Life in the shadow of history
VINCAS "VINCE" BAKSYS Sept. 9, 1919 – Aug. 27, 2018
Life in the shadow of history
Decades before Donald Trump singled out his own “enemies of the people,” my proudly Lithuanian father Vince found out just how dangerous that label could be in the hands of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
It was during World War II that, for the crime of owning too much land – 40 hectares or about 100 acres – Dad’s entire farm family was targeted for deportation to Siberia by Lithuania’s Russian communist invaders.
Fearing for their lives, in late 1944 Dad’s family fled everything they had ever known by horse-drawn wagon and on foot. As homeless refugees, they were traumatized by exposure to the elements, “food insecurity,” forced separation from each another, and the final, desperate phase of WWII.
More hard times came through the immediate postwar period in a devastated Germany. Finally, Dad, his mother, two brothers, and a sister were split up and re-settled wherever in the United States legal sponsors could be found.
That’s how at age 30 in the summer of 1949, my father – penniless, alone and speaking no English – arrived at the tiny Peoria Road house of our Springfield family’s original Lithuanian immigrant, Dad’s paternal aunt Mary Yamont.
Dad’s own father, John, Mary’s older brother, had slaved in Pennsylvania coal mines during the early 1900s to return to Lithuania and buy farmland. Now that land, and more, had been lost. And for the second generation in a row, America became our family’s refuge from brutal Russian occupiers.
Safety was always a concern for the father I knew, especially when it came to his six little girls. Dad’s radar could detect whenever a stray dog or neighbor boy crossed onto our property. I still remember when he physically chased off boys who should have been ashamed to hurl hard, rock-packed snowballs at three-year-old me and my five-year-old sister, Terry.
Throughout childhood, Dad warned us to watch out for a rock or a wire to the eye. He made it known that if we ever had trouble at school or broke a bone or needed stitches, things would not go well for us, besides. When we were older, his warnings shifted to “hot rods.”
Having experienced, as an unprotected civilian, the “bloodlands” of central Europe as they were invaded by both Hitler and Stalin, Dad was profoundly anti-war. And the kind of war he hated most was when two or more big-bully nations stoked brother-against-brother carnage within small and helpless countries – like Lithuania.
For him, gunfire on TV westerns was, at once, all-too-fake and all-too-real.
That’s why I am grateful that after losing and suffering so much, Dad was finally able to hold his ground – to live safe and die safe – in his adopted hometown.
In Springfield, my father found the dignity of 31 years of union labor at Fiat Allis, initially earning only $1 an hour. For 57 years, he was able to live safely in the same yellow brick bungalow that he and Mom built in the 2700 block of South State Street. Over the years, Dad’s mental almanac indelibly recorded the name, arrival and move-out (or death) date of every neighbor.
The father we knew slept little and was almost always stressed, working and saving. In addition to his factory shifts, Dad worked part time on construction and cutting grass. He made sure that we were never hungry, as he had so often been during and after the war, and that he always had money in the bank.
Dad’s mantra for his daughters, besides plenty of meat (mėsiukės) and milk (pienuko), was that all six of us would have the chance to go to college. And we did.
Throughout our rock ’n’ roll, bell-bottom-wearing 1960s, and (yikes) hot pants and platform shoes-wearing 1970s, we probably couldn’t have seemed stranger to our father from the Old Country. We two generations were split not just city vs. country, but also 20th century vs. 19th.
Our Kohlrus mother, the Springfield-born daughter of German-speaking immigrants, was the cultural mediator who worked to make sure that we got the Christmas gifts and dance lessons that our frugal and self-denying father found extraneous.
In the mainly non-cash, barter world of his youth, Dad’s beloved Lithuania enjoyed its first, brief freedom in centuries and delivered its first public education to the countryside. Still, through the late 1930s, Dad’s family lived in a two-room fir-log cottage with no running water or electricity and plowed with horses. His mothers and sisters spun, then wove clothes, from homegrown flax and wool.
Reaching the nearest town, some 12 miles away, was an all-day journey by horse and wagon. Time “wasted” on travel could barely be afforded, anyway, when almost everything you ate or used had to come from your own labor.
This is the world that we touched through the life of our totally dedicated and self-sacrificing father Vince, who managed to make history his footnote instead of becoming a footnote to history.
This is also what makes Dad’s loss, as the last in his line, feel like the loss of a world.
Springfield native Sandy Baksys is a retired pubic relations writer and former journalist. Her book, A Century of Lithuanians in Springfield, Illinois, may be purchased at Noonan’s Hardware on North Grand Avenue.