Greece’s True Heroes
When I lived in Greece I remember my grandfather had an old Army trunk from his days fighting in the Balkan wars. And inside were all his treasures: all the books he had used to teach himself how to read, including children’s work books, and his most prized possession: a biography of Plastiras, the Greek general who had fought the last stand in Anatolia. My papou wore flannel shirts and jackets most of his life, even in the heat of the summer, because the family said he had served in the trenches and had lost his health.
Prominent in Yiayia’s “sala,” was also a dresser with the gold canisters of two cannon shells on top, with wheat stalks sprouting out, as decoration, and in the dresser was the complete dress uniform that my father had worn during the five years that he fought as an officer in the Greek civil war. He left home in 1945, a young man with a little baby, and came back in 1950, a grizzled veteran with the baby grown—who cried when he tried to hug her, because she didn’t recognize him.
Growing up, I remember all the photographs scattered in our photo albums, of my dad on parade in military uniform, posing on tanks with his men, posing at machine gun positions, sitting with the priest from the local village on the hills where the fighting took place, standing at attention when the general pinned the medal on him for resisting the enemy and bringing his men back to safety after an ambush in a railway tunnel.
And I remember the story of my dad getting leave from the front to visit the widow and little girl of the man who had been his master sergeant and been killed, and now his wife was not able to get his pension to support herself and her daughter—because the clerk at the pension office was flirting with her. “Which one is he?” said my dad when he went down to the pension office with her, and when she pointed him out, he walked over to the clerk and put his gun down on his desk. “I just came from the front,” he said to him. “Either your signature will be on these papers, or your brains.”
The war had seared my dad, as it had most young men of his generation, who spent the best years of their lives fighting in the mountains. My grandfather spent the best years of his life fighting in the wilds of the Balkans. They were the true heroes in our country’s history, who put their lives on the line in the continuing struggle of Greece to survive and endure against all invaders, including the heroic defiance of OXI day, of which Churchill said memorably: “Until now we used to say that the Greeks fights like heroes. Now we shall say: Heroes fight like Greeks.”