LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Copyright © 2010 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
Volume 56, No.3 - Fall 2010
Editor of this issue: M. G. Slavėnas
We are always very prepared
DAIVA MARKELIS, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Eastern Illinois University. “Always Prepared” is an excerpt from her forthcoming memoir titled White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life, to be published by the University of Chicago Press in November 2010.
“We are always Prepared” is one episode from the engaging memoir of a Lithuanian- American childhood during the 1960s and 1970s in Cicero, Illinois. The author, presently a professor of English, was raised in a post-World War II immigrant household where Lithuanian was the first language. As she assimilates into American culture, she revisits the collision of the new generation with the Old World values of her parents and the constricting expectations of her family and community. The present story is a description of a week in a summer camp for young Lithuanian scouts and a meeting with American girl guides.
At Lithuanian Scout Camp I learned the difference between oaks and poplars and maples, though of course we didn’t call them oaks and poplars and maples, but ąžuolai and drebulės and klevai. I learned how to extinguish a campfire properly and how to apply a tourniquet with finesse. I learned what to do if stalked by a bear, though as far as I knew no bears lurked in the forests of Camp Rakas, or anywhere else in Central Michigan. I learned to calculate the distance of a storm by counting the seconds from a flash of lightning to its rumble of thunder.
nemuški žemaitį,” one of our scout
said whenever it thundered.
“God of Thunder, don’t strike down someone from Žemaitija.”
She’d finish the rhyme with “Muški guda, kaip šunį rudą.”
“Rather, strike down a Gudas like a brown dog.”
I wasn’t sure what or who a Gudas was, though I knew my grandmother came from the part of Lithuania known as Žemaitija.
This same scout leader told us never to peel the bark off of trees, especially birches: “They scream when you do that.”
Lithuanian Scout Camp was real camp, not some YWCA retreat with bunks and air-conditioning. The first day we pitched our own tent, digging a trench around it to drain off the water in case of rain. We set up our cots and unrolled our sleeping bags and chose a leader from the six or seven girls who were to be our tentmates. We then proceeded to what was arguably the most important first day activity of Lithuanian Scout Camp: Tent Decoration.
We began by clearing off several feet of ground in front of the tent, smoothing over the existing soil with more attractive matter, such as sand or mulch. On this patch of earth we spelled out our tent name with twigs and rocks – one year we were the peteliškės, or butterflies, another the vaivos, or rainbows. We then outlined with stones a picture of a butterfly or rainbow in addition to other symbols we found meaningful; the Lithuanian coat-of-arms (a white knight against a red field); the fleur-de-lis of international scouting. We filled these in with leaves, acorns, moss, branches, pieces of glass, rocks, etc. Finished, we’d admire our work, then trudge through the woods to get to the trough where we washed our faces and hands with cold water and soap, then dried them on two or three damp communal towels.
There were prizes for best-decorated tent, given at the
end of the two-week period. There were daily commendations
for neatest tent and friendliest/most helpful tent and for the
tent that talked Lithuanian most often, i.e., the tent with girls
who spoke Lithuanian most vocally in the presence of scout
“Man patinka stovykla.” (I like camp.)
“Ja. Man irgi.” (Yeah, me too.)
In the privacy of our tents we all reverted to the language of American youth, of television and rock and roll and grade school crushes – we couldn’t fathom how it was possible to talk about boys in Lithuanian.
Boys, of course, were a central component of the scouting experience. The boys’ camp, separated by several miles of forest, was accessible during the hour and a half of lankymas allotted after dinner. For the most part, the boys used visiting time to play volleyball or whittle strange little statues out of wood or read Mad magazines in the privacy of their tents. The girls, on the other hand, marched bravely in packs of threes and fours into male territory. Once there, we stood around chatting with one another, fussing with our hair.
Several evenings a week there were coed campfires where a few of the luckier, more sophisticated older girls could be seen sharing blankets with their boyfriends, perhaps holding hands.
I loved the campfires, coed or not. I loved the silly skits, takeoffs on fairy tales and Lithuanian legends, satires of scout life. I loved the way we linked arms while singing Ateina naktis – Night is Approaching – and wished one another saldžių sapnų – sweet dreams – after the song, shouting the words out syllable by syllable: sal-džių sap-nų!
I loved the sound of rain pattering against the tent at night, mysterious and soothing.
I loved the scout leaders. The older ones were like my mother, kind and intelligent, but without the drama. The younger ones were confident and pretty, women I aspired to be one day.
I loved the way we called each other sesė – Sister. “Can you help me carry this wood, Sesė Daiva?” “No problem, Sesė Ramunė.”
I even loved outdoor mass on Sundays, mandatory for everyone except the handful of Lutheran girls whom we regarded with curiosity and a bit of suspicion. We’d march to the makeshift chapel and eye the boys who strummed guitars as we sang a Lithuanian version of Kumbaya.
Most of all, however, I loved earning badges. I received badges in first aid and forestry and home economics and scouting history. I was envious of girls whose uniform sleeves were covered with important looking insignias. How could they have possibly amassed such a collection? I failed to get the swimmer’s badge – I couldn’t dive – but acquired the coveted emblem in knot tying. I loved knot tying – I admired the perfect simplicity of the square knot and the complex beauty of the hangman’s noose.
There were things at Camp Rakas I could have done without, such as all the ceremony – the raising and lowering of the Lithuanian flag, especially when we had to undergo uniform inspection. A recurring dream: I am at the flag ground, wearing my old olive-green scout uniform; it is too short and much too tight. I have misplaced the red tie or šlipsas of the paukštytės (Little Birds) and must face the approbation of the slightly older and infinitely more sophisticated scout leaders, Rima or Julytė or Lidija.
I could have done without all the talk about the international principles of scouting as set forth by Lord Baden-Powell, who we knew always wore khaki shorts, even in winter, and donned a hat shaped like a flying saucer. His much younger wife dressed in skirts way below her knees and ugly shoes. The Baden-Powells stressed self-sufficiency and physical, mental, and spiritual development. We knew that the international scouting motto – Be prepared! – meant that we should be in a constant state of readiness, though we weren’t sure what we needed to prepare for – snakes, lurking grizzlies, or, perhaps that most dangerous of animals, the huge red Soviet bear engulfing countries like little hives of honey.
“Budėk!” our leader would shout.
“Vis budžiu!” we shouted back with the proper salute – our palms facing outward, our fingertips grazing our foreheads as if we were shielding our eyes from a very bright sun.
What I wasn’t prepared for at Camp Rakas were girls who aimed their words like stones at the fragile bones of my psyche. These were not the Cicero girls – the glamorous Alvida Baukus or the caring Audra Gečas or the mischievous Regina Grigaliūnas – but interlopers from some tough Chicago neighborhood. It was rumored that they smoked cigarettes at night behind their tent and let boys leave hickeys on their necks.
“Hey Bugs Bunny,” they’d yell across the pavilion where we ate breakfast.
“Well, well, well. Look what we have here,” one of them said when I ventured carefully into the chilly water of the lake during swimming hours. “It’s Bugs Bunny.”
Sometimes they’d pull their upper teeth over their bottom lips and then smack their jaws up and down in unison, producing a fah-fah-fah sound I suppose they imagined beavers made.
Once when we had to form a circle for yet another brainless athletic game and had to hold hands, one of the girls refused to take mine. It hung limply suspended in the air like an undressed puppet. “Fuck you,” the girl whispered. I stood there, shocked. Fuck you. I’d often heard the words reverberating through the streets of Cicero, but they had never been directed at me. The fact that they had come from the mouth of a Lithuanian, and a Girl Scout to boot, made the situation unbearable.
That weekend, when parents came to visit, my father sensed by my despondent manner that something was wrong. I finally confessed, perhaps thinking that my father would take things into his own hands and complain about the girl to senior counselors, or, better yet, beat her to a screaming pulp of flesh and blood.
Instead, he laughed.
“Da-aad, she said ‘fuck you.’”
“You should have just said ‘fuck you’ right back to her.”
This advice struck me as both mind-bogglingly daring and patently ridiculous. I imagined another, braver, self issuing the phrase I had uttered only in my most private fantasies. How could I put forth a confident “fuck you” when I had a difficult time simply saying hello?
I began to think that perhaps Lithuanians weren’t always very nice. I couldn’t imagine American Girl Scouts saying “fuck you” to one another. It occurred to me that maybe Lithuanian girl scouting was different from American scouting, more like the army. I thought back to an annual meeting of our scout organization held at the Lithuanian Youth Center in Chicago. We had marched into the main hall in formation, had saluted the flags, had shouted Vis budžiu!, when, all of a sudden, a troop of American Girl Scouts appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, to show us their unique scouting customs. We later discovered that they had been invited by our senior leaders to foster good will and community building.
The American Girl Scouts weren’t wearing olive-green uniforms with navy-blue knee socks or ill-fitting beige pantyhose, but simple beige skirts and comfortable-looking cotton sweaters. Our visitors sat cross-legged around a pretend campfire in the large hall while we stood around observing as if we were British anthropologists from a bygone era and they the natives of some primitive New Zealand tribe. They sang a song about the importance of keeping old friends, who are like gold, while at the same time making new friends, who are like silver.
We sang songs about flocks of swans flying to Lithuania to defend her from enemies. We sang songs asking God to bless us as he does the birds coming home to nest from faraway places. Many of the songs had been sung by our parents decades ago around campfires in Klaipėda and Telšiai and Utena. Some were folk songs, dainos, that had existed long before the printed word had appeared in Lithuania, their melancholy strains and strange, sad lyrics recalling a world where dead relatives and friends materialized in the form of ducks and crows and nightingales. Some of the songs were rousing, even rowdy, suggesting activities way outside the traditional realm of scouting. Others were sung as we marched, their rhythms one with our own lumbering footsteps.
Back then, all those many years ago, I thought I might have enjoyed being an American Girl Scout. Chances are, however, I would have been even more of an outsider with my strange name and parents who spoke fractured English and didn’t know who Mickey Mantle was.
I would have missed the tent decorating contest and visiting the boys’ camp during lankymas. Most of all, I would have missed the music. Today, when the Lithuanian language seems impossible, a burden of vowels and wayward syntax, the words from some campfire song return as if encoded in the strands of DNA , released by a glimpse of larkspur as I walk in the woods or the sound of rain at night. Sometimes I find myself singing at the top of my voice, suddenly fluent in the tongue of my parents: “Oh you gypsies, where have you come 37 from?” or “Here I stand in silence by the rue garden” or even “Night is approaching.”
* * *
I have been camping out at my mother’s, spending every other weekend sleeping on her living room couch. For these overnight stays, I take along books, my laptop computer, a bagful of Hershey’s chocolate kisses. I sit beside her, book in hand, as she naps or watches Ellen DeGeneres or Oprah or her favorite British comedies on PBS.
“What are you reading?” she asks during a commercial
“A book of short stories called Birds of America.”
“Is it about birds?”
“The title is metaphorical.”
She smiles. My mother envisions life in metaphorical terms; we are all birds trying to find our way home, she sometimes says.
She notices another book where I’ve marked my page by folding back the corner of the leaf.
“You should always use a bookmark,,” she admonishes.
“I didn’t have a bookmark on hand.”
“You hurt the pages when you do that.”
“Do the pages scream?”
“Don’t be silly. They just hurt.”
“Do they hurt like you?” I want to say.
My mother looks like an old tree, her back bent by too many strong winds, her gnarled hands extending to hand me a bookmark like branches reaching out to heaven.