Growing up Greek in America usually entailed long hours in Greek School. Most kids like me didn't exactly fully appreciate spending a few extra hours in school so we could acquire a basic knowledge of the Greek language. It didn't stop there. Greek history and holidays were an important part of the curriculum. My favorite holiday was OXI day on 28 October. This was the day that celebrates Greek refusal to submit to an ultimatum by the Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, and thus Greek entry into World War II on the side of the Allies. Oxi is the Greek word for "No." For Greek School students celebrating meant memorizing by heart the obligatory "epic" poem that would have to be recited in front of what seemed thousands of people including parents, grandparents, relatives, friends, clergy and worst of all, the Greek School teacher. During one particular recital, now seared into my fading memory, I got half way through only to go completely blank for an interminable period. My Greek school teacher, Kiria (Mrs.) Liapaki, was usually close by to give your memory a gentle nudge if you ran into trouble. This time she was caught flat-footed. As I stood looking into the abyss, with my entire short life flashing before my eyes, my parents were trying to figure out how they could slink out without being noticed. Our parish priest, with his white beard and uncanny resemblance to God himself, put his arm around me and gently whispered encouragement. All of a sudden the light bulb went on and I was saved from certain extinction. I always wondered if the heroes of 1940 ever had to go through anything that hair raising.
In fact, the heroes of 1940 lived in our very midst. One of them, George Tsamouranis was married to my second cousin, Katherine. Uncle George, as I often referred to him, was a larger than life character who was a medically retired Colonel in the Hellenic Air Force. The scion of an aristocratic Athenian family, he joined the Hellenic Air Force before the war becoming a fighter pilot. His fighter plane, a Polish made PZL, was shot down over the Greek-Albanian border. He managed to crash land his aircraft, suffering terrible burns over a major portion of his body in the process. He was saved by the valiant efforts of some local Greek villagers who wrapped him up in freshly skinned goat hides. He underwent numerous surgeries and skin grafts over many years, most in the United States. Uncle George always wore sunglasses to hide the fact that he had neither eyelashes nor eyebrows. His face had practically been erased. I remember looking at the picture of a proud handsome Air Force officer in his dress whites that my cousin Katherine kept on her desk. It didn't look anything like the person I knew. Uncle George was someone who epitomized the sacrifices that Greeks, from all walks of life, had made in World War II; he was a walking bit of history. He never talked about the war or his experiences, yet proudly wore his uniform and pilot wings on special occasions. I remember once, as a little boy, reverently running my fingers over the pilot's wings and ribbons on his tunic, while picturing him in the cockpit of his fighter. The last time I saw Uncle George, we had dinner together when I was stationed in Athens. Visibly aged and tired, he and I talked for a long time about Greece and its future. He was proud of his country and optimistic about its ability to sort itself out after overcoming so many national upheavals during his lifetime. Uncle George died suddenly, a few years later. His wife passed away recently. She was well aware of my hero worship of her late husband and left me something to remember him by, a photograph of a proud young officer taken before the war that changed his life so dramatically, in uniform, and an autographed copy of "The First and the Last" by German Luftwaffe fighter ace, Adolf Galland, whom he had met and befriended on a visit to Germany after the war. In accordance with his wishes, Uncle George was laid to rest in the land that he had sacrificed so much for, in his uniform. The Greek heroes of 1940 who survived the war are now slowly dying off, their sacrifices and exploits largely forgotten, even by their fellow Greeks. All that remains for me, of one of those heroes, is a fading photograph, a book yellowed with age, and a few precious memories. Here's hoping that Colonel George Tsamouranis is once again roaring through the bright blue Greek skies, with a good tailwind at his back, watching over the mountains and islands below, as the sound of freedom reverberates again over his homeland.