Tale of two worlds: Crete then and now
By J. Donald Oakes and Harris S. Parkell
The authors became friends while stationed at the American air base in Gournes in 1965. They both revisited the sight this year. This is their story, which was inspired by the Gazette’s recent articles of the former base.)
Arriving at Heraklion
THEN: The cheapest ticket on the overnight ferry between Athens and Heraklion cost 90 drachmas — if you were willing to spend the trip outside on the deck with chickens, goats, crying babies, freshly-picked produce. As underpaid G.I.’s, we had no choice. Although we had enough money to drink to help ward off the elements, we did not have enough to ensure physical comfort for the trip. Consequently, we usually spent several hours at the bar inside, and then wound up stretched out on deck for the remainder of the 12-hour trip. Fortified with Minos wine and ouzo, spending the night on deck wasn’t much of an inconvenience.
In those days, the old Venetian fortress located at the end of the breakwater in Heraklion was the first recognizable thing one saw upon arriving. After the trip to Athens, it was like a feeling of “I’m home.” At the very least it gave us a sense of “being back” where we belonged at that point in our lives.
It was at those times; late at night and early mornings, that Heraklion harbour was silent darkness around us. There were only the faint sounds of manned fishing boats, preparing to set off for the day’s catch, and, occasionally, during the summer months, a luxury liner was docked.
NOW: In September 2005, we travelled to Heraklion, wanting to visit a past that doesn’t exist any more. Four decades have come and gone since our Air Force days of the mid ’60’s. We knew that Crete had undergone dramatic changes in the intervening years. However, we had no idea just how prevalent those changes were. They first became obvious during the ferry ride from Athens, where we had once travelled “deck class.” This time we arrived via luxury ferry from Athens in a trip that took only nine hours!
The 26 Euro ticket, plus the extra cost for obtaining a private stateroom with a shower, was a small amount to pay. A bit different than curling up on the cold deck 40 years ago. Other amenities, like a lounge area with closed circuit television, upholstered chairs, a disco and a first-class restaurant, were available.
We arrived in Heraklion Harbour at the break of dawn. Our eyes scanned the still-darkened water for the first glimpse of the lights of the city, and, of course, the old Venetian Fortress, to establish that “we were back.” But, as we approached and then passed the end of the breakwater, there was no fortress! Could it have been torn down? We didn’t think it likely but stranger things have happened in the name of progress. Then, as the ferry continued its slow pace, we suddenly realized that the harbour had been expanded over the years, and at last the fortress loomed on our right. We were back!
While the fortress remained the same, there were many other changes besides the expansion of the harbour. The same area, so peacefully serene forty years ago, was now bustling with early morning chaos, traffic and noise. The quaint harbour was now strictly a yacht basin with an occasional small fishing boat. Ocean-going freighters, ferries and cruise ships now docked at a huge adjacent area that had been built since our last visit, disfiguring the entire area almost beyond recognition.
In the Center of Heraklion
THEN: In 1965, the Morosini Fountain in Lions Square was a perfect spot to change direction as we caroused through town in a 1951 Jeep. It was sort of the epicentre of Heraklion. All tourists turned up there sooner or later, as did all most of the G.I.s who ventured off base. Sometimes as we were leaving, and just for a lark, we’d hop in the jeep, careen around the fountain with a burst of speed, coming dangerously close to people at the outside tables, then reach out and snatch bottles of booze or beer from the alfresco tables at the Caprice Cafe, and then roar off down the street with gales of laughter. Our “getaways” were easy, as local police in those days and were on foot, and only armed with a “whistle” – not much of a deterrent.
Occasionally, on an endless quest for fun, adventure and dates, we frequently walked the seven blocks from Lions Square down 25 Avgoustou Street to the waterfront and back. We might do this 2-3 times a night, checking whether a tourist ship, packed to the rafters with single girls, had arrived. Being the first to mingle with these girls allowed us our pick of dates. Step 1 was to get them to a caf? for a drink, gain their trust, then reveal the existence of the Jeep and promises of fun during the next several days of their visit to the island.
NOW: After disembarking and a short taxi ride to the fashionable Lato Boutique Hotel, we stowed our luggage until check-in time. Then, hungry, we walked to Lions Square. From our hotel on Epimenidou Street, it was a short distance.
What used to be an easy walk, both down to the harbour and back up 25 Avgoustou Street had suddenly become exhausting. Somehow, over the years, that street has become significantly steeper.
Awed at all the activity, we ate breakfast at the site of the former Caprice Cafe. The entire area has become a pedestrian plaza. Lions Square encompasses numerous restaurants and tourists shops. Even Minos is a thing of the past. It has been upstaged by Raki. Where was the Crete we knew?
The American Base in Gournes
THEN: We had been stationed at the American Air Force base near Gournes, about 30 kilometres east of Heraklion. Although barely in our 20’s, we were saddled with enormous responsibility. On base we worked as intelligence analysts in the Operations Building, located in what was called the “compound,” a heavily guarded fenced area. This was, after all, the height of the cold war. In short, we were spies. Code breakers. Nothing happened in that part of the world that we didn’t know about.
As diversions from the stress at work, we had clubs for drinking and dancing, a bowling alley, cinema, snack bar, gymnasium, photo shop, clothing stores and supermarkets, and a beautiful base beach. In short, Iraklion Air Station was a mini-city. Gradually, the need of the air station dissipated. As electronic technology developed, the need for our type of “mission” became obsolete. Ultimately, in 1993 the base was abandoned and turned over to the Greek government.
NOW: The base is mostly derelict. What had been the BX and snack bar is now Gouves City Hall. My barracks is now an administrative office building for a Greek vocational school and my room in particular is the principal’s office. Although construction work is being done to some of the barracks, most of the buildings are forlorn. Glass from broken windows and trash from squatters litter virtually every floor in every building. Wiring is exposed and insulation hangs from the ceilings. The clubs today are unrecognizable. If the bowling alley did not still have a prominent sign, its former purpose would be unknown. There is nothing inside indicating what it had been. The chow hall, however, still looks as though it is a chow hall, thanks mainly to the tiled areas of the serving line. It, too, has been vandalized. Most of the seats in the movie theatre have disappeared.
Walking through the unmanned gate is surreal. No one is there to check badges. Gradually it all came back. The entrance hallway, the door at which we had to punch in a four digit entry code, the areas where we both had worked, and the “burn room,” in which all classified paper was burned daily, still with the old furnace untouched by time. It was obvious that squatters had lived in the Operations Building over the years. The only evidence that Americans had once used this building were occasional signs: the entrance to the burn room still warns readers how to handle classified information, DataComm and Criticom Support Facility signs telling visitors which part of Operations they’re in.
Roads and Traffic
THEN: One of the greatest joys as a G.I. on Crete with personal transportation in the mid ’60’s was the fact that there were very few vehicles with which you had to contend. There were, of course, numerous taxis in Heraklion, plus a few large trucks and only several buses. Only a handful of people owned motorbikes. For the most part, roads were in good shape due to the absence of heavy traffic.
The few Greek drivers were men and always courteous. No one ever seemed to be in a hurry, except possibly G.I.s upon hearing a tourist ship had docked. Although the only road between the base and Heraklion wound through the mountains, there was no apparent need for a guardrail, and the trip from base to downtown took about 40 minutes.
NOW: After renting a Suzuki, we made our initial foray to Gournes, a trip we had driven countless times in the past. During the planning for our trip to Crete, there had been a certain amount of smugness. Because of our vast experience on the island, it was unthinkable that finding our way around could possibly be a problem. We were in Heraklion and base was about 30 kilometres east, past “Florida” Beach. We had, of course, driven that route 500 times. Go out past the airport and just stay on the road. You can’t miss it. Famous last words.
The first problem was getting out of Heraklion. What had been two-way streets years ago now were one-way. Traffic was routed in directions we didn’t want to go. Because Heraklion is such an old city, streets are very narrow, and can mostly accommodate just one lane of traffic. Unfortunately, the Greek drivers seem to think that there should be two lanes and they will pass you. When traffic is jammed to a halt, adventurous motorcyclists creating a third lane bypass what had become two lanes of traffic. Sidewalks often do double duty as a passing lane for motorized traffic. Greeks as a society have not been driving a very long time. The concept of “slow” and “take turns” and “patience” have not, as yet, made their way into the culture.
Finally, we managed to get out of town. Unfortunately, we were on the New National Road. This new road is actually a two-lane highway. Again, the Greeks perceive the shoulder to be a “slow” lane. If you don’t move over and drive on the shoulder, they will pass you, either on the right or on the left, or on curves. They will not stay behind you no matter your speed. The trip to Gournes took only about fifteen minutes. It came so fast that we missed it and had to turn around. Most stunning of all was seeing women, both young and old, driving. By the end of the first day on the island, it was apparent that motorcycles were the vehicles of choice among many Greeks, both male and female. Virtually every bit of videotape shot during our visit has the sounds of the ubiquitous motorcycles drowning out everything else.
Women in Crete
THEN: Forty years ago, Cretan women traditionally wore the long black dresses so common in that part of the world. The only skin visible on them was their faces and hands, assuming you could get close enough to observe.
In those days, husbands and fathers were very protective of the females in their families. Socializing between young Greek ladies and American G.I.’s was basically frowned upon. So, to discourage interest, young women dressed like their mothers and grandmothers. On the rare occasion when socializing did occur, there was an elaborate dating ritual that involved the entire family going on the date with the young couple.
As the Greek family built trust in the G.I., one by one family members would discontinue joining the dating couple. Ultimately it would be just the father and mother with the young couple, then finally the father with the couple. When the girl’s father ceased joining in on the dates, the couple was considered engaged! And they had better marry! (The story was told of one G.I. who, after refusing to marry his Greek girlfriend, was shipped off the island in a mail bag in the middle of the night to avoid angry relatives. True? No one is certain. However, most of us learned a lesson from the story.)
NOW: Sitting at Lions Square that first morning, we could very well have been in New York City, San Francisco or London. There were so many people – thousands of people, all scurrying to begin their day.
The most noticeable change at that moment concerned the young Greek women. They all are dressed in jeans and short tops. Each one of them exposing her bare midriff! As it’s the fad in London, Munich and New York, so, too it’s in vogue in Crete.
Restaurants in Heraklion
THEN: Living on base usually meant eating in the chow hall three times a day or, if one had a little money, possibly a quick meal at the club or snack bar. Although the food was nothing special, we knew it was prepared in a clean environment.
Off base, though, it was a different story. Sanitation was not a high priority back then. All G.I.s noticed that meat and poultry hanging on Heraklion’s Market street wasn’t refrigerated, and were covered with flies Even at Caprice Restaurant and the nearby Minos Hotel, plates sometimes were dirty. Certainly ouzo glasses weren’t always clean. (This lack of sanitation did not always deter us. We simply figured that the potency of ouzo killed any unwelcome bacteria.)
Before tourism became such a huge industry, menus were generally in Greek and one could not always be certain what one was ordering. Accordingly, most meals were eaten on base. Gastronomically, downtown Heraklion mostly was limited to supplying souvlakis for the more adventurous, and an occasional pastry.
Every G.I. who enjoyed hanging out downtown is familiar with what were appropriately known as “bomb sites” (especially if you made a night of it drinking at Caprice’s. A bombsite, simply, was a hole in the floor, which was supposed to be a toilet. Everyone has a personal story to relate, but no matter how grim it sounds, you can bet reality was considerably worse.
Bombsites were usually found in restaurants, tavernas and even small hotels. On either side of the hole there were places to position your feet as you squatted (if you were so desperate that you couldn’t wait until you got back to base). Then you just plain hoped for the best. It was usually painfully obvious that the last twenty people who used it previously had missed the intended target.
Bombsites were always absolutely filthy, reeking with an odour that would make your eyes water. The first time you saw a bombsite, you would stare in amazement then close your eyes, trying not to breathe while taking care of business. By the second time, you would have learned to gulp as much air as possible as you approached, hold your breath while hoping and praying that you could finish your business before needing more oxygen. Alleys were definitely a preferable alternative when your need was simply liquid, which explains why so many Greeks relieve themselves alfresco.
NOW: Today, everything and everybody is clean and very modern! Even most of the toilets are ultra-modern. No more disgusting “bomb sites!” — except in some remote villages. We were struck by just how up-to-date some of the places are. Using the bathroom of a restaurant on Market Street, it was amazing to see motion detectors switch on lights as we walked through a hallway towards the men’s room.
All bathrooms, from our hotel to every restaurant we patronized, were absolutely clean and fresh. At the restaurant now occupying the former location of Caprice, the infamous bombsite is no longer accessible (assuming that it still exists downstairs). Patrons now go to the second floor to more modern, clean facilities.
Small Towns in Crete
1965. There were never any dull moments when we explored the small towns of Crete. Our curiosity was always aroused as we travelled, absorbing the sights and sounds. The vineyards and olive groves were obviously the main source of income for the people living away from the sea. We would stop and marvel at the sights when the farmers harvested their bounties. Invariably they would motion for us to help ourselves and we gladly accepted their invitation.
In such cases, we could not understand them when they spoke and they could not understand us. Words weren’t important. There is something universal about the language of smiles and hospitality! After helping ourselves to more than enough grapes, we would venture on in search of the village’s taverna. Again, we were always treated with warmth.
2005. Wanting to recapture the same feeling of forty years ago, a few days after arriving in Crete we drove through Panagia, a small village near St. Nicks and accidentally found a vineyard high above the town. By sheer good fortune, it was harvest time.
As we passed, we saw a man with his family cutting grapes. After motioning in sign language for permission to videotape them, we were given several pounds of grapes. Although they expected nothing from their American visitors, we gave them €5 in appreciation of their willingness to allow us to photograph them.
Afterwards, we drove into town to find an “old fashion” taverna. It was easy to do. Finding the “perfect one” in the exact centre of town, we “enjoyed” our customary ouzo and shared laughter with the locals. Again, not a word was understood. All we needed were smiles to communicate. That genuine friendliness is even rarer today. We had found our Crete!