Growing up Greek in a Yankee Town
Commencement Address at the Plato School
Your Grace, Bishop Iakovos, distinguished guests.
Thank you, Dr. Antonopoulos. Parents, students, and graduates, this is a very important day. I’m happy to be here with you.
In June, 1930, I graduated from grammar school in the small village of Goffstown, New Hampshire. During those ceremonies I was the Salutatorian, ranked second in my class to a girl named Patricia Burnham.
You can compare your early school years with mine.
Until the fourth grade I was a wild and rowdy boy. I stole things from the grocery store. I threw rocks at the railroad station. One night I broke into the blacksmith shop and stole a bunch of tools. The next night I broke in again to return them. They were of no use to me.
My father promised to give me a dime if I told him who broke the windows of the railroad station. I said that I did. To punish me Father lifted me up by the ears. Did any of you get punished like that? Believe me, it hurts.
Then a fourth grade teacher took a special interest in me. She gave me stamps to collect. She offered to teach me to play the piano. She told me about the glory of Ancient Greece. About Plato and Aristotle, and Alexander the Great, for whom my godfather had named me. My teacher impressed me with what a proud thing it was to be a Greek. After that, I got almost straight A’s in all of my subjects.
Yet my older brother Costas and I had to fight our way to being respected. We were called guineas and dirty Greeks by those who hated foreigners. Some days I went home with a black eye or a bloody nose. We usually became good friends with the kids we had to fight.
But not with a bully named Art Neal. He wouldn’t quit. My father was a smart Greek and found a way. He went to Art Neal and said, “You’re a strong boy and a good boy. If you protect Costas and Alec from any bullies that might be around, I’ll give you a quarter every week.” Art Neal agreed. Thus we became friends with the worst bully in town.
We loved Goffstown, but it had quite a few bigots who disliked foreigners, aliens, and especially the Catholics. In 1928 a Catholic, Al Smith, ran for President. You may have heard about the Ku Klux Klanhow its members wore white robes, burned crosses, and killed black people in the South.
We had a branch of the Klan in Goffstown. They burned crosses at night on Pattee Hill. We could see them from our house. Our mother did not know that the Klansmen hated Greeks. She said: “Look at the beautiful cross burning on the hill. How nice it is for the Christians to celebrate the cross like that.” We waited a long time to tell her the truth about the Klan.
While still in grammar school I made some money going from machine to machine in the bobbin shop selling candy bars to the workers. I bought them three for a dime and sold them a nickel apiece. Not much profit, but in those days a penny was a penny and a nickel bought a hotdog.
Pretty soon the boys in Manchester were selling candy bars in the big shoe shops and textile mills, until one of them got hurt and the state passed a law forbidding minors from going into any shops and mills.
My point is that we Greeks and others scrambled for work to help our families, especially during the Depression. My brother Costas and I gave every penny we earned to our parents. We cut lawns for the Yankees, we weeded their gardens, we chopped kindling wood, we cleaned out henhousesall kinds of odd jobs.
And our mother kept having babies. We hated the mami, the midwife, we seemed always to be at our house. She came alone on the trolley from Manchester. On the day of the birth Costas and I stayed away all dayfishing in the river or hiking up to the mountain; yet on our return home would ask, “Is it a boy or a girl?” My mother had nine boys and only one girl.
The priest from St. George’s Church baptized the babies in the big copper tub Mother used for washing clothes. My father also used the tub to boil the raisins for making ouzo to give to the guests who came for the occasion. All the money my brothers and I earned Father spent on the lamb, the feta cheese, olives, franzola bread, and other foods needed for the picnic. We roasted a whole lamb turning it over and over on a spit above a hot bed of coals. Mother made thick juicy pita from the pigweeds we gathered for her. We watched the guests and our parents dance the serto, the tsamico, and other folk dances they had learned back in their Greek villages.
We also stopped Father from making ouzo. If you don’t know what ouzo is, there’s no real hurry for you to find out. My father’s ouzo was so well-liked at the christening that the Greeks in the city coffeehouses wanted to buy it. This was during Prohibition. Being poor with a large family, my father made gallons of ouzo. I helped him to deliver it. But we worried that the sheriff, who was our friend, would break into our house and arrest him as a bootlegger. Father used to say, “We have no riches, but we have a good name. A good name is more to be valued than gold. Never do anything to hurt our good name.” My brothers and I didn’t want the Americans to call us bootleggers and moonshiners as well as guineas.
In school I was given the worst put-down not by a boy but by a girl. My brother Costas had learned how to skin dead skunks and other creatures and sell their pelts to a company that made fur coats. The skunks had layers of beautiful white fat that Mother melted into a salve she plastered on my neck and chest when I had a cold. She also made a salve with orange candles called kir alfi. Mother liked the kind she made from skunks.
The pretty girl I sat next to in class leaned over to me one day and said, “It’s bad enough that you’re a Greek. Do you have to smell like a skunk?”
As you graduates have done, I finished grammar school in Goffstown, New Hampshire, and entered the high school. My attitude was that I’d be the best student in my class, even better than Patricia Burnham.
More and more we Greek immigrant families became accepted by the town. We boys played baseball with other boys. We went swimming in the Piscataquog River. We picked wild blueberries on Uncanoonuc Mountain. We joined the 4-H Club and the Boy Scouts. I blew the bugle in the Bugle and Drum Corps, and played Taps for the American Legion ceremonies on Memorial Day.
In our big elm tree we built a nice treehouse that attracted kids from all around. One day my little brother Johnny refused to come down when Father angrily called him. For something he had done, Johnny was afraid of being lifted up by the ears.
Father got so furious he went to the shed to get his axe. Would he cut down the whole tree to force Johnny to obey? Yes, he would! Father started to hack away. In a few minutes Johnny slowly came down the ladder. The town heard about it and had a good laugh. ȁStrange people, those Greeks!”
Our parents wanted us to become well-educated, make good opportunities for ourselves, succeed, make money, and be happy. So my brothers, my sister Anna, and I worked very hard in school, both to please our parents and to make our dreams come true. Costas led the way and I followed. In time I was elected captain of our high school baseball team, editor of our school paper, and president of my class. At graduation I came out ahead of Patricia Burnham by a narrow margin. I was the Valedictorian.
We immigrant Greeks in Goffstown maintained a good reputation and went a long way to being understood and well-liked. I was even invited to preach the regular Sunday sermon at the Congregational Church, the largest and oldest in town. No only once, but twice. My first came in March, 1933, when I was sixteen. The text for my sermon was “The Beauty of God’s World.” It made me known as the Boy Preacher all over the state of New Hampshire. They had never had a Boy Preacher before.
The Commandment states, “Honor thy father and thy mother.” There are many ways to obey this rule. I would like to conclude by honoring my mother’s memory with this poem from my new book, STEPPING STONES. Before I do, thank you for having me share the happiness of your graduation. Congratulations and kali tihi.