By Ashley Lodato
Tom Orcutt’s relationship with a relative he never met is an interesting one. Tom’s great uncle on his mother’s side is the Lithuanian national hero Steponas Darius – a Lithuanian who immigrated to the United States in 1907 at the age of 20 and fought with the Americans in France during World War I as a high-level U.S. Army pilot.
In 1920 Darius went home to Lithuania, which was under German occupation, and became a freedom fighter and revolutionary. In 1927 Darius returned to the United States and worked in civil aviation, which is where his dream of completing a trans-Atlantic flight began.
Darius’s dream was realized in 1933, when he and a co-pilot successfully flew from New York to eastern Europe, where they were allegedly – and fatally – shot down by the German occupiers.
The Germans didn’t want Darius and his co-pilot, Stasys Girenas, honored as heroes, so they tried to remove the bodies, but revolutionaries reached the bodies first and hid them in the walls of a Lithuanian medical school, where they were discovered many years later during the Russian occupation of Lithuania. Darius and Girenas were made posthumous national heroes; celebrations were held, monuments were raised.
Fast forward to the 1990s, when Tom was a visiting professor of surgery in a medical school in Lithuania (where, incidentally, he discovered no bodies hidden in the walls). He doesn’t speak much Lithuanian, so he had flash cards for the instruments he needed. His attempts to pronounce things properly had the nurses – who speak only Lithuanian and Russian – in stitches; they were literally wiping their eyes with laughter during procedures. His language skills notwithstanding, he’s the only living relative of Darius who is a pilot, so much ado was made about his visit to Lithuania.
The royal treatment continues to this day. This year marks the 80th anniversary of Darius’ and Girenas’ flight, and the Lithuanian government invited Tom and his wife, Mary, to be fêted in Lithuania.
They participated in ceremonies with the prime minister, the secretary of defense and various mayors. They went to aviation shows as honored guests and were featured in interviews on the front page of newspapers. They also got to meet a new relative – Darius’ grandson, a retired forester who lives on a farm in Lithuania. The grandson treated the Orcutts to a traditional Lithuanian dish of tongue wrapped in pig’s ear, which they ate politely, like any good open-minded tourist.
When Tom lived in Lithuania during the 1990s things were grim – empty shelves in grocery stores, deserted beaches, desolate main streets. Now, Tom and Mary report, Lithuania is virtually indistinguishable from Switzerland or Germany, thanks to savvy management of euros, which have been used to improve the country’s infrastructure. It’s a delightful place to visit, according to the Orcutts. And if you’re looking for that tongue-ear dish, it’s definitely the place to find it.