Ice Age Afternoon

By Ed Staskus

   “What are those for?” I asked watching my father-in-law pull two chunky copies of the Sunday edition of the Cleveland Plain Dealer out of a plastic bag.

   “These are to sit on,” he said. I didn’t bother asking. I was going to find out soon enough anyway.

   It was December 15, 1991, and the temperature was somewhere in the mid-20s inside Municipal Stadium. Outside the lakefront stadium Lake Erie wasn’t frozen solid, yet, just frozen. The wind was brisk in the 25-mile range and the wind chill was too much to talk about. It was a quarter to one in the afternoon. Even though the sun had risen five hours earlier, it still hadn’t made an appearance. The Houston Oilers were warming up to play the Cleveland Browns. The home team was already warmed up. They knew what they were in for weatherwise. The Browns weren’t going anywhere behind Bernie Kosar, but the Oilers were going to the playoffs behind Warren Moon.

   Playoffs or no playoffs, they were all war horses. They were going to raise Cain to get the job done, no matter what. They put blinders on the minute they stepped on the field. The Oilers did their best to ignore the Dawg Pound.

   Dick Parello my father-in-law wasn’t a talkative man. His wife filled the silence. He was good at crosswords, doing them every day with a ballpoint pen, and devilishly clever at Scrabble. He scored points even when he had nothing, and I had all the good tiles. The Sunday newspaper was a good idea. I tossed the sports section down to put my day-to-day shoes on and fight off frostbite. Otherwise, my feet would have spent three and half hours on rock-hard ice-cold unforgiving concrete.

   The newspaper John Kupcik’s father-in-law brought to the game suffered a different fate. “He would tear off a page of the paper, crumble it up, and light it between his feet to keep warm. He did it the whole game, section by section. That and his homemade brandy kept us warm enough.”

   Even though I had lived in Cleveland since before the age of ten, watched NFL games on TV on Sundays and read recaps in the newspaper on Monday, I had never been to a Browns game. I had been to the stadium many times to see baseball games. The Indians were bad but tickets for day games were cheap, and the ball games were fun. We paid bargain basement prices and then sat wherever we wanted to. We liked sitting behind the dugouts, to encourage Chief Wahoo and abuse the other guys.

   Municipal Stadium was built in the early 1930s when the city was run by city managers. Walker and Weeks designed it and the Osborn Engineering Company built it. The stadium featured an early use of structural aluminum. Two days after the ballpark was dedicated on July 1, 1931, it hosted a boxing match for the World Heavyweight Championship between Max Schmeling and Young Stribling. There were 37,000 fans in attendance for the slugfest. Schmeling held on to the title by technical knockout in the 15th and last round. When it was all over Max sat back and lit up a cigar while Young spent days feeling years older than he was.

   The Cleveland Indians played their first game there on July 31, 1932, losing 1-0 to Lefty Grove and the Philadelphia Athletics, attracting a then-major-league-record crowd of 80,184. They played the rest of their home games at the ballpark the rest of the year and through the next year. But none of the Tribe players liked Municipal Stadium. They complained about the vast outfield and pulled muscles trying to muscle home runs over the faraway fences.

   It was 435 feet to the far corners of the stands in left-center and right-center, 463 feet to either corner of the bleachers, and 470 feet from home plate to the bleachers in straightaway center. No player ever hit a home run into the center field bleachers. Fly balls choked and died trying. 

   The team went back to the smaller League Park in 1934 and stayed for several years. They returned in 1937, playing some Sunday and holiday games at Municipal Stadium. League Park didn’t have any field lighting, so when night baseball got going in the 1930s and lights were finally installed at the stadium in 1939, the Indians started playing most of their home games there. They abandoned League Park entirely after 1946.

   Dick was from Rochester, New York. He grew up there and enlisted for the Vietnam War there. He was a stolid burly man. After he finished Charm School and got his legs under him as a military policeman, he kept things quiet in his neck of the woods. He didn’t mix it up much with Charlie, assigned to III Corps in the Saigon area where the fighting was spare, but never went anywhere without his Colt .45 Government sidearm.

   “Never trust a gook,” he said. He meant Charlie and ARVN and everybody in between.

   He came to Cleveland in the early 1970s with three friends who were putting a new restaurant together in Park Centre, which later became Reserve Square. When the Firehouse was ready to go, he became the bartender, and after that the manager. When he married Teressa my future mother-in-law in 1981, they set up shop in a three-bedroom apartment on the 17th floor of Park Centre. Dick and Teresa built the Park Pub, last call at the Firehouse having come and gone. They served food and drink. Teresa was a self-taught pro in the kitchen. She had the paring knife scars on her hands to prove it. Dick worked nights behind the bar and had the bags under his eyes to prove it.

   Even though Municipal Stadium was built for football as well as baseball, it was built for baseball. The football field was an awkward fit on a field designed for America’s pastime. Nobody wanted to sit on the home plate side. They were the best seats during a baseball game but the worst seats at a football game. The far end zone couldn’t have been farther away.

   As sparse as crowds were at Indians games was as big as crowds were at football games. When I looked around there might have been an empty seat somewhere. Otherwise, it looked sold out. The best seats were at the 50-yard line, but we sat in the bleachers. Going to the game was a last-minute idea, not mine, but Dick’s, who got free tickets from a barfly.

   I hadn’t been to Municipal Stadium for almost ten years. When we walked inside, I thought, “This place is a broken-down dump.” It looked bad. It smelled bad. There was a raw feeling in all directions.

   We sat behind four guys who had smuggled a keg of beer into the stadium. They were drunk as skunks sooner than later and spent the second half throwing things at Oilers players whenever they came within range. Their aim was bad, though. They hit more fellow fans than anybody else. A baldheaded older man behind us wearing a scarf smoked fat cigars all afternoon. Thank God the steady wind blew the smoke to the side. When I was tempted to tell the four guys with the keg to stop standing up towards the end of the tight game, Dick told me not to. “You’ll get a cup of hot piss thrown at you and told to get the hell out of our section.” We bought dirty water hot dogs smeared with Bertmans Ballpark Mustard. They were delicious.

   A tarp at the top of the bleachers was flapping mad as a hatter in the hard wind blowing in off the lake. “I sat second row from the top of the bleachers, next to some east side old timers who brought their own pulled pork sandwiches in foil and a thermos of special coffee,” said Todd Rejna. “Season ticket holders had the top row. As soon as they got there, they pulled out a cordless screwdriver and a rolled up blue tarp from under their bench. They screwed the tarp up to the bottom of the giant scoreboard as a wind block. When the game was over, they took it down, rolled it up, and stuffed it under the bench for the next week.”

   The Browns scored first when Leroy Hoard corralled a duck from Bernie Kosar and went eight yards for a touchdown. Matt Stover kicked the point. The Oilers came right back when Ernest Givens took a seven-yard pass from Warren Moon in for the score. Al Del Greco kicked the point. After Brian Brennan caught another eight-yard pass from Bernie Kosar for a score, the stadium shuddered with cheers whoops clapping seats being slammed up and down and stamping shoes and boots. “We’re done for sure,” I said to Dick, the concrete shaking beneath my feet. “This place is going to collapse any minute.” The feet were stamping to stay warm as much as they were to show appreciation for the offensive showing. Nobody worried overmuch when Del Greco kicked a late field goal. The Browns went into the locker room ahead 14-10.

   I headed for the bathroom, along with thousands of other men all at the same time. The bathrooms didn’t bother with urinals. Instead, there were troughs. By the time I found a spot they were overflowing. The sinks were overflowing with urine. The floor drains were fair game, too. Many of my fellow men were trashed on beer. The man taking a leak next to me was one handing his business and singlehanded rolling a joint. Everybody went with the flow. The only thing that saved the day was that many kidneys had frozen up and shut down. My shoes were sticky when I walked out of the bathroom. After the game, walking up East 9th St. back to the Park Centre on East 13th St. and Superior Ave, I could still smell pee and beer.

   The stadium was on the south shore of the lake and cold, even on the best of days. The wind never stopped whipping off the lake. Other than the bleachers, which were wide open, there were huge beams that blocked the view from many of the seats. The color scheme inside the stadium was gray under a gray sky. The grass on the field was mostly dirt and weeds. It looked like it was painted green. There were old bedsheets with bad words scrawled on them hanging over the rails.

   Both quarterbacks had aired the ball out in the first half, but ball control and field position became the name of the game after halftime. The third quarter was either a defensive struggle or it was getting darker colder windier and nobody wanted to be on the field too long. Browns coach Bill Belichick and Oilers coach Jack Pardee played it close to the vest. It was one punt after another. When the fourth quarter started it was back to the air. Bernie Kosar and Warren Moon both put the ball up 40 times that day. They both threw an interception. When Bernie Kosar did it an 80,000-man groan went up. After the turnover some guy dropped stink bombs from a catwalk. For a few minutes the stadium smelled like rotten eggs.

   The game went down to the wire, the Oilers finally winning when Warren Moon flipped a two-yarder to Haywood Jeffries for a 17-14 win. The air went out of the crowd. It all smelled flat and stale when the hands of the big clock spelled out the final score.

   The first Cleveland Browns game at Municipal Stadium was on September 6, 1946. They hosted the Miami Seahawks. The game drew 60,135 fans, at the time the biggest crowd to ever see a professional football crowd. It was a laugher. The Browns won 44–0. The bleachers became the Dawg Pound in the 1980s. Fans wore dog masks, barked and howled, and threw dog biscuits at opposing players. There wasn’t a lot of barking when Dick and I left the stadium after the loss, although leftover biscuits were still flying high.

   Dick cleared off a table at the Park Pub, made hot toddies with whiskey lemon juice and cinnamon sticks for both of us, while Teresa came down and made grilled cheese sandwiches. We made small talk about the game, although to Dick a win was a win, and a loss was a loss. I found out later he had money on the Oilers. I didn’t have money on anybody because I didn’t have much money. The lowest paid player on both football teams was a rich man. The highest paid man on my solitary payroll was me, but my bank account was stuck in neutral. Teresa was a good egg and made me another sandwich.

   Five years later the stadium was torn down. The team moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens. The Browns bided their time. The debris from the stadium was dumped offshore to create an artificial reef. All the games the Indians and Browns had played at Municipal Stadium for more than sixty years became food for the fish. The losses left a bad taste, but the wins were like yellow perch to the walleye.

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

Age of Discovery

By Ed Staskus

   I was nearly three years old before I got my first good look at Sudbury. My brother had been born the year before, and lately had been crying at night, keeping us all awake. My father was a miner, working day shifts for two weeks and then night shifts for two weeks. He was one of the explosives men, setting black powder charges a mile down. He needed his nerves rock solid. He needed to sleep like a baby. He didn’t need the echo of crying in his brain.

   At first, my mother thought it was a passing thing. When it didn’t pass, she took to sleeping in the living room, on the sofa, with my brother on the floor beside her in a wooden rocking cradle. Whenever he started crying, she reached down and rocked him, settling him down. She didn’t get much sleep, although my father and I got all the shuteye we needed.

   One day, when my father was at work, and my mother had an appointment with their doctor for my brother’s one year check-up, my godfather Juozas Dzenkaitis showed up to babysit me for the afternoon. He was on the night shift in the nickel mines and had time to kill. He showed up on a 1948 Vincent Black Shadow.

   “I borrowed it from my neighbor,” he explained.

   Most of the Lithuanian immigrants who came hat in hand to Sudbury in the late 1940s and early 1950s worked in the mines. They got out of the black hole that Europe was for them and ended up in another black hole. Most of them were saving every penny they could so they wouldn’t have to work in the mines a minute more than they had to. Most of them owned their homes, but didn’t own a car, a motorcycle, or even a bicycle.

   The Vincent had a black tank and black frame. The chrome pipes were nickel chrome steel. The nickel came from Sudbury. The small city south of North Bay in Ontario sat on top of a big hole in the ground overflowing with ore. Some people called it the ‘Valley.’ Others called it the ‘Basin’. An asteroid or comet smashed into the spot in Canada hundreds of millions of years before with a payload of vital metals. Nickel took the first prize.

   During the Korean War, which ended the year before, nickel was regulated. Whenever there was combat anywhere in the world Sudbury boomed. Nickel was vital for making modern mechanized warfare. When the ripping and snorting stopped Sudbury went back to scuffling. It wasn’t boom or bust, but it was a one-basket economy, so it was boom or bust.

   After World War Two the open pits were almost exhausted and new underground mines were being dug. Nickel was being used for more and more civilian purposes. More technologically advanced smelters started seeing the light of day. While Sudbury slowly progressed from being the most polluted city in the country, starting to clean itself up, I was just getting my legs under me. My friends and I played on the black rock outcroppings all the time and never noticed the ever-present haze of ash and smoke.

   When I was born in 1951, I didn’t see much of my hometown at first. I was homesick for my old home. I saw a lot of my crib, the kitchen and living room, and my parents and their friends when there were kitchen parties at our house. I only spoke Lithuanian until the spring of 1953, when I started meeting kids my own age on the street. They all spoke English and French although none of them spoke French among themselves. English was the language out on the street.

   The Vincent my godfather was riding was plenty fast enough, but it wasn’t the Black Lightning, which was the racing version of the Black Shadow. Every steel part on the Lightning that could be remade in aluminum was remade in aluminum. Everything not essential was removed, reducing the weight by almost a hundred pounds. It had a single racing seat and rear footrests.

   In 1948 Rollie Free broke the North American motorcycle land speed record riding a Black Lightning on the Bonneville Salt Flats. He did it wearing a bathing suit, laying prone like a swimmer flat on his stomach, his legs dangling off the back end, hanging on to the handlebars for dear life. He took a deep breath when it was all over.

   I sat on the motorcycle behind my godfather, who I called Uncle Joe. I couldn’t get my arms around him and had to hang on to his shirt. He burped the bike down Stanley Street to Elm Street and took a left towards downtown. We lived on a new stretch of Stanley Street. Houses were being built as fast as could be because Sudbury was the most congested city in Canada. The Dominion Bureau of Statistics reported there were “42, 410 people jammed into 9, 450 units.”  More than a third of the housing was officially designated as “overcrowded.”

   We glided past the Regent Theatre where my parents went to see movies on weekends. My father learned to speak English in Lithuania, but my mother lived on an out-of-the-way family farm of sugar beets and pigs near the East Prussian border. The movies were a way for her to learn English. A twin bill was showing, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

   The movie house was operated by Herbert Sutherland. Three years later it became home to a colony of rats. It got so it was hard to tell if somebody was screaming because of the monsters on the screen or because of a rat nibbling on their ankles. Herb Sutherland found several homeless cats and invited them to make the theater their home. The city sent him a letter saying, “We do not feel the use of cats is sufficient to eliminate the menace.” He threw the hired guns out and set out poison instead, making the problem disappear. 

   We went past the new Sudbury Arena which replaced the old Palace Rink the year I was born. Uncle Joe rode carefully, watching for mud, threading the needle. The Junction Creek overflowed its banks every year, flooding the northern and central parts of Sudbury. We rode around the General Hospital where I was born. Outside the Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes we stopped for ice cream cones.

  Frederic Romanet du Caillaud, known as the Count of Sudbury, had a six-foot tall 1500-pound bronze statue of the Virgin Mary erected at the mouth of the grotto in 1907. “Queen of the Gauls” was inscribed on the statue. At first, an Italian family by the name of Drago took care of it, wiping off grime and bird shit. In the 1950s the Rosary Club was formed and with Omer Naqult. a local barber and devout Catholic, watched over the pilgrimage site.

   One year earlier almost 10,000 people gathered at the site, coming from all the various parishes of the Sault-Ste-Marie diocese. New lighting was installed to light up the shrine at night. At the start of summer more than 10,000 residents of Sudbury took part in the moveable feast of Corpus Christi procession that ended up at the grotto. My parents weren’t able to go to the parade and so I didn’t know anything about it at the time.

   The statue was an inch or two shorter than Uncle Joe, who wore his hair wavy and was strong as an ox. He could bend nails with his hands. He and his wife Brone didn’t have any kids, but I saw plenty of them, anyway. My parents had the biggest living room among their Lithuanian immigrant friends and our house was where card playing, dancing, and eating and drinking happened on many weekends.

   We set off for Ramsey Lake. Before there ever was a Sudbury the natives called it Bitimagamasing, which means “water that lies on the side of the hill.” Everybody agreed Ramsey was easier to pronounce and that is what everybody called it. Everybody also agreed the lake was dead. Sewage from Minnow Lake drained into Ramsey Lake. Open roast emissions had been going on for so long and led to so much pollution that the lake, which has few water flow outlets, had given up the ghost. Even though it was still the largest lake in the world located entirely within the boundaries of a single city, it was a shell of its former self.

   There weren’t many fish in the lake. By the 1950s, despite three decades of stocking, angling was bad. Besides the pollution, fishermen had long since been dynamiting for fish, wiping out some species like bass. When Lands and Forest biologist R. E. Whitefield went netting it took him four full days to catch five pike and one yellow perch. Lake trout were re-stocked in 1952, but that was the end of stocking for the next twenty-five years.

   Before my father showed up to sweep her off her feet, her Canadian boyfriend often took her out on the lake in his speedboat, until the day he started showing off, racing and zig zagging, and she fell off the back of it without him noticing. An evil-looking northern pike watched her bob up to the surface. By the time her boyfriend looked for her she was floating on her back waiting for him, hoping the weight of her wet clothes wouldn’t drag her under.    

   The lake is named after William Ramsey, the chief of a survey party in the late 1800s who got lost in heavy fog. After finding himself he named it Lost Lake. Others decided it would be better to name it after him but misspelled his name, calling it Lake Ramsay. Somebody finally noticed the mistake forty years later and corrected the spelling.

   When we got to the lake, I begged Uncle Joe to let me go swimming, but there was a purple-red greasy substance on the surface of the water as far out as we could see. “It’s probably some poisonous waste, or something Inco is up to,” he said. I had no idea what Inco was, but I had heard “What are you up to?” from my mother often enough that I knew it couldn’t be anything good. We went for a walk instead. When I got tired my godfather carried me sitting on his shoulders, my fingers grasping his thick head of hair.

   It was an early fall day and trees were starting to change color. There weren’t many of them, but the yellows and reds got me going and I begged Uncle Joe to take me to a forest. He said there weren’t any, but finally relented when I wouldn’t leave it alone. We roared out of Sudbury on the Vincent and into the countryside.

   It turned out my godfather was right. There were hardly any trees anywhere, at all. The first thing to happen to them was the Great Chicago Fire. Lumber camps popped up all over providing wood for the American city’s reconstruction. Then the ore discoveries and smelting got rolling, releasing sulfur, which combined with water forms sulfuric acid leading to acid rain. Saplings struggling to reforest the landscape didn’t have a chance and died by the millions. The hinterland of Sudbury looked like a wasteland. 

   Our street in the city had trees and grass and gardens but the only vegetation I saw outside the city was wild blueberry patches and paper birch. What other trees there were, were giving it their best shot against long odds. They were like the crippled kid on Pine Street we sometimes played with, although never for long. He couldn’t hop skip or run. He couldn’t keep up.

   When my godfather checked his watch, he suddenly said we had to go. We raced back to Sudbury, to Stanley Street, to our house. My father wasn’t home from work, yet. Neither was my mother.

   “When she asks you what we did today, just tell her we went sightseeing, OK?” Uncle Joe said.

   “OK,” I said.

   After my mother came home, I told her we had a great time, and while she and my godfather had coffee on the front porch, I watched my baby brother crawl around in the back yard. Our lot dead-ended in a face of dark pitted rock. I wasn’t allowed to climb it because it was steep, even though I had already gone up and down it with some of my friends.

   When they ran across the street into our yard after dinner and asked me where I had been all day, I told them all about it, all the places I had been to, and how Sudbury was bigger, better, and more exciting than I had ever imagined. Stanley Street was our world, but we couldn’t wait to see more. We ran around the back yard pretending to be riding motorcycles. 

   The sunset was a livid orange that evening. When my mother put me to bed, saying I looked tired, I slept like the rock of ages.

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

Borderlands

By Ed Staskus

   Over the river and through the woods, crossing the border from the north at Buffalo, New York, and going west in the 1950s meant crossing the Niagara River on the Peace Bridge and driving down Route 5 along the lakeshore to Athol Springs, and then jumping onto Route 20. They are state routes and were then heavily wooded on both sides of the two-lane roads.

   Route 20 parallels the borderlands, running along the south shore of Lake Erie. The real frontier is in the middle of the lake. Hardly anybody pays any attention to it. Walleye, carp, yellow perch, rainbow trout, and bigmouth buffalo fish crisscross the border every minute of every day.

   The Peace Bridge is the international overpass between Canada and the United States at the east end of Lake Erie at the source of the river, about 12 miles up the river from Niagara Falls. It connects Fort Erie to Buffalo.

   When my mother Angele, father Vytas, brother and sister and I crossed the bridge in early fall 1957, thirty years after it was built, we crossed the busiest entry from Canada into the United States. We were within weeks of being the fifty millionth car going that way. We were a family of immigrants on the road from Sudbury, Ontario on our way to Cleveland, Ohio, by way of Lithuania.

   “Vytas bought an old Buick in Cleveland, drove back to Sudbury, and picked us up,” said Angele. “We shipped everything else by train, our Connor washing machine, fridge and range, beds, dressers and tables and chairs.”

   Construction on the Peace Bridge started in 1925 and was finished in 1927. A major problem building the bridge was the swift river current. Edward Lupfer, the chief engineer, drove the first test car carefully across it. When it didn’t collapse, they were hurrahed and three months later it opened to everybody in both directions. The official opening ceremony had almost 100,000 in attendance. The festivities were transmitted by radio in the first ever international coast-to-coast broadcast. 

   “We stopped in Hamilton with friends for a short while, picking up our mail from Customs. We all had Canadian passports but only Vytas had a visa, for him, not his wife and kids, but in the end, nobody said anything at the crossing,” my mother said.

   When her husband went to the United States looking for work, Angele stayed behind in Sudbury all spring and most of the summer. She couldn’t call him those months because long distance calls were too expensive. Instead, they wrote each other, waiting a week-and-more for a reply.

   “The kids have been good. I forgot to call the lawyer about the house. I have to go buy food tomorrow,” she wrote.

   He wrote back that he was working but making less than half what he had been making in Sudbury’s nickel mines. “There are many Lithuanians here and I have been meeting some of them.” He went looking for a second job.

   “I had almost no money,” she said. “Vytas was gone and there were no paychecks. I sold the house while he was gone and sent him the money. I spent all the rent money from the room upstairs and was waiting to go as soon as possible. When Rita’s birthday came, we couldn’t have anybody over for a party, but she was so young, anyway. Edvardas was mad that I didn’t invite all the neighborhood kids, but Richardas didn’t care, thank goodness.”

   We drove through Buffalo in mid-morning, passing a junkman driving a beat-up truck, a milkman in a new white truck, and a sweet-smelling bread truck delivering door to door. Wash was hanging in yards and kids were on the streets walking running riding bikes and scooters, jumping rope and kicking the can and fighting with rubber band guns made out of used tire tubes.

   “Ziurek, jis yra juodas!” I exclaimed pointing out the back window of the car at a boy. “He’s all black, his skin is black!”

   Neither I, my brother, or sister had ever seen a Negro in Sudbury. Sixty years later there were about a thousand blacks in Sudbury, but sixty years earlier there weren’t even a handful. Visible minorities of all kinds even nowadays have a small share in the city, less than 4%. Back then the share was close to zero.

   Leaving Buffalo, the houses thinning out, we idled over to the curb to listen to a man playing an accordion, wearing a red shirt and black shorts with a white belt and argyle socks, sitting on a wooden folding chair in the front frame of his garage the door open, his two friends drinking from cans of Stein Beer, and body bobbing foot peddling.

   South of the city my father pulled his bucket of bolts over at Minerva’s Red Top in Athol Springs and got ice cream cones for us at the refreshment stand. He and Angele had sausage dogs and kraut. It was a short jog from there to Route 20, the road they drove the rest of the way the rest of the day to Cleveland.

   We rented a two-bedroom second floor suite on East 61st Street between Superior and St. Clair Avenues from a fellow Lithuanian and stayed for two months, living out of suitcases, sleeping on metal platform beds, and cooking on a hot plate.

   I cut my leg on the metal leg of my cot one morning and had to get stitches. My mom stopped the bleeding, since she had been a nurse before I was born. Everybody in Germany in the late 1940s needed a nurse.

   “I don’t remember a thing about that,” Rita my sister recalled.

   “There was a candy store on the corner,” said my brother Rick, who had a sweet tooth. “When you cut your foot I went there.”

   “I liked it here until summertime,” Vytas said. “My God, it got hot!” The weather was hot hazy humid. There were no fans in the house. We took care of business by eating in the backyard and drinking ice water.

   The months of July August September in Cleveland are sultry. It gets into the 80s and 90s and stays there. My father was from Siauliai, Lithuania, where it stays in the low 70s. He had lived in Sudbury for eight years after World War Two, where it stays in the mid-70s.

   “We visited Vytas’s sister Genute and her husband Andrius,” Angele said. “They had moved here earlier and had three daughters. We decided to buy a house together.”

   They bought a duplex on Bartfield Ave., a two-block stretch of street between East 129th Street and Coronado Ave. with nineteen houses on it. There were coal sheds in the basement and a set of tornado doors in the back. There were two bedrooms in both units of the duplex, one for bedding the children and the other the grown-ups. 

   “It was horrible,” Rita said. “I didn’t have my own room. I had to sleep in the corner. My brothers fought all the time.”

   A blind man’s house on a knoll anchored one end of the street, a three-pump two-bay Gulf gas station anchored Coronado and St. Clair, and a broad one-story log house building behind the gas station doubled as a home for the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Boy Scouts. It was fronted by a weedy tree-filled lot.

   We messed around there all the time, in the old cars behind the gas station, pretending to be gangsters, and on the field in front of the log cabin, playing red light green light. We played kickball in the street, and in the winter, we built snow forts on the blind man’s knoll, since he had a big yard, and if you ruled the fort, you could throw snowballs down at everybody while they had to throw up. They had no chance.

   I went to first grade and Rick went to kindergarten at the Iowa-Maple public school that winter, walking the fifteen minutes up East 127th St. to Maple Ave. The first school there was demolished in 1951. Our school was brand spanking new.

   We didn’t know that a stone’s throw away across Eddy Road, the thoroughfare north to Bratenahl, the city’s wealthy lakeside suburb, was the footprint of the house where the last president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona, lived and died on January 9, 1944, when the house caught fire. Five years later, when we moved out of the neighborhood, my mother took Rita to see Birute Nasvytyte, who had been a concert pianist in Europe before the war, from whom she started taking lessons. Birute was married to Julius Smetona, one of the ex-president’s sons.

   I woke up one day after the New Year 1963 and found out we were going to be moving in the spring. My parents told us we were living in a bad neighborhood and had to move. Until that day I didn’t know that where we were living was a bad place. I liked our neighborhood and my friends. 

   But by then our neck of the woods had become a borderland.

   New interstate highways, slum clearance, and urban renewal were changing Cleveland in ways I didn’t know anything about. Some large parts of downtown and tracts of the east side were being torn down. Entire neighborhoods disappeared. Blacks started moving east. Whites started moving farther east. Everybody was saying, “The niggers are coming.” They made it sound like the plague. Everybody was asking, “When are they going to get here?”

   Whenever a real estate sign went up everybody was suddenly afraid there would be a dozen signs inside of a month and that property values would fall to next to nothing. Nobody wanted to be the white face in a sea of black, not if they could help it. Nobody wanted to be the last man standing. All the ethnics, Ukrainians and Romanians, Slovenes, Slavs, and Balts, started moving out.

   “I felt threatened that my neighborhood was being invaded by these people,” said Walt Zielinski, a local Polish boy. “I made it tough for one new black kid. We had a big fight. I beat the crap out of him, and that was it. But, as time went on, we became best friends. Then as the neighborhood started to change the first black families moved away just like the white families did, and they started to be replaced by a lower class of black people, and it started to get rough. I got beat up a lot. I was the little white kid. I was really intimidated. All my friends were gone. I felt very alone.”

   Most of the African Americans who moved to Cleveland during the Great Migration lived in the Cedar-Central neighborhood, bounded by Euclid Avenue to the north, East 71st Street to the east, Woodland Avenue to the south, and East 22nd Street to the west. Those frontiers were rapidly changing. The dynamics weren’t the same.

   There were some hillbillies who lived next door to us, and one of their kids hit my brother with a rake one day. My friends and I had to rescue him. But I hardly ever saw any black people, except on the bus. We were only in the Iowa-Maple school for a year. After that we went to the St. George Catholic School on East 67thStreet and Superior Ave. We had to take two city buses there and back every day. Everybody was going to work at the same time we were going to school, white and colored all mixed together.

   There were nearly 900,000 people living in Cleveland in 1960, a quarter million of them black. Twenty years later there were only 570,000 residents. All the black people were still, for the most part, living in the city, but more than 300,000 white people had moved away.

   In the summer we rounded up what bikes we could find, balls and bats and mitts and rode up Eddy Road to Glenview Park where we played all day. We could see Lake Erie and it was windy a lot. If somebody hit a pop-up into the wind, catching it got tricky. Bobby Noga, who lived on the other side of us from the hillbillies, caught a pop-up with the top of his head one day. It popped into his hands, and he hung on to it.

   Tens of thousands of refugees from Europe settled in Cleveland after 1949. They all wanted to assimilate with the Anglo Americans. Nobody wanted to assimilate with the African Americans. In 1964 picketers at a segregated school in Little Italy were attacked by a mob of more than 400 white men wielding knives and clubs. Nearly a hundred policemen on foot and horseback tried to keep the riot in check.

   “You would have to be crazy to picket,” CPD Inspector Jerry Rademacker said.

   After the mid-50s immigrants on the east side started moving to the East 185th Street, Lakeshore Boulevard, and Euclid neighborhoods. They moved to Parma, which by 1960 was the fastest-growing city in the United States. Ukrainians filled up State Rd. and Poles filled up Ridge Rd. Jews moved up the hill, filling up Cleveland Heights. The Cleveland metropolitan area became one of the most segregated in the country. 

   After the white flight was over it was all over.

   When we lived on Bartfield Ave. my brother and I and our friends walked to the Shaw-Hayden Theater on Saturday afternoons to see double features, paper bags of popcorn our moms had popped hidden under sweaters and jackets. Scary comedy and tragedy masks lit up lurid in purple led the way. The movie house sat 1200, but we always sat as close as we could, the better to see the monsters and cowboys and spacemen. It’s where we saw the B & W 3D “Creature from the Black Lagoon” on the newly installed CinemaScope screen. The auditorium was dark, but the lobby was all white wood, a kind of knotty pine. We liked to touch the knots.

   In the wintertime we went to Forest Hill Park to skate on the frozen lagoon, lacing up in the boathouse, teettering down to the ice. We went sledding on Sledgehammer Hill, scaring ourselves silly going as fast as we could, screaming hitting the bump near the bottom of the long downhill and going airborne. After we moved, we didn’t do that anymore. 

   Rita, Rick, and I had to go to a new school, Holy Cross, where we didn’t know anybody. It took twice as long to walk there, too. Everywhere else all of a sudden was too far to go. My parents bought a single house on a street starting at East 185th St. on the border of Cleveland and ending at East 200th St. on the border of Euclid. There were more than a hundred houses from one end of the street to the other. I got a Cleveland Press paper route. The new Lithuanian Community Center and the new Lithuanian church and school were nearby. There weren’t any tornado doors leading into the basement from the back yard, but it had three bedrooms on the second floor.

   “I was so happy,” my sister said. “I finally had my own bedroom.”

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

Flesh and Blood

By Ed Staskus

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

Ten years and more than four thousand miles later, the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean behind her, Angele would give birth to me in Sudbury, Ontario. Until she got there, she didn’t know the place even existed. Until I got my first sight of it, I didn’t know anything about anything.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The rooms were never finished upstairs.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ona Kreivenas invested her bounty in electrification.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph by Antanas Sutkus.

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

Farm Girl

By Ed Staskus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   The family fed itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A version of this story appeared in Draugas News.

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