Tag Archives: Ed Staskus

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.

“He 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 the needle grooving the record began to skip, marking the time making the future in her mind’s eye.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

One Step at a Time

Soviet-122mm-howtzer-595x406

By Ed Staskus

His mother was a Russian, a schoolteacher in Saransk, when his father met her before the start of World War One. The town and garrison were in the Penza, four hundred miles southeast of Moscow. Antanas Staskevicius, a Lithuanian, was an officer in the Russian Imperial Army.

Saransk later became the capital city of the Republic of Soviet Monrovia, but long before that happened Antanas Staskevicius had returned to Lithuania.

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

“My father was trained as an officer and sent to serve there in the Czar’s army with an infantry regiment,” said Vytas Staskevicius. “It was a hard post for him, because back then they used to say drinkers go to the navy and dimwits to the infantry.”

The Imperial Russian Army had more than a million men, most of them conscripted, most of them peasants. There were a quarter million Cossacks, too. Only the Cossacks knew what they were doing.

“He courted my mother, Antonina, and they got married. They had my older sister, Eugenia, in 1917. We always called her by the name of Genute. My sister Gaile was born the next year.”

Vytas was born six years later, in 1924, in Siauliai. “My father named me after King Vytautas the Great.” His mother called him Vytas. His sisters called him many things, including the little prince, and the rotten prince on other days.

Siauliai is home to the Hill of Crosses, a hill where there had once been a fort less than ten miles from the town. It is covered with tens of thousands of crosses, crucifixes, and statues. It was after Czarist forces crushed the November Uprising of 1831 when the first of them appeared.

By 1918 Lithuania had been missing from the map for more than one hundred years, having been disappeared after the Partition of Poland. Since that time, it had been under the thumb of the Russian Empire. In late 1919, when Russia was being consumed by its Bolshevik revolution, Antanas Staskevicius went home to a newly independent Lithuania.

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

Lithuania declared independence in February 1918 and for almost three years fought Soviets, West Russians, and Poles for their land. Finally, in 1920 they formed their own government, although they later lost Vilnius to the Poles, with whom they remained officially at war with little warfare until the start of World War Two.

“After the fighting my father got some land for serving his country, near Siauliai. We lived on a farm.”

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

“We lived in Siauliai for several years, but then my father became the governor of the Panevezys district, and we moved to the city there.”

Panevezys, a royal town founded in the early 16th century, is on the plain of the Nevezis River, about fifty miles east of Siauliai. During the interwar years Lithuania was divided into 24 districts and each district had its own governor.

“My father was the governor of Panevezys until 1938.”

Vytas went to grade school and high school in Panevezys, but then his father was transferred to Zerasai, a place that was a summer resort. In 1834 Zerasai had burned down and been rebuilt. Two years later it was renamed Novoalexandrovsk, in honor of Czar Alexander’s son, but after the Great War the name was expunged.

“When my father became the governor of Zerasai, my mother didn’t want to move there, since it was more than seventy-five miles east of where we lived, so I stayed with her. But I didn’t get along with the students at the high school there. It was a strict school and everyone had to dress nice. On my first day of classes I was dressed up too nice, like I was going to a party, with a tie and everything, and everybody laughed at me. Where are you from, they all said. I didn’t make any friends there.”

He told everyone, “I’m going to Zerasai.” He moved there in 1939 and lived with his father.

“We always studied a second language in school, and since my mother was Russian, studying it was easy for me. But when I got to Zerasai I found out they only had English as a second language, no Russian. My father had to hire a tutor to help me.”

All during the 1930s the world had been changing fast. In 1940 the Lithuanian world completely changed. Father and son moved back to Siauliai.

“The Soviets came in 1940. All the high officials were let go and the Russians selected new people who they wanted to run the country. They always said they didn’t run the country themselves, we Lithuanians did, but it was the Lithuanian Communists who were in charge, so it was actually the Russians.”

The Staskevicius family went to their farm, while renting a house in Siauliai, dividing their time between town and country.

“It was only a few miles from our farmhouse to town. I used to walk or bicycle to Siauliai. But the mood was bad. Everybody thought something terrible was going to happen.”

The Russian annexation of Lithuania was completed by the late summer of 1940. Businesses were nationalized and collectivization of land began. As the Russian presence expanded the family discussed leaving the Baltics.

“Why don’t we go to Germany?” asked his mother Antonina.

“We had a chance to leave the country then and go somewhere else. My mother wanted to go. We talked about it often, about going to Germany.”

But his father didn’t want to leave Lithuania.

“I have never done anything wrong that they would put me in jail,” he told his family. “I have always been good to the people. They aren’t going to put me in jail.”

In the fall of 1940, a passing troop of Soviet infantry commandeered their farm for several days.

“They didn’t do anything bad, or mistreat us, but they hadn’t washed in months. They stunk bad. and they rolled their cheap tobacco in newspaper. They smoked all the time. It took a week to air out the house.”

The family stayed on their farm through the winter. Then, as the mass arrests and deportations of almost 20,000 Lithuanian policemen and politicians, dissidents, and Catholics began in June 1941, Antanas Staskevicius was picked up by NKVD plainclothesmen.

“He was gardening in our yard, wearing a shirt, old pants, and slippers when they drove up, a carload of Russians, and stopped, saying there was something wrong with their engine. I’ll help you out, my father said. He walked over to the car with them and never came back. They shoved him into their car and drove him to jail.”

Vytas was in school in Siauliai taking his final exams that morning.

“My mother called the school and told me my father had been taken. I ran out of class and went home right away on my bike.” His mother packed clothes, socks and shoes, and soap for her husband. She went to see him the next day.

“The man who was running the jail was a Jewish fellow. He had grown up with us and was a friend of our family, but when my mother asked him to help us, he said the times have changed.”

There was a new order.

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

The man who had once commanded the local police stayed in his jail cell.

“They didn’t let my mother talk to my father. We went to the jail several times, but they never let us see him. We never saw him again.”

Antanas Staskevicius was taken to Naujoji Vilnia and loaded onto a boxcar. The train left Lithuania on June 19, 1941. Four days later, between June 23 and 27, at the Battle of Raseiniai, the 4th Panzer Group, part of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, finished the almost complete destruction of Russian armored forces in Lithuania.

Within a week Nazi Germany seized Lithuania.

His father was transported to Russia’s far east to a labor camp near Krasnojarsk in Siberia. He worked logging in the thick forests and starved to death in the winter of 1942. Anton Chekhov, a noted Russian short story writer, once wrote that Krasnojarsk was the most beautiful city in Siberia.

“The morning after my father was arrested, I drove our horse and wagon to school to finish my exams. I had to deliver milk to my teacher’s family, too. But when I stopped at his house, he ran out with his family and said, help take us to the railroad station. I said OK and they all got into my wagon, he and his wife and their two children. I took them to the station. After that day I never saw them again or ever found out what happened to them.

“The next day one of our neighbors told me the Russians had come to the teacher’s house that same afternoon looking for him. Teachers, lawyers, anybody from an educated family, they were worried about all of them. They were afraid high-class people were against them. “

When Russian NKVD men began mass arrests of Lithuanians, Soviet officials seized their property, and there was widespread looting by Lithuanians among themselves. It was every man for himself, unless you were a Red.

“If you were a Communist then you were all right. The father of one of my friends was a metal worker. He didn’t even know how to read, but the Russians made him the mayor of Siauliai because he was a Communist.”

His mother, sister Genute, and Vytas stayed on the farm after his father’s arrest. His sister Gaile was then living in Vilnius. When the mass arrests intensified, they became alarmed.

“We were determined on leaving the farm. It was dangerous. We went into the forest. But then my mother told me to go to Vilnius and tell Gaile our father had been arrested. She wanted Gaile to know to be very careful. I took a train to Vilnius, but as soon as I got there, I got a phone call saying my mother had been arrested.

“When I got back to Siauliai, I was told she was being deported. Somebody probably complained and informed on her. We had land, 160 acres, so we were considered capitalists. We weren’t rich, but we weren’t poor, either. There was no real reason that I ever found out about for why they took her. I went to the train station but didn’t see her anywhere. She was sent to a prison camp.”

His mother was released from the Gulag in 1956, after Stalin’s death, but not allowed to return to her home in Siauliai.

“My God, you’ve gotten older,” was the first thing Antonina said when she saw her son Vytas again in 1979, thirty-eight years after being transported to Siberia.

After his mother’s arrest and exile Vytas, not yet 17-years-old, left Siauliai and moved to Vilnius, staying with his sister Gaile and her husband. At the time almost everyone living in Vilnius was either Polish or Jewish. Lithuanians in the former capital city of Vilnius were strangers in their own land.

“The day the Russians left and before the Germans came, everybody rushed to the food warehouses and broke into them. It wasn’t that we were robbing them, but everybody was doing it, since there was no food. Gaile and I went, too. We filled up our bags with bread and pork, all kinds of food, and took everything home. When the Germans arrived, they put a stop to it.”

He stayed in Vilnius for several months, but then decided to go home before the end of summer. The family farm had to be cared for, but, first, he had to get a travel permit.

“I couldn’t get in to see a single German to apply for a permit, but finally I talked to someone who had known my father and got an appointment. The officer told me they weren’t issuing any for the time being and to come back, but after we talked about my father a little, he said all right, and wrote one out for me.”

He took a train back to Siauliai and walked home, but when he got there, he discovered a company of Wehrmacht had taken over the farm.

“They were there about three weeks, more than seventy of them. I couldn’t even get into our house since the officers had taken it over. But those Germans were good men. They didn’t do our farm any harm. They had their own quarters and their own mess. I made friends with some of them. We drank wine together at night.”

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

“It was a model farm,” said Vytas. “Every summer students from the agricultural academy would tour our farm. When I came back, my sister Genute was there, but she wasn’t interested, so she didn’t do any work.

“I started taking care of things, even though I didn’t know anything, nothing. I knew the cows had to be milked and the milk had to go to the dairy. But about growing crops, and the fields, I didn’t know anything.

“But I did everything as though I knew what I was doing.”

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

“What in the hell are you doing?” he yelled.

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

A year later he was on a horse-drawn mower cutting hay when he saw storm clouds gathering. He thought he would be better served walking the horses, so they could pull the mower faster, and jumped down from his seat.

“As I hopped down, I stumbled and fell right on the blades of the mower. The horses stopped dead. My hand was almost cut off. The boy who was helping me ran over. When he saw what happened, and saw my injured hand, he passed out.”

While the war dragged on across Europe, he had problems keeping the farm going. He had only partial use of his injured hand and farmhands everywhere were deserting the land.

“I went to the prisoner-of-war camp where I knew they used to give Russians out. They gave me five of them. They were nice guys, worked hard, and sang at night. One morning after a month I woke up and there wasn’t one of them left. They were all gone.

“I had to go back to the Germans and ask for five more. My God, how they yelled about it. One officer shouted that I hadn’t looked after them, shouted that I needed to lock them up at night, and shouted that they weren’t going to give me anymore. In the end I said, I need five more, so they gave me five more. I kept them locked up after that and they were still there when the Russians came back.”

In 1944 the Red Army stormed into Lithuania. Vytas escaped with a mechanized company of Germans, whisked up by them as they passed. They had been stationed near the prisoner-of-war camp. They told him he had two or three minutes to decide whether or not he was coming with them as they retreated.

“They told me the Russians were on the other side of the Hill of Crosses. They were in a big hurry. I only had time to fill a bag with a few clothes, a little money, and photographs of my parents.”

His sister Genute, not at the farm that day, fled separately. She got across the border into East Prussia, and later into Germany. His other sister, Gaile, wasn’t able to escape Lithuania in time.

“She had a problem at the border and didn’t make it. The Soviets had taken that area, so Gaile was forced to stop in a little town there. She had her daughter and her husband’s mother with her.” In the end the three of them were compelled to stay there.

“She finished a trade school, became a nurse, and never told anyone where she was from. The Russians never found out anything about her.”

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

“I was glad to get out of Siauliai in 1944,” said Vytas  “I was very glad to get out in time.”

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.”

Escape to German Land

MOM ALPS 1947.jpeg

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.”

Bad Man on Vinegar Hill

By Ed Staskus

Egidijus and Rokas watched the ensigns, young men strutting between lieutenant and chief warrant officer, step into Connor’s Public House. The navy stood framed in the doorway, the long evening going slowly dark over their shoulders. They both wore white pants, a white shirt over a white t-shirt, a white belt, and a white cap with a black bill. They wore black shoes. There was a single gold bar on their shoulder boards.

“Hey, shut that door, you live in a barn,” someone shouted.

In the next minute, their eyes spotting primetime, they took stools on both sides of a curvy redhead at the bar. They each gave her a smile. She looked them over sparingly scornfully.

“Drift,” she said to the one on her left.

“We just want to buy you a drink,” the one on the other side of her said.

“You, too,” she said.

“Butterbar boys,” said Egidijus. “Nieku nezino.”

“Yeah, they probably do the dishes in the guardhouse,” said Rokas.

“As close to water as they’re going to get,” Giles said.

Egidijus became Giles the minute he landed on Ellis Island.

Sam Ellis never meant his island to be a welcoming place, unless it was the last welcome. Before the first immigrant ever landed there, it was where criminals and pirates were hung. New Yorkers called it Gibbet island, for the wooden hanging post where the dead were left on display as a warning to others.

“She’s got a classy chassis, though,” said Rocky, eyeing the redhead. “Our man is not going to like us snatching him, ruining his night in more ways than one.”

Rokas had been in line behind Egidijus and became Rocky on the spot.

A longshoreman walked in, glanced at the sailors, and parked himself midway down the bar. The bartender poured a draft without asking. The longshoreman took a swig.

“Did you say something to that guy I just saw outside?” he asked the bartender.

“The guy with the feather in his hat?”

“Yeah, that one, who said this joint stinks.”

“That one comes in, wants a glass of water, and asks me what the quickest way is to Mount Kisco,” said the bartender. “I ask him if he’s walking, or does he have a car? He says, of course I have a car. So, I tell him, that would be the quickest way.”

“He was chunky about it, that’s sure. Hey, isn’t that Ratso’s girl?”

“Yeah.”

“Didn’t she tell them the gate is closed?”

“Yeah, but they didn’t give it any mind.”

“Oh boy, they don’t know from nothing.”

“Keep your head chicky,” said the bartender, tapping his temple with two fingers.

“You said it, brother.”

The Public House was on the corner of Pearl Street and Plymouth Street. The Manhattan Bridge over the East River was a stone’s throw away. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was a cannon shot away. The new Con Edison Hudson Avenue substation, north of John Street facing the river between Jay Street and the Navy Yard, was a light switch away.

“Did you see the game on TV Friday?” asked Giles.

“The TV’s were working, and I saw the problem in black and white,” said Rocky. “No matter that Mickey is going to win the Triple Crown, no matter how many runs they score, if they keep giving up a dozen, they is not going anywhere in October, no matter who they play.”

The Yankees had been in Boston for the weekend, for their last season series at Fenway Park. On Friday night Mickey Mantle hit a home run that tape measured more than five hundred feet. The Bronx Bombers, though, set a dubious club record by stranding twenty runners on base.

The Mick had three hits. Bill Skowron had five hits. The only time the Moose failed to reach base was when Ted Williams made an all-out running diving catch of a screaming line drive in left field.

“He was running like a bunny with his tail on fire,” said Red Barber, after the outfielder got up, checking all his parts.

Yogi Berra threw a man out at the plate. Mickey Mantle threw a man out at the plate. The Yankees crossed the plate plenty enough themselves. But the Red Sox still beat the Yankees, sending almost twice as many runners safely across the plate, 13-7 at the final count.

Mel Allen and Red Barber called the night game on WPIX, the station’s transmitter on top of the Empire State Building spreading the play-by-play out to the five boroughs. The next morning it would be Officer Joe’s turn. The year before weather forecaster Joe Bolton had put on a policeman’s uniform and started hosting shows based around the Little Rascals and Three Stooges. The kids loved Officer Joe’s taste in comedy.

“That ball is go-ing, go-ing, gonnne!” Mel Allen blared when Mickey Mantle hit his soaring blast. “It’s got to be one of the longest home runs I’ve ever seen! How about that!”

Rocky watched the game at the Public House, on Friday night two nights earlier, at the far end of the bar, where one of the bar’s two RCA Victor portable TV’s squinted down on him from high up on the wall.

“Did you say something?” one of the sailors said, turning to Giles and Rocky in the booth opposite them.

“Hello there everybody,” Mel Allen said to start the televised live baseball game broadcast.

“This is Red Barber speaking,” said Red Barber. “Let me say hello to you all. Mel and I are here in the catbird seats.”

“Three and two. What’ll he do?” Mel asked as the game neared its end and the last Yankee hitter squared up in the batter’s box.

“He took a good cut!” he exclaimed when the pinstriped slugger struck out to finish the game. “Tonight’s game was yet another reminder that baseball is dull only to dull minds,” said Red. “Signing off for WPIX, this is Red Barber and Mel Allen.”

“Hey, you, did you say something about washing dishes?” the sailor said again, standing up, his friend standing up, too, and Ratso Moretti in the meantime walking down the length of the bar from the men’s room towards them, having spotted the sailors buzzing his queen bee.

The redhead swung her stool around to the bar, crossed her legs, and played with the swivel stick lolling in her gin martini glass.

“Who the fuck are you two rags?” Ratso barked at the sailors, glaring up at them from under the brim of his black felt pork pie hat, baring his sharp front teeth. “Why are you sitting with my lady?”

Giles and Rocky leaned back on their seat cushions, their backs against the wall. Rocky stretched his legs out. Giles popped a toothpick into his mouth.

“What do you plan on doing about it, little man?” asked the bigger of the two sailors. Ratso was short. The sailors were both tall.

Ratso took one step back, reached down for his fly, unzipped it, and flashed the handle of a Smith & Wesson .38 Chiefs Special revolver. It was the kind of gun carried by plainclothes and off-duty policemen. He kept his hand on the gun while looking straight at the two sailors.

“Hit the road, Clyde,” he said. “You, too, whatever your name is.”

The sailors backed down and backed out of the bar.  Nobody paid any attention, everybody focused on the back-out out of the corner of their eyes. When the white uniforms were gone, and he had zipped back up, Ratso sat down next to his squeeze and wrapped his arm around her waist.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch,” said Rocky.

“At least now we know where he hides it,” said Giles.

Bartek and Karol were at the far end of the bar. They didn’t want anything to happen just right now. They wanted Ratso Moretti to stay snug with his girl, drinking on an empty stomach, stretching the night out. There were four of them and only one of him, but he was a psycho crazy man. Karol knew it for sure, and told the others, and it was the number one thing, he said, they had to remember. There was no sense in letting it go down the drain.

“Did you find a plumber this morning?” Rocky asked Giles.

“No, because not only does God rest on Sundays, so do all the plumbers in Brooklyn.”

“What did you do?

“I fixed it myself.”

One of the toilets in the women’s bathroom in the parish hall next door to St. George’s Church on York Street sprang a leak after mass. The Lithuanian Roman Catholic congregation was around the corner from the Irish Roman Catholic St. Ann’s Church on the corner of Front and Gold Streets. Lithuanians made up more than half of everybody who now lived in Vinegar Hill, but they had never been embraced by the Irish and their church, so they built their own.

St. George’s had three arched doorways, three arched second-story window assemblages, and a stepped façade with a cross on top. It looked first-class when the sun was shining on it. It looked first-class at midnight in a thunderstorm.

“What was the problem?”

The parish priest dragooned Giles on his way out of the parish hall.

“Prasome, galite padeti?” asked the priest.

“The wax ring, that’s all it was.”

“Where did you find a wax ring on a Sunday?”

“My old man. He’s always loaded for bear.”

“Did you miss breakfast?”

“No, mom warmed it back up for me, fried some more eggs, fresh coffee, and a torte.”

When Ratso Moretti hopped off his bar stool, and his girl slid off hers, and they walked out the front door, Karol and Bartek went out the back door, Giles and Rocky following Ratso out the front.

“Goddamn it!” Ratso cursed turning the corner into the quiet side street next to the Public House where he had parked his new car. He looked down at the driver’s side front tire Karol had flattened with his switchblade before going inside.

“Motherfucker!”

“What’s the matter mister?” asked Giles.

“Flat tire,” said Ratso.

He recognized the young man and the other one from the bar.

“Need a hand?”

“I’ve got all the hands I need,” said Ratso.

“Suit yourself.”

Giles fired up a cigarette, watching and waiting. Rocky leaned against a lamp pole. Ratso opened the trunk of the car, looking over his shoulder at them, and hunched at the tire to loosen the lug nuts.

“This ain’t a show,” he said.

“It is to us.”

“Suit yourself.”

When Ratso struggled with the last stubborn lug nut, Giles flicked his still lit cigarette butt at the redhead, who was standing in space, bouncing it off her midriff. She squealed in outrage, Ratso twisted toward her, and Giles, Rocky, Karol, and Bartek rushed him, two from the front and two from the back.

As Ratso started to stand up, Karol kicked him as hard as he could in the groin, the holstered gun Ratso trying to reach adding insult to injury. He doubled over, grabbed his stomach, fell over, and lay on the ground in a fetal position. His eyes ran rainwater and he threw up.

Bartek threw a muslin cloth bag over Ratso’s head and tightened the drawstring. Karol tied his hands behind his back with clothesline. Bartek reached into Ratso’s pants and pulled out the holster with the small revolver. He went to the passenger side front door and tossed the holster and gun into the glove box of the Chevy.

While Giles and Rocky hauled Ratso to Karol’s hunk of junk behind the Public House, Bartek turned to the redhead.

“Vamoose,” he said sharply. “And keep your mouth shut, or we’ll take you next.”

She backed away, smoothed her skirt, gave him a smile, cute cunning snaky light on her feet, and walked back into the Public House.

“Durna mergaite,” Giles said.

“Yeah, but steamy,” Rocky said.

“Going to be a hell-wife.”

At the mouth of the intersection they heard a bullhorn, “Get your hot knishes, I got to send my wife to the Catskills, get your knishes.”

The truck was light blue dented and dirty. It was three-wheeled, a cab pulling a cart, with a Saint Bernard-sized pretzel on top. A sign on the side said, “Hot knishes & pretzels, 10 cents, 3 for $.25.”

“Hey, what kind of knishes do you have?

“I have kasha or potato.”

“I’ll take three potato.”

“Sorry, all I have is kasha.”

There was a tin saltshaker tied by a string to the cart. The pastry was hot with buckwheat groats inside. The brown bag the street vendor put them into instantly became saturated with enough oil to deep fry three more knishes. He poured in a handful of salt.

“You’re out of your neighborhood, working late,” Giles said.

“It’s my wife,” the Jew said.

Giles and Rocky both got bottles of cold Orange Crush.

“Thanks, boys, we’ll settle up tomorrow,” said Karol when Ratso was safe and sound in the trunk, his feet tied together and hogged to his bound wrists so that he lay like a sad sack of potatoes on his side, still groaning.

Giles touched his forefinger to his thumb and pointed the remaining three fingers of his right hand straight up.

Karol and Bartek drove to Sunset Park, turned onto 53rd Street at 3rd Avenue, and finally pulled into and parked behind a three-story abandoned brick building. On the side of the building a painted billboard advertising “R. Moses & Son, Men’s Clothes” was fading away. The storefront’s windows were boarded up and the other windows on every floor were dark.

They manhandled Ratso through a back door and into a small featureless room. A table lamp on the floor tried to make sense of the dark with a 40-watt bulb. Stan was standing in a corner in the shadows smoking a cigarette. They dropped Ratso on the floor. Bartek stood sentry at the door.

“Let him loose, except for his hands,” said Stan.

Karol untied Ratso’s feet, yanked the bag off his head, and moved back to stand next to Bartek. Stan stayed where he was, in the gloom. Ratso stayed where he was, too. He felt better, but he still felt horrible. He had a weird stomachache.

“Tell me about Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.

“I don’t know no Polacks,” said Ratso.

“You know us now,” Karol said under his breath.

“Not Polacks. I said Pollack, as in Jackson Pollack, the painter.”

“I don’t know no painters.”

“Why did you jump my associate the other night?”

“I don’t know no associates. Who the fuck are you, anyway?”

“I don’t know how your sack is feeling, but if it was me, I wouldn’t want it to happen again, especially not now, not so soon,” said Stan.

“What do you want?”

“What were you doing in the middle of the night outside the shrink’s office? Why did you jump my man? What does Jackson Pollack have to do with Big Paulie?”

“You’re a dead man when Luca finds out about this,” Ratso said, terse vehement.

Stan stepped forward, bent down, and framed an inch with his fingers in Ratso’s red face.

“You’re this close to being a dead man,” he said.

He aimed a kick at Ratso’s nuts. The little man rolled over in a flash. Stan kicked him in the side, aiming for his kidney. Ratso gasped in pain and rage. Stan stepped over him, bent down again, nose to nose with the convulsing thug.

“You’re going to tell me what I want to know,” he said.

It didn’t take long. After Ratso Moretti ratted out Big Paulie and Park Avenue and they had hog-tied him again, Stan Rittman stopped at a phone booth on his way home, the cab driver waiting at the curb, and called the desk sergeant at the 17th Precinct. He told him where to find Ratso, told him he wanted to confess to assaulting Ezra Aronson four nights earlier, and wanted to be held in custody for his own protection.

“Does he need medical attention?” asked the sergeant.

“No, he’ll be fine, just a few bumps and bruises.”

“What do I tell the captain? Is anybody going to be looking for Morelli, trying to spring him?”

“Nobody except his bad girl knows anything, but she was a good girl the last we saw her and promised to stay quiet. Ratso’s car is just outside the Public House in Vinegar Hill. His gun is in the glove box. It’s a Chiefs Special.”

“You don’t say.”

“You might want to have that gun run up, ballistics might find it matches something.”

“OK, we’ll have a car there in five minutes-or-so.”

Ten minutes later three policemen and a plainclothes officer spilling out of two cars flash-lighted their way into the back of the building, hauled the left in the lurch Ratso Moretti out the door, untied him then handcuffed him, tossed him face first into the back of one of the radio cars, and drove him to the 17th Precinct, forcing him into a basement cell at the end of a hallway, and forgetting about him for the rest of the next week.

Thirty minutes later Stan Rittman was home in Hell’s Kitchen, in one of his two orange wingback armchairs, a bottle of Blatz on the coffee table, while Mr. Moto licked his chops on the sofa on the other side of the table. Stan took a pull on his bottle of beer and watched the cat. He thought about getting another one to keep him company, but Mr. Moto didn’t seem to mind his solitary life.

He slept and ate and slept some more. He went out on the prowl. Sometimes he sat on the fire escape, seeming to be thinking.

Mr. Moto liked Puss ’N Boots best, fish followed by chicken followed by beef followed by any other meat. He wasn’t picky. He didn’t think it did any harm to ask Stan for what he wanted, since the story of cats was the story of freeloaders. Stan kept Mr. Moto carnivorous with his poker winnings.

“Puss ‘N Boots adds the Plus!”

He wasn’t a mixed-up cat. He lived day-to-day, every day a new day, taking what came his way. He liked fresh water and food in the morning, a long nap from late morning into the late afternoon, and a clean supply of Kitty Litter when he couldn’t get down to the flowerbeds.

“Ask Kitty. She Knows. It absorbs and deodorizes. Takes the place of sand.”

Stan had stopped at Manganaro’s Grosseria Italiana, on his way home, a sandwich shop, restaurant, and grocery on 9th Avenue, for a slice of Hero-Boy. The entire six-foot hero, if you wanted it, was 22-pounds and cost $16.50. The wait staff was surly, but the sandwiches were worth the wait. He took a bite, chewed, and washed it down with his beer.

Ezra was out of the hospital. He would stop and see him tomorrow morning, tell him they had snatched Ratso, who had spilled his guts, but it still wasn’t clear what was going on. It looked like Dr. Baird had engineered Jackson Pollack’s death somehow, but why? Where was the pay-off in it? Vicki said that since Jackson Pollack had died unexpectedly, had died young, and had simply died, there weren’t going to be any more paintings by him. Since he was well known, by collectors and museums, prices for his art were going to go up.

“He was in demand, now he’s in big demand, especially the drip paintings,” she said. “But nobody kills a painter to make a profit on his art, not even in New York. It’s a long-term investment, not like kidnapping somebody for the ransom.”

He would sort it out next week. Stan finished his sandwich, finished his bottle of beer, and went to bed. Mr. Moto followed him, curling up just inches from Stan’s face, and was asleep fast faster fastest. He had never been bothered by insomnia. In the middle of the night, in the middle of a dream, he pricked up his ears.

Mr. Moto could smell a rat when he had to. When he went to the bedroom window, though, it was just a ladybug on the sill. It was red with black spots. He stretched up on his hind legs and sniffed the bug, which opened its wings, flew in circles, and landed on his nose.

“Ladybug! Ladybug! Fly away home. Your house is on fire. Your children shall burn!”

Mr. Moto believed ladybugs were lucky. He believed when a ladybug landed on you your wishes would be granted. He also believed it was unlucky to harm them. He licked the bug off his nose and spat it out through the open window. He jumped on the ledge, crouched, and watched the bug fly out into the big city.

In his jail cell at the bottom of nowhere, Ratso Morelli tried to stare down the big brown rat staring at him. The rat wasn’t having any of it. Nobody was going to stare him down in the rat homeland.

Four hours later, near the end of the night, near the onset of dawn, while a dead on his feet policeman watched, now that it was all over and the car had been searched and dusted for fingerprints, a tow truck hooked the new Chevrolet with a flat tire and dragged it off Vinegar Hill to the NYPD Tow Pound.

Photograph by Vivian Maier.

Excerpted from the crime thriller “Stickball” at http://www.stanriddman.com.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and 147 Stanley Street at http://www.147stanleystreet.com. Click “Follow” on a site to get its monthly feature in your in-box.

Devil’s Right Hand

By Ed Staskus

   For half a century, from 1916 to 1966, until Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine, shot and killed 16 people, wounding 31 others, shooting from the top of an observation deck at the University of Texas at Austin, there were just 25 public mass shootings in the United States in which four-or-more people were killed. The young ex-soldier redefined homegrown massacres. He brought to bear a Remington 700, a .35-caliber Remington, a M1 carbine, a Sears semi-automatic shotgun, a .357 Magnum, a Luger, and a .25-caliber pistol.

   During the rampage a police sharpshooter in a small plane circling the 27-story building was repeatedly driven back by return fire. The first person killed was the eight-month-old not-yet-born baby of an 18-year-old pregnant student when she was shot in the abdomen leaving the Student Union.

   Finally, two policemen stormed the observation deck, one firing his revolver, but missing, and the other killing Charles Whitman instantly with two blasts from his shotgun. The policeman with the revolver emptied his gun into the body at point-blank range, making dead sure. He ran to the parapet yelling, “I got him, I got him.” He was almost shot himself by police on the ground, who didn’t at first realize he wasn’t the shooter.

   It remains to this day one of the deadliest mass shootings in the United States.

   My parents grew up in Lithuania. When they were still teenagers, they saw plenty of guns. Between 1940 and 1944 first the Russians invaded, then the Germans, then the Russians again. When they fled to Germany in 1944, they saw even more weapons during the furious last months of the collapse of the Third Reich. By the time they emigrated to Canada they had seen enough guns to last them a lifetime, more than most people ever see in a lifetime.

   During the Second World War the United States fabricated 2,679,840 machine guns and 11,750,000 infantry rifles. Twenty-nine other countries were a part of the deadliest war in history. Only God knows how many guns, and mortars and cannons and tanks, they manufactured, among other things, resulting in 70 to 85 million military and civilians done in for good. 

   In the 1980s, the FBI defined mass shootings as four-or-more people, not including the mass murderer, being killed in a single incident, typically in a single location. Since 1966 there have been thousands of them. Before 1966 there was a mass shooting about once every 100 weeks, Today, there is a mass shooting about once every day.

   Between 1999 and 2013 there were 31 mass murders per year on average. In 2015 there were 220 days of mass shootings and only 145 with none. In the first ten months of 2018 there were 307 mass shootings, almost as many as there were days.

   It doesn’t bode well for the 2020s with the Grand Old Party still chock full of crazy people, the National Rifle Association still rampant with crazy people, and millions of crazy people still armed to the teeth. The NRA, with reasoning crooked as a corkscrew, has re-interpreted the 2nd Amendment, disappearing some of its language and all of its intent, to suit their agenda. They and their supporters equate success with goodness.

   It doesn’t matter that rightness ends where ammo begins. They are all in with Mao, who said, “Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Wayne LaPierre, the Grand Dragon of the NRA, says “We need national carry.”

   It would be like giving AK-47’s to monkeys.

   There are more guns than people in the United States. There are almost 400 million guns in the country. There are 12 million guns in Canada. There are 3 million guns in England. There are fewer than half-a-million guns in Japan. US citizens own 40% of all the guns in the world, more than the next 25 countries combined. 

   When I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario, the only people who had guns were the police, hunters, and folks who lived on the outskirts. They kept shotguns near their back doors to fend off marauding bears. My parents didn’t have any guns. After the war my father never owned a gun.

   “Guns kill people,” he said. He was a miner and saw things in black and white terms. If it looks like a volcano, blows its top like a volcano, it’s a volcano. He knew since he was a dynamite man a mile down, before he saw the light and started using his head instead of his hands.

   Yoga studios seem immune to gun violence. Whoever saw a security guard at the front door of a yoga studio? At least, not until two years ago, when a man walked into Hot Yoga in Tallahassee, Florida, and shot to death Nancy Van Versen, a faculty member at Florida State University, and Maura Binkley, a student at the same university.

   The young woman’s father said his daughter had planned on becoming a teacher. “She truly lived a life really devoted to peace, love, and caring for others,” said Jeff Binkley. She didn’t live long. She was 21 years old.

   It doesn’t take long to go packing in Florida. There is no waiting period to buy an assault rifle or anything else. In Iowa no one needs a license to sell guns online. If you plan on selling lemonade in Iowa, however, even if you’re a 7-year-old and your storefront is your front yard, you need a business permit. In Texas, if you want to sell guns, go right on ahead, partner. It is the most heavily armed state in the country.

   But, if you want to cut hair in Texas, you have to log 1,500 hours at hairdressing school. Scissors don’t kill people, people do. It’s best to beware Texans bearing gifts.

   Buying a gun almost anywhere in the United States is easier than getting a license to drive, filling out your tax return, or talking to tech support. It’s harder to pay off student debt, which typically takes about 21 years, than it is to buy a gun, which typically takes about 10 minutes. Anyone can walk into a gun store, pass a background check in record time, and walk out with a persuader. In some states no one has to even do that. They can buy a gun from a private seller, no background check needed.

   In Lithuania there isn’t an arsenal in every basement. In order to own a gun an exam and license are required. They keep a lid on the bubbling stew, at least. The murder rate is 9 times higher in the United States than in Lithuania. You are 128 more times more likely to be involved in a gun related crime in the United States than Lithuania. The USA has gone gun crazy since the 1960s. It’s not just mass shootings, either. It’s one bullet at a time. In 2016, there were hardly any people murdered with a handgun in Japan, England, Canada. and Lithuania. All their coffins put together were a fraction of the 11,004 murdered in the USA.

    Mass shootings have happened at casinos, nightclubs, hotels, music festivals, libraries, factories, airports, shopping malls, courthouses, sorority houses, apartment buildings, Waffle Houses, backyard parties, Planned Parenthood clinics, movie theaters, churches, synagogues, the Empire State Building, nursing homes, baseball fields, grade schools, high schools, community colleges, and universities. In Dangerfield, Texas, a man walked into a church and killed 5 people and wounded 10 others after members of the congregation earlier declined to be character witnesses for him at a trial.

   Besides the mortally wounded at Hot Yoga, four others were shot and one of them, a young man who, among others, resisted the murderer, was pistol-whipped.

   “Several people inside fought back and tried to not only save themselves but other people,” said Police Chief Michael DeLeo. “It’s a testament to the courage of people who don’t just turn and run.” One of them who didn’t turn and run, even though unarmed, was shot nine times.

   The killing spree broke out on a Friday night as the class was starting. Scott Beierle pretended to be a student, then pulled a semi-automatic handgun from his duffle bag and started blasting anybody female in sight without warning.

   When the gunfire momentarily stopped, Joshua Quick took action.

   “I don’t know if it jammed, or what,” he said. “So, I used that opportunity to hit him. I picked up the only thing nearby to hit him with, which was a vacuum cleaner, and I hit him on the head.” The shooter was staggered, but recovered his footing, pummeling Joshua on the forehead with his gun. The yoga student fell to the floor, bleeding bad, but got back up.

   “I jumped up as quickly as I could, ran back, and the next thing I know I’m grabbing a broom, you know, anything I can, and I hit him again.”

   “Thanks to him,” said Daniela Albalat, “I was able to rush out the door, slipping and bleeding.” She was shot in the upper legs. “I want to thank that guy from the bottom of my heart because he saved my life.”

   Joshua Quick did what the Dalai Lama would have done, except the Dali Lama would have gone heavy. He wouldn’t have used a broom. Arguably one of the most peaceable men on the planet, when asked by a child at the Educating Heart Summit in Oregon what he would do if someone came to his school with a gun, he replied without hesitation, “If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun.”

   Three minutes after the first 911 call, sirens were wailing, and police were showing up. The killer cleared the gun’s chamber, turned it on himself, and shot himself straight to hell.

   He lived in Deltona, Florida, about 250 miles from Tallahassee, and had no connection with the yoga studio or anyone he gunned down. He had been a substitute teacher at the Volusia County Schools, even though he had a master’s degree in public administration from Florida State University. He was arrested several times for groping women on the FSU campus. He was fired for unprofessional conduct, feeling up teenage students not being in his job description. 

   The gunslinger was an amateur musician who posted his songs online. On “American Massacre” he sang, “If I cannot find a decent female to live with, I will find many indecent females to die with. I find that if I cannot make a living, then I will turn, I will make a killing.”

   Mass murderers are all different, except most of them are men. It’s a man’s world. They have their reasons for doing what they do, although none of them are good reasons, and many, if not all, mass murderers suffer from psychological problems. Mental health is not compatible with murdering people.

   Although they and their reasons are variable, the one constant among them is the fast fire weapons they deploy. None of them carries a cap and ball Colt. It would knock them off their feet, anyway. They bring the blessing and imprimatur of the NRA, the gun champions who have successfully lobbied one Congress after another for decades to limit research by the Centers for Disease Control into gun-related violence.

   A few days after a mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in March 2018, House Speaker Paul Ryan said his ruling Grand Old Party planned on keeping restrictions on gun research in place. “We don’t just knee-jerk before we have all the facts and the data,” said the longtime opponent of gun control laws.

   As long as his kneecaps weren’t getting popped, he’s wasn’t going to knee-jerk it.

   “We are saddened and angered by the senseless shooting at Hot Yoga Tallahassee,” said Tasha Eichenseher, speaking for Yoga Journal. “Studios are sacred places where we go for self-care and to feel safe.”

   After Sandy Hook and Tree of Life Synagogue and First Baptist Church, it is doubtful there are any safe places left. It is undoubtedly true there are no sacred places left. If even Fort Hood, the biggest active-duty and most secure army base in the United States, couldn’t prevent Nidal Hasan, an Army major, from going postal and fatally shooting 13 soldiers, while wounding more than 30 others, there might not be safe and sacred and secure anywhere.

   “You have a whole generation with this being more and more normal,” said Jeff Binkley. “That cannot happen.”

   When I was a kid in Sudbury our mom never bought us toy guns. “No,” she said whenever we asked. We stayed busy dodging the trains hauling ore and wailing on all sides of town. It wasn’t until we moved to the United States that I found out all kids had toy guns. After that there was no going back.

   In any event, as long as the politicians we elect to rule our state and national legislatures, and the politicians we elect to our state and national capital houses, are the same vote-stuffing wallet-stuffing puff ‘n’ stuffers allied hand-in-hand with gun manufacturers and Second Amendment agitprops, no-nonsense gun-reform legislation and public-health funding are not going to happen.

   The gunrunners don’t give it a first thought. They don’t give it a second thought, either. The devil’s right hand is all right with them.

   The silk stockings perform to the grass roots who believe they need guns to make it in this world. Their faith is in the ruling class’s Punch and Judy show even though the second estate’s grass roots are fertilized at a thousand country clubs where a thousand lobbyists dine and drink. Their security guards carry sidearms, since they no more believe in responsible gun owners than they believe in the Constitution and aren’t taking any chances. No 2nd Amendment-toting mob is getting through their country club doors.

   Two-and-a-half centuries later we don’t live in 1780s buildings anymore, we don’t travel in 1780s horse and buggies anymore, and we don’t turn on the lights with 1780s whale oil anymore. We don’t read one-page pamphlets and the penny press anymore. We don’t use 1780s medicine, like arsenic and leeches, anymore. There is no reason why a 1780s amendment to the Constitution, written to enable a militia in a time of crisis, should enable everybody to buy whatever guns whenever and wherever they want for whatever reason.

   But that’s the world we have made and the world we live in. Carrie Lightfoot and Yosemite Sam guns a-blazing aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Americans love their guns, guys gals and the movies.They don’t believe liberty gets handed to them unleaded. They believe it will get stripped away the wrong way around if they aren’t vigilant. It’s been said fences make for good neighbors. Locked and loaded makes for tried-and-true neighbors.

   It’s like the Lithuanian proverb says, “When you are in the devil’s wheel, you must learn how to spin.”

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

Commie Roadblock Blues

SCAN 2.jpeg

By Ed Staskus 

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

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

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

   She got married to Vic Staskus, another Lithuanian refugee, in Sudbury, Ontario. They had three children and the family emigrated to the USA in the late 50s. They started at the bottom.

   The first time Rita saw the Soviet airport, she wasn’t impressed.

   “The Moscow airport was crappy, gray on gray, and there were birds and bats flying around inside the terminal. Everybody looked gray, like somebody had just died.”

   “The color of truth is gray,” said the French writer Andre Gide. He was wrong. The Commies were wrong, too, and their favorite color was wrong. Social material political truth at any cost is more trouble than it’s worth, sparing no one, not during the countless and bloodthirsty 20th century grabs for glory and power, for sure.

   It’s not black and white either, no matter what the insincere masterminds say. The color of truth is more like Sgt. Pepper’s Crayola 64 Crayons.

   The Sheremetyevo airport served most of the international flights arriving and departing the capital city. The airport was originally built as a military airfield in the late 1950s with one runway. In the early 1970s a second runway was added. A single terminal still served both runways.

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

   A woman behind them wearing an oversized fur coat wasn’t so fortunate.

   “She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the lining apart and took all of it.”

   There were several eateries in the terminal, but neither mother nor daughter ate while waiting for their connection.

   “The food looked horrible, and what was the point of bad service without a smile?” asked Rita.

   They flew Aeroflot to Vilnius, less than a two-hour flight. It took two-and-a-half hours.

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

   The flight attendants did a slow burn.

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

   “It was even crappier than the Moscow airport.”

   Inside the terminal was a tight-knit group of more than forty of their relatives, family and children

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

   The Gintaras was where foreigners stayed, all foreigners, who visited Lithuania. It was a hard and fast rule.

   “The kids were running up and down the hallway, while the adults were all in our room. It was crowded since it wasn’t a big room, at all.”

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

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

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

   The Prima brand was produced in Bulgaria and used a better quality of tobacco, but since only the Belomorkani was available in most of the hinterland, a low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everybody smoked.

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

   “I don’t,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   She gave him her bottle of the dark sweet soda.

   “The Young Communists were always following us around, telling us their world was just as good as ours, that they had everything we had, and more. When I had to take my contacts out on the bus, one of them said, we have those, too. None of my relatives had contacts and none of them knew where to get any unless it was the black market.”

   She finally told the Young Communists to cut it out. “Your BS isn’t doing anything for me,” she said.

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

   Angele and Rita stayed at the Ginraras Hotel for ten days. Everybody knew somebody was listening in. Nobody said anything. Their room wasn’t small, but it wasn’t large, and the bathroom was even smaller. The room was a bathroom and a shower all at once. There weren’t any sliding doors or shower curtains.

   “There was a drain in the middle of the floor, and whenever we showered the spray would get all over the tiled walls and sink and toilet. Everything got wet. The whole room became a shower.”

   When they were refreshed, they visited with their relatives more than doing anything else. There weren’t many sights to see in Vilnius, even if you could go there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

   Rita’s mother’s family, who lived in the south of the country, made plans to take them to Silute. They kept their plans close to the vest. The scheme was for there to be three brothers, three wives, three cars, Angele and Rita, and some of their cousins.

   “My mother would be in one of the cars, I would be in another, and the third car would be a decoy, if it came to that.”

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

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

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

   Their convoy didn’t get far the day of the familial excursion. They were stopped by a roadblock on the outskirts of Vilnius. The police were waiting for them.

   “They knew,” said Rita. “Somebody had overheard something. Somebody talked. They waved us off the road.”

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

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

   “The Gintaras Hotel.”

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

   They went to the third car.

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

   “What’s your name?”

   “Jurgelaitis, just like them.”

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

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

   “Turn back,” he said.

   They turned around and the convoy drove back to Vilnius.

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

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

   It took five hours on empty stomachs. It was worse than the Aeroflot flight.

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

   After Josef Stalin’s death many chain gang prisoners in Siberia were let go. She was one of them. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in a forest labor camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She still wanted to go there but was told to go live in Silute.

   The Russians shrugged her off when she asked why.

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

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

   She wasn’t the Man of Steel, the Red ringleader who squashed her and the Baltics under his thumb, but he was gone, a downspout memory, and she still had plenty of what it takes. How you start is how you finish.

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

   “How do you like it?” her uncle asked.

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

Photograph by Juozukas Jurgelaitis.

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.”

The End of Taupa

arrested-in-handcuffs.jpg

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.”

One Man Army

1.png

By Ed Staskus

There has never been an overabundance 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.

When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

He didn’t get shot by either side and what went down is, he surrendered. He was relieved and confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war actually raised the white flag 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 near Sudbury, 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.” He wasn’t, at least, a mile down in Sudbury’s nickel mines.

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.”

In Hot Water

scan-2.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

My uncle Justinas Jurgelaitis was a short man with a long face and a bald dome fringed with tufts of gray. He lived in Marijampole, in southern Lithuania, and after I met him for the first time, every time I went back to Lithuania, I stayed at his house, even though they didn’t have any indoor plumbing or running water.

He was always in hot water, though. Everybody loved Justinas. That was the problem. At least, that was the way his wife saw it.

“He’s constantly coming home with bobby pins in his hair,” Janina complained.

Plenty of women liked him. Even Rasa Jurgelaityte, his niece, dolled herself up when she visited, in a bluish-purple shag rug kind of sweater, drinking strong tea with him. There wasn’t anything sinister in it. He had an Andy Kaufman meets Roger Moore vibe about him, niece or no niece.

When Justinas moved to Marijampole fewer than 20,000 people lived there. It was a small town. More than forty years later about 40,000 people lived there. It was still a small town.

He routinely wore a sports coat or a suit jacket. Whenever the weather was bad, he wore a herringbone newsboy cap. He was good with his hands, deft and quick on the uptake. His face was wrinkled, he could look gnomish, but he was always smiling. On the inside and outside Justinas was a keeping the faith man.

Nobody ever told him how young he looked, so he never heard how old he was. He was born a year after World War One ended, on a family farm near the border with East Prussia, one of eleven children, six of whom survived infancy. He was a cavalryman in the Lithuanian army when World War Two broke out. The war only lasted a few days, though, after the Red Army sent nearly a half million men and mechanized regiments into the Baltic states.

He had trained as a tailor when he was a teenager. He went back to it, and after the war, and all during the Soviet occupation, the forty-five years of it, practiced his trade. He got married and fathered four children.

Justinas played the piano accordion like it was time for a good time. He couldn’t read music. The playing was passed on generation to generation, one-on-one. He belted out songs, too, even though his voice was scratchy.  He was the life of the party. He wasn’t planning on going to the grave with any music left inside him.

He was in a good mood most of the time, which was surprising. Until 1990, ten years after I first went there, when the Soviets finally got the boot, Lithuania was a gray concrete country, unhappy Commies and unhappy Lithuanians in the grip of the Commies.

There were busts and statues of Lenin everywhere. Vladimir didn’t look cheery or even remotely happy in a single one of them. Justinas was glad to be alive, happy even in the dark behind the sour Iron Curtain.

He was one of the nicest men I ever knew, although if you messed with his pigeons or his private Idaho museum, you would probably get yours. When a neighbor’s cat mauled one of his favorite pigeons, Justinas got his shotgun, and hunted the cat down. He killed it in the street where he found it. The neighbor never said anything about it, either to him or the police.

Their house was small, two-story, and green. It backed up to railroad tracks. They had an electric stove, but no basement or furnace or propane. They heated the house with a fireplace and a Franklin-style stove. They burned coal, although Justinas said the stove could burn anything with hardly any smell or even much smoke. The driveway and road in front of the house were made of packed dirt. The road was slightly higher than the terrain but there were no side ditches for rainwater to flow to. Whenever it stormed the pathway turned into a quagmire. When it was sunny and dry, except for an occasional gigantic pothole, it was like driving on asphalt.

Justinas owned a black four-door late-70s Lada, manufactured by Fiat in collaboration with the Soviets. It was built like a tank. It had heavy steel body panels and man of steel components to make it more reliable on the bumpy roads and hard winters. It was a manual four-speed with slightly elevated ground clearance. The Lada was made to be worked on by its owners, which is what Justinas did. He changed the oil and the muffler and replaced the drum brakes when he had to. He had installed a rack on the top and kept the car body reasonably clean, although the inside was usually a dump. It wasn’t filthy dirty, just trashed.

They got gasoline from half-size pumps set on cinder blocks with ten-foot long snaky hoses because the concrete island at their neighborhood gas station was so wide.

Lithuanians celebrate wolves, bears, and moose. According to legend, Grand Duke Gediminas dreamt an iron wolf told him to create Vilnius and make the city his capital. The bear is a symbol of Samogitia, one of the country’s regions, and is part of the coat of arms of Siauliai, another region. The Lazdijai region features a moose.

Birds don’t take a back seat, though. Everybody likes the cuckoo because its call is said to sweep away the last bits and parts of winter. The pigeon – balandis – gets its own month, which is April – balanzio menuo.

There was a barn-like garage behind the house. Justinas kept his old sewing machines and tailoring goods on the ground floor. Upstairs, up a ladder, he kept a coop of rock pigeons. Even though they can find their way back home, even when released blindfolded far away, navigating by the earth’s magnetic fields, and even though they had carried messages across battlefields for the United States Army Signal Corps during both world wars, Justinas never let his pigeons go anywhere without him. They weren’t prisoners, exactly, but they were there to stay.

He loved his pigeons and they loved him. He fed them as well as he fed himself. He and his friends traded and bred them. There had been thefts of prized birds, so he kept a padlock fixed to the garage door. He kept a dog chained up to a doghouse in front of the garage, just in case.

He barked at me every time I went to the outhouse, like it was the very first time he had ever seen me. I tried to be nice to the dog, but that was a mistake. “Shut up already!” I finally shouted one day, and that took care of it. Our relationship after that was one of sullen civility.

Behind the garage was a chicken wire enclosure full of white rabbits. They raised them for the dinner table. When the time came Justinas would catch and pin one of the rabbits to the ground, put a stick across its neck, step on one side of the stick, quickly step on the other side of it, and then pull the rabbit upward by its hind legs, breaking its neck. After cutting off the rabbit’s head he would hang it upside down to clean it.

His wife seasoned and cooked the bunnies, frying and braising them and making stews.

There was a one-room museum on the second floor of their house. Nobody had ever stolen anything from it, but God pity the fool who tried. Justinas would probably have been compelled to commit murder. It was never locked, but you had to be invited. He never gave anything in his museum away, either, not even to his own children, although he traded with his friends, just like he traded his birds.

There was a glass case filled with gold and silver coins, military medals, and men’s pocket watches. There were framed pictures of Catholic saints, Lithuanian kings and politicians, and luxury steamships on all the walls. He had carved figures, including a big eagle, talons flexed, wings outstretched, its head thrust forward. He had a mint Victrola with a new needle, new springs, new crank and motor, and a burnt orange sound horn.

There were a dozen clocks, his prized possessions. They were grandfather wood wall clocks with pendulums and chimes. Every one of them was set to a different random time. They all worked whenever he wanted them to work.

Two smaller rooms adjoined the museum on the second floor. They were bedrooms where his four children had grown up. Both of the rooms had pint-sized windows.

Justinas and his wife Janina were always accusing each other of having extra-marital affairs. She made great-tasting pancakes every morning. One morning while we were eating in the living room, since there wasn’t a dining room, she told her husband to go outside for a minute.

“Oh, my God, he’s such a womanizer, always chasing women,” she said out of the blue. I didn’t know what to say. She was in her late 60s and he was in his early 70s. He never talked about her, but she talked about him constantly. Somebody said she was the one having all the affairs. I never knew what to believe.

When he walked back in, he was smiling. He wasn’t planning on living a century and giving up all the things that make you want to live that long. “What were you talking about?” he asked innocently. He was the kind of man who believed it was best to die in the prime of life at a ripe old age.

I could have stayed at my other uncle’s house, Juozukas, who was younger by twenty years and lived nearby. They had running water and an indoor toilet. But I didn’t. Not that it wasn’t a pain in the butt. Justinas still used an old-school well wheel pulley. They had a beat-up red plastic bucket to get water and bring it into the house. Whenever I wanted to brush my teeth or wash my face, somebody brought me water in a glass bowl. The outhouse was beside the garage.  Everybody called it the little house. They kept cut-up scraps of Russian newspapers on a ledge inside the side door of the house. The first night I was there Janina gave me a bucket, in case I needed to go in the middle of the night and didn’t want to go outside.

I made sure to not drink anything too late into the evening.

They didn’t have a tub, either. The family went to a nearby public bath to take showers once a week. When I balked at that, telling him the outhouse was enough, Justinas told me he had a lady friend who had a bathtub. When we got there, it was full of potatoes. She took them all out, but when I ran the water it never warmed up above tepid. I took a bath anyway, since it was better than nothing.

Justinas was retired, but he was always out doing something, up to something.

”I have responsibilities,” he would say.

My uncle Sigitas and his wife had a big pig farm near Gizai, near where our entire mother’s side of the family had originally come from. Nobody knew what my uncle Juozukas did. He had a truck and could fix anything, including furnaces. He never got up in the morning at the same time and never went to work to the same place. Somebody said he worked for the government, but somebody else said that was crazy.

He had patched together a kiosk attached to the side of his house. The hand-painted sign said “Odds and Ends.” He and his wife sold soft drinks, chocolate bars, gum, and cigarettes. Every month he had to pay off the local Lithuanian Mafia. They got a cut of everything, including gum.

It was like Spanky and Our Gang.

Everybody complained about everything and they especially complained about money. I learned to never ask anybody what they did. “This and that,” is what almost everybody said. They were always going to Poland and across the Baltic Sea, bringing back clothes, food products, prescription drugs, as well as cigarettes and more cigarettes. They took contraband goods across borders without declaring anything or traversed woods and crossed rivers on the sly.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the empowerment of Lithuania, we collected donations from our family members and delivered enough cash on the barrel to Justinas so he and his family could get a proper bathroom built and running water installed. The lady of the house absolutely wanted a toilet and sinks with faucets.

When he came into the house from the garage, he said thanks, but no thanks. He said he had grown up and lived his whole life without it. He told me he wasn’t going to change anything more than he had to after all his years in this world. “I was coming down the ladder from the coop just now carrying a drink and a pigeon in the other hand,” he said. “Don’t try that when you get to be my age.”

I didn’t argue with him about the indoor plumbing. He asked if he could have the money, anyway. Since he was swimming upstream with Janina about the plumbing, I gave it to him, and we kept it between ourselves.

Juozukas Jurgelaitis, Justinas Jurgelaitis, and Rasa Jurgelaityte, 1994. Photograph by Rita Staskus.

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.”