Blood Lines Chapter 24

   “There used to be plenty of trains here,” Junior said. “They ran from Tignish to Summerside, through here and on to Georgetown. We had the first diesels in Canada, to save on coal, ten years before anybody else. But when truckers started hauling potatoes, it was the beginning of the end. Now all we’ve got is a train museum in Elmira.”

   Neither JT Markunas nor Kayleigh Jurgelaitis had ever seen a train on the island. They had never heard of the museum, either. JT knew where Elmira was, although he had never been there. Kayleigh had never been on a train in her life. Junior refilled their pints. They were at JR’s Bar in Charlottetown.

   “By the way, have you seen a guy in here who rides a red motorcycle?”

   “What kind of bike?”

   “I don’t know, but it looks and sounds new.”

   “No, not no new one,” Junior said. “There’s a guy who rides a red Indian, but it’s a 1970s, before they went bankrupt.”

   “No, this one is new. I think it’s a Jap bike. If you do see it and get a chance to get his plate, let me know, will you?”

   “Will do,” Junior said. He pushed a bowl of old pretzels their way and went to the other end of the bar where a loose group of locals looked thirsty. Their pretzel bowls were empty. He refilled them to the brim.

   “Time to spill the beans,” JT said. “How is it you are from Sudbury like me?”

   “The war, just like you,” Kayleigh said. “My father Gediminas was born in 1916, in the Ukraine. My grandfather and grandmother were living in Poltava, insanely far from Marijampole, their home in Lithuania.” She meant the 700 miles was insanely far given the state of Russian roads and railroads. The Eastern Front, where millions of men were slaughtering each other at the time, was closer and easier to get to.

   “He was a professor, teaching there during the war.” 

   The school was the National Technical University. It was founded by the wife of the governor-general of the province, the granddaughter of the last native strongman before the Russian Empire absorbed the country in the 18th century. For hundreds of years Polish and Lithuanian freebooters had controlled the Ukraine and were a law unto themselves. They were no match for the Cossacks, however, who later were no match for the Russians.

   After the war the family, including three-year-old Gediminas’s older brother and sister, who were twins, went back to Lithuania. His father taught school in nearby Marijampole, and they lived on a farm. His mother’s family were well-off property owners. After the state-sponsored revolt in Klaipeda was signed sealed delivered, the country competed in the Summer Olympics for the first time, and Gediminas’s older brother suddenly unexpectedly died. The next year his mother was shot dead at a wedding. Hot blood soaked the cool white bodice of her best dress.

   It had been Russian imperial policy to leave the country in a non-industrial state. The inheritance system that was implemented after the land reform of 1863 forbade the partition of land plots. It was similar to what the British tried to make happen on Prince Edward Island. There were many landowners at the reception. They stuck together socially, friends neighbors families bound by the old time way.

   “A group of Communists, people who wanted land, came to the wedding, started a fight, started shooting guns, and my grandmother was accidentally shot and killed,” Kayleigh said. The Communist party of Lithuania was formed immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution. They were out for the blood of capitalists. There is only so much land to go around in small Baltic-like countries.

   “It’s a lot like here, only so much ground to go around,” JT said.

   “My father grew up, got married, had a daughter, and was planning on going to school to study medicine, but then the war happened,” Kayleigh said. “My grandfather was shot and killed in his living room by fifth column men. My father joined the Lithuanian Army, and then the Reds invaded. “

   It was never a fair fight. In mid-June 1940 a half-million Red Army troops poured across the borders of the Baltics. Within a week they were overrun, one week before France fell to Nazi Germany. Josef Stalin blew his nose into his walrus mustache. Adolf Hitler did an awkward jig grinning behind the misplaced eyebrow under his nose.

   “My father took to the forest, joining a group of partisans, staying in the fight for the next year. He had been working in the fields when his father was killed, which is why he wasn’t shot. They were killing landowners. They would have killed him that winter if they had been able to hunt him down.”

    A year later Lithuania was invaded by Germany. Most Russian war planes were destroyed on the ground. The Wehrmacht advanced rapidly, assisted by Lithuanians, who saw them as liberators. They helped by guarding railroads, bridges, and warehouses. The Lithuanian Activist Front and Lithuanian Territorial Corps formed the native backbone of the anti-Soviet fighting.

   Gediminas joined the German Army, assigned to a Baltic Unit. Three years later he was having second thoughts. The Russian summer offensive of 1944 was in full swing. An NCO by then, he and his company were ordered to man the front line and hold it at all costs. It was costing them dearly every day. “The rich Lithuanians were our officers,” he said. The rich men weren’t in the trenches getting their heads shot off. “The enlisted men were the men getting killed.” They were trying to stay alive. They didn’t care anymore who was right or wrong.

   An airstrip for reconnaissance and resupply was nearby. Junker 52s were flying in and out with ammunition first aid food and hope in the grim hopelessness. Gediminas and three men from his unit were unloading one of the planes at a side door by means of a ramp, the front and wing-mounted engines roaring, when they made up their minds to steal it and fly to safety.

   Two of the men rushed up the ramp and threw the German pilots out the door, while the other man and Gediminas kept watch, guns at the ready. Gediminas was the last one to scramble into the plane and was shot in the back of his foot by a stray slug just before he slammed the door shut.

   “I was playing on the floor one day,” Kayleigh said. It was the late 1960s. “My dad was relaxing, shoes and socks off, sitting on the sofa in the living room reading a newspaper. I saw a scar on his heel and asked him what it was. He said it was a bullet wound. He rolled up his pants and showed me three more on both legs.”

   One of the Lithuanians returned the incoming fire with a MG15 machine gun from the dustbin turret, while the other two dragged Gediminas to the cockpit. None of them had ever flown an airplane. He was the only one of them who had ever even driven a car. How hard can it be? Gediminas thought. With bullets slamming into the aluminum fuselage, he found out it wasn’t hard at all. He pushed on the throttle, got the Junker going as fast as he thought it would go, pulled the wheel back, and ‘Iron Annie’ lifted up into the air.

   They quickly came up with a plan, planning to fly to Switzerland. They got as far as the German border when they ran out of gas. The plane wasn’t the fastest, 165 MPH its top speed, and it could go about 600 miles on a tankful. When they went down, they were headed in the right direction. All they needed was another full tank.

   It solved their landing problem, since Gediminas had already told his countrymen he had no idea how to land the plane. The Junker hit the ground hard and every part of it broke into a thousand pieces. When he came back to life he was in a field hospital. He never found out what happened to his comrades.

   The doctors asked him who he was and what happened. He answered them in High German. “My father spoke Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and German.” He was wearing the right uniform when found, was speaking like a householder, and they assumed he was one of them. He bit his tongue about who he really was, thanking God for his good fortune.

   After he got out of the hospital he was deemed not fit enough for combat and ordered to the motor pool. Soon after he drew a lucky number and was assigned to be the driver for a general. It was lucky enough until several months later, early one morning, in the middle of winter, when he got a wake-up call from one of his sidekicks.

   “Don’t come to work today,” the man said.

   “What does that mean?”

   “Your general died late last night. One of the first people the Gestapo will want to talk to is you.”

   He knew it was true. He knew what had happened to anybody and everybody involved in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler earlier that July. Nearly 5,000 people were executed. He would never be able to stand up to scrutiny. 

   His general was probably out carousing in their Tatra 87, slid on ice and smashed into a tree. The Tatra was the car of the war years. Sleek futuristic BMW-engine fast and high-tech as could be, it was the vehicle of choice for German officers. Unfortunately for them, it was sloppy, handling like pudding, killing its drivers right and left. Gediminas always kept it under 40 MPH. It was the vehicle of choice of the Allies, too, but for their mortal enemy. They thought of it as a secret weapon, killing more highly placed German officers than died fighting the Red Army.

   None of it mattered. It didn’t matter whether the general died in the arms of his mother or was assassinated. His goose was cooked if the Staatspolizei got him. They literally cooked people to death. He jumped to his feet, threw on a coat, and fled his room. Making his way to the motor pool, he found a truck with keys in the ignition and a full tank of gas. There were plenty to go around. Opel manufactured 95,000 of the 2-ton 4 x 4 Blitz Utility trucks during the war. He quickly signed it out, turned it over, and drove away. He drove straight for the front. His plan was to break through the line and surrender to the Americans. When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on.

   He didn’t get shot by either side and when he got to the American side, he surrendered. He was confident that the war was over for him. But by the time the war did end, the Nazis raising the white flag, he was in his third army. At least he was finally on the winning side.

   “My grandfather was a big guy,” Kayleigh said. “He was six foot four. My father was five nine and maybe one hundred forty pounds.” Being on the small side doesn’t matter. In the end, what matters is what you do. Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of what he called “the whole shebang” in Europe. He knew there was more to winning the war than armor. “What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog,” he said.

   At the beginning of 1945 the Allies on the Western Front had 73 divisions ready to go. The Germans had 26 divisions. Adolf Hitler held a meeting with his top men, instructing them to hold the Americans and British off by any means. By that time, however, his top men were flat tires. The Fuhrer boarded a train and never went back to the Western Front. At the end of January, he gave the last speech he was ever to give. He tried to rally the troops. It didn’t do any good. 

   After surrendering, Gediminas spent time in a DP camp, until being recruited by the Yanks. They were looking for men who spoke multiple languages and he fit the bill. At war’s end he was in Nuremberg, where war crime trials were being conducted. The top dogs who propagated the National Socialist German Party either committed suicide, were executed, or locked up in solitary for a long time.

   As the decade wound itself down, Gediminas snuck aboard a tramp freighter and sailed to North America, finding work as a lumberjack near North Bay, Ontario. “It was an indentured servant kind of job,” Kayleigh said. More than two-thirds of the Canadian province is forest, in land area the equivalent of Fascist Germany and Fascist Italy combined. “He was never quite sure where he was out there,” Kayleigh said. “He wasn’t, at least, a mile down in Sudbury’s nickel mines.”

   “Yeah, my dad worked in the mines his whole life,” JT broke in.

   “Going a mile down into the ground takes its own kind of courage,” Kayleigh said.

   Making it work in a company town is unlikely. Since there is no competition, housing costs and groceries bills are exorbitant, and workers build up large debts they are required to pay off before leaving. It can be slavery by another name. Gediminas determined to find another way, his own way. “He and some other Lithuanians pooled their resources, found a broken-down car, scavenged parts from other wrecks, filled the tires with rags to get them to roll, and hit the road. They didn’t tell anybody where they were going. He ended up in St. Catherine’s, near Niagara Falls, and later, finding a chance to go to the United States, took the chance and settled down outside Buffalo, where he stayed the rest of his life.”

   “What did he do there?” JT asked.

   “He got married to an Irish girl. He never found out what happened to the Lithuanian wife and daughter he left behind.” The Iron Curtain had slammed shut. “My mother Sadie taught school. They raised a family. My father went to work as a butcher in the meat department of a grocery store. He never missed a day until the day he died.”

   Kayleigh’s father built a house on three acres of land. One acre of it was devoted to a garden. “My brother pushed thousands of wheelbarrows of manure as a child. Whenever our car parts factory neighbors went on strike, he and I delivered food to them in the morning before school. Sometimes my father would hang from his heels in the garage to prove he could still do it. He smoked and drank with his friends at the local Italian and Polish social clubs.”

   “He must have been a strong man, being in three armies, one of them twice, and fighting with a guerilla group,” JT said. He wagged two fingers at Junior for two more pints. “Your father had more lives than a cat.”

   “He did, but once he was done, that cat never enlisted in another man’s army ever again.”


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