QAB Short Story Festival: IT WAS ALL GREEK TO ME, by Diane Parkinson

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Diane Parkinson
Diane Parkinson

Queen Anne Boleyn Historical Writers is thrilled to introduce historical fiction author Diane Parkinson.

Diane Parkinson (Diane Scott Lewis) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, joined the Navy at nineteen, married and raised two sons. She writes book reviews for the Historical Novels Review and worked at The Wild Rose Press from 2007 to 2010 as a historical editor. She has three published historical novels: Elysium and The False Light. Her sequel to The False Light, Without Refuge, was released in March 2012. Her debut novel, The False Light, was re-released by Books We Love, re-titled Betrayed Countess, in 2013. Her current release is a romantic satire, The Defiant Lady Pencavel and a historical adventure, Ring of Stone. She lives with her husband and dachshund in western Pennsylvania.

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Its All Greek to Me

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SHORT STORY: It Was All Greek to Me, by Diane Parkinson

March 4, 1974

After the plane landed in Athens, Greece, I snatched up my bag, tripped down the stairs and into a tiny airport crowded with swarthy people jabbering in robust tongues. A gangly twenty-year-old from the San Francisco Bay Area, spindly legs sprouting a mile from the skirt of my naval uniform, I had arrived at my first duty station. Heart hammering, this was my first time in Europe, and I was anxious to explore.

I scanned an airport rife with body smells for similar uniforms, jostled by husky, dark-eyed people who gestured with animated hands. I hoped my sponsor hadn’t forgotten me.

Finally, I spotted a stocky woman dressed in light blue uniform waving at me. My sponsor, Linda, ushered me into a waiting government van.
“Don’t we drive on the left side of the road?” I asked naively as the van started down a narrow two-laner, winding past non-descript buildings. I twisted my long legs as best I could against the seat.

The personal clerk glanced over her shoulder. “They only drive on the left in England. Here it’s supposed to be on the right.” She pointed out the window. “See those lines dividing the road? Those are only for Americans. The Greeks pay no attention to them.” She eyed my short skirt. “And you might want to let down that hem. The superiors won’t approve of it.”

We jostled over back roads, avoiding Athens proper to my disappointment. We drove through sugar-cubed villages—now this was more to my liking—where men in dark caps and women in black dresses, their black scarves wrapped about their heads, glared at us from weathered faces.
I craved a landscape of armless statues, tottering temples and Greek gods. Catching a glimpse of the Aegean, I was thrilled to be in this strange land and awaited the excitement similar to an adventure novel.

“This is the Marathon Road,” Linda said as we drove through the rocky countryside. Battered cars lined up three abreast at the traffic lights, squeezing into one lane, honking horns. Goats wandered in grassy fields. Sheep that were herded along the road often stumbled into it and everyone slammed on their breaks—for these wooly bundles commanded right-of-way.

The smell of exhaust permeated the air.

“It’s the road they named the Marathon races after,” Linda continued. “The messenger ran right along here to Athens, announcing their victory over the Persians. The Battle of Marathon took place just north of the base.”

My heart sank when we arrived at our destination.

The Naval Communications Station (NAVCOMMSTA) Greece wasn’t the white-columned Parthenon-like edifice I’d pictured in my Greek fantasies. A scatter of low gray structures behind a wire fence, thirty miles northeast of Athens, it looked ordinary and bleak.

Linda gave me a quick tour of the single street of buildings. They were all pre-fabricated except for the Administration Building and the social Club. As I stood there on the corner, a young man roared up on a dusty, blue motorcycle. He removed his helmet and stared at me as if I represented fresh meat just off the boat, or jet in my case.

“Who is that?” I admired the young man’s lean build, dark brown hair and mustache. And for a California gal, his motorcycle scored high points.

“Oh, that’s George Parkinson. He’s trouble, stay away from him. He thinks he’s on the check-in sheet for every girl who arrives on base. I’ll fix you up with a nice Seabee.” She pointed down the narrow road. “Now that secure area to the rear of the base is called the Vans. You’ll work down there, probably, as you’re a radioman. Parkinson works there too. He’s a Radioman Third Class; but ignore him if you’re smart. I know the perfect Seabee for you.”

A large Mobile Construction Battalion, or “Seabees” worked on the base, and Linda was married to one of them. Little wonder at her preferences.

I resisted pointing out that I’d come here for adventure, not to meet men.

“How many other radioman females are stationed here?” I asked as we walked toward the barracks where I’d be living.

“How many? You’re it. There are hardly any females on this base. There’s an Internal Communications Clerk, me as Personnelman, and an Electronics

Technician out at the transmitter site. But you’ll be the only enlisted woman in the Vans.”

I’d gone from a surfeit of radiomen and women at Bainbridge Naval Training Center in Maryland, to being the lone WAVE with lightning sparks on the arm of her uniform. I’d asked for London, England, as my first duty station, but ended up here. Would it be a terrible mistake?

I tumbled into my barracks bed and slept off my jet lag.

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As it turned out, as the first Radioman in a skirt, my superiors didn’t know what to do with me. They were wary of dropping me into the trenches with the rapacious males, little knowing that I was a tomboy at heart and knew how to wrestle with the best of them. I was assigned as “secretary” to the Traffic Officer, the officious and uptight Chief Warrant Officer Hill.

This was one position my recruiting officer said I was too intelligent for. Aim higher, he’d urged, yet here I was typing out forms like a His Girl Friday.

After two months, the powers-that-be relented and assigned me to the Message Center, to perform the job I was schooled to do. I was put into a Section, working two days, two mid-watches (all night long—torture), and two eve watches. Then I’d have eighty hours off. I worked in a long, narrow trailer, one of thirty, hence the moniker the Vans.

The Vans, situated at the far end of the base, sat snug inside a woolen-webber, the multi-directional antennae, which we entered by punching a key into a cipher-lock.

Four teletypes clacked out messages that surged in on long, yellow paper tapes from the message distribution system, styled the “burpee.” Like the blind, we read raised dots, each depicting letters, to decipher contents for precedence.

Like an exotic creature in a zoo, everything I did, or screwed up, sparked amusement from my crewmates. If I exuberantly typed a message, they’d rush beside me to dangle fire extinguishers over the keyboard. They’d tell me I had an important phone call, then laugh when I talked into the receiver as the cord wasn’t attached to any phone. At least they were gracious enough not to smear grease on the receiver as they did to the supervisor.

Once I removed my rings to type and forgot them on the desk. The next morning when I came in, I found the hulking RM1 wearing them on his pinkies as he typed, asking me if he looked fashionable enough.

I had intruded on male-dominated territory and had to play their game. Joining their mayhem and laughing at their jokes soon endeared me to the few who were less threatened by a female radioman. Other Radioman Waves eventually arrived and that took the brunt of the teasing off my back.

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Nights at the Zeus Club on base were a swim through treacherous shoals. As soon as I entered, ten Singapore Slings—my drink of preference—would appear before me at forty-five cents a pop. Sailors who hadn’t seen a stateside girl in months, even years, clambered for my attention.

In high school I hadn’t exactly been a femme fatale with my nearly five-foot-ten, skinny as a stick, frame; not to mention the Welsh nose—thanks Grandpa!

Here I could bask in the glory of being a rare commodity in a cloistered community.

Some of these sailors were in such Culture Shock, as it was called, they rarely left the base in terror of bumping into an actual Greek, being nuzzled by a goat, or seeing lamb roasting on a spit above an open fire.

But being the center of attention soon wears thin, and having no experience as a group flirt, and after a couple of disastrous dates, I needed the solid surface of one man. Yet I still insisted I’d come here for the thrill of travel, not to bother with men.

George Parkinson was usually there, the center of attention, laughing easily among everyone. We started to talk a little. He took me for tea and cake out into the town of Nea Makri.

We viewed the Penteli Mountains covered with forests to the west and southwest, from this small town located on the plain of Attica, and breathed the air of roasted meat and oregano.

This dark-eyed stranger was far from the dangerous person Linda had warned me about, though like an errant mother, she’d only keyed my interest. The bland Seabees hadn’t enticed me.

“I don’t know why she’d say I’m trouble. I’ve never done anything to her,” George protested in his thick Philadelphia accent. With his dark looks, I’d thought him Greek.

After two months of dates, parties, and dinners, George and I decided to move in together. Shocking I knew, but it was the 70’s, just past the free-loving 60’s.
He quickly became my fiancé. I had come to Greece seeking adventure, not marriage, (I kept telling myself) but figured I’d gain both in one package. Our sexual explorations were varied and intense.

“The new Wave’s engaged already? Christ, she just got here,” was the remark I heard one evening as I passed the recreation room in the barracks. “Parkinson strikes again.”

George was funny, intelligent and as it turned out, his reputation as a womanizer was grossly exaggerated. We searched for a place to rent.

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Past farmland that lay within the Petalies Gulf to the north, hunks of pink marble sat like discarded rubbish on the side of the winding lane to Marathon Beach. The rental house was flat-roofed with a marble wraparound porch, and cement steps leading up. A salmon-colored iron railing surrounded a weed-choked yard. Down a curve in the road to the left before the house was the monument to the Battle of Marathon. From the front porch you could hear the Aegean lapping a stony beach. George moved his few pieces of furniture into the marble-floored house, and we bought used items from other military people. Plus, we had a huge book case custom made in Nea Makri for his stereo equipment.

I enjoyed the local culture as George and I visited the Acropolis. We walked hand in hand up a rocky slope to gaze at the magnificence of the Parthenon. Athens spread out below, a sprawling, noisy city where ruined columns loomed up at any turn in the road. Later, we picked among pottery and jewelry at the expansive Athens Flea Market.

Back in Nea Makri, we shared delicious souvlakia, roasted lamb with onions and tomatoes, wrapped in pita bread, and drank pungent Lemonada with ouzo (a licorice-flavored drink sworn to be laced with opium) at Pop’s, an amiable old Greek who knew all the Americans by name.

In April we’d taken a motorcycle trip together with a group from the base. Touring the beautiful Peloponnese coast of southern Greece, I walked around a crumbling Byzantine palace at Mistra. In the village of Nafplion we ate at a bustling taverna overlooking a glass-smooth bay and gazed at Bourtzi, a fifteenth century Venetian fort turned hotel on an island in the bay. At Olympia, I stupidly hopped up on a column remnant to get a better view of other ruins and was shouted down by a Greek equivalent of a National Park Ranger. Evidently, column-hopping isn’t approved as an Olympic sport.

Our ramblings through tiny hamlets wedged in these rocky hills proved that Coca-cola had infiltrated every remote corner of the world. Their ubiquitous red and white signs were thankfully the only English words displayed.

Camping under the stars, we cringed in freezing outdoor showers, ate crispy calamari saturated in olive oil, and rode through groves of trees scented in heavenly orange-blossoms. We snuck away to our privacy, for sexual encounters stuffed in a sleeping bag.

I gazed at the wonder of the Corinth Canal and we camped near the Temple of Delphi.

When we’d returned to Nea Makri, George and I rented for three hundred Drachmas (one hundred dollars) the house near the beach.

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Greeks and Turks had fought for years for supremacy over Cyprus a large Mediterranean island to the southeast, the Cypriot government clashing with underground terrorist groups. It was the national custom in Greece to despise Turks, something passed down through the generations. Even we “intrusive,” not to mention filthy rich (as the Greeks thought we were), Americans looked better to them when compared…at first.

In July 1974, a crisis rose to new levels and Turkish forces landed on Cyprus. Calling for assistance from the United States forces, the Greek government was enraged when the US government wished to remain neutral in this conflict.

Working in the message center, I read the urgent dispatches warning of the political ramifications of this decision. The US Navy’s Sixth Fleet was home ported in Athens and the Greek government ordered them out! All Fleet dependents, i.e. wives and children, were to be evacuated within 24 hours.

The communication station wasn’t targeted for evacuation, but Americans anywhere in the country were threatened. Gangs of students from Athens roamed the known American communities and firebombed any vehicles with XE (those issued to Americans) plates. If lucky, you weren’t in the cars at the time.

We were directed to wear civilian clothes off base so as not to draw attention, and check under the wheel wells of our cars for bombs before driving off. If things escalated, all women and children would be evacuated. I protested, as a navy enlisted female, I felt entitled to remain at my job.

George was on the base softball team. He’d traveled to Spain with the team before the attack on Cyprus. Now Greece closed all her ports and no one could get into the country. The team traveled to Italy and took a train to Brindisi on the Adriatic Sea, hoping for a Greek harbor to open so they could take a ferry to Piraeus, the port of Athens.

Each night I went home to an empty house in a hostile country and locked all the doors. One night I heard footsteps in the yard and a flashlight beamed through my bedroom window and swept across the room. I cringed beneath the covers, picturing how I’d look roasted on a spit. I had no telephone to call for help. In the morning, I checked every inch of my old VW before driving to work.

One day heading home on the narrow back road, I had to turn around to return to base and my car’s back wheel slipped over in danger of dragging me into a ditch. My wheels spun and I couldn’t get my Bug to budge. Two Greek farmers and an older woman watching nearby rushed over and pushed me back onto the road. I called my efcharistos and felt a little safer in the area after that. The local population wasn’t vindictive toward Americans.

Tensions soon eased, the country opened her ports and the softball team came home. But we Americans remained leprous individuals to the more radical Greeks and precautions remained in effect.

In the midst of this chaos, George and I struggled to get married. He had—as a female Senior Chief informed me gravely—a wife back in the states. I calmly said I was well aware of this. He hadn’t kept this secret chained in an attic while he played Bachelor-on-Deck. The female ensign also took me aside to tell me in halting words of these prior nuptials.

The Traffic Chief, nicknamed Chief Buns for his prodigious posterior, threatened to turn me over his knee like a surrogate father if I went through with this ill-advised wedding. Talk about being inappropriate! I hardly relished that position and remained determined.

George and I had spoken in detail of his youthful marriage and the subsequent breakup due to his wife’s adultery. I helped him fill out the Testament for Divorce, convincing him not to refer to her in slanderous terms so she’d agree to the arrangement and not hold up proceedings.

Unfortunately, the wheels of justice in Pennsylvania, George’s place of residence, turned slowly. Almost a year passed before his divorce came through and by then I had extra crew onboard.

My dignified Greek doctor had advised me to stop taking birth control due to the suppression of my ovaries. He urged me to have a baby.

“But I’m not married,” I admitted with a trace of guilt.

“You have a boyfriend? You’ll be married someday? Then have a baby.” So much for the censure of the older generation. Like any good patient, I followed my doctor’s advice.

Positive that these things take time, especially after coming off the pill, we weren’t concerned that the divorce might not be granted for several months. But in our case the results were instantaneous.

As I drove my car toward base one afternoon, feeling sick and tired, a large motorcycle zoomed by me going north. For some reason the speeder turned around and zigzagged between cars (as a witness later testified) just as I stopped to turn left onto the base, signal flashing. This Greek Evel Knievel careened to the right of the car behind me, then swerved to the left of my VW bug and smashed into my left rear fender. He dumped his bike before the gate-guard and broke his leg.

As I sat in shock, he began to yell at the injustice of my hitting him. The gate-guard, being of Greek persuasion, backed his every word. I was American (and don’t forget filthy rich) so automatically guilty. If I hadn’t been in his country, on his road, he wouldn’t have had the misfortune of bumping over me. The Greek police agreed with this and my fate trembled in the balance.

The US Naval authorities said I had to face trial at the mercy of this host country, something they’d agreed to for the privilege of having their base situated there. I envisioned myself giving birth in prison while milking a goat for my daily cheese, as Greek prisons don’t feed their inmates, relying on relatives to do the honors.

After tense weeks I was hauled before three judges (proving the seriousness of my crime) in Athens. The biker, limping on crutches, made a poor showing when giving his testimony, unsure and stumbling over the details. I shamelessly gave the DA my most beseeching look in my high-collared, ultra-conservative, dress—appearing innocent and virginal as my condition was not yet evident. The case was dismissed.

I, who had wished to roam the world and bask in the ancient history of Europe, realized suddenly that I craved the safety of the United States. I was proud to be from such a liberal country after experiencing the tenuous freedoms of this one.

In May of 1975, George and I threw a wedding together in three days after he finally received his divorce decree. The base chaplain was stuck in Germany, and nothing could be done until he stepped back in Greece. I had a kicking addition to the navy straining my seams and wore civilian clothes to the vans since no uniform maternity wear existed. Being pregnant was an automatic discharge from the military, a safety net I’d planned on after seeing other married enlisted couples forced into long separations.

Our wedding at last took place (the Traffic Chief refused to attend, and I was too unwieldy to toss over his knee for that threatened spanking). We shuffled people into the metal chapel on short notice, and I engaged the base captain to walk me down the aisle. Now I waited for my discharge to come through.

Days before the anticipated event, as I sat in the Message Center seven-months pregnant, a memo from Naval Operations (NAVOP) came sputtering over the teletype. My stomach flipped when I read the contents. In precise naval legalize this message informed All Stations that the automatic discharge of pregnant members was immediately terminated and said members would be required to finish out their contracted term of service.

Having two years left on my enlistment and my husband due to transfer in August, I couldn’t stop my tears. All my plans were ripped out from under me. I’d be forced to stay in this volatile area, manning the burpee with my baby strapped to my back like a papoose.

When the reluctant female ensign came to inform me of this devastating turn of events, I heard two laughing voices, and footsteps ran up behind her. My husband and his cohort-in-crime had concocted the entire NAVOP, sending it through the Message Center from Autodin, the Automated Distribution

Information Network. They rolled on the floor while I mused how they’d look with their heads on spikes glowering in despair over the front gate.
One last trick on the first radioman WAVE at NAVCOMMSTA Nea Makri, Greece.

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