Avoiding a Greek Tragedy
In 1982 I was in the United States Navy and stationed aboard the U.S.S. America CV-66, home ported in Norfolk, VA. Being stationed on the east coast of the USA, the usual six month deployment involved sailing the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, a trip through the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.
This story is about just a tiny fraction of that trip, a liberty call (port visit) in the ancient land of Greece. Due to my relatively advanced years (being twenty-nine to the average sailor’s nineteen) I had a completely different expectation of what to do and see in Greece.
I was thrilled by the opportunity to see the city of Piraeus of “Never on Sunday” fame, then move on to the fabled city of Athens, of which I had read so much. To be able to stand on the Acropolis and see the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and below the Acropolis, the theater of Herod Atticus, was like being able to live the books I had read. To the others from my ship, it was all about ouzo and hookers, if they could find some.
The flight operations immediately prior to our port call were a stressful mess of airspace restrictions and peacock demonstrations by both the Greek and the Turkish military forces. I had to invent methods to stack and hold aircraft so that I could keep them close enough to not run out of fuel, yet not violate the imposed (and exaggerated) foreign no-fly zones.
My name for the spot, “the Aegean Triangle” became the standard and even appeared on briefing maps (although I saw no monetary gain from my creativity.) I heard that it was a beautiful location, but I never got to see anything but a radar screen for the entire time.
To say that my liberty expectations were high would have been an understatement. My enthusiasm had spread to other members of our group, although I had a sneaking suspicion that bottles of ouzo danced in their dreams... not Melina. That was OK with me, they could have all the ouzo that their little hearts desired; I didn't want any of it. I would be happy to settle for the antiquity of the port city and Athens. I was going to get to see the Parthenon with my own eyeballs, and maybe even touch it, if that was permissible.
I could hardly stand the wait to board the liberty boats. It took more than an hour of standing in line, and we were almost at the front (of the line) when we started. I could not for the life of me, figure out what was taking them so long. The boats had been in the water for hours already, so it wasn't that. They kept letting the officers go ahead of us (normal practice) and they seemed to be able to get on a boat and leave right away.
Finally the line started moving and we got onto a liberty boat, but only half of the normal load was allowed to board, usually a sign of rough water. When I looked out across the harbor from the top of the ladder, it was smooth, no waves, not even a ripple.
We were on our way at last, so the reason for the delay didn't matter anymore... or so I thought at the time. The fact that it wasn’t raining (as had been forecast) was a happy bonus.
As we neared the beautiful port city of Pireus, I could make out more and more people around the docks. “How cool” I thought, “the people were turning out to welcome us. What a great place this was going to be.”
“Hey, wait a minute, isn't that a hammer and sickle on that sign?” I said to the group in general as we neared land. We all started looking and spotted another one, and then more as we got closer.
The boat driver broke out his binoculars and looked the situation over and said, "Guys, them signs say Americans Go Home and Death to Americans, with Greek Communist Party logos all over them.”
We all said in unison, "Get us out of here" as the crowd pushed forward to the point that a few of them went into the water, pushed by the masses behind them.
The boatswain’s mate put the helm hard over and we took off across the harbor for the other side, where there wasn't any crowd. He docked without incident and we could still see the crowd gathered on the main landing shaking their signs and waiting for the next boat.
That little landing that he took us to was where the officer’s all came ashore and they were nowhere to be seen. Usually there were a few (officers) waiting for their friends or wanting to go back to the ship but it was a ghost town all around that dock. There weren’t even any local residents in sight. The absence of people did nothing to ease the feeling that trouble was stalking us.
The radio in that liberty boat was inoperative for some reason so we couldn’t call back to the ship. To expedite things those still going ashore (most of us) got out quickly, while the remaining few who were fearful of trouble and wanted to go back out to the ship, eased aside (or kept their seats if they were out of the way.)
We shoved the boat off and the boatswain turned it towards home and kicked it hard (accelerated quickly.) He needed to get word to the duty officer aboard ship about the impending danger before someone got hurt by the mob at the primary landing site. They appeared to be worked up into a frenzy and ready to attack without provocation.
I told the group (I was the senior person present) that I felt it best to get out of Pireus as soon as possible, to which they all agreed and started trying to hail a taxi. It wasn't going to be that easy we were finding out. Any cars that came by, taxi or otherwise, sped off at first sight of us.
I asked one of the guys to give me a cigarette and he said, "I didn't know that you smoked cigarettes" while reaching into his pocket for his pack of smokes. "I don't,” I said, “but I do speak, trade."
Upon receiving the cigarette I walked over to a slender young man (wearing what looked like a waiter’s uniform) waiting at a marked bus stop, to see what I could learn. After conversing with the gent for a few minutes, I returned to my friends armed with new information.
The group of angry people on the main landing area was indeed the Greek Communist Party and there were over ten thousand members in attendance at this rally. They were armed with instructions to do harm to any and all American "dogs" that they could find.
The smoke that we could see behind the mob was coming from the burning overturned taxis that didn't obey the "party's directives" fast enough. Those directives were to not pick up Americans and to get out of Pireus until the American ships departed a few days from then. Those that argued, or didn't leave quickly enough, became examples for the others.
That information certainly removed taxis from the escape equation and we were aware that it would only be a matter of time before renewed interest in our whereabouts caused some of the mob to come looking for us. Without liberty boats coming in the organizers would have to do something to keep the emotions high and the crowd stirred up. We would be that impetus.
Walking out of the area was do-able, but would not be fast enough to put the kind of distance between them and us that we needed. There was no liberty boat inbound that we could see (and we had a clear view all the way to the ship) so even if we had wanted to there was no getting out by sea.
Just as we thought that we were going to have to choose between running and swimming, a bus with "Athens" on the destination placard rounded the corner. I was already moving towards it when it stopped at the bus stop where the young gent I had spoken to had been just moments before.
The young man who had waited so patiently for the bus was no longer there, which made us all look around for where he went. One of the guys stepped up to the bus door and asked, "How much to Athens?" The driver replying in English said, "I don't speak English."
It was very plain to see that the poor man was scared, with sweat pouring down his reddened face and his eyes pleading for understanding. He did show great courage by waiting with his vehicle’s door open to us while we hesitated.
After explaining my plan "B" to the others, I approached the driver and tried speaking to him in Spanish. He cheerfully responded to that language and told me that the party had spies everywhere and if he spoke English with anyone at all (the man visibly shuddered) well, he didn't want to think about it.
Our group quickly boarded with our bags and I cautioned them all to not say anything in English until we were clear of the protesters. The locals on the bus sat in their seats like stone people, staring straight ahead and behaving as if we did not exist. We knew that they were also very afraid of what might happen.
The bus followed the road around the harbor and I got very concerned with our direction of travel, as it took us right to the angry mob. I moved up right behind the driver and whispered in English where only he could hear, "You aren't doing something that we will both regret are you?"
The look on his face told me that he understood my meaning, and he said, "No Sir, NO. The road to Athens lies there” and pointed to an intersection just before the crowd's edge. He said, "Please Sir, make your friends to be small... that they are not seen and we all die."
When I turned back to the others all of the American eyes were focused on me. I motioned to the guys to get down and they did it without noise or question. There were definite benefits to being trained military personnel.
The other folks on the bus remained as they had been. As they sat rigidly upright in their seats with their eyes staring straight ahead, not a sound came from any of them. It did occur to me that several of those people were old enough to have experienced WWII and I hoped that we weren’t causing them flashbacks and renewed distress (PTSD.)
As we passed the intersection, I saw the young man that I traded the cigarette to for information. He was obviously working the other side of the street this time, talking fast and pointing emphatically as he spoke, in the direction that we had just come from. The little weasel was most assuredly selling us out to look good to the Party. He did have to live there and try to stay alive after all, so you couldn’t hate him too much. Well, maybe we could. No one likes to be sold out.
We got by the intersection and the road turned towards Athens. When we got to the very next bus stop, all of the locals (to the last person) got off the bus. They all wished us good luck, in English, as they got off of the bus and walked away.
I went up to the driver with my hat in my hand and told him in English that he had done a very brave thing by helping us get away from that mob and if he wanted us to, we would get off of his bus and find another way to Athens.
As I had hoped, hearing that made his chest swell up and he said that he "Had to get us safely to Athens." Those Greek men were worse than the Italians when it came to Machismo. I almost felt sorry for playing him that way... almost. I had no idea how else we would get to Athens or anywhere else for that matter.
The bus drove on with the driver singing a Greek song for us that we all nodded and smiled our way through, none of us understanding any of it. The driver was happy to have done a brave deed, but did caution us to stay away from the bus windows as much as possible. He didn’t want to get caught by traveling communist party members.
We arrived in Athens with no further incident and checked into “The Grand Hotel,” right on the main plaza of town. As I looked out my hotel room window, I could see it; The Parthenon! But actually going there would have to wait for one more night.
It had gotten dark and the Bell Captain advised us urgently that it would not be safe for us to be on the streets with all of the Party activity going on. The headquarters of the Communist Party for all of Greece was located across the square and people came and went from there twenty-four hours a day. We did discuss whether we should stay there or leave the city at first light to avoid causing some kind of international incident, but those were sailors and they loved trouble, so we stayed.
We ordered room service and watched TV in Greek; every show on that TV had at least one girl without her top on... which made us all wonder if we could get them to put Greek shows on our cable at home. There was also a lesson learned about deceitful practices perpetrated by hotel telephone operators. Know your connecting rates and all fees before you place a call from a Greek hotel. I ended up with a bill for $170.00 for a three minute call from Greece when I got home.
The following day we went out for breakfast at a recommended nearby international café where the food was good and reasonably priced. Then we walked over to the Parthenon, which was even more inspiring in person. I would not describe it as like the Sistine Chapel kind of eye-candy “wow,” but rather as an enduring kind of awesome.
It had stood for all this time, enduring weather, wars and political changes and was still the unchanged masterful piece of Architecture that it was. You could not fail to be impressed as you walked up the road to it.
My favorite feature of the whole complex was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which was a theater (built by the Romans in 161 AD) located off to one side of, and down the hill from, the Parthenon itself. It was carved out of the hillside, right down into a bowl shape that created a natural acoustical amphitheater. A whisper could be heard plainly, everywhere in the bowl.
The features of the theater were carved out of stone too. It even had stone seats and a stone stage. A lot of beautiful marble tile had been used originally and was replaced during the repairs made in the 1950s. When it was built it had a cedar roof that had no visible supports to block the view of the audience.
Historical entries claim that the acoustics were so good that a single instrument being played would fill the building (which sat 5,000 people) with sound. It was incredible and unlike anything that I had ever seen.
There was a local theater company that regularly performed Greek tragedies on that stage. Once a month they would do a Shakespearean tragedy, just because it was so awesomely cool to perform there. All of those plays were free to attend. Unfortunately there were no plays being performed the days we were there, or I would have gone and damn the Communist Party!
The following day several members (including me) of our party were signed up for a tour out into the countryside, if the upset protesters didn’t cause it to get cancelled.
One of the least expensive ways to see a lot of a country and experience some of the culture was through organized tours sponsored by the ship's Morale & Welfare department. They made group purchases and arranged everything way ahead of our arrival so really good deals were able to be made. There was no way an individual could get the same price breaks, which I had learned the hard way in a previous port.
The tour that I purchased was to the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Clytemnestra. This remained the largest beehive shaped tomb for over one thousand years after its construction in 1250 BC (until a larger one was built elsewhere.) It was quite a long bus ride out there and back, as we had to go to Panagitsa Hill in Mycenae which was a long way from Athens, especially given the conditions.
The most difficult “condition” was of course, that the Greek Communist Party was extremely active and had thousands of members well connected and willing to mobilize at a moment’s notice. They also hated Americans with a passion for reasons that I did not know. That disturbing dislike of our group could have ended our trip in an ugly way.
Our tour guide was a tiny lady named Delphina, who was in her thirties, maybe 4’ 10” and eighty pounds soaking wet. She was elegant, well mannered, impeccably dressed, and spoke multiple languages. Delphina also had an MBA from Harvard Business School.
The diminutive woman had been married right out of high school and was widowed after just a few years. She worked and went to University in Athens until she had saved enough money to achieve her dream. All of her teachers had said that the best business schools were in America and if you wanted to be the best, you had to go there to learn.
Armed with her savings and an intern job arranged by a friendly professor, she had gone to the US in order to go to what she felt was the best business school; Harvard.
Upon completing her MBA she returned to Greece (as was always her plan) to give the benefit of her degree and training to her country. The communists didn’t see it that way and labeled her a traitor for going to America.
She had lost her job in Athens when the rallies and rioting started because her company was afraid their building would be burned because she worked there. Her name was on the “enemies of the party” list circulated to all business owners and managers.
Delphina was quickly hired by the tour company the navy had contracted with due to her language abilities and detailed knowledge of the country. They made their money from tourism and they loved American dollars even more than Greek drachmas.
We loved Delphina; she understood American slang and was unruffled if an occasional cussword slipped as the guys talked. If only the communist guys would leave us alone.
Fortunately for us she had many relatives and friends in the area we toured, as we actually played hide and seek with several vehicles full of potentially violent protesters during our travels.
We toured the Treasury of Atreus and it was very impressive as a structure, but I was still as puzzled about it when we left. They had no idea who was supposed to have been buried in the tomb, or what had happened to whatever had been inside it. It apparently was cleaned out before the contents were recorded. This had to have been one of the quickest grave robberies on record.
Not far from the tomb site we parked the bus under a grove of trees and walked over a hill to the site of a small palace. That palace wasn’t on the tour list and was seldom seen by anyone other than the locals who lived around the area.
Delphina said that it was the ancestral home of her family which dated back hundreds of years. By keeping it off of the tours it suffered less damage from souvenir hunters. She was very worried that the communist group who was looking for us, would vandalize it terribly should they find it. We all stated to her emphatically that we would defend it should they arrive while we were there. That moved the tiny lady to tears.
The palace was not really a “structure” at that point. There were a few standing walls, several partial walls, and a complete foundation. Oddly enough their water systems seemed intact including wells, irrigation channels, indoor plumbing, and several baths.
The toilet and bathing areas attracted the most attention from the sailors and many wanted to sit on an ancient toilet. It was hard to comprehend what was so exciting about sitting on a stone slab with a hole in it. The young guys took each other’s photo sitting on the marble “thrones.”
Delphina explained the idea of the vomitorium to them, where the party goers would stick a feather down their throat, (or have a servant do so), to induce vomiting and thus be able to consume more food and drink.
The young men were mightily impressed with the “party attitude” of the old days. She asked me if she should tell them that it was just a misconception, and she had only told them this tale as a joke. I told her no; let them have their grand idea of partying people to remember. She just covered her face and laughed.
The scheduled meal stop had to be eliminated due to a large contingent of troublemakers waiting for us there. One must remember that this was prior to the advent of cellular phones being in everyone’s pockets. Tremendous effort was being expended by both sides to call land lines and then send someone out to notify the interested party. We were lucky that Delphina was on her home turf.
Delphina had been so taken by our offer to defend her family estate from harm that she called a cousin and arranged a meal for us at his restaurant; a business which was normally closed on that day.
We deliberately turned away from our destination on the main road in the area and then traveled via back roads to the house in the trees where said eatery was situated.
Immediately upon arriving the passengers offloaded quickly and were herded inside by a scared woman who turned out to be the owner’s wife. The bus was then taken around behind the buildings out of sight and the kids took brooms out to sweep away the tracks of the bus in the dirt. They had learned well from their grandparents who were Greek Resistance fighters in WWII.
Once inside we were seated at nice tables with linen table cloths and napkins, nice place settings, and a bottle of red wine on each table. The aromas coming from the kitchen were making us crazy with hunger even though we had no idea what we were being served.
The incredible meal they prepared for us was lamb and stuffed grape leaves with green vegetables and bread. Plus the aforementioned red wine which seemingly had no bottom to the bottles. Our hosts were very attentive and brought us new bottles of wine as fast as we drank the others empty. The Greeks loved their wine and so did we!
As we finished our meals, the owner and all of his family came into the dining room carrying musical instruments. As some began to play, the owner and his grown sons began to dance with their arms linked and shout, “OPA!” They switched directions back and forth and danced wonderfully well to the music.
The music stirred us and the wine removed what inhibitions “might” have been found in young American sailors. Everyone was singing (who knows what) and clapping their hands to the rhythm. Excitement was at its peak as the family tossed plates into the air from the stack they had brought from the kitchen and as they came crashing down everyone shouted “OPA!”
It should have been expected; it had to happen as sure as rain falls down. As the loudest “OPA!” yet was yelled out, the room immediately filled with plates flying through the air.
Every occupant (myself included) of the tables around the room had tossed their plates into the air like the other plates had been. When we looked up from the sight of piles of broken china, the music had stopped and the owner looked like he had just been shot, such was the expression of disbelief on his face.
We didn’t know that the family had put their best dishes on the tables in honor of our visit, nor did we know that only those participating in the dance were supposed to throw plates. They had brought out old, chipped plates for the entertainment and never anticipated our reactions.
American military men were not ones to let anyone else suffer for their actions so all was set right with them in short order. Their good dishes had cost them the equivalent of about sixty U.S. dollars which was a tremendous amount to them in 1982, and something that they could not afford to replace. We not only paid cash for our meals, which gave them tremendous bargaining power in their market (and black market), but left them over two hundred U.S. dollars cash in tips.
The man and his wife were both crying when we left and Delphina said it was because they were so happy. I’m not sure if that was happy for all of the cash, or happy that we were leaving. Either way, it was an experience that I’ll never forget. OPA!
After leaving the restaurant we arranged (with more off the record American dollars) for the tour bus to swing by our hotel in downtown Athens. We were very wary of trouble and made sure that one of our group stayed on the bus at all times (so the driver didn’t panic and take off), just in case the communists spotted us.
We successfully rounded up the other guys and our bags and departed the beautiful city of Athena. The return bus ride to Piraeus was quick and uneventful.
Arriving at the landing we surveyed the scene carefully for problems, but the crowd had all departed, leaving only a few burned taxis to tell the story of what had happened. We were assured by the driver that even those cremated cabs would soon be gone.
A liberty boat soon arrived to take us back to the ship where we reluctantly returned to duty. We were underway by 01:00 a.m. and steaming for Beirut.... again.
So that was Greece, where they wanted our American dollars, but not our physical presence. And it was old... very, very old. I wish that I had been able to spend more time there and see and learn more about their great civilization.
I never did get back to either Piraeus or Athens, Greece but I did learn part of what had upset the local population.
The U.S.S. Nimitz (CV-68) had preceded us into Greece and had two substantiated major incidents of harm/damage caused by American sailors. A sexual assault had taken place, and a hotel had been burned down by drunken sailors partying. Both incidents made the Greek national news but got very little (if any) mention in the U.S.
We (the crew of the U.S.S. America) were allowed to walk into the aftermath without warning. It is possible that the officers had been briefed (which would explain their vanishing acts) but the enlisted men were not. I only learned about it upon return to the U.S. and subsequently speaking with counterparts in the Nimitz crew.
To their great credit, the people of Greece that we met (other than the crazy communists) treated those of us in the group I traveled with, with respect and kindness and never once mentioned what the other sailors had done.
I have to wonder if in the moment where we destroyed their best plates those kind people were second-guessing opening their home to Americans and wanting to side with the communists who were hunting for us. I am glad that we made things right with them and I hope (thinking back) that those dishes were not family heirlooms.
We must never forget that there are always consequences to everything that we do. Even if we do not realize the fallout, those who follow in our footsteps may be harmed by what we have done. Compassion, tolerance, and understanding never hurt anyone.