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THE STILLNESS OF THE ACROPOLIS

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By Richard LeBlond

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The Montréal Review, May 2014

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Photo: Català: Anafiótika (2009) Antonio Fajardo i López

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In the spring of 1972, I headed from the States to Europe with that wave of young North Americans for whom an international adventure was an essential experience in the new era of personal growth.  I was 30, and had turned my assets into cash, including a retirement fund.  Life is not short when you’re young, and old age is dared.  After a year and a half of touring and hanging out from Morocco to Norway, I arrived in Athens, Greece, in late summer 1973.  The nest egg that had sponsored the adventure was gone, but I wasn’t ready to return home.  I had no idea what I was going to do for money.

I had found a room at the edge of the delightfully incongruous Athens neighborhood of Anafiotika, “little Anafi,” which is an authentic Greek island village located on the northeast slope of the Acropolis.  Anafi is an island in the Sea of Crete east of Thera (Santorini).

Shortly after the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire, fought and negotiated from 1821 to 1832, stone masons from Anafi came to Athens to help rebuild the city. The Anafi masons worked in the marble quarries and helped build the city’s neo-Classical structures.  On the bare lower slope of the Acropolis they were allowed to build a community for themselves and their families.  So they built an Anafi Island village of small white stucco cottages stacked this way and that up the slope, with paths instead of streets, and enlivened by grape trellises, fig trees, and wandering chickens – all within shouting distance of the smoggy din of downtown Athens.  Except for the smoggy din, I thought it might be the oddest and loveliest city neighborhood in the world.  It made an island of the Acropolis and a sea of the city. Descendants of the original Anafi Island settlers still lived there, but over the years foreign nomads and Greek artists and students had moved in.  The whole tolerated the parts.

The village was just high enough up the Acropolis slope to see over the city rooftops, affording an above-it-all perspective.  But at night it became an aural misery.  Anafiotika nestles against the thigh of Athens, the entertainment district of Plaka, loose and fun.  Plaka was “downtown” for Anafiotikans, hippie tourists, and hippie Greeks.  It remains a popular area for restaurants where Greek music – bouzouki music – is played and plates are broken with the fervor of Vandals.  (I was told that plate-breaking was not an old Greek custom, but had been introduced by the movie, Never on Sunday.)

Several dining areas were located on rooftops, and at night their live bouzouki music rose up into Anafiotika where it coalesced into a cacophonous pandemonium that even composer Charles Ives might concede was one band too many.  (Some of Ives’ music was influenced by the overlapping sound of multiple marching bands playing at the town square while he was growing up in Danbury, Connecticut.)  I soon learned not to go to bed before 4 a.m.

The room cost me $20 a month.  It was bare except for a mattress on the cement floor.  A thick coat of red paint failed to hide the floor’s rough topography.  I acquired a small table and two chairs so that I would have more than the mattress for entertaining guests.  I also bought a lamp, as otherwise the room would have been in darkness even during the day.  There was only one window, about one and a half feet wide and a foot tall, and a full six feet above the floor in the wall that fronted the street.

The window, however, had a remarkable attribute in spite of its small size.  Looking out of it as I lay on the mattress, the window perfectly framed the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis, not much more than a thousand feet away.  It was the first thing I saw every morning, like a picture on the wall, but made up of the real thing.  The Parthenon, Athena’s temple, is one of the world’s great symbols of democracy, but I was not drawn to the summit to see the ruins up close.  They seemed to be the cold, silent, foreboding ruins of democracy itself in 1973 Athens, which was under the rule of a military dictatorship.  Two disparate world views dwelled in the city, with the nobler one appearing to have no influence on the darker one.  But as time went on, the stillness of the Acropolis became that of a dormant volcano.

I had no kitchen, no sink, no shower or tub, and almost no toilet.  In a room down the hall, also with a red-painted cement floor, was the bowl of a toilet without seat, cover, or water tank.  But it was connected to something subterranean that allowed the contents to be flushed downwards by filling a large can with water from a wall spigot and pouring it into the bowl.  The toilet bowl room had no light so it was necessary to leave the door open.  However, the room was so dark and the light outside the door so diluted, no one could see you without stopping and peering in.  (After a bit, of course, you could be detected by other senses.)  It took some getting used to, and woe be to the sitter who forgot to bring the toilet paper from his room.

Usually waking up late in the morning, I began the day by checking the status of the Parthenon, an honor that compensated for my lodging’s several deficiencies.  I then headed to Plaka Square for breakfast, stopping on the way to pick up a newspaper at a kiosk.  In 1973 there were 11 newspapers published daily in Athens, an unusually large number that may have been a manifestation of the Greek love for gossip and rumor.

Or maybe it provided safe political venting for suppressed dissent.  Greece had been under military rule since a coup in 1967, and the coup leader, Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, was still in charge.  The constitution had been suspended, and along with it the political parties.  So maybe newspapers were filling that role with the military’s tacit blessing and close overview.

That the military might allow the newspapers such a role was suggested by its tolerance of a vindictive taunt that appeared as a headline at the top of page one every day in the Athens News, one of the city’s three English-language newspapers.  This headline read, “Our Publisher in Prison 129 Days.”  The next day it read, “. . . 130 Days” and so on.  The publisher’s crime had been the newspaper’s printing of an unintended factual error in a photo caption that reflected badly on the military government.  I was amazed that the in-your-face headline was tolerated, and assumed the government allowed it as a stunningly ironic example of freedom of the press under its regime, and as a constant warning to other publishers.

I read my Athens News while eating a breakfast of yogurt and Turkish coffee.  The yogurt was the color of pale butter and came in a disposable and uncovered clay bowl.  There was a thick layer of scum on top, and the usual way of eating it, at least in Plaka, was by sprinkling white sugar on it.  I read some of the newspaper and scanned the rest, always ending up in the classified ads looking for work.  Remarkably, there was a small but steady stream of Grecians seeking English language tutors.  It was not necessary to have any knowledge of Greek, as the tutees already had a good English vocabulary and were seeking to speak it better.  I had majored in journalism and English literature in college and felt I could do this.

As it turned out I had no idea what I was doing.  I don’t recall how many ads I responded to, but I was briefly employed by a Greek naval officer who fired me at the end of the second session.  My only other client was an Ethiopian merchant marine I had met in Plaka Square, but we became friends and I had to stop charging him.  Besides, he had an uncanny and hilarious ability to mimic the tonal inflections and syllabic sounds of any language on first hearing it.  Unless you listened closely, you would have sworn he was speaking the other language.  I should have been paying him.

One October morning the kiosk was sold out of the Athens News and I bought a copy of one of the other two English language newspapers, the Athens Mirror.  Up until then I had always bought the News because of the continuous but never monotonous headline about its publisher’s imprisonment.  That headline was the nearest thing to an opposition voice in English, and quite possibly the loudest public opposition voice in the country.

The Athens Mirror was new, having arrived in the world only a month earlier.  As usual, I ended up in the want ads.  No one was advertising for a tutor, but the newspaper itself was advertising for a copy editor.  Although it had been nearly ten years since I had put pencil to copy, it was an old skill of mine.  I walked to the editorial office located near fashionable Syntagma Square, about a half mile from Plaka.  The rooms of the editorial office were few and small but in a modern style.  A secretary introduced me to Nik Sokaris, the owner and managing editor.  Sporting an ample mustache, he would have made a serviceable body-double for Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  He was in the editorial office, a featureless room except for a large table that nearly filled it.

Nik asked for a verbal resumé.  I related my experience working as a copy editor in the sports department of Portland’s The Oregonian daily newspaper, and as editor of the base newspaper while in the Navy in Seattle.  He hired me on the spot and handed me some news copy to edit.  Not more than five minutes had passed.

Nik was an American of Greek parentage.  While in the States he had worked as a reporter for the Associated Press.  After moving to Athens, he opened a restaurant with a western U.S. theme, complete with oxen yokes and wagon wheels.  I don’t know why he decided to start a daily newspaper in a town that already had ten.  I later became suspicious that it might have been created or bankrolled by the CIA.

In addition to being quick to delegate responsibility, Nik was pleasant-natured and generous.  The office suite had been built as an apartment or condo, and it had a shower in the bathroom.  He let me use it once a week, to his benefit as well as mine.

There was another man at the editing table, about my age, and appearing to never fail to butter his rolls.  He had the task of putting together the paper’s sports and society pages.  We worked separate shifts, and I only saw him on Saturdays.

Like the Athens News, the Mirror was a tabloid-size single section morning newspaper.  The target audience was Americans abroad, while the Athens News was more international in its aim.  The sports and society pages were created during the day in the Mirror’s editorial room, with the political and “hard” news pages created in the late afternoon and evening.  The newspaper was printed in another building a mile away.  Every Monday through Friday evening around 8:30, the news editor had to walk the copy, illustrations, and page layouts across downtown Athens to the print shop, which was located about two blocks from Omonia Square, the working class center of the city.  On Saturday we all worked the day shift, and no one worked on Sunday (the paper did not appear on Monday).

There was one other editorial employee, Bayard Stockton, whose name I thought I would never be able to use in a memoir.  Bayard was the news editor, and I was hired as his assistant.  My shift started at 5 p.m., and after compiling the news pages, Bayard and I would walk the content of the paper over to the print shop together.

It was during one of those 20-minute walks that Bayard confided that he had worked for the CIA.  I initially had trouble believing him.  At the time I looked like a long-haired hippie radical, and it seemed like a bad move for a CIA agent, ex or otherwise, to confide such a secret to someone who looked like me, especially someone he had known for such a short period.  But why even mention such a thing if it weren’t true?  Greek politics in recent months had begun to ferment, particularly among students, and this may not have been a good time to pretend to have been an agent for the CIA.  Only many years later did it occur to me that he may have been sounding me out.

About a week after I began working at the Mirror I was entrusted with taking the paper’s contents to the print shop by myself in the evening.  The print shop teetered between tragedy and comedy.  No one who worked there spoke English, in spite of the language the paper was printed in.  The foreman spoke a smattering of French and knew a few English words useful in a print shop.  I knew about as many words in Greek.  Together we spoke what might be called “Athens Creole.”

The typesetters “read” English but didn’t understand what they were typing.  The copy was printed by old-fashioned linotype machines that molded a single column line of type along the thin edge of a rectangular plate of hot lead called a slug, each slug about half the size of a credit card.  All of the slugs were then herded, hopefully in order, into a tray the size and dimension of a newspaper page, and the paper would be printed from the inked trays.  The process retained important essences of the original Gutenberg printing press.  My job was to make sure the slugs – the lines of type – were in their right places.

There was a provision in the print shop manifesto that caused the tension to mount the closer it got to midnight.  That’s when the linotypers turned off their machines.  A story half done at midnight ended half done, even if it contained instructions on how to survive the impending end of the world.  So we always had some extra copy already etched in lead – filler – in case some last-moment hitches occurred.  After the copy was set in lead, it took another hour of fiddling with the headlines, text, and images before the paper was finally “put to bed,” ready to be printed.

Shortly after 1 a.m., my walk back to Plaka followed the dark winding streets of Athens’ ancient public gathering place, the Agora, near the northern foot of the Acropolis.  The early morning black recesses and alleys where the term “agoraphobia” may have originated were good places to learn mastery of paranoia.  Safely to Plaka, I had dinner and then drank and hung out with nocturnal friends in the square until 4 or 5 a.m., waiting for the work buzz and rooftop music to dissipate so I could be “put to bed.”

During this time, the autumn of 1973, there was growing unrest in Athens, especially among students at the National Technical University, known as the “Polytechnic,” near the center of the city.  That unrest was focused directly on the repressive measures of the military junta.  Ever since I had arrived the word on the street was that citizens who spoke out against the regime had disappeared.  Indeed, wording in error had sent the Athens News publisher to prison, and the junta had forcefully suppressed small uprisings earlier in the year.  The tension from current unrest was palpable and escalating.

A month after I began working at the Mirror, the Polytechnic students took possession of the university, on Wednesday, November 14.  Their only weapon was their lives.  At first the authorities claimed to be willing to negotiate, but by Friday the 16th tanks had lined up on the avenue facing the building where the students were barricaded.  The military issued an ultimatum to the students to evacuate by early Saturday, and there was an awful foreboding when I went to bed that night.  I awoke Saturday morning, November 17, to the sporadic sound of automatic weapon fire coming from different neighborhoods.  It spread a suppressive gloom over the city.

My Saturday shift began at 10 a.m., but it seemed inconceivable to me the news office would be open that morning.  To be sure, I walked to the nearest phone, about two blocks away.  I was surprised when Nik answered and said, “Of course there’ll be a paper today.  Today of all days.  Get down here.”  I had fantasized about moments like this as a journalism student in Oregon, but there was nothing from my past to prepare me for the dark reality we encountered that day.

Although the sound of sporadic gunfire continued, my walk to the editorial office was largely without incident, though I bypassed Syntagma Square because of some commotion there, a gathering and a yelling.  After the newspaper’s contents and layouts had been prepared at the editorial office, we left as a group for the print shop near Omonia Square.  Some of the automatic weapon fire was coming from that direction, and as we got closer we began to edge up to building corners and peer around them before venturing across a street.  At one point we encountered tanks and soldiers, turned back, and went another way.  The greater function of our group was not to provide protection, but to give us courage.

As we approached the street where the print shop was located, we began to hear what at first sounded like shouting.  But as we got closer, we realized it was chanting.  The street was lined with people on both sides, watchers of a parade to hell.  There were hundreds of people marching in the street, workers as well as students, women as well as men, all holding hands and walking towards the sound of automatic weapon fire coming from Omonia Square two blocks away.  They were chanting, “ena ena tecera, ena ena tecera,” one one four, one one four.  I asked Nik what that meant, and he told me that 114 was the article in the suspended constitution that called for free elections.  It was an overwhelming realization.  The right to participate in the destiny of one’s country – now prohibited in democracy’s birthplace – was worth dying for to those walking without weapons toward certain carnage.  The urge to join them was strong, and my resistance was a mix of reason and cowardice.

            The number of students and workers killed that day may never be known.  The official figure was less than 20.  The figure circulating around – but not appearing in – the Athens media ranged from 125 to 300 dead.  There were reports of massacres from several parts of the city, with rumors of many deaths at the Polytechnic university and Omonia Square.  This terrible event gave rise to a terrorist group that continued to attack targets in Greece at least until 2002.  It called itself “November 17.”

I knew two people who witnessed the events at the Polytechnic late Friday and early Saturday.  One was a student who was inside the main building, and the other was a soldier who was standing with the tanks.  According to the student, she and her boyfriend were inside the university building when the deadline passed and the tanks were ordered to attack.  One of the tanks came up the steps and pushed in the main door.  Soldiers quickly entered and began shooting.  Some students were hit, but many others escaped through tunnels beneath the building.

The other witness was a young Greek-American man with dual citizenship who had been living in Greece and was told he would have to serve a tour in the military if he wanted to stay.  He had a room next to mine in Anafiotika.   The young soldier told me that when the order was given for the tanks to assault the university, one driver refused to advance, and an officer shot him.

The Greek government imposed a nighttime curfew in Athens that began that Saturday.  I was issued a certificate that permitted me to be out after curfew because of my job.  I assumed it would be found folded in my wallet after I had been shot while walking home through the darkness of Agora.  Although the hours were relaxed somewhat over time, the curfew was still in effect when I left the city at the end of June 1974.

In the days leading up to the assault, the junta’s offer to negotiate, followed by warnings and ultimatums, suggested a sensitivity to international opinion. This sensitivity may have been the primary reason for the deposition and arrest of Colonel Papadopoulos by the military itself just one week later, on November 25, 1973.  But the change was cosmetic, as the military continued its tight-fisted rule.  Papadopoulos spent the rest of his life in prison, dying at the age of 80 in 1999.  Before he took power in 1967, he had been the liaison between Greek Intelligence (KYP) and the CIA.

            On Sunday morning, November 18, I went to the kiosk to buy a copy of the Athens Mirror we had ushered through the trauma of the day before.  I was appalled to see that Bayard Stockton, the news editor, had written an editorial strongly supporting the junta and its attack on the people of Athens.  That dispelled any lingering doubt about his connection to the CIA, and I reckoned once an agent always an agent.  Only recently, four decades later, have I confirmed that Bayard did in fact work for the CIA, and had a long career as agent, journalist, author, and teacher before his death in 2006.  All of this was recorded on his internet website.

When I went to the Mirror office on Monday afternoon, it was with the intention of quitting.  But Bayard had already quit, and Nik offered me his job.  I accepted, and have been plagued by the morality of that decision ever since.

            I continued to work for the Athens Mirror until June of 1974.  During that time tension with Turkey mounted.  Greek military jets made provocative flights perilously close to the border.  Night blackouts began in Salonika (Thesseloniki), a city in the north closer to Turkey by land.  It all seemed so stupid.  Everyone knew the Greek military was vastly inferior to the Turks in all categories, and yet the junta seemed ever more eager to go to war.

In Athens, surveillance after curfew began to intensify.  One night in early June, as I walked home from the print shop shortly after 1 a.m., two plainclothes junta workers stopped me beneath a pale street lamp at the edge of the Agora.  They demanded to see my pass.  I pulled my wallet out of my pants pocket and handed them the folded certificate.  The man who reached for it grabbed it forcefully, looked at it briefly, and let it drop to the ground.  He then grabbed my wallet and began pulling out the contents, letting them drop to the ground as well, including the money in it, and finally the wallet itself.
Then he grabbed my hat.  It was a fedora, similar to what Bogart wore in the airport scene in Casablanca.  It kept my long hippie hair from flying about.  But right then, whatever Bogart flair it might have had was missing.  The junta employee gripped it by the crown and whipped my face a few quick times with the brim.  I feared this humiliation was just the beginning, but it was the end.  He threw the hat to the ground and they walked away.

The next day I told Nik, owner of the newspaper, what had happened and gave him a week’s notice.  It was time to get out of Greece.

            Three weeks after I left, Turkey invaded the island of Cypress, on July 20, 1974.  Cypress was an independent country with a Greek majority and a strong Turkish minority.  Just prior to the Turkish invasion – and the reason for it – the Cypriot National Guard had staged a coup with the backing of the Athens junta, and named a Cypriot Greek nationalist as president.  When the Turks invaded Cypress eight days later, the only viable weapon remaining to the Greeks was diplomacy, and the Athens junta collapsed.

Greece’s former civilian premier, exiled since 1963, was invited back.  The first multiparty elections since 1964 – promised by constitution article 114, “ena ena tecera” – were held on November 17, the first anniversary of that horrific Saturday.  Democracy had come home.

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A very brief version of this essay appeared as an op-ed piece in the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer in 2002.

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