Escape to German Land

By Ed Staskus

   “The bishop fixed it up for us,” said Angele Jurgelaityte

   When Angele, 16 years old, Ona Kreivenas, her aunt, and Ona’s four children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the new kid Gema, got off one of the last trains the Prussian Eastern Railway ran from East Prussia to Berlin in late 1944 they were met at the station by Bishop Vincentas Brizgys.

   The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Her husband, a policeman, had been arrested by the Soviets in 1941 and deported to Siberia, where he was still in a labor camp. Bishop Vincentas Brizgys was the assistant to the archbishop of Kaunas. In the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with retreating German forces.

   In the fall a drove of other Lithuanians barreled out as the Red Army swarmed the Wehrmacht and overran the Baltics. The fighting was thick tenacious terrible. Wartime losses of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians were among the highest in Europe.

   Ona had somehow located the bishop by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg. He was carrying a basket of hot buns. He didn’t look like the churchman he was. Berlin didn’t look like what it had been.

   “He gave one to each of us,” Angele said. “I was so happy.”

   What the bishop fixed up was for them was passage to Bavaria. They landed in the north of the southeastern state. Bavaria shares borders with Austria, Switzerland, and the Czechoslovak territories. The Danube and Main flow through it, the Bavarian Alps border Austria, and the highest peak in Germany is there. The major cities are Munich and Nuremberg and the Bavarian and Bohemian forests are in the south.

   “The bishop found a pig farm for us, people he knew. We lived in a two-room apartment above the slaughterhouse. There was another Lithuanian with us, a woman in her 20s, a fancy woman,” said Angele.

   One of the two rooms was a kitchen. They lived and slept in the larger room, two adults, two teenagers, and three children. There was barely room to stand. The fancy woman kept to herself.

   “We slept on cots.” Fourteen years later, she her husband and my sister, brother, and I slept on cots our first two months in Cleveland, Ohio, waiting to buy a house. I was the oldest and just short of seven years old. 

   “We worked, helping with the cows, and cutting clover. There was no town, just country everywhere. The German family we stayed with fed us. They were good people.”

   There was no combat in their corner of the world. “We didn’t see any fighting all winter long,” said Angele. “The war ended when the Americans came. They wore nice uniforms, not like the Russians, who were filthy. They were friendly, completely different. They threw candy to us as they went past.”

   Bavaria was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite places during the twelve years of the one thousand year Third Reich. He had a lavish residence at the Obersalzberg. Bavaria had been the scene of protests against Nazi rule in the late 1930s, but it didn’t matter to the Fuhrer. He had his own SS security force. Their orders were shoot first. After the war Nuremberg was chosen for the military tribunals trying Nazi war criminals because it had been the ceremonial birthplace of the party and their annual propaganda rallies were held there.

   Allied air forces bombed the hell out of it in 1944 and 1945. In January 1945 521 British bombers dropped six thousand high-explosive bombs and more than a million incendiary devices on the city. The historic old town was destroyed. Half of the rest of the city was destroyed. What wasn’t blown to bits or burnt down was damaged. Surviving the bombardment meant you had to then try to survive the aftermath.. The city was left with almost no heat no electricity no water supply in the middle of winter.

   The Palace of Justice and the prison that was part of the large complex were spared. It was a sign of what was in store. It was spared because retribution was in the air.

   “In the fall after the war ended, we had to leave the pig farm and went to an American refugee camp near Regensburg. We had two rooms, but there was a Lithuanian man in the other room, so we had one room. We lived there and didn’t do anything.”

   Before the Red Army closed the borders, padlocking the Baltics behind the Iron Curtain, about 70,000 Lithuanians were able to escape the country, almost all of them ending up in Germany. When the war ended nearly 11 million refugees had flooded the country, more than the total population of Austria. Many of them ended up in Displaced Persons camps in Bad Worishofen, Nordlingen, and Regensberg.

   In the spring of 1946, Angele, Ona, and the children again moved to a new camp.

   “It was a castle that you got to down a long road through a forest in front of a lake. There was a big chapel and two big barracks. There were no owners anymore, and no workers, nobody. There were only the Americans and refugees. We were more than two thousand. We were all Lithuanians.”

   The Schwarzenberg castle on the outskirts of Scheinfeld in Bavaria is northwest of Nuremberg. From 1946 until 1949 many thousands of Lithuanians were housed at the DP camp there while they waited for their chance to get to Australia, Canada, the United States, anywhere else.

   “There was no future for us in Germany,” said Angele.

   There were no repatriation plans, either. There was no going back. The system of revolving displacement would have meant the end for many of them, suspicion and persecution for the rest. The Russians had no plans on letting returning Lithuanians off easy. They had no plans on letting any Lithuanians of any kind, unless they had converted to Communism, off easy. Even then it was dicey.

   The camp outside Nuremberg was administered by an American Army officer of Lithuanian descent. The military’s concern was providing shelter, nutrition, and basic health care. Although the Americans looked after vital supplies, everybody in the camp lent a hand, The DP’s prepared their own food, sewed new clothes from cloth and old clothes they took apart, donated by the Red Cross, and published their own daily newspaper. They printed their own money, too. The currency could be earned by working around the camp and spent at the canteen, where you could buy shaving cream, combs, and cigarettes.

   “We had our own doctors, our own church, and even a school. My best friend was Maryte. Her parents were teachers. They taught the high school classes in the camp. Her mother knew how to sew, too. She would take old clothing that had been donated to us, take them apart, and make new dresses. Whenever she made a dress for Maryte she made one for me, too.”

   Angeles’s aunt talked to her about learning to become a seamstress.

   “She wanted me to learn how to sew, like my older brother Justinas, so I would have some way to make a living, but I said no.” She had turned down her aunt’s advice at home about becoming a farmer. She had no plans sewing for a living, either. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do, but she knew for sure what she didn’t want to do.

   After her friend Maryte moved to Nuremberg, taking classes in x-ray technology, and was on the way to becoming a nurse assistant at the Army Hospital there, she wrote Angele.

   “She told me about it, told me it was a 10-month course, and told me to come join her.”

   Angele packed a satchel with her clothes and slipped away as the weather warmed up one morning in 1947. She said goodbye to Ona and her four kids. “By then mamyte was teaching kindergarten at the camp and she had her children around her.” Mindaugas was grown a few years older, now a teenager, and could take care of his three sisters.

   When Angele left, she left more space for them in their quarters. She walked and hitchhiked the forty miles to Nuremberg. Even though there were travel restrictions, a German government barely existed to enforce its own laws, and the only thing she had to worry about was an over-zealous American officer in a Jeep.

   When she got to Nuremberg she asked where the hospital was and found her way there. It had been rebuilt after the ferocious bombardments two years earlier. She was assigned a bed in a small room, twelve feet by twelve feet, sharing it with three other women.

   “There were four of us, me, Ele, who was 24 and tall, Koste, who was 28 and stocky, and Monica, who was the oldest and had been a nurse in Kaunas. One of our teachers was a Lithuanian and she helped me. We lived in the barracks at the hospital. I worked in the hospital, cleaned, changed beds, and did whatever they told me to do. I studied whenever I could. There wasn’t time to do very much else.”

   They had to do something, though. Many of them were young. They staged dances at the hospital. “Somebody would play the accordion.” Whenever they could they went to town on Saturdays.

   “We took a train, went to the movies, and the music shows. We loved it. Everything was so clean. It was all smashed during the war but two years later you wouldn’t have believed there had even been a war.”

   There had not only been repeated bombing and shelling of the city, especially the medieval part of it, there had been street-by-street house-to-house room-to-room fighting in April 1945. The city was rebuilt after the war and was partly restored to its pre-war aspect. “The Americans did it,” said Angele. “You could see them doing it every day.”

   The German government was being resurrected, as well, and order was the order of the day.

   “One day we were waiting in line for the movies, eating grapes, and spitting the seeds on the sidewalk. When a policeman saw us, he came over, and told us it was our responsibility to keep the city clean. He made us pick up all the seeds.”

   The circus was even better than the movies or musical theater. It is in the movies and theater that people fall in love. It is the circus that leaves a fantasy memory.

   “Whenever it came to town, none of us could sleep.”

   The Nazi era was good for circuses since they were not considered subversive. They were left alone by the regime. Between the two wars, through the 1930s, Germany was the epicenter of the European companies and their large tents. There were more than forty travelling circuses with clowns, acrobats, and animals. They were mostly family-run enterprises.

   The last year of the Second World War, however, was bad for business, many circuses losing all their equipment and animals. The postwar years boomed again after 1946. Circus Europa toured Germany in 1947.

   “I loved the circus. I would have gone alone if I had to,” Angele said.

   In mid-summer 1948 Angele got a week’s vacation from the Army Hospital. She and her friend Benas, his friend Porcupine, and two of the Porcupine’s friends took a train the 170 miles to Zugspitze on the border of Germany and Austria. On two sides of the Zugspitze are glaciers, the largest in Germany. Mountain guides lead climbers up three different routes to the summit at nearly ten thousand feet.

   “Benas had thick dark hair and his father was a minister back home. He was a good friend to me. Everybody called his friend Porcupine because my roommate Koste called him that. He thought he was Koste’s boyfriend, even though that’s not what she thought.”

   They got to the mountains at night and stayed in a small hotel.

   “There were two rooms at the end of the corridor. We three girls went into one of them. There were two beds, so we pushed them together and slept together. The boys took the other room. In the morning I went to the big window and threw open the heavy drapes. I had to take a step back. The mountain was right there. I was astonished and afraid. For a second I thought it was going to fall in on us.”

   They rode a rack railway the next day up the northern flank of the mountain. “It went around and around.” At a landing they sunned themselves. “Even though there was snow everywhere, and people were skiing, looking like ants below us, we lay in the sun before going farther up.” They took the Eibsee cable car to an observation deck. “The gondola was all glass. You could see the whole world.” From the deck at the top a path led to a cross.

   The 14-foot gilded iron cross had been lifted to the peak of the Zugspitze in 1851 by twenty-eight bearers under the direction of Karl Kiendl, a forester, and Christoph Ott, a priest. Father Ott was the brainstorm behind the cross, motivated by a vision of the mountain, “the greatest prince of the Bavarian mountains raising its head into the blue air towards heaven, bare and unadorned, waiting for the moment when patriotic fervor and courageous determination would see that his head too was crowned with dignity.”

   The Porcupine and his two companions wouldn’t go to the cross. The path was icy and narrow, they said. “Only Benas and I went. There was a ladder attached to a rock face you had to climb to get to it, where it stood on a flat space.”

   In 1888 the cross had to be taken down and repaired after being struck many times by lightning. It was leaning and scarred, holes gouged out by the lightning flashes. A year later it was taken back to the top, onto the East Summit, where it had stayed ever since.

   The side rails of the metal ladder were secured by bolts to the rock.

   “I was near the top when a bolt came loose and the ladder jerked free there,” Angele said. “I stopped and couldn’t go up or down. I stayed as still as I could. I was scared to death.”

   She had survived a Russian invasion, her mother’s death, a subsequent German invasion, followed by another Russian invasion, making tracks out of Lithuania, what looked like unending separation from her step-mother father family, landing in DP camps in Bavaria, the American invasion of Germany, the collapse of the German government, and finding her way to work at the Army Hospital In Nuremberg, all in the last 8 years, all by the time she was 19 years old.

   She was determined a broken ladder was not going to break her, not be the end of her. Benas helped her from the top, extending his belt, and another pilgrim helped her from below, coming partway up and slowly carefully easing her down. Benas quickly slid down the side rails without incident.

   Faith can be churchy, or it can be personal. There isn’t anything that’s a matter of life and death except life and death. Life and death at ten thousand feet is personal, cross or no cross. Who thinks about God when they are about to meet their maker? They took their time on the icy path back to the observation deck.

   The rest of the week they hiked, took local trains to nearby alpine towns, ate drank smoked talked had fun while it lasted.

   At the end of their vacation they went back in Nuremberg. In her room, alone for a few minutes, Angele thought about the romance in her life. There were two men, Vladas the soldier and Vytas, working for a relief organization, both refugees from Lithuania, like her, who wanted to marry her. Vladas brought her food and Vytas played cards with her.

   Getting married may not be a matter of life and death, except when it is. She thought she was probably going to marry one of them, and thought she knew which one it would be, but she knew for sure she wasn’t going to be staying in Europe. Making her way somewhere where there was a future was the most important thing on her mind.

   She wanted a bright future, not a dark past. She had to go and find it. The man she married would have to be the man who wanted to go with her. The only way up was up the ladder, rung by rung. No matter what, she was going to have to fix it for herself.

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

Scouting Out Campfires

By Ed Staskus

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

   My father 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, the capital of northern Lithuania, is home to the Hill of Crosses, a spiritual statement 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 merciless war between the Teutonic Order and Lithuania was one of the longest in the history of Europe. The first Christian church was built in 1445. Until then Lithuanians were steadfast pagans. They believed Hell was a fine place to end up, if it came to that, since Lithuania was cold, and Hell was warm.

   In the 19th century Jews were encouraged to go to Lithuania for its entrée and their prosperity. The city was majority Jewish by 1910. Šiauliai was famous for its leather industry. The biggest leather factory in the Russian Empire was there. A battleground during both World Wars, it saw tens of thousands run for their lives during the wars, never to come back.

   My grandfather was a native and a former officer in the Czarist Army. My grandmother was Russian and a former schoolteacher. They met when he was stationed far 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 impressed as an officer by Lithuania’s overlords.

   Vytas Staskevicius 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, back from the Russian badlands, involved his son in scouting as soon as he grew to be school age.

   I found myself a Boy Scout in the early 1960s in Troop 311, the Cleveland, Ohio troop my father became Scoutmaster of. We wore official Boy Scouts of America neckerchiefs and carried unofficial knives in scabbards on our belts. We hiked trails through woods, although most of us were hapless with a compass, instead relying on ingenuity, stamina, and dumb luck to find our way.

   Boy Scouts got their start in 1907 when a British Army officer gathered up 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 youth culture 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 probably accounts for my father’s fondness for the outdoors and all the scout camps he was later Scoutmaster at. They weren’t all sun-kissed and starlit summer camps, either.

   Winter Blasts were camps in thin-skinned cabins in the highlands of the Chagrin Valley at which the scouts earned cold weather Merit Badges. We were reassured that exploring outdoors in December was fun. We always built a fire first thing in the morning in the cabin’s Franklin stove, kept it well stoked, and hoped we 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. I learned the six basic Boy Scout knots, from the sheet bend to the clove hitch, and earned my Pioneering Badge, although I never learned to properly knot a tie, even later in life, when my wife always helped me with it.

   My father was forever putting up and tearing down tents, finding lost stakes and poles, and persuading my mother to repair rips in canvas. He told us sleeping outdoors was manly robust healthy, no matter how much rain leaked onto our sleeping bags. He thought fresh air was a tonic for boys.

   He led us searching for 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.

   It wasn’t just the Boy Scouts, either.

   For many years he was the boss 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 we actually did most of the time was run around in the woods like madmen, play tackle football in the bay, and sing off-key long 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.

   He 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.

   The scout founder’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.

   Five years later 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, though. 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 Russians, then the Nazis, and then the Russians again, both of his parents were arrested and transported to concentration camps. His father died of starvation in a Siberian 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 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 an ore hauler, and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. We 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 making 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.

   “There weren’t any children, or they were all still babies,” my mother said. “All of us from Lithuania, and there was a large community of us in Sudbury in the early 1950s, were all so young. We were just starting to rebuild our lives, getting married and having children, but it was taking time for them to grow up to scouting age.”

   Robert Baden-Powell always counseled that Bot 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 my father 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 ten minutes notice about 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 twenty dollars in his wallet. In the event, he still had five dollars left when he knocked on Angele’s door in Sudbury, almost six hundred miles away.

   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, went 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 financial operations in South America.

   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 in his 80s. He believed 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 many years. 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. Vyto 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.

   My father 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 camping and jamboree venues, 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 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 my brother Rick, who was also a scout. “It was a rule with him, that there be one every night. Some of his log cabin-style fires were as big as dining room tables and were still smoldering in the morning when we got up for our 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 exactly 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 his 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 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,” my brother said. “We were supervised, but only given 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 what girl they will land near, which is old-school marriage-making..

   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.

   Although he did much for the movement, as a Scoutmaster he didn’t try to do everything for his 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 true.

   “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 Vytas 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 the German Alps. More than a thousand displaced Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts were there. In 1950 there was a 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. My father was one of many Scoutmasters who kept scouting alive. Although he had since passed away, whatever scout camp in the sky he is at, he is sure to be smiling through the smoke of a celestial bonfire at how Lithuanian scouting has resurrected itself one hundred years later.

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

The Big White Out

By Ed Staskus

   When I was a kid growing up in Sudbury, Ontario it started snowing the last day of summer, snowed through Halloween Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then got down to business on New Year’s Day. The next day it snowed some more. It kept up its business until April with a fire sale now and then through the month of May. All told between 100 and 140 inches of snow fell every winter during my childhood. 

   My father built an igloo in the back yard so that when we were snowballing, we would have someplace to shelter if a blizzard suddenly roared down from the Northwest Territories. My brother sister and I sat inside on crates looking out of windowless windows as dark heavy clouds put the boom on us. When Canadian Pacific trains hauling nickel rumbling past on top of the cliff face behind our house on Stanley Street wailed, we wailed right back. 

   Snow cover in Sudbury starts to build in December and remains deep through most of January to mid-March. By the end of April, the snow is usually gone. The city is free of snow every year during July and August. Extreme cold and winter storms kill more Canadians than floods, lightning, tornadoes, thunderstorms, and hurricanes combined.

   A year before I was born the Great Appalachian Storm in November dumped nearly a foot of snow on my hometown every day for a couple of days. A blustery wind made sure everybody got their fair share. Ramsey Lake froze solid. My father who wasn’t my father yet went skating. He wasn’t able to get to the INCO mine where he worked as a blaster, but he was able to get to the lake. When the snowfall was finally cleared, it was December.

   After we moved to Cleveland, I sent a postcard to my friends back on Stanley Street saying Americans were snowflakes. “They complain about a couple of inches. Most days there isn’t nearly enough snow for decent sledding.” In general, snowfall in northern Ohio is about 50 inches a year. Twenty years later I had to eat my words.

   The Blizzard of 1978 started in Indiana near the end of January. The Hoosiers might have kept it to themselves, but they didn’t. The day after the storm buried their state it buried Ohio. More than a foot of snow fell in one day, on top of a foot-and-a-half that was already on the ground. The wind huffed and puffed. Snowdrifts buried cars trucks homes businesses. The wind chill made the outdoors feel like 60 below zero. East Ohio Gas pumped record amounts of natural gas to hungry furnaces.

   My parents were living in Sagamore Hills. When the weather cleared up, they called me about the snow on the roof of their ranch-style house. My father was afraid the snow load would damage the roof, maybe even make it cave in. I thought he was exaggerating, until my brother and I climbed a ladder to see for ourselves. The roofline was long and low-pitched. We found ourselves thigh-deep in thickset snow. We spent the rest of the day slowly pushing it over the side of the overhanging eaves.

   “My dad made me shovel a path out the back door for our dachshund so he wouldn’t do his business in the house,” Joe Bennett said. “I got about two feet out and called it a day.”

   The storm was characterized by an unusual merger of two weather systems. Warm moist air bumped into bitter ice-cold air. “The result was a very strong area of low pressure that reached its lowest pressure over Cleveland,” the National Weather Service reported. That day’s barometric pressure reading of 28.28 inches is the lowest pressure ever recorded in Ohio and one of the lowest readings in American history.

   By the end of the month, a few days later, Cleveland tallied 43 inches of snowfall for the month, which is still a record breaker. It was called “The Storm of the Century” or simply “The Superbomb.” The wind averaged nearly 70 MPH that Thursday. Gusts hit 120 MPH-and-more on Lake Erie. Ore boats coming down from Lake Superior hunkered down, and crewmen stayed close to oil heaters. “I was a deckhand on a lake freighter,” said August Zeizing. “We were stuck in ice about 9 miles off Pelee Point when the storm hit. We had steady 111 MPH winds gusting up to 127 MPH for about six hours. Our orders were to stay below decks and keep our movements to a minimum.” 

   More than 50 people died, trapped in dead cars and unheated houses. A woman froze to death walking her dog. Over $100 million in property damage was estimated, what many said was a conservative estimate. The governor called up more than 5,000 National Guardsmen, who struggled to reach the cities they were assigned to. The Guardsmen used bulldozers and tanks outfitted with plows to clear roads streets highways and rescue the stranded.

   “My dad and I drove down I-71, which was closed, to get to our farm in Loudonville,” said Paula Boehm.  “We had chains on all four tires of our Buick station wagon.” The only other traffic was National Guard M113 personnel carriers. “We made it.”

   Car owners stuck homemade signs saying “Car Here” on top of mounds of snow. It alerted snowplow drivers to what was under the big pile of white. Motorists abandoned their cars and pick-ups helter-skelter style. There was often no visible sign of a car. It was a three-dog Siberian day night and the next day. In some places it went on and on, often in the dark, as power wires were blown loose or sagged off poles from the weight of ice.

   I was in Akron the morning the storm struck. I had no idea what was on the way. The forecast the night before didn’t sound awful. “Rain tonight, possibly mixed with snow at times. Windy and cold Thursday with snow flurries.” I was visiting a friend, had stayed overnight, was driving my sister’s 1970 Ford Maverick, and needed to get the car back to her that day.

   National Weather Service Meteorologist Bob Alto got to work at six in the morning Thursday morning at the Akron-Canton Airport. He didn’t go home until Sunday night. “Nobody could get in and nobody could get out,” he said. “The roads were all closed. There were three of us and we had to ride it out there at the airport.” Cessna and Beechcraft two-seaters were flipped over on aprons and tarmacs like paper airplanes.

   Meteorologists didn’t call the storm a “Superbomb.” They called it a “Bombogenesis.” It was their term for an area of low pressure that “bombs out.” 

   I got up early and got going. When I did the temperature started falling fast. By the time I got coffee and an egg sandwich and got on I-77 to go home the temperature had fallen from the mid-30s to the mid-teens. The rain turned to ice and snow, snowing like there was no tomorrow. I couldn’t see any lane markers and could barely see the road. The Maverick was a rear wheel-drive with no traction to speak of. I kept it at a steady 25 MPH unless I slowed down, which I did plenty of. Spun-out cars and jack-knifed tractor trailers littered the interstate. One truck and its trailer were flipped over on the shoulder. When I passed the Ohio Turnpike, I saw it was closed, the first time it had ever happened. I found out later that I-77 was the only highway that didn’t close. 

   Marge Barner’s husband-to-be drove a yellow bus full of kids to school as the blizzard set up shop. He dropped them off. Not long afterwards he got a call saying the school was closing. He went back and that afternoon started plowing parking lots. “He was out for 13 hours in an open tractor and ran out of gas several times. He didn’t have a radio to call for help.” He had to help himself, walking with a can to gas stations. “He lost feeling in his arms when he got home, which finally came back as he warmed up. His ears were frostbitten.”

   I kept on slow poking north. I had plenty of gas, having filled up the tank the night before after noticing I was driving on fumes. When I spotted a station with cheap gas, I pulled in on the double. The car radio was no help, broadcasting the same bad news over and over. The car heater wheezed and groaned but stayed alive. Driving in the swirling snow hour after hour straining to see and stay on the road was nerve-wracking. I kept my gloves on and my eyes glued to the road.

   “I was 7 years-old and we lived in a drafty, old farmhouse in Fremont,” said Susan Beech. “The power went out, so the furnace went out, but our oven ran on propane, so it still worked. My dad set up cots and sleeping bags in our kitchen, and stapled blankets over the doorways. We ran the stove around the clock, leaving the oven open so the heat filled the room. It was like winter camping in the kitchen.” 

   After I passed the overturned truck I thought, if that happens dead center on the road somewhere in front of me, I am a goner. I am going to end up in a miles long traffic jam. ODOT’s plows won’t be able to get around the mess. Wreckers won’t be able to get to the wreck to move it out of the way. We will all be at a standstill and run out of gas and either freeze or starve to death. I saved half my egg sandwich for later. I checked my gas gauge and was relieved to see I still had near a full tank.

   “I was a teenager living four miles from the nearest town during the 1978 Blizzard,” said John Knueve. “We lost power the first night and had to rely on a small generator, which could power just one appliance at a time.” They fed the generator drops of gasoline at a time. “A two-lane state highway ran in front of our house, but even when they finally managed to clear it an 18-wheeler would pass by, and we’d never see it for the thirteen fourteen-foot drifts which encircled the entire house. We were trapped for most of a week before my brother-in-law made it down with his tractor to break through.”

   In some parts of the state massive snowdrifts as high as 25 feet buried dog houses sheds garages and two-story homes.

   I got close to Cleveland before nightfall. I-90 looked closed, so I took St. Clair Ave. to Lakeshore Blvd. to North Collinwood. I lived two blocks from Lake Erie. When I pulled into my not shoveled out driveway the Maverick got stuck. I didn’t try digging it out. My sister would have to wait for her car. Spring was only two months away, anyway.

   It was even windier and colder in our neighborhood than the rest of the world. The furnace was trying, but the house stayed cold no matter how hard it tried. I wrapped myself up in a comforter. The windows rattled and the house shook whenever a hurricane-force blast of wind hit it. 

   “Oh, that was awful,” Mary Jo Anderson said about the high-pitched howl of the wind. “Nobody slept much that night. We had never heard that kind of noise. You know, how your house rattles and squeals.” Her husband, Rich, set off in his Ford Pinto for work that morning. The Pinto wasn’t the ugliest and most unsafe car ever made, but it was a close call. The seats made for sore asses after an hour-or-so and God forbid getting rear-ended. The gas tank had a design flaw that made it liable to explode on impact and incinerate everybody in the car. Two years earlier news had broken that Ford’s policy was that it was cheaper to pay the lawsuits of fire victims rather than fix the car before production. After that there was hell to pay.

   Rich was about a mile up the road in his Pinto when he was brought to a standstill. He couldn’t drive any farther because the wind was so ferocious. The car was a lightweight, barely breaking two thousand pounds. “The ice was on the window of his car, and he was trying to reach his arm out and scrape the ice off,” Mary said. “He opened the car door, and the wind almost ripped it off. The car spun around in a circle. The door wouldn’t close. He had to hold it shut and drive home. He was happy to make it back.”

   That night I watched the WEWS Channel 5 news show. There wasn’t a lot of footage of the storm even though a film crew had gone searching for news on deserted downtown streets. “It was impossible to see. Wind howling. Bitter, bitter cold,” Don Webster the weatherman said. “They couldn’t shoot anything because of the cold and wind. I couldn’t even talk because I got so cold. I couldn’t say anything.”

   When I changed the station to WJW Chanel 8, Dick Goddard called it a “white hurricane.”

   The 4-speed Chevy Chevette was a basic reliable car that wouldn’t kill you if you got into a fender bender or a hurricane. It was what Susan Downing-Nevling drove to work. Her boss was mad because she hadn’t made it in on Thursday, even though she told him people couldn’t get to their cars because the wind was blowing them down as they tried to walk to their vehicles. 

   “So, Friday I got up, dug my car out, and drove to work on W. 44th St. and Lorain from Middleburg Hts. I didn’t stop once but it still took me four hours. When I got there, it was closed. A couple of others who made it and I went to the Ohio City Tavern for the afternoon.”

   When the storm moved on that weekend it moved northeast, hooked up with a nor’easter, and walloped New England, as well as New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Instead of “Superbomb” it was called “Storm Larry.” Philadelphia saw 16 inches of snow, Atlantic City 20 inches, and Boston was buried by 27 inches. The ice snow wind killed almost 100 people and injured about 4,500. It caused more than $500 million in damage.

   Once it was all over local stores started selling t-shirts that read, “I Survived the ’78 Blizzard!” I didn’t buy one. What would have been the point? It wasn’t going to keep me warm and dry if the blizzard came back. I was hedging my bets. The Blizzard of 1978 might have been “The Storm of the Century,” but there were 22 more years left in the century. I wasn’t expecting to see it’s like anytime soon, but you never can tell. 

   If you want to see the sunshine you have to weather the storm.

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

Never Look Back

By Ed Staskus

The new-style lightning war starting in 1939 won the Third Reich most of Europe and substantial parts of Russia. But five years later the Red Army was poised to take revenge on its enemy. When the Wehrmacht on the Eastern Front tried to weather the storm and fight out of encirclements, the Russians did what the Germans would have done, fed armor into the attack, maintaining mobility, forcing the issue deep into rear areas, faster than their enemy could regroup.

“The Russians came fast,” said Angele Jurgelaityte. “We listened to the radio every day. We could hear booms in the distance, cannons. The Germans were on all the roads. The Russians were to the north and the east of us. We knew they were coming.”

The angel-face of her aunt’s family, the family Angele was staying with near Alvitas, Lithuania, didn’t know, but everyone else in the Baltics knew the comrades were coming back and there was going to be hell to pay.

It was the summer of 1944 that Soviet forces went on the offensive. The Germans were steadily implacably pushed back on a shifting front. A Red Army Tank Corps advanced to Vilkaviskis, four miles from their farm. The Russian 33rd Army entered the town and a few days later secured the rail depot at Marijampole. The Third Panzer Army mounted a counterattack, but after grim tank battles was finally forced to retreat to Kybartai, rolling back to a last-ditch defensive line in the Baltics.

“It was one day in the afternoon that a lady, a teacher, who was a friend of mamyte’s, with two kids, a small boy and a small girl, came to our farm from Vilnius,” Angele said. The woman and Angele’s aunt, Ona Kreivenas, had studied and graduated together from teacher’s college. She was in a horse drawn wagon with her children and what chattels and valuables she could pack and carry. She had come from the capital in a rush. She told them there were Russian tanks hiding on the nearby farm tracks.

The next morning Ona, Angele, and the children, Mindaugas, Carmen, Ramute, and the toddler Gema, loaded their wagon with clothes, blankets, and food. They hitched two horses to the wagon and tied a cow to the back. “We took milk with us when we left, for Gema, and hoped we would find more when we were gone.” They took whatever they could shoulder. They left their buggy behind and let the riding horse, the rest of the cows, and all the pigs and chickens loose.

“We let everything go. What could you do? The Russians would have just stolen all the animals.”

Ona took her money and what jewelry she possessed with her in a handbag she could keep close. She packed a trunk with her sewing machine, china, vases, artifacts, and family heirlooms. They lugged it behind the barn, where the remains of months of potatoes thrown down to feed the pigs were scattered.

They cleared a space, dug a four-foot deep hole, and buried the trunk. They threw potato scraps back over the overturned ground. When they were done, they left the family farm, in two wagons, two women and seven children on the move, sudden refugees in their own country.

“We moved back about fifteen miles.”

They went southwest towards East Prussia. “We went to a big farm. When we got there, there were already hundreds of people in the fields, with their wagons, and their families. The farmer slaughtered and cut up pigs for us. All the women made food. Everybody was talking about the war, about what to do.”

There was heavy fighting between German and Soviet troops in the Baltics. As the fighting raged, more than 130,000 Latvians escaped to Sweden and Germany. In total, the country lost almost 20% of its population during the war, either dead or gone. The Great Escape in Estonia started in the summer and continued through the fall. It is estimated 80,000 Estonians fled from the Red Army to the West. Almost a 100,000 Lithuanians joined them, clogging the roads to Poland, Prussia, and Germany.

Ona stole back to her farm during the week the Panzer divisions were holding their own. The countryside was nearly deserted. She found the trunk they had buried underneath the pile of potato scraps behind the barn dug up and gone.

“There was just a big hole. The Russians took it. They used metal sticks to poke into the ground. Her sewing machine was gone, all gone.”

They slept rough, out of doors, like everybody else. “We slept on blankets on the ground. When it rained, we slept under the wagon and stretched a tarp out, to keep the water away.” Every day it got darker. Over the course of September, the length of the day in Lithuania rapidly decreases. By the end of the month the daylight is two hours less than it was at the start of the month.

The encampment stretched out for six weeks. They dug latrines and filled barrels with water. They picked apples off trees and blueberries from bushes. They took especial care of their horses. They greased the axles of their wagons, making sure the grease bucket was always full of animal fat and tar, and making sure they had a spare axle. Without one a broken axle would be a disaster, bringing them to a standstill.

The children played games whenever they had idle time.

“We played the ring game,” Angele said. “We all sat in a circle and passed around a pretend ring, like a twig or a pebble. Sometimes we passed it, but other times we didn’t. We just pretended to give it to who was next to us. One of us was it, like in tag, who had to guess who had the ring. If they were right, they got a prize, like a pencil. If they were wrong, they had to sing a song or do a dance in the middle of the circle.”

When they finally left the farm, they left in the early evening. They heard over the radio that morning that the Russians had come closer. They spent the day packing and preparing. It was now or never.

“Most of us left, although others of them stayed. Some of the farmers wanted their land back. They didn’t want to leave.” It was all they had. It was all they had ever known. They were loath to give it up. “Mamyte had to go, leave. The farm didn’t matter. Her husband had already been taken by the Communists. She knew they would take her, too, send her away to Siberia, and her children would be left behind, orphans.”

It rained that day and the rest of the night.

“The road was crowded on both sides. There were thousands of wagons, wagon after wagon, all going one way. There wasn’t a single car or truck, just horses. We knew the Germans were somewhere ahead of us and the Russians somewhere behind us. But we didn’t see any soldiers anywhere, at all.”

Ona was at the reins of the two-horse team, her seven-year-old daughter Ramute beside her holding the three-year-old Gema, and Carmen, Mindaugas, and Angele walking. Most of the refugees were walking, their wagons jam-packed with possessions and provisions. Their friend from Vilnius with her two small children was in the wagon behind them.

Before the war, Lithuania’s population was almost 3 million. After the war it was closer to 2 million. Some Lithuanians ended up dead. Many were deported. Others ran for their lives, displaced. The displaced were forced to make new lives in different countries all around the world, whatever country they could get to, whatever country would take them, whatever country they could slip into.

When the Soviet re-invasion happened, some Lithuanians tried to flee across the Baltic Sea to the Nordic countries, but only a few were successful. Patrol boats apprehended them, and they ended up imprisoned in labor camps. Most fled west, while others went south to Hungary, Romania, and the Balkans.

“On the way we met my uncle on the road, my mother’s brother, Uncle Jankauskas and his family.” Her uncle’s wagon fell into line with them. The progression of wagons stretched as far as the eye could see, forward and back. They soon crossed into East Prussia. There were no guards. They had all fled. The border lay forsaken.

“I was so sad leaving Lithuania,” Angele said.

Russian warplanes strafed and bombed the column of evacuees several times. The Red Air Force was bombing and strafing at will, both German Army and refugee columns alike. Forest and brush on both sides of the road were set on fire. There was dark smoke in the sky day and night. Wagons and carts wended their way around rain-filled craters.

“It was all just wagons. They knew we were refugees They dropped bombs and shot their machine guns. I don’t know why they did that. Whenever we heard airplanes, we all ran and jumped into ditches beside the road. I was afraid, but somehow I knew I wouldn’t be hurt by them.”

What was called the Baltic Gap had grown so large and menacing to the Reich that Adolf Hitler moved his headquarters from Berchtesgaden to Rastenburg in East Prussia. The German situation on the Eastern Front was desperate. The fighting was hard and bitter. It was a fight to the finish.

The hinterland was torn up, wrecked forlorn abandoned.

“Most of the people on the farms had run away. We would go into their houses and find dried fruit, pickles, mushrooms, pork, and wine.” They ransacked barns, pantries, and root cellars. “We took all the food we could find, all of it. It rained all the time, it was cold, we walked and walked, and everybody was hungry.”

The rain and asphalt were hurtful to their cow. The animal was as careful as could be on the poor traction of the wet road, stepping timidly with its rear feet spread wide. But the cow was walking with an arched back. They finally had to do something. They knew the long miles and pavement weren’t good for it. They thought she might be going lame. Angele’s uncle looked at the cow’s hooves and saw lesions. An ulcer was forming on one hoof.

“Mindaugas and I found a family that hadn’t run away. We went to their farmhouse and sold the cow to them.” They gave the money to Ona and she hid it on her person. She had plans for it.

One cold night when they stopped to rest her uncle said, “Kids, jump up and down to warm yourselves up.” When Angele hopped instead of jumped, he grasped her under the armpits. “He grabbed me. We were jumping up and down and he dropped me by accident.”

She broke her wrist. “It hurt bad, but there were no doctors to help me.”

When they got to a town with a railroad station, there weren’t any doctors there, either. The skilled and the smart had already left. Everybody else was hoping against hope. Angele’s wrist had to take care of itself.

After the New Year the German population of East Prussia, most of whom had not cut and run, began to evacuate as the Red Army rapidly advanced. Within weeks it turned into helter-skelter flight as more than two million of the two-and-half million men women children of the enclave bolted into the Polish Corridor heading for Germany. The winter weather was biting, the roads were a mess, and the civil authorities were overwhelmed. There was panic and quagmire and many thousands died, some caught in combat, others swept away in the chaos.

But before that happened, Ona Kreivenas had already sold their wagon and horses and everything they couldn’t carry and managed against the odds to get tickets for a train going to Berlin. The Prussian Eastern Railway connected Danzig and Konigsberg to Berlin. A month later, the last week of January 1945, the last train to Berlin ran the rails. There was no traffic on the line after that.

“The train was completely full. The corridors were full, too.” They stood in a tight group in the corridor. The passenger cars were red and had ten large windows on both sides. They were pressed against one of the windows. Some of the windows were smashed and the passageway was as cold as the outside.

“We had a pillow for Gema, who slept on the floor, but we stood all night and all the next day.”

The twin locomotives pulling the long line of passenger sleeping baggage cars and a caboose had been given camouflage livery. On the front was painted the Hoheitsadler, an eagle, Germany’s traditional symbol of national sovereignty, holding a swastika in its talons. By the time they crossed Poland and entered Germany, the talons and swastika were covered in coal soot.

Lehrter Bahnhof was the Berlin terminus, adjacent to Hamburger Bahnhof, built in the late 19th century just outside of what was then Berlin’s boundary on the Spree River.  It was in the French neo-Renaissance style, the façade covered in glazed tiles. The station had long been known as a “palace among stations.” But it had been severely damaged by Allied strategic bombing and was near to shambles.

When they finally got off the train in Berlin, tired and stiff from standing, they were met on the platform by Bishop Brizgys.

The clergyman was Ona’s husband’s cousin. Vincentas Brizgys had been the assistant to Juozapas Skvireckas, the archbishop of Kaunas. During the summer of 1944, he and the archbishop and more than two hundred other Lithuanian priests fled the country with several retreating German divisions. Ona had somehow located him by telephone, and he arranged to meet them at the train station. He was wearing a dark suit and a homburg and carrying a basket of hot buns.

“He gave one to each of us. I was so happy,” said Angele.

She was 16-years old, halfway between childhood and adulthood. Seven years later, a continent away, she gave birth to me, followed quickly by my brother and sister. In the meantime, the hot bun was what was keeping her on her feet.

The Third Reich’s war economy was on the verge of collapse. The whole country was in the sinking ship. There was a shortage of bread sausage cabbage beer and everything else. When they looked around, the buns the bishop had brought were the only cheer they could see. There wasn’t going to be any traditional roast goose this holiday season.

Angele looked at the four children and her aunt. She glanced up and down the platform. Bishop Brizgys led them out of the station into the city. The Red Army numbering over four million men was massing on the Vistula River and along the East Prussian border. Their superiority was ten to one in infantry and twenty to one in artillery and planes. Berlin and its three million residents were already a wreck, the day and night Allied bombing taking a monstrous toll.

The late afternoon was a gray haze. There was smoke in the sky. She looked past the rubble in the street. When she looked ahead, she knew in her bones it was going to be a bare-bones winter on German land.

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

Palace on the Prairie

By Ed Staskus

   I wasn’t a sports photographer or a sportswriter, but I had a media pass in 1980 so I saw more Cleveland Cavalier games at the Richfield Coliseum that year than I had ever seen in my life. I saw them from a better seat, too, even though I didn’t have a seat. I sat stood or knelt courtside under the baskets at the base of the stantions or beside the benches and pretended to be doing something other than cheering on the action. Nobody questioned my Kodak Instamatic Point & Shoot camera or schoolboy spiral notepad, even though the camera was rarely loaded with film, and I usually forgot to bring a pen.

   I got the pass from my brother, who was a student at Lakeland College in Kirtland and who worked part-time for the school newspaper. He was the media man. I had it laminated and wore it clipped on my belt. Whenever anybody bumped me jostling in and out of the arena, I checked to make sure the pass was still on my belt. It was worth its weight in gold, getting me in to see the wine and gold whenever I wanted.

   The Cavaliers weren’t good in 1980. Mike Mitchell was their best player. It was straight downhill from there. Bill Musselman the coach didn’t have much to work with and it showed on his face game after game. The drive to Richfield Township twenty-five miles south of downtown Cleveland was long and longer, especially whenever they were playing a league-leading team like the Celtics or 76ers. I soon enough learned to go early or get stuck in traffic. Richfield was Larry Bird’s favorite basketball arena, but he didn’t have to drive there for every game. An interstate and a turnpike dumped cars onto a two-lane road. It was a snail’s pace at the best of times. Attendance was sketchy because of the traffic issues, especially rush hour and if the weather was bad. The single level concourse made for massive congestion among the fans, and nobody liked that, either. I had to pay for parking, too, although none of it mattered when I flashed my pass and strolled in without a hitch.

   A lot went on in Richfield, including concerts, truck pulls, rodeos, circuses, ice shows, wrestling, hockey, and indoor soccer. It hosted a championship boxing match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner in the mid-70s. The fight went to the bitter end, the human punching bag going down nineteen seconds before the final bell, losing in a TKO and inspiring Sylvester Stallone’s Academy Award-winning movie “Rocky.”

   The Cavaliers weren’t the first pro team in Cleveland. The first three teams starting in 1924 were the Rosenblums, the Rebels, and the Pipers. When the “Miracle of Richfield” happened during the 1975 season, the Cavaliers advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals, everybody forgot about the team’s basketball pioneers if they had thought about them in the first place.

   The Richfield Coliseum opened in October 1974 with Frank Sinatra doing the honors. When he sang “My Way” the sold-out crowd roared. “My friend, I’ll make it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I am certain.” Nobody roared louder than Nick Mileti. He had been a prosecutor in the inner-ring suburb of Lakewood, but then got the bug. “I want to have fun, make some dough, and leave a few footprints,” he told sportswriter Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times. “Nick could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, whether you wanted it or not,” said Bill Fitch, the Cavaliers coach from 1970 to 1979. The new arena was the immigrant Sicilian son’s Brooklyn Bridge to glory.

   “My daddy was a machinist who came over as a teenager and had a dream that I was to wear a white shirt.” 

    He owned the Cleveland Arena and the hockey team when he got rolling. He owned the baseball team for a while and then the basketball team. It wasn’t his money, but he doctored it up to look like it was his. After he took a good look at the 30-plus-year-old Cleveland Arena with bad plumbing and a seating capacity of only 11,000 all he saw was money flying out the window. The players called it “The Black Hole of Calcutta.” They called the new arena “The Palace on the Prairie.”

   “We met with the guy running the old arena,” Nick Mileti said. “On the wall, there was a calendar, and I said, ‘Why is it all white?’ They said, ‘Because we don’t have any events.’ It was an incredible situation. I bought the Barons and the arena, and after that, the first call I made was to Walter Kennedy, the commissioner of the NBA, and said I wanted a franchise. And two years later, I got one.”

   When in the early 1970s he decided on moving the basketball team halfway to Akron to do better business, every Cleveland politician and businessman was against the idea. They wanted to revitalize downtown. They wanted the cash flow of twenty thousand fans driving in forty fifty times a season. They wanted the countless concerts and circuses the venue would host. They wanted the tax revenue. They didn’t get what they wanted. It wasn’t the way Nick Mileti wanted it.

   I didn’t get to know any broadcasting folks doing the games, but I got to know the writers and candid cameras well enough to say hello. They were guys like Bill Nichols, Chuck Heaton, and Burt Graeff. One or the other of them was always giving me the fisheye. When I saw it happening, I pretended to be taking a picture with my Instamatic. The only newshound I was on more than hello and goodbye terms was Pete Gaughan. He was a sportswriter for the SunMedia suburban papers, writing about golf, high school college pro sports, and anything else that involved hitting kicking throwing catching a ball. I met him while refereeing flag football Sunday mornings.

   My brother had started a flag football league at Lakeland College with four teams. By 1980 he had two fields and fourteen teams. The teams were made up mainly of former high school players. He and I were the only two refs at first, but as more teams joined, he needed a second and third two-man crew. He paid $20.00 each ref each game, but still had trouble recruiting and keeping crews for the Sunday morning games. When Pete Gaughan volunteered and my brother took him on, it was scraping the bottom of the barrel. He may have known all about local sports, but he didn’t know how to be on time nor overmuch about the rules.

   The first time I met him was when he misjudged a parking space and brought his rust bucket to a stop on the wrong side of the curb. When the driver’s door swung open, the car still running, a half dozen empty cans of beer rolled out, a leg flopped out, and he finally staggered out of the car in a cloud of funny-smelling smoke. He looked like hell, like he hadn’t slept in a month. I turned his car off while my brother got him into ref’s clothes, gave him a whistle and a penalty flag, and decided he would work with me, while he handled the other field.

   “Thanks, bro,” I said.

   Pete worked behind the offensive line while I worked the field. He didn’t blow his whistle or throw his yellow rag once, not even when there was blood. One of the teams was made up of former Mentor High School players, and unlike most of the flag football teams, they ran the ball more than they threw it. They were the number one team in the league because they had played together in school and knew how to execute. One guy on the opposing team got tired of being battered by the relentless running attack, and when the halfback came through the line one more time the ball tucked under his arm, the other arm swatting hands away, he didn’t bother trying to reach for either of the flags on the runner’s waist. He raised his forearm head high and let the halfback’s nose run right into it. He went down like a shot and blood gushed out of his nose. Pete spotted the ball at the spot and stepped to the side, lighting up a cigarette. We called 911 and when an EMS truck showed up, they drove off with him, telling us his cheekbone was fractured along with his messed-up nose. We called the game. The Mentor boys were up by eight touchdowns anyway.

   By the 1980 season the “Miracle of Richfield” was five years in the dustbin and Nick Mileti had given up his title as president of the Cavaliers, sold his interest, and control of the team went to Ted Stepien, the King of Errors. There weren’t going to be any miracles under his reign. The NBA stayed busy writing rules addressing some of the crazy things he was prone to doing. He traded away five consecutive first-round picks. The Stepien Rule states that no team can trade consecutive first-round draft picks.

   In the meantime, I tried to see all the games involving the better teams in the league. The Cavaliers were a half-good team who could keep up with other half-bad teams. They had trouble with the cream of the crop. That year they went 1 and 4 against the Celtics, 1 and 5 against the Bulls, 0 and 5 against the Knicks, 0 and 6 against the Bucks, and 0 and 6 against the 76ers.

   The Philly team was my favorite team. They were always in the hunt for the title. Maurice Cheeks and Doug Collins were the guards. Bobby “The Secretary of Defense” Jones cleaned up around the basket. Julius “Dr. J” Erving and Daryl “Dr. Dunkenstein” Dawkins led the scoring parade. When the doctors were in the house, they were good for almost fifty points. Julius Erving was menacing enough, but Daryl Dawkins was a menace.

   A year earlier in a game against the Kansas City Kings in KC, dunking the ball with enthusiasm, Daryl broke the backboard, sending both teams ducking. Three weeks later, he did it again at home against the San Antonio Spurs. The next week the NBA wrote a new rule that smashing a backboard to smithereens was wrong, so wrong that it would result in a fine and suspension.

   Daryl named his backboard-breaking dunks “The Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jams.” His other dunks earned their own names, like the Rim Wrecker, the In-Your-Face Disgrace, the Spine-Chiller Supreme, and the Greyhound Special, for when he went coast to coast. “When I dunk, I want to go straight up, and put it down on somebody.” His nicknames were Sir Slam, Chocolate Thunder, and Dr. Dunkenstein. He told the Cleveland sportswriters he was an alien from the planet Lovetron, where he spent the off-season practicing “interplanetary funkmanship” with his girlfriend Juicy Lucy. The reporters scribbled it up like it was sirloin.

   One of his coaches asked him to tone it down. “All the talk and bravado, enough.” The next day at practice he told his teammates, “I’m not talking today. Coach made me Thunder Down Under.” It didn’t last long. He went back to talking the next day.

   Daryl Dawkins was in his mid-20s, six foot eleven, and 260 pounds of beef brawn and swagger. The Cavalier centers were Kim Hughes and Bill Lambeer, both six eleven, but both slower and skinnier than Daryl. He wore gold chains during games. One of them had a cross while another one featured his nickname Sir Slam in gold script. Sometimes, he would shave his head and oil it, along with wearing a gold pirate’s earring. The year before he averaged almost 15 points and 9 rebounds, helping the 76ers to the NBA Finals, which they lost in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers.

   I watched him go coast to coast against a back-pedaling Bill Lambeer one night. If it had been Kim Hughes, about 50 pounds lighter than Daryl, he wouldn’t even have tried. His fellow center was more stubborn. All the way to the inevitable slam dunk Daryl’s gold chains swung one way and the other slapping at Bill’s face until he finally ducked and covered. The next year the NBA forbade the wearing of any jewelry while playing.

   The last three games I saw at the Richfield Coliseum were the last three games of the season. The Cavaliers lost by 26 to the Bucks, by 21 to the 76ers, and by 35 to the Bullets. It had been a long year. The opening game of the next season boded another long year when the wine and gold lost to the 76ers by 24. But before that game was even played, I didn’t have a media pass anymore and wasn’t planning on going back to the Richfield Coliseum anytime soon. I didn’t have a dependable car and God forbid I break down in the cow pastures of Summit County in the middle of the night.

   I missed going out there, missed the lights and noise, groaning and cheering, being on the floor, the coaches cursing and players calling out venomous fans sitting behind them. After flaking on a dunk, Daryl drop-kicked somebody’s extra-large Coke off the floor into the seats, sticky sweet soda spraying all over the place. He didn’t look back and didn’t apologize. When the Cavaliers returned to downtown Cleveland to a new arena, I went a couple of times, but the atmosphere was more corporate than cutthroat and I didn’t go back. Besides, they were charging corporate prices for the tickets, and I wasn’t used to breaking open my piggybank to cheer on grown men in shorts bouncing a ball from one end of a hardwood floor to the other end.

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

One Way Ticket

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 and Cleveland Ohio Daybook To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”

Flower Power

By Ed Staskus

   My father was a firm believer in the harder you work the better your station. He meant better car better house more money in the bank better everything. He was a refugee from Lithuania, getting out of Europe in 1949 with a duffel bag and twenty-five dollars in his pocket. By the time he got to Sudbury, Ontario, he was down to five dollars, but found employment at a cement factory the next day. Even though I wasn’t sure the long march to better was better, I was barely 15 years old the summer of 1966 and not about to argue with him.

   When I came home from the two-week Lithuanian boys and girls summer camp on Wasaga Beach I was immediately put to work. My father got a job for me on the chain gang of a landscaper who was redoing the grounds at Mt. Sinai Hospital. We trimmed trees, ripped out dead shrubs replacing them with new ones, buried bulbs and planted flowers.

   Mount Sinai Hospital began in 1892 as the Young Ladies’ Hebrew Association “caring for the needy and sick.” It opened as a hospital in 1903 on East 32nd Street, catering to east side Jews, then moved to a bigger building on East 105th Street in 1916. In time it became the healthcare provider to Cleveland’s urban poor.

   My number one assigned thankless chore was helping unload soggy clods of rolled-up sod and laying them down to make new lawns. That meant removing the old grass and some of the worn-out soil beneath it, preparing the ground with a bow rake, breaking up large chunks, laying the sod, neatening the edges, and finally watering it. Handling the hose was the easiest best part of the job. By the end of the first day, I was damp dirty tired and underpaid. 

   I got a ride every morning from Val, a Lithuanian American like me home from college. He drove a 1960 Plymouth Valiant with push-button transmission shifters. There was no button for park, but there was a lever for it. Moving the lever to the end put the transmission into park and popped out whatever button was in gear. It was for laughs watching him smack the buttons from first to second to drive.

   We hopped on I-90 at East 185th St. and took the Liberty Blvd. exit, driving along the winding road through Rockefeller Park to the work site. The 200-acre park was given to the city by John D. Ruthless in 1897. Four stone bridges carried traffic and trains over the road, there was a lagoon for rowing fishing and ice skating at the end of it, and a couple dozen Cultural Gardens down the three-mile length of it.

   The gardens are a series of landscaped green spots honoring ethnic communities in Cleveland, set up from the south shore of Lake Erie to University Circle. The first one was the Shakespeare Garden in 1916, which later became the British Garden. The Cultural Garden League carved out the next one, the Hebrew Garden, in 1926. After that they were off to the races. In the next ten years 14 more gardens were created, including the Italian, Hungarian, and Lithuanian. The idea was to rave on the city’s immigrant groups, which at the time made up about a third of the population.

   In 1936 the city unified the gardens with bordered paths. Busts and statues were installed in many of them. The first One World Day took place in 1946. A parade of nationality floats and bands blaring old hometown tunes started downtown at Public Square, crept six miles along Euclid Ave. to the Cultural Gardens, where there were speeches and a ceremony. Afterwards there was food, souvenir stands, strolling around the gardens, hobnobbing, and dancing to more music. By the middle of the day, it sounded like the Tower of Babel.

   We were listening to ‘Hanky Panky’ by Tommy James and the Shondells on the car radio one Wednesday, curving down onto Liberty Blvd. on our way to work, when we were brought up short by a Jeep with a machine gun mounted on the back. It was blocking the road. There were more Jeeps scattered in the distance. A line of cars was backing up and going the way they had come. Val pulled over to the side until a National Guardsman walked up to our car. 

   “Turn around fellas,” he said. “The road is going to be closed today, maybe the rest of the week.”

   “Why, what’s going on?” Val asked.

   “The niggers are raising hell, busting into stores, burning them down.”

   “What about the parade?” I asked. One World Day was scheduled for the weekend. My parents, brother, sister, and I always went. All my friends went. It was a big thing.

   “I don’t know about no parade, but there ain’t going to be one until things cool down.”

   “One of the Jeeps had a plastic lei hanging down from the .50 caliber gun,” said Wayne Baker who lived in the St. Clair Superior neighborhood.

   The street fighting had started Monday when a black man walked into the white-owned Seventy-Niners Café at Hough Ave. and East 79th St. He asked for a glass of cold water to cool down. It had been a hot day in a hot summer. The café said no, get the hell out of here. Somebody posted a sign. “No water for niggers.” 

   One thing led to another and before long the Cleveland Police Department had a riot on its hands. The more cops who showed up the bigger the mob got. By the next day there weren’t enough policemen in the city to handle the uproar. Mayor Ralph Locher asked Ohio Governor James Rhodes to send in the National Guard. They showed up through the night and deployed in the morning.

   Helen Provenzano’s father got a call early that morning that all the windows in his restaurant on East 97th St. and Euclid Ave. were broken, and he should bring plywood. The eatery was the family’s bread and butter. By the end of the day there was a run on sheets of plywood at hardware stores.

    “Why are you home so early,” my mother asked after Val dropped me off. “Did you do something wrong?”

   “No, the colored people did, there’s a riot going on and we couldn’t get to work,” I said.

   In the mid-1960s 60% of Northern whites agreed that Negro students should be able to go to the same schools.70% agreed with residential integration. 80% agreed that they should be able to get the same jobs as white folks. 90% agreed that they should enjoy public transportation just like everybody else. 100% of Lithuanian Americans didn’t care what bus Negroes rode to whatever job, but the same 100% was opposed to colored kids in their schools and colored families moving into their neighborhoods. When the moving started was when the white flight started.

   My parents weren’t any different than any other Lithuanian I ever heard say anything about it. They hated the Russians, disliked Jews, and looked down on Negroes. Their culture was one of nationalism religion property and community. They thought Negroes were bad Americans, slow-moving and shiftless, belonged to the wrong religion, and didn’t respect private property.

   Where we lived there were none, at all. I delivered the Cleveland Press afternoon newspaper door-to-door six days a week and collected money for it once a week. I knew the faces of who lived on our street of 90-some houses. There weren’t any black hands on my route handing me their payment of 50 cents and a tip if they wanted their rubber-banded paper to land on the front porch the following week.

   Our high school, St Joseph’s, was the same as my paper route. I might see a black face once in a blue moon, but not in any of my classes. They were the janitors. There were lots of big Catholic families in our neighborhood of North Collinwood, and they were a solid block of European stock.

   After Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka and the emerging Civil Rights movement, the times were slowly changing, but it was a bumpy change. Integration meant ill will and uproar. There had been a couple of incidents at Collinwood High School, a few miles southwest of us, the year before. “With the passage of each year, the western fringes of the Collinwood area are being occupied by the Negro overflow from Glenville,” according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the morning paper.

   The Five Points riot happened four years later. Four hundred white students and their friends milling around Collinwood High in the morning started throwing rocks, smashing more than 50 windows. The 200 newly enfranchised colored students attending the school fled to the third-floor cafeteria. When the mob stormed into the building the Negroes blocked the stairs to the third floor with tables and chairs, breaking off the legs to arm themselves. Cleveland police from the 3rd, 4th and 5th Districts poured in, forming a cordon to keep the whites from attacking the blacks who were boarding buses. 

   “Always be careful around them,” my mother said, meaning Negroes. “They might have a knife.”

   My mother and father believed African Americans went nuts at the drop of a hat. I took my parents at their word. It was always touch-and-go messing with their point-of-view. They survived three invasions while growing up in Lithuania, were in Germany during the convulsive last months of the Third Reich, emigrated to North America with just about nothing except willpower, and worked their way up to be tax-paying property-owning Republicans in the New World. They were short-tempered about anybody questioning their beliefs.

   Once, goofing around, I said, “And in this corner, still undefeated, my mom and dad’s long-held beliefs.” That was a big mistake, especially since they were within earshot.

   Hough was a powder keg the summer of 1966. Downtown was white, University Circle to the east was white, and in the middle was Hough, which was black. The housing was substandard and overcrowded. The area stores were crappy and overcharged for their wares. The cops were surly about who they were serving and protecting. When the race riot got rolling, there was rock throwing, looting, arson, and some gunfire. Four people were killed, all four of them Negroes. Two were caught in crossfires, one was killed by a white passerby while waiting at a bus stop, and one was shot by a Little Italy man who said it was self-defense. More than 30 were injured, close to 300 were arrested, and 240-some fires were set. There was an estimated $2 million in property damage, homes burned to the ground, most of them in Hough. 

   Philip Yarish’s grandmother, born at the turn of the century in Lithuania, was upset and wanted to go home to “my own place,” her home on White Ave. north of Hough Ave. She was staying with the family for the duration. The big houses all around her small house had all been made into boarding houses. It was overcrowded, but what could anybody do short on hard cash?

   Real family income rose rapidly in the 1960s. From 1960 to 1970, median family income, adjusted for inflation, rose to $20,939 from $15,637. It did, at least, if you were white. It didn’t if you were Negro. It went the other way.

   “It is a stark reality that the black communities are becoming more and more economically depressed,” Bayard Rustin wrote in 1966. “There has been almost no change or change for the worse in the daily lives of most blacks,” Carmichael and Hamilton wrote in 1967. “Although it is true that the income of middle-class Negroes has risen somewhat, the income of the great mass of Negroes is declining,” Martin Duberman wrote in 1968.

   You can only do so much with less. It’s smooth sailing when there’s money in the piggybank. It’s a hard slog when the piggybank has been smashed to pieces. Living on bits and pieces is bitter and maddening.

   “The white man is reaping what he has sown. He is learning you can’t push people around. The trouble is here because the white man won’t treat the black man right,” the owner of a barber shop in Hough said. 

   A grand jury later concluded that the Communist Party, outside agitators, and black nationalists organized the haphazard uprising, but the finding was laughed off. No Communists had been seen in Cleveland for years and not even outside agitators nor black nationalists wanted to be caught dead in Hough, fearing for their safety.

   An angry crowd started a big fire at Cedar Ave. and E. 106th St. at the start of the weekend, burning down most of a block of stores, but that was the high and low point of the disturbance. Life in the ghetto returned to normal on Sunday and the next day merchants started reopening. The National Guard was released from duty. Val and I went back to work mid-week.

   From where we stood on the grounds of Mt. Sinai Hospital, it looked like nothing had happened. But there were two Cleveland Police cars parked at the front, and one near the back, that whole week. There had always been police cars around the hospital, but those three stayed around the clock.

   Nobody talked much about the riot, except to say, “those spades are crazy.” My parents and their friends said, “it’s a damned shame about the parade.” Val and I shouldered on for another two-some weeks. When the project was done, we were sent out to Bratenahl, mowing lawns for the millionaires who lived in the east side lakeside mansions.

   Our last day, which was payday and Friday, driving home on Liberty Blvd, the Cultural Gardens looking great in the full summer sun, Val said, “Have you noticed there isn’t an African American garden?”

   “No,” I said.

   “They were some of the first immigrants, not that they wanted to come here, but still, you would think there would be a garden for them, especially since this is all in their neighborhood.”

   “I guess so,” I said.

    Val was five years older and wiser than me. He was going to an east coast college, majoring in philosophy. He wore his hair long. Some Lithuanians called him a dirty hippie, even though he worked like a sharecropper.

   The idea of building a garden for Cleveland’s colored community was brought up in 1961 by Cleveland councilman Leo Jackson. He proposed a “Negro Cultural Garden.”  The mayor supported the proposal, but it was voted down by his finance committee. In 1968 the idea came back, including a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., who had been assassinated that year, to stand in the middle of it. Nothing came of the comeback until 1976, when Congressman Louis Stokes brought it to life again. Ground for the garden was broken and dedicated in 1977, but the project remained unfinished until 2016, almost forty years later.

   When we turned off Liberty Blvd., curving onto the entrance ramp to I-90, Val punched the spunky Valiant’s push buttons through its gears, and we rode the current of rush hour traffic back to North Collinwood. The weekend was tomorrow. We were both ready as could be.

   “I’m glad to be going home,” I said.

   “It’s shelter from the storm, man,” Val said.

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

Waking Up on Wasaga Beach

By Ed Staskus

   There might be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on us.” Traditional Camp Song

  My brother and I both went to Ausra, as Kretinga was then known, starting in the early 1960s, later joined by our younger sister, who continued going into the 1970s, after we had grown older than the age limit. There was never any love lost in our goodbyes, watching our sister leave for camp, while we ate crumbs at home.

   Everybody who was going waited all year for the first day of stovykla, or camp, and two weeks later, when it was over, saying goodbye to fellow campers felt like summer was over, even though it was still only mid-July. We ran around in the woods like knockabouts, there were bonfires, and it was awesome to hang out with our friends. We would have traded any day in the real world for five minutes at summer camp.

   Austra was a summer camp in Wasaga Beach, ninety miles up from Toronto. It is just north of the provincial park and the town’s honky-tonk boardwalk. Americans, Canadians, and anybody who had a drop of Lithuanian blood in them was good to go. After the first year we never wrote letters home. The first year we weren’t allowed to be campers anymore we wrote letters asking for an exemption.

   Founded in 1957, Ausra was a sports culture religious boy and girl runaround camp all wrapped up in a package deal on the southern shore of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The camp was and still is on twenty-four acres of sand. The sand is bare-bones and fresh and gets into everything, your ears, shoes, pockets, sleeping bag, and toothbrush, on the first day and only drops out of sight after you get home. The trees surrounding our camp are what we disappeared into for two weeks, far from home.

   The drive from where we lived in Cleveland, Ohio, to the camp was longer then. The highways weren’t all highways like they are now. Some of them were just roads. My father had bought a Chevrolet Brookwood as soon as there were three of us, a blue and white station wagon that was twice as big and long as any sedan. The third-row seat faced backwards. We called it the way back window, playing the license plate game and cows on my side.

   The rear window was where my brother and I always sat. Our little sister had to sit alone on the middle bench seat. She wasn’t allowed in the back with us, although we let her play rock paper scissors with us, since she was so bad at it. My brother and I found out from a friend of a friend she counted her lucky stars to have the middle seat to herself. When we asked her why, she just laughed like Woody Woodpecker.

   We were always so excited about going to camp we couldn’t sit still. It took forever to get there. I don’t know how my parents endured the 12-hour trip with the three of us in the back. I do know my father had stuck a globe-like compass on top of the dashboard next to a plastic St. Christopher figurine staring straight watchful ahead. When he started chain-smoking was when we knew things were getting sketchy.

   When the camp opened it slept eight boys to a Canadian Army surplus tent pitched over a plank floor. By the time my sister went to camp, wood A-frames were replacing canvas. Boys stayed on one side of the camp and girls on the other, while the smaller kids slept in roughhewn twin barracks. There were close to two hundred of us. In between were the sports field, a parade ground, and an all-purpose open-air hall, adjoined by an amphitheater of tiered logs. 

   The amphitheater was where we sang songs, acted out skits, and had a lauzas, or bonfire. Everyone ran down to the bonfire and sing-along as soon as it started getting dark. There was so much wood we had a fire every night, as big as a log cabin burning down. “It’s not like now, when you have to drive to the convenience store and buy it,” my brother said. “They only have bonfires on weekends, and they are more the size of flashlights than three-alarm fires.”

   Our camp activities director had been in the Foreign Legion. Bruno wore a black beret, a checked kerchief tied around his neck, and carried a hand axe on his belt. He mostly just picked up wood from the forest floor. Our woodpile was always sky high for a rainy day. Even though we were often reminded to never play with matches in the woods, every night it seemed to take a full box of stick matches and a half-gallon of gasoline to start the fire.

   Everybody cheered when the whoosh happened.

   The days were mostly sunny, sometimes windy and wet, but at camp there was no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather. The nights were often massively starlit and frequently damp. The summer sky at summer camp is big and windy. It’s clean and full of life, too. We didn’t shower when we were at camp. Everybody was expected to clean themselves at the communal sink in the latrine. It wasn’t just a pit, but a cinder block building that teemed with daddy long-leg spiders at night.

   Some kids hardly ever washed anything besides their hands and face, and it could get disgusting, but none of us cared too much about it. One time somebody’s parents wouldn’t let him into the car when his two weeks were up, and he hadn’t cleaned all over even once.

   “No, go back, go hose yourself off! What is wrong with you?” his mother asked through her nose.

   One year we had bedbugs. We caught them with scotch tape and kept them in a glass jar. We 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. When the camp commander found out about it, he hired a bedbug sniffing dog.

   The Beagle was so good at his work he sniffed out a bedbug hiding in the folded page of a paperback book. The next day everyone whose tents were plagued by the bugs piled their stuff in garbage bags and threw the bags inside whatever cars were at the camp, in the hot sun, with the windows closed. All the bedbugs died.

   Bruno told us that a Canadian had invented plastic garbage bags. He was proud of that because he had become a Canadian citizen. He always had something historic to tell us. Sometimes we heard what he had to say. Most of the time we didn’t.

   In the morning every morning at seven o’clock we were rousted from our cots by marching music and rag-tagged to the sports field for calisthenics. We stretched and did jumping jacks and ran the track. Afterwards we ran back to our tents, changed into clean shirts, and after raising the Lithuanian, Canadian, and American flags, sometimes preceded by lowering underpants hoisted in the night, we raced to breakfast.

   We had porridge and scrambled eggs and Post Top 3 cereal. We always had PB&J on Wonder Bread. Sometimes we had sandwich’s all day if something went wrong and there wasn’t anything else. The sweet jelly was a hit with bees and wasps. Metallic colored dragonflies, agile and powerful fliers, had the run of camp. If the spring had been soggy there were mosquitos.

   After breakfast we pushed the long tables to the side, lined our benches up in rows, and sat down for services. Father Paul, Ausra’s resident Franciscan, said mass every day on a makeshift altar. He didn’t have any kids, being a priest, but he was good with kids. He cemented his reputation in the early days when a camper swiped the wine for communion.

   “I was about 12 years old and drank it with a girlfriend,” said Dalia Daugvainyte. “The trees whirled around us along with the stars that night.”

   She had to go to confession the next morning. Father Paul let her off the hook with less than a million Hail Mary’s and a solemn vow to never do it again. “Knowing him, he probably hid a smile,” she said. Since the confessional was out in the open, he probably had to turn his head to the side.

   Late mornings we were free. We cleaned up our tents, messed around, and played volleyball, the national game, according to our sports counselor. One day we played volleybat, which was baseball but with a volleyball. We found out it was hairier than it sounds when the pitcher, who was closer to home plate since he had to lob the volleyball, broke his wrist fending off a line drive.

   Every afternoon, barring mid-summer thunder and lightning, we assembled for the best part of the day, which was going to the longest freshwater beach in the world, a ten-minute hike from the camp. We lined up in our swimsuits and towels and tramped through a stand of pines and birches to the Concession Road gate and past the corner variety store to the New Wasaga Beach coastline. Whenever we could, we made a run for it, breaking out of our two-by-two ranks, and snuck into the variety store for bottles of Bubble-Up and bags of Maltesers.

   Bruno was unlike most of the other counselors. He wasn’t a parent or a young adult. He was a wiry man in his forties with wavy hair who wore his khaki shorts hiked up to his belly button and led our formation to the beach. He had been a Foreign Legionnaire during World War Two and every summer thought he knew how to assemble children for close order drill, only to see us scatter pell-mell as soon we got close to the dunes.

   Fish-n-chip shacks on stilts and fat family cars, which were then still allowed to park on the beach, dotted the wide sand flats. The surf line was a hundred yards out, the water flat as a pancake. We didn’t swim so much as play in the water, running and belly flopping, tackling one another, flinging Wham-O Frisbees, and splashing every girl we saw.

   “You’re getting us wet,” they yelled, even though they were in the lake the same as us. One girl I liked hated getting water in her eyes and up her nose. She wore enormous green goggles and said they were for swimming, even though she always just stood and floated around in one spot.

   What none of us ever noticed was the loose cordon of watchful camp counselors on the outskirts of our horseplay, keeping their eyes peeled as we played. Walking back to camp behind Bruno we would sing “Hello, goodbye, Jell-o, no pie” because we knew we would be having Jell-o for dessert when we got back. Sometimes I walked with the pretty goggle girl.

   Bruno liked to snack on koseliena, or headcheese, and thought we should, too, but our kitchen had the good sense never to serve it, fearing mass nausea. We ate four times a day, served by eight volunteer cooks, older ladies, who made burgers and French fries, pork chops and mashed potatoes, and kugelis, or potato pudding.

   Potatoes were a staple, like Wonder Bread.

   Going swimming on the bay shore was the only time we were allowed to leave camp. It was a strict rule. Everybody feared the consequences, which was expulsion from the camp. One summer a fifteen-year-old was spotted cavorting on the Wasaga Beach boardwalk and given the choice of going home or spending the remainder of the camp in the kid’s barracks.

   He chose a top bunk in the barracks, his new campmates a gaggle of eight and nine-year-old’s.

   Two other boys who had messed up did penance another summer by staging a memorial to Darius and Girenas, the 1930s aviators who died flying from America to Lithuania. After a week building a model of the orange monoplane, they strung a clothesline over the bonfire pit, and painted rocks depicting the route, from New York to Newfoundland, Ireland, and finally Kaunas.

   That night, with the whole camp assembled at the amphitheater, they pulled the plane along the rope, telling the spellbinding story of the ill-fated flight, when near the marker depicting Kaunas, they yanked too hard on the guide rope. The plane careened backwards, shook and shuddered, plunging down too soon and too fast and crashed into the bonfire, exploding into flames.

   Everybody hooted hollered groaned wolf whistled. It was the buzz of the camp for days. The girl with goggles under her pillow was quiet. Somebody said one of the pilots had been her great uncle. I bought her a bottle of Orange Crush from the variety store to cheer her up.

   Although Ausra no longer exists, except perhaps in memory, the summer camp on the shore of Georgian Bay is still there in the same place. More than half a century after tens of thousands of Lithuanians fled Europe for North America it thrives on the thin, sandy soil of Wasaga Beach.

   Toronto’s Church of the Resurrection bought the land for the camp from a parishioner for a nominal amount in the 1950s and operated it until 1983, when it was re-christened as Kretinga. Since then it has evolved into three camps. There are two weeks for English-speaking and two weeks for Lithuanian-speaking children of Lithuanian descent, and another week for families whose children are too young for the other camps.

   There is a weeklong basketball camp in August. In 2014 Mindaugas Kuziminskas, a former Kretinga camper, played for the Lithuanian National Team in the World Cup in Spain. Summer after summer many of the same children and families across generations return. “It’s my second home,” said one camper, while another said, “Greatest camp in the world!”

   “I love this camp so much and I have been going since forever,” another camper wearing a double-sided Kretinga t-shirt summed up.

   My nephew goes to Kretinga and eats in the same mess hall as my brother and I did, shoots hoops on the same asphalt court, and every summer helps restore the same sand map of Lithuania behind the flagpoles. I asked him if he was going back next summer.

   “Oh, yeah,” he said. “My friends and I have been together for five years in the same cabin. Waking up and being at camp is the best time of the year. We get there the first day and there are high-fives knuckle-touches bro-hugs all around. We punch each other and laugh it up. When all the moms and dads are finally gone, we have sandwiches in the mess hall. Father says a prayer and the camp commander makes a speech.”

   He had already made his plans for when the talking was over.

   “After the next two summers, after my last year at camp, when I’m not allowed to be a camper anymore, I’m going back as a counselor. That’s a sure thing. I can’t wait to go back.”

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

Smackdown Sheik

By Ed Staskus

   When I went to work for Gene Weiss in the 1980s all I knew about him was that he owned a racquetball club in Euclid and that he was a famous wrestler. The club was Racquettime, which also went by the name of Gene Weiss’s Place for Fitness. It was a boxy two-story building on Lakeland Blvd. with a big sign clearly visible from I-90.

   The front doors were on the second floor, the front desk was just inside, and the locker rooms were downstairs. There were lots of racquetball courts and a fitness room. Gene sold workout equipment on the side. His other enterprises were top secret.

   I got the job because I had worked for the Back Wall, a Beachwood-based chain of clubs that had transformed its customer base into a cash cow by selling what they touted as lifetime memberships at a ridiculously low price. There was an initiation fee and monthly payments for a while but after that it was the gravy train for the member. At least, that was the pitch. After everybody’s money was safe and secure, they went out of business and closed all their clubs.

   My job was to reproduce the cash cow. I got an office just inside the front door and was expected to sign up as many members to the new plan as possible. What Gene didn’t know was that I was only a tolerable salesman. My job at the Back Wall had sort of involved sales, but my aim wasn’t true that way.

   Gene went to Shaker Heights High School and won the state wrestling title. After he graduated, he won gold and silver medals for the USA at the Maccabiah Games. In 1961 he was named coach of the United States wrestling team. Four years later he was flag bearer for the USA at the opening ceremonies of the 7th World Maccabiah Games in Israel. He was named Ohio Amateur Athletic Union coach of the year and continued to coach with the United States wrestling teams. In the meantime, he became National Wrestling Chairman of the Maccabiah Games and a member of the United States Olympic Committee. Gene was inducted into the Ohio Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1977 and in 1980 was inducted into both the Cleveland Sports Hall of Fame and the Shaker Heights High School Hall of Fame. He started and was running the Ohio School of Wrestling when I went to work for him. 

   He introduced himself and his accomplishments at some length. I listened dutifully, an attentive expression on my face. When he came up for air, I thought, I hope there isn’t a quiz on this tomorrow. I hadn’t taken notes and most of it went in one ear and out the other. I had gotten the gist of it, though. He was great guy.

   Everybody loved Gene Weiss.

   “Gene is tough as nails on the outside, but a softie on the inside with a big heart of gold,” said Don Roskoph. “He’s a tough guy with a big heart,” said Bill Turk. “A friend like Gene comes along once in a lifetime. He’s always for the underdog and will give you the shirt off his back in a second,” said Angelo Amato.

   “Gene is a bad dude. He could grab you and he could hurt you.” said Ryan Peters, the athletic director at Beachwood High School. At the same time, he’s a teddy bear, he hastily added. “You can’t help walking away from a meeting with Gene and not give him a big hug. He’s one of these guys that when you meet with him, he’d tell you a story that would change your life.”

   He never hugged me but was always punching my upper arms and slapping me on the back. Thank God he pulled his punches. I loved Gene for a few months until the day after day glad-handing got to be too much while his promises got smaller and smaller fading away to nothing.

   Gene was the owner operator of Racquettime, although he wasn’t in the club overly much nor did it seem like he did over much. When he was there, he mostly mixed with the members and checked with the staff about how things were going. Several young women worked at the front desk and his right-hand man Katherine the Great was in some sort of supervisory position, although whether she was the manager or assistant manager or simply the all-seeing eye for Gene was never clear to me. What was clear was that everybody did what she told them to do, except me. 

   I knew Kathy Roach from racquetball tournaments. She was a good player, athletic fast strong. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. I don’t know why, but there it was. As much as Gene led with smiles she led with scowls. I was forced to play racquetball with Gene every so often which was literally a pain. He was a human hinder. He hated letting me hit open winners and would do his best to obstruct me. He was a man-sized slab of iron. I wasn’t. Running into him meant bouncing off him, while the ball went bouncing away and he won the point. 

   If I complained about it, he explained on and on, explaining why how where I was wrong. On top of that, he signed my paycheck, so I didn’t complain. Besides, his takedowns were accompanied by a full mouth smile full of sparkling Chiclet teeth. I wondered what candy store he got his choppers from.

   Sometimes in the locker room after games he talked about wrestlers, bringing up the names of stars, Mr. Fuji, Tarzan Tyler, Andre the Giant, Killer Kowakski, and the Iron Sheik. I didn’t know anything about wrestling and didn’t know them from the man in the moon. He seemed to be on a first name basis with the torso twisters.

   Kathy was a better player than Gene. However, even though Gene won every game we played, she never won a single game. I disliked her so much my goal was to always shut her out, which I did. I slowed my serves and shots down against Gene but sped them up against Kathy. After goose-egging her several times she stopped asking me to play. I never asked her, so we stopped altogether, although she never stopped shooting me dark looks.

   She fawned over Gene as though he was the Great Sugar Daddy. After a while I looked the other way. It wasn’t any of my business anyway. I was after Emily, a pretty girl who worked at the front desk. Despite my best efforts, including charming her parents, I never got anywhere.

   I saw Gene mornings because he was there more-or-less every morning. I started work at 11 o’clock and worked until 7 o’clock. Gene was gone most afternoons and came back as the after-work surge was starting. I made sure I was gone at seven, no matter what. By then I had learned that going the extra mile for employers was giving up my time in a losing cause. When push came to shove it would mean nothing.

   Gene was paying me more than the Back Wall had, said he would spring for health insurance, and promised me a bonus when all was said and done. At first, selling the dream team memberships was easy. I sold them to the tried-and-true members, everybody who loved the club and loved Gene. After that the going got harder, especially to members who only came to the club occasionally sporadically. They wanted to pay for court time or workout time and leave it at that. They didn’t want to sign any contracts. They didn’t want to give me their bank account numbers for monthly withdrawals. It was even harder when it came to first timers. They always asked for a free one-time pass and usually never came back a second time. I was expected to get their phone numbers and follow up with them. I learned quickly enough what it felt like to have one person after another hang up on me.

   The work wasn’t hard, and I kept plugging away.

   One day at my desk I started experiencing discomfort in my right side. By the end of the day the discomfort had turned to pain. Gene noticed I was squirming during our morning meeting the next day and asked me what was wrong. When I told him he took me to the locker room and said a session in the whirlpool would take care of business. I said maybe I should go see a doctor. He said no, I didn’t need a doctor. He was big on saunas steams and whirlpools and insisted I stay in the hot water tub until I couldn’t stand it anymore. After I got out, I felt better all over except for the pain in my side. It felt worse. That night I couldn’t sleep.

   The next morning, I went to Lakewood Hospital and found out I had kidney stones. The ER doctor gave me a small allowance of morphine-like pills and told me to drink as much water as I could stomach. “The pain of kidney stones is right up there with giving birth,” he said. I didn’t go to work that day and that night slept like a baby. In the morning I felt like a new man.

   When the bill for the hospital visit came a few weeks later I left it in Gene’s in-tray, which is when I found out I didn’t have health insurance after all. He had never signed me up and never paid any premiums. I wasn’t sure what to do. If I confronted him about it, he might put me in a headlock. I heard through the grapevine that nobody, except for maybe Kathy Roach, had health insurance. 

   The last couple of months I worked at Racquettime I stayed busy discovering things weren’t going my way. I had been promising new members we were going to be putting an Olympic-size swimming pool in soon. When I pressed Gene about it, since members were pressing me about it, he hemmed and hawed. I thought, there isn’t any pool on the way.

   Gene wanted me to start giving racquetball lessons, but I didn’t want to. I had done lessons at the Back Wall. No matter how many times I told men women teenagers to hit a thousand forehands backhands ceiling shots and to practice their serves, they never did. What they wanted to do was hit the ball around with me while I tried to correct their swings. Everybody thought there was one sure way to become a winner. When I tried to explain that everybody good went at it in slightly different ways, and what they should do is discover what worked for them, all the while grooving their swings, they weren’t interested.

   When I asked Gene about my bonus, the bonus he had promised me for selling his new memberships, he said I hadn’t sold enough of them to make paying me a bonus worth it. On top of that he was so disappointed in my performance that he was going to have to let me go, starting right now. It didn’t take me entirely by surprise, but it took me by surprise. I hadn’t planned on it and hadn’t gone looking for anything new. I didn’t bother arguing with him. I knew when I was down for the count.

   On my way home I reminded myself, never trust the big cheeses. They didn’t get to be wealthy by giving anybody anything unless they absolutely had to. They got rich by pinning suckers to the mat until they squealed. The only people they respect are others like them, and even that respect is provisional.

   They always say they got where they are through hard work. They wrinkle their noses when asked whose hard work. They don’t care if they are rich, so long as they have a boat load of money, no matter where it came from. Top dogs make the rules. It’s the law of the land. My rule of thumb was to keep my distance, since when the mondo hammers make trouble it’s always the small fry who get beat on the anvil.

   I had been thinking about going to work for myself. Nobody ever got much satisfaction by being a wage slave for their boss. I wasn’t going to make it to Fort Knox with the modest plan I had in mind, but I moved the thought from the back of my mind to the front. I might still have to work part-time for somebody to stay afloat but I would never again trust whoever it was.

   Nobody quits when they’re wrestling the Iron Sheik and gets tired. You quit when the Iron Sheik gets tired of you.

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

Up in Smoke

By Ed Staskus

   When my father died the funeral service was at Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the Lithuanian church on Cleveland’s east side, the memorial service was at the Lithuanian Club up the street, and he was buried on the grounds of All Souls in Chardon, forty miles farther east, where many Lithuanian Catholics ending their days on the south shore of Lake Erie end up.

   All Souls Cemetery covers some 250 acres, features over 109 developed acres and 7 mausoleums, and could be a golf course if it wasn’t a boneyard. If someone’s got the blues, it’s where to go. It’s the place to bury your troubles.

   Two years later, paying my respects on a sunny summer day, visiting my father in the mausoleum where he is interned, and later wandering about the cemetery, I stumbled on the burial place of Antanas Smetona. The name rang a bell. When it came to me, I remembered he was the first and last president of Lithuania during the inter-war years.

   Walking back to my car I passed a headstone 50-some years old. Red and white artificial flowers lay on the ground. Engraved on the stone was a man’s name, his date of birth and death, and the inscription “He Done His Damnest.” It wasn’t the kind of epitaph I expected, which would have been more along the lines of “Always in Our Hearts” and “Gone but Not Forgotten.” Had the man gone to Heaven or Hell?

   Antanas Smetona did his damnest, too. 

   He was born into a family of farmers, former serfs, the eighth of nine children. Their homestead was near a small lake, almost dead center in the middle of Lithuania. His father died when he was eleven, making a last wish that his youngest son be sent to school. He was the only one of his brothers and sisters to ever get an education. The instruction was in Russian, because the Russians were in charge and Lithuanian talk was forbidden. Lithuanian literature was closed down. Lithuanian history was closed down.

   He was a top student and won a tuition waiver. He supported himself by superintending his dormitory and giving private lessons. After graduation he made his way to Latvia, got involved with the Lithuanian National Revival, got into trouble, made his way to St. Petersburg, got involved in the February 1899 student protests, and got deported back to Lithuania.

   After he was allowed to return, he got involved with Lithuanian book smugglers, got arrested, got thrown into a castle that doubled as a prison, somehow got acquitted, cracked his books, graduated university, and made his way out of Russia. He never went back. He went back to the homeland.

   Russia was like a cemetery with a big fence around it. Those inside couldn’t leave unless they were thrown out. Those outside didn’t want to scale the fence to get inside unless it was a matter of life and death.

   Antanas Smetona got married and went to work for the Vilnius Land Bank. When he wasn’t working, he was working with several Lithuanian nationalist groups and writing editing publishing circulating news and editorials advocating national unity and independence.

   When the First World War started, he chaired the Central Committee Relief Society and pressed demands on the Germans, who had pushed the Russians out of the country in 1915, that Lithuania be granted its independence. A year later he began editing and publishing the newspaper Lithuania’s Echo. His message, stated in the first issue, was the speedy establishment of an autonomous and sovereign Lithuanian state.

   Russia didn’t like that, since they had controlled the country for more than a hundred years, but they had their own problems, namely the Eastern Front, where they were busy suffering six million casualties and three-and-a-half million captured. On top of that more than a million civilians were dying of war-related causes. Adding to the anvil chorus, the Bolsheviks were breathing down their necks.

   When the Council of Lithuania was formed, Antanas Smetona was elected Chairman and in February 1918 he signed the Act of Independence of Lithuania. The next year he was elected the first President of the Republic of Lithuania. His tenure didn’t last long. The next year a new man was elected, and he was out. He taught classes at the University of Vilnius and got involved with the paramilitary group the Lithuanian Riflemen’s Union.

   Five years later he led a coup d’etat, deposing the then president and seizing the office for himself. A year later he suppressed the parliament. Two years later he assumed dictatorial powers. For all his editorializing about autocratic czars, he became an autocratic czar. For the next nine years he ruled by decree, his own new constitution vesting in him both executive and legislative powers. Whenever there were new elections he ran as the only candidate.

   He added his name to the rise of totalitarianism and dictatorship in the 1930s, joining Benito Mussolini, Francesco Franco, Joseph Stalin, and Adolf Hitler. He went from idealism and high-mindedness to cynicism and the inside track. Realpolitik is not about democracy and human rights. It is the struggle for power. It’s like Adolf Hitler said, “It is not truth that matters but victory. If you win, you need not have to explain. If you lose, you should not be there to explain.”

   Although there aren’t many children nowadays who would accept guidance counseling from Adolf Hitler, there were plenty of men and women eighty and ninety years ago who were all ears. That’s why cemeteries by 1945 were overflowing with indispensable people, not including the dictators. They make their own beds.

   Antanas Smetona may have been a patriot and a loyalist, doing his best to restore Lithuania to nation statehood, but he was nonetheless a dictator. He may have repressed the Iron Wolves, a radical rightist movement led by his former Prime Minister who he had earlier removed from office, but his own Lithuanian Nationalist Union took part in the 1934 Montreux Fascist Conference. He may have believed in political parties, but his was one-party rule and he was the host boss ringleader of the party. He styled himself as the Tautos Vadas, or Leader of the People.

   Under his rule Lithuania “moved decisively towards a dictatorship of what might be termed the ‘fascism from above’ variety,” according to Martin Blinkhorn, British historian and author of “Fascism and the Right in Europe 1919 – 1945.” The Russians, the Muddy Mississippi of Fascism themselves, said he was trying to “adapt Italian Fascist concepts to Lithuanian conditions.” He was more centrist and moderate in his authoritarianism than many others, but he also believed he was the most qualified and experienced person to run the country, and he rigged the elections to make sure it stayed that way.

   Not that it did him any good. By 1938 he was being squeezed by Nazi Germany and the Commies. He had never been able to get Vilnius back from the Poles. Now he had to surrender Memel to the Germans. When the Russians presented an ultimatum to his government in 1940, he urged armed resistance, but nobody agreed that Lithuania’s armed forces, numbering some twenty thousand, was up to the task of going toe to toe with the five-million-man Red Army.

   “I do not want to make Lithuania a Bolshevik country with my own hands,” he said from the steps of the Presidential Palace in Kaunas and left the country. A month later Lithuania was incorporated into the Soviet Union. He wasn’t on hand to try to stop it.

   When he got to the border Antanas Smetona and his bodyguard waded across the Liepona rivulet into Nazi Germany. When he did, he went from lightning rod to lightning bug. The next day his family convinced the Lithuanian crossing guards to let them go, too, since the big fish was already gone. The provisional government wanted him back, but what could they do?

   The Germans put him up in a hunting lodge in the Masurian Lake District. From there he was moved to Berlin, then traveled to Bern, Switzerland, and lastly to Rio de Janeiro. He finally landed on his feet in the United States where four hundred guests greeted him at New York City’s Pierre Hotel for dinner and an evening function. He briefly lived in Pittsburgh and Chicago before finally settling down on the east side of Cleveland.

   When I grew up on the east side in the late 1950s and 60s, Eastern Europe was right across the street. There were Serbs Slovenians Croatians, plenty of Poles, and lots of Lithuanians. Everybody had their own church and their own watering holes. Everybody had their own talk in their own language about the mother land and their new place new lives new future in the USA.

   Antanas Smetona and his wife Sofija moved in with their son Julius on Ablewhite Avenue on the northeast side of the city, off Eddy Road, near Lake Erie. Julius worked as a grinder for Standard Tool and was married to Birute Nasvytyte, a former concert pianist, raising their two children. The self-styled President-in-Exile worked on his memoirs and visited Lithuanian communities across America speaking about the plight of the mother country and his hopes for its post-war independence.

   “What the Magna Carta was to the English, what the rights of man of the French Revolution were to personal liberty, the Atlantic Charter is to nations, especially small nations like ours,” he said.

   When my parents bought a two-and-a-half story duplex with a backyard big enough for a pack of kids, their first house in the United States, doubling up with my father’s sister and her family in 1958, all of us recent immigrants, it was about a mile from the exile’s residence. When I attended the Iowa-Maple Elementary School my first school year in Cleveland I sat in a classroom a stone’s throw from the house. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, that the ex-president of Lithuania died in that house less than twenty years earlier.

  The day he died, Sunday January 9, 1944, he and his wife were in their upstairs bedroom relaxing. It had snowed lightly on Saturday and the windows were frosty, below freezing. They smelled something foul and saw smoke oozing into their room from under the door. 

   The furnace had been acting up lately. “The night before yesterday coal fumes made me dizzy. I could not think clearly. Now I have completely recovered,” he wrote in his journal two months earlier. This was worse. His thinking days were soon going to be over.

   The overheated furnace caught fire, leapt up the chimney, and swept through the house. The man and wife bolted out of the room and down the stairs, but he turned around, stepping back into the bedroom, grabbing a fur-lined overcoat to throw over his head. By the time he turned again to flee his wife was in the front yard. He never made it out of the house alive.

   Fire Battalion Chief Tom O’Brien said afterwards the fire had a “head start,” making it difficult to fight. The coal room was red-hot. By the time they extinguished the blaze and accounted for everyone, they went looking for Antanas Smetona. They saved the house but found him face down in the second-floor kitchen dead of suffocation. Police outlined in chalk where his body was found, and other policemen carried him out on a stiff board.

   The pull out the stops funeral was at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist and was presided over by Bishop Edward Hoban. The Cleveland Police Mounted Unit saluted as his coffin was carried out the front door. He was buried in Cleveland’s Knollwood Cemetery but in 1975 was moved to Chardon, next to his wife, who died in 1968.

   Although the inter-war years in Lithuania are often referred to as the Smetonian years, there is no monument to the man in Vilnius. “I really wouldn’t want to say whether I’d approve a monument to Smetona, or not,” Remigius Simasius the mayor of the city said. In the end he didn’t say. There is still some bad blood about the putsch and his authoritarianism.

   “Perhaps not so much for the coup itself than for disbanding political parties and essentially destroying the opposition,” said Vilnius University historian Alfredas Bumblauskas.

   When I went back the next summer to visit my father, I walked to where I knew Antanas Smetona was six feet up. The polished granite slabs are on a wall above Grace and Philip McGarry and below Michael and Anna Pula. Someone had fixed fresh flowers to both Antanas and Sofija’s facings. The sepulchral stone was spic-and-span.

   I thought of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s song, “There’s just one kind favor I’ll ask of you, see that my grave is kept clean.”

   No matter what, whether he had done the best he could, or not, whether he was a statesman or a tyrant, whether he was in Heaven or Hell, the earthly remains of the man were beyond reproach in his neat as a pin final resting place at All Souls. 

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