Vitauts Take 19: The Package from Venezuela

Venezuelan Gift
Latvian Songbook

A week or so ago, I came home from lunch and dad was a bit excited about the mail. I asked him what it was, and he showed me a package from Venezuela. “Who do you know in Venezuela,” I asked.

He looked at the name and thought aloud, “Guntars Gedulis… Guntars Gedulis…” He paused and said, “I knew him from the camps in Germany. We were in Wiesbaden together (see map).”

I was absolutely blown away. Here was this man that dad hadn’t seen in seventy years looking him up and sending him a package! How could Guntars even have found Vitauts after all this time? Dad said that the last time they saw each other was when they were about 18 years old. He didn’t have many stories to tell about Guntars, but just the mere fact that someone dad’s age was still alive and out there somewhere brought me hope. “What did he send you?”

He opened the package, took out a note and handed me three books. They were Latvian hymns written by Mr. Gedulis himself. He had sent the books to dad with a note that mentioned that these could be purchased for $3 apiece if he were interested in buying them for his church. Dad wasn’t interested, and, in fact, seemed a little put off. Here was this person contacting him from thousands of miles away, and he just wanted someone to buy his Latvian songbooks.

I told dad that maybe he should write back. Maybe he could get in touch with this guy and share stories. Again, dad didn’t seem interested. He responded with a “maybe” and walked back to his room.

I led him to my computer and started showing him old pictures of the German camps. I wanted to see if he could show me this Guntars fellow. He was amazed that I had all these old photos on my computer, “Where did you get these, I mean?” I told him that I scanned them in a long time ago. I don’t think he understood, but we finally found one photo that he said might be his friend Guntars.

Vitauts at a German Camp with Latvians
Vitauts at a German Camp with Latvians

“That one, there in middle. That may be him,” he said. He wasn’t 100% certain, but at least he felt somewhat confident that this photo was taken in Wiesbaden. But who knows?

I thought it was a fantastic story until I did a little research. I wanted to find out if this Guntars guy was really dad’s age and whether or not he was still alive. I found Guntars Gedulis, apparently a somewhat well-known Latvian singer/song writer. He was born in 1957, long after dad had already left for the United States. Who knows, maybe he is dad’s friends son?

Well, at least he has an inspirational quote, and it looks like he does some good work around with world with his music.

“Music is a window to a different, spiritual world; a bridge that brings us out of the everyday and joins us with the experience.”
Guntars Gedulis

You can hear him talk here, and hear some real Latvian if you are interested!


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Vitauts Take 18: Yutan and Family Football

Vitauts and Andra in the Stands
Vitauts and Andra in the Stands

On any given night some thirty years ago, Vitauts Grinvalds could be seen in these same stands, or, more likely, standing up along the fence of the Yutan Chieftains’ football field watching the game and smoking his pipe. His sixth child, Alan, was a star on the team and one of dad’s few family engagements brought him to this field in the wind, cold and rain. Generally, he would have probably left right after to go to his cousin’s house for some poker, but he would always make an appearance at the game.

I was also in those same stands. In eighth grade, when we went to the state championship game against Grant, I would have been playing the baritone in the band, freezing, as we cheered on the mighty Chieftains.

Just recently, the World Herald named this game one of the best state football championship games in the history of Nebraska sports. It’s a bitter pill to swallow knowing that we lost the game in a fluke finish. The memory still haunts all of us, especially Alan. Vitauts drove us across the state in a snow storm to be there. He still remembers that, “someone made a bad decision, Alan should have gotten the ball.” It was 4th down and 1 to go. Yutan needed to score to win. The quarterback kept the ball and tried to make a sneak for the first down, but it didn’t work. Isn’t it amazing how a single play in a high school football game can remain relevant forever?

So today, the Grinvalds clan still gathers together to relive glory days and to create new memories in a family event I call “Fossbalt” but everyone else just calls football. We’ve been doing it for about twenty years. It started with all the siblings and kids playing in a field across from the house where we grew up in Yutan. Now, we gather once a year, and any able-bodied person is expected to give his or her all for a few hours in the name of honor.

Paul as Qurarterback
Alan as Quarterback

Paul, my oldest living brother and Alan, football legend, are almost always on opposite sides because they are the two athletes. My brother Norm and I join them, and then our kids fill in the rest of the teams. Back in the old days, we’d play tackle and inevitably, people would get hurt. Sometimes they were hurled into fences, and other times trees. One time, we lodged a contact lens into one of friend’s eyes. It was pretty nasty. I myself have experienced a blown Achilles tendon among a series of less serious injuries. Ultimately, we all ache and suffer, but we do it to prove something. I’m not sure what.

Dad on the Fence
Dad on the Fence

This year, I invited dad to come along with the extra enticement to return to Yutan to see some old friends. He came to the field and watched for awhile, then went to the local bar, the Rusty Rooster, to have a few drinks with my sisters and the Josoffs. Although a bit disoriented and uncertain who was going to drive him home, he had a good time and was glad that he went. He stood on the sidelines just like in the old days this time without the pipe.

In a postscript to this story, I just talked with dad about the Grant game. He talked about how Alan was such a great dancer, and he should have had a chance to win the game. I said, “Dancer?” He said, “Ja, I used to go to all the dances.” “Dances?” I asked. “Ja.” Then he stopped for a minute and thought about it and said, “Did I say dancers?” I said, “Yes.” And he started laughing realizing that he was talking about “Dancing with the Stars” which he had just been watching before I walked in.



Vitauts Take 17: Husker Games

Up the MIddle!
Up the MIddle!

I am writing this still in the euphoric afterglow of Nebraska’s incredible comeback against Michigan State this Saturday. It was one of the most amazing games that I have ever watched, and I watched it with dad. Usually, two or three random siblings and other relatives or friends will show up for a big game, but not today.

Today, it was Vitauts, his beer, and his classic color commentary.

When we were growing up, we would listen to the games on the radio, and dad always pretended to root for the other team. I think he was always a Husker fan, but he liked to play the devil’s advocate. And even when he did root for Nebraska, he would taint it with his negative comments about Devaney, then Osborne, and whoever else he blamed for “stupid” plays.

The most famous of his comments is “Up the middle!” complaining about Osborne calling running plays in the middle of the field. “No one ever makes yards up the middle, I mean!” If there is one thing that Vitauts is, it is consistent. So to this day, even twenty years after Osborne, when he sees a player get tackled in the middle he will complain about the “stupid call.”

Tonight was terrific. I was cheering and screaming as we both sat and enjoyed one of Nebraska’s best comebacks.


Vitauts Take 16: The Accident

This is going to sound rather awful, but since my dad has been living with me, my siblings and I have all shared our biggest fear: Dad will eventually hurt himself or someone else while driving. The big question is, “When do you take away the keys?” I have had this conversation with many of my friends who also struggled when their parents or grandparents turned a certain age. At what point does safety trump freedom and independence?

Several months ago, when dad got sick, he couldn’t drive for a month, “Doctor’s orders.” It was terrible for him, but great for him. He was walking to the store, going out and getting exercise. He was healthier and seemed happier. But all he wanted to do was get his keys back so he could go “across the river” to the casino. I had hoped that maybe when he stopped driving for a month, realizing that he could walk places and live without the casino that his behavior might change, but it didn’t. Once he got the go ahead from the doctor (another good story), he was back driving to Council Bluffs almost every day.

So at what point does his driving become dangerous? At what point do the children have to say, “Dad, we don’t think you should drive anymore?”

A Note from Vitauts
A Note from Vitauts

This last week, I was at home eating lunch. I found a note from dad telling me that he had gone to Lincoln to put his birthday flowers on “my wife’s (your mother’s) grave.” I could see his shaky handwriting on the stationery; it used to be so smooth and perfect. The note was so touching, but then I got a phone call. It was dad, and he never calls unless something is wrong, so I dreaded answering.

“Hello, dad?”

“Ja! I am in Lincoln, and I got into an accident,” he spoke slowly and deliberately. Oh no, I thought. My worst fears have been realized.

“Are you okay?”

“Ja, some stupido pulled out in front of me. Just turned right in front of me and there was nothing I could do.”

He was not hurt, and according to him, the accident wasn’t his fault. He said that a car had turned in front of him on 48th Street in Lincoln.

The Mercury Damaged
The Mercury Damaged

“Some lady waved him on to go, and now I am waiting for the police to come.” He repeated the story three or four times. I was concerned about his well-being and wondered if he could still drive home. He said the car was fine, and it is. The damage is minimal, and he wasn’t hurt at all. I still haven’t confirmed whether or not it was his fault and whether his insurance or the other person’s insurance will pay for damages, but maybe it was a bit of a wake-up call for dad.

I wonder if he is internalizing this, wondering if maybe it was his fault. If he had been paying more attention… if he had faster reflexes…. what if? It does seem that he has not been driving as much as he was before. I talked to him today and he said he wasn’t going anywhere. I don’t know how to broach the subject.

I still don’t think I’m ready to tell my father that he can no longer drive.

Vitauts Take 15: Another Flat Tire

I was sick on Friday, and luckily I was home when dad got yet another flat tire. The first flat tire happened on the way to Lincoln several months ago. He was driving down I-80 when his rear tire shredded. He called me for help, and I, in turn, called my son, Kyle, who lived about 5 minutes away from Greenwood where Vitauts’ car sat motionless on the shoulder.

Kyle met dad, changed his tire, and became a hero. Dad tells and retells the story about calling Kyle, and I think I too have repeated that same story.

This Friday, Vitauts came inside and found me sitting at my computer in my office. “Jeffrey, can you help me?” He has to be the proudest 88 year-old man in the world. His tire was low, and he told me he had been putting air in it now and again, but now it was truly flat. He had parked his big, red Mercury in the driveway. The spare tire was sitting next to the car along with the jack and other tools. He had tried and failed to change the tire himself. He couldn’t get the hubcap off.

I put on a jacket and went to inspect the tire myself. After trying in vain to remove the hubcap, I realized that it was locked and needed some stupid special tool. I started digging through the trunk. I wanted to write a poem about the contents of an old man’s trunk.

Twenty-three beeswax candles
partly melted, crooked, leftovers
from a life working in the church,
kept in a broken box in the trunk…
just in case.

I took all the candles out and started digging for the special key to remove the hubcap.

Three crumpled baseball caps
One said “Latvia”
I didn’t read the others
One Soviet-style fur hat stood by itself
I always wondered where he had gotten
the brown fur hat, and where it had gone.

I found a second jack and pry bar, identical to the ones that dad had already laid out for me. He had now ambled down the stairs to join me. I explained what I was looking for, “Ja, I know I have that tool somewhere…” He then started digging through the trunk himself. Four big, heavy blankets. I watched for a moment and then went inside.

I called Kyle to see if he remembered where he had placed the special key to the hubcaps. He didn’t remember, and he went to see if maybe he had put it in his car by mistake. In the meantime, I went online to see if I could find a key or a workaround. It didn’t seem like there was much hope. People had written that they had taken their cars to Ford dealers, and not even they could take the hubcaps off.

After Kyle called back to let me know that he didn’t find the key, I went back outside to search inside the car. I looked in the glovebox. Nothing. Well, lots of junk, but no key.

I went back to the tire to inspect it to see if there was some way to get the stupid hubcap off. Dad was standing there watching, folding up the blankets carefully and placing them back in the trunk. He watched me and then said, “I found it.” He was so calm about it. Didn’t he know I had been desperately looking for this little key for the past twenty minutes? The key was simple, a cross-shaped wrench with a very special octagonal wavy head. Dad had already taken the screw out. I pried the hubcap off, and we both laughed about how easy it was.

Then I jacked up the car, tried loosening the lug nuts, and they were frozen. Rusted solid. “Let me try,” my father said, but I refused. I tugged and pushed and struggled until the nut cracked; soon, I had loosened them all.

The rest of the process was academic. As I changed the tire, dad watched telling me the story about Kyle again and telling me how much faster Kyle was than I was. I couldn’t help but laugh as I struggled with the crappy jack handle, lying on the cold October concrete of our broken driveway.



Vitauts Take 14: 88

Dad at 40ish
Dad at 40ish

This is Vitauts about fifty years ago or so. Dapper and dashing with his pipe. He always had that air about him. Today Vitauts turns 88-years old. Eighty-eight! What a terrific number. The crazy 88 from Kill Bill come to mind. And then there are, of course, 88 keys on the piano.

For his birthday, I decided to have a little party. I told dad that he should cook something for the party, and he said no at first. Then a couple of days later, he said that he would make his famous Mushroom Soup. I capitalize it because it probably deserves to be capitalized.

Dad has been making his Mushroom Soup for as long as I can remember. When he was a pastor in Yutan, he would make a big batch of it for the congregation on Soup Supper nights after Lenten midweek services. His soup was always the first to go, and people asked for it by name.

At many family gatherings, his Mushroom Soup would make the celebrations just that much merrier.

Dad at 88 with the Soup

The soup is a simple combination of bacon, potatoes, mushrooms all in a vegetable cream stock. I have made it before, but mine did not turn out as good as dad’s. He doesn’t even really know or follow a recipe. The soup manifests itself after a couple of days and becomes the soup we know and love. I was here to witness the whole process. He literally started making the pot on Friday and the party wasn’t until Sunday.

Rudzu Maize

Cooking is one thing that keeps dad feeling useful and lively. I urged him to start making his dark rye Latvian bread again, and he does. He will bake three loaves every few weeks. He likes to slather it in butter and eat it with beer. The bread is definitely an acquired taste with it’s thick chewy texture and tough crusts, but it is rewarding and filling. We used to make a special treat called “loki maize” which translates to spring onion greens on dark bread. We would slather the bread with butter, and mom would cut up the onion tops. Add a little salt, and that was one of our favorite snacks. Dad used to make two new loaves every Friday. He would take one of the loaves to our cousin’s house when we went to visit. The other would stay home for us to eat throughout the week.

I think dad would have made an excellent chef. He could have started his own Latvian restaurant and had a little deli in some big city. People would come from miles around to eat what he had made. How did he learn these recipes? Who taught him how to cook when he had left home when he was only fifteen?

The Soup

Sometimes he tells the story that people in the camps in Germany taught him these recipes. Sometimes it was his own mother, and sometimes it was my mom’s mother or father. Somewhere, some how, some when, Vitauts learned to cook and he loves to make and eat his own version of Latvian peasant food.


Vitauts Take 13: Halloween 2015

Vitauts Handing Out Candy
Vitauts Handing Out Candy

I will bet that Vitauts always thought of Halloween as a special occasion. After all, it’s the day before his birthday. Yes, the life-long pastor was born on All Saints Day. Coincidence? Maybe.

Last night was the first time that I’ve spent Halloween with my father since, well, maybe since forever. When we were little, we were out Trick-or-Treating. When I was old enough to drive, I’m sure I went out with friends. Then there was college, my marriage, my own kids, and so on. He moved in with me last November, so this was our first official Halloween.

I told him that we’d probably have kids over, and that I was going to leave to go to a party, so he would have to hand out candy while I was gone. He panicked a little bit. “How do I give candy? How much do I give?” I told him to hand them the bowl and let them take one or two. “No,” he said, “they should have four or five!” I tried explaining that the parents probably coached their kids to only take one, but whatever. Let Vitauts hand out as much candy as he wants!

Me as Raymond Reddington
Me as Raymond Reddington

So our first group of kids showed up at about 6:30 p.m. They had to navigate the cobwebs and candles that I had put in front of the house. I opened the door in my Raymond Reddington costume and held out the bowl for them. Dad watched eagerly to see how I had done it. I turned on the living room television for him, so he wouldn’t have to walk from his room to the door over and over again.

I sat at the kitchen table eating some supper when the next group came to the door. “Can you answer?” he pleaded. “No, dad, you get it. You’ve got this!” I replied.

He hesitantly walked up to the door, took the bowl and stood on the front step. “Take

The Cobweb Steps and Candles
The Cobweb Steps and Candles

more,” I could hear him say. He talked to the kids and the parents for quite awhile, laughing and gesticulating. Finally, he turned around to come back inside with this big smile on his face. “Can you answer the door next time?” He asked again. I couldn’t figure out why he was so nervous when he was having so much fun!

I told him that I had to leave soon and get ready, so he was in charge of the door. As I was leaving, he stood on the porch coaxing little kids to come to the door. His Latvian accent and pulpit voice cut through the beautiful October night, “Come, come! Have some candy!” I wonder if the people walking by thought that he was playing a character, maybe even wearing a mask. “The Old Latvian Man” costume?

I thought he would make a perfect Dracula with his natural accent.

When I came home later that night, he was already asleep, and most of the candy in the bowl was gone, so I assumed he had continued to answer the door. Either that, or he just gave all the candy away to the next kid who showed up, so he wouldn’t have to do it anymore.