her side on a chaise, her head up, looking down on the drinkers, her long golden hair hanging loose. Her eyes were wide set and her lips pouty luscious red.

It was Lili St. Cyr, a burlesque dancer forty-some years ago. She was a pioneer in the striptease trade, known for her cutting-edge performances. One of her most famous tricks was ‘the Flying G.’ While she was doing her burlesque striptease, the lights slowly going down, just at the instant when everything went completely dark, a man in the wings with a fishing pole would snag her g-string and pull it off. Even if you didn’t blink it looked like it had disappeared just like that.

A man who had seen her perform many times painted the mural in 1954. Maple Lanes paid him off in beer. Above the burlesque queen’s legs in the painting was an English proverb, “A woman is an angel at ten, a saint at fifteen, a devil at forty, and a witch at fourscore.”

Jonas Ciuberkis flicked his eyes at the painting ten twenty times, while I kept my eyes away from it. I was an altar boy at St. George’s on the side. He had another shot, this time with a beer chaser. My mother always told us an apple a day, not a bottle of pop, kept the doctor away, so, I turned down more Coca-Cola.

My boss talked about the “Great Books,” one of his favorite subjects, so I didn’t tell him about my reading habits, and about Lithuania, his other favorite subject, its history, the commies, and how to restore its freedom. I didn’t tell him it was going in one ear and out the other. He talked in a gloomy milk and water way. It was hard to pay attention, so I gave up, and set my sights back on Lili St. Cyr.

She started looking familiar. I finally realized, if she were wearing clothes, she looked just like Regina Ciuberkiene, wide set eyes and full mouth, buxom, calves of salami.  She wasn’t a spitting image but as close as spit got.

My boss never invited me to Maple Lanes again, and Mondays through Thursdays the summer crawled by, while Fridays through Sundays flew by. I messed around with my friends, rode my bike, and played a boatload of pick-up sandlot baseball.

By the time my employment was coming to an end, Labor Day fast approaching, I had come to an accommodation with my job. The printing press and I were on speaking terms. I was no longer down on Dirva. I almost enjoyed it. I asked about my paychecks. I hadn’t seen a single one.

“I gave them to your father every two weeks,” Jonas Ciuberkis said.

“Oh,” I said.

I didn’t ask my father about the paychecks. My mother and he were fanatical savers, putting every spare penny in the bank. I knew what he was going to be doing with the money, clothes and tuition for school.

By the next year we had moved past Five Points to the Lithuanian neighborhood on the farther east side. Everybody was moving there because, with urban renewal in full swing, black people were slowly steadily shifting east, moving into our neighborhood. “We like them less than the Americans,” my mother told me. “They’re lazy.” If you weren’t a workaholic my parents thought you were lazy.

The first Lithuanians in Cleveland lived near downtown, but fifty years later were relocating to the Superior-St. Clair area around St. George’s. The new community emerged in the Collinwood-Nottingham neighborhood, near the church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help on Neff Road off East 185th Street. Most Lithuanians are Roman Catholic, although some are Jews, and a few are Lutherans. A small group of Cleveland’s Lithuanians broke off to live among working-class Poles on the south side, even though there is no love lost between Poles and Lithuanians.

I enrolled in St. Joseph’s High School where the main road, a couple of miles of every kind of shop and store, intersected Lakeshore Boulevard. It was an all-boy’s school. It was still summer, the next summer, but fall was coming up. I looked at Dirva now and then, but when classes started all I read were my schoolbooks and Doc Savage adventure books from the library. I read them on weekends. There were twenty-four of them in all. I read them all. My favorite was “The Secret of Satan’s Spine.”

Jonas Ciuberkis was fired from his job and Vytautas Gedgaudas took over. I didn’t know him and nobody I knew ever told me anything about him. He expanded the publication schedule to three times a week, but it went back to its original weekly frequency soon enough. Working that much must have driven the printing press crazy, and driven whoever was operating it crazy, too.

Maple Lanes Bowling Alley and Tavern was sold that same summer of 1964. Ann Abranovich and Josephine Reeves, sisters and working mothers, bought it so they could make more money and spend more time with their sprouting growing families. Josephine lived a few blocks from the bowling alley and walked to work. Ann moved her family into the apartment upstairs. The noise downstairs was money in the bank.

When I heard the St. Joseph’s bowling team was going there for a tournament, I told them I knew all about the bowling alley and they let me tag along. Everybody asked me about the painting, which the new owners hadn’t messed with. I told them I knew everything about it.  I didn’t know bowling from polo, although I knew you rolled the ball trying to knock all the pins down, so I sat in the back and watched. The St. Joe’s and Padua and Ignatius teams rolled the worst scores of their lives.

The kingpin kids from upstairs were the pinsetters. You had to be careful not to roll while they were still setting up. They screamed and sent pins flying at you if you did. The alleys weren’t even and smooth. They were wood, not laminate, old wood, and there were warps bumps gouges divots waves from one end to the other. It was hard if not impossible to tell what your ball was going to do. The talk was that no one had ever rolled a three hundred score perfect game at Maple Lanes, and that no ever would, unless they made a deal with the devil.

That was unlikely to happen, because everybody in that old neighborhood neck of the woods went to church on Sundays. There weren’t as many churches as bars, but it was close enough. There would have been talk, the news would have spread like wildfire, and there would have been hell to pay if you did roll a perfect game.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Gone to German Land

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By Ed Staskus

“The bishop fixed it up for us,” said Angele Jurgelaityte

When Angele, 16 years old, Ona Kreivenas, her aunt, and Ona’s four children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the new kid Gema, got off one of the last trains the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from East Prussia to Berlin in late 1944 they were met at the station by Bishop Vincentas Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Her husband, a policeman, had been arrested by the Soviets in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he was still in a labor camp. Bishop Vincentas Brizgys was the assistant to the archbishop of Kaunas. In the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with retreating German forces.

In the fall a drove of other Lithuanians barreled out as the Red Army swarmed the Wehrmacht and overran the Baltics. The fighting was thick tenacious terrible. Wartime losses of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were among the highest in Europe.

Ona had somehow located the bishop by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg. He was carrying a basket of hot buns. He didn’t look like the churchman he was. Berlin didn’t look like what it had been.

“He gave one to each of us,” Angele said. “I was so happy.”

What the bishop fixed up was for them was passage to Bavaria. They landed in the north of the southeastern state. Bavaria shares borders with Austria, Switzerland, and the Czechoslovak territories. The Danube and Main flow through it, the Bavarian Alps border Austria, and the highest peak in Germany is there. The major cities are Munich and Nuremberg and the Bavarian and Bohemian forests are in the south.

“The bishop found a pig farm for us, people he knew. We lived in a two-room apartment above the slaughterhouse. There was another Lithuanian with us, a woman in her 20s, a fancy woman,” said Angele.

One of the two rooms was a kitchen. They lived and slept in the larger room, two adults, two teenagers, and three children. There was barely room to stand. The fancy woman kept to herself.

“We slept on cots. We worked, helping with the cows, and cutting clover. There was no town, just country everywhere. The German family we stayed with fed us. They were good people.”

There was no combat in their corner of the world. “We didn’t see any fighting all winter long,” said Angele. “The war ended when the Americans came. They wore nice uniforms, not like the Russians, who were filthy. They were friendly, completely different. They threw candy to us as they went past.”

Bavaria was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite places during the twelve years of the one thousand year Third Reich. He had a lavish residence at the Obersalzberg. Bavaria had been the scene of protests against Nazi rule in the late 1930s, but it didn’t matter to the Fuhrer. He had his own SS security force. Their orders were shoot first. After the war Nuremberg was chosen for the military tribunals trying Nazi war criminals because it had been the ceremonial birthplace of the party and their annual propaganda rallies were held there.

Allied air forces bombed the hell out of it in 1944 and 1945. In January 1945 521 British bombers dropped six thousand high-explosive bombs and more than a million incendiary devices on the city. The historic old town was destroyed. Half of the rest of the city was destroyed. What wasn’t blown to bits or burnt down was damaged. Surviving the bombardment meant you had to then try to survive the aftermath. The city was left with almost no heat no electricity no water supply in the middle of winter.

The Palace of Justice and the prison that was part of the large complex were spared. It was a sign of what was in store. It was spared because retribution was in the air.

“In the fall after the war ended, we had to leave the pig farm and went to an American refugee camp near Regensburg. We had two rooms, but there was a Lithuanian man in the other room, so we had one room. We lived there and didn’t do anything.”

Before the Red Army closed the borders, padlocking the Baltics behind the Iron Curtain, about 70,000 Lithuanians were able to escape the country, almost all of them ending up in Germany. When the war ended nearly 11 million refugees flooded the country, more than the total population of Austria. Many of them ended up in Displaced Persons camps in Bad Worishofen, Nordlingen, and Regensberg.

In the spring of 1946, Angele, Ona, and the children again moved to a new camp.

“It was a castle that you got to down a long road through a forest in front of a lake. There was a big chapel and two big barracks. There were no owners anymore, and no workers, nobody. There were only the Americans and refugees. We were more than two thousand. We were all Lithuanians.”

The Schwarzenberg castle on the outskirts of Scheinfeld in Bavaria is northwest of Nuremberg. From 1946 until 1949 many thousands of Lithuanians were housed at the DP camp there while they waited for their chance to get to Australia, Canada, the United States, anywhere else.

“There was no future for us in Germany,” said Angele.

There were no repatriation plans, either. There was no going back. The system of revolving displacement would have meant the end for many of them, suspicion and persecution for the rest. The Russians had no plans on letting returning Lithuanians off easy. They had no plans on letting any Lithuanians of any kind, unless they had converted to Communism, off easy. Even then it was dicey.

The camp outside Nuremberg was administered by an American Army officer of Lithuanian descent. The military’s concern was providing shelter, nutrition, and basic health care. Although the Americans looked after vital supplies, everybody in the camp lent a hand, The DP’s prepared their own food, sewed new clothes from cloth and old clothes they took apart, donated by the Red Cross, and published their own daily newspaper. They printed their own money, too. The currency could be earned by working around the camp and spent at the canteen, where you could buy shaving cream, combs, and cigarettes.

“We had our own doctors, our own church, and even a school. My best friend was Maryte. Her parents were teachers. They taught the high school classes in the camp. Her mother knew how to sew, too. She would take old clothing that had been donated to us, take them apart, and make new dresses. Whenever she made a dress for Maryte she made one for me, too.”

Angeles’s aunt talked to her about learning to become a seamstress.

“She wanted me to learn how to sew, like my older brother Justinas, so I would have some way to make a living, but I said no.” She had turned down her aunt’s advice at home about becoming a farmer. She had no plans sewing for a living, either. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she knew for sure what she didn’t want to do.

After her friend Maryte moved to Nuremberg, taking classes in x-ray technology, and was on the way to becoming a nurse assistant at the Army Hospital there, she wrote Angele.

“She told me about it, told me it was a 10-month course, and told me to come join her.”

Angele packed a satchel with her clothes and slipped away as the weather warmed up one morning in 1947. She said goodbye to Ona and her four kids. “By then mamyte was teaching kindergarten at the camp and she had her children around her.” Mindaugas was grown a few years older, now a teenager, and could take care of his three sisters.

When Angele left, she left more space for them in their quarters. She walked and hitchhiked the forty miles to Nuremberg. Even though there were travel restrictions, a German government barely existed to enforce its own laws, and the only thing she had to worry about was an over-zealous American officer in a Jeep.

When she got to Nuremberg she asked where the hospital was and found her way there. It had been rebuilt after the ferocious bombardments two years earlier. She was assigned a bed in a small room, twelve feet by twelve feet, sharing it with three other women.

“There were four of us, me, Ele, who was 24 and tall, Koste, who was 28 and stocky, and Monica, who was the oldest and had been a nurse in Kaunas. One of our teachers was a Lithuanian and she helped me. We lived in the barracks at the hospital. I worked in the hospital, cleaned, changed beds, and did whatever they told me to do. I studied whenever I could. There wasn’t time to do very much else.”

They had to do something, though. Many of them were young. They staged dances at the hospital. “Somebody would play the accordion.” Whenever they could they went to town on Saturdays.

“We took a train, went to the movies, and the music shows. We loved it. Everything was so clean. It was all smashed during the war but two years later you wouldn’t have believed there had even been a war.”

There had not only been repeated bombing and shelling of the city, especially the medieval part of it, there had been street-by-street house-to-house room-to-room fighting in April 1945. The city was rebuilt after the war and was partly restored to its pre-war aspect. “The Americans did it,” said Angele. “You could see them doing it every day.”

The German government was being resurrected, as well, and order was the order of the day.

“One day we were waiting in line for the movies, eating grapes, and spitting the seeds on the sidewalk. When a policeman saw us, he came over, and told us it was our responsibility to keep the city clean. He made us pick up all the seeds.”

The circus was even better than the movies or musical theater. It is in the movies and theater that people fall in love. It is the circus that leaves a fantasy memory.

“Whenever it came to town, none of us could sleep.”

The Nazi era was good for circuses since they were not considered subversive. They were left alone by the regime. Between the two wars, through the 1930s, Germany was the epicenter of the European companies and their large tents. There were more than forty travelling circuses with clowns, acrobats, and animals. They were mostly family-run enterprises.

The last year of the Second World War, however, was bad for business, many circuses losing all their equipment and animals. The postwar years boomed again after 1946. Circus Europa toured Germany in 1947.

“I loved the circus. I would have gone alone if I had to,” Angele said.

In mid-summer 1948 Angele got a week’s vacation from the Army Hospital. She and her friend Benas, his friend Porcupine, and two of the Porcupine’s friends took a train the 170 miles to Zugspitze on the border of Germany and Austria. On two sides of the Zugspitze are glaciers, the largest in Germany. Mountain guides lead climbers up three different routes to the summit at nearly ten thousand feet.

“Benas had thick dark hair and his father was a minister back home. He was a good friend to me. Everybody called his friend Porcupine because my roommate Koste called him that. He thought he was Koste’s boyfriend, even though that’s not what she thought.”

They got to the mountains at night and stayed in a small hotel.

“There were two rooms at the end of the corridor. We three girls went into one of them. There were two beds, so we pushed them together and slept together. The boys took the other room. In the morning I went to the big window and threw open the heavy drapes. I had to take a step back. The mountain was right there. I was astonished and afraid. For a second I thought it was going to fall in on us.”

They rode a rack railway the next day up the northern flank of the mountain. “It went around and around.” At a landing they sunned themselves. “Even though there was snow everywhere, and people were skiing, looking like ants below us, we lay in the sun before going farther up.” They took the Eibsee cable car to an observation deck. “The gondola was all glass. You could see the whole world.” From the deck at the top a path led to a cross.

The 14-foot gilded iron cross had been lifted to the peak of the Zugspitze in 1851 by twenty-eight bearers under the direction of Karl Kiendl, a forester, and Christoph Ott, a priest. Father Ott was the brainstorm behind the cross, motivated by a vision of the mountain, “the greatest prince of the Bavarian mountains raising its head into the blue air towards heaven, bare and unadorned, waiting for the moment when patriotic fervor and courageous determination would see that his head too was crowned with dignity.”

The Porcupine and his two companions wouldn’t go to the cross. The path was icy and narrow, they said. “Only Benas and I went. There was a ladder attached to a rock face you had to climb to get to it, where it stood on a flat space.”

In 1888 the cross had to be taken down and repaired after being struck many times by lightning. It was leaning and scarred, holes gouged out by the lightning flashes. A year later it was taken back to the top, onto the East Summit, where it had stayed ever since.

The side rails of the metal ladder were secured by bolts to the rock.

“I was near the top when a bolt came loose and the ladder jerked free there,” Angele said. “I stopped and couldn’t go up or down. I stayed as still as I could. I was scared to death.”

She had survived a Russian invasion, her mother’s death, a subsequent German invasion, followed by another Russian invasion, making tracks out of Lithuania, what looked like unending separation from her step-mother father family, landing in DP camps in Bavaria, the American invasion of Germany, the collapse of the German government, and finding her way to work at the Army Hospital In Nuremberg, all in the last 8 years, all by the time she was 19 years old.

She was determined a broken ladder was not going to break her, not be the end of her. Benas helped her from the top, extending his belt, and another pilgrim helped her from below, coming partway up and slowly carefully easing her down. Benas quickly slid down the side rails without incident.

Faith can be churchy, or it can be personal. There isn’t anything that’s a matter of life and death except life and death. Life and death at ten thousand feet is personal, cross or no cross. Who thinks about God when they are about to meet their maker? They took their time on the icy path back to the observation deck.

The rest of the week they hiked, took local trains to nearby alpine towns, ate drank smoked talked had fun while it lasted.

At the end of their vacation they went back in Nuremberg. In her room, alone for a few minutes, Angele thought about the romance in her life. There were two men, Vladas the soldier and Vytas, working for a relief organization, both refugees from Lithuania, like her, who wanted to marry her. Vladas brought her food and Vytas played cards with her.

Getting married may not be a matter of life and death, except when it is. She thought she was probably going to marry one of them, and thought she knew which one it would be, but she knew for sure she wasn’t going to be staying in Europe. Making her way somewhere where there was a future was the most important thing on her mind.

She wanted a bright future, not a dark past. She had to go and find it. The man she married would have to be the man who wanted to go with her. The only way up was up the ladder, rung by rung. No matter what, she was going to have to fix it for herself.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Dog House Days

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By Ed Staskus

“Dogs are how people would be if the important stuff is all that mattered to us.”  Ashly Lorenzana

My dog Ugne was born in the same neighborhood the same day as me, on a Monday, at the start of the week. The Lithuanian Village, the new community center, was built the same year. I could have practically seen it from my crib on Chickasaw Avenue if I had been ahead of my time enough to look. Ugne was always my best friend, more good-hearted friendly close to me than anybody except my parents.

Unlike many of my friends she only tried to champ me once. Dogs never bite me, only people. They munch bite take a chunk out of you with words actions sleight of hand.

“Stop messing with her, stop messing with her,” my mom yelled through the kitchen where she was making cepelinai, spilling her sentences into the dining room. But I wouldn’t stop messing with Ugne, and suddenly she growled, bared her teeth, and put them on my arm, squeezing.

We were under the dining room table. Ugne had a deadly scissors bite, but she looked up at me with her round eyes when I squawked, and didn’t press her mouth into my skin, after all.

“You deserved it,” mom shouted out, rolling up another whopping-sized potato and meat dumpling, not realizing she hadn’t bitten me.

Ugne, which means fire in Lithuania, was a cross breed between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle, parti-colored, black with a white patch on her chest. One of my friends told me Poodles were a weird religious cult, but Ugne wasn’t like that. She was on the level. She was on the small side, big ears and big feet, and a wavy tail.

Mom called her Ugnele, her official name. I called her Fire It Up when we went running outside, past the patio sign stuck in the ground, “Home to a Lithuanian Hound.”

I got Ugne eleven months after I was born. Dad got Bandit, who was mostly a Beagle, two years later. I grew up with both dogs. Ugne slept on my bed and Bandit slept underneath the bed, except when it was winter, when they slept together curled up on top of me.

Mom and dad were from Lithuania, where almost everybody had dogs. They ran away from the Russian overlords in the mid-1960s, burning down their little farmhouse before leaving, setting their dogs free, knowing they would find a new home fast enough, giving the thumb between their first and middle fingers to the Reds. They stole a small sailboat in Ventspils and made for Gotland, more than a hundred miles away. They made it there in record time. They made it to the United States soon enough.

Fire and Bandit were my best friends. They laughed with their tails. They laughed it up every day and I gave both of them a rub on the head every day before school, and on weekends, too.

Bandit was a Beagle kind of dog because dad wanted a hunting dog. But at the end of the day Bandit was a gun-shy dog. We never found out why, no matter how many vets we took him to. They all ended up scratching their heads, saying they couldn’t explain it, since he was the only hunting hound they had ever seen who was scared of gunshots.

Dad had to put his guns away and learn to hunt with a bow and arrow. “Rupuze,” he swore under his breath. At least he didn’t bust out with “Goddamnit!” which meant real trouble.

Ugne got stopped in her tracks in our driveway on Thanksgiving Day when we were both 14-years-old. She was still full of life, still kicking around, other than being blind and deaf. One minute she was standing in the driveway and the next minute she had a heart attack and dropped dead. By the time my brothers and I rushed to her, she was lying on her side, quiet and still. We buried her in the backyard before the ground froze.

We had to put Bandit down when spring broke the next year. After Ugne died he started to slip away. They were like an old couple that had always been together. He went from being a healthy dog to being a decrepit dog. He gained weight, but then lost his appetite, lost weight, and started dragging his hind legs behind him like a cripple. When we took him to the vet, he told us there was nothing wrong with him.

Bandit was just giving up on life. We all knew that. The house got quiet and sad.

When my dad carried him into the vet’s office to be put down, Bandit lifted his head and looked at my mom standing next to the exam table. He looked her right in the eye. Everyone could see that a thought was going back-and-forth between them.

“Thank you, I want it to end,” thought Bandit.

“That was hard,” thought mom, and after we buried Bandit next to Ugne, she said we couldn’t have any more dogs.

But two years later my younger brother told all of us, including mom, that he wanted a dog. “Everyone else has dogs. I want a dog, too,” he said. Our neighbor’s Lab down the street had played footsies with a Shepherd that summer. In the fall there were a bushelful of black puppies. Everyone we knew took one, including my brother, which meant mom took one.

Dad named him Buddy, after the baseball player Buddy Bell. My dad had been a big fan back in the day when he played for the Cleveland Indians. He grew up to be almost like a full-sized Lab with a delicate face, small ears, and a spotted tongue. When he was a puppy Buddy liked digging holes in the backyard, sitting in them, and staring out at everybody.

He was a one-man Tasmanian Devil.

Whenever we left our shoes in the alcove mudroom by mistake Buddy would chew them to pieces. He gnawed on electric cords in the house and the telephone wires on the outside of the house. Our phones were out once for a week. He ripped the aluminum siding off the house, but couldn’t chew it, and so gave that up. But the garage was still sided in clapboard. He tore one side of it off, as far up as he could reach, and chewed the wood to shreds.

“Seriously, I was only outside for five minutes,” was the look he gave my dad when dad confronted him about it. Dad had to find aluminum siding and get the garage done up. Buddy Bell calmed down after three years, but not before being the most destructive dog anyone in our neighborhood ever heard of.

On his second Kucios we left him in a cage for the night while we went to Midnight Mass at St. George’s in the old neighborhood. The church was going on a hundred years, the first church for Roman Catholic Lithuanians ever in Cleveland. Before that they went to Polish churches, even though there was never a lot of love lost between them and Poles.

We stayed overnight with relatives and the next morning after Christmas Day breakfast drove home. Coming up the driveway I heard mom ask why the windows were all open. They weren’t actually open, they just looked open because most of the curtains in the house were gone.

Buddy was in the kitchen and beyond happy to see us when we walked in. The cage he had been locked up in was still locked. Dad rattled the door and inspected the sides. He couldn’t understand how the dog had escaped. Buddy Bell never said because dogs never talk about themselves.

The curtains were torn down and lay in tatters on the floor. In the second-floor bedrooms our beds were set beneath windows and Buddy had jumped up on them so he could reach those curtains, too, and rip them down.

“He tore the curtains down so he could see us coming,” dad figured out when he realized Buddy hadn’t ripped all the curtains apart, only those in the windows facing the front yard and the driveway.

Dad bought padlocks to secure the crate door so Buddy couldn’t ever escape again whenever we had to cage him, but he did, over and over, like he was Houdini’s Wonder Dog, no matter how many padlocks dad put on the latches. There was never a scratch on Buddy, either. He wasn’t squeezing out. But by then he was finding his way in the world and his Christmas Eve rampage turned out to be a turning point.

When Buddy came of age dad started taking him hunting. Labs are bred to be bird dogs, but Buddy wasn’t the best retriever of all time. He loved running around outdoors, and chasing anything that moved, but was terrified of water. Labs are water dogs, but even giving Buddy a bath was titanic. He whined and cowered when we rinsed him off with the hose.

Dad felt like he was cursed, like it was Bandit all over again.

When we found out what had happened, how the curse happened, we didn’t like it. Our next-door neighbor Emma Jean, whenever we were away the first summer that we had Buddy, not liking his barking in his own backyard, would spray him with our garden hose until he stopped. Every time he barked, she snuck back into our yard and sprayed him full in the face.

After we found out my brothers and I, when Emma Jean flew to Las Vegas with her fat husband to eat and drink and lose money, broke every window of her station wagon with baseball bats. We left her husband’s car alone, since he was innocent. It was in the garage, anyway.

At home Buddy was our around-the-clock guard dog. He could wake up from a dead sleep in the blink of an eye, alert. He mistrusted most other dogs. We always knew when one was on the loose, thanks to him. He mistrusted strangers, too. If a stranger came by our house, he watched them, and if they came up the driveway, he barked to let them know there was a dog in the house.

He knew the difference between walking past us and walking towards us.

One summer a dog living two doors down started barking all the time and wouldn’t stop. Someone called the police and complained, saying it was our dog. We were sure it was Emma Jean, but by then our families weren’t talking. When the animal warden came up the drive, Buddy sat in the living room window watching him. He didn’t bark once. When the warden came to the front door and rang the bell, Buddy went to the door and waited. Mom answered the door. Buddy looked up at the animal warden and the animal warden looked down at him.

He told mom about the complaint that had been made. “But that can’t be right,” he said. “He didn’t bark when I walked up, when I rang the bell, and he’s not barking now.”

“That’s right,” thought Buddy, giving the warden a soft eye loopy grin.

We didn’t understand how for once in his life Buddy knew to be quiet the day the authorities came to our house. But Emma Jean was off the hook. We put our baseball bats away.

My dogs to this day don’t get treats because of Buddy Bell, who was crazy wild for them. Whenever we gave him a doggie treat, he wanted another one right away. He wanted more of them for the next minutes hours days. When we let him out of the house after treat time he would run right back in, barging through the door, rabid for more, grinning and barking.

“Show some dignity,” we scolded him. “Do you want to be a fatso?” We never were able to break him of it. He never got fat, anyway. It was all just grist for the mill to him.

After graduating from college, I moved away from home, across the river, to the other side of town, to the far side of Lakewood, living alone most of the time, except for an occasional girlfriend and weekends when one of my brothers dropped Buddy off. I missed having a dog in the house. I’ve always had a busy life, but at a certain point I wanted something anything to be with me day-to-day.

Buddy Bell was growing old. He was getting grayer thin shaggy by the month and having a hard time walking. I knew he was dying and wouldn’t be seeing him much longer. I hoped he didn’t know, like Bandit had known. I decided to go to the SPCA shelter in Parma and find a puppy.

I grew up with mutts. No matter what breed we dressed them up to be, Ugne was a mutt, Bandit was a mutt, and Buddy was a mutt. My family didn’t pay for dogs. They found them for free. I knew that, but my brothers had forgotten. My younger brother bought a Victorian Bulldog for a thousand dollars. Since then he had spent thousands more dollars on special kennels, training, and designer food, not to mention weekly doggie whisperer sessions.

My older brother and his wife bought a long-legged Jack Russell terrier. His name was Hank and he looked like Wishbone in the TV series. Wishbone read books and dressed up like Shakespeare, but Hank couldn’t read and had epilepsy. Whenever he had seizures he twitched and lost all his motor skills.

Hank was high-strung and drove Buddy crazy whenever my brother brought him along for a visit. Hank would go at him like a puppy even though Buddy was already of a certain age, and it pissed him off. He would bare his teeth and remind Hank that he had once eaten garages. Hank would just get crazier crossing the line.

“You’re in time out,” I would say, pointing at him, shoving him down on his haunches. ”Sit down there and don’t move.” I never really liked that dog.

He couldn’t be left alone because he might have a seizure any minute. I baby-sat him while I was in college, which was how I paid for my textbooks. No matter what my brother said, it was cash on the barrelhead. I needed it. My brothers had done better with barrels than me.

Hank’s medication came with an eyedropper and I had to be careful because a drop of it would burn human skin. I never understood why it didn’t burn going down Hank’s throat. The pooch was inhuman.

I always knew when he was having a seizure because he got stuck behind the sofa. There was a dead-end at one end. Something would happen in his dog brain, he would walk behind the sofa, and then couldn’t move backwards. He would just freeze until I noticed. With all his medication, vet bills, and emergency room visits, my sister-in-law told me, when Hank died five years after they got him, that he cost more than their first child.

I wanted to get a puppy at the start of summer, since I was a high school teacher, and had summers to myself. Knowing I probably wanted a Lab mutt, and knowing how Labs can be, I knew it would be best getting one when I was going to have free time. I wanted to be at home with the dog for three months. It would make my training it easier.

I called the animal shelter at nine o’clock in the morning the day my vacation started. They told me they had fifty-some new puppies just in from Tennessee. When I got there at two-thirty in the afternoon there were only three left. Everybody wants puppies and snatches them up like snapping your fingers. I get that. Everybody wants to start with a new dog.

I had been to some small shelters on my side of town, but all they had were full-grown Labs other people had given up on. I lived on the second floor of a Polish double and Labs start to have trouble walking when they get older. They get hip dysplasia. I couldn’t take a 60 or 70 pound already older dog to my second floor without accepting grief right off the bat. I had to be realistic.

Going up and down aisles of stacked cages in an animal shelter is a down in the dumps experience. It smells like underarms and hot dog water. There are signs on all the cages. ‘My name is Kimmy. I am a 7-year-old Labrador. I love playing with children.’ Wanting to take them all home is cheerless. It’s like walking through a prison where everybody is on death row and you can only pardon one of them.

The three dogs that were left at the shelter at the end of the day were two Boxers and a Lab mix. I didn’t know much about Boxers, and some other people were looking at both of them, anyway, so I turned my attention to the Lab.

Shelters say to lay the puppy you are interested in on its back. If they look at you and show submission, that’s a good dog. If they don’t, they might be headstrong, and you probably want to reconsider. I put the 8-week-old mutt on his back. I held him down even though he wasn’t trying to go anywhere. He looked everywhere except up at me.

I loved the white on his chest, and his one white paw, and that he was missing his tail. I thought it was a unique personality trait, even though I could tell when I felt it that it was a deformity.

“I’ll take the Lab,” I told the attendant at the counter.

“Are you sure?” he said.  “Did you see his tail?”  That broke my heart. Because of the tail he didn’t have, he might not make it. That’s why I took him, finally, because of his missing tail.

I named him Bronislovas, which means glorious protector, but I always called him Bron, after LeBron James, who brought championship glory to Cleveland.

When I went back to work in the fall, I enrolled Bron at Pawsitive Influence, a cage-free doggie day care. It took more than a week, but he warmed up to it. After the first month he got excited every time we drove there, passing landmarks like the Speedway gas station and Merl Park. A friend of mine worked there. He paid special attention to Bron, clipping his toenails, training him to sit and heel, and keeping me up to date on his progress.

I don’t know what got into me. I began to think he needed a brother. I went back to the animal shelter. It was in October and it was rainy and cold. I thought to myself, you know what, the puppies are all going to get adopted, so I’ll look at the older ones. But, most of them were too big for me, until I came to a row of cages full of puppies, all jumping up and down. In a cage by himself was a bigger black pup about the same age and size as Bron.

“No one’s going to look at me, and that’s OK, la, la, la,” he was thinking, laying there, his paws crossed in front of him.

“Can I walk him,” I asked, and was given a leash.

He didn’t just walk when he walked. He pranced when we got going, which surprised me because he was a stray, although not a common stray. He had been trucked up to Ohio from the south somewhere, where there are lots of strays and kill shelters, but he was different. Even though things had gone wrong for him, he hadn’t gone wrong with them.

“We think he came from a dog-fighting ring, a big one that got broken up. Even though he’s young, he still has a few scars, his front and back dewclaws are missing, and his tail’s been clipped,” said a vet technician cleaning a nearby pen.

Tails are a weak point because they can be grabbed, and when dewclaws are ripped off they get infected, so dog fighting psycho’s surgically remove them. It’s painful if the dog is older than even a few weeks because dewclaws are more like an extra toe than a toenail.

He was missing part of his right ear, the inside of his mouth was scarred, and there were lesions on his snout. He was a little less than a year old and a wide smile was pasted on his face as I walked him around the perimeter of the cages.

“I’ll take him,” I said.

“He’s got a lot of Pit Bull in him.”

“That’s OK, I’m good with mixes.”

“What about his tail?”

“It will grow back.” It was the tail of two pups.

He was timid around Bron for weeks, even though they were almost twins. I named him Sabonis, after Arvydas Sabonis, the best Lithuanian basketball player of all time, so he and Bron would get along on their one-on-one court, and they did, finally. Sometimes I called him Bonehead, but only when I had to. I stopped taking Bron to the doggie day care since he and Sabonis had each other all day.

I bought leashes for them and took them for walks in the Rocky River Metropark. Off the leash they ran across the meadows and right to the river, and all that fall had a ball. Whenever another dog came near him, though, Sabonis would get aggressive, barking and feinting at them, although when I looked at him, I could see he was shaking. I never went to the Lakewood Dog Park, so they wouldn’t be around too many other dogs for me to worry about.

I was walking them down Rockway one day, a nearby side street, when I overheard talk on a front porch, talk about my dogs. “I think they’re mini-Doberman Pinschers,” a thick-set man with eel-like lips hissed, as though they were supersized rats. “Dude, you should shut up, you don’t know dogs, at all,” I said. I know how to talk down to teenagers when I have to. I know how to talk down to nitwits, too. I had a vet look at Sabonis, but he wasn’t sure what breed he was. I could have had him genetically tested, but that’s not going to happen. I need a new hard-working vacuum cleaner before I pay for anything like that.

Sabonis is black and, like Bron, looks like a handsome Lab Pit Bull cross. When he pins his ears back his face goes sleek. I get nervous about it sometimes because so many people are anti-Pit. Bron is Mister Independent, but Boner wants attention. He doesn’t bite anybody, although if he did, there would be trouble. His jaws are ripcord. When he has a branch in his jaws, the branch doesn’t stand a chance.

Both of them love ice cream. I’m not the guy who says, “No more ice cream.” We always have it in the house. If they knew how to break into my fridge at night, they would.

Whenever I take them to the neighborhood cone shack, they’re ready to lick it, life and ice cream both. We drive to the DQ on Detroit in my drop top Chrysler 200. I have a Gelezinis Vilkas, the Iron Wolf, decal sticker on my back bumper. Anybody can sometimes be in a sour mood on a sunny day, but not in a convertible. The dog days of summer are the wind in your face days for my dogs. When they’re ready to go, Bron and Sabonis vault into their seats like the Dukes of Hazard.

They both like to have people around them and get excited when my friends come over. They freaking love company. They will bark and warn me about strangers, but the people they love, they get beyond excited and are all over the place.

My brother used to have a cage for Hank. It was bigger and sturdier than the one my dad had for Buddy Bell, the escape artist who couldn’t be stopped. “God, why did you buy that big-ass cage for that little dog?” I asked him one day. It looked like it cost the heavy end of a week’s pay, at least my pay.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I think I felt it had to be escape-proof.”

My mutts are my best friends. I don’t necessarily want too many friends of my own, so they are the living things I love and spoil. If it wasn’t for them, I might be a hermit. They get me out of the house. Young women are always coming up to us, asking if the dogs are friendly, and I always say yes.

I know they are freeloaders. They don’t pay rent and I have to feed them and clean up after them, too. I know some people say they’re just dogs. Why go to the trouble? I don’t care what they say. I make sure I come home after work every day so they’re not by themselves. I try to walk them two and three times a day, in the morning, after work, and before bedtime. I could have read the collected works of Dickens Tolstoy and Pynchon and become a smart literate man given the amount of time I’ve spent walking my dogs.

I make sure to always be home for Bron and Sabonis and take them with me whenever I have to leave for more than a day-or-two. I never put them in a shelter or a kennel, even for a weekend, even if it’s nice clean modern beyond words, because in a kennel they would be slammed shut into a cage for twelve hours a day.

Who needs that? My best boys couldn’t handle it, locked up instead of down at the foot of my bed. I know they couldn’t. Neither could I.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Never Look Back

NEVER LOOK BACK.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

The new-style lightning war starting in 1939 won the Third Reich most of Europe and substantial parts of Russia. But five years later the Red Army was poised to take revenge on its enemy. When the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front tried to weather the storm and fight out of encirclements, the Russians did what the Germans would have done, fed armor into the attack, maintaining mobility, forcing the issue deep into rear areas, faster than their enemy could regroup.

“The Russians came fast,” said Angele Jurgelaityte. “We listened to the radio every day. We could hear booms in the distance, cannons. The Germans were on all the roads. The Russians were to the north and the east of us. We knew they were coming.”

The angelface of her aunt’s family, the family Angele was staying with near Alvitas, Lithuania, didn’t know, but everyone else in the Baltics knew the comrades were coming back and there was going to be hell to pay.

It was the summer of 1944 that Soviet forces went on the offensive. The Germans were steadily implacably pushed back on a shifting front. A Red Army Tank Corps advanced to Vilkaviskis, four miles from their farm. The Russian 33rd Army entered the town and a few days later secured the rail depot at Marijampole. The Third Panzer Army mounted a counterattack, but after grim tank battles was finally forced to retreat to Kybartai, rolling back to a last-ditch defensive line in the Baltics.

“It was one day in the afternoon that a lady, a teacher, who was a friend of mamyte’s, with two kids, a small boy and a small girl, came to our farm from Vilnius,” Angele said. The woman and Angele’s aunt, Ona Kreivenas, had studied and graduated together from teacher’s college. She was in a horse drawn wagon with her children and what chattels and valuables she could pack and carry. She had come from the capital in a rush. She told them there were Russian tanks hiding on the nearby farm tracks.

The next morning Ona, Angele, and the children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the toddler Gema, loaded their wagon with clothes, blankets, and food. They hitched two horses to the wagon and tied a cow to the back. “We took milk with us when we left, for Gema, and hoped we would find more when we were gone.” They took whatever they could shoulder. They left their buggy behind and let the riding horse, the rest of the cows, and all the pigs and chickens loose.

“We let everything go. What could you do? The Russians would have just stolen all the animals.”

Ona took her money and what jewelry she possessed with her in a handbag she could keep close. She packed a trunk with her sewing machine, china, vases, artifacts, and family heirlooms. They lugged it behind the barn, where the remains of months of potatoes thrown down to feed the pigs were scattered.

They cleared a space, dug a four-foot deep hole, and buried the trunk. They threw potato scraps back over the overturned ground. When they were done, they left the family farm, in two wagons, two women and seven children on the move, sudden displaced refugees in their own country.

“We moved back about fifteen miles.”

They went southwest towards East Prussia. “We went to a big farm. When we got there, there were already hundreds of people in the fields, with their wagons, and their families. The farmer slaughtered and cut up pigs for us. All the women made food. Everybody was talking about the war, about what to do.”

There was heavy fighting between German and Soviet troops in the Baltics. As the fighting raged, more than 130,000 Latvians escaped to Sweden and Germany. In total, the country lost almost 20% of its population during the war, either dead or gone. The Great Escape in Estonia started in the summer and continued through the fall. It is estimated 80,000 Estonians fled from the Red Army to the West. Almost a 100,000 Lithuanians joined them, clogging the roads to Poland, Prussia, and Germany.

Ona stole back to her farm during the week the Panzer divisions were holding their own. The countryside was nearly deserted. She found the trunk they had buried underneath the pile of potato scraps behind the barn dug up and gone.

“There was just a big hole. The Russians took it. They used metal sticks to poke into the ground. Her sewing machine was gone, all gone.”

They slept rough, out of doors, like everybody else. “We slept on blankets on the ground. When it rained, we slept under the wagon and stretched a tarp out, to keep the water away.” Every day it got darker. Over the course of September, the length of the day in Lithuania rapidly decreases. By the end of the month the daylight is two hours less than it was at the start of the month.

The encampment stretched out for six weeks. They dug latrines and filled barrels with water. They picked apples off trees and blueberries from bushes. They took especial care of their horses. They greased the axles of their wagons, making sure the grease bucket was always full of animal fat and tar, and making sure they had a spare axle. Without one a broken axle would be a disaster, bringing them to a standstill.

The children played games whenever they had idle time.

“We played the ring game,” Angele said. “We all sat in a circle and passed around a pretend ring, like a twig or a pebble. Sometimes we passed it, but other times we didn’t. We just pretended to give it to who was next to us. One of us was it, like in tag, who had to guess who had the ring. If they were right, they got a prize, like a pencil. If they were wrong, they had to sing a song or do a dance in the middle of the circle.”

When they finally left the farm, they left in the early evening. They heard over the radio that morning that the Russians had come closer. They spent the day packing and preparing. It was now or never.

“Most of us left, although others of them stayed. Some of the farmers wanted their land back. They didn’t want to leave.” It was all they had. It was all they had ever known. They were loath to give it up. “Mamyte had to go, leave. The farm didn’t matter. Her husband had already been taken by the Communists. She knew they would take her, too, send her away to Siberia, and her children would be left behind, orphans.”

It rained that day and the rest of the night.

“The road was crowded on both sides. There were thousands of wagons, wagon after wagon, all going one way. There wasn’t a single car or truck, just horses. We knew the Germans were somewhere ahead of us and the Russians somewhere behind us. But we didn’t see any soldiers anywhere, at all.”

Ona was at the reins of the two-horse team, her seven-year-old daughter Ramute beside her holding the three-year-old Gema, and Carmen, Mindaugas, and Angele walking. Most of the refugees were walking, their wagons jam-packed with possessions and provisions. Their friend from Vilnius with her two small children was in the wagon behind them.

Before the war, Lithuania’s population was almost 3 million. After the war it was closer to 2 million. Some Lithuanians ended up dead. Many were deported. Others ran for their lives, displaced. The displaced were forced to make new lives in different countries all around the world, whatever country they could get to, whatever country would take them, whatever country they could slip into.

When the Soviet re-invasion happened, some Lithuanians tried to flee across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries, but only a few were successful. Patrol boats apprehended them, and they ended up imprisoned in labor camps. Most fled west, while others went south to Hungary, Romania, and the Balkans.

“On the way we met my uncle on the road, my mother’s brother, Uncle Jankauskas and his family.” Her uncle’s wagon fell into line with them. The progression of wagons stretched as far as the eye could see, forward and back. They soon crossed into East Prussia. There were no guards. They had all fled. The border lay forsaken.

“I was so sad leaving Lithuania,” Angele said.

Russian warplanes strafed and bombed the column of evacuees several times. The Red Air Force was bombing and strafing at will, both German Army and refugee columns alike. Forest and brush on both sides of the road were set on fire. There was dark smoke in the sky day and night. Wagons and carts wended their way around rain-filled craters.

“It was all just wagons. They knew we were refugees They dropped bombs and shot their machine guns. I don’t know why they did that. Whenever we heard airplanes, we all ran and jumped into ditches beside the road. I was afraid, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t be hurt by them.”

What was called the Baltic Gap had grown so large and menacing to the Reich that Adolf Hitler moved his headquarters from Berchtesgaden to Rastenburg in East Prussia. The German situation on the Eastern Front was desperate. The fighting was hard and bitter. It was a fight to the finish.

The hinterland was torn up, wrecked forlorn abandoned.

“Most of the people on the farms had run away. We would go into their houses and find dried fruit, pickles, mushrooms, pork, and wine.” They ransacked barns, pantries, and root cellars. “We took all the food we could find, all of it. It rained all the time, it was cold, we walked and walked, and everybody was hungry.”

The rain and asphalt were hurtful to their cow. The animal was as careful as could be on the poor traction of the wet road, stepping timidly with its rear feet spread wide. But the cow was walking with an arched back. They finally had to do something. They knew the long miles and pavement weren’t good for it. They thought she might be going lame. Angele’s uncle looked at the cow’s hooves and saw lesions. An ulcer was forming on one hoof.

“Mindaugas and I found a family that hadn’t run away. We went to their farmhouse and sold the cow to them.” They gave the money to Ona and she hid it on her person. She had plans for it.

One cold night when they stopped to rest her uncle said, “Kids, jump up and down to warm yourselves up.” When Angele hopped instead of jumped, he grasped her under the armpits. “He grabbed me. We were jumping up and down and he dropped me by accident.”

She broke her wrist. “It hurt bad, but there were no doctors to help me.”

When they got to a town with a railroad station, there weren’t any doctors there, either. The skilled and the smart had already left. Everybody else was hoping against hope. Angele’s wrist had to take care of itself.

After the New Year the German population of East Prussia, most of whom had not cut and run, began to evacuate as the Red Army rapidly advanced. Within weeks it turned into helter-skelter flight as more than two million of the two-and-half million men women children of the enclave bolted into the Polish Corridor heading for Germany. The winter weather was biting, the roads were a mess, and the civil authorities were overwhelmed. There was panic and quagmire and many thousands died, some caught in combat, others swept away in the chaos.

But before that happened, Ona Kreivenas had already sold their wagon and horses and everything they couldn’t carry and managed against the odds to get tickets for a train going to Berlin. The Prussian Eastern Railway connected Danzig and Konigsberg to Berlin. A month later, the last week of January 1945, the last train to Berlin ran the rails. There was no traffic on the line after that.

“The train was completely full. The corridors were full, too.” They stood in a tight group in the corridor. The passenger cars were red and had ten large windows on both sides. They were pressed against one of the windows. Some of the windows were smashed and the passageway was as cold as the outside.

“We had a pillow for Gema, who slept on the floor, but we stood all night and all the next day.”

The twin locomotives pulling the long line of passenger sleeping baggage cars and a caboose had been given camouflage livery. On the front was painted the Hoheitsadler, an eagle, Germany’s traditional symbol of national sovereignty, holding a swastika in its talons. By the time they crossed Poland and entered Germany, the talons and swastika were covered in coal soot.

Lehrter Bahnhof was the Berlin terminus, adjacent to Hamburger Bahnhof, built in the late 19th century just outside of what was then Berlin’s boundary on the Spree River.  It was in the French neo-Renaissance style, the façade covered in glazed tiles. The station had long been known as a “palace among stations.” But it had been severely damaged by Allied strategic bombing and was near to shambles.

When they finally got off the train in Berlin, tired and stiff from standing, they were met on the platform by Bishop Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to Juozapas Skvireckas, the archbishop of Kaunas. During the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with several retreating German divisions. Ona had somehow located him by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg and carrying a basket of hot buns.

“He gave one to each of us. I was so happy,” said Angele

The Third Reich’s war economy was on the verge of collapse. The whole country was in the same sinking ship. There was a shortage of hot buns and everything else. When they looked around, the buns the bishop had brought were the only cheer they could see. There wasn’t going to be any traditional roast goose this holiday season.

Angele looked at the four children and her aunt. She glanced up and down the platform. Bishop Brizgys led them out of the station into the city. The Red Army numbering over four million men was massing on the Vistula River and along the East Prussian border. Their superiority was ten to one in infantry and twenty to one in artillery and planes. Berlin and its three million residents were already a wreck, the day and night Allied bombing taking a monstrous toll.

The late afternoon was a gray haze. There was smoke in the sky. She looked past the rubble in the street. When she looked ahead, she thought it was going to be a bare-bones winter on German land.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Surprise House

By Ed Staskus

Everything happened when mom and dad went out of whack and our adventure rides burned down, although most of it happened before that. It started when mom, who grew up one of four Lithuanian girls in the family in a two-bedroom house, married a handsome Romanian man. She made up her own mind about it. They had to elope, crossing the state line, finding a justice of the peace in a used-up Indiana town.     

   Afterwards, the day after the fire, we walked to Euclid Avenue and mom flagged down a three-wheel bicycle peddling Louie Kaleal’s Checker Bar Ice Cream. When the man opened the box on the back of the bike white smoke from dry ice poured out. I made sure I ate all of my ice cream while it was still cold in the sugar cone.

   Two years later on Christmas Eve, while Matis and I stood on the lip of the front walk, below the light in the window of dad’s upstairs bedroom, I remembered the night when the Surprise House burned down, and how mom and me and my brother looked over the tops of the trees, watching the fire on the far lakeshore. 

   We didn’t know what was going up in oily clouds of orange-gray smoke, finding out only the next morning when mom showed us a front-page photograph about it in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

   I snuck a peek at her getting out of the car across the street where she had parked and let us out, walking flatfooted on the icy driveway, and knocking on Anna MacAulay’s side door. She glanced back over her shoulder, waving us towards the house with black shutters and red front door where I grew up. Mom wanted us to talk dad into giving her a divorce, even after he had said no more than a thousand times. She wanted to marry somebody else, an ex-policeman from Rochester who was our new father now, more-or-less. 

   My grandparents from the old country didn’t approve of dad from the beginning, even though he got medals for shooting Commie Chinese in Korea. That’s why mom and dad had to elope. Grandma and grandpa were stern and unforgiving. When they made tracks out of Lithuania during the war, not dying of bombs bullets hunger exhaustion, they made it. They never talked much about it, the hardships they faced.

   When we were kids, we weren’t allowed to see them for a long time. Even when we were finally allowed, we hardly saw them because they still didn’t want to see us. It didn’t look like our new man was in the running, either.

   “Come on, bub,” I said, starting up the walk.

   “Don’t call me bub,” he said, slouching behind me with a long face.

   “I told you I don’t like you doing that,” I said, tugging him up hard by the back of the collar.

   “You’re a stick,” he grunted, pulling away.

   “What does that mean?”

   I was upset when I thought of the Surprise House burning down, the signal flags on top of the roof on fire, and sick to my stomach when I remembered not knowing Euclid Beach Park hadn’t closed for the season when I was ten-years-old, but closed for good. I found out the next summer, the summer before the fire, when school let out and mom told us, and later said we would all go to Williamsburg for a family vacation, instead.

   But we didn’t go to Williamsburg, so we never saw all the reenactments I heard about from Sandy next door, who had gone there three times, just like we never went back to Euclid Beach Park. We went to Fredericksburg, instead, where dad played golf at the country club and Matis and I dragged after mom sightseeing sunburned Civil War battlefields and staring up at the fancy plaster ceilings of the Kenmore Plantation.

   When Matis complained again that long four-day weekend that his head was hot and his neck hurt, mom pointed to the plank floor in a dusty corner of the plantation house beneath a high narrow window.

   “Lay down for a few minutes,” she said. 

   When we got back from the foursquare garden behind the house, he was curled up on his side asleep.

   “Did you know this was George Washington’s older sister’s house?” I said as we walked to the car.

   “She wasn’t older,” he said. 

   He ran after mom, reaching for her hand.

   The winter before Matis was born my mom told me she was making a little friend for me to play with. By the time summer came I told her he wasn’t really what I wanted.

   “I can’t play with him. Can you take him back?” 

   But she never did.

   “I’m hungry. Can’t we go to Williamsburg? I don’t like it here, eating dried strawberries all the time,” Matis said.

   “Your father already told you it’s too far,” mom said.  

   I remember thinking, why are we in Fredericksburg? Everybody goes to Williamsburg, not Fredericksburg. Why didn’t we go there?

   Mom was born in Noorkoping, south of Stockholm, after my grandparents made their getaway from Lithuania. The Germans were invading and since there was Jewish blood in the family, and since everybody knew what the Nazis were doing to Jews, they stepped on the gas. My grandfather was an import export up-and-comer and had a car. My grandmother was a high school teacher. They left everything behind, drove to Estonia and from there found a boat to Sweden. 

   When the family got to America after the war, they first lived in Pittsburgh, but it was too dirty. They had to keep all the windows in the house closed all the time. They moved to Cleveland the next year. Grandpa got a job in the Collinwood Rail Yards and worked days there the rest of his life. Grandma got a job at Stouffers making frozen food and worked nights there the rest of her life.

   One of them was always at home to watch the kids.

   Dad worked for Bittermann Bearings, downtown on Prospect Avenue, on the backside of the angle before E. 46th St. He was the vice-president of sales, meaning he went to all the steel factories in the Flats and to lunch on Short Vincent. When he wasn’t working, he was on golf courses on all three sides of town. He played afternoons with clients and weekends with clubhouse men and his private friends, but not with our neighbors.  

   He said they were different, our neighbors. I didn’t know what he meant. He never invited them over for dinner

   By then mom’s first-born sister was getting to be a big wig around town, but she never invited us over, either. She had grandpa and grandma blood in her and even some of dad’s. They had four kids, all around our own age. We hardly ever saw them. One day mom went to their house to pick something up and she took Matis and me with her in our Mercedes convertible. It was a fun ride. My aunt made us wait in the garage, standing in the half-light, while she found whatever she was looking for. It turned out to be some kind of Lithuanian relic she wanted mom to deliver to an old lady who lived near us.

   When I saw her at the door, my mom giving her the box, I thought, “She’s like a relic herself, why does she need more old stuff?”

   Mom got married the day she could, when she was eighteen, the year after she was Miss Boat Show of 1959, and he was twenty-nine. They met on the main stage of the Karamu House, auditioning for an amateur production of a play called “The Glass Menagerie.” They didn’t get the parts but got each other. 

   She got hitched because her three sisters slept in the second bedroom while she slept on a daybed, because her mother was always telling her what to do, and because she was a free spirit. She had to get away from all of it. She meant her mom and dad and her no bedroom and the old neighborhood, the church, and the community hall where she wasn’t happy anymore. 

   I hardly ever knew my grandparents, although I knew a little, about how grandma’s sense of humor was top secret and grandpa was missing in action because he worked nights for the New York Central. 

   Mom said she loved dad the minute they met, and only waited until the day she was one day older than she had to be to get married, and that she loved sleeping in her own bed in her own room.

   Dad’s parents weren’t alive anymore. His father was shot dead by robbers and his mother died after mom put her foot down and she had to move out of our house to an old folk’s home. They were buried in Woodland Cemetery where we left plastic flowers every spring. 

   The summer Matis and I the two of us alone started going to Euclid Beach Park, my grandparents went on vacation, and when no one else could watch their dog, mom volunteered. She fed watered walked the dog every day. One day her sister stopped by and when she opened the side door, the dog, surprised, ran out. Mom chased him down the street to Lakeshore Boulevard, but it was too late. A car hit the dog and he died. My grandparents didn’t speak to us even more than they hadn’t before that for even longer.

   When we went to Euclid Beach Park, racing down Lakeshore Boulevard since mom had a lead foot, in the convertible the top down, she dropped us off, and told us exactly when she was going to be back. We were supposed to wait for her just outside the main entrance gate arch, which looked like a gigantic letter H, so she could pick us up without having to get lost in the parking lot.

   The arch was beneath an old dusty giant pin oak tree. We knew it was an oak because acorns littered the grass, and we knew it was a pin oak because it had pointy leaves. Matis said it was five hundred years old, but what did he know?

   Admission into the amusement park was free. We just walked in, like magic. Mom always gave us enough money for fizzy drinks, popcorn balls, and two-dozen rides. She gave us bananas, too.

   “A banana is the best snack,” she said, pushing them down into our pockets with one-dollar bills and quarters.

   The first thing we always did was run through the park to the Rocket Ships. Moving fast through the arch, we could see the tops of the cranes above the shade trees and hear the band organ that was underneath the second-floor platform. 

   “Just in case we lose all our money, or something bad happens, this way at least I’ll know I was on my favorite ride,” Matis always said.

   The Rocket Ships were three shiny aluminum spaceships that flew fifty feet up in the air over Lake Erie as they whirled around a twice high tower. Matty said it was a great view and cooled you off on hot days, but I wouldn’t ride the silver ships because I heard one of them had broken its support chains once and been hurled into the lake. 

   None of the riders was ever seen alive again.

   After Matis was done flying around and cooling himself off, we rode the coasters together, starting with the Thriller. At first, I was afraid of them, of the sickening hills and valleys, until the VW bus neighborhood hippie boys took us to the amusement park one afternoon.

   “It’s not what you think, not the giant slide,” they said. “On the slide you can see everything ahead, everything that might happen, and that’s scary. On a roller coaster you never know what’s going to happen next. You can’t see that far ahead. It’s like a Zen pop. It’s the best ride because it’s always right now.”

   The Thriller was an out-and-back coaster with part of it running along Lake Shore Boulevard. We could see the tiny roofs of the cars on the road from the top of the first rise, just before we tipped plunging and screaming. The last hill was so steep you couldn’t help not standing up as you careened down, pressing against the lap bar.

   It was hair-raising because it might crash anytime. Everybody knew so. Coming into the station the train behind came in too soon once and rear-ended the other, and the cargo of boys and girls got banged up. The next day the platform was fixed, and it looked like nothing had happened. I found out they stored different shades of secret paint so that when they repaired the coasters and tracks, they could paint them so they all looked worn the same way, and no one could tell that anything rough had ever happened.  

    The more I rode the coasters the more I liked riding them. They were like the peanut butter maker at Holiday Sands, twisting in the sky but bigger. I loved the sound of the wood trestles groaning and heaving on the turns. Even though I thought the riding might take me somewhere, it only ever took me back to where I started.

   The Racing Coasters were next to the Thriller. They were a double out-and-back, running beside the first leg of the Thriller, and it was two separate continuous tracks, the blue cars racing against the red cars. The ride ended on the other side of the station, everybody screaming their last go-go-go’s as we slowed down.

   The Flying Turns were the highest of the rides. The trains were freewheeling. They were scary loose nerve-wracking. “It’s a coaster without tracks!” Matis liked to tell anyone who would listen, even though he had to sneak on, since he was smaller than the yardstick beside the gate.

   The cars weren’t attached to the track. The train careened in a bobsled trough, threatening to overturn at any second. There were only three toboggan-like cars for every train and only two of us rode in a car, one directly in front of the other, white-knuckling the snap-of-the-whip turns.

   On “Nickel Days” we rode the Tea Cups between turns on the coasters, which were a four-table cup ride, like a Crazy Daisy. They spun in circles and looked like they would slam into each other any minute, but they always missed by a sliver. Getting into a teacup one day we found a plastic baggie tucked into the bench seat. A man with a ponytail came back before the ride started and asked if we had found anything.

   “It’s my happy weed,” he said when we handed it to him.

   Walking around the park we munched on Humphrey’s Candy Kiss salt-water taffy and bought pictures of our favorite stars at the movie star photo booth. We yukked it up riding the black-light Laff-in-the-Dark and got soaked to the bone on Over the Falls.

   We steered clear of the Surprise House until the end of the day, not because it was totally bloodcurdling, which it was, but because of Laffing Sal, right outside the entrance, cackling her face off inside a glass case. Her hips gyrated like a hula hoop and she never stopped her nutty squeaky helter-skelter laughing talking.

   She had blazing red hair and shiny dead eyes in a head that jerked side-to-side back-and-forth. We tried to not look at her bloated painted face. It was too much.

   The front of the Surprise House was painted lime green and purple. It glowed lurid in the sun. The sign above the arch framing the doors was yellow with black letters. We had to give seven tickets to the bow-tied operator at the booth. He put the tickets on a conveyor belt that carried them to a chopper that shredded them.

   Once we walked inside, through a fog cloud, right away around the corner was a screen door puzzle. Only one of all the doors was really a door and while we looked for it, all the doors banged open and shut so loud all around us it was baffling.

   When we found the right one, we walked into a narrow room full of rock formations and wild animals running up-and-down the rocks. The floor suddenly became a moving floor, zooming up and down and sliding side to side. The wall beside the moving floor was glass and people outside the Surprise House watched and laughed as we struggled to not fall down, much less walk. 

   At the far end of the floor was a giant Grandfather Clock. When we got to it a spotted snake sprang at us from cuckoo doors beneath the clock face. Jumping away sideways from the ugly thing we had to run through a rolling barrel to get away.

   Most of the Surprise House was a maze of moving floors and stairways leading to elevated platforms, creaking doors, and dead ends. One room was so weirdly slanted sideways that just standing was defying gravity.

   Pitch-black hallways led from one room to the next. Excruciating screams filled the air and loud knocking on the floors and ceiling overhead drummed in the darkness. There were siren whoops and unexpected clangs near and far. Blasts of air from secret holes hit you in the face coming around corners, and you never knew when a wind gust would blow up your shorts from the floor.

   At the end of one passageway were three porky sailor boys with tin whistles in their mouths. When you stepped up to them, they blew their whistles in your face. When we stopped at a window to see a fireman with a hose, he whirled around and sprayed, except the spray hit the window, not us, jumping back. At a wishing well when you looked down into the water you could see yourself as though you were looking at yourself from behind.  

   At the far end was a distortion mirror maze we had to find our way through to get out of the Surprise House. The curved mirrors stretched and squeezed us like screwball bubble gum.

   After all the strange moving floors and dark and noise it was a shock to step through the exit on the quiet side of Laffing Sal and suddenly stand blinking in the sunlight with people strolling by not knowing anything about what we had just been through. Matis and I were sad and excited at the same time, not sure what to do next.

   When the park announced closing time and everyone was on their way out an army of skunks came waddling up from the beach palisades, hard on our heels, eating the litter and leftover discarded goodies. We threw banana peels at them and watched them drag the peels away. They meowed like cats with sore throats.

   We didn’t know the last time we stumbled out of the Surprise House and tossed our remains away as we walked to the arch and mom’s waiting convertible that it was the last closing time at Euclid Beach Park. We didn’t know that mom was going to leave soon and not come back, either

   Mom and dad started arguing when she started going to college. When she got a job, it got worse. After that it never got better.

   “Why do you need to work?” he asked her. “We have enough money. You don’t need to work. Stay home and take care of the family.” 

   But she was sick of asking him for money all the time, not just for groceries, but for everything, for her clothes, nice things for the house, and just everything. I think she got sick of him, too, of him always telling her what and what not to do.

   They argued more and more that winter, even in the morning at breakfast and late at night when we were supposed to be asleep. One night they had an argument at the dining room table because mom had stayed out the day before until four in the morning.

   “We were at Reuben’s house,” she explained. “Nothing happened. I just lost track of time.”

   She meant Reuben Silver, who was the showman at Karamu House, where mom and dad had first met. He was a friendly man with a black beard and slicked-back shiny thinning black hair. His wife wore purple turtlenecks and always took my hand when I saw her backstage.

   “Nothing went on,” mom said. “We went to the Playhouse and saw “Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,” that’s all, and then we were at their house afterwards, talking.”

   “Gamma Rays? What are you talking about?” Dad went to the movies sometimes, but he didn’t go to theaters anymore. That was all over. 

   He thought mom had done something bad. He didn’t say what, although we could tell from his face it must have been very bad. When mom went into the kitchen dad followed her. 

   She stepped into the hall and then went up the stairs. We could hear them in their bedroom, screaming at each other in different languages. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Mom came running down the stairs and ran to Anna MacAulay’s house. Dad came downstairs after she was gone and told us everything was all right. He sat by the back window the rest of the night and stared into the ravine. He looked unhappy, like he had lost his golf clubs and fancy shoes.

   When we went upstairs, we looked into their bedroom and saw a big hole in the wall. A potato masher was lying on the floor. We found out later he had thrown it at her but missed. It lay on the floor until the next day when mom came home. She cleaned up the dinner table, did the dishes, and put the potato masher away. Mom kept the cleanest house anyone ever saw. She vacuumed twice a day and you could eat off the floor.

   Dad said he was going to call Sears about fixing the bedroom wall, but he never did. Maybe it was like their marriage by then, not worth fixing. 

   Anna MacAulay came over the next day when dad was at work. She always just walked into our house. He hated that. She and mom talked for a long time.

   Looking up over the sidewalk at our house on Christmas Eve, I thought I had probably known all along that mom was going to leave him, but back then surprises still upset me. She was going to marry the new man from Rochester. There was no surprise about that. I was going to do my best to help out.

   “If I can get my divorce,” mom said, “we’ll have enough money to send you to Germany when you’re done with junior high.” I hated junior high and was sure I would hate high school. One of my aunts had gone to Vasario 16-osios, a Lithuanian high school in Germany. 

   “You can stay summers with your grandfather’s sister in Diepholz,” my aunt Banga, my mom’s youngest sister, said. “She enjoys bringing food to the table. She’ll fatten you up a little. You can go to Italy with your friends. You’ll love it. When you come back, I’ll take you to Dainava.”

   I could go back to summer camp the talk of the town on my lips. I knew she would keep her word. She was my favorite aunt. Banga means “Little Wave,” like washing over you but not knocking you down. 

   Going to school in Europe would be the kind of surprise I could handle.

   “Come on, bub,” I said, taking Matis’s hand when he reached for mine, and we started up the icy chancy sidewalk.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”