Wednesday, April 11, 2012

#545: "The Good Life"

In the Summer of 1991, during what I thot were the 2 worst years of my life, while living in Turkey, just a month B4 my daughter was born, I was picked 2 help close down Hellenikon Air Base in Athens, Greece.
Tho I wasn't thrilled about going when my wife was 8 months pregnant, I had no choice. I took the trip 2 Athens as a sorta vacation -- a 3-week break from what had bn a very demanding 18 months in Turkey.
The folks at Hellenikon wanted a journalist 2 crank-out a coupla newsletters each week as the base slowly drew down, update folks on transfers & base facility-closings, & help out the 1-person base public affairs office in whatever way helped most. Looked EZ.
It wasn't. 1st I hadta GET there. Turkish Air Lines -- which everybody recommended I NOT take, due 2 their poor safety record -- were on strike at the time, bummer! So I ended up taking a bus 1/2way across Turkey from Ankara 2 Istanbul, then caught a Greek flight on 2 Athens. The buses were NICE, but with my 12 fluent words of Turkish, communicating wasn't real EZ. I had 2 memorize the Turkish word 4 "airport" & hope the taxi-drivers in Istanbul wouldn't gouge me 2 badly 1nce they realized I didn't know where I was going....
Made the connections somehow, & LOVED the plane flight over the Med 2 Athens. When we landed, I was struck blind -- EVERYTHING was painted a dazzling white, & the bright sun reflecting off the gorgeous Aegean Sea ... well, I can't describe it. The 1st thing I did was buy a pair of sunglasses so I could SEE.
Athens seemed HUGE, bigger than Ankara -- which had 4 million people. But it was like nite & day: Ankara was sprawling, endless, dirty, HOT in the summer, full of coal smoke in the winter -- generally hazy year-round.
Athens was like being in California only with Greek roadsigns -- there were palm trees! The Greeks thot Athens was polluted, but I thot it was GORGEOUS.
Only 1 problem: It was XPENSIVE. The 1 remaining hotel where American servicepeople were cleared 2 stay cost $50 per nite 4 a room that I swear was No Big Deal. Dinner in the dining room there reportedly cost the same amount. I never ate in the hotel.
A block down the street was the Aegean -- which I WAS able 2 stick my toes in a time or 2, but most of it was fenced-off from the public 4 the benefit of Rich Tourists. (That definitely didn't mean ME.)
Across from the waterfront was a rather nice, homey little taverna under the trees, where I learned that a decent dinner of a pork chop, green salad & room-temperature cola would cost me $7 per nite. I ate there a lot, & I liked the atmosphere -- down-home, definitely not flashy, informal. I didn't havta dress up. & they put up with the fact that I didn't know A WORD of Greek.
Next door was a newsstand with all the latest paperbacks from Great Britain. Somehow, surrounded by the glory of Greece, I became a fan of Paul Theroux's travel books -- reading about train trips thru China while I was surrounded by 1 of the oldest cultures on earth. Problem was, with everything so Xpensive, I couldn't afford 2 go out & SEE NE of it....
I got in2 downtown Athens 1nce during my time there: The American Embassy asked 4 some Air Force bodies 2 B on-hand when former President Jimmy Carter arrived in town. We made the crowd of Americans look bigger, I guess. Carter looked just like himself -- with grayer hair & more wrinkly, but otherwise.... On the bus on our way 2 the festivities, we passed by the Parthenon -- & I was stunned at how SMALL it seemed, perched on its little hill (the Acropolis) there overlooking downtown Athens....
Oh, the job? Well, it actually turned out 2 B a bit of a stretch trying 2 find enuf news 2 fill-up both sides of a notebook-sized sheet of paper 2wice a week. I ended up printing news briefs like: "The Base Post Office will be closing permanently this weekend. Base personnel should be sure to pick up all letters and packages by midnight Friday...."
The base was still selecting Airmen and Non-Commissioned Officers of the Month as its last days approached, so I wrote-up a few of them, too.
The rest of the time I answered phones & wrote long letters home on the office computer -- & tried 2 help out the spunky, good-natured Air Force captain who was the only other military person in the shop. My 1st day there she took me out 4 a cup of coffee & a chance 2 talk, & we discussed why the AF would close down a base in such a beautiful spot. Looming over the cafe & downtown was a chain of dry, rocky, towering hills -- a terrain much like the California coast.
"The Greeks don't want us here anymore," she said. In fact, some Greeks VERY MUCH didn't want us there -- some terrorists had shot & killed an AF master sergeant just a coupla blocks from the base within the past couple of weeks. ...Then the conversation ground 2 a halt & I looked around at the suddenly very empty streets around us....
The Greeks I met were very nice, warm, friendly people. 2 young Greek women worked in our office & were always laughing. 1 told me if I thot things were kinda tense & Xpensive there THEN, I shoulda bn around a few years earlier when the country was under military rule.... The other 1 gave me a ride 2 the airport when I ended up leaving earlier than Xpected....
I got a couple calls thru back 2 Ankara. During 1 of them, my boss back home told me I'd B coming home a week early cos the docs wanted 2 induce labor on my wife. I was thrilled -- I was soon 2 have a beautiful baby daughter -- but it took me 2 days 2 get out of Athens. The 1st flight they booked me on was packed FULL....
Just B4 I left, I wrote the best story I was able 2 do while in Greece: I interviewed a Greek civilian employee who'd worked at the base for 40 years -- as near as we could tell, he was the Greek national who'd worked at the base the longest.
He told me some great stories about how the Americans & Greeks useta have huge dinner parties on the beach back in the '60s -- about how the Americans would set-up huge dinner tables running down the beach & 100's of Greeks & Americans would have dinner & bring their families & go swimming in the Aegean. There was music & wine & lots of good times, & nobody ever talked about the military or war or fighting or terrorism.
He laughed, & sighed, & those days seemed very far off compared 2 1991.
"It's too bad you missed it," he said. "It was The Good Life."

(Jack Ketchum's horror novel SHE WAKES gets down the mood & look of Greece PERFECTLY -- & the story's pretty great, 2....)

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