Better to Burn Out

By Ed Staskus

   I never thought a motorcycle gang would be parked on the sidewalk in front of the new Lithuanian Club on Cleveland’s east side, but there they were. It was the summer of 1973. It wasn’t a gang so much as it was six Lithuanian men bordering on the same age, which was in their 20s. Two of them looked rough around the edges, but the other four could have passed for bean counters. 

   The Gelezynis Vytis Motorcycle Club was Vic Degutis, Rich Duleba, Gytis Motiejunas, Joe Natkevicius, Al Karsokas, and John Degutis. Gytis was a cop and Nutty was an electrician. They had jean jackets emblazoned on the back with the Iron Knight, the Baltic nation’s coat of arms. The knight’s horse is white and on his sinister arm he carries a shield with a double cross on it. He hoists a ‘Don’t Mess with Me’ sword over his head. The motorcycles were Harley’s, except for John’s BMW.

   The two rough around the edge bikers were Al and John. They were the two of the group I knew best. I knew Vic, John’s brother, but he was almost 30 years old, which at the time made him suspect. I thought it best to not trust anybody over 30. Nowadays I don’t trust anybody under 30. Millennials are always saying crazy things like “Sorry, not sorry” and “We need to possess our lives.” They never do anything without a recommendation from their friends. Their friends are just like them.

   Although it was surprising to see bikers at the Lithuanian Club, given how conservative most Lithuanians are, I shouldn’t have been surprised. “First wave immigrants liked their bikes,” Janis Kundmueller explained. “Our family photo album has many photos of motorcycles from the late teens to the early 1920s.” The Roaring 20s roared for more reasons than one.

   Al graduated from Cathedral Latin High School in 1968. John and I graduated from St. Joseph’s High School the same year. “Al was always a tough kid,” said Kestutis Susinskas, a high school classmate. “John was an artist and musical. We would sit in his parent’s basement with our guitars, although I think he got bored because I wasn’t very good.” The next year John was in Vietnam keeping Communism contained, although it didn’t take him long to realize Charlie was intent on doing away with him. From then on, his number one mission was keeping the pajama-clad killers at bay.

   I dodged the draft by telling the draft board I would frag an officer the first chance I got if I was forced into poplin fatigues and sent to Vietnam. I wasn’t trying to be mutinous, but I wasn’t prepared to be crippled or killed to keep somebody else’s dominoes in place. The slant eyes could go full bore Commie for all I cared. Al evaded the draft like me, enrolling in Cleveland State University, even though he didn’t have eyes set on a diploma.

   “Al was the best man at our wedding,” Lola Brohard said. She and John were married in 1981. “John talked about the war a lot. He had memories of it that wouldn’t go away. He hated the swamps and abnormal insects crawling on him. After the war he kept an album full of pictures of dead Viet Cong and NVA.”

   The Viet Cong were the local guerillas and the NVA was the North Vietnamese army. The USA lost more than 50,000 men during the war. The Viet Cong and NVA lost more than a million men. In the United States the war was called the Vietnam War, even though war was never officially declared. The conflict escalated from advisors to half a million American troops based on the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which was based on supposed gunboat attacks that never happened. In Vietnam the conflict was called the War Against the Americans to Save the Nation.

   John was based in Da Lat. It is a hilltop resort city, often foggy, surrounded by pine forests, and at the time full of French-built villas. It was home to the Vietnamese National Military Academy, where South Vietnamese officers trained. The Viet Cong attacked the city in early 1968 as part of the first Tet Offensive. John missed that battle. He didn’t miss the second Tet Offensive the next year.

   The war in Vietnam had been going on since the 1940s, when nationalists first fought the Japanese and then the French. The United States financed the French, but they were as hapless against the Asians as they had been against the Nazis, and their colonial rule came to an end in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu. After the country was partitioned and elections called off, a covert American aid program was launched. By the time John got to Vietnam it had long since failed. The South Vietnamese military was unwilling to fight for itself.

   “John was quite different when he got home,” members of the Lithuanian Club agreed. “The war really screwed him up.” He came back with his head wrapped around heavy weapons and heroin. “He became an addict over there,” Lola said. Almost half of the GI’s who served their country in Southeast Asia tried heroin or opium and 20% of them become addicted. “He went through withdrawal when he got home. His mother stayed by his bedside the whole time.”

   “I was in Ohio during the Vietnam War era,” said Joe Walsh, the lead guitar player for the rock ‘n’ roll band the Eagles. He attended Kent State University, where the National Guard pumped protesting students full of holes in 1970. “I was 20, and my reality was that people either went to college or they were draftable. The friends that I went to high school with that didn’t go to college eventually wound up in Vietnam, and I noticed that they came home different.”

   The Vietnam years were when the American Dream started to run out of gas.

   Al and John got into the biker life after John returned from the war. Before that they were just middle-class high school kids.  Al was on the Debate Club at Cathedral Latin. “He was reserved growing up,” said Rita, his older sister. “But by the time he was a teenager and started driving, he fell in love with going fast. He became a daredevil.”

   He didn’t worry overmuch about what might happen. “Sooner or later we all pay for our choices,” he said.

   “I was a little scared of Al when he got into the biker life,” Liucija Eidimtaite said. “He was one of my first friends from when I was four years old. His family was not pleased with his choices.” The family moved from the older ethnic neighborhood around St. George Catholic Church to newer North Collinwood in 1968. Al and I were in the same grade at the church’s elementary school for five years. We were in Boy Scout Troop 311 together, Jim Bowie knives strapped to our sides at summer camp. In 1978 his choice of wheels came to a fork in the road. 

   “I was traveling on E. 185th St. when traffic stopped,” Liucija said. “There was an accident ahead. I saw a downed motorcycle and was struck by the notion that it might be Al. I pulled my car over and walked to the ambulance as they were loading him on a gurney. I followed it to Euclid General Hospital to make sure it was him. It was him. I high tailed it to the Karsokas family home on Landseer St. and broke the news to Al’s parents. Both his legs and a hip were broken When I visited him, he was trussed up in traction.”

   “Did you pick up my boot?” Al asked Liucija.

   “Your boot?” she asked.

   “I was knocked out of it by the crash. Did you pick it up? It was right there in the middle of the street.”

   “No, I saw it, but didn’t think to pick it up,” she said. Al was annoyed. They were his best pair of Frye boots. He let it pass. There wasn’t much he could do about it, anyway. He was flat on his back for the duration. He wasn’t going to need boots any time soon. He was burning it up at both ends.

   “Their inner flames burned too bright,” Mariana Stachnik said. “That’s why they both expired way too soon.”

   “I worked, rode, drank, and partied with Al and John,” Loreto Accettola said. He graduated from St. Joe’s three years before us. He went to work for Penn Central the year John went to Vietnam. In 1974, after Al and John signed up with Penn Central, one of the line’s trains collided with a lift drawbridge crossing the Cuyahoga River near downtown. The switch control operator had told the crew they were good to go. After he signed off, he remembered a boat was waiting passage and lifted the bridge. He forgot to tell the crew. The train ran headlong into the counterweight of the bridge, killing both men in the lead locomotive. Loreto knew Al and John through their years of railroading together. Al eventually worked his way up to switch control operator.

    “Al rear ended a parked car on E. 185th St after leaving the Lithuanian Club,” Loreto said. He had probably had more than enough to drink. “He broke both his legs above the knee. He was bed ridden for months.” After he recovered, he bought another Harley and got married to a woman who liked motorcycles. “Her father was a bigwig at Stouffer’s,” Rita said. “He wasn’t happy about it. He freaked out the first time he saw my brother.”

   I went to visit Al in the hospital soon after I heard he had wiped out. He was alone in a semi-private room. Both his legs were in suspension. His arms were an abstract painting of road rash. There were many scratches on his face. He asked if I had any weed with me.

   “No, I don’t,” I said. 

   “Bring some the next time you visit,” he said.

   Why he wanted weed was beyond me. I had no doubt he was being fed man-sized narcotics for the pain of two broken legs. When I asked him what happened, he told me a car had sped through an intersection and slammed into him before he knew what was happening. He warned me to always be on my guard. There was no need to warn me. I didn’t own a motorcycle. Whenever I did ride a borrowed bike, I assumed everybody on the road was out to kill me. It was my own private Vietnam.

   I visited Al a few more times, but after he asked me for reefer again and again, I stopped visiting him. One day, before my last visit, I ran into John. I hadn’t seen him much since high school. He looked different. For one thing, he had a beard. For another thing, his hair was shoulder-length. We hadn’t been best friends, but he barely gave me the time of day. He wasn’t unfriendly, just indifferent. It may have been the last time I saw him. I never saw Al again after he got out of the hospital, although I dropped off a paperback copy of Kahlil Gibran’s book “The Prophet” before he left.

   I wrote inside the flyleaf, “Watch out for the man, phonies, and bad trips. Have fun, be crazy, think now and then, and take care of yourself. See ya’ another day, another time, another age.” After he died, I heard that although he never read the book, he didn’t throw it away, either.

   Al and John lived together for a while in a rented house near Lake Erie and roasted pigs in the back yard. “I went to one of their pig roasts,” Rita said. “They had brownies, and I ate one. I was naïve about it. My head started spinning and I had to ask my boyfriend to take me home.”

   John got married and had kids. When the time came one of his children donated part of his liver to his father, but it was too little too late. Al got divorced and married a Lithuanian gal who needed a Green Card. He hung in there long enough to make it to the new century. He died of cirrhosis in his late 40s. John made in to 2002, dying of the same disease in his early 50s. 

   Al’s nickname among his biker friends was Weasel. “The Weasel told me John did acid in Vietnam,” Dainius Zalensas said. “When he got home, they ate a lot of happy mushrooms together and that’s why both of them had liver failure at the same time.”

   What Al didn’t say was that LSD is excreted in urine and has no effect on the liver. On the other hand, alcohol is toxic to the liver. Europeans drink more alcohol than anybody else in the world. Lithuanians drink more of it than all other Europeans. They are always saying to their gizzards, “Today will be a rough one, stay strong.” All bartenders have the right to cut off anybody at their bar who they feel is drinking too much. No bartender ever cut off Al or John at the Lithuanian Club. There would have been hell to pay.

   “The Weasel was some kind of person, just like John,” Dainius said. “Everybody said that he wiped out on his motorcycle, but what really happened was somebody opened their parked car door on purpose in front of him, and he ran into it. Al was a brave son-of-a-bitch. Whenever we went to the biker bar on East 222 St. and St. Clair Ave., he sat down next to the largest guy there and started to tease him. No matter how much he drank he always left dry as the water, like the proverb says.”

   He meant Al had ice water in his veins. He never ate birch porridge either, another Lithuanian proverb. He stood on the small side, but it would have been a mistake to get on the wrong side of him. He wasn’t a volte-face kind of man. Dozens of keys on his belt loop jingle-jangled when he walked. He wore multiple rings. One of them was a skull ring. He carried a cutter. 

   “My brother was good at heart,” Rita said. “He became a biker to cover up his soft side.”

    Neither he nor John were going to run dry of their get up and go. Neither of them made provisions about aging gracefully and slow-going it into the sunset. Neither of them set up a retirement fund. They believed it was better to burn out than it was to fade away. They threw themselves into their adventure.

   “They were good people, good friends,” said Dainius. “Sadly, they both left this world too soon.”

Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street and Cleveland Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”


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