Today the Bernard Olcott story returns to Vilnius, May 1985. From my post “BOOMERANG THROWN,” you learned that I was in Lithuania for 5 days that year, hunting down my family roots. The first day was remarkable.
My second day in Lithuania featured an old fashioned get-on-the-bus touristic outing with my Intourist group. The destination was the town and castle at Trakai, about 30 km to the west of Vilnius. Built in the 15th century as the home to the Lithuanian Grand Duke, it was considered as the unofficial capital of Lithuania, which, as part of the united Polish-Lithuanian kingdom, stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas in its prime. Today the ancient castle is in good condition – for a structure that is 600+ years old – and is scenically located on an island in a pristine clear water lake.
This blog ostensibly concerns my Father, Bernard, who passed away in 2006. But I take many diversions along the way. Today’s post is mostly about his 2nd wife, my Mom. She is a spry 83 year old woman who brags about her ability to walk around the parking lot in front of her Assisted Living Residence “23 times” every day. She is very specific about that number.
OK, so what do you do with your aging Mother when you bring her home for the weekend? In my case, I take her for long walks. Makes sense, right?
This past Sunday, I brought her and my cousin, Lise (visiting from Quebec City), for an excursion to the Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island. It’s a stunning modern memorial to, in my opinion, the greatest President of our Republic. Our very own Great Leader, the handicapped patrician who led our country through its darkest hour to supreme victory and ascendancy to superpower status, militarily, economically, and culturally. FDR. Now we have a Washington, DC-style monument in his honor, right here in the middle of the East River.
The past 5 posts describe the first of the 5 days staying at the Hotel Lithuania (not to be confused with the Hotel California). In Vilnius, Soviet occupied Lithuania during May 1985. Intermingled in the details were other anecdotes about my stay in Moscow the prior week.
My view out the window of the Hotel Lietuva. The Neris River is in the foreground and the Old Town behind.
For the sake of repetition, my primary purpose in going to Lithuania was to meet my Father’s family, his uncle and cousins. Our roots in this small, little-known country in Eastern Europe was something we shared. Plain and simple.
The author with Eugenija’s son (and my cousin) Vytas. At least I figured out where my curly hair came from!
When I got there, I discovered insights into what exactly constitutes oppression. Some of it boomeranged to hit me in strange ways.
It had been an eventful drive from Vilnius to Varena that sun-drenched spring morning in May 1985.
First was being pulled over by the USSR highway patrol. It looks fearsome just to see it here in writing on the Bernard Olcott story. But Boris the driver managed not to collect S&H green stamps from the patrolboy.
Second was a stop at a World War II massacre site to learn a lesson about oppression. A moment of irony in the USSR.
Next up was our ostensible destination, the town of Varena, Dzūkija region, in Southeastern Lithuania. My Dad’s cousin Eugenija lived there with her husband in the old part of town. Their broom-swept house turned out to be at the top of a T intersection, a few feet away from an ominous looking empty small guard tower. Asleep in the tall grass at the base was a disheveled drunk, who was quickly roused and sent away.
Ponary Death Pit (photo courtesy of Juliux from Wikipedia – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Courtesy of my driver Boris and his lead foot, fueled by my Al Green cassette tape, our Russian Volga sedan resumed its cruise down the A4 highway towards my lunch appointment with my father’s family in Varena, Lithuania. We had just survived a traffic stop a few moments earlier where Boris effectively told the zit-faced highway patroller to go fuck himself. The USSR seemed to have a great surfeit of immature officers populating the police, immigration, customs, animal control, and doubtlessly numerous other constabularies.
My very first experience of the Soviet Union the previous week was instructive of this very point. It was upon my arrival into the USSR on an Air France nonstop flight from Charles de Gaulle to Sheremetyevo airports.
It was May 1985, and, as a student of history and world politics, I was excited to be flying into a very different kind of country. I had had some extensive experiences in Europe already, but this, the USSR was to be verily alien. As a kicker, I would be meeting my Father’s family in Lithuania after a week in Moscow.
In preparation for my trip, I read everything I could about Russians (inhabitants of the world’s largest country), Lithuanians (great basketball players), and the Baltics (I would also be passing through Riga, Latvia). Hedrick Smith’s “The Russians” had earned a prized place in my personal library, with dog-ears on the dog-ears.
Before I cover the apparently sudden demise of my father’s mother Patricia in Queens, NY, on August 22, 1943, let me backtrack a bit and take a look at her origins. At least the little that is known. So I go in search of… my paternal grandparents!
For that, my story today starts off on one beautiful bright Saturday morning in May 1985. I was in a rental car rolling through verdant countryside. The birds were chirping, the sun was streaming, and my Al Green cassette tape was cranking through the sound system; Al crooning “Love and Happiness.” It was a happenin’ morning!
Yet this was not your normal stretch of New Jersey Turnpike, say between Elizabeth and Rahway. Nor was I in a 1984 Buick LeSabre. This road trip was distinctive for many reasons!
Well for one thing, the player’s fast forward was broken so when I got to the end of the last song on side 1, I had to eject the tape, stick my finger into one sprocket, and twirl the tape around my finger until I got to the end of side 1 (which was the beginning of side 2).
But that was just a nit. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that I was rockin’ a recent vintage Volga sedan like the one pictured below.
Switch out I-95, and sub-in the fact that I was rolling southbound on the A4, a rural two lane highway in Soviet occupied Lithuania.
“The Lost Weekend,” as previously noted in my post of the same name, was the Academy Award best picture of 1945. It not only reveals Gotham of yesterday by way of moving images, like the main actor stumbling haggardly under the Third Avenue El in search of a drink, but also by way of the language and the accents of the era. Unlike the 1960 classic “Butterfield 8,” the personalities in “The Lost Weekend” engage with each other directly, with a minimum of game playing or social charades. It was the 1940s way.
Significantly, as it relates to The Bernard Olcott Story, it’s about a writer! There’s even a reference to my distant cousin James Thurber (on my mother’s side) in the first few minutes.
What can you say about the film noir world of the 1940s, the formative decade for my Dad? Well, for one thing, there were a HELL of a lot of barber shops. Everywhere!
However, the first thing I noticed were the strong New York accents, most notably as spoken by the bartender Nat. He routinely addresses the main character, Don Birnham, as “Mr. Boy-nam.” This brings me back to working at Olcott International in Weehawken in the late 1970s and afterwards, please see my post “GOODBYE 212, HELLO 201?”