Tag Archives: Lithuanian Journal

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 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.”

Dancing On Broken Glass

By Margaret Drummond

The seed for this article was sown one summer when a cousin handed me a yellowed newspaper clipping from 1951. We were supposed to be celebrating my mum’s 100th birthday but sadly she had died just five days before. However, as relatives were coming from far and wide to our London home, my sister and I decided to go ahead with the party anyway.

The article had been written in Dutch by my mother for a small provincial newspaper in her hometown in the Netherlands and had been carefully preserved, probably by my grandfather. In it, my mum describes a rail journey to Wales from her nurses’ home on the Isle of Wight – she had arrived in the UK the year before and was working in a TB sanatorium there – and her attendance at a very unusual event. Historically interesting certainly, but for us this article is also precious for its significance as a milestone in our family’s story.

 “This festival,” wrote my mother, “is a means of promoting understanding and reconciliation amongst all the European countries who suffered so much during the War years.”

The festival concerned was the International Eisteddfod in Borth in 1951, and, although my mother does not mention this in the article, we know that she travelled to Wales to watch her future husband – my dad – perform with a Lithuanian dance group from Nottingham. This, together with an old black-and-white photo of my dad in his DP camp in Germany prompted me to delve deeper into my parents’ story and the role folk dancing played in their courtship. 

My dad had arrived in England in 1948 aged 23 as part of the Westward Ho scheme, designed to allocate Displaced Persons from the British occupied zone in Germany into jobs in agriculture, forestry, coal mining and cotton textiles in the UK. He was allocated a job in the British Gypsum mines near Nottingham. From 1945 to 1948 he had been in the DP camp in Kempten in Bavaria and it was here that he had joined a folk-dancing group. Folk dancing remained a passion for him. He regularly told us about the 22 dances in the Kempten troupe’s repertoire. Like many other refugees, he saw this as a vital link to his homeland. Having arrived in Nottingham, which still today remains an important cultural centre for Lithuanians in the UK, he naturally joined the dance group and with them he attended the Eisteddfod in 1950.

Some time that year he met mum in London, and the following summer he invited her to meet him in Wales so that she could see him dance. The importance of folk dancing as an expression of Lithuanian identity can be traced back to the end of the nineteenth century and the period of the Lithuanian National Awakening (Lietuvių tautinis atgimimas) when the country was struggling to forge its own identity in the midst of the repressive Tsarist regime, which forbade even the Lithuanian language. Like other minorities in Europe, Baltic musicians, scholars and artists were keen to explore their heritage. The first Lithuanian dance, Suktinis, was performed on stage in St Petersburg in 1903 and during the Tsarist period  choirs performing folk songs were formed – often clandestinely, as with the Daina group organised by Juozas Nauialis, which was legalised only in 1905.

During the period of independence between the wars folk dancing flourished – it even formed a compulsory part of the Higher Physical Training Course (Aukštieji kūno kultūros kursai), a course designed for sports teachers launched in Kaunas in 1934 by the President of Lithuania Antanas Smetona. The first Lithuanian folk dance festival was held in Kaunas in 1937, and featured 448 dancers. Even during the later Soviet period this event was held regularly and was generously supported by the government. 

Lithuanians abroad and in exile also continued the tradition. In 1946 refugees from DP camps held a festival in Würzburg. Was my dad there, I wonder; I never thought to ask him. In 1952, Lithuanian deportees in the Siberian town of Igarka in the Arctic Circle formed a dance group. In the USA and Canada, local groups had organised smaller local events since their arrival there early on in the century. The first major event following the second wave of Baltic immigration was held in Chicago in 1957, featuring dancers from Canada and the USA. 

Since then the festival has taken place every five years, with the next event scheduled for 2021 in Philadelphia. Indeed, such is the importance of folk dancing in Lithuanian culture that, in 2003, the Baltic Song and Dance Celebrations – a common heritage of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – were listed by UNESCO among the masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

As for the small community in the UK which my dad had joined, there is a record of a performance by a Lithuanian group, presumably from the country itself, consisting of 16 dancers and four musicians in London in 1935 at the International Folkdance Festival. But it was during the war years that the idea for an International Eisteddfod with dancers from all over the world was proposed, when Harold Tudor, an officer of the British Council, arranged a visit for members of governments-in-exile to the Welsh National Eisteddfod in Bangor. In the first years after the war, the organisers saw the event as a means of building bridges and establishing international understanding, and the festival was generously supported by the British Council and the Esperanto Society, amongst others. 

As early as 1949, amidst some controversy, a German choir from Lübeck participated, and in the programme from 1951, when my parents attended, there were “spotlight talks” on the Baltic States, Italy, France and Germany along with lectures on “nationality” by Sidney Herbert and the “conflict of ideologies” by leuan John, both of whom at the time lectured in Politics at the University College of Wales, Aberystwyth. Ieuan John was a noted expert on the politics of the Cold War and on the Baltics in particular and in later years was a respected advisor to Western governments in formulating policy in this field. 

There is a Pathé News report from the Eisteddfod that year showing the fields around Borth converted into a huge tented city, where dancers from India, Indonesia, Wales and Ukraine performed to curious British crowds. It was possible, given the austerity and insularity of the war years, that many of those watching had never met a foreigner.   

Certainly a new degree of cultural understanding was needed in those early years for the recent migrants and even my parents had to contend with racism and suspicion. At the time there was considerable hostility to the new arrivals. The Daily Mirror published an article headed ‘Let Them Be Displaced,’ saying of the European Volunteer Workers: ‘Other countries had taken the cream and left us most of the scum. Some no doubt are in the Black Market. They add to our discomfort and swell the crime wave. This cannot be tolerated. They must now be rounded up and sent back.”

My own parents dealt with their fair share of animosity from some quarters. They married in 1953 and used to tell the story of how an estate agent refused to show them any properties because they were foreign, and about the priest who insisted that my dad recite penance prayers in English in the confessional before he gave him absolution! Other neighbours were more welcoming, however and my parents were both grateful that they were granted British nationality in the ’50s.

Later on in the 60s and 70s on summer trips to Sodyba (a country retreat run by the Lithuanian community at Headley Park in Hampshire in southern England) my parents always made sure we stayed to watch the traditional dance groups from all over the UK. They were run by volunteers who worked hard to keep the community alive. Costumes were sourced from the USA, and sometimes even from Lithuania, sent by relatives who had somehow managed to bypass the strict Soviet customs system. Later on, when restrictions were relaxed in the early ’80s, those lucky enough to be granted visitor visas returned with folklore items, linen, amber and records.   

And, of course, with independence came change. Now, not far from my home, new groups of dancers and musicians have sprung up, organised by Lithuanians who have emigrated recently and who have established a large community in the Barking and Newham areas. Sometimes on summer evenings, walking in a nearby park or even sitting in my back garden, I catch the wisp of a tune played on a kankles or an accordion. It reminds me of my dad and the crackly old vinyl LPs from home he used to play on Sunday afternoons.    

Photograph courtesy of Margaret Drummond.

Margaret Drummond grew up in a Dutch/Lithuanian family and now lives in London. She studied modern languages at university, taught for many years and now translates.

Shake a Leg

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By Ed Staskus 

   “Rhythm is something you either have or don’t have, but when you have it, you have it all over.”  Elvis Presley

   On a Saturday morning in mid-fall, Olga Capas, Rita Zvirblis, and Vanessa Staskus ordered late breakfast early lunch at the Diner on Clifton, finding a table on the outdoor patio and easing into their seats twenty minutes after their ever first Zumba class. Over cups of steaming coffee, three-cheese omelets, patty melts, and shared sweet potato fries, they caught up with their breath and with tuning in to the sunny-side up movement exercise scene.

   “We got to class early and found our space in the back,” said Vanessa, “but then every minute somebody went behind us, so in no time we went from being in the back row to being in the front row.”

   If you’re in the front row you’re leading the parade. It wasn’t what they planned, but once the class started, they had to look alive. If you stop, you’re going to melt back into the tuba section, where you might get laid low.

   “I thought they were going to kick me out,” said Rita, “I have no rhythm, but it’s so fast, you can’t think about anything else besides keeping your feet moving.”

   She was being modest. She danced with the Grandinele folk dancers as a teenager and young adult. She traveled with the troupe to Chicago and Toronto, Europe, and South America. Folk dancing reflects the life of people from a place or country. It can be the upbeat southern Italian Tarantella, the rhythmic Turkish Haly, the Polish carnival party dance Polonaise, Kentucky clogging, and Korean sword dancing. Zumba is along the lines of a street dance.

   Grandinele was formed in Cleveland in the early 1950s by Liudas Sagys, who began his career as a professional dancer with the National Folk Dance Ensemble in Lithuania. He taught the steps and choreographed Grandinele’s country hoedowns while his wife Alexandra made the costumes and kept the books. He was the longtime director of the Cleveland Folk Dance Festival which in 1976 was recognized as “the best ever.”

   “I loved the Zumba, the music and moving,” said Olga. She always had tennis shoes at the ready in her hallway when she was ready to move.

   The three women are all of Lithuanian descent, one of them from the homeland, two of them immigrant stock, living west of the Cuyahoga River, on the west side of Cleveland, Ohio, active and fit enough. Plump pale and healthy as an ox without batting an eyelash was the touchstone once upon a time, but the signs of the times have long since changed. Never fit and trim enough is where walking jogging running working out and Zumba come in.

   Zumba is a dance and fitness program created by exercise instructor and choreographer Alberto “Beto” Perez in Colombia during the 1990s when he improvised salsa music into an aerobics class. Since the turn of the century, it has expanded to 125 countries, taught by more than 20,000 certified instructors. Practiced weekly by approximately 14 million people worldwide it is today’s most popular dance fitness phenomenon.

   In 2012 Zumba was named the”‘Company of the Year” by Inc. Magazine and is today one of the largest fitness brands in the world, practiced everywhere from big-box gyms to church halls to community centers.

   At the Harrison Elementary School, sponsored by the Lakewood Recreation Department, classes are taught by Amy Annico, a hale hearty black-haired young woman sporting a quick smile, bright blue sneakers, and hauling a yellow Dewalt boom box about the size of an air compressor from her car to the class.

   “One minute she was monkeying with that big yellow thing,” said Rita, “and then at nine o’clock in the morning exactly it was blasting.”

   It was the blast off.

   “I’m not really for nightclubbing first thing in the morning,” Rita said, “but she makes it a lot of fun. It’s like partying yourself into shape.”

   Zumba is different than many other fitness programs because people don’t always take it for the fitness benefits, more often than not for the boogie and socializing, even though the results can be transforming.  It is a cardiovascular calorie-burning hour of twisting and turning in varying states of synchronization to loud bouncy infectious music.

   “They are taking it for the happiness and joy that they feel while they are doing it, and the fitness is just the result of this,” said Alberto Perlman, who with Alberto Perez was a co-founder of the Zumba enterprise.

   Zumba is essentially an aerobic fitness program, including basic core fitness, married to dance routines. Set to full of life Latin American beats, it burns up to 600 calories an hour, according to Harvard Health Publications. Sweating is not optional, since everybody starts sweating within a couple of minutes and doesn’t stop until the end of class.

   “Zumba is hard,” said Olga, “but it’s not hard like going to the gym. Sometimes I have to force myself to do that, but with Zumba the music is going, and you just want to move.”

   “It’s fast-paced and you’re watching Amy’s feet up on the stage,” said Rita between bites on a Reuben sandwich. “It’s those blue shoes she wears the whole time, trying to follow what she’s doing, and then you immediately start sweating.”

   “Immediately!” echoed Vanessa. “Sweat was dripping down the small of my back before the warm-up was even over.”

   Amy Annico, a music teacher as well as part-time actress, has taught Zumba since 2008 at area YMCA’s, Live Well Lakewood, health fairs, and retirement homes. She attends the annual Zumba Instructor Convention in Orlando, Florida, every year, upgrading her skills

   “I’m trained in Zumba, which is for everyone,” she said, “and Zumba Gold, which is for older, active adults, and Zumbatomic for kids.” There is even Aqua Zumba, a water-based workout integrating Zumba with aqua fitness themes. A great deal of jumping and splashing is involved. Strapless bathing suits are strongly discouraged, for good reason.

   “The Harrison school class is a great community class,” Amy said. “Everyone’s dancing, it’s like a party, people are hooting and hollering and shaking, and the hour flies by and you don’t even know it.”

   By all accounts shimmying, shaking and sliding, hooting and hollering, as well as chest pumping and bootie shaking, are encouraged subscribed to and applauded. You may not get a gold star, but you’ll be a shooting star.

   “I always say, don’t be shy, give it a try,” said Amy Annico. “It’s all about spreading the joy of music from around the world with fantastic fitness and dance moves.”

   The word zumba is Colombian slang and means “move fast and have fun.” It has been described as exercise in disguise. Set to four basic rhythms based on salsa, merengue, cumbia, and reggaeton, it is a non-stop workout that works all your endorphins out endorphins as well as working out your muscles.

   Some people lose inches off their waistlines, others see their cholesterol drop and their energy levels rise, while still others simply reduce their stress levels. Some men even learn to dance and not make fools of themselves at weddings anymore.

   Just as sweating is mandatory, so is staying hydrated.

   “I told Vanessa to bring water, even though she doesn’t like water, because I heard you get really thirsty at Zumba,” said Rita.

   “My whole bottle of water was gone before half the class was over, and I never drink water,” said Vanessa. “Everybody was going back and forth to the water fountain getting more of it all class long. You don’t get totally winded, even though it’s non-stop dancing, but you do get totally thirsty.”

   Their dishes cleared off the table at the diner, coffee cups re-filled, and lingering over their lunchtime, the three women agreed that Zumba was the best way they could think of to exercise without actually exercising.

   “The salsa moves are really good for you, your whole body is going, your hips are going,” said Rita. “Amy is so animated, she makes all these noises, those sounds of hers, like she is definitely having fun doing it, and she makes it the same for everybody.”

   “It’s like dancing from beginning to end, but it’s exercise, too. You do it with joy, and afterwards you feel so good,” added Olga. “It’s guaranteed to put a smile on your face.”

   They all agreed Zumba was the best of both worlds. There are shortcuts to happiness and dancing is one of them. “Your whole body is moving, and you don’t have time to think about working out,” said Rita while walking back to their car. “It’s like having your cake and eating it, too.”

   Some words are triggers. Cake is one of them. If staying healthy and fit is a priority, since vegetables are a good way of getting there, there is always pumpkin pie and carrot cake.

   “Why don’t we drive down to Tremont, have some dessert, and go for a walk along the river?” Vanessa suggested. “It’s going to start getting cold soon.” The winter in Cleveland was only six weeks away, when the sky would go dark gray and storms started blowing in over Lake Erie.

   That’s what the three Baltic hoofers doing Columbian slimnastics for the day did, before the sun set, and the night’s new frost crept in unnoticed.

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.”

Pennies From Heaven

By Ed Staskus

   Zenius Kazlauskas would have traded any day in the real world, reheated meatballs with his folks the drumbeat of his freshman year at St. Ed’s hanging with the boys doing nothing at Crocker Park Mall, for five minutes of summer camp. After the next two summers were come and gone, after his last year in Cabin 6, when he couldn’t be a camper anymore, he was determined to go back as a counselor. 

   “That’s a sure thing,” Zen said. “I’ll be on my way to being a senior by then and I’ll know a thing-or-two. I’ll be older and wiser. I’ll know how to handle the boys on track and off track, no wool over my eyes.”

   Camp is different than being at home. There are fewer grown-ups, which is a good thing, and nobody’s parents are there, even better. The teenage counselors are almost like their vassals. They let them run amok and hope no one dies. Everybody’s friends are together again and there are more of them than anywhere else ever. Nobody yells at you for two weeks. The counselors scream if somebody does something stupid, but nobody gets yelled at for doing something wrong just by mistake.

   “Even when it happens, it’s all over in a minute, not like back home, where it never ends,” Zen said, looking glum. “No sir, it never ends, it just goes on and on. You’re on the bottom and you’ve got to keep your trap shut.”

   The summer sky at camp is big and fresh and windy. It’s a bird in the hand. There are swallows, thrushes, woodcocks, and buffleheads. It’s way up in Canada, on the Georgian Bay, at Wasaga Beach, the world’s longest freshwater beach.  It takes all day to drive there from Lakewood, Ohio, across the border, through Toronto, up to Barrie, where you take a sharp left at Lake Simcoe.

   It’s not totally spic and span, not like the Dainava summer camp in Michigan where the righteous gather on their runty pond, but clean enough. Some boys don’t shower when they’re at camp and that’s disgusting, although nobody cares too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him in the car when his two weeks were over, and he hadn’t showered even once.

   “No, go back, go hose yourself off, and brush your teeth!” his mother barked through her nose. “What is wrong with you?”

   Last year Cabin 6 had bedbugs. The boys caught them with scotch tape and flicked them into a glass jar. Zen tried to kill some of them with poison spray, because when they sucked your blood, they left itchy clusters on your skin, but the bugs didn’t seem to care. They shrugged it off. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a sniffing dog.

   It was a Beagle, just a little bigger than Rufus, Zen’s Beagle at home. The scent hound was lean, with floppy ears and a loopy smile. He knew what was up, stepping into the cabin all-business glowing in his eyes.

   He was a scent dog, not like Rufus, who was a hearing dog. Rufus heard all, searching out BS wherever it was, like up in Jack’s room. Jack was Zen’s older half-brother who thought he knew everything and talked down to him. Rufus hair-balled it and growled. The family lived on a better-off street in Lakewood, wide tree lawns and a concrete roadway, but Rufus still stayed on his haunches on the front lawn looking both ways, ready to bark. He knew the future might not be what it used to be. He sat tight in the right now.

   The search-and-destroy flea bag was so good he sniffed out a bedbug hiding behind the plastic cover of an electric outlet. The next day everybody piled their stuff into big black garbage bags and threw them inside the cars at camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. 

   All the bugs died.

   Zen and his friends were in the smallest of the nine boy’s cabins. The only free floor space they had was just enough to slide back and forth to their beds. Matias Petrauskas was number one with Zen. He was shorter shiny blue eyes like buttons and stick slender. They liked to run around, not get too uptight, and soft chill at the end of the day. They had roomed together in the same cabin for seven years and knew each other best.

   Lukas Nasvytis was Zen’s second-best friend. He was a little taller, all funny smiles and chunky. He chewed green frog gummies and spit them out on the cabin floor where they got squashed flat like pancakes. By the end of camp, the floorboards were dried goo. He was strong as a bull, but not loud or belligerent. He suffered from in-grown toenails. 

   “Don’t step on them, or else!” Zen said. “It can be big trouble. One night he punched somebody who accidentally stepped on his bad toe.”

   Lukas stood up and pushed the boy. “Watch out, dude!” He got punched in the stomach for it. Logan punched him back in the face, although without being mean about it. They were at the “Night of the Super Starz” in the mess hall. They were sitting there watching the show when the misstep started it, and the kid goat suddenly started bleating when Lukas did him. He had a bruise on his cheek and a black eye.

   There was a midnight mass after the show, but Lukas wasn’t allowed to stay. He had to go back to the cabin, although all that happened the next day was the counselors made him sweep the mess hall. The camp commander noticed Lukas waving a broom and thought he had volunteered. He came back with serious points pinned to his chest.

   Lukas liked being hip hop rundown. He was from Toronto and lived uptown, although Zen didn’t know where that was. He said he lived in a neighborhood of chinksters. He smoked weed sometimes, even though he wasn’t good at it. He and one of his friends went to a creek on the far end of camp one night and smoked some. He got funky and dreamed up disasters.

   “I thought I was going to die,” he said.

   Story time with Lukas at the head of the cabin his back to the door was always grins hilarity gut-busting. When he spit out a gummy, ready to go, it was a high old time. He knew a lot of dirty jokes, too.

   At night they talked about movies, TV shows, and their favorites on YouTube. They talked about girls, some of them more than others. They talked about video games a lot, even though they didn’t have any at camp. They weren’t allowed. The one boy in their cabin who didn’t talk much was Titus Lutkus, who they called Tits. 

   “He just sits in his corner all secluded,” Zen said. “He does play a video game, so I talk to him about that, sometimes, but not much. More than anybody else.”

   Nobody knew what was wrong with Titus. “We love Tits, but he’s quiet. He doesn’t do anything, which is the problem. At night when we’re all laying around in our cabin he’ll start crying. His eyes get soggy and his hair tuft goes limp. He will just sit teary-eyed on his bed, looking at the floor. When we ask him what’s wrong, he says, ‘I don’t know. My head hurts.’”

   They didn’t ignore him all the time, and they never did much of anything to him. “We punch him every once in a while, but not hard, just on the arms. Mostly when he’s looking, but sometimes when he’s not looking.”

   He got pinkeye every summer. They didn’t make fun of him, though. But then he got double pink eye. That was too much for everybody. They were all, “Damn it, Tits!” Everybody made fun of him as a joke, and he cried and got mad. but not because of that, just because he’s Titus.

   The girl cabins are on the other side of the flagpoles, up an opposite sandy hill. Amelia, who was part of Natalie’s tootsie tunes, but who can be nice and pretty, had a reddish birthmark on her face, the shape of a dog. Zen thought she was self-conscious about it because she always turned to her left whenever anybody took her picture, away from the birthmark.

   They never said anything about it to her. They dabbled about the birthmark in their own cabin, but nothing bad, although sometimes somebody said, “What’s that thing crawling on her face?” One night, Titus was laid out on his bunk in the corner while everybody was talking home stories when out of nowhere, he said, “Did somebody have their period and rub it on Amelia’s face?”

   Everybody stopped dead quiet for a minute. Who says that? Matias looked embarrassed. Then he got mad. “Shut up!” he yelled. Zen knew his best friend had the hots for Amelia. It was a brutal thing to say, especially coming from Tits. Everybody called him that because he had them. He had always been flabby and lately he was getting heavier. 

   “He doesn’t play any sports, at all, that’s his problem. He’s going to grow up a fatso.”

   Kajus Klukas slept in the corner opposite Titus. He thought he could play guitar, but all he did was play the same part of ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over. Who needs that? Everybody except Titus was always yelling at him to stop. Zen and Lukas finally took matters into their own hands and broke his guitar, but the cabin blew it off. They all knew it was a piece of junk, anyway.

   They broke the new fan his parents got him, too. Lukas was frustrated, and angry, his toes hurt, and he started taking it out on the fan. They took it out behind the cabin and beat it with a hockey stick. It was hanging on rags when they were done. The spiny part was smashed, chunks were missing, but they just kept beating it. They threw bottles of water at it, finally.

   Kajus wasn’t happy when he found out. He scowled and gave them the sour look. He pushed the busted fan under his bed.

   When his parents came mid-week from Toronto, they asked him what happened to it. He told them Zen and Lukas did it, but they didn’t believe him. When they left, he tipped a Mountain Dew over on Zen’s bunk. Zen grabbed it and poured the rest on Kajus’s bed, pushing and shoving started, Kajus elbowed Zen, he elbowed him back harder but not crazy hard, and Kajus stopped.

   There was a food-eating contest every summer after the “Counselor Staff Show.” The tots had to go to bed, but the boys and girls stayed up late to play the game. Whoever volunteers are blindfolded and has to eat whatever is on the plate. Everybody has to keep their hands behind their backs and lap it up like a dog. Sometimes the others puked, but Zen never threw up.

   There were bowls of moldy Rice Krispies with ketchup mustard strawberry jelly lots of salt and all mashed together like potatoes. It was horrible. It was like eating last place on one of his stepmom’s cooking shows on TV. Everybody cheered the belly brave and they had to eat as fast as they could if they wanted to win.

   The counselors woke the camp up every morning at seven-thirty for calisthenics. They marched everybody to the sports field and made them do a butt load of jumping jacks, push-ups and crunches, and the boys and girls had to run the track, even though the sun was barely breaking the tops of the trees. The tots got to do their own thing, whatever that was.

   If the counselors saw you were tired and slacking, they made you do more. Everybody jumped on the used tire jungle gym and messed around whenever they could, having fun. The counselors made whoever overstayed their welcome do pull-ups on it, but it was a small price to pay.

   “We get up every morning to music,” Zen said. “It’s always Katy Perry or Duck Sauce, or whatever the big cheeses want, played from loudspeakers hidden in the trees. Sometimes I don’t hear it because I’m fast asleep. The counselors carry water shooters. If they say you have twenty seconds to wake up, and you don’t jump right out of bed, they start squirting you. They shake your bed and jump on you, and scream, but they’re always going to the next bed, so it doesn’t last long.”

   After they were done exercising, they went back to their cabins, cleaned up, and raised the flags before breakfast. There are three flags, American, Canadian, and Lithuanian. 

   “But sometimes we’re too tired to clean up and instead fall right back asleep in our cabins and are late for the flag-raising. When that happens it’s time to swallow the pill. Whoever is late has to step out into the middle of everybody on the parade ground and do the chicken dance. All the boys on their side of the parade ground do the chop, swiveling their arms like tomahawks and chanting. Nobody knows what it means, but they all do it, and the girls stand there watching. Then they do their own dance, like cheerleaders, except they aren’t cheering for you.”

   Everybody got their fair share.

   All the cabins had to keep a diary for the two weeks of camp. Everybody got graded on it every day. If anybody wrote something stupid, like “Ugi Ugi Ugi” or anything that didn’t make sense, they got a bad grade. The counselors told them to “Be yourselves, be sincere.”

   “What does that mean?” Lukas asked, but they just laughed.

   Matias always wrote their diary because everybody else agreed they were all retards. Titus wrote something dumb once, even though he said it was sincere, and at the flag lowering that night they all had to do the Rambo, running down the slope to the flagpoles with no shirts on and singing “Cha Cha Cha” while everyone did the chop.

   That night, in the middle of the night, they rolled Titus down the slope wrapped up in a scratchy old blanket.

   They wrestled in the oldest boy’s cabin. It was the biggest cabin, too, so it had space for fighting. They moved the beds and duct taped a sleeping bag to the wood floor. There was no punching allowed, no hammer blows, but kicking and throwing each other on the ground was fair game.

   They weren’t supposed to fight, because the camp commander didn’t like it, but everybody wrestled and got poked bruised blooded.

   One night at their Wrestlemania World Tour, Donatas and Arunas were locked up when Donny grabbed Arnie’s head and flipped him over. Arnie slammed hard into a bedpost and got knocked out. They let him lay there, but when he didn’t wake up, even though they screamed in his face, they threw dirt on him. He jumped up and was fine after that.

   The next day they were walking to New Wasaga Beach, which is where the whole camp went every afternoon for a swim, and Arnie jumped on Donny’s back and almost cracked it. But they didn’t punch each other. It was just a couple of seconds of retaliation. They weren’t haters. Besides, the counselors were watching, and that would have been trouble. They always said “Only we can get physical.”

   The grown-up vadovai stood near and far in the water and made sure nobody drowned. The boys and girls and tots never noticed. They were busy splashing swimming splurging on the sunshine.

   Every year another year went by and when Zenius was back at summer camp it was like he had never left. As soon as he got there, he unloaded everything he’d brought, his clothes flip flops sleeping bag. All his stuff had his initials written on it with a Sharpie. Everybody found their cabins and claimed their beds, and then all the parents were gone before anybody knew it. 

   They saw their friends again, everybody in their cabin, and everybody they had ever camped with. “What’s up dude!” There were high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. They fake punched each other and laughed it up.

   They reunited with the girls and get overdue hugs from them. When all the moms and dads that nobody in his right mind thought about from that moment on were gone, they had sandwiches in the mess hall. The priest said a prayer and the camp commander made a speech. He wrote the camp rules in big block letters on a chalkboard.

   He was big on shaming the boys but not the girls when his rules were broken. There is a bonfire most nights, they acted out skits, sang songs, whooped it up, but if you were on his list, he called you out in front of everybody and you had to try to explain why you did what you did when you did it. Most of the time the explanations were lame as diarrhea. Zen believed in never explain, never complain, although it was hard to do.

   The best night of summer camp is every night, but the best night was the night they played their manhunt game. Sometimes it was called Fugitive or Stealing Sticks or Capture the Flag. It’s always the same, although it was always different. Lukas told everybody he saw a movie about Jews fighting against the Nazis, chases in the dark and shoot-outs, but nobody could understand what he was talking about. Nobody else had seen the movie. 

   He said, “Let’s play it that way.” 

   Everybody said, “OK, that’s what it is.” They were the good guys, and the counselors were the bad guys. Some of the counselors thought it.was sketchy but didn’t disagree. It was as much fun as ever. It was like Bunnytrack with no holds barred. 

   Titus never played, and he didn’t play Nazis and Jews, either. He said it was wrong and started explaining about Lithuania, where all of their parents and grandparents were from, and how terrible things had happened there. He said it was a holocaust, not a stupid camp run around, but they told him to shut up, and he got sulky. Nobody knows what’s wrong with Titus. Zen knew what was wrong with him. 

   “Titus knows he’s low man on the totem pole and nobody cares what he says.”

   The game started when the counselors led them to the mess hall. They turned the lights off and made everybody sit on the damp concrete floor. After they left it got super quiet. It was eerie.

   When the counselors came back, they were dressed in black, charcoal from the cold bonfire rubbed on their faces. They split everybody into groups and spit out the rules. They had to find books and save them from being burned. They weren’t real books, just pieces of paper. The more papers they dug up the more Liberty Dollars they got for the next day’s auction. The more of them in their group who got caught the more their Liberty Dollars were taken away.

   The papers were scattered around the camp in the hands of three counselors, who were hidden in the woods, and who kept moving around. They had to find them and when they did, they were supposed to hand over the prize. But sometimes the runners had to beg them for it. Other times they had to fight tooth and nail for the paper.

   If the counselors who were the hunters caught anyone, they took the paper away, ripped it up, and it was back to square one. Many of the boys and girls hid them in their shoes, or their underwear, or different places no one would look.

   “It gets dirty, in more ways than one,” Zen said. “The dirtiest I got was when I was by myself, not far from the sports field, but on the edge of the woods. One of the counselors came walking past and I dropped flat fast. I lay in a bunch of crap, leaves, twigs, mud, bugs, worms, and moldy stuff. Oh, man, but he just walked right past me.”

   Anybody can try to get away when the counselors catch somebody, but it’s hard to do because the ones who catch you are the strong ones, while the other ones can’t catch a breath. The strong ones don’t like it when anybody makes them look bad by breaking away. It doesn’t matter what the other ones think. The bold quick can try to break free when no one’s looking, but if they snatch you then you have to stay longer in the lock-up. The longer you sit the less chance you have to win Liberty Dollars.

   Matilda Varnaite, who plays for a college basketball team, decked Zen, blind-siding him out of the blue, just when he thought he was home free. At first, he wasn’t sure what happened. When he got up, he tripped her, and started running away. When she caught him, he fell on the ground like he was wiped out. She was forced to drag him by arms and legs. While she was dragging him, he noticed a large lump on her chest. When he asked her what it was, she gave him a sharp look.

   “It’s a tumor. I have cancer,” she said.

   “I couldn’t believe it. She seemed so healthy. I jumped to my feet so she wouldn’t have to drag me. While we were walking the tumor started to jerk back and forth. I didn’t know what to do. Was she going to fall down and die? Then, just as we walked up to the lock-up, her baby gerbil poked its head out of her bra.”

   One summer the lock-up was inside the art house, where supplies and costumes are stored. It’s at the farthest end from the sand dunes. Makayla Katiliute was the guard, and although she wasn’t musclebound, she was strong and determined.

   There were two rooms. She had to patrol both of them by herself.  She carried a broom, pacing back and forth, her head swiveling this way and that. Everybody had to sit in straight chairs and be quiet. If you talked too much you had to sit there longer. If you got up from your chair you had to stay longer. If you messed with her in any way you had to stay longer.

   You could try to escape, but it wasn’t easy. Makayla would hit you, not really hard, but hard enough. She hit everybody with her broom, but usually with the soft twine end. But when anybody got nervy, she jabbed the broom down on them and yelled, “Shut the hell up!”

   It was not a good idea to try escaping too many times, because if anybody tried a couple of times and they caught you both times, they would kick you out of the game. It wasn’t fair, but that’s what they did if they got annoyed about it. If you sat there quietly and sweet-talked Makayla, “I’ll be good,” she would smile and let you out before the others. That’s what Zen did.

   “I was good. I play it smart. It’s the only way.”

   Zen broke off from his group right away. He had planned to run with his Cabin 6 friends, anyway. They made it to one of the storage sheds and hid there, catching their breath, and then started running around. They searched for the counselors with the scraps of paper and dodged all the others.

   “The counselors are fast,” Zen said. “Make no mistake about it. They aren’t sludges and even the sludges have some fast up their sleeves if they need it. The girl counselors can catch you if you don’t see them right away and they are already sprinting straight at you. You can push counselors away, but not punch them, although you can punch them, just not all of them, only the ones who don’t care. Your friends can help you, and if the counselor is alone, you have a good chance of getting away. He can’t catch both of you at the same time, no matter how big and fast he is.”

   The counselors tackle hard when they want to. They can be bottle rockets and they don’t mess around. If somebody is your cabin’s counselor, they’ll cut you some slack. They’ll use you as a distraction. The trick is to act like you’re getting caught when someone else is walking by, yelling, “Help me!” Then your counselor will throw you to the side and get them, instead.

   Another summer the lock-up was the boy’s bathroom. They took out the light bulbs. It was dark dank clammy soggy. There was only one door, so it was hard to escape. They had to sit in there with the bad smells and daddy long-legs crawling all over them. Titus stayed snug in the cabin with a package of Oreos.

   The summer they played Nazis and Jews the lock-up was on the edge of the sports field under a pole lamp. It was a pressboard box used to store basketball backboards. The box wasn’t big, the size of a dining room table, but high and deep going backwards.

   The counselors squeezed them in, around the edges, and then made more of them stand in the middle like cattle. They nailed two-by-fours to the sides so they wouldn’t spill out. Everybody was packed tight like rats. Somebody could try to crawl out, but they would have already gotten you by then, dragging you back.

   Cabin 6 escaped when counselors nabbed a pack of new runners and were bringing them in, but there wasn’t any room because it was so crowded. They got pushed sideways to make room. They had a couple of seconds of daylight. There weren’t enough counselors to grab everybody again that same instant, so they ran into the woods to the Hill of Crosses.

   It is on a small sandy hill. There isn’t anything there but crosses, dozens of them, some bigger than the boys. Everybody’s parents knew all about it. It had something to do with their past, the old country, back in Lithuania, where there are tens of thousands of them on a big hill somewhere. There is a white fence around the Hill of Crosses at camp and a gate, but it’s never locked. They went there for horseplay sometimes, because almost no one ever went there anymore. It’s secluded and private. Everything has its good points, Zen thought.

   They were cutting through, talking about what they were going to do next, when Loose Goose Lovett, who was pale fit and fast, jumped out of a sand dune. He was waving a big flashlight like a crazy man. Somebody smashed into him. He singled out Nojus Silenas for it, running after him. Everybody flipped, scattering, none of them going the same way.

   Dovydas Bielskus sprinted to the border of the camp where there was an old crappy barbed wire fence. It was his first year at camp and he didn’t know it was there. When he tried to jump it, he got tangled up. He ended up stuck, his t-shirt ripped, and his hands were scratched. He couldn’t get off the sharp wire.

   Later, when they found each other, they saw Lovett again with his flashlight. He was still looking for Nojus. Everybody lay down in the sand, nervous, but quiet like moles, and he ran right past them. They stayed behind a little hill where they hung their clothes after coming back from the beach, and later snuck back into Cabin 6. All of them were sitting on their beds, laughing it up in the dark, when Nojus started freaking out.

   “See what happens,” Titus said.

   Nojus was so worked up he got down on his knees, put his hands together in front of his bunk bed, and started praying. He was praying out loud, crying, and saying “I don’t feel good” when Lovett walked in with the flashlight stuck in his back pocket.

   “What’s wrong with him?” he asked.

   “I don’t feel good,” Nojus said, walking outside the cabin and throwing up.

   He tried to throw up in the trashcan, but his aim was way off. The next morning, everybody heckled him about it, but all he wanted to say was he just didn’t feel good during the manhunt and didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

   Zen almost broke his neck playing that night. It happened when Big Algimantas started chasing him. He was ripped out of his mind and jacked up. He climbed trees and survived out on the tundra. Zen had been jogging lazily away from Ned, who is lard and slow, when Big Al jumped him. Zen screamed and went into adrenaline mode. When he saw Big Al’s bigger girlfriend waiting at the fork in the path, he sprinted the other way into the woods.

   He got away clean, but it was when he lost Big Al that Gintaras Mockus came out of nowhere and found him. He was wearing a bandana and waving a basketball in his hands. Zen knew he was going to throw it straight at his shins, because that’s what he was doing to a lot of boys. It was a basketball Ginty had inflated crazy hard. He could sling it a blue streak. It smashed boys on the legs. Runners were face planting and giving up.

   Zen was running all out and jumped when Ginty threw the ball. He jumped right into the low-lying branch of a pine tree. It smashed him, the branch raking across his neck. It felt like his artery was going to pop.

   “That really hurt!” Zen cried out.

   “I kept running, but I was suddenly scared, so I stopped. My neck was all scraped up gashed and bleeding, but not gushing blood, thank God. When Ginty found me, he took his bandana off and wrapped it around my neck.”

   “You’ll be fine,” Ginty said.

   “Then he grabbed me and tried to drag me to the lock-up. You can always trust a counselor to be a sly dog. But I got away. I kept the bandana wrapped around my neck so he couldn’t track me down by any drops of blood. I made sure the rolled-up paper scraps I had collected were still in my pocket. I slept with them curled up in my fist and my fist tucked under my pillow.”

   The next morning, he ran to the front row of the manhunt auction. The camp commander stood at a podium with a wooden mallet. There was a pegboard behind him full of a boat load of the things you could get, and everybody started bidding. There were t-shirts and baseball hats, breakfast in bed, and true blue counselors having to clean your cabin.

   There’s stargazing with another cabin of your choice.  But Zen put everything he had, every one of his Liberty Dollars on the first shower of the night. It was the big night of the end of camp dance in the mess hall and he wanted to look his best for it. He made absolutely sure nobody outbid him because it was do-or-die for the hot water.

   You got to shower first, all by yourself, for as long as you wanted. The camp commander posted a counselor to stand guard at the door and they didn’t let anyone in except you. It was only you and a bar of soap and you could stream as much of the hot water as there was. There was only so much of it at camp, the tanks weren’t the best, and you could take it all. Everybody else was left with the cold leftovers.

   “Oh, yeah, that’s what you always do, because everybody else would do it to you.”

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.”

Flesh and Blood

BETWEEN THE WARS

By Ed Staskus

The day Angele Jurgelaityte knocked on her aunt’s door in late September 1941 was clear and sunny. Ona Kreivenas lived on a farm near Alvitas, where she taught school, and had on her hands a growing family. There were three children and an infant. Mindaugas, Carman, Ramute, and Gema, the new baby come into being a year earlier, were not any of them older than Angele. Even Mindaugas, the eldest, was three years younger than their thirteen-year-old cousin from Gizai.

Alvitas is a village on a lake of the same name. It is on the main road. There was a parish church built of stone, an elementary school, more than thirty houses, and almost four hundred inhabitants.

When Ona came to the front door, she was by herself. She had lost her husband a year earlier. She had since that day become a stern woman. “She was pretty, like a doll, but I was afraid of her. I broke a dish once and was scared to death of what she would say when she found out.” Her aunt bid hello to the teenaged girl, who she had been half-expecting, if not warmly, at least with a measure of relief.

Angele had spent the day walking to her aunt’s farmhouse from her family’s farm, where she decided she could no longer live with the stepmother her father had married the month before, six months after her mother’s death. She left three brothers and a sister behind.

“He was a police chief,” she about her uncle, Jonas Kreivenas. “The Russians deported him. He didn’t do anything bad. It didn’t matter, they just took him away.”

The Russians started planning mass arrests and deportations the year before, in 1940, after the Red Army occupied Lithuania and the adjacent Baltic nations. Jonas Kreivenas was one of the first arrested in 1940. They targeted government officials, nationalists, the well-to-do, Catholics, policemen, and anyone they decided was an “anti-Soviet element.”

If you were a party member, you were going to prosper, rather than get sent to Siberia.

“I had a friend not far from our farm whose father was a blacksmith, who didn’t read or write. When the Russians came, they threw out the mayor, in the town where they lived, and made him the mayor, because he was a Communist. Everyone high up, they threw out.”

The mass arrests began a year later the night of Friday June 13 as NKVD troops fanned out across the country, scooping up men and entire families, carrying them to Vilnius. Nearly twenty thousand Lithuanians were forcibly marched into the boxcars of seventeen trains on Thursday June 19 and railroaded to the far end of Russia. Three days later the German army invaded Lithuania, the Luftwaffe catching the Russian air force unaware on the ground and destroying it. By mid-week the new Wehrmacht had swept the old Soviet resistance aside.

The Russians were out. The Germans were in. “The Germans weren’t good, but life was better for us. At least they didn’t deport us. Most of us hated the Russians.”

An independent Lithuanian government was put in place, but it shortly became clear that the German military held all the power. Lithuanian Jews began to bear the brunt of the occupation. They were forced to wear yellow stars and their money and property was taken away.

That spring, before Jonas Kreivenas was taken away by the Russians, he had gotten everything he needed to build an upstairs indoor bathroom, lumber, tiles, fixtures, a sink, and a bathtub. It was going to be his summer project. When the war came back to Lithuania three summers later, in 1944, the second floor was still torn up, and the bathroom was still not a bathroom.

“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”

Jonas had started work on his bathroom, working in his spare time, walls and floors opened, but everything was still in boxes stacked up in corners. Ona hoped against hope for her husband’s return. The house was brick, fitted with large front windows, four rooms on the ground floor, a kitchen and dining room, and two bedrooms. The second floor was a floor.

“They lived on a farm that wasn’t big, but a little bigger and much nicer than my father’s. It wasn’t primitive,” said Angele.

“Everyone had either a large farm or a small farm, although almost everyone had small farms. Mamyte had a larger farm. She sometimes had men come and do work, but I still ended up having to work much harder than I ever did at my family’s farm.”

There was a cellar where they kept canned food and apples for the winter. There were chickens, cows, two work horses, a horse for riding, and lots of pigs. “She had a herd of them. Mamyte had a pig killed when we needed one, and we ate them.”

She had to feed the pigs while they lived and fattened.

“We kept a big pot in the kitchen where I boiled potatoes for the pigs every day. I had to bring all the water in from the well, not just for the pigs, but for everything.”

Earlier in the summer, within days of the Red Army’s collapse, the Einsatzgruppen followed the German army into Lithuania, their mission to liquidate Jews. Synagogues were set on fire and thousands of Jews killed in the streets. The Germans claimed rioting was a menace to public order and rounded up the country’s Jews, isolating them in ghettos to “protect them.”

By the end of the next summer Angele was still working hard but tired of being a hired hand. “I was young, and I had a lot of energy. I didn’t get tired. I watched the kids. Carmen was my best friend. I loved Gema the most. Ramute cried too much. She bent her fingers backwards until they hurt, and then started crying, saying that her hand hurt. I had to work all the time.”

She worked from before sunup to sundown. “I was the cook and made soup every day. I made the beds and I had to work all around the farm.” She washed dishes and put them away. She washed clothes by hand and hung them on a line outside to dry. She washed the kids, keeping them clean.

“I was her sister’s daughter, but I was her house maid, too.”

She made the fire that had to get going every day. She carried coal inside and knocked ice off the stairs in wintertime. Mindaugas was a strong boy and helped as much as he could. Carmen helped, too. Ramute was too small to do much and Gema was too small for anything. Ona went to town to teach school every day. In the summer she worked in the fields. Everybody did what they could.

One day when she was on the second floor, Angele overheard through an open window her aunt talking to a man in the front yard about that spring’s seeding.

“I have a servant, but she’s still young, and only so good to me,” said Ona.

She realized her aunt was talking about her, about her being more a servant, less a niece. “I promised myself from that moment that when I grew up, I would never be anyone’s servant, that no one would ever say that about me again.”

She put feed and water out for the chickens. She gathered eggs early and often. She collected them twice a day, so they stayed clean. It kept the chickens from eating them, as well. She herded cows to their milking stalls. She wore knee-high boots when walking knee-deep in pig mire. She put pebbles in the manger with the oats so the horses wouldn’t eat too fast. She mended fences the best she could when the pigs and cows bumped into them.

She and her father were sitting together under a gathering summer dusk in Gizai one day. “My father always called me Aneluke.” He told her his plans for the future. “Aneluke, when I die, I am going to leave the farm to you.”

Her aunt talked to her about vocational classes at a nearby farm school, where she could learn animal husbandry, vegetable production, and seasonal planning.

But after working on her father’s farm, and then working on her aunt’s farm, she had made up her mind farming wasn’t in her blood. “I didn’t like animals, and I hated the ground, the earth. I was never going to grow up to be a farmer.”

She was fourteen years old. She didn’t say anything to her father, but she told her aunt no.

When Angele’s grandfather died, Ona and her children went to Gizai for the funeral, but Angele had to stay behind and watch both the baby and the farm. “I was so unhappy,” she said.

She thought about her future, even though she was in the between of the war going on all around them. She thought about meeting boys. She thought about changing her name.

“I never liked my name. That’s why my father called me Aneluke.”

Her youngest brother didn’t like his name, either. Even though he been christened Mindaugas, after the legendary king, he changed it. When he told everybody far and wide young and old his new name was Jozukas, everybody went along with him, and he became Jozukas from then on.

She made friends with a boy she met at a dinner at a neighboring farm. They sat next to each other and talked. “I liked him, but one day Mindaugas and I were going to Vilkaviskis in the buggy when I saw him on the road. He was on a bike and a girl was walking beside him, walking towards us. They were holding hands. After that, I didn’t like him at all.”

No matter that the farmhouse remained unfinished, her aunt decided to wire up the farm. Although electricity was available in the cities, voltage drops over distance often made rural electrification impossible, or simply too costly. When farmers had the chance to tap into a network, they often jumped at the chance.

Their fertile croplands paved the way out of the dark for the Kreivenas family.

Ona arranged for the work to be done, making plans through her relations. They found an electrician for her. “Mamyte sent me to Vilkaviskis, to pick him up, the electrician from Kaunas, who was coming on the train.”

Vilkaviskis, on the banks of the Seimina River, is almost fifty miles northwest of Alytus. After she hitched up one of the horses to their wagon, it took her and Mindaugas all day to get there. They skirted the ruins of the Jewish quarter. That night they slept in the wagon, and the next morning set off for home, taking the electrician with them.

“He was hard to understand,” she said about him. Lithuanians from different regions of the country have accents and often have their own way of saying things. “There was a man from Zemaitija once, we could hardly understand what he was saying. They drop the endings of their words.”

Until 1941 Vilkaviskis had a large Jewish community. That summer SS death squads, helped by Lithuanian collaborators, killed more than three thousand Jews. It was virtually every single one of them in the town. The SS tore down and destroyed their homes afterwards. In 1943 more Jewish ghettos were demolished, and the living transferred to concentration camps. When the war ended almost all of them weren’t alive anymore.

The genocide rate in Lithuania, where anti-Semitism had been endemic for generations, was more than 90%, one of the highest in Europe.

There was a severe shortage of sugar throughout Europe, disrupted by worldwide conflict and blockade. The German military needed it to support its armed forces and its war effort at home. Sugar beet planting in Poland and the Baltics was ramped up. In 1942 more than 20% of Lithuanian farmers, the most ever, cultivated sugar beets. Production was expected to increase by 25% in 1943. Potatoes were in high demand. Grain was in high demand. The Axis paid in Reichsmarks, better money in Europe than anybody else’s.

Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.

“The electrician put in wires and lights. The black box was in the kitchen.” They were warned to never touch it. “We didn’t have to use oil lamps anymore. We were so happy.”

Carmen, Ramute, and Angele slept in the dining room, an improvised bedroom in the four-room house. To the left of the foyer was the kitchen and to the right was the dining room. Ona had the large bedroom and Mindaugas the small one. At the back of the house stairs led to a root cellar.

“We read books at night until mamyte told us lights out. She was a strict mother. We would always turn the light off right away. She knew when we did because she had a blinking light in her room which told her when the lights had been turned off. We pretended being quiet until we knew she was asleep, and then turned the light back on so we could read some more. After we got tired of reading, we turned the light off and talked until we finally fell asleep.”

In March 1943 the German authorities closed the Academy of Education and all Lithuanian schools of higher education. Ona taught grade school and wasn’t affected. She continued going to work. Everybody was uneasy. The war on the Eastern Front wasn’t going well for the Germans. The Wehrmachct was losing the ability to mount offensive operations.

“I couldn’t go to school because I had to work so much. I finished six grades, and I wanted to learn, so mamyte found a tutor for me. I went to her house for two years, studying high school.”

She wanted to be somebody other than a maid or farmhand.

Two months later in May the Gestapo outdated Lithuania’s local electorates. In September the last Jews in the ghetto of Vilnius were dragged out to the streets. Those who could work were sent to labor camps. The rest were shot.

When the New Year 1944 came, news was broadcast that Antanas Smetona, the first and last president of independent Lithuania, who fled his home and country in 1940, had died in a house fire in Cleveland, Ohio. His death closed the chapter on the interwar years, when Lithuania had been free and clear.

“We had a radio and listened to the news every day. We knew it was bad for the Germans. We knew the Russians were coming back.” Everybody was worried and scared about the return of the USSR. “We all knew something bad was going to happen.”

In early August 1944, the German army was driven out of most of Lithuania by Soviet forces and Russian hegemony was re-established. They were the same days of the war that marked the Battle of Normandy in the west, which soon led to French liberation and independence.

“When the Russians came, it all happened in one day. We got our wagon, the horses, the four children, and a cow. We needed the cow and left as fast as we could.”

They and hundreds of other families camped at a large farm only a few miles from the East Prussian border, biding their time. When the Red Army again pushed west in September, and what was left of the German army fled before them, the refugees crossed the frontier.

“We got across the border into East Prussia at night. It was a wet cold night. There wasn’t a single border guard. Nobody else in my family, none of my brothers and my sister, nobody, made it out before the border was closed by the Russians.”

She was free for the moment in German land, but her family kinsmen friends and the rest of the country stayed under the callused thumb of Moscow for the next nearly fifty years.

Photograph by Antanas Sutkus.

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.”

Smoking Out the Scouts

By Ed Staskus

   “Scouting is a man’s job cut down to a boy’s size.”  Robert Baden-Powell

   Vytas Staskevicius was born on a family farm outside Siauliai in 1924, six years after Lithuania’s Declaration of Independence and two years before the start of what is known as the Smetonic Era. The small city, capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a spiritual and folk-art site of about one hundred thousand Christian crosses.

   Siauliai goes back to 1236 to the Battle of Saule against the Teutonic Knights. The war between the Teutonic Order and Lithuanian folk was one of the longest in the history of Europe. The first church was built in 1445. Šiauliai was known for its leather industry. The biggest leather factory in the Russian Empire was there. In the 19th century Jews were encouraged to go to Lithuania for its entrée and their success. The city was majority Jewish by 1910.

   A blood-soaked battleground during both World Wars, Šiauliai saw thousands of its citizens run for their lives during the wars, never to come back.

   Vytas’s father was a native and a former officer in the Czarist Army. His mother was Russian and a former schoolteacher. His father met his mother while stationed southeast of Moscow. “In those days drunks went into the navy and dimwits into the infantry,” he said. He thanked God every day he had been pressed into service by Lithuania’s overlords as an officer.

   Vytas was a Boy Scout early on. Since his father was the police chief of their province, and since Antanas Smetona, the President of the country, was the Chief Scout, and since there were privileges provided to scout troops in schools by the Ministry of Education, Antanas Staskevicius involved his son in scouting as soon as he grew to school age.

   Ed Staskevicius found himself a Boy Scout in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio, troop his father became Scoutmaster of in the 1960s. They wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial knives in scabbards on their belts. They hiked trails and through woods, although most of them were hapless with a compass, instead relying on ingenuity, stamina, and dumb luck to find their way.

   Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered twenty boys and took them camping, exploring, and pioneering on an island off England’s southern coast. The next year the army officer, Robert Baden-Powell, wrote “Scouting for Boys.” That same year more than ten thousand Boy Scouts attended a rally at the Crystal Palace in London.

   The first scout patrol of ten boys and two girls in Lithuania was organized in 1918. The next year there were two patrols, one for boys and another for girls. During the inter-war years more than 60,000 boys and girls participated in scouting, making it one of the most popular activities among youngsters at that time. In 1939, just before the start of World War Two, there were 22,000 Lithuanian scouts, or almost one percent of the country’s population.

   Four out of five Lithuanians were farmers or lived in the country and camping was everyone’s favorite part of scouting. It’s what accounts for Vytas’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was Scoutmaster at later on, when World War Two was over. After first fleeing to Germany, then immigrating to Canada, he finally re-located to the United States. It’s where he went back to scouting.

   The camps weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit, either. Winter Blasts were camps in non-insulated cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which the scouts earned cold weather Merit Badges and were assured exploring outdoors in December was able-bodied, wholesome, and fun. They always built a fire first thing in the morning in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well stoked, and hoped they wouldn’t freeze to death in the long night.

   In the summer a grab bag of Merit Badges was up for grabs. There were more than a hundred of them, from sports to sciences. Ed learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned his Pioneering Badge, although he never learned to properly knot a tie, even later on in life, when his wife always helped him with it.

   Vytas was forever putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading his wife to repair rips in canvas. He told his scouts sleeping outdoors was manly robust healthy, no matter how much rain leaked onto their sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.

   He led them finding adventure in duck puddles. He had a maxim that a week of camp was worth six months of theory. To this day some of his former scouts are lousy at theory but always vacation in either the woods or at the seashore.

   For many years he was the vadovas at Ausra, a two-week sports-related, Lithuanian-inflected, and Franciscan-inspired summer camp at Wasaga Beach on the Georgian Bay north of Toronto. Although the campers did calisthenics every morning, went to Mass after breakfast, and spoke Lithuanian whenever they had to, what they actually did most of the time was run around in the woods, play tackle football in the shallow water of the bay, and sing off-key late into the night at the nightly bonfires.

   Singing around a bonfire is even better than singing in the car or the shower.

   When Vytas was nine years old he was one of the nearly two thousand homeboys at the 1933 Reception Camp in Palanga when Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, came to Lithuania. Palanga is a seaside resort on the Baltic Sea known for its beaches and sand dunes. Then a sleepy resort, today it’s a summer party spot.

   Vytas never forgot having been at that camp, seeing scouting’s leader and guiding light, if only on that one occasion. “He was a hero to us, someone who gave his life to something bigger than himself, even though we were all smaller than him,” he said.

   Baden-Powell’s son, who was with him in 1933, didn’t forget, either. “I particularly remember the warm and friendly welcome we received as we came ashore on Lithuanian soil,” recalled Peter Baden-Powell in 1956.

   In 1938, five years later and by then in his teens, Vytas was at the Second National Jamboree in Panemune, the smallest city in the country, which commemorated both the 20th anniversaries of the foundation of the Lithuanian Boy Scout Association and the restoration of Lithuania’s independence.

   Things change fast. Two years later the Soviet Union invaded, the country’s independence was overturned, and scouting was outlawed.

   During the war and successive occupations, first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and then the Soviets again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian forced labor camp. His mother spent 20 years in the Gulag.

   In 1ate 1944 he fled to Germany, made his way buying and selling black market cigarettes, and after the war worked for relief organizations dealing with the masses of displaced people. He met his wife-to-be in a hospital in Nuremberg, where she was a nurse’s aide, and where he was being operated on several times for a wound that almost cost him his right hand.

   He found passage to Canada in 1949, married Angele Jurgelaityte, who had emigrated there a year earlier, and by 1956 was the father of three children. In 1957 he left Sudbury, Ontario, where he had worked in nickel mines for almost seven years, first as a black powder blaster and then as a hauler of ore, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. His wife and children followed a half-year later. He worked as an elevator operator for seventy-five cents an hour, less than half of what he had been earning in the mines, swept floors stocked warehouses did whatever he could for a paycheck, and took classes in accounting at Western Reserve University at night.

   While in Canada he wasn’t involved in scouting.  When Angele was asked why not, she said, “There weren’t any children, or they were all still babies. All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us then in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, and getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up and become scouts.”

   Robert Baden-Powell said that scouts should be prepared for the unexpected and not be taken by surprise. “A scout knows exactly what to do when anything unexpected happens,” he said. By that guiding light scouting stood Vytas Staskevicius in good stead through the 1940s.

   When his parents were arrested by the NKVD and deported, he took over the family farm. He was 17 years old. When he fled their farm in 1944 with twenty minutes notice of the Red Army being on the horizon, he barely crossed the border before it was closed for good. When he landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in 1949, everything he had was in a small suitcase and there were five dollars in his wallet. He still had his five dollars when he knocked on Angele’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

   The more the unexpected happened the more he knew he had to do something to anticipate it. “The unexpected always happens,” he said. “The minute you put money away for a rainy day, it rains.”

   In Cleveland, living in a Polish double he bought and shared with his sister’s family, who had also fled Lithuania, he found work full-time at the Weatherhead Corporation, kept going to school at night, and after earning a degree in accounting went to work for TRW. He made his way up the ladder, finally managing his division’s overseas sales in both South America and the Middle East.

   After taking early retirement in the late-1980s he helped found the Taupa Lithuanian Credit Union and as director built its assets into the tens of millions. In the 1990s he formed NIDA Enterprises and managed it through 2008, when he was well into his 80s.

   He thought the workingman was the happy man. “Nothing works unless we do,” he said. He believed there was value in work. He believed work without effort was valueless.

   Because of World War Two and its dislocations, living rough and subsequent emigration overseas, as well as the demands of rebuilding a life and building a family, he didn’t participate in scouting for some time. But once a scout always a scout. “What you learn stays with you long after you’ve outgrown the uniform,” he said.

   When he took over from Vytautas Jokubaitis as Scoutmaster of Troop 311 they were big shoes to fill. Vic Jokubaitis was a tireless advocate for his countrymen who became director of Cleveland’s Lithuanian American Club. He was awarded the Ohio Governor’s “Humanitarian of the Year” award in 1994.

   Vytas Staskevicius worked with Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts for nearly twenty years, although even after giving up scouting, until his death in 2011, he never really stopped scouting.

   While Scoutmaster he helped affiliate Troop 311 with the American Boy Scouts, opening up many camping and jamboree venues for it, as well as linking it to the traditions and activities of scouting worldwide. In the late 1960s he established an ancillary scouting camp at Ausra, the Lithuanian-Franciscan campsite on the Georgian Bay, where Cleveland’s scouts enjoyed two weeks of camping, and by many accounts, some of the biggest nighttime bonfires they ever experienced.

   “Dad loved bonfires,” recalled Rick Staskevicius, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style bonfires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for morning exercises and raising the flags.”

   When asked what bonfires meant to him Vytas said, “Sometimes it takes looking through campfire smoke to see the world clearly.”

   Although they never warmed to it, he introduced winter camping and hiking to his troop, even encouraging them to try snowshoes.

   “I don’t remember ever falling down as much as when I tried walking on top of snow drifts wearing snowshoes,” recalled one of the scouts. “But he said it didn’t matter how many times we fell down, it only mattered that we get up and try again, although getting up while stuck in snowshoes is easier said than done.”

   He stressed study and achievement by encouraging the pursuit of Merit Badges, especially those that involved self-reliance and taking your chances.

   “One summer at a Canadian camp at Blue Mountain we were taken on a two-night canoe trip,” Rick said. “We were supervised, but given only a compass, a canteen, and a big bag of chocolate chip cookies. We had to make the round-trip up the bay and back to the camp ourselves without any help. They told us it was both a duty and a challenge to find our way, and we did it, and I still remember how accomplished we all felt when we did that.”

   In the 1970s he inaugurated Scautiu Kucius, a kind of Boy Scout’s Christmas Eve, a tradition that endures to this day. Every year, a weekend before Christmas, Cleveland’s Lithuanian scouts gather and feast on twelve foods representing the twelve apostles, sing carols, and kick their shoes off over their heads to see near what girl they will land, which is an old-school way of predicting the future.

   Another annual event he was invested in was the Kazuke Muge, a scouting craft fair, fund-raiser, and parade held every March in the community hall of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Cleveland’s Lithuanian church. He organized and promoted it for many years, making sure stalls were assembled for the craft sales, arranging indoor games and entertainment, and encouraging everyone to support the scouts.

   Even after retiring from active scouting he never missed a Kazuke Muge.

   Although he did much for the movement, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his young charges. He thought it better to encourage boys to educate themselves instead of always instructing them.

   “When you want a thing done ‘Don’t do it yourself’ is a good motto for a Scoutmaster,” said Robert Baden-Powell. Like him my father believed that to be best.

   “There is no ideal way to do things,” he explained to Gintaras Taoras, one of his scouts. “There is no absolute wrong way to do things. Everyone has different ways to accomplish something. It will just take some faster to accomplish the task and others longer, but you both end up at the same end point. Learn through your mistakes.”

   Gintaras, who would become a Scoutmaster in his own right, when asked what person had made a difference in his scouting career, said it was Vytas Staskevicius.

   “Brother Vytautas was never afraid to try anything new. He always gave us the chance to do things ourselves, like getting our camps organized and set up. If we got it wrong, he didn’t harp on us getting it wrong. He would ask us how we could have done things differently, what we learned, and we would then move on.”

   After World War Two the Lithuanian Boy Scouts Association began to re-organize. In 1948 a National Jamboree was held in Isar Horn of the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a small Lithuanian presence at the Boy Scouts of America Jamboree in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

   In 2014 Gintaras Taoras was in the front ranks when the 65th anniversary of scouting for Lithuanian immigrants on four continents was recognized at the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington, D. C.  “Scouting is a powerful movement providing life-changing opportunities to today’s Lithuanian youth,” said Zygimantas Pavilionis, the Lithuanian ambassador.

   “I wish to personally congratulate the Lithuanian Scouts Association,” said Robert Gates, former Secretary of Defense under Presidents Bush and Obama and National President of the Boy Scouts of America.

    The Centennial of Lithuanian scouting was celebrated in 2018. Vytas Staskevicius was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he has since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at, he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a huge heavenly bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.

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

Farm Girl

little-beet-topper-pc-001-e1575408158239.jpeg

By Ed Staskus

When Angele Jurgelaityte was born in January 1928, it snowed until it got too cold to snow anymore. By the end of the month the thermometer rose to ten degrees below zero. When it warmed up the first week of February and the snow melted, a half-foot of slush was left behind. The next week there was heavy rain and her father’s fields were left under water. If it froze there would be acres of ice rink.

“I was born in an area we called the New Farm, in Suvalkija,” said Angele.

Suvalkija is the smallest of the five regions of Lithuania. It is girdled by the Nemunas River to the north. The region‘s identity was molded in the 19th century when it was a part of Congress Poland. Suvalkija was an agricultural area, generating substantial sugar beet harvests. Sugar beet yield in Lithuania was almost half that in the United States, even though the country is 151 times smaller than the United States.

“My father’s name was Jonas Jurgelaitis. My mother’s name was Julija. We lived on a small farm. It was three miles from Marijampole.”

Marijampole is in the far south of Lithuania, bordering Poland and Kaliningrad. Lake Vistytis is nearby. The town was a center of book spreaders and freedom fighters in the long struggle leading to the country’s independence in 1918.

Their farm was thirty-seven acres. The nearest neighbors were out of sight, even though they were hard by. Woodlands of Scots Pine and Norway Spruce and copses of Birch were scattered along the periphery of their land. Her father kept a pair of horses, three to four cows, chickens, and a sounder of swine. Every week he loaded 10-gallon 90-pound milk cans into his wagon and took them to a local dairy. Their croplands were mainly devoted to sugar beets, a cash crop, harvested in early autumn.

Suvalkija has less forest than any other part of Lithuania. It has been brought to bear for tillage. Kazlu Ruda, a large forest, nearly 230 square miles of it, is in Suvalkija, but it is on sandy soil that doesn’t work for farming.

Rye, wheat, and barley have been cultivated in Lithuania for two thousand years. Potatoes got rolling three hundred years ago. The country has always been able to sustain itself with foodstuffs. After gaining home rule from the Russians, land reforms in 1922 turned over ground suitable for the plow to tens of thousands of new landowners. Two years later the Academy of Agriculture was established to oversee land exploitation and management.

“My mother was tall and thin and pretty. She looked like a Romanian, even though she was born near where we lived. I didn’t look like her, at all. I looked like my father.”

Her mother gave birth to eleven children in less than twenty years. Six of them survived infancy. Those that did survived World War Two, the forty-six year subsequent Soviet occupation, and lived to see Lithuania regain its freedom.

Justinas was the oldest boy, born in 1919. “Justinas would invite his friends, and girls, to our house in the summer for dancing, before he joined the army.” Irena and the boys Sigitas and Jozukas were the youngest. Jozukas, the tenderfoot of the family, was two years old in 1938.

Julija started suffering chest pains that year, losing her appetite and losing weight. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a major killer in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Almost ninety years later tuberculosis is still prominent in Lithuania, one of the most highly TB-burdened countries in the world, falling behind most nearby countries in the prevalence of the disease.

“She went to the sanitorium in Kaunas the next year and got better.”

When family responsibilities and the family’s finances called her back, she got worse. Angele helped with the housework and cooking. She kept up her schoolwork, kept up her chores, and with her two older brothers nursed their mother.

“Irena and I went to school in Gizai, which was less than a mile from our house. In the winter, when it was snowy, my father hitched one of the horses to a sled and took us there. I went for six years.”

The family farm was five miles from Marijampole. It was forty miles southwest from Kaunas, the country’s second largest city. Vilnius, the capital, home to nearly a half million, was eighty miles away. It might as well have been a million miles away.

“We all had to work on the farm, but my father did everything. We had to work, since we were poor.” There were no hired men or seasonal laborers. “I mixed feed for the pigs and fed them. We earned our money by growing sugar beets. Irena and I helped, but Sigitas and Jozukas were too small. We pulled them out of the ground in the fall and used a big knife to cut the leaves away. We threw them in a cart and when we had enough to fill our wagon, my father hitched the two horses and took the beets to Marijampole.”

The family home was a frame house, clapboard siding painted green, two stories, although the second story was only an attic for storage and for smoking pork.

“We had another small house, a small barn where we kept wood for the fireplace.” They sawed their own cordwood. “On the second floor, up a ladder, there was hay for the animals and rye and barley for bread. Justinas and Bronius slept in a room beneath the loft.”

A brick-lined jumper duct fed heat from the farmhouse fireplace to the barn. Still and all, in the winter the young men gathered their blankets up and warmed them before going to bed. In deep winter the nights are 17 hours long.

Lithuania is a flat fertile country overlooking the Baltic Sea. The summers are mild, and the days are long, but the winters are cold and dark. Temperatures often drop well below freezing. The ground is ice and snow-covered from December to mid-March.

“We had a dog, in a house next to the barn, whose name was Sargis.” Saugotis means beware, watch out. “He was our guard dog, always tied up, who barked whenever a stranger came near. We had cats, too, who killed the mice and rats who ate our grain. We never let them into the house, though, they were only for outside.”

Barn cats lead a rough life, hunting vermin in outbuildings and fields. They sleep where they can, stay warm if they can. Living feral, they don’t live long.

The family knew everyone in their neck of the woods. Everyone was wary of strangers. Although they had no immediate neighbors, her mother’s father, a tailor, lived nearby, and her father’s mother also lived within walking distance.

”When my mother made potato pancakes, she would sometimes give me a platter of them, and I took them to grandma’s house.” Her grandmother lived on the other side of the woods, with one of her father’s older sisters.

The family fed itself.

“We made our own bread and butter, made cheese, gathered eggs, and collected berries.” There were patches of wild blueberries at the edges of their fields. Although they didn’t have a cellar, they still canned pickles and beets. “We grew our own pigs and my father killed them.”

When the time came, Jonas selected a pig for slaughter, marched it to a clearing beside the barn, hit the animal between the eyes hard with a club hammer, and cut its throat. With the help of his two eldest sons he cleaned and skinned the pig with a sharp knife, keeping a knife sharpener at hand.

“We never sold our pigs to anyone. We ate all of them.”

Once the skin was separated from the muscle and fat, they cleaned out the guts and sawed the pig’s head off. After quartering the animal, Jonas found the hip joints and slid his knife into them, cutting off the two hams. He did the same thing when cutting the shoulders of the pig off. At the center, where the ribs are, he took whatever meat he could find.

They made sausages, bacon, and cured slabs of pork with salt and pepper. Jonas had built a closet around the chimney on the second floor of the house, which could be gotten to by ladder. There were no stairs. He smoked the pork in the closet, laying the meat on grates, opening a damper to vent smoke into the closet.

“I was scared of the upstairs, although the meat was delicious. When we ran out, we killed another pig.”

Whenever her mother got sick, from the time she was ten years old, Angele cooked for the family. “My oldest brother Justinas helped me until he went into the army, and then Bronius helped.” She cooked up pork logs, made soup, and served bread and butter every day.

After Justinas apprenticed to a tailor, and learned the trade, he joined the army. Everyone knew a war was coming. “He became a cavalryman and was stationed near Marijampole. He rode home a few times, on his horse, in his uniform. He was so handsome.” He had just turned twenty-one.

When the Red Army invaded the Baltic states in June 1940, their troops numbering some fifty divisions, supported by tanks, they swept the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian forces aside in a matter of days. Justinas spent the rest of the war sewing and mending, first under the thumb of the Russians, then the Germans, and then the Russians again.

A woman whose husband had died, who had no children and who lived on a nearby farm, helped Angele learn to bake bread in their brick-lined oven. They made five and six loaves at a time, working up to ten pounds of dough at a time, baking the free-standing loaves loosely arranged in front of a smoldering pile of coals that had been burning for several hours, pushed to the back of the oven. They added wood as they needed it, shifting the fire from side to side.

“We always had bread. We never had tea or coffee, just water. When we could, we collected herbs, and had herbal tea.”

The house did not have electricity or running water or indoor plumbing. They had oil lamps and an outhouse and a well. There was a sink in the kitchen. “The well had a pulley and a bucket until we finally got a hand crank.”

In January 1940 a bitter cold wave enveloped Lithuania, driving temperatures down to 40 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The next month it dove to 54 degrees below zero, the coldest in 160 years. The Baltic Sea iced over. Some people froze to death and more than 10,000 in the Baltics were severely frostbitten.

When Julija had a relapse, she went back to the sanitorium, but returned home soon after in the fall. “A taxi brought her back. My mother said she had to be with her children.” She was not fully recovered. When winter bore down again, she ran down and became bedridden.

Jonas laid down rough wide planks over the packed dirt floor in one of the three rooms. He moved a metal stove into the room. His wife died in her bed, the head of the bed at the window, early the next spring. She was forty-three years old.

Her father re-married four months later. “He needed a woman to take care of Sigitas and Jozukas.” Jonas had decided to ask the nearby widow with the farm, the woman who had helped Angele bake bread, but by then she was spoken for by another man. He found a single woman in Gizai.

“It was where we always went. My school was there, and there was a church, a police station with a policeman, and a hardware store that had everything. Whenever we had a coin we bought candy there.”

Jonas’s new wife was younger than Julija had been and healthy. She had a daughter a year older than Angele, even though she had never been married. The wedding was in early September. It wasn’t long after the move-in before Angele realized she couldn’t stay.

“My new mother and my father started arguing. She loved the younger ones, and she loved her own daughter, but they started arguing about me. My father stood up for me, but he needed a wife. I don’t know what I was thinking, but one day I left.”

It was late September. She packed a loaf of bread, some cold pork, what clothes she could carry, and set off in the morning at first light for Alvitas, for her aunt’s house. Ona Kreivenas was her mother’s sister. Her aunt’s husband, a police captain, had been deported to Siberia by the Russians that summer, leaving her with three children and giving birth to a fourth.

Even though two German army groups had smashed into the country in late June that summer, ousting the Russians, by then it was too late for Jonas Kreivenas, who didn’t come back from Siberia for fifteen years, and when he did, found out his wife was living in Philadelphia, in the United States.

“I knew life wasn’t going to be any easier in Alvitas, but I had to go.”

Alvitas is about fifteen miles from Gizai. It took her most of the day to walk there. She passed a small prisoner of war camp crowded with Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht. When she got to her aunt’s farm the sun was near to setting.

“I lived with my aunt for the next three years, until the Russians came again, and we had to run to Germany. I never went back home, except to visit, as a guest. I loved my father, and my brothers and sister, but I couldn’t go back.”

When Angele woke up early the next morning, she had a new home and a new mother. “She was my mamyte now. They were my family.” She helped her aunt make breakfast. There was strong black tea at the table. The first frost wasn’t far away, but that morning was an Indian summer.

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.”