March 25, 2021 is the 200th anniversary of Greek Independence Day! Below are two excerpts from my new book FISH OUT OF WATER: A Search for the Meaning of Life that touch on the subject. The first is from the chapter titled Transfiguration, about the Greek Orthodox Parochial school I attended through fourth grade. The second is from the chapter in 1976, titled The Bicentennial.
From “Transfiguration” in FISH OUT OF WATER.
Each year around March 25—which is Greek Independence Day, marking our heroic and ultimately victorious 1821 uprising against the despised Ottomans—Greeks celebrate with as much or more abandon than Americans celebrate the Fourth. In New York City we even had the great boon of an annual parade down Fifth Avenue. In kindergarten in 1969 I was in the parade, sitting like an astronaut on the back of a white Pontiac convertible and waving at the crowds. My grandmother Renee had earlier sent my brother and me each a small Tsolias uniform, the traditional costume of the Revolutionary era soldiers, worn by the tall men guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens so that they function something like the cockaded busbies and frogged jackets worn by the Royal Horse Artillery in England. Tsolias uniforms, as I then learned, consisted of a starched and pleated white skirt—called a fustanella—along with white leotards, and curved slipper shoes with bright pompoms. There is also a white shirt and a beautifully brocaded blue vest, all topped with a red felt cap with a tassel. Even at five, though, I was horrified to don leotards and a skirt! But my German grandmother was visiting, and when she saw me, crowed her approval. “Ach, Eric!” she said, glowing, “You look like a little prince!” Such love from the sweetest person I knew was enough to cover a multitude of sins.
But in fourth grade, our participation in the parade was dramatically different. We would not ride like heroes in a ticker-tape parade, but rather must march with something bordering fascist precision. That’s because this was the chief goal—or Aristotelian telos—of Mr. Lambrakis, who made us spend every single “gym” class until March 25 marching in rectangular monotony around the gymnasium. Who had charged him with this curious assignment? No one knew. Nonetheless, from September onward we weekly disported ourselves thus for forty minutes in our school uniforms. There was never a break from this to play dodgeball, which we didn’t know existed, nor to do gymnastics, though we had once glimpsed some new, unused equipment under the stage. Once, however, in lieu of this monotonous prison-camp-style activity, we had the privilege of folding all the chairs in the auditorium—still there from an earlier event—and then stacking them onto rolling platforms and wheeling these under the stage. This was as close to doing leg cuts on the pommel horse as we would get.
After we had moved to Connecticut, I almost wondered whether Lambrakis had been a bad dream, but my cousin John said that he too had the privilege of serving in the man’s regiment. He even recalled how Lambrakis once furiously reprimanded their misbehaving class with a memorable line that in his anger combined two imperatives with which he was equally unfamiliar, the first being “Stop trying to pull the wool over my eyes!” and the second, “Stop pulling my leg!” Thus did he irately shriek: “Stop pulling your feet over my eyes!” The tale of marching around the gym is a fitting place to turn to the happy subject of leaving the city.
From “The Bicentennial” in FISH OUT OF WATER.
In 1976 the nation was patriotically focused on preparing for the many huge celebrations in July, and there was also a presidential race, in which a young peanut farmer from Georgia was emerging as the man who with his trademark smile might finally carry the country past the dark memories of Vietnam and Watergate. But that March every Greek was focused on our own upcoming anniversary of independence—the 155th—from the despised Turks. Danbury wouldn’t have anything like a parade up Fifth Avenue, but we would mount a humble pageant in the church basement, so during Greek school in February Father Ziotis assigned a bunch of us kids poems to recite. Believing me especially capable, he handed me a mimeographed sheet bearing a poem so long that I gasped. It was titled “O Gero Demos” (“Old Man Demos”) and was three times longer than any of the other poems. Memorizing it would be a protracted agony and when I got home I complained bitterly, begging my father somehow to get me out of it. Of course he wouldn’t hear of it. Whatever Father Ziotis said, I must do. I sensed that my father’s good standing in the Greek community was on the line. We got into an awful argument over dinner until my pleading turned to caterwauling and tears.
Uncle Joe happened to be with us at that time. He often used vacation days from the fire department to do side jobs and had been hired by our friends the Manolakeses to finish their basement, staying with us for two weeks. So after dinner, he took me into the living room. Uncle Joe didn’t go to church, but had grown up Catholic in Astoria and didn’t have a high view of priests. And not being Greek like my father, I knew he would take my side. But it wasn’t quite that simple. “Listen,” he said to me, “You want to get back at this priest?” I hadn’t thought of that, but when my uncle talked, I listened. He seemed to have understood the assignment as a power trip on the part of this sadistic priest. That wasn’t the case, but in my whining over dinner it might have come across that way. “Here’s what you do,” he said. “You memorize that poem so well—” and here he got passionate, as he could, “—that when you go up there on that stage and you recite that poem, you’ll be showing that sonofoabitch priest that he didn’t get to you! Because your Uncle Joe knows that his nephew Eric Metaxas has got such a head on his shoulders… that when he puts his mind to it, he can do anything!”
How do you repay someone for something like that? My uncle’s love generally, and his taking the trouble to say this to me that day, are gifts one can never repay, except conceivably by doing the same for others when you get the chance. And whenever someone does something like what he did that day, they are of course helping make you the kind of person who will. So each morning I got up a little earlier than usual and sat with my father in the living room and memorized another line or two until the big day came, and all went well. But it is those mornings with my father that now live with me as among the most cherished moments of my life. I remember how sitting together on the couch he would explain the meaning of the lyrical Greek lines before I attempted to memorize them, and often got so choked up that I had to look away in embarrassment. “O Gero Demos” was about an old soldier of the Revolution reminiscing about his days of heroism decades earlier, asking that the younger generation listen and then let him depart to “sleep” and live on in their memories.
I now know that the author of the poem was Aristotelis Valaoritis, who hailed from the Heptanisa—the Seven Ionian Islands of which our own Cephaloniais the largest, and which were briefly their own nation before—in large part thanks to Valaoritis himself, who became a statesman— they proudly joined the young Greek nation. So Valaoritis in extolling liberty and the “Greek” values of liberty and independence was in his own way a Greek Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose “Paul Revere’s Ride” I led my own daughter to memorize, just as my father had led me to memorize “O Gero Demos.” And just as my father had in teaching me that poem, I too got choked up teaching Longfellow’s to my own daughter. Both poems celebrate in powerful language what every generation ought to celebrate and teach its children: a love of liberty and sacrifice and honor. I blanch with embarrassment and yet marvel too to think how I despised Father Ziotis for assigning that poem to me, because of course I now regard it as one of the greatest gifts of my life.