Avoiding a Greek Tragedy

Avoiding a Greek Tragedy
In 1982 I was in the United States Navy and stationed aboard the U.S.S. America CV-66, home ported in Norfolk, VA. Being stationed on the east coast of the USA, the usual six month deployment involved sailing the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean Sea, a trip through the Suez Canal, and the Indian Ocean.
This story is about just a tiny fraction of that trip, a liberty call (port visit) in the ancient land of Greece. Due to my relatively advanced years (being twenty-nine to the average sailor’s nineteen) I had a completely different expectation of what to do and see in Greece.
I was thrilled by the opportunity to see the city of Piraeus of “Never on Sunday” fame, then move on to the fabled city of Athens, of which I had read so much. To be able to stand on the Acropolis and see the Parthenon, the Temple of Athena Nike, and below the Acropolis, the theater of Herod Atticus, was like being able to live the books I had read. To the others from my ship, it was all about ouzo and hookers, if they could find some.
The flight operations immediately prior to our port call were a stressful mess of airspace restrictions and peacock demonstrations by both the Greek and the Turkish military forces. I had to invent methods to stack and hold aircraft so that I could keep them close enough to not run out of fuel, yet not violate the imposed (and exaggerated) foreign  no-fly zones.
My name for the spot, “the Aegean Triangle” became the standard and even appeared on briefing maps (although I saw no monetary gain from my creativity.) I heard that it was a beautiful location, but I never got to see anything but a radar screen for the entire time.
To say that my liberty expectations were high would have been an understatement. My enthusiasm had spread to other members of our group, although I had a sneaking suspicion that bottles of ouzo danced in their dreams… not Melina. That was OK with me, they could have all the ouzo that their little hearts desired; I didn’t want any of it. I would be happy to settle for the antiquity of the port city and Athens. I was going to get to see the Parthenon with my own eyeballs, and maybe even touch it, if that was permissible.
I could hardly stand the wait to board the liberty boats. It took more than an hour of standing in line, and we were almost at the front (of the line) when we started. I could not for the life of me, figure out what was taking them so long. The boats had been in the water for hours already, so it wasn’t that. They kept letting the officers go ahead of us (normal practice) and they seemed to be able to get on a boat and leave right away.
Finally the line started moving and we got onto a liberty boat, but only half of the normal load was allowed to board, usually a sign of rough water. When I looked out across the harbor from the top of the ladder, it was smooth, no waves, not even a ripple.
We were on our way at last, so the reason for the delay didn’t matter anymore… or so I thought at the time. The fact that it wasn’t raining (as had been forecast) was a happy bonus.
As we neared the beautiful port city of Pireus, I could make out more and more people around the docks. “How cool” I thought, “the people were turning out to welcome us. What a great place this was going to be.”
“Hey, wait a minute, isn’t that a hammer and sickle on that sign?” I said to the group in general as we neared land. We all started looking and spotted another one, and then more as we got closer.
The boat driver broke out his binoculars and looked the situation over and said, “Guys, them signs say Americans Go Home and Death to Americans, with Greek Communist Party logos all over them.”
We all said in unison, “Get us out of here” as the crowd pushed forward to the point that a few of them went into the water, pushed by the masses behind them.
The boatswain’s mate put the helm hard over and we took off across the harbor for the other side, where there wasn’t any crowd. He docked without incident and we could still see the crowd gathered on the main landing shaking their signs and waiting for the next boat.
That little landing that he took us to was where the officer’s all came ashore and they were nowhere to be seen. Usually there were a few (officers) waiting for their friends or wanting to go back to the ship but it was a ghost town all around that dock. There weren’t even any local residents in sight. The absence of people did nothing to ease the feeling that trouble was stalking us.
The radio in that liberty boat was inoperative for some reason so we couldn’t call back to the ship. To expedite things those still going ashore (most of us) got out quickly, while the remaining few who were fearful of trouble and wanted to go back out to the ship, eased aside (or kept their seats if they were out of the way.)
We shoved the boat off and the boatswain turned it towards home and kicked it hard (accelerated quickly.) He needed to get word to the duty officer aboard ship about the impending danger before someone got hurt by the mob at the primary landing site. They appeared to be worked up into a frenzy and ready to attack without provocation.
I told the group (I was the senior person present) that I felt it best to get out of Pireus as soon as possible, to which they all agreed and started trying to hail a taxi. It wasn’t going to be that easy we were finding out. Any cars that came by, taxi or otherwise, sped off at first sight of us.
I asked one of the guys to give me a cigarette and he said, “I didn’t know that you smoked cigarettes” while reaching into his pocket for his pack of smokes. “I don’t,” I said, “but I do speak, trade.”
Upon receiving the cigarette I walked over to a slender young man (wearing what looked like a waiter’s uniform) waiting at a marked bus stop, to see what I could learn. After conversing with the gent for a few minutes, I returned to my friends armed with new information.
The group of angry people on the main landing area was indeed the Greek Communist Party and there were over ten thousand members in attendance at this rally. They were armed with instructions to do harm to any and all American “dogs” that they could find.
The smoke that we could see behind the mob was coming from the burning overturned taxis that didn’t obey the “party’s directives” fast enough. Those directives were to not pick up Americans and to get out of Pireus until the American ships departed a few days from then. Those that argued, or didn’t leave quickly enough, became examples for the others.
That information certainly removed taxis from the escape equation and we were aware that it would only be a matter of time before renewed interest in our whereabouts caused some of the mob to come looking for us. Without liberty boats coming in the organizers would have to do something to keep the emotions high and the crowd stirred up. We would be that impetus.
Walking out of the area was do-able, but would not be fast enough to put the kind of distance between them and us that we needed. There was no liberty boat inbound that we could see (and we had a clear view all the way to the ship) so even if we had wanted to there was no getting out by sea.
Just as we thought that we were going to have to choose between running and swimming, a bus with “Athens” on the destination placard rounded the corner. I was already moving towards it when it stopped at the bus stop where the young gent I had spoken to had been just moments before.
The young man who had waited so patiently for the bus was no longer there, which made us all look around for where he went. One of the guys stepped up to the bus door and asked, “How much to Athens?” The driver replying in English said, “I don’t speak English.”
It was very plain to see that the poor man was scared, with sweat pouring down his reddened face and his eyes pleading for understanding. He did show great courage by waiting with his vehicle’s door open to us while we hesitated.
After explaining my plan “B” to the others, I approached the driver and tried speaking to him in Spanish. He cheerfully responded to that language and told me that the party had spies everywhere and if he spoke English with anyone at all (the man visibly shuddered) well, he didn’t want to think about it.
Our group quickly boarded with our bags and I cautioned them all to not say anything in English until we were clear of the protesters. The locals on the bus sat in their seats like stone people, staring straight ahead and behaving as if we did not exist. We knew that they were also very afraid of what might happen.
The bus followed the road around the harbor and I got very concerned with our direction of travel, as it took us right to the angry mob. I moved up right behind the driver and whispered in English where only he could hear, “You aren’t doing something that we will both regret are you?”
The look on his face told me that he understood my meaning, and he said, “No Sir, NO. The road to Athens lies there” and pointed to an intersection just before the crowd’s edge. He said, “Please Sir, make your friends to be small… that they are not seen and we all die.”
When I turned back to the others all of the American eyes were focused on me. I motioned to the guys to get down and they did it without noise or question. There were definite benefits to being trained military personnel.
The other folks on the bus remained as they had been. As they sat rigidly upright in their seats with their eyes staring straight ahead, not a sound came from any of them. It did occur to me that several of those people were old enough to have experienced WWII and I hoped that we weren’t causing them flashbacks and renewed distress (PTSD.)
As we passed the intersection, I saw the young man that I traded the cigarette to for information. He was obviously working the other side of the street this time, talking fast and pointing emphatically as he spoke, in the direction that we had just come from. The little weasel was most assuredly selling us out to look good to the Party. He did have to live there and try to stay alive after all, so you couldn’t hate him too much. Well, maybe we could. No one likes to be sold out.
We got by the intersection and the road turned towards Athens. When we got to the very next bus stop, all of the locals (to the last person) got off the bus. They all wished us good luck, in English, as they got off of the bus and walked away.
I went up to the driver with my hat in my hand and told him in English that he had done a very brave thing by helping us get away from that mob and if he wanted us to, we would get off of his bus and find another way to Athens.
As I had hoped, hearing that made his chest swell up and he said that he “Had to get us safely to Athens.” Those Greek men were worse than the Italians when it came to Machismo. I almost felt sorry for playing him that way… almost. I had no idea how else we would get to Athens or anywhere else for that matter.
The bus drove on with the driver singing a Greek song for us that we all nodded and smiled our way through, none of us understanding any of it. The driver was happy to have done a brave deed, but did caution us to stay away from the bus windows as much as possible. He didn’t want to get caught by traveling communist party members.
We arrived in Athens with no further incident and checked into “The Grand Hotel,” right on the main plaza of town. As I looked out my hotel room window, I could see it; The Parthenon! But actually going there would have to wait for one more night.
It had gotten dark and the Bell Captain advised us urgently that it would not be safe for us to be on the streets with all of the Party activity going on. The headquarters of the Communist Party for all of Greece was located across the square and people came and went from there twenty-four hours a day. We did discuss whether we should stay there or leave the city at first light to avoid causing some kind of international incident, but those were sailors and they loved trouble, so we stayed.
We ordered room service and watched TV in Greek; every show on that TV had at least one girl without her top on… which made us all wonder if we could get them to put Greek shows on our cable at home. There was also a lesson learned about deceitful practices perpetrated by hotel telephone operators. Know your connecting rates and all fees before you place a call from a Greek hotel. I ended up with a bill for $170.00 for a three minute call from Greece when I got home.
The following day we went out for breakfast at a recommended nearby international café where the food was good and reasonably priced. Then we walked over to the Parthenon, which was even more inspiring in person. I would not describe it as like the Sistine Chapel kind of eye-candy “wow,” but rather as an enduring kind of awesome.
It had stood for all this time, enduring weather, wars and political changes and was still the unchanged masterful piece of Architecture that it was. You could not fail to be impressed as you walked up the road to it.
My favorite feature of the whole complex was the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, which was a theater (built by the Romans in 161 AD) located off to one side of, and down the hill from, the Parthenon itself. It was carved out of the hillside, right down into a bowl shape that created a natural acoustical amphitheater. A whisper could be heard plainly, everywhere in the bowl.
The features of the theater were carved out of stone too. It even had stone seats and a stone stage. A lot of beautiful marble tile had been used originally and was replaced during the repairs made in the 1950s. When it was built it had a cedar roof that had no visible supports to block the view of the audience.
Historical entries claim that the acoustics were so good that a single instrument being played would fill the building (which sat 5,000 people) with sound. It was incredible and unlike anything that I had ever seen.
There was a local theater company that regularly performed Greek tragedies on that stage. Once a month they would do a Shakespearean tragedy, just because it was so awesomely cool to perform there. All of those plays were free to attend. Unfortunately there were no plays being performed the days we were there, or I would have gone and damn the Communist Party!
The following day several members (including me) of our party were signed up for a tour out into the countryside, if the upset protesters didn’t cause it to get cancelled.
One of the least expensive ways to see a lot of a country and experience some of the culture was through organized tours sponsored by the ship’s Morale & Welfare department. They made group purchases and arranged everything way ahead of our arrival so really good deals were able to be made. There was no way an individual could get the same price breaks, which I had learned the hard way in a previous port.
The tour that I purchased was to the Treasury of Atreus, also known as the Tomb of Clytemnestra. This remained the largest beehive shaped tomb for over one thousand years after its construction in 1250 BC (until a larger one was built elsewhere.) It was quite a long bus ride out there and back, as we had to go to Panagitsa Hill in Mycenae which was a long way from Athens, especially given the conditions.
The most difficult “condition” was of course, that the Greek Communist Party was extremely active and had thousands of members well connected and willing to mobilize at a moment’s notice. They also hated Americans with a passion for reasons that I did not know. That disturbing dislike of our group could have ended our trip in an ugly way.
Our tour guide was a tiny lady named Delphina, who was in her thirties, maybe 4’ 10” and eighty pounds soaking wet. She was elegant, well mannered, impeccably dressed, and spoke multiple languages. Delphina also had an MBA from Harvard Business School.
The diminutive woman had been married right out of high school and was widowed after just a few years. She worked and went to University in Athens until she had saved enough money to achieve her dream. All of her teachers had said that the best business schools were in America and if you wanted to be the best, you had to go there to learn.
Armed with her savings and an intern job arranged by a friendly professor, she had gone to the US in order to go to what she felt was the best business school; Harvard.
Upon completing her MBA she returned to Greece (as was always her plan) to give the benefit of her degree and training to her country. The communists didn’t see it that way and labeled her a traitor for going to America.
She had lost her job in Athens when the rallies and rioting started because her company was afraid their building would be burned because she worked there. Her name was on the “enemies of the party” list circulated to all business owners and managers.
Delphina was quickly hired by the tour company the navy had contracted with due to her language abilities and detailed knowledge of the country. They made their money from tourism and they loved American dollars even more than Greek drachmas.
We loved Delphina; she understood American slang and was unruffled if an occasional cussword slipped as the guys talked. If only the communist guys would leave us alone.
Fortunately for us she had many relatives and friends in the area we toured, as we actually played hide and seek with several vehicles full of potentially violent protesters during our travels.
We toured the Treasury of Atreus and it was very impressive as a structure, but I was still as puzzled about it when we left. They had no idea who was supposed to have been buried in the tomb, or what had happened to whatever had been inside it. It apparently was cleaned out before the contents were recorded. This had to have been one of the quickest grave robberies on record.
Not far from the tomb site we parked the bus under a grove of trees and walked over a hill to the site of a small palace. That palace wasn’t on the tour list and was seldom seen by anyone other than the locals who lived around the area.
Delphina said that it was the ancestral home of her family which dated back hundreds of years. By keeping it off of the tours it suffered less damage from souvenir hunters. She was very worried that the communist group who was looking for us, would vandalize it terribly should they find it. We all stated to her emphatically that we would defend it should they arrive while we were there. That moved the tiny lady to tears.
The palace was not really a “structure” at that point. There were a few standing walls, several partial walls, and a complete foundation. Oddly enough their water systems seemed intact including wells, irrigation channels, indoor plumbing, and several baths.
The toilet and bathing areas attracted the most attention from the sailors and many wanted to sit on an ancient toilet. It was hard to comprehend what was so exciting about sitting on a stone slab with a hole in it. The young guys took each other’s photo sitting on the marble “thrones.”
Delphina explained the idea of the vomitorium to them, where the party goers would stick a feather down their throat, (or have a servant do so), to induce vomiting and thus be able to consume more food and drink.
The young men were mightily impressed with the “party attitude” of the old days. She asked me if she should tell them that it was just a misconception, and she had only told them this tale as a joke. I told her no; let them have their grand idea of partying people to remember. She just covered her face and laughed.
The scheduled meal stop had to be eliminated due to a large contingent of troublemakers waiting for us there. One must remember that this was prior to the advent of cellular phones being in everyone’s pockets. Tremendous effort was being expended by both sides to call land lines and then send someone out to notify the interested party. We were lucky that Delphina was on her home turf.
Delphina had been so taken by our offer to defend her family estate from harm that she called a cousin and arranged a meal for us at his restaurant; a business which was normally closed on that day.
We deliberately turned away from our destination on the main road in the area and then traveled via back roads to the house in the trees where said eatery was situated.
Immediately upon arriving the passengers offloaded quickly and were herded inside by a scared woman who turned out to be the owner’s wife. The bus was then taken around behind the buildings out of sight and the kids took brooms out to sweep away the tracks of the bus in the dirt. They had learned well from their grandparents who were Greek Resistance fighters in WWII.
Once inside we were seated at nice tables with linen table cloths and napkins, nice place settings, and a bottle of red wine on each table. The aromas coming from the kitchen were making us crazy with hunger even though we had no idea what we were being served.
The incredible meal they prepared for us was lamb and stuffed grape leaves with green vegetables and bread. Plus the aforementioned red wine which seemingly had no bottom to the bottles. Our hosts were very attentive and brought us new bottles of wine as fast as we drank the others empty. The Greeks loved their wine and so did we!
As we finished our meals, the owner and all of his family came into the dining room carrying musical instruments. As some began to play, the owner and his grown sons began to dance with their arms linked and shout, “OPA!” They switched directions back and forth and danced wonderfully well to the music.
The music stirred us and the wine removed what inhibitions “might” have been found in young American sailors. Everyone was singing (who knows what) and clapping their hands to the rhythm. Excitement was at its peak as the family tossed plates into the air from the stack they had brought from the kitchen and as they came crashing down everyone shouted “OPA!” 
It should have been expected; it had to happen as sure as rain falls down. As the loudest “OPA!” yet was yelled out, the room immediately filled with plates flying through the air.
Every occupant (myself included) of the tables around the room had tossed their plates into the air like the other plates had been. When we looked up from the sight of piles of broken china, the music had stopped and the owner looked like he had just been shot, such was the expression of disbelief on his face. 
We didn’t know that the family had put their best dishes on the tables in honor of our visit, nor did we know that only those participating in the dance were supposed to throw plates. They had brought out old, chipped plates for the entertainment and never anticipated our reactions. 
American military men were not ones to let anyone else suffer for their actions so all was set right with them in short order. Their good dishes had cost them the equivalent of about sixty U.S. dollars which was a tremendous amount to them in 1982, and something that they could not afford to replace. We not only paid cash for our meals, which gave them tremendous bargaining power in their market (and black market), but left them over two hundred U.S. dollars cash in tips. 
The man and his wife were both crying when we left and Delphina said it was because they were so happy. I’m not sure if that was happy for all of the cash, or happy that we were leaving. Either way, it was an experience that I’ll never forget. OPA!
After leaving the restaurant we arranged (with more off the record American dollars) for the tour bus to swing by our hotel in downtown Athens. We were very wary of trouble and made sure that one of our group stayed on the bus at all times (so the driver didn’t panic and take off), just in case the communists spotted us.
We successfully rounded up the other guys and our bags and departed the beautiful city of Athena. The return bus ride to Piraeus was quick and uneventful.
Arriving at the landing we surveyed the scene carefully for problems, but the crowd had all departed, leaving only a few burned taxis to tell the story of what had happened. We were assured by the driver that even those cremated cabs would soon be gone.
A liberty boat soon arrived to take us back to the ship where we reluctantly returned to duty. We were underway by 01:00 a.m. and steaming for Beirut…. again.
So that was Greece, where they wanted our American dollars, but not our physical presence. And it was old… very, very old. I wish that I had been able to spend more time there and see and learn more about their great civilization.
I never did get back to either Piraeus or Athens, Greece but I did learn part of what had upset the local population.
The U.S.S. Nimitz (CV-68) had preceded us into Greece and had two substantiated major incidents of harm/damage caused by American sailors. A sexual assault had taken place, and a hotel had been burned down by drunken sailors partying. Both incidents made the Greek national news but got very little (if any) mention in the U.S.
We (the crew of the U.S.S. America) were allowed to walk into the aftermath without warning. It is possible that the officers had been briefed (which would explain their vanishing acts) but the enlisted men were not. I only learned about it upon return to the U.S. and subsequently speaking with counterparts in the Nimitz crew.
To their great credit, the people of Greece that we met (other than the crazy communists) treated those of us in the group I traveled with, with respect and kindness and never once mentioned what the other sailors had done.
I have to wonder if in the moment where we destroyed their best plates those kind people were second-guessing opening their home to Americans and wanting to side with the communists who were hunting for us. I am glad that we made things right with them and I hope (thinking back) that those dishes were not family heirlooms.
We must never forget that there are always consequences to everything that we do. Even if we do not realize the fallout, those who follow in our footsteps may be harmed by what we have done. Compassion, tolerance, and understanding never hurt anyone.

Break dancing in Nice

Break Dancing in Nice


I was a sailor in the US Navy in 1984, stationed aboard the USS America (CV-66) which was home ported in Norfolk, VA. We were deployed on a six month cruise at the time of this story.

After a rigorous and trying tour of duty in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea which had cost us both aircraft and lives lost, we passed back through the ditch (Suez Canal) and made for Naples, Italy.


We concluded a very short port visit there and then sailed for another “spin” around the eastern Mediterranean. These exercises maintained the required “military presence” that influenced diplomacy and brokered deals beyond the visage of the public. Finishing whatever the real purpose of that exercise was, we were finally ready for the destination that this story is about; Nice, France, by way of Monaco. 

Aircraft carriers are too large to dock pier side at most port facilities, and it was considered bad planning to put your primary warship in a “compromised” position in a foreign port. So, you “drop the hook” (sailor speak for park them at anchor) close enough to ferry the crew to the land, but in deep enough water to be able to get underway without the delay of having to maneuver through narrow channels. 

The anchorage at Monaco was quite close and afforded a lovely view of the city, the castle, and the Monte Carlo casino. Their harbor held many very expensive yachts belonging to the rich and famous from all over the world.


Our close proximity also allowed Princess Stephanie to ride around the ship on her personal watercraft, topless, and drive the sailors crazy who had duty and couldn’t leave the ship. She had a great time teasing the American sailors and made multiple circuits around the huge vessel wearing only tiny bikini bottoms, sunglasses, and a beaming smile. The Princess was definitely a sailor’s idea of the perfect goodwill ambassador!

The Monaco port call was unusually long at nine days and there are multiple stories to be told, but only one takes us to Nice, France. Like many of the stories I tell, it is complicated and winds around itself as it is revealed. 

My friends and I had originally planned to go to Cannes on the train, maybe even on to Toulon. That city (Toulon) was where one of our small escort ships had docked many times, and the crew told stories about how wonderful it was.


We were as flexible in our destination, as we were resolved to get away from the port city where 5,000+ sailors were making their presence known. I had done a tour (8 hour shift) as a Shore Patrol supervisor the previous night and I was definitely ready to be in a different city. Americans are brash and rude in general as guests in foreign lands, but sailors work hard at earning their reputation as ugly Americans.

Having gotten a few hours sleep after being relieved from my watch, I joined the others in line to get off of the ship. On a vessel carrying so many men getting ashore from anchorage is a much longer process than you might imagine, sometimes taking hours from getting into line until your feet hit dry land.


Once ashore, our journey took us to the Monaco train station, where everything is neat and organized and everyone is in a hurry. As we found out, French trains are the exact opposite of the Italian ones. Not only are they clean, but they are extremely punctual, running to the second. French train conductors will not tolerate any delay; if you were three steps away when the second hand on their watch hits 12, they would shut the door in your face. That exacting precision by the train system is how we ended up in Nice. 

Two of our party went to the restroom (never go anywhere alone!) and were just late enough returning to have the train doors close in front of them. Our plan should we get separated, was to go to the next station and get off and wait for our friends to arrive; which was precisely what we did.


You would think that we would be mad because of the inconvenience, right? Wrong, we were as happy as can be! Considering just such a problem in our discussions while waiting in line to get off of the ship, we had reached a deal that whoever caused such a delay would be required to buy the beer for the others that night. Hurray for punctual trains! 

When we got to the next stop, which was Nice, we got off of the train to wait. We knew that we had exactly 30 minutes to kill, so we decided to walk around the immediate area.


Nice was much friendlier than Monaco already, and we had only just stepped away from the train station. People would say hello to us and everyone returned our greetings. It was great to be away from the impact that so many sailors made on an area.


By the time our mates arrived we were sold on Nice and quickly convinced them to stay there. It wasn’t very hard to do really; I just mentioned that women sunbathed topless all along the beach there. Americans are so easy to amuse. 

It was getting late so we made our way to a hotel that was close to the beach (priorities you know) but not on the expensive boardwalk, and had vacancies. The proprietor was leery of allowing six Americans to stay in his hotel, having heard horror stories of property destruction and debauchery by our sailors in other ports.


I wish that I could say that the stories he heard were fabricated, but the sad truth was that they were based largely on fact. Our smiling faces and sincere reassurances that we were not “like that,” plus (mostly) the hard currency that we offered for three rooms, made our case. He did require us to go to the local bank and exchange our U.S. dollars for French francs to pay him though, as he was afraid of the exchange rate and possibly losing money. 

The next morning we woke to knocks on our door, which was the maid bringing us continental breakfasts. For Americans who traditionally eat such massive amounts of food at breakfast, the European version of the morning repast can be quite shocking.


Those “continental breakfasts” were puny little excuses for food all wrapped up in a cloth inside of a basket. In the basket were two croissants and two muffins, with two little pats of butter and some jam. Also on the tray were a little glass of juice and cup of coffee for each of us.


One friend said, “I don’t know why they bothered to tease us, if they weren’t going to feed us.” My roommate asked me if I was going to eat, and I said I would drink my juice and coffee. He didn’t hesitate for a second and scarfed down the bread, barely taking time to remove the little paper cup thing from the muffin.

We all met up in the lobby as planned and one of the guys asked the desk clerk where the best beach for “girl watching” was. The poor man looked at us kind of funny as he tried to process American English into French in his mind.


All of a sudden the light went on in his brain and he made the motions depicting a woman’s curves with his hands. The nodding heads indicated that he had the right idea, and it set him off into a barrage of French that none of us could follow, at all. His hands were gesturing this way and that way, and I am sure that he knew exactly what and where he was describing. We didn’t have a clue.


Looking at each other and reaching an unspoken agreement that it was no use trying to decipher his instructions, we backed towards the exit. Taking our leave, continuously nodding our heads and smiling our faces off, we hustled out the door. Our new friend just kept on talking and waving his hands like we were getting the picture.


We needn’t have worried, the beach was only a block away and the sun was shining. To sailors who spend so many days in the dark, everything is perfect when the sun is out!

This was the Cote d’Azur after all; the French Riviera. Nice was a jewel of beautiful landscapes, sparkling water, and ornate and elegant buildings. All along the coastline of the city ran a boardwalk for strolling, which the French do very well at all hours of the day and night. On the land side of this walkway were a couple of rows of parking, then a street and magnificent buildings housing hotels, restaurants and shops. The proprietors lived above their businesses we found later as we strolled in the evening and all of their lights were on and windows open.


It was the sea side of the walkway that interested my friends the most though; it was what swung their vote to stay in Nice after all. The beaches there are tiny compared to any U.S. beaches. There was a seawall all along the beach, with steps every one hundred feet or so for access. Morning was a good time for sunbathing it seemed, as there were many people all lined up in rows on the sand when we got there.


Of the six of us, only two had grown up in beach country; myself in Florida, the other in southern California. The remaining four were all from the inland cities. It was a full time job to keep these guys from drooling over the seawall as nearly naked bodies were on display everywhere.

As you are probably aware, many European women go topless on the beaches and the men are wise enough to keep their mouths shut and just enjoy the “scenery.” Not so with young American males. They had their cameras out snapping away and whistling at the ladies. More than once a disgusted woman grabbed her things and left. I was embarrassed by my friends’ actions, but they were unfazed by anything that I said to them about their behavior. Evidently admiring the view without being obnoxious was not encoded in their DNA.


People in Nice would come to the beach from work or wherever, in their regular attire. It was not the custom to wear bathing suits everywhere like it is in the US. So they changed right on the beach. The modest ones were very skilled at wrapping a large beach towel around themselves and changing clothes. Some only covered their lower half as they weren’t putting on a top anyway. A few were unconcerned about who saw what and just got naked. 


It was a member of that unconcerned category that finally broke the trance.


A very pretty, dark haired sun worshipper wearing a nice business skirt and blouse walked past us as we sat on the seawall. So graceful and slender was that new arrival that four of my companions (the city boys) fairly floated along in trail (reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew of cartoon fame), whistling and snapping their cameras. 


A spot on the beach sand was obtained and with back to the audience, the clothes started to come off. Out of a bag came a light blue towel with “Cote d’Azur” emblazoned upon it, which was quickly and expertly wrapped around the hips. Turning to face my friends, the top was playfully removed revealing no bra, and a very small chest. 


These young American sailors were actually leaning forward, cameras at the ready, full of anticipation as the towel was untied and the opening was teased, but not done. They called out for more, yelling “take it off” like they were in a strip club. Asking sweetly if they really wanted to see, the object of their lust took a couple of steps closer to them, and whipped the towel wide open.


Their cameras were flashing away, as they finally realized that dangling in front of them was a very large “man part” in all of its glory. The crowd of locals roared in laughter. What they had thought was a pretty lady, was definitely a pretty man, who dressed like a lady. Life was truly full of surprises for my young friends.


That very public education of my over eager shipmates somehow created a sudden craving for alcohol. My mates felt the need for beer and wanted to “get out of the sun.”


I believed that it wasn’t the sun that kept their faces red, but rather the thought of how to explain the photos they had just taken when they got their pictures back.


Our group split up at that point as my roommate and I did not want to get drunk, nor did we want to pay the high prices charged at beachfront drinking establishments. So, the two of us wandered inland, in search of a dining spot with better prices.


One thing is certain in France; you can always find good bread. We had not walked a mile from the shore when the aromas of freshly baked bread lead us by the nose (also a very cartoon like image) down a side street to a corner store.

A store by name, it was really a house with a room set up to sell goods out of. Mama baked bread in her kitchen and sold it, along with some fruits and vegetables from her garden that were sitting out on a counter. A small variety of cheeses and sausages were on a wooden block table along one wall. They had some generic wine (no labels) available by the glass or the jug. It was barely a store, and even less of a restaurant, but the place smelled delicious! I wanted to take a bite out of the air.


We purchased the best food that I had eaten in all of Europe, at that little store. The smell of the bread had me starving. They asked for 18 francs (the equivalent of two dollars) each (we gave them 20 because we thought that it was too little) and had all the bread, cheese and wine that we could consume as we sat at a table outside in the shade.


Papa kept refilling our wine jug and bringing out more cheese to “try”. Mama brought out more bread for us to take with us, because we “looked starved.” Eventually we had to cry “enough!” I felt like we were being adopted.


Before we took our leave from these delightful people, we asked them for a recommendation for where to get our evening meal near our hotel. They talked excitedly back and forth in French for a minute and apparently Mama won. The instructions were given and we were admonished repeatedly to not go there before 8 pm.


Rejoining our friends, still in the same bar that we left them in earlier, we hauled them back to the hotel for a nap and to clean up. They had mightily contributed to the local economy, settling a bar tab of three figures. All of their expenditure was for hard alcohol (not beer), which they had consumed in the same time frame as we had spent getting our four dollars worth. Just standing was a challenge for them; they definitely needed showers and a bed.


I was glad that we took the walk and not just for the monetary difference. In general, in bars the people who run them prey on those with addictions and weaknesses for alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, prostitutes, etc, it’s how they make their money. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere for me and doubly so as an American sailor; we seemed to have targets painted on our backs.


The people that we met running their little store were genuine and welcoming, making us feel at home and like we were almost family. Leaving them I felt refreshed and happy, instead of used and abused like my friends felt as we dragged them from the bar.

I was so eager to follow our dinner location instructions to the letter, that we didn’t even leave the hotel until 8:00 pm. The route to follow was easier than I had feared and we had no difficulty locating the small diner. The place was filled with locals and very busy.


The very attractive waitress who met us at the door was an aggressive “take no prisoners” type and seated us at an outside patio table for eight, telling us that if she needed the space, she would seat others with us. No one gave her any backtalk or made rude comments, which made me happy. I thought that perhaps they were still sufficiently humbled from earlier events. Or, maybe it was just that they didn’t recognize her from the beach that morning. She was one of the first girls we saw and did look different with her clothes on and her hair up in a twist.


Based on the recommendation from Mama at the store, I already knew what I wanted, even though I had never even heard of it before. I got the Spaghetti Carbonara with an egg on top. It was so good that I could have rolled in it! 


The others ordered different things, and some wine with their meals (I had water with lemon.) It was hilarious to watch the waitress at work. The guys would order the wrong wine for their meal and the young woman would throw her hand up in the air and say, “what, are you insane!” or call them “stupid little boys” and tell them which wine to order. She was having fun and the guys were in awe of her.


When I paid my bill, the waitress asked if I had had a good day. The quizzical look on my face made her laugh and she said that her mother (Mama from the store) had told her that some Americans boys were coming to dinner after 8:00p.m. She was very pleased to hear my praise of her mother’s bread and compliments about her family’s store in general.


She also remembered us from that morning at the beach and commented that I had hung back and kept my mouth shut while my friends acted like naughty children. Her laughter at the memory made me blush so much that my face was still red when I went back to the table. It was silly for me to be so embarrassed, I had done nothing wrong.


We left the little (in size) restaurant at about 10:00 pm, and the people were still coming in to eat. They did a booming business and were open from 6:00 pm until midnight, with mostly tourists eating early. The waitress said that they had to put people out at midnight every night because of their operating license which required them to close at that hour. To be open later required negotiating a new license which was very expensive.


As we left the noise of the restaurant, our ears picked up music that sounded strangely familiar. We followed that sound until we located the source of the music. It was coming from a dark structure in an even darker alley.


The beat was definitely coming from inside of what we guessed was some sort of nightclub for lack of a better description. Since there were six of us, wearing our badass big boy jeans (Americans are so full of bravado) we felt OK risking going inside. 


I half expected a panel in the door to open like the “speakeasies” of the 1930s and almost jumped backwards when a door that was fully half of the wall opened. A large young man with a hoodie sweatshirt and dark pants opened the door and shined his flashlight on us. 


“Americans!” he shouted into the building and we had dozens of instant new “best friends.” The tiny place (really a garage I guessed) was packed with at least fifty young French people and a few visiting Europeans who were in the know about where to find such clubs.


“Crank it up, crank it up, they dig it!” was shouted out by our doorman and the dance music that lead us there rattled the walls. This was a break dancing, hip hop Mecca for kids who loved American music and dance. Our blue jeans also made us instant celebrities.  Levi Strauss is a god to the youth of most of the world.


A couple of our American six were actually decent break dancers and did “bust a move” as the saying goes. The rest of us just kind of bopped along with the music and tried not drown in the free beer that was continuously shoved into our hands.


A competition was held and I have not seen better break dancing, even in the movies like “Electric Bugaloo”, etc. One guy had gloves on and his hood up with the drawstring pulled until you couldn’t see his face. This guy was incredible and had ALL of the moves, even spinning on the top of his head. He won first prize.


I asked a general question of the group around us as to why he covered all up. The hushed reply was that he was a gendarme, a policeman, and if he was caught here he would lose his job. It was strictly forbidden for him to participate and it was against the city ordinances to even have such dance parties. I had to ask as it was such a shock to me, “Do you mean that it is against the law here to dance?” They said, “Oui, the break dance is considered immoral. It is not America.”


We stayed with the illegal dance party until four in the morning and enjoyed ourselves immensely. After we left the party we went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, checked out, and went looking for an American sized meal for breakfast. One of the big hotels on the boardwalk had what we wanted, albeit for a large price.


Our train trip back to Monaco later that day was quick and easy and I had more adventures on other days.


I could not get over the idea that kids having fun dancing was against the rules, and it became “Break-the-law” dancing to me from then on. Some laws are just insane! Dance on kids, I’m with you! 


Second Chance Cafe

Second Chance Cafe 

It should be noted that life continues to march regardless of who we are, what we have done, or how much money we have. 

In most towns you can find a dining establishment that serves a good meal for a decent price. The often repeated advice given by experienced travelers is to, “Find the spot frequented by the locals, and follow them in.” As a kid I had heard the want-to-be wise men spouting, “Eat where the truckers eat, they always know the best spots.” Although I have found that last one had a bit more to do with where a driver could park his rig, than the quality of the food. 

Our town has many fast food establishments as well as what we refer to as “sit down restaurants” where wait staff take your order and bring your food to you. The former is perhaps cheaper, but to me the second choice is far more satisfying. 

As people get older and have less demand on them to provide for others, (which might be referred to as the “empty nest years”) they find that spending time slaving over a hot stove for two people no longer seems reasonable. It does still happen occasionally, just not often. 

Some people become full time “nibblers” and snack themselves out of wanting meals. Others eat fewer meals and exist on coffee or tea.Then there are those of us who combine all of that with a daily trip, (sometimes two) to a local eatery for both food and a certain amount of socialization. 

Many empty nesters say that something is missing since the house got so quiet. The simple fact is that two older adults do not make as much noise as even one child and most of the time there is quiet. 

What seems to drive many of the retired folks that we know to restaurants is not just freedom from cooking and cleaning up afterwards, but the chance to interact with other people. 

Our diner of choice I will call “The Second Chance Café,” which is not its real name, but it is safer that way. 

If you frequent the same establishment repeatedly over a period of time you get to be known as “regulars” and achieve a reputation with the staff as either good customers or “PITA” types with the first word of the acronym being “pain.” I’m sure that you can figure out the rest of it. 

Those who are students of human behavior or just good observers can have a lot of fun watching the antics of both customers and staff on any given day. There truly is a plethora of free entertainment to be had while you dine. 

People in the food industry have hard, physically demanding jobs. Add to that the aggravation of dealing with the public and the stress score climbs pretty high. There is a trait common to all of the restaurant workers that I have observed doing well in their jobs, and that is a good sense of humor. From manager to dishwasher and especially the servers (as waitresses and waiters are now called), it is a vital quality if you are  to make it longer than one week. 

Anyone who has ever worked with the public can tell you that interacting with customers is far harder than being isolated with just co-workers or solo jobs. 

When you throw in the attitude of many customers who have never had to deal with demanding individuals (like themselves) into the mix, it just gets crazy. 

Say what? 

The following examples were just a few of the things overheard in our local diner. 

“I am paying for this so whatever I want, it is your duty to provide it.” 

“Do you have vegan fish sticks instead of the all you can eat fish special? Oh, I don’t want them; I just wanted to know what kind of establishment you were running.” 

“Can you take 50% off of my bill, because I only ate half of my  hamburger?” 

“Why can’t you send the bus girl across the street to get me a beer? They have a liquor license.” 

“Can I have three large go-boxes and fill them up with more of the all-you-can-eat spaghetti? Well I can’t eat it now, but I can eat more, later. No, you can’t charge me for four meals, it is just one order.” 

“Why did you butter my toast? I wanted to butter it. No, I don’t want more butter, you have ruined my toast. I want you to take my entire meal off of the bill. You have wrecked my dining experience.” 

“What kinds of tomatoes were used in the making of this soup? You don’t know what kind of tomatoes Campbell’s uses in their soup? I should call the health inspector. What kind of joint are you running here?” 

I am really surprised that more bowls of soup aren’t dumped on people’s heads. 

We are evidently on the “good” list as we are greeted like family and hugged by waitresses and bus girls both upon arrival and departure. We were also the only non-employees (or their families) invited to the closed door Christmas party held at the restaurant. The staff all knows us by name and treat us like family all of the time. 

If I were being cynical I could say that it is because we probably spend more money there than any other customers and they like the financial support. But the truth is that the place is one big family. 

Many of the employees are related and those who aren’t have known each other for years. I have known many of them for years myself, having met them delivering their mail. Some of them knew Anna at the high school. For whatever small town reason, there is familiarity and closeness. 

The work environment is a happy one, with laughter being a near constant sound and very, very rarely is an angry sound heard from anyone. On the odd times that discord erupts, it is nearly always a customer fussing with someone that they came in with. 

The current manager was the lead waitress for several years and when the existing manager got fed up with her corporate bosses and the commute to work and quit, she stepped in without a hiccup in the operation as far as the general public could see. 

Within the first few days I could see the mood improving and the quality of the entire operation stepping up to a new level. A person with “from the ground up” knowledge was at the helm and respect was now a two-way street in the building. People tend to react positively to being shown respect. 

This restaurant is a special kind of place where everyone is made to feel welcome, the service is good, and the food is worth the money you pay for it. That combination is not as easily found as one might hope. 

So why do I call it the Second Chance Café? 

Like so many people working in low paying, demanding jobs, most of the staff have had rough spots in their lives and didn’t have the opportunity or good fortune to make it to (or through) college. Some have seen the  inside of the “barred hotel” and others have burned up eight of their nine lives with personal problems that that would have killed a weaker person. No one spends their youth dreaming of being a waitress in a small town café. At this establishment everyone is respected and equal. They are judged solely upon the effort they put in and how they conduct themselves now. The past is over. 

Another reason for the name would be the giving and supportive attitude of the entire group. When misfortune strikes, whether it be death, or house fire, or any number of calamities that can and do happen, whatever needs to be done, will be done. Money is raised, comfort is given, hours are covered, and places to live are found. They exhibit the finest qualities of humanity without hesitation. 

All waitresses are not (thankfully) created equal 

There are endearing qualities present in all of the servers and staff — some of it just won’t stay inside of them. 

The staff plays jokes on each other and keeps up a running banter of jibes and faux insults that you would have to be blind to not see through. To those of us who know them well it is easy to see that they love each other more than most blood-related families. 

One star of the floor show is empowered with an over abundance of awesomeness. She knows it, and we all know it. I have known this woman for more than twenty years and I can truly appreciate the difference between her former aggressive, obnoxious self and who she has become in the last few years. There is no one who can handle a full house like she does, and make you like it while you wait for your order to hit the window. Your meal comes out right, the food is hot, the drinks get refilled and she keeps you laughing the entire time you are there. It is no wonder that she is the top tip earner and the most requested server in the house. 

Another of the wait-staff warriors is a woman who is generous and giving to the extreme, often turning over her daily tips to a family member or a bus person who mentioned a need for something without a moment’s hesitation. She knows what it is like to have nothing and be hungry and I have seen her pay for a stranger’s meal out of her own pocket. She laughs so much that if she stops, we look to see what’s wrong. To say that she is a character is like saying that the Pope is a Catholic. 

One of the veteran servers is an accomplished horsewoman who not only can handle cranky horses, but can put an unruly customer into the back of a booth with a single glare. I am fortunate that she likes me and uses her powers for good and braids my beard for me. Nothing can get the plaits to lay flat and tight like her experienced hands. She also makes the cook fix my /quesadilla/ the right way and finds jalapenos for me when they have some. 

Another long time hash slinger is closer to our age and is raising a grandson which means that retirement is not an option and like it or not, she has to roll out early in the a.m. to put on the coffee for a few hundred folks. I have seen her in the place on her day off, popping up out of her booth to get coffee or tea for customers in her civilian clothes. She is always ready with a laugh and smile. 

Cooks are a tough crew 

Cooks at most restaurants are scary people. Many are given to angry outbursts and mood swings that make you think that they are all bipolar. Wait staff and managers alike have cautioned me against upsetting a chef or cook when I needed something out of the ordinary. I consciously look for the location of all knives and the available exits whenever I enter a professional kitchen, just as a habit. 

The Second Chance Café cooks labor for long hours trying to make every meal come out right and quickly, facing constant pressure to perform.They get oddball requests and last minute changes tossed at them by servers who are trying to give their customers what they want. To their credit I have not seen a meat cleaver thrown into a wall or a steak burned to a lump of charcoal in this restaurant like I did another eatery in this very town. It is a rare occasion that they even get upset to where the customers notice. I must lead a charmed life because I have never had an order request turned down in this restaurant. These cooks care about what they produce and it shows. 

Young people get into the profession for different reasons. Sometimes it is purely a lack of experience at any job and getting hired to wash dishes or bus tables is a doable entry level job. 

The latest hire into the floor staff tells me frequently that she is so happy to work at this restaurant and even though it is hard work and long hours she can’t wait to get there each day to see her coworkers. She has friends and a life, but knows the value of employment and feels fortunate that she has such a good work environment. 

One young shining star of the local eatery has lived far too fast and hard for her years and nearly ended before she began. Today she is living, learning, earning, and gaining respect for herself and from others who gave her the chance to act like the adult that she can be. Life is still one day at a time for her, but I have every confidence that the woman she is becoming will make her proud. She has an infectious laugh and a smile that melts bad moods on contact. She has gone from a bus girl who spilled everything that she touched, to handling (as the waitress) a full-on lunch rush solo with a prep cook chasing refills for her. 

There are young people who work at the diner because they have family members already there and it did give them a chance to get a foot in the door. Those folks have to perform twice as hard to meet the scrutiny of both boss and the relative who spoke up for them. It is not a cake walk for them as they soon learn. 

I am very pleased to be a part of a learning environment where we get to practice Spanish while helping others perfect their grasp on their second language at the same time. Several of the employees speak Spanish as their native tongue but must speak English to the customers and fellow staff members who do not know their language. Their progress is an inspiration and their patience with me as I mangle their language is a great lesson in how to behave. 

The work ethics shown by the least well paid employees at this restaurant is another lesson in how people should behave. They never do as little as possible to get by, which I have seen in many higher paid vocations. From the dishwashers to the food prep crews they bust their butts supporting the staff out front. They are willing (to the last person), to come out of the back and do whatever is necessary to make the operation work. On many occasions we have seen dishwashers acting as hosts, seating customers, taking their drink orders, carrying plates of food to tables, and then cleaning tables on the run so more people could be seated. They know that their tasks are still waiting and no one will be washing the dishes while they are doing the extra work, but they never hesitate. We should all be that willing to step up when needed. 

There are families that have three generations employed at this diner and it is a joy to be around them. The work ethic and enthusiasm is consistent from grandmother to granddaughter. They are a joy to be around and always earning their wages. 

It is both amazing and amusing to realize that I have known some of the people waiting on me since they were little children. 

One of the waitresses, who was a little girl when I delivered her grandmother and mother’s mail, now has kids of her own and takes care of me. A hostess/bus girl used to drive her mother crazy at work asking questions until she got parked in a corner with a coloring book. Now she hugs me when I walk in the door of the restaurant and before I leave. That doesn’t happen at Mickey D’s. 


The customers who frequent our chosen oasis are even more varied than the staff and span the age range from newborn to over one hundred years young. The place has been open since 1966 and some of the original customers still get their morning coffee there. 

Some diners I have been in have a particular clientele made up of locals with the same opinions who seem to run off anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Since one of the commonly heard nicknames for our town is  “Fal-abama” you can probably guess how conservative and redneck things might be here. 

I am happy to report that while the “Good Ole White Boy” (Tea Party) contingent is still present, and still wanting things to go back to 1950, they have no control over this restaurant. 

The presence of the navy base brings a delightful mixture of humanity to add to our Native American and Hispanic cultures, and the influence of Burning Man is felt in a very positive way. The clientele is as diverse as the United Nations, and are better behaved (no diplomatic immunity.) 

I used to get harassed and called names because of my beard braids, and people with ink and/or piercings were rudely stared at until they left. That is no longer the case. Gay couples or mixed race couples were made to feel uncomfortable and in some cases refused service in this community as late as the late 1980’s. That is no longer openly true (you can’t fix everyone) here and most certainly not at the Second Chance Café. 

There are characters that make the world unique and like them or not, they do add color to the mixture. 

One such person is a very large man with a burning need to be the center of attention. Not just the focus of his captive group seated with him, but everyone within earshot of his always too-loud voice. He will often wear a top hat to the diner and sometimes rides up on his Harley and revs the motor loudly before shutting it off, to let everyone know that he has arrived. The man says whatever he can to cause the most controversy, upset the most people, and agitate the largest group. He lives for argument. 

There are people who are referred to in diner language as “campers,” meaning that they “camp out” (usually in a booth) and spend hours drinking coffee or tea and don’t order anything else. This ties up the seating and  cuts into the profit made from “turning” tables quickly. The real money is made from turning tables as often as possible, not from which meal customers order. This is why the most successful restaurants have bus people cleaning tables as quickly as customers get up, and frequently come by and take the “finished” dishes out of your way. It isn’t “to give you more room” as they are trained to say, but to cut down the reset time when you leave. 

The Second Chance Café has its share of campers, some of whom are senior citizens who will generally take a table and hold court for several hours in the middle of the day between lunch and dinner. They are not too much of a problem and do order a meal or two among the group. 

A far more problematic group comes around in the evening hours and is usually young people who will attempt to camp out in a prime corner booth where they can put their legs up and stretch out. They usually order water to drink and share large orders of French fries, making a mess all over the table with salt and ketchup and if left unchecked will get loud and rowdy. This is the group that unscrews the lids on the salt and pepper containers and spills water “accidentally” into the artificial sweetener holder. By the time they leave their tab will be five dollars or less, they leave no tip, and the booth looks like a group of toddlers had a confetti party. The cleanup efforts take forever and it adversely affects all of the tables around them. As you might guess they are very unpopular with the understaffed and overworked swing shift crew. 

The toughest campers to deal with are on the midnight shift. These are frequently people who have had too much to drink and/or have nowhere to go. People under the influence of whatever, are unpredictable at best.  They hang out for hours and vent their frustrations on the staff. This can make the graveyard shift a scary shift to work with only three people on duty. To make it worse sometimes if it is slow the supervisor lets one person go home early. 

In recent years we have seen homeless people use their panhandling money to buy a cup of coffee (and free refills,) spending all night inside where it is warm and there is a bathroom. If they behave themselves and stay  awake (no sleeping allowed) they are usually tolerated at the Second Chance Café. People who work there understand what being down on your luck is like and aren’t as quick to toss people to the curb. 

We are part of the growing group of “I don’t want to cook” customers who have enough disposable income to exercise the option of paying someone else to handle the kitchen duties. We trade the grocery bill and entertainment allowance (we don’t drink or gamble) for a restaurant bill. 

The Second Chance Café gives us another chance to interact with people and have a sort of second family to pick up the slack where our own busy family has departed. Life is good and every day is another adventure with old friends. I’ll drink (iced tea) to that!