Tag Archives: Justinas Jurgelaitis

In Hot Water

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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, 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.

 

Commie Roadblock Blues

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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. Us against them social culture 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 snapshot soapbox masterminds say. The color of truth is Crayola 64 Crayon Colors.

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

“We had to go through customs. The higher-ups, police, and soldiers all looked 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 a baggy fur coat wasn’t so fortunate.

“She had all kinds of stuff sewn into the lining of her coat. They ripped the coat 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.

“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 and their 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.

“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 before. 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 cardboard tube was like a disposable cigarette holder. They were popular in the Baltic’s 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 brand was available in most the hinterland, a low-lying ashy cloud soon hung down from the ceiling. Even though cigarette advertising wasn’t allowed in the USSR, almost everyone 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. 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.”

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

She gave him her bottle of the dark sugary 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 propaganda isn’t going to do anything for me,” she said.

While inside the hotel, nobody could 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. Nobody said anything. Their room wasn’t small, but it wasn’t large, and the bathroom was even smaller. The whole bathroom was a bathroom and a shower. 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 anything else.

“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 town. They finagled and horse traded, going to Poland, doing things that weren’t altogether legal, or so the Communists said, so you just didn’t ask.

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

They were waiting for the Commies 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. It means I wait but I can’t wait. It’s like being in prison 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 had never seen 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 300 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 and 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, for no good reason.”

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.

The official scowled at her.

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

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

The police glanced at Justinas’s papers and waved at 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, go back.”

They went to the third car.

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

“What’s your name?”

“Jurgelaitis, like them.”

He asked her something in Russian. She didn’t understand a word of it and glared at him.

“The next time your daughter is going to have to answer,” the policeman grumbled at Sigitas.

“Turn back.”

They turned around and the convoy drove back to Vilnius.

Undaunted, a few days later, before leaving the USSR, Sigitas picked Rita up before dawn before breakfast at the back of the hotel for an end run on empty stomachs to Silute. She skittered into the car and they sped off. The streets were deserted 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 longer.”

It took five hours.

They were stopped several times, but every time Sigitas was allowed to stay the course. The roadblock police didn’t explain why. They just waved him on. When they got to Silute they found the house where Antonina Staskevicius was living. After Josef Stalin’s death many labor camp prisoners in Siberia were let go. She was one of them. Her husband was long dead, dead of starvation in 1942, in another forest camp. She was sent back to Lithuania, but not back to Siauliai where the family farm didn’t exist anymore. She was told to go live in Silute.

“She lived in a two-room apartment, in a rectangular four-unit building, almost like a log cabin, like it was built hundreds of years ago,” said Rita. There was no running water or indoor plumbing. ” 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 Rita a big smile and a big hug, even though she was a small woman.

She wasn’t the Man of Steel, the ringleader who squashed her under his thumb, but he was gone, a rusty memory, and she still had plenty of steel left in her.

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 hat old-school roots buffet for Sigitas.

“It was the best food I had in Lithuania,” said Rita.

How you start is how you finish.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories monthly 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.