I was in my junior year in high school in Greece. A shy, awkward teenager, I preferred to remain quiet in class. Even though my Greek forebears had invented and perfected the art of oratory, any such DNA had obviously been diluted out of my genetic material.
That year included a public speaking assignment: Each student had to make a presentation to the entire high school assembly on a topic of their choice, on a date the school assigned. The summer before I had been my usual happy and carefree self, but by fall the looming Year of Public Speaking cast a dark and ominous shadow that ruined it all.
I was assigned a date: Friday, April 21. I was president of the art club, so I have a vague memory that I chose to talk about Impressionism. Droning on about that would surely put everyone to sleep and I would avoid the abject mortification that would likely follow.
We got no assistance with the assignment. No coaching, no helpful tips or guidance of any sort. We were on our own; we got our presentation ready and on the appointed day we went up on stage, cold. Next.
So that fall, with terror in my heart, I started preparing for the fateful day, certain that the audience would either burst out laughing the minute I opened my mouth — worst case scenario — or, best case, would pass out and let me blather on unnoticed. That Friday was also the last day before the traditional Easter break, so I would have two weeks to lick my wounds, and maybe even grow a beard and change my name so that nobody would recognize me when I got back.
The months crept on; time slowed to a trickle as if to make sure I would agonize even more. Christmas passed me over. I had no time for such frivolities.
I was a wreck.
At least I had a transistor radio. The political situation in Greece had been unusually messy that spring, with extensive coverage on the news. We didn’t have a TV — television service didn’t arrive in Greece until the 1970s — so in addition to the news the radio was my source of entertainment; crime serials and, yes, even sitcoms.
The fateful day finally arrived. After those few carefree seconds between sleep and wakefulness, reality barged in and I remembered: Today was the day. I grabbed my book bag, making sure my presentation was in it, went out the door, trudged down the two flights of stairs from my parents’ apartment and went out into the street.
A brilliant sunny day, I remember. The apartment was a few blocks from Patision Avenue, a busy arterial connecting downtown Athens with the northern suburbs where buses, cars, motorcycles and pedestrians regularly fought to occupy the same two narrow lanes of pavement. The school bus stopped around the corner from our building, next to a small neighborhood park. It always picked us up at 7:40, so we were all normally there by 7:35.
I got to the bus stop but didn’t see anyone waiting. Damn. Had I missed it? That would have been a first, but possible given my state of mind. After it picked us up the bus went down to Patision, where it usually got stuck in traffic for several minutes, so maybe I could hurry down that way and intercept it.
I ran. Along the way I noticed that streets were strangely quiet, no traffic, but I didn’t have time to stop and analyze the situation; I had a bus to catch.
I finally made it to Patision. And I stopped dead on my tracks.
The street was empty. There were no buses, no cars or motorcycles, no throngs of commuters, no street vendors setting up their stations, no shop owners opening their stores.
And then I heard a rumble. I turned and there, headed towards downtown, was a large group of army tanks slowly grinding their way on the asphalt. Army tanks. On Patision. Greece was not at war, so those were Greek troops. Greek troops? What the hell was going on?
I ran back home, unbelievably still wondering how I was going to get to school. Ran up the stairs, woke up the rest of the family. The radio, turn on the radio!
A group of army officers had overthrown the government in the early morning hours, arrested and jailed several prominent politicians, and seized control of the country’s state radio stations, which were now broadcasting military marches and news bulletins.
We all sat quietly, in shock as the country slipped into dictatorship. But it was mental fist pumps for me: Schools were closed! That’s right, no school! And the next two weeks we were on Easter break! I knew there was no time to reschedule my talk, so I was free! The powers of darkness and evil might have descended on the birthplace of democracy, but hallelujah, I was saved.
It was Friday, April 21, 1967. The Junta that seized power that day would stay in power for almost seven years.
I swear, I had nothing to do with it.
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, naturalist and avid birder who writes from Herron Island.