LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 48, No.3 - Fall 2002
Editors of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 2002 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
ONE LITHUANIAN GUY*
Marius and I thought we would do a show about growing up Lithuanian, and then we went and told the press it would be funny. And then I sat down and tried to write it. I guess there is something funny about a Lithuanian guy sitting around in his apartment on New Year's Day in his pajamas trying to be funny about something that's not.
Seriously, being Lithuanian is no joke. It's hard work. Like being an emotional verbose gesticulating Italian and a sullen depressed Scandinavian at the same time. Like a Bergman and Fellini hybrid, with a little Eisenstein thrown in, I'm not sure what you call a movie like that. Wild Beets and 1/2 maybe. It's practicing being silent and uncommunicative till more food gets dumped on your plate. "What's wrong? Eat! You'll feel better!"
I know what you're thinking. Lithuania is free now, so why don't these guys just shut up so we can focus on Bosnia and losing our holiday flab.
We will never shut up! Not until you know the whole story. Because it wasn't the barricaded Lithuanian parliament that freed Lithuania. It wasn't the Lithuanian Communist Party. It wasn't a million hymn-singing, candle-carrying Lithuanians. It was Marius Gustaitis, standing right over there, and myself, Kestutis Nakas, that did it. We freed Lithuania! Just like we were supposed to do!
It's true. If it wasn't, I certainly wouldn't be allowed to say it here at Copeland Rutherford Gallery.
You probably think it'd be easy to free a little country like Lithuania. Just put some oar locks in it and row it to Sweden, right? No, my friend, it wasn't that simple.
How did we do it? That's for you to unravel. We're artists, damn it, so we're allowed to be cryptic. And we certainly don't have to back up anything we say. And we don't have to be funny just 'cause we promised we would. We don't have to keep any promises. Not after Yalta.
OK, we didn't free it. But we thought about it. Nobody's perfect.
But I'm cultured. I wear pajamas. I know what they're for. You wear them when you're trying to write something funny about something that's not. Now take the Russians please. Just kidding. When the Russians first took over in 1940, they looted everything they could find. So, on their days off, these Russian soldiers would appear on the streets of Kaunas and Vilnius in these Pajamas, which they thought were fancy Western suits. They would try to stand around and look cool and pick up babes. Dorks.
"The Bosque would be a good place to hide from the Russians, if they ever invade New Mexico."
That came out of my mouth as I was walking along the Rio Grande with some friends on Christmas. I was serious, too. When I looked into the leafless brown thicket and muttered that, it flowed out naturally, like saying "Look at those cranes."
My Father saw the first Soviet mass deportations of Lithuanians in 1940. Loaded boxcars bound for Siberia. He saw his neighbors taken away, because they had the biggest house in the villagefour rooms instead of three.
"Dad, what did you think when you saw the Balevicius family taken away?"
"I was jealouslife in the country was SO BORING. I wanted to be going somewhere, anywhere."
We are refugees
In perfect exiledeprived, displaced,
Blameless and holy.
Only Christ has suffered this way
Upon that cross.
How could he do that to his mother?
There is only one way in this strange American/Babylon;
Only one hope in the shadow of our vanished nation: have a son
Who becomes an engineer.
The TV is going in black and white. Paul Winchell and friends are on. The ventriloquist dummies Knucklehead Smith and Jerry Mahoney are very scary. Even Farfel the dog is tinged with scariness. I live in a scary world. It's shot through with Cold War radiation and the sick smell of cabbage soup. And as scary as it is inside, it's much scarier outside. My father is working after work. Building our new house. Proud of his bloody hands. "See! I make sacrifice for whole family!" My mother is working. Everybody is always away working working working hard and long. Only big brother is home. And some nondescript looming male. The words on TV are different from my words. But somehow I can sort of understand TV talk. I get what's going on. I only wish I could do a 360 with my head the way Knucklehead Smith can.
We take a long drive in a big dark Ford. My brother and I are dressed alike in cowboy hats, Roy Rogers cowboy shirts and toy six-guns in holsters we got for Christmas. We are moving. What does it mean? We are on Route 66 going through towns. Into the hot desert. Dad runs the Corral Bar in Tempe, Arizona. All the jukebox songs are cowboy songs. It is 1957. We have become Lithuanian cowboys. Poised for the coming Kennedy. The fat black cook shows mama how to fry chicken southern style. Kindergarten is better than being in our trailer. I don't speak Anglishkai. But I get what's going on. Mostly. Like TV talk. Things are OK. But I am very very afraid. I might drink something that turns me into a shaggy dog.
"Mama, where did I come from?"
"Found you by the lakes by the castle hills in Lietuva-Lithuania. Your ancestors were kings."
My name is Kestutis and I am a lucky little boy. So much luckier than any of these Amerikonkai. I was born Lithuanian. Heir to the throne of the great Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which was once the largest and most powerful country on earth. My namesake was Kestutis, the Grand Duke. Kestutis defended us against the onslaught of the German Teutonic Knights, the fiercest military machine of the Middle Ages. For over 200 years Lithuania stood firm against their genocidai campaigns. Surrounded by hostile Christian nations, we clung to our old European animism well into the sixteenth century. Our warriorshardened in battle against the Teutonic Drang Nach Ostenbroke the Mongol yoke in Eastern Europe and united all the lands between the Baltic and Black seas under benevolent Lithuanian rule. Our noble dukes, determined to keep their ancient religion, guaranteed freedom of worship to all. Orthodox, Muslim, Mongol, Catholic and Jew enjoyed equal protection under the Lithuanian statutes. Jews found freedom in Vilnius, under its pagan rulers. But then came union with Poland, and disaster followed. Polish treachery took many forms, Polish bishops and petty nobles conspired to reduce the Lithuanian state to a subordinate position. Scotlandization.
Now the godless red flag flies over my mother-and fatherland. Land of heroes. And it is my job, as heir to the throne, to liberate her and restore her to glory. God has bestowed this mission on me even though I am only seven years old.
First, I will order our Lithuanian immigrant submarines to torpedo the coast. By going underwater we will outmaneuver soviet radarthe best in the world. After we have knocked out coastal defenses, I will personally lead an attack squadron of PT 109 Boats. We will radio the partisans that we have landed. The hearts and minds of the people will rally to their war of liberation. All Communists will be shot Moscow will launch an all-out nuclear attack on America and its European allies. Russia and the West will be destroyed, leaving only a resurgent Lithuania intact. The new Lithuania, led by me, Kestutis Nakas, will lead the world into a glorious new golden age of tolerance, brotherhood and peace. It will be the beginning of Christ's Kingdom on earth. This glorious new age will last a thousand years. And I won't have to go to this cruddy school in Mesa, Arizona every day and get my ass kicked for being weird.
"OK kids, we go to movie, Mein Kampf. So you know what was like in war."
So we drove all the way to the other side of Phoenix to see this compilation of all the graphic Nazi film footage of the final solution. I was transfixed. Skeletal skinny humans, some in piles, and some still walking around. Mom, is that my aunt?
"Shh. Right. Shh."
"No standing on the seat." It was a big teenage usher with a flashlight. Busted. I sunk my butt into the worn seat and peered at the silvery footage between adult heads. The whole drive home was silent. Like an old movie.
Why won't any of the kids on our street play "concentration camp" with me?
I'm really really sorry I caused the war.
You had to leave paradise and come here and have me-mea culpa.
The DP camps, the forced labor, the rations-mea culpa.
Now you have to work so hard to live in freedom in this wonderful country-mea culpa.
My A-minus and all the trouble and sadness it is causing you, knowing that I have to go to college someday and that, for this, I will need some sort of scholarship, since we won't have enough money to pay for it, even though it is ten years away-mea maxima culpa.
I'm sorry, so very sorry that the smell of cabbage soup makes me so sick.
My grandmother, my močiute, was released from the Gulag around 1959 or '60 during a brief thaw in the Cold War. Our man Nixon engineered it through Krushchev for some of the Siberian Stalin victims still alive. Močiute was one of those. I think there was some provision allowing old prisoners with no live relatives in the USSR to join relatives in the West. Maybe so the worker's paradise wouldn't have to support useless old counter revolutionaries.
She came to live with us in Mesa, Arizona. We had heard a lot about what a martyr and victim she had been.
But all the saint did was hog the bathroom. And I mean she really would stink up the place too. On Sundays we would parade our own victim of godless Communism around our parish of Queen of Peace in Mesa. All the ladies would remark on her radiant face and soft wrinkle-free skin. She would sit in her room and read and pray for hours and hours. Then she would emerge to declare "Communists are bad." She got her own room, unlike me and my brother. Sometimes she would try to play with our toys and with us. But we hated that. She was like a kid. And she couldn't do anything right. She tried to get on our good side by making us koldūnai but they never came out right. We teased and terrorized her mercilessly. One day, at show-and-tell, I brought in her secret Siberian rosary. It was a tiny thing whose beads were little balls of black bread strung together by threads from her prison dress. On the end was a little hardened bread cross. The whole thing was tiny enough to fit into any cuff, crease or crevice of the body. That little rosary certainly elevated my status with the nuns at Catholic school. At dinner, grandma would finish her food faster by far than anyone else. She would always throw a portion of it to her friend Tippy, our cocker spaniel. She would eye our still full plates hungrily, but when more food was offered to her, she would steadfastly refuse. When we were finished, she would seize any food on our plates and devour it. Then she would go for any other leftovers on the table. She got fatter and fatter. She spoke only one word of English: "Allo." She would always run to answer the phone just so she could say, "Allo." Then she would stand silently smiling with the phone pressed against her ear while the caller made vain attempts to communicate. Once my cousin Michelle was visiting us and Močiutė found me dressed in Michelle's skirt and blouse. She started screaming at meLithuanian words that I didn't understand. She grabbed a broom and beat me into the closet and shut the door. My brother and I continued to tease her mercilessly. She had come out of ten years of hard labor in a Siberian concentration camp only to be tortured by two demonic little boys in Mesa, Arizona. It's a wonderful life.
One day, years later, when I was living above Gem Spa in the East Village in New York, I was half dozing having a strange vision of my grandmother. I saw her face all radiant, like it was when we used to show her off on Sundays at the parish. I was filled with sorrow at the way I had treated her. "I'm really sorry we used to tease you like that, grandma, I know it really hurt your feelings." She said, "That's all right. I forgive you. I love you very much." Just then, the phone rang and woke me up. It was my mom.
"Močiute just died," she told me. I didn't even know she was sick.
When I was twelve, we moved back to the Detroit areato Pontiac, Michiganand my father worked at Pontiac motors and went to lots and lots of garage sales. And the basement of our house began to fill up with shoes. All kinds of used shoes. Every size and style. Shelves were built to hold them all. The longer I waited for puberty to come, the more shoes filled the basement. My dad said, "Try on shoes. Find good ones."
"Daaa-ad, they're all stupid."
"You know what means to no have shoes?"
"Oh, like during the war?"
"Bad time comeeverybody need shoes. We have plenty."
My father spoke English exactly like Tonto.
I was happy when I saw a Lithuanian surname on the FBI's most wanted list. As a kid, I was led to believe that most Lithuanian men were engineers, while a few were writers, artists, and autoworkers. I was glad to learn that we had entered other professions.
I hated Lithuanian summer camp, or stovykla. Our stovykla was near Manchester, Michigan. It was called Dainava. It was bought by the Lithuanians because it looked to them just like their country, with small, steep hills, a lake and a marsh.
My brother and I went when we were like fourteen and the next oldest kids there were eleven. Of course, they all spoke perfect Lithuanian. Not like us. It was a strict rule at stovykla that everybody had to speak it all the time, so of course we spoke American whenever the vadovai (guides) weren't around. The forbidden language. We learned about how, under the Tsars, books in Lithuanian were forbidden, so they would be smuggled in from Prussia. Smugglers were caught and killed, but still enough books got through to conduct secret home schools. Mothers would educate their children by the spinning wheel, poring over the forbidden Lithuanian texts, ready to cover the books with spun cloth should any potential tattletales enter the dwelling. We tried to pay attention. One of the Chicago kids was busted right there in class for having a dirty comic book. It was in English. Boy was he in trouble for smuggling that into stovykla. The Chicago kids had the largest būrelis (group). They declared war on us Detroit kids. We declared back. Nobody declared war on Clevelandthey were too wimpy to take seriouslylike Lithuania herself. They stood on the sidelines while we fought it out. The Chicago kids were street tough. They used the word "nigger." They said they weren't afraid of the niggers even though their South Chicago neighborhood was surrounded by them. They called us niggers and nigger lovers. Rocks flew at heads. A mullet-faced Chicago kid named Sharkis pulled out a switchblade. Really it was a metal folding comb made to look like a switchblade. He came at my brother with it, but the comb/blade kept folding back into the handle, and Sharkis retreated to fix it. His secret weapon had failed. His fish belly white face was all red. How shameful to be so poorly prepared for war.
One afternoon we all gathered around the giant concrete map of Lithuania built into the hillside, overlooking the lake that my father had helped to dredge. We learned about the partisanai, the underground army that held out against the. occupying Soviets till the mid-fifties. From their forest bunkers they would raid Soviet ammunition dumps, kill Soviet officials, and fight to the death for you and me. They sang songs around their campfires. They would never run, as long as they had bullets in their guns. The vadovas would drone on and on as the Detroit and Chicago kids glared at one another from opposite sides of the concrete map. Weeds were starting to shoot up through the cracks in the concrete, as if Lithuania was disintegrating before us. The sky was beautiful and so were the lake and the wooden cross that was really more of an elaborate pagan sun with a barely perceptible cross superimposed over it.
I sucked at kvadratis, a kind of Lithuanian dodge ball game. The most humiliating time was when my father and his buddies dropped in on our game. I saw the look of shame on his face as I weakly threw the ball at the laughing, leering Chicago kids, missing them by a mile. At stovykla, shame just bounces around from person to person like a pinball. I wanted to run into the marshy woods and hide till I died or was killed. Maybe I could attack the Chicago kids by night. And burn my father's tent.
So I sneak out of my room at night, and I walk along the lake shore till I'm on some smelly soft mud with cattails growing on it. Something is moving in the cattails. It is a dark looming male figure. I'm scared but I get closeit's Sharkis!
He sees me.
"Nakai, what are you doing?"
"Nothing what are you doing?"
"Are you cut?"
"Is your bibis cut?"
"Let me see."
I unzipped my fly and showed him.
"You're like me. Uncut."
"My parents wouldn't let them cut me," I said, "Not after they did it to my brother without even telling them."
"You know why they did it?" Sharkis's eyes were florescent green.
"It's cleaner?" I ventured.
"That's not why. That's what they say. But that's not why. It's cause of the Zydai. All the doctors are Jews. And they have to get cut. It's their religion. And if another Hitler comes, they want it to be hard to tell who's a Zydas and who isn't."
Sharkis was rubbing his uncut bibis and it was growing as he spoke. My feet and ankles felt all clammy. I realized that my feet had sunk into the wet gray mud. There was a loud suction cup sound as I struggled free.
"Where are you going?" Sharkis sounded scared and sad.
"I'm going to change my shoes." I yelled back. That was the last time I saw Sharkis until he appeared in the window of the bus that was taking the Chicago kids back to Marquette park. He gave me the finger and the bus drove off.
OK, I'm in college, I've read all the books, I've changed my name from "Tony" back to the original. But I want more! I'm going! I'm going to Lietuva!
I was visited by activists wanting me to smuggle in banned books. Like a history of the partisans disguised as a biography of Lenin. I thought better of it. Stick to cheap consumer goodsthey're a lot safer, and a lot more revolutionary.
Here I was, making a commitment to fly into the core of the Lithuanian soul. I mounted the high dive at the NYU pool, visualizing the surface of the water as the outer wall of the egg I needed to penetrate. I dove. Gracefully as possible. I smashed through the water and floated in the amniotic chlorinated blue. My spirit tuned itself to the vibration of the collective Lithuanian soul. I felt myself become one with that ancient spirit. I floated. Even my neck tension and the edges of my hangover blended with the soul of Lietuva. The lifeguard was yelling at me for floating around in the diving tank. I was ready for my trip. It is one year after 1984.
So I'm in this rail compartment with three young Lithuanian-American guys, Edvardas, Danius, and Algis. I'm 33 and they are ten years younger. They speak Perfect Lithuanian. Not like me. We are all bound for the six-week Lithuanian language/culture course cosponsored by Vilnius University and the KGB. I'm getting sweaty and nervous. It's been 18 hours and 27 minutes since my last drink. I pore over my Lithuanian textbook, desperately trying to master a few new phrases before I get there.
"Mano namas murinas. My house is concrete."
Edvardas, Danius and Algis decide this is the funniest phrase in the history of the whole Sanskrit-like, seven-declension, ancient Indo-European language. They start saying it nice and slow. In my American accent:
"Mano namas murinas. Ha ha ha."
Red army machine guns pointed at my big Baltic head as the fat Russian customs lady inspected my record albums.
"No Talking Heads!"
"Talking Heads banned in Soviet Union!"
"There's a Soviet law banning the Talking Heads? But they're so lame by now."
"We take record."
I wonder how much a customs official can get for an old Talking Heads record at the Polish/Byelorussian border.
Yuri Andropov is dead. A new guy, Gorbachev, is in power and being ridiculed for his new campaign to reduce alcohol consumption. The rumors of imminent change are mostly shrugged off. I wear a Stolychnaya T-shirt down the main street in Vilnius. People smirk, afraid to openly laugh.
My stomach is gnawing at me. I am desperate to find a place to eat in downtown Vilnius. But every restaurant I find is closed between eleven and thirteen o'clock. Finally, I find a cleaning lady in one joint and ask her why all the restaurants are closed at lunch time. She says "Because it's lunch time, the restaurant workers have to eat."
Finally, I find a place where you stand up at these little round tables and eat these little mushroom pastries and drink consommé. Soviet fast food. The lady standing next to me is looking out the window. Suddenly, she starts waving to a man walking quickly by. "There's my husband!" she says to her friend. The man sees his wife waving and runs into the valgykla and says to his wife:
"I can't stop now, I'm following somebody."
You have to be careful crossing the street in Vilnius. People are occasionally hit by strange trucks.
So I'm in Lithuania, seeflouting all the rules, playing the American big shot. And my cousin and uncle take me out drinking one night. To all the Vilnius night spots, Eating pigs' tails with beer at pubs in the city catacombs. Buying booze in alleyways. Cruising at sordid nightclubs in Soviet-style high rises. We are plastered. They drop me off at the dormthe bendrabutisit is past curfew. Drunkenly I walk into the dark entry way. Someone screams in the dark. I feel a hand grab my arm and bruise it against the corner of the brick wall. I get pushed up the stairs. My wallet is gone and my arm is bleeding. I'm yelling and waking everybody up. What is going on? I get very very very scared. The wallet had my secret key hidden inside it. The key to my suitcase full of western treasurescredit-card-size calculators, pencils with the name "Kestutis" printed on them, books, perfume, cigarettes, makeup kits. Gifts for my less fortunate countrymen. I pass out on my dorm bed. I woke up sick and horrified. Shame. I looked at the cut on my forearm. Blood was on the bed. All the cash that had been in my wallet was on the bed table. But my wallet was still gone. What the hell was going on. I ran down screaming I had been robbed. I knew it was some kind of security goon operation. My group leader tells me that I had to write a full report of what happened and submit it to him. Then I was to report to the ministry of internal affairs. "The Ministry of Internal Affairs" is a quaint way of saying "KGB." I was led into a big oak-paneled room. In came a Gary Johnson look alike dressed impeccably a la Sears and Roebuck. You know, the way "Freshman Republican Congressmen" dress.
"Gersite arbata? Would you like some tea?'
"Ne, aciu. No, thank you."
"Atnešk mums arbata! Bring us some tea." He said to the močiute who was hovering in the wings.
"As ne labai teisiklingai kalbu lietuviškai. I don't speak Lithuanian very well," I stammered still very hung over. "It's all very well, I will speak to you in English."
"Your English is very good," I said. It was. An English accent with just a hint of Lithuanian.
"I lived in Britain for a while. I worked at the Soviet consulate."
He had been a "diplomat." (Do finger gesture.)
"So you got into some trouble?"
"It's nothing serious. I'm just worried about my credit card."
"Tell me about the incident."
"I was drunk. I lost my wallet. That's all. Nothing else. I just need to cancel my card."
"So no one will use it."
"No one will, I assure you. And I have a feeling you will get your wallet back. I am very sorry about this incident. Lithuania is a very nice place. But sometimes bad things happen. Sometimes we, here at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, can make things better. AND SOMETIMES THEY JUST GET WORSE. Do you understand?"
"Yes, thank you."
"Now where would you like to go?"
"Perhaps there is no need for you to be restricted to the city of Vilnius like the rest of your group. Would you like to go to the beachto Palangato Nida? I can help you. I can arrange many nice things. Would you like to visit your tėviškesyour native village? I have a beautiful daughter. Perhaps you would like to meet her?"
"Now you're talkin," I said. "What do I have to do?"
"Just inform on all your friends and relatives."
"Is that all? Really? No problem!"
OK, it's time to break the code of silence. Everybody in the Lithuanian community knows that there are spies among us. Shnipai. Monitoring our every anti-Soviet activity. Well it's true. It was me. I revealed the secret plans for the invasion of Lithuania. I had a right. I was the one who made them! I spilled the beans on the has-been Lithuanian actors, department store accountants, motorcar company draftsmen, and church organists that are masterminding the MASSIVE CONSPIRACY against Moscow. This thing is bigger than that mole in the CIA. What's his name? Bill Gates? I turned in all my friends and relatives. I made new friends and found new relatives and turned them in. With candy, I went oat and recruited innocent children to spy on their parents. And I mean I loved everything about it. My fabulous apartment with washing machine in Vilnius overlooking the pungent Neris River. Shopping at the fashionable and exclusive Communist Party member stores. What a gas riding around in a retro-looking black Volga with the KGB guy's daughter Jedviga fondling my belly fat. I had champagne, caviar, and canned beaver. There were theatre tickets, admissions to the best restaurants. Free periodical subscriptions. I was even presented with a snappy wool cap. If it was to be had, I had it.
On Monday nights my soviet spy masters let me do my cabaret act at the Hotel Lietuva.
If you're ever bored or in trouble, be a spy!
I went into the amber heart of this Lithuanian thing, and now I'm coming out. I ain't doing it any more. I went into the heart. I dove into the NYU pool and floated, and with my whole spirit I touched the mind of God and the future as I floated, and I prayed/willed God to take me into Her inner core. And I woke up looking out a window in Vilnius at the Rectory of Šv. Mikalojaus church. The old, old church built on sacred pagan ground in the time of Vytautas. The only church allowed to conduct mass in Lithuanian during the Polish occupation of Vilnius. And I looked away from the window and across the bed and saw a sad and lonely woman staring guiltily into her dressing mirror. I had penetrated. God had brought me up a bumpy road, past the KGB, through the Kristaline whisky and the moonshine into the arms of the only part of the whole ravaged land that I actually could save. The pagan priestess squirming on her red hook. Seeking her own roadthe unlumpen bumpy road leading to freedom and California-style fun. And she found it. She's here now. Surfing the net. Submitting those pictures and resumes.
And who knows, maybe she'll score.
Like Lithuania's sons and daughters who have gone before
Dick Butkus, Ruta Lee, Johnny Unitas,
Charles Bronson, Vitas Gerulaitis.
And let's not forget Marius Gustaitis.
My roots needed touching up.
But now I think I've had enough.
I can only be what I've become, I must remember.
A pickle can't turn back into a cucumber.
As isejo i Lietuva.
I went off to Lithuania,
The Crimes of Nations underfoot,
And from the swamp-surrounded tower most remote,
Gazed west to oceans green,
Where lives our serpent king,
Who slides beachward from his amber throne
To puke his come on maiden bones,
Where hatch the eggs of generations
Born to die for desperate nations.
We love our land of heroes dead.
Where Germans, Jews, and Baits and Poles and Reds,
Have pluralistically bled.
God grant we only walk down paths of honor,
Be Martha Clarks not Jeffrey Dahmers,
Revive our ravaged land and
Restore its greatness once again
Lietuva tėvyne mūsų
Make promises you'll never keep,
Set standards that we'll never meet.
These roots needed touching up,
But now, I think, I've said enough.
Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Goodnight.
* Written for a performance of Two Lithuanian Guys at Dixon Place in New York, May 1996.
Artwork of Arūnas Tarabilda