Kimon stood on the hillside not far from his small village. He was in shock and awe. Airplanes kept rolling in ... wave after wave. It must have been terrifying and mesmerizing.
He had probably heard his parents discuss the war but did not believe that it would never come here. But now the planes were coming in faster than anyone could imagine. The planes where filled with soldiers coming to bring death to everyone that opposed them. The sky was filled with parachutes as the men raced toward the ground so that their work could begin. They were on a mission of great importance, creating a foothold for what to follow.
As a boy of ten, Kimon could not understand the changes that were about to happen to his peaceful village home. But he knew it was bad ... really bad. It took eleven days for the Nazis to completely subdue Crete, and bring it under the shroud of Mordor. By late May in 1941 it was a done deal.
But the true evil released that day was a culmination of events that were set in motion twenty-one years earlier in a country far to the north. Hitler made his first play for government in 1923 in Munich. About two thousand men marched to the center of town, where they confronted the police resulting in the death of sixteen Nazis and four policemen. Hitler himself was wounded during the clash.
Although he was charged with treason he converted his trial to an opportunity to publicize in nationalist agenda. He captured headlines and become the talk of the nation. He was sentenced to five years in prison and served nine months, when he documented his plan for world domination that he almost achieved.
Hitler rose to power on a tide of national anger and a desire to strike back. He was wildly popular with those that felt their opportunities for a good life had been stolen.
Hitler was a rousing spokesman. He was wildly popular with the average citizen who had lost hope in the future. He was able to draw large crowds and whip them into a frenzy. He told them that he had all of the answers and that he would make Germany Great Again. He was able to convince the disenfranchised that they had been cheated out of what was rightfully theirs by foreigners and Jews.
He won the hearts and minds of enough of the population that they did not hold him accountable for the atrocious injustice that characterized his entire leadership. When leaders demonstrate a lack of integrity they must be opposed before they consolidate power. Otherwise it may be too late.
Ten years later, in 1933, he was Chancellor and the world would weep. Within a decade everyone of fighting age around the globe would be called to fight for or against this monster. Parents and children would look on in horror as soldiers drove over their towns and cities.
Hitler rising to power was not a foregone conclusion, it was far from inevitable. There was a period of time when people of courage could have stepped forward to prevent his rise to power. From 1929 to 1933 he could have easily been stopped, but by 1933 he had all the power, and the world would pay... big time.
Now eight years after Hitler's rise, Kimon got a first hand view of the war as it came to his small village. The next five years were unbelievably hard as the family experienced the brutal leadership of the Nazi occupation. Ultimately, Kimon did survive the war and wrote a book about his experience. He became my dad's closest friend and as a result our families have been connected for decades.
Think about the logical consequences of allowing dictators to rise to positions of authority and power. With modern weapons and surveillance techniques the damage that a dictator would do is beyond imagination. The evil that could be released by the United States on the rest of the world would dwarf the greatest accomplishments of Adolf in his prime.
During our year in Greece (1969-1970), my dad became close friends with Kimon Farantakis. He wrote a book about his childhood years in Crete. "The Leaden-sky Years of World War II" was published in Greek and became quite popular, but was not available in English. My father translated his friend's memoir into English so that it would be available to a wider audience.
The Seaman family and the Farantakis family have maintained lifelong friendships and taken many trips across the ocean over the past five decades. Some relationships can transcend time and space.
"Be extremely careful what you say because the government is listening to all of our conversations", I recall Dad telling us. One misspoken word could get us sent to prison or worse. Even as a child I knew that this could not possibly be true. My dad didn't seem like one that would be prone to paranoia, but what he was saying sounded a little crazy.
Being raised in small-town America I had no sense of global politics. The biggest drama in my life was whether Batman would be turned into a human popsicle by the Joker. It was hard for me to comprehend that we could be in any real danger.
We had all of these serious conversations in our car, since it would be difficult to record them given the technology of the time. Naturally we kids played along even though we did not really believe my father's warnings.
We knew that governments are basically good and are meant to protect their people. Apart from a few baddies, like Hitler and Stalin, nations are run by well meaning leaders that can be trusted. People do not just disappear for no reason. Secret police do not arrest people and torture them without just cause. Citizens do not fear their leaders.
As events would soon reveal this is not always the case. Our time overseas proved to be more interesting that any of us were ready for. And Dave, my dad, was the only one with any inkling of the true danger that surrounded us.
The government was held in power by large numbers of secret police. They had a reputation for surveillance and impromptu interrogations. Of course the police were just doing there job; the real villains of the story were the colonels that deposed the king. They set up a new government after the coup which controlled the country by fear. The press was regulated and citizens were under the constant threat of simply disappearing.
Certain books, movies, and music were outlawed because they might lead people into rebellious ideas. Everything was viewed with suspicion and neighbors were encouraged to report their friends so that the police could investigate. One casual word against the current rulers was enough to get anyone arrested.
A trusted friend told Dave that the landlady who lived in our apartment building had a brother that was a member of the secret police. He was also alerted that someone had been in our apartment. Sure enough, after searching the apartment, he found a bug inside of our telephone receiver.
He decided that the least suspicious thing would be to leave the bug in place and to warn the family to be very careful of what was said on the phone or even in the house. And so, that day we got the first of the security briefings while driving about in our car.
I was excited to imagine that we were somehow involved in a resistance movement against an evil dictatorship. But for my parents the situation very different. My dad was frightened that we would do or say something that would get us deported or imprisoned.
But I think that the biggest toll was on my mom. She had agreed to be a part of a European adventure that had suddenly taken a serious turn. She did not really anticipate having the "Loose lips sink ships" conversation as part of our family meeting. I think in a totalitarian regime that the women suffer most.
My dad was a college professor with no political agenda. His role was to teach English at the University of Athens. He had not fully considered the implications of living in a dictatorship until he was in the middle of it. Everyone was under a cloud of suspicion and a potential target of investigation.
When governments are motivated solely by the need to control their people, there is nothing they will not do. The greater the insecurity of the leaders the more ruthless they become in silencing dissent.
This has a devastating impact on daily life. As people grow to fear the government, they rid themselves of all other goals. Daily life is reduced to avoiding the attention of the government that is constantly searching for rebels and even rebel sympathizers.
Even as a child of ten, I could see that this is wrong. But today I grieve the fact that many Americans do not even see this as a danger for our country. We believe that the government should be granted unlimited power because it will always act in our best interest. All it takes is one sudden political change and we enter into an entirely new reality.
The events of the last few years have been a chilling reminder that we too could quite easily slide into a dictatorship. The would change everything that we know and love about America.
Greece has far better pizza than Italy. The best pizza I've ever had was at a hotel on the outskirts of Athens. After all these years I still recall the rich aroma of the garlic infused dough with sausage and olives.
I remember that my parents were very tense over the circumstances that had brought us to the hotel in first place. For me it was a fun outing but for them it was a waking nightmare.
There were four administrative assistants in the Fulbright office where Dave, my father, worked: a typist, travel coordinator, finance, and assistant for the head of the English program in Greece.
One of them was a sympathizer and spy for the government and another would end up in prison as a result. When the government goes corrupt everyone is forced to choose a side. The spy probably saw an easy way to advance either professionally or politically by selling out her coworker.
Rita may have actually been guilty of the crimes that she was accused of but there were no charges, no trial, and no paper trail. These things are considered needless overhead and a frivolous waste of time in a brutal dictatorship. The task of controlling people takes precedent over everything else.
She was picked up by police one day and ordered to spy on the Fulbright office where my dad worked. She refused and was arrested, imprisoned and tortured. My dad recalls that they used a yellow VW with a New Jersey license plate to pick her up. Fortunately, a friend of my dad's who worked at the US Embassy became aware of the arrest or she would have likely perished in prison, with no one ever knowing what happened to here.
The government had eyes and ears everywhere, just talking to someone that was under suspicion was enough to cast suspicion on you. Although no charges were ever filed, she simply vanished one day. Dave spent several months trying to locate her whereabouts, including working his contacts at the American State Department and Red Cross.
A contact at the International Red Cross confirmed that she had been arrested and taken to a building within sight of the American Embassy. There she would be tortured to try to find more contacts requiring follow up. Then she would likely disappear as was the standard practice at the time. Someday underwater archaeologists will find a lot of skeletons with cement boots.
Things became quite tense at the Fulbright office, as you can imagine. Think about working each day next to the very woman that deliberately caused the death of a coworker. The fear and anger must have been unbearable.
Three of the foreigners that worked at the office went to the place of torture where they were holding Rita and demanded to see her. They refused, but finally allowed the team to send her a note in Greek and her to write a brief response. It may well have saved her life. This kind of aggressive action would also be considered treasonous and grounds for imprisonment, but the status as highly visible foreigners probably protected them.
Shortly after that, the three academics were all summoned to the impressive residence of the American ambassador to Greece, who told them in no uncertain terms that they were jeopardizing the Fulbright program in Greece. They were ordered, to back off by the ambassador and were supposed to be intimidated. But the three continued to take Rita's mom out on a regular basis.
In fact, the American government was supporting the dictatorship at the time. This gave the Americans a certain amount of protection against the normal ruthless actions of the government. Later some American president apologized to the Greek people for the American support of that military junta.
The authorities could not get Rita to cooperate so they keep her in solitary confinement in a hotel that had been converted into a prison with fantastic pizza. No one could see her, nor communicate with her in any way.
Our family used to drive by where we knew her room balcony was at a particular time each day. She would wave subtly to us and this simple gesture provided assurance for her and for us.
Three of the workers at the Fulbright office took turns picking up Rita's mother and taking bread and a thermos of soup to the prison hotel to leave for Rita. Otherwise they would gladly have left her to starve to death.
Finally the Greek government admitted that she was being housed at the time in the hotel near Marathon, close to the marble quarries for the Parthenon. Dave was given permission to visit her; so on this particular Sunday we were eating pizza at the prison hotel.
While we ate pizza Dave and a Rita's mom visited her. Greece was under the thumb of a military dictatorship at the time. People disappearing in the middle of the night was common practice. It was also common practice to arrest anyone who inquired about their disappearance. What was uncommon was that someone would be able to speak out on behalf of the accused.
Fortunately we had a certain amount of protection by being American citizens. My dad, was a university professor and well connected with the American Embassy. The poor secretary was a Greek citizen and was at the mercy of the dictator.
This was not the first time nor the last that Dave came up in direct conflict
with the dictatorship. It is the destiny of rebels to fight oppressors.
Protecting the oppressed who have no defender is at the heart of meaning of true liberty.