So there I was, sitting on an Olympic Airways jet, heading to Athens with a bunch of people speaking Greek. I was fresh out of "A" school, following boot camp, and didn't understand a word of the announcements the stewardess was making. There was a funny smell in the air, which I later found to be the aroma of Greek-made cigarettes.*
(What am I doing here?)
* * * * *
Three weeks earlier: When orders were being passed out in "A" school, down in Orlando, I had high - and completely unrealistic - hopes of being assigned to the 9th Naval District. That comprised the upper Midwest, including my home state of Missouri.
So the CPO instructor started calling out names, and tossing envelopes to each of us. Breathing deep, I opened mine with hands that shook a little, not that I'd have admitted it. I'd been on active duty for only four months, and this was all still strange and new.
"Proceed to U.S.S. William M. Wood (DD-715) homeported at Athens, Greece."
(What? What happened to St. Louis, or Chicago, or Minneapolis, or ... ?)
Athens ... (quick, Paul - shake it off and remember where that is ... try not to look surprised. Take it in stride.)
But Athens? In Greece? That Athens? That's a long way for an 18-year-old kid from a small town in Nowhere, Missouri.
* * * * *
Earlier that day: The agents informed me that TWA was on strike. They could put me on another flight with the same departure time, if I was okay with Olympic Airways.
"Olympic? That's the Greek national airline. Their airport is right across the highway from the International Airport. It'll be fine," I was assured.
* * * * *
Back to the flight:
The gentleman sitting to my right on the Olympic jet was kind enough to translate the menu and announcements for me. "Okay," I thought, "here we go. This is that 'join the Navy and see the world' bit that was on the recruiting posters."
We landed in Paris for a refueling; there was a 45-minute layover, and passengers were herded into a waiting area in the terminal. So there I was at Orly, in Paris freakin' France! (Quick, Paul, run to the window and get a good look!) At ... trees. The other window then ... oops, that's the plane and a fuel truck.
I had picked up some post cards at JFK, so once I determined that I couldn't see Paris from the waiting area, I looked around for a mailbox. (What's a French mailbox look like?)
There was a blue, white and red box on the wall across the hallway. It looked vaguely like a mailbox back home, so I took a chance & dropped a card addressed to my parents. It took two weeks to arrive; they were happy to hear from me so soon. I was just happy the box hadn't been a trash can.
We got back on the Olympic plane and headed to Greece, but the arrival wasn't what I was expecting.
The concourse's windows were full of bullet holes, and there were some small craters in the outside walls. I'd blown up enough M80s to recognize blast marks. The airport itself was heavily staffed with guys in green uniforms and knee-boots, carrying short machine guns. They didn't look very friendly.
Greece was part of NATO then, so all servicemen had to do was present their military ID cards to get in. Customs was practically non-existent at that time - or else they didn't search military duffel bags - but I was waved through.
Now what? What do I do? Where do I go? How do I find an American warship on the coast? For that matter, where is the coast?
To my immeasurable relief, there was another sailor on the flight, who'd been sitting farther back - and he was returning from leave, to another ship in the squadron. He took me under his wing, and we grabbed a cab to a small building on the waterfront. Navy vans stopped there every 90 minutes. Everything's gonna be fine, now. Right?
I was travelling in uniform; my guide was in civvies. When we got out of the cab, two SPs (Shore Patrol) came running out of the building, yelling and waving their arms. (Now what?)
"Get him out of that white hat! The snipers are shooting at white hats!"
WHAT?!? I would have changed right there on the sidewalk, if they hadn't ushered me inside.
It turns out I'd landed just after an attempted military coup, which explained much: the bullet holes, evidence of explosions, and the armed guards at the airport.
There were two more revolutions while I was stationed in Greece. Tanks, half-tracks, men in black coats - and all carrying those little machine guns. Fun stuff. I was beginning to realize just what a sheltered life this Midwestern boy had been leading.
So I changed into civvies in a small closet, and waited for the Navy van. Surely things will calm down now, right? Not so much.
More surprises: the squadron wasn't ported in Athens. But sixteen miles to the northwest, up the coast past Piraeus, there's a town called Elefsis. Some maps spell it Eleusis, but the locals pronounce it "El-eff-seen'-na". It's now listed as Elefsina on most newer maps. (Nice of us English-speakers to finally get around to calling it what the residents have always called it, eh?)
Okay, the van got us to the port of Elefsis after a 30-minute drive. I looked for a ship with "715" on the prow ... nope. Great. I'm trying to report for duty, and my base is gone!
It seems there was a little dust-up in Israel called the Yom Kippur War, and the Wood was there, along with several other American ships - just in case, apparently.
I spent the night sleeping in an unassigned rack (Navy term for "bunk") on a destroyer tender. The next morning, I found that the Wood had returned during the night, and my new home for the next 18 months was waiting. It was Thanksgiving Day, 1973.
I took this picture in 1974, while the Wood was tied up to the pier in Elefsina.
*And those Greek cigarettes? That smell remains the strongest single memory of my time in the Mediterranean. It turned out the Greeks didn't like them, either. They'd do almost any task for which they normally charged money, for a carton or two of Winstons. Want a new suit? Two cartons ... but no menthols. They hated menthol, for some reason.
I didn't smoke, but it made a quick-and-easy method of exchange.