LUCKY IN CYPRUS
A True Story About A Boy
For a CIA brat like “Lucky” Cole the “Cold War” is a frontline reality. As the secret war’s death toll rises, his father nears the breaking point. At home his moods range from drunken joviality to outbursts of violence. But there’s no one the boy can turn to: one slip and his father’s cover would be blown and he could be killed; or, possibly worse, the CIA cops might come to take him away.
Then Lucky meets a teacher who changes his life forever. His name is Jim Demetrakis, a rising young Cypriot businessman the boy’s parents hire to be his private tutor. He’s more like a brother than a teacher and they become fast friends.
In the days ahead he will open Lucky’s eyes to a world he only dimly realized before. The historic island of Cyprus becomes his living textbook as Jim introduces him to village life and customs. He reads Othello for the first time sitting on seawall that once guarded the castle that inspired Shakespeare. Old men regale him at a taverna that squats at a corner Saint Paul passed by each day two thousand years before. But to the old men it’s like yesterday.
Meanwhile, the tensions on the island increase as the cries for “Enosis” – freedom from the British colonizers and union with Greece - grow louder and more violent. In far off Russia Stalin dies and the boy watches thunderstruck as thousands of Cypriot mourners march through the city’s capitol, weeping and wailing. A stark reminder that many of his neighbors profess to be “a little bit red.”
Then, shortly after the young Queen Elizabeth ascends the British throne, a great earthquake rocks the Mediterranean region killing and maiming thousands. Viewed as a dark omen, the earthquake seems to sweep away whatever was holding back a human eruption on Cyprus. There are terrorist attacks up and down the island. And the Russians ratchet up the Cold War pressures.
And there are only a teacher’s gentle lessons to keep him whole.
THE SAMPLE CHAPTERS:
I imagine the child. He’s twelve, slender, dark forelock curl against skin paled by weeks of travel. His blue eyes are set in deep hollows. I imagine him sitting on a hard wooden bench. The bench is old and polished by many years of shifting behinds.
It is the only furniture in the long, narrow airport corridor - empty except for his parents, infant brother,
and the stern Greek solider standing guard over them. The boy has not moved from that bench for twelve hours. He has a book in his hand - The Count Of Monte Cristo.
He’s a quiet young man, but do not mistake the silence and tired eyes for melancholy. He’s intensely curious, drinking in the sounds of the many strange languages crackling over the hallway speakers. Even the drab walls and small piles of oiled sawdust on the wooden floor seem fascinating. The soldier stares at him coldly as the boy studies his olive drab uniform, webbed harness, and especially the M1 rifle he clutches. The boy is not afraid.
I’ve met the boy before: On a train steaming west to California, holding his pretty mother’s hand as she jostles through the crowd of whistling soldiers and sailors home from war; and at San Diego Harbor, peering at the forest of submarine conning towers bristling out of the mist - the whole harbor ringing with the hoot, hoot of the fog horns as he wondered which sub contained his father.
I’ve seen him in Florida, laughing and running from the Brahma bull calf he’s teased into play. And later, by his grandfather’s side, as the old man shoots the head off a turtle swimming in the middle of the lake.
There were other times, other places: rattling up the Florida highway in a `36 Dodge, bound for Philadelphia where his father was going to leave them so he could go off and fight – against the Communists this time, instead of the Fascists. And I’ve seen that boy tinkering with a homemade short-wave radio, cats’ whiskering up voices from thousands upon thousands of miles away.
Yes, we’ve met before. But never in so grand an adventure as this - under military guard at Athens Airport; his father accused of conspiring to smuggle gold and the boy knowing the joke was on them because his father was an American spy - a CIA agent - and soon the barred doors would swing open and that blustery, imperious Greek diplomat would come scurrying up to them, hat in hand, streaming a greater flood of apologies than he had threats twelve hours ago. And that young soldier, so imperious before, would bow and scrape and beg Lucky’s pardon.
The boy is me, but I’ll call him Lucky, for that was the name his family used and I’ve always been sorry it had to be shed along with childhood. The name had dignity then - and surprise during introductions.
People would ask, “Why do they call you Lucky?” The boy would stop, pretend to think for a moment and then use whatever answer he favored at the time.
“Because Hopalong Cassidy is my cousin and his sidekick’s name is Lucky and my mother and father
named me after him,” was one he prized at a younger, cap-pistol age.
This story was true - the silver-haired cowboy, portrayed by the actor William Boyd, was loosely related to Lucky by marriage - but the boy had dropped that reason because it tended to lead to fights with peers who doubted he could be kin of any sort to such grand royalty.
Before he left the States he’d seen a movie during family day at the Pentagon. It was called “Mr. Lucky,” and starred Cary Grant as a canny Greek American matching wits with the rich, the law, and his crooked rivals. As it happened, the film was set before America’s entry into the war and the boy was so taken by the film that he now claimed it as the true source of his name. Since this was a complete lie, everyone believed him.
Lies, he’d recently discovered, were curious things that were sinful in some circumstances and praiseworthy in another.
But Mr. Blaines - his CIA family counselor - said there were certain exceptions God took into account. It was no sin to lie to protect your family or your country, Mr. Blaines claimed. He said when anyone asked what his father did the boy must always lie. His father - and other agents like him - were fighting a great war against Stalin and his Communist hordes and if the boy gave them away America might be endangered and his father could be killed.
“What about confession?” Lucky asked. “Is it a sin if I lie to a priest during confession?”
“It’s no sin under the circumstances I described,” Mr. Blaines said quite firmly. “And if a priest asks
|your father’s occupation, yes, you
still must lie. Even during confession. There are no exceptions.”
Lucky didn’t worry over the matter much, but he did find it interesting he was being told something that couldn’t be tested. What would a priest say to Mr. Blaines’ notions about lying? Would he agree? Lucky could never know for certain, because he was forbidden to seek outside expert opinion. Even so, Mr. Blaines would probably have a logical retort. He always did. Later, when Lucky became more experienced at the subtleties of lies, he managed to ask a Jesuit priest about Mr. Blaines’ statement without giving anything away. The Jesuit not only confirmed Mr. Blaines’ view, but he did so with frightening passion. The priest, a short, powerfully built man, had been a chaplain at a Japanese prisoner of war camp and had experienced such awful things that he’d scared the hell of Lucky explaining in graphic detail what could happen to someone who fell into enemy hands.
But that was later, much later. Now, Lucky was stuck on the bench at Athens airport, his skinny behind bruised from so many hours of sitting. As he looked over at his parents dozing on the far corner of the bench he wondered what Mr. Blaines would say about the current situation. After all, it was a lie of sorts that had gotten them into this predicament.
The incident in Athens had been the only mix-up in their extended journey to his father’s first overseas post. They were bound for Cyprus - a Mediterranean island off the coast of Turkey that Lucky hadn’t known existed until his father had informed the family of his assignment.
When he’d learned their destination Lucky had been disappointed. Originally his father had been assigned to a post in Africa. Now that was exciting news. Lucky got all the Tarzan books out of the library and read them from start to finish. Africa was definitely the place to be for a boy seeking adventure. His enthusiasm wasn’t lessened when his father started bringing home smeared mimeographed reports about Kenya - the African country they were going to live in. He also brought home books, maps and illustrated articles about the grand life and homes of the British colonial masters who ruled the land.
None of the facts matched Mr. Burroughs’ descriptions. However, that didn’t make the Tarzan tales any less exciting, so Lucky put the stories on one side of truth - on the side of imagination. Which in a way, he came to realize, was also real. The line was infinitely movable if you were a CIA brat. Fact became fiction and fiction became fact as quickly as you could tune in the various news accounts on your radio. When Lucky’s father was in his cups and feeling philosophical, he used to say that nothing was actually true. Certain principles worked because everyone agreed to accept them. One plus one equaled two, his father liked to say, only because everybody had decided long ago that it was a usable system. There were other arithmetical methods based on one and one equaling three, or even four. They were also valid, his father said, but not so handy in describing the world they lived in.
That’s how Lucky learned to deal with fact and fiction when Africa had been their destination. Tarzan was one view of things. The books and reports were another. Anyway you looked at it, Africa was definitely an exciting destination. Then there was something the newspapers called a Mau-Mau uprising. A Kenyan convent was supposedly raided on the outskirts of Nairobi, the capitol city. The news accounts said the nuns had been slain and worse. Whatever worse than dead could be, Lucky was just old enough to start to imagine, before the “yuck’ factor cut in.
It was claimed that farms were attacked by rebels demanding independence… rebels who were supposedly in collusion with the loyal black servants Lucky had seen portrayed in the illustrated articles. Some accounts claimed the servants massacred their masters while they slept. A few very weird – KKK type news accounts - compared the uprising to the alleged massacres in the Old South, before the American Civil War. When wild, and erroneous, newspaper accounts falsely claimed that servants and slaves had massacred their masters and mistresses in their beds.
As for the Kenyan atrocities, it was said that Communist agitators were responsible. British authorities were quoted as saying that Stalin’s hordes had invaded Africa to turn good, simple people into ravening beasts. Some newspapers dubbed the Mau-Mau transgressors a “red horde,” which Lucky found slightly amusing because the Mau-Mau were black, not red.
The main impact on Lucky was that suddenly the assignment to Kenya was deemed too dangerous a posting for a CIA family and so they were left in assignment limbo. His dad’s pay was held up – money diverted to the Kenyan mission had to be booked back to Washington again. This was not an easy thing for any government bureaucracy to handle, but it was doubly difficult when it involved a covert employee.
Basically, as Lucky later came to understand it, when an agent was posted overseas it was usually as an employee of some other branch of the government. That would be his cover – that he was working for the State Department, or as a civilian employee of the Army or the Navy. To further support that cover, the agent would officially resign from the CIA. Then if Agency files were breached by the Enemy – or prying Congressional bureaucrats, who were nearly as bad as the Enemy - it would show that although the person in question once worked for the CIA, this was no longer the case. Not officially, at any rate. This arrangement also gave the Company deniability. If his father’s cover was blown the CIA spokesman could say with a perfectly straight face that he (the captured one) didn’t work for the Agency.
The downside for regular CIA families, whose fathers had not been captured and currently held for torture - was that the system made getting paid more than a little tricky. The agent’s wages were issued by the department he officially worked for – the State Department, in the case of the Kenyan mission. Any difference in wages was made up by the Agency and paid directly into a Stateside bank account. There was always a significant difference for CIA types because of things like overseas pay, hazardous duty pay – practically the whole world was hazardous duty in 1952 – and cost of living adjustments.
On the other hand, many times this tortuous trail meant the family would be practically destitute waiting for checks to catch up to them. CIA families took care of each other during those times, delivering bags of groceries and necessities to their colleagues and making small, private loans. Ten dollars here, twenty dollars there - a lot of money at the time. I remember my mom buying a young CIA mother of an infant a month’s worth of infant formula at the CIA PX in at the Pentagon. It required emergency papers to be filed, lots of bureaucratic bee-ess, but my mom could handle that. Which is partly what made her the perfect CIA wife.
Anyway, after the Kenya assignment fell through, Lucky’s dad and other CIA families suddenly found themselves stranded in drab Langley apartments buildings, scrambling like hell to get a new assignment. Thing got so bad at Lucky’s house, at one point, that his dad got a part time job at a local supermarket to fill the gaps between the much delayed Agency paychecks, which had been sent off to Africa.
That’s what happened when the Kenya assignment fell through. Several months of waiting commenced. His father disappeared for weeks at a time for more training at “The Pickle Factory,” – CIA slang for facilities in the Foggy Bottom area of D.C. – or at “The Farm,” which was a secret base in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Meanwhile, no checks were coming in and they were on the verge of poverty. Lucky’s mother got a job as a checker at the new supermarket in Langley Park to help make ends meet. The old Dodge they’d driven up from Florida fell into disrepair, its tires collapsing and its doors rusting shut in the Maryland rain.
Then, suddenly, everything changed and the atmosphere was charged with excitement. There was a flurry of activity. Many trips to the Pentagon ensued to get inoculated against foreign diseases. Lucky had already undergone thirty-six shots for the African assignment. He couldn’t see how there could possibly be any diseases left to protect him from. But the Middle East, it seemed, was in some ways even more pestilential than Africa. It took six trips to the Pentagon clinic and twenty-three shots to armor him and his family against the dreaded germs they might encounter.
The Agency was new in 1952 and expanding rapidly. A headquarters building was being constructed at Langley, but meanwhile the CIA’s many functions were spread all over D.C., Virginia and Maryland. The clinic was housed in the Pentagon and visiting there was an exciting expedition for a boy, even though the purpose was ultimately painful. There’d be a grand trip by bus to the Capitol. Lucky never got tired of seeing the White House, with its cherry trees, the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument, which was five hundred feet high and you could take an elevator all the way to the top.
Then there was the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Memorial, Lucky’s particular favorite. An old black woman – Mrs. Johnson – who used to help his mother when they lived in Florida said it was her lifelong dream to see the monument for herself.
“Lincoln set the people free,” she used to tell Lucky. A woman who had apparently had bad luck with men, she liked to say that there were “only three men in this old world worth a plugged nickel.” She’d tick them off on her fingers – “Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.”
The Pentagon was so big that it staggered the imagination. Built during WWII, it was the largest office building in the world – nearly four million square feet, with seventeen or eighteen miles of hallways. The book Lucky checked out of the school library said each of its five wedge-shaped sections was big enough to hold the Capitol Building. Those facts were impressive, but did nothing to convey the feeling of sheer power and pride the complex radiated when you approached. Each step you took made you feel smaller and smaller until it seemed that you were no more than a flea when you reached the entrance.
Within the huge structure you encountered an elaborate warren of olive-drab hallways and offices, with checkpoints at every turn where uniformed Marines stood guard. You were given a badge, which you pinned on your shirt and at each checkpoint the Marines solemnly examined the badge and your mother’s badge as well as the sheaf of documents and passes she clutched in her hand.
Then it was on to the next checkpoint and they went higher and higher until Lucky knew that they were now at a rarified level that few Americans would have the security clearances to enter. Because this floor was so tip-top secret it took a half-an-hour for the boy and his mother, with his baby brother in her arms, to get the final okay. Then they would be ushered into the clinic proper - the strong smell of disinfectant announcing its presence well before they were passed through the final checkpoint -and the big double doors were pushed aside. Here, the rooms were hospital white and there were large steel and glass cabinets positioned about the rooms. Waiting for them were doctors in white smocks and nurses in crisp white uniforms – all wearing high security ID badges. These were all CIA medical personnel specially trained to handle agents and their families who were posted abroad. Lucky met other CIA brats during those visits. They all looked and behaved like ordinary kids and talked about things that interested typical American youths – their favorite radio shows, movies, games, sports, etc. Thanks to Mr. Blaines’ counseling none of them ever mentioned the CIA, much less their fathers’ connections to the Agency. The boy took much pride in belonging to this new, secret club of young people and he was sure the others felt the same.
Their departure was set for late May and it seemed the date would never arrive. Then when it did come, it was with such a rush that it didn’t seem possible they could get everything done in time. The hardest part for Lucky was school. He’d be leaving before the end of the semester and wouldn’t be returning to school until the fall so he had to take his final exams early. Fortunately, Lucky was an old hand at school transfers - he’d already attended twelve schools. And the school itself – Our Lady Of Sorrows – was experienced in handling the children of military and diplomatic personnel so everything went off without a hitch and his final grades were all “Excellents.”
When the big day arrived, Lucky was just as excited about Cyprus as he had been about Kenya. There wasn’t much to do except make sure he had a good supply of books to read during their travels and to resist devouring them before the journey began. Most of their belongings had already been packed by professional movers and shipped off to Cyprus. They wouldn’t see their things again for many months and would have to make do with the contents of a few suitcases and his mother’s two big olive-drab steamer trunks. Those trunks were magical and his mother boasted that if she were suddenly dropped into an empty apartment she could turn it into a home in a flash. By nightfall there’d be warm, comfortable places to sleep, pictures on the wall, music playing on the radio and a hot meal served on real dishes displayed on a clean linen tablecloth spread over the trunks. So she packed the trunks with great care, tucking small things into crannies and folds of cloth – a little smile on her lips as she imagined the surprised looks on their faces weeks or months from now when she suddenly conjured up a special treat that would turn a grim day into a grand adventure.
They took a train to New York and Lucky was wide-eyed when they exited into the organized chaos that was Grand Central Station. It was the most famous train station in America – so famous that it even had its own radio show where dramas unfolded each week. Long silver passenger trains lined the myriad tracks, engines hissing steam that boiled across the platforms. Through the windows of the dining cars he could see the starched white linen and gleaming silverware and dishes. The trip up from D.C. had been too short to warrant a meal on board and although Lucky wasn’t hungry, he missed the quiet elegance of the dining experience on a really first class train. He’d been on trains many times – including two coast-to-coast journeys – and loved everything about them, from the thrilling sound of their whistles to the constant rocking motion that made you want to sleep and dream forever.
Lucky saw two new diesel engines, looking like enormous bullets and painted bright red and green. Lucky’s father said that diesel would soon take the place of all the steam engines. At first he thought that was just wonderful – the trains looked like Buck Rogers’ rocket ship. But then he wondered what would happen to all the old steam engines and the thought made him sad. They’d probably be mothballed in huge train graveyards – like all the ships and submarines he’d seen in San Diego Harbor after the war ended. There were hundreds upon hundreds of huge gray hulks, once brave warships that had confounded the enemy, now slowly dissolving into rust.
Then the plight of abandoned trains and ships and subs was forgotten as Lucky found himself on the verge of being left behind. Redcaps had loaded the family baggage onto to carts and were starting away. They wore huge smiles – Lucky’s father was a believer in large tips when he was flush and he was certainly flush with government travel money. The porters, both large black men in starched uniforms and burnished hats, headed out across the platform in a swift, sure line – the crowd parting before them. Lucky’s father strode behind the porters, his head tilted to one side from years of living in the cramped, head-bumping quarters of a submarine. His mother was at his side, little Charlie perched on her round hip, her long fine legs sheathed in silk and shod with stylish high heels, eating up the platform. Soon they’d be lost in the crowd. Lucky sprinted after them, dodging through the crowd, the great speaker voice calling the arrivals and departures of the trains, sounding just like the man on the radio when he announced the next story in the saga of “Grand Central Station!”
Lucky didn’t realize it until later that night, but the moment they had climbed onto the train in Washington D.C. they had entered a whole different world of travel. Previously, their travel budget had been limited to a sailor’s war time wages – bolstered by family donations - and, in civilian life, the earnings of a struggling young student couple making do on the GI bill and hard work at menial jobs in post-World War II America.
His parents were restless people – always on the move whether it was necessary or not. During wartime, Helen said quite proudly that she was following her husband. Later, however, when his Dad was in college in Florida, they moved five times in less than three years. Lucky’s own schooling didn’t stand in their way – he went to three different kindergartens before settling at a good Catholic school where the nuns appreciated that the boy could already read as well as their older pupils.
As far as Lucky could make out only one or two of those moves were necessary. His parents just seemed to get tired of a place and the circumstances surrounding it. They might even have good, dear friends living nearby – both were the kind of people who attracted loyal friends. But suddenly there’d be a flurry of activity, possessions were loaded into the old Dodge and off they’d go to a new home, leaving their friends behind – rarely to be seen again. Being young and poverty-stricken, the new place never outshone the old. They lived in an endless series of dingy apartments, a trailer park, a tiny house with a huge lawn and no means of cutting the grass except his father’s youthful energy applied to a sharp scythe.
Not that Lucky cared. He loved being on the move. He thought the best times of his life were when he was traveling from one point to another. For only a traveler, he intuitively knew, was truly free. A traveler had no responsibility except his immediate needs – which usually boiled down to a place to sleep that night, something to eat, and transportation elsewhere in the morning.
A mindful traveler, however, would do his best to leave a good memory of himself behind. For this was his only real mark in the world - the impression he imparted on other people’s minds. If you were a child of the CIA, Mr. Blains taught him, the sculpting of that impression was of utmost importance. It was a subtle game in which you created a careful façade that you changed as you moved from place to place. And from the moment Lucky followed the porters and his parents out of Grand Central Station, he began practicing that game in earnest.
That night they stayed at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan – later made famous by Kay Thomas in her Eloise books. It was an elegant place – the first luxury hotel Lucky had ever stayed in thanks to the generosity of the CIA. He was pressed into service as a babysitter while his parents enjoyed a night out. Lucky didn’t mind. Little Charlie would sleep the night through. Besides, the suite was lavishly furnished, with couches so soft they practically swallowed him whole. Windows looked out over the glittering Manhattan skyline. Also, there were books to read and programs to listen to on the impressively large radio in the main room.
Best of all, there was room service. Raised on the road, Lucky knew all about room service. He also knew he had to be careful about what he ordered, because his parents were young and still struggling financially. But with the CIA per diem dollars burning a hole in his pocket, Lucky’s father had told him to order whatever he liked. Already a little tipsy from room service cocktails, he said it with a grand sweeping gesture and a huge smile.
Lucky took him at his word. After studying the menu – which was very confusing – he decided to get some help. This was a tactic he’d tried before with great success. He ordered a large Coke from room service and chatted up the waiter, writing in a generous tip to assure immediate friendship. Then he confessed his problem with the menu. The waiter was sympathetic and sat down with the boy, going over the hors D’oeuvres, salads, soups, main courses and deserts. A little later he brought in a tray with a little bit of everything – all arranged on covered dishes. Then he lingered, showing the boy how to use the different utensils, explaining this dish or that.
The waiter was curious, giving Lucky the chance to really try out his story for the first time. Mr. Blaines had advised that it was always best to be open, friendly and talkative with strangers. Instead of evading questions, he said, welcome them. Fill in so much detail that no one would ever suspect anything was being left out – especially the CIA connection. Lucky told the waiter his father worked for the State Department and that they were going to live in Cyprus for three or four years. Plaza employees were worldly people who dealt with all manner of international businessmen and diplomats, so although the waiter had never heard of Cyprus, it seemed that there wasn’t a thing he didn’t know about living abroad.
“You already understand tipping,” the waiter laughed, giving Lucky a little mock punch in the shoulder. “But when you’re in all those foreign places money isn’t always the best way to tip.” The boy frowned, wondering what could be better than money. “Lots of things,” the waiter said. “Don’t get me wrong – greenbacks are always good. Better’n any local money. But the thing is, American stuff is even scarcer than American money these days. Talk to the right guy and you could buy the Taj Mahal with a carton of Lucky Strikes. Things are tough overseas. Everybody wants American candy and cigarettes. Nylon stockings. Coffee… You name it, if it’s American, they’ll most likely want it.”
By now the waiter had really warmed to the lad. He lingered on, offering advice he’d learned from travelers. Lucky soaked it up, a boy sponge for information he knew might save him a great deal of embarrassment. And so he was more than ready when he boarded the plane that would carry them on the first leg of their long journey.
In 1952 there were only two kinds of airline travel in the Western world: first class and first class with a berth. Since Lucky and his family were traveling on CIA money, they got the berths.
Lucky loved them. They folded up into the ceiling over the seats. At night the stewards and stewardesses pulled the berths down and made them up fresh. When Lucky climbed the ladder and slipped through the curtains he thought it was a little like entering Tom Sawyer’s secret cave, except the stewardess would bring him hot chocolate if he rang her and an extra pillow to raise his head so he could see through the porthole in comfort. He’d stretch out there for hours as the big propellers drove them onward through the darkness - fingers of many-colored flame shooting across the glistening wings, beguiling him with fantastic visions.
Life was marvelous on those planes. The seats were as big and soft as armchairs. They were arranged in pairs, with a wide aisle separating the two rows and if you put up the padded arm and drew the curtain you had a reclining couch to nest in. It was like having your own small room, with a wide porthole to view the billowing clouds. If he was thirsty or hungry he only had to buzz the galley, where the food was deliciously prepared by a chef wearing a tall white hat and was served fresh and hot at any hour.
Lucky rarely saw another child traveling, which probably explained the fuss the stewardesses always made over him. On one flight a stewardess sat next to him for awhile. She fell asleep, her head gradually coming to rest on Lucky’s shoulder. Her perfume washed over him, arousing all kinds of delicious sensations. He didn’t move the whole time she napped and when she awoke his arm had lost all feeling. But he didn’t care, especially after she winked at his mother, who was ensconced in the aisle seat across from them. With a knowing smile, the stewardess said Lucky had been a perfect gentleman. Then she rewarded him with a kiss on his cheek. Lucky’s mother laughed and said he’d made a conquest, wiping the lipstick off with a lace hanky.
On another plane an old dowager and her poodle occupied two first-class seats. Lucky was astounded that anyone could be so rich that they could afford a seat for their pet. He’d heard his dad tell his mother that the tickets cost as much as most people made in a year. The old woman was dressed in widow’s black and wore a fortune in glittering rings on each of her fat little fingers and her triple chin was set off by a fan-shaped necklace studded with jewels.
The poodle was a snooty dog - ignoring any attempts to lure it into play. At mealtimes the chef would braise and slice beef hearts, which were served on a white platter. The woman fed the dog with her bejeweled fingers, wiping the gravy from its jaws with a linen napkin and coaxing the animal with kissing noises when its appetite flagged. Afterwards, when it was time for the dog to do its business, she’d ring for the steward who took the poodle for a long walk in the cargo hold.
All that comfort was welcome on those long, slow flights where time seemed suspended by the throbbing of the engines. From New York, it took many days and nights to reach London, stopping on the way in Newfoundland and Shannon, Ireland. From there they’d gone on to Paris and Frankfurt, Germany where Lucky saw America’s former enemies for the first time outside of a war movie.
Rome was next. He lost his wallet to a pickpocket there and formed a lifelong habit of carrying cash in a side pocket, or even in his sock. The wallet had contained five dollars - left over from the ten dollars his grandmother had given him. This was a great deal of money in 1952 - even in the expensive airport and hotel shops where paperback novels were thirty five cents instead of a quarter and a good pocket knife with a picture of the Vatican on it was one dollar and seventy five cents.
He bought the knife as a gift for his grandmother because the clerk said it had been blessed by the Pope. Just to make sure, Lucky had it done again when he actually visited the Vatican. He’d held the knife up when the Pope blessed the crowd, figuring a blessing worked like Buck Rogers’ ray gun - striking everything in its path - except instead of being able to set it to kill or stun, there was a third button to make things holy. It occurred to him later that his grandmother had no use whatsoever for a penknife, so he kept it until the blade broke and the picture of the Vatican wore off. He figured the blessing had probably worn off as well and threw the remains away.
Wherever Lucky and his family went they were treated with the utmost courtesy, especially in Germany where the scars of war were more than evident and the people ducked their heads and quickened their steps when an Allied jeep went by, the MPs scanning the crowds with cold eyes. Many of the streets were still in rubble and the evidence of bombing was everywhere. It was just as bad in England, where Lucky had seen his first bomb craters and rows of fire-blackened flats being pulled down by workmen.
Americans, he soon realized, particularly Americans traveling on diplomatic passports, were looked upon like visiting royalty. It made Lucky feel like a character in a movie. Adding to the feeling of unreality was the constant reminder that his father was engaged in an exotic business rarely experienced by anyone outside a movie house. Every place they stopped, the same routine was carried out. Waiting on the other side of the customs’ line would be a gray-suited man from the embassy holding a sign bearing his father’s name. The family would soon be whisked through customs and in a few moments their luggage would be gathered up and off they’d go to the hotel in a chauffeured car. The hotel, always the one with the best accommodations in the city, would be their home for several days and sometimes a few weeks while his father visited the embassy - being briefed, he called it.
While his father worked Lucky and his mother saw the usual tourist marvels - Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel tower, German castles, and the Roman baths. He was introduced to great art in the Louvre and other famous museums; to symphony music and the theater in London; to ancient history at Stonehenge, where he and his mother picnicked while his little brother crawled among the huge mysterious stones.
It was like a fabulous, extended vacation and after awhile Lucky nearly forgot his previous life, where knowledge was a boring thing taught by knuckle-rapping nuns. He was especially looking forward to Greece - their last stop before flying on to Cyprus. Greece was the home of the gods and goddesses; of mighty Hercules and the wily Ulysses.
He was eager to see the white columns of the Parthenon, built, it
was said, to honor the wise and beautiful Athena, who was Lucky’s
personal favorite. But, as it turned out, it would be several years
before he set eyes on them.
Everything went terribly wrong when they reached Athens. The moment his father displayed their passports, the Greek customs official became hostile. As usual there was an embassy man with a sign awaiting the family on the other side of the customs line. Lucky saw his father wave to the man, who smiled and waved back.
Suddenly, the customs official started berating Lucky’s father in barely decipherable English. About what, the boy couldn’t tell. From his father’s reaction Lucky could see that he was just as puzzled. The Greek official was so angry and excited they couldn’t make out a word he was saying. They did their best to interpret his garbled commands, hoisting up the suitcases for him to examine. But instead of the usual polite, if thorough check of the contents, the man scattered their belongings all over the table, embarrassing Lucky’s mother when the man held up her underwear, waving them about as if they were contraband.
The American embassy official put down the sign and approached. A heated argument ensued and soon the customs agent’s superior joined in. All the other passengers were staring at Lucky and his family as the debate raged. Soon other Greek officials gathered to form a knot, pushing Lucky and his mother to the edge.
His baby brother started crying and Helen comforted Charlie, looking worried at first, then indignant when one word in particular was hurled about with increasing frequency. That word was “smugglers.”
“What a nerve,” she said to Lucky. “What would we smuggle? Do they think I’ve got the Queen of Sheba’s jewels hidden in my underwear?”
“I heard them say something about gold,” Lucky said. “Do we have any gold?”
Helen’s Irish temper flared. Just then one of the Greek officials looked her way. She waved her left hand at the man, displaying her wedding ring. “It’s the only gold I own,” she said.
The man reached out - as if grabbing for the ring - and Lucky’s mother gasped and snatched her hand back. “You just try, Mister,” she snarled. “You’ll have to cut off my hand, first.”
The official shrugged and turned back to the argument. Finally, some sort of conclusion seemed to be reached and Lucky and his family found themselves being ushered by armed soldiers through big double doors into the narrow security corridor with its uncomfortable bench.
The embassy man accompanied them, assuring them it was just some sort of snafu. Lucky’s ears perked up. He was always eager to add color to his vocabulary. He asked his father what that word meant.
“Snafu?” his father said. “Oh, that’s slang from the war. It means ‘Situation Normal All Fu’” - and Lucky saw his mother elbow his father and his father made a hasty, mid-course correction - “Uh... Fouled Up.”
Lucky wasn’t fooled. The “F” word had nearly been uttered. As others turned back to the business at hand he whispered the word to himself several times so he could commit it to memory: “Snafu. Snafu.” He wished there was a nun about to test the word. If it worked - and the nun didn’t flinch - the word would be a nice little addition to his steadily growing pile of secrets.
Eventually, a fat little Greek diplomat arrived. He was full of self-importance, puffing out his ill-fitting brown suit as he took command. When he sat, crossing his legs, he displayed sheer red socks that his mother later said were disgusting - all that thick black leg hair showing through. The diplomat informed them that Lucky’s father was suspected of committing grave crimes against the government of Greece. Prison was mentioned and Helen said if that was so she’d refuse to leave the country until her husband, Allan, was released. The diplomat only smiled wickedly and said that Madame would likely find herself in prison as well, since she was obviously an accomplice.
As the heated argument resumed, Lucky - who was coincidentally reading The Count Of Monte Cristo, and already considered himself an expert on such matters, having recently devoured Huckleberry Finn for the fourth time - began planning their escape from whatever cell they were placed in. All he needed was a sharpened spoon to dig a tunnel and everything would soon be set right.
Finally, some sort of temporary agreement was reached. The family would be confined to the security corridor - under military guard - while the diplomat conferred with his minister and the American embassy man consulted his superiors. And there they remained through several changes of the guard, each soldier seemingly younger and more belligerent than the other.
Lucky’s father said the trouble had nothing to do with them. That they were innocent bystanders, drawn into a dispute between the Greek government and the U.S. State Department. Apparently a gang of former GI’s, who’d stayed behind in Europe after the war was over, had been caught smuggling gold out of Greece. For reasons Lucky wouldn’t learn until much later, the Greeks considered this the final straw in a long list of alleged wrongs committed by the U.S., whom they believed had conspired with the GIs. This was practically an act of war, the Greeks said - a threat to their country’s creaking economy. They’d vowed revenge and coincidence had drawn the Cole family into that waiting net when they presented the diplomatic passports that were part of his father’s cover.
“But what will we do, Allan?” Helen asked her husband. “What if they were serious about prison?” She hugged his brother tighter. “What about Charlie?” she said. “And Lucky? Who will take care of them?”
His father smiled. “Don’t worry, honey,” he said. “Somebody’s about to get their pucker string yanked - damned hard.”
Lucky was delighted when he heard that. The Greeks obviously thought they were dealing with one of the “fat assed” state department types his father was wont to malign. Very soon a CIA official would make a telephone call. The Agency was feared all over the world and that call was sure to make a few hearts beat harder than a whole parade of marching drums. Lucky laughed to himself. Such power was delicious. It was like having Zeus as your personal best friend. A mighty god who’d hurl lightning bolts at your tormentors.
Hours passed. There was no food served, but there were plenty of warm cokes to drink - they’d been sternly warned about drinking the water in Greece. Helen always kept a good supply of peanuts and raisins in her purse to save off hunger pangs and so they weren’t in danger of starvation. As for his baby brother, Helen had more than enough jars of baby food and bottles of sterilized water and powdered formula in the large baby bag she carried. After awhile, however, the diaper situation looked like it was going to get serious. The family’s luggage had been confiscated and every request for someone to fetch a fresh supply of diapers had been greeted with that tsking noise that Lucky quickly realized was a sound of rejection.
Using his book for cover, Lucky shifted in his seat to get a better look at his father. Less than thirty, he was a small man with a gymnast’s build. He had a large head, close cropped hair making it seem even larger. His coloring was sallow, like a man who had spent much time in the sun in the past and was now going pale. Lucky’s father was a man who rarely smiled and blinked infrequently. He held the world at bay with his moody blue eyes in a piercing, unnerving gaze. Allan was the product of a much-married mother whose habit was to leave her child in the care of relatives for months at a time whenever she’d shed one husband to take another. He was also a submariner, fighting both in the Atlantic and the Pacific. His boat had penetrated Tokyo Harbor in one of the most daring exploits in submarine history. Negotiating a maze of mines and sub-catching nets, Allan and his crewmates ran so low on air during that stealthy mission that doctors feared some of them might have suffered brain damage.
Lucky wasn’t sure what that meant. But he had noticed that one drink, even a beer, could turn his father’s somberness into sudden high humor. Which, after a time of jokes and games, was frequently followed by angry incidents that Lucky didn’t like to dwell upon. Those incidents were best thought of as bizarre acts of nature. Like the two hurricanes he’d experienced in Florida. Wild acts of tremendous force and even violence but without seeming cause or reason. Lucky remembered one storm when the powerful winds had lifted up bricks piled beneath his bedroom window. They slammed against the panes - heavy blows, just short of breaking the glass. Knock, knock, knocking like his father’s knuckles rapping at his door in the middle of the night, getting him up to play. Or to punish him. You never knew which it’d be.
Mr. Blaines routinely asked Lucky about his home life. If everyone was happy and well-treated. It was a question, the boy suspected, that was best not answered honestly. And so he lied. To be more accurate, he avoided the truth - which was one of Mr. Blaines’ favorite phrases – “Sometimes it’s best to avoid the truth at all costs,” he used to say. Lucky always answered his queries about the family by telling hero-worshipping stories about the great fun he had with his father: the games they played when Allan was off duty; the books and poetry his father read to him, like Edgar Alan Poe’s “The Raven,” which was Lucky’s favorite poem of all time.
Mr. Blaines had taught Lucky well. Before he left for Cyprus the boy could dodge the truth at will by giving overly detailed accounts of a few true things. Secrets and lies. Lies and secrets. Two very necessary things in a time when the atom had only recently been split and the whole world was poised at the edge of destruction.
Lucky shifted his attention to his mother. Helen was curled up asleep between Lucky’s father and the baby carrier that held his brother. She was a city girl from a large, warm South Philadelphia family. Raised in an Irish working class neighborhood, she was usually full of laughter and humorous stories. She could turn the smallest incident into a hilarious tale that was frequently longer than the incident itself. In her late twenties, she was remarkably pretty - as were all the Guinan women. Her oldest sister had been Miss Philadelphia and probably would have won the Miss America title if her father hadn’t forbidden her from entering a contest that he believed exploited women. Helen had a long, delicate face with startling blue eyes set deep and framed by long lashes. Ever since he could remember, Lucky had noticed the way that men watched her when she walked by – even though she didn’t wiggle like Marilyn Monroe. She had a brisk, business-like walk that never seemed to tire as she moved from one task to another with swift efficiency. Even so, the men watched her just the same.
Lucky suddenly noticed that his mother’s skirt had ridden up over her knees, exposing her legs to the stocking tops. She wouldn’t have liked that. Why, his mother wouldn’t even stand in front of an open doorway on a sunny day for fear that the bright light shining through her dress would be too revealing. Then the boy caught the guard staring at his mother’s legs. It made him angry. He glared at the guard but the young soldier ignored him. Lucky saw the man’s eyes glitter as his mother shifted in her sleep and the skirt rode higher.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Lucky announced to the guard.
Annoyed at being interrupted, the guard shifted his look to the boy. He shrugged and muttered something in Greek - pretending he didn’t understand. Lucky knew better: earlier he’d noted the interest the soldier shown in his parents’ conversation.
“I said,” Lucky repeated, “that I have to go to the bathroom.” He added a rude, schoolyard gesture, whose meaning could not be mistaken.
The soldier grunted, getting it. Then his eyes turned mean. He shook his head - no.
Lucky stood up. “Well, I’m going anyway.”
He started to walk toward the far door where the foul-smelling facilities were located. The guard hissed something that sounded like a curse. His heavy hand fell on the boy’s shoulder. Lucky tried to pull away, but the guard tightened his grip.
Then his mother’s voice snapped out - “Keep your hands off him.”
Lucky craned his neck and saw his mother was very much awake now and very angry. “He won’t let me go to the bathroom,” he complained. The soldier snarled another Greek curse, his fingers biting into Lucky’s shoulder. “Ouch,” he said, more surprised than hurt.
His mother shot to her feet. Behind her, he could see his father jolting awake. Helen stormed over to the soldier, who was so alarmed at the menacing figure - all of five foot one and perhaps 100 pounds - that he let go of Lucky’s shoulder and stepped back, bringing his rifle up like a horizontal bar.
And then all of Helen’s anger at the Greek bureaucracy poured out, scalding the young guard. “Get that - that - THING out of my face,” his mother railed. She shook her finger at the tall soldier, who cowered as if it were a pistol. “I’ve had just about enough of your rudeness,” she said. “First you accuse us of this smuggling nonsense, then you make us sit here all night. You don’t feed us, don’t let me wash out the baby’s dirty diapers. And now... and now... you have the nerve to tell MY son he can’t go to the bathroom. Well, you’d better watch out, Mr. Big Shot with your big fat rifle, or we’ll tell the Germans they can have your damned country back.”
“Helen,” his father called. “Helen...”
“Don’t Helen me,” his mother snarled, whipping about. “This... this.... soldier had better learn some manners or I’ll give him such a sock.”
Lucky would’ve like to have seen that. Despite her small size and Catholic academy polish, she had a powerful punch - taught to her by his grandfather, a former champion boxer who said he was blessed with more beautiful daughters than the Good Lord had given him strength to protect and so he’d taught them all to box.
“He’s only doing his job,” Lucky’s father said.
The soldier looked suddenly mournful. He waved at the drab hallway, and nodded. “Job,” he said. “Demitris’ job.”
“Oh, ho, ho!” his mother crowed. “So you’re a liar as well as a bully. You do speak English.”
The soldier fought for control. “No speak,” he said. “Demitris no speak Anglika.”
Helen stamped her small foot. The guard jumped as if it had been the foot of a giant. “Either my boy goes to toilet,” she said, “or you’ll be seeing the back of my hand, sir.” Lucky had noticed that the angrier she became, the more pronounced was her South Philadelphia Irish lilt.
But the guard seemed honestly stumped. “Toi-let?” he said, puzzled. “Toi-let?”
“Try WC,” Lucky’s father advised.
“What’s WC?” his mother asked.
“Water Closet,” his father said. “That’s what the English call it.”
His mother snorted. Her own grandfather had come over from Ireland during the famine and Helen shared his bitter views of all things smacking of John Bull. But it wasn’t necessary for her to use the euphemism of the oppressors, because the soldier was nodding hard - smiling sudden understanding.
“WC,” he said. “WC. Good. I take boy WC.”
Lucky grinned at him, making sure the guard knew he hadn’t been fooled, then marched off. The guard followed, rifle at ready in case the twelve-year-old should make a dash for it. In the bathroom, Lucky stayed in the stall for a long time. Despite filth that would gag a maggot - as his grandfather might’ve put it - he was enjoying the situation immensely. What an odd world this was turning out to be. A soldier guarding a kid while he went to the bathroom. And the biggest joke of all, was... he didn’t even have to go.
Chaos erupted the moment he returned to the bench. And out of that chaos things began to work themselves out. Flanked by abashed aides, the Greek diplomat suddenly returned, wringing his hands and spouting apologies. A moment later the embassy man, accompanied by a tall, imperious American who never spoke, but turned cold eyes on anyone who said something he did not favor.
One thing became quite plain. Although mistakes were admitted, the Greeks were determined to save face by barring Lucky’s father and the family from officially entering the country. His mother muttered something about, who’d want to visit such a Fascist place anyway, but everyone pretended not to hear.
By happenstance a Cypriot Airlines plane was departing within minutes and the family was rushed out of the security corridor and through crowds of travelers - wearing everything from suits to Arab robes to Indian turbans – all babbling excitedly in many languages.
Then Lucky and his family were being hurried across the tarmac, trailed by customs men carrying their luggage - including his mother’s all-important trunks. The plane’s propellers were already turning when they reached it and somebody had to shout for the wheeled stairway to be rolled back in place so they could enter. The airplane was ancient and smelled of aviation gas, mixed with garlic and onion and a peculiar, not entirely unpleasant, odor that reminded Lucky of a barnyard. It was packed with people, most with dark Mediterranean complexions and they were all smiling and laughing and chattering loudly with their neighbors.
The crowding was made worse by all the things the passengers were carrying. There were cardboard boxes tied with twine and stacked in the aisle; string bags reeking of strong cheese, dried fish and black sausage; and duffel bags bulging with gifts for friends and relations at home. Children ran up and down the aisle - leaping over the boxes - and squealing with excitement. Somewhere in the back of the plane Lucky swore he heard a rooster crow.
There were few seats left, so Lucky sat in the pull-down chair next to the exit door, while his father and mother found a place back where the rooster had crowed. Charlie was awake, laughing and waving plump baby fists at the crowd. Then the airplane jolted forward and everyone cheered as it lumbered down the runway.
|Last Revised: January 29, 2011|