By Ed Staskus
“I don’t like this jacket,” I said. “I don’t want to wear it. Do I have to?”
“The first communicant has to wear special clothing,” my father said. “It’s white to symbolize purity.”
“That’s right,” my kid brother piped up. “At least you’ll look like a saint.”
I gave him a look he knew meant we would settle that crack later, when our parents were out of range of his cries for help. His time would come.
First Communion is a big deal. Girls wear dresses passed down to them from their sisters or mothers. They sport a veil or a wreath. Boys wear a suit and tie, their Sunday best, or national dress, with embroidered armbands and white gloves. Thank God all I had to wear were a sports jacket and a pressed pair of clean pants. A folk costume and white gloves in front of a church full of my kinsfolk would have been unbearable, especially if they nodded approvingly at each other. In front of my friends, it would have been mortifying.
My father was a true believer, and my brother wasn’t far behind, even though his guile was legendary among everybody except grown-ups. I was sure he would find some grody jacket to wear the day of my First Communion, just to mess with me.
That is exactly what happened. I couldn’t do anything about it. I had to keep my JFK-styled hairdo in place. Even though my parents voted Republican like playing Whac-A-Mole, my mom thought John Kennedy the envy of the Western world, new, vibrant, handsome. She wasn’t going to vote for him, but that was beside the point.
We lived on Bartfield Ave. at East 129th St. and St. Clair Ave. in the Forest Hills neighborhood. There were no hills and no forests. Lake Erie wasn’t far away. Our church was St. George on East 65th St. and Superior Ave. During the week my brother, sister, and I took two city busses, transferring halfway there, a half-hour ride to get to school, but on Sunday mornings our dad drove the ten minutes there.
After the church ceremony a photographer took portraits of us, a prayer book and rosary in our hands, looking pious and proud in soft focus. Gifts were parceled out. Some parents gave holy cards, religious statues, and daily devotional books. Thankfully my father and uncle were both accountants and handed me envelopes livened up with cash money.
The next day at school was Jesus Day. We took a prayer walk around the school grounds, which was a big asphalt parking lot, were led on a tour of the church, which I knew full well, training to be an altar boy, created a personal bookmark, and sat through a special liturgy. We were reminded that Holy Communion was special, a matter of life and death.
St. Ignatius of Antioch called the Eucharist the “medicine of immortality.”
The first dead man I ever saw was soon after my First Communion. It was on a Sunday morning, before we went to church, when one of my friends ran past our front porch shouting something about life and death. I took off after him to St. Clair Ave, where on the corner stood a Gulf gas station and car repair shop. Three police cars were scattered along the street. Their lights were flashing, policemen standing around doing nothing, one of them writing in a notebook. In the gutter a man lay akimbo all sprawled arms and legs.
We walked up to him and looked down. He was missing a shoe. There was a crusty puddle of red goo on the front of his white t-shirt. He looked asleep, except his head was bent crooked sideways in a way I had never seen before. A violent purple gash was open on his temple.
“Run along boys, there’s nothing for you to see here,” a policeman prodded us.
“Did somebody shoot him?”
The policeman gave my friend a kick.
Less than a year earlier I saw John Kennedy when he campaigned for the presidency in Cleveland, smiling and waving from the back of a convertible crawling along Superior Ave. It was a cool sunny early fall day. A little more than two years later I saw him get killed in a convertible on TV. Flags went half-mast. One of his kids saluted his fallen father.
There were five houses on the north side of Bartfield Ave. where it met Coronado Ave. My friend and I ran home. Our house was the second from the corner. A family of hillbillies who had migrated to Cleveland from West Virginia lived in the corner house. A boy my brother’s age and he were always fighting, wrestling, slapping each other. They were on the sidewalk waving rakes at each other.
“Stop that!” I yelled. “We have to go to church.”
A colored boy from South Carolina lived in the two-story brick apartment building on the corner opposite the Gulf gas station. We played together but didn’t always get along. One day he called me a dirty DP. My parents had come from Europe after World War Two. One thing led to another, and I smacked him hard on the ear. He lunged at me and when I put my hands up, he clamped his teeth onto my right thumb. He wouldn’t let go no matter what. I had to say I was sorry. When he finally let go, he ran away up the back steps. My thumb hurt like the devil and I had to wipe tears out of my eyes.
When John Kennedy debated Richard Nixon in late September 1960, it was the first televised presidential debate in the United States. The CBS man Howard Smith moderated the debate, with a pack of journalists facing off with the candidates. My mom and dad watched it that Sunday evening, so we watched it. My brother, sister and I were mad about missing our favorite weekend nighttime shows. We complained but our parents were long on civics and short on stir-crazy children. John Kennedy looked good. He had style and charisma. Richard Nixon was sweaty, shifty, and no match for his young competitor.
“He should have shaved,” my dad, a lifelong Republican, lamented. “He looks bad.” He looked pasty and haggard is what he looked like. John Kennedy looked fit and self-assured.
After the debate JFK left Chicago that night and flew to Cleveland. His plane landed at Lost Nation Airport at two in the morning. Students from Western Reserve University turned out to greet him and provide an “Honor Guard.” In the morning his motorcade rolled down Euclid Avenue and around University Circle to a cheering throng.
On the way to a rally in Lorain Stadium, the motorcade wound its way west along city streets. Vic Baroni, Jr., 9-years-old, stood on the corner of Ida Ave. Rick Green, 10-years-old, stood on the corner of East 69th St. I was going on 11-years-old standing on Superior Ave. We all got one good look at JFK. I was behind everybody, trying to find a hole in the crowd to squeeze through to the front, when there he was, in a convertible, sitting on the back of the car with his feet on the seat. The crowd swayed and parted. He was waving. I waved back and cheered. He wasn’t the only grown-up I had ever seen, but he was the youngest-looking best-looking grown-up. He looked like a movie star minister war hero all rolled up in one.
After the rally in Lorain, and lunch at the Moose Hall, he went to the annual Democratic steer roast at Euclid Beach Park. More than 125,000 people heard him speak, more people than had ever assembled at the amusement park. Lakeshore Blvd. was a mess of cars and busses going nowhere, smoke from the roast inviting them in for a bite.
“The forgotten man of 1960 is the American consumer,” he said. “The forgotten woman is the American housewife. In 1952 they were promised lower prices. They heard endless Republican commercials about a stable dollar and a cheaper market basket. But under 8 years of Republican rule, the cost of living has gone up and they have done nothing about it. Families are concerned about the missile gap, but they are equally concerned about the gap between what they earn and what they have to spend.”
It struck a chord with my mom and dad, but they still voted the GOP slate top to bottom. Richard Nixon would have had to shoot the Pope stone cold dead in the face in front of the Vatican’s Easter Sunday crowd to get my Catholic parents to vote for the Catholic on the ticket. He wasn’t a Republican, and that was that.
Halloween was a month later. Time is candy was our motto. We knew our neighborhood forward and backward. We knew who handed out old fruit and who handed out new chocolate. We knew what houses to avoid because the householders were mean stingy or simply slow, and which houses were gold mines. My brother and I never wasted time with costumes, simply dressing like bums. The freeloader look was best because that is what we were.
Once back home my sister hid her candy in the attic. The third floor was as empty as the day we moved in. My parents were immigrants and still scraping by, still buying only what we needed and were going to use, not things to forget about in the attic. My sister found a loose floorboard in a corner and hid her candy there. My brother had a sweet tooth and wasn’t to be trusted. No one knew or ever found out where he hid his candy. He believed loose lips sank ships and never told anybody. I hid mine in the basement, on a shelf behind a box of summer fun beach gear.
The next week John Kennedy won the White House, although he did it without winning Ohio. Tricky Dick defeated JFK, 53 percent to 47 percent, in the Buckeye State. He took all but 10 of Ohio’s 88 counties. John Kennedy won in the Cleveland area, to the discomfiture of my Lithuanian flesh and blood.
That winter was cold although not a lot of snow fell. When it finally did, we built snow forts on Blind Man’s Hill. The hill was the side yard of a house on the other end of our short stretch of Bartfield Ave. A blind man lived alone in the house. We had an arrangement with him. In return for keeping an eye out for anybody messing with his house, he let us mess around on his side lawn. It was a knoll, although not much of one, inclining to about four feet, but it was enough for us, especially when we were behind the walls of our fort hurling snowballs down on our enemies.
The next summer on the rainy afternoon Romas Povilaitis and I almost killed my brother in the attic of our house it wasn’t our fault, but after my sister raised the roof there was no explaining it and we just had to take our lumps. We heaved a sigh of relief when my brother exonerated us, even though wrath then fell on his head, too.
Romas lived in Chicago with his small-fry brother Viktoras, his mother Irma, and father Vytas. His father was muscular and handsome. He had wavy blonde hair. He was better looking even than his wife. Irma said she was glad he worked in a factory and wasn’t trying to better himself, because if he did, she was sure he would leave her. Even though he was blue collar, they lived in a big house in the Marquette Park neighborhood.
Chicago has the largest Lithuanian community outside of the old country. It is known as Little Lithuania among those in the know. Lithuanian Americans in Chicago say it is the second capital of the homeland. Whenever we visited, we saw plenty of the clan. Whenever they visited us, we ran around like 10,000 maniacs.
Romas was enamored of Spiderman that year, a new Marvel Comics superhero. He scuttled around our house pretending to squirt web fluid from his wrists. He tried to cling to walls but tumbled to the floor. We were in the attic arguing the merits of Superman Batman and Spiderman when my brother insisted for the last time that Superman was the best of the three.
“He could crush Batman and Spiderman with his little finger and besides only he can fly,” he said.
It finally drove us to distraction. We put a cape on him and hung him by his heels out the third-floor window. He was all for it, except when the cape went draping over his head and he complained he couldn’t see. It was then my sister walked through the door. We almost flaked out and he almost nose-dived when she screamed. We were pulling him back inside when our mother burst in.
She dropped a dozen eggs and bum rushed the three of us downstairs. Thank God my father and Vytas Povilaitis were out. As it was, we had to listen to Irma and my mother lay down the law of the land. They seemed deadly serious, so we listened with grim attention.
“Don’t ever do that again!”
There were only two bedrooms in our Polish double on Bartfield Ave. Our sister shared a bedroom with my brother and me. Vytas and Irma slept in the living room when visiting. Romas and Viktoras slept on the floor between our beds on sleeping bags. That evening we read comic books by flashlight long into the night. We kept our sister up, but she had the good sense to keep her sleeplessness to herself.
She knew she was no match for Superman Batman and Spiderman.
The Friday JFK was assassinated I was in my eighth-grade classroom at Holy Cross School in Euclid, where I transferred after we moved from our old neighborhood that had gone civil rights to the ethnic white community of North Collinwood. The loudspeaker unexpectedly crackled to life. It was the principal on the school’s broadcast system.
She said President Kennedy had been shot and killed.
“Here is a flash from Dallas: Two priests who were with President Kennedy say he is dead of bullet wounds suffered in the assassination attempt today,” reported NBC Radio. “I repeat, a flash from Dallas, two priests say President Kennedy is dead of bullet wounds.”
We were struck dumb stunned. It wasn’t something any of us had ever thought about or expected to happen. Nobody knew what to do or say. Our teacher nun asked us to stand and recite the rosary. We did until the principal came back on the PA and told us all to go home. Kids were crying as they went through the door.
Everybody stayed glued to their TVs at home, watching the news. There wasn’t anything else to watch, anyway. The networks suspended their commercials and regular programming for the first time ever and ran coverage on a non-stop basis. The assassin was caught, but a few days later was shot in the stomach in the basement of Dallas Police headquarters. We saw it happen live on TV. It was unbelievable. Even more unbelievable was that the man who killed Lee Harvey Oswald was an exotic dancing nightclub man who went by the nickname of “Sparky.”
“What is this country coming to?” my father asked. There was no love lost for the president in our house and neighborhood, but nobody wished him dead. They may not have believed in the man, but they believed in the institution.
I started to wonder about God. Why did he want John Kennedy dead? Did he have a plan or was he just flipping coins? When I asked our teacher why God had given JFK a one-way ticket, she started into chapter and verse, but then sent me to the parish priest who told me God always has a plan and to not use words like one-way ticket.
“Keep your mind clean,” he said.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”