Thursday, October 17, 2013

"WHAT IS A BED?" or "YOUNG MEN DON'T CRY"


Dear Friends,

When most of us were stationed on Crete in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, we had arrived as young men in our late teens and early twenties.  Most of us thought that because we were men (actually, we were little more than just kids), we had to display a certain bravado and toughness.  This meant rarely exhibiting our emotions or our feelings for fear that it might be viewed as a sign of weakness.  Therefore, we did all that we could to conceal any show of our true feelings in order to avoid the ridicule of our peers – a ridicule that could often be brutal and relentless.  However, with the passage of decades, sometimes I now look back on some of the events that took place and can’t help but feel emotions that I would have been loath to exhibit then.  With that having been said, I submit the following remembrance:

After my arrival on Crete in December of 1968 and having been assigned to “Charlie Flight”, I made a very conscious effort to “fit in” with the rest of the guys on Charlie Flight and was eager to participate in any activities with my “Charlie Flight brothers” outside of the compound or off base.  So, in the early spring of 1969 when it was announced that “Charlie Flight” would be delivering a load of surplus bunk beds, mattresses, desks, and other assorted used furnishings to an orphanage in the little mountain village of Anogia on Crete, I was excited about the prospect of participating in such a worthwhile project.  This effort was led by TSgt. Walter J. Williams, III (also known as “Willie”, “Bud” and “The Big Kahuna”).  We left Iraklion Air Station in an odd assortment of P.O.V’s. (privately owned vehicles), along with an Air Force flatbed truck loaded with the disassembled bunk beds, mattresses, desks, etc.  We must have looked like a modern-day wagon train as we slowly wound our way up along the narrow, twisting, and sometimes rock-strewn and sometimes unpaved road to Anogia.  Upon our arrival in Anogia our little caravan of vehicles was surrounded by the villagers as they escorted us to the orphanage.  Once at the orphanage, the flatbed truck was unloaded and all of the surplus items taken inside for re-assembly.  There were either two or three interpreters who accompanied us to act as a liaison between us and the local villagers.  As I recall, there was a large dormitory-style room where several of us were tasked with the job of re-assembling the bunk beds.  The room was cold and rather barren looking...almost harsh.  I sat down with a pile of assorted bunk bed parts and started putting this metallic jig-saw puzzle back together again.  Using a pair of pliers, a wrench and a screwdriver, I was putting the parts back together, when I noticed a small boy with dark hair and even darker eyes that sparkled like black diamonds, wearing a tattered sweater and pants with holes at the knees, watching me intently from just a few feet away.  He was barefoot and standing on the cold stone floor.  By his side, he was holding some type of stuffed animal that was worn and ragged, and looked like it was older than the little boy - it was obviously a “hand-me-down”.  He was neither smiling nor was he frowning; he was just watching with the intensive curiosity of a small child.  I guessed that he was about six years of age.  “Geia sou”, I said, smiling at him.  Having been on Crete for only two or three months, that was about the extent of my Greek vocabulary.  He managed a shy smile back and then said something in Greek that I didn’t understand.  “Hey, Manoli, can you come over here and tell me what this little boy is saying?” I shouted out to one of the interpreters.  I really didn’t know if the interpreter’s name was Manoli or not, but at that time if you didn’t know a Greek’s name, it seemed like it automatically became “Manoli”.  The interpreter walked over and spoke to the little boy.  “What was he saying, Manoli?” I asked.  “Oh, he just wanted to know what you were doing”, Manoli said.  “O.K.  Well, just tell him that I’m putting together a bed.”  Manoli turned and spoke in Greek to the little boy.  Then, with an expressionless face, the little boy said something to Manoli.  Manoli paused, cast his eyes downward and was silent.  “Well, what did he say, Manoli?” I asked.  Manoli lifted his eyes and replied with his heavy Greek accent, “The little boy wants to know”, he paused, then continued, “...what is a bed?”  At first I thought that I hadn’t heard Manoli correctly or that he was playing some kind of joke on me.  But, when I glanced at Manoli, then at the little boy, then back to Manoli again, I realized that he was serious.  This little boy had never slept in a bed before; he didn’t even know what a bed was.  He had always slept on a pallet on the floor!  I quickly turned my head away from both of them and started fiddling with one of the tools, pretending that I was still putting the bunk bed parts back together.  I didn’t want either one of them to see the redness in my eyes - after all, young men don’t cry.  Once I had somewhat regained my composure, I cleared my throat and said to Manoli, “You tell him that a bed is something that you sleep on at night.  Or, you can even sleep on it during the day if you want to take a short nap.  Tell him that I’m putting this bed together especially for him.  It will be his bed.  And, no one can ever take it away from him.  If they do, they'll have to face me, and I’ll make sure that he has his bed back.  Tell him that, Manoli”, I said as my voice started to tremble a bit.  Manoli nodded, turned and spoke to the child, and as he did so, the little boy began to smile.  After I had assembled the bed frame, I inserted the springs and found a surplus mattress that wasn’t in too bad a condition.  There were no sheets as I can remember, but there was a stack of used Air Force blankets piled in a corner of the room.  I selected the two best blankets that I could find, then I covered the mattress with one blanket and used the second blanket like a top sheet.  The little boy had remained at my side the entire time.  When I was finished, I motioned for the little boy to climb up on the bed and lay down.  I had pulled back the top blanket and the small boy sandwiched himself between the two blankets.  He pulled his little stuffed animal close to his body and even closer to his heart, then closed his eyes.  Perhaps that stuffed animal was his only kin...or maybe even his only friend.  I stepped outside for a cigarette and walked around in the cool spring, mountain air for a few minutes, trying to understand what had just happened and trying to get a grip on my emotions.  When I returned, the little boy was asleep.

That was 44 years ago.  If the little boy was six years old at that time, then he must be about 50 years old now.  I hope that he is married, and that he has children and perhaps even grandchildren.  But more than anything, I hope that he has a sense of belonging, a sense of being wanted and needed, and above that, a sense of being loved.

As an addendum to this story, I might say that as I was writing this article, more than once did tears well up in my eyes.  Yes, I know...young men don’t cry...but old men do!

P.S.: Your comments on this article are welcomed.  You can leave a comment simply by clicking on "comments" at the end of this article.  Your comments will be posted as soon as they can be reviewed.  Thanks.

Your Friend and Fellow “Silent Warrior”,

Bob Armistead

6 comments:

MAC said...

As always Bob OUTSTANDING.

Donna Iatrakis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Donna Iatrakis said...

Bob, that is a touching story. I want to inquire if you are sure that the orphanage was in Anogia, could it have been in Asites. I am an American (I worked at IAS for the University of Maryland from 91 until its closure in 94), and we retired to live in Kato Asites, the village my husband is from. I have heard much about the generosity of my countrymen station at IAS in the 60's. IAS raised funds to build the dormitories at the orphanage/nunnery here in Asites.
It is a monastery now and the orphanage has long been closed. You might want to schedule a trip to the Monastery of Gorgolini in the village of Kato Asites. I'm a member of the IAS site on F/B and if you decide to visit send can me a message if you need directions or any more information.

Donna Iatrakis said...

Sorry about the double post. Did first then it disappeared and thought I had accidentally deleted it, oops.

Laust One said...

Love that story Bobby. Hope that boy can have the chance to read it. Thanks for sharing it.

Bob Armistead said...

Dear Donna, Thank you for your comments. The orphanage we visited was definitely located in the village of Anogia. In 2009, I returned to Anogia, but the orphanage had been closed down for many years. When I return to Crete in 2014, perhaps I will visit the Monastery located in Kato Asites. Thanks again.