Fifty years ago, a shortcut led to a new life
Unlike Solzhenitsyn’s «One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,» this day, May 31, 1951, was not a fictional, unhappy one, but a lucky date that changed my life in ways unimaginable at the time. I was a young Greek architect of the class of 1948, without professional experience, recently discharged from military service in the Greek Navy, and looking for my first job. Unfortunately, because of the Korean War, people feared World War III to be just around the corner, and would hardly invest in houses or buildings. To make the best of my time, I decided to investigate the possible scholarships offered by the French government, and was on my way from our house in the Kolonaki area of Athens to the French Embassy, taking an unusual shortcut through single-block Merlin Street. While walking past an elegant mansion, the former Romanian Embassy, I looked up at the solid oak, double door and, on the wall on its side, saw a polished brass sign saying «Knappen Tippetts Abbett, Engineers, New York-Athens.» I stopped in my tracks and thought about whether this company might have a position for me. I hesitated, thinking that this obviously important company had thousands of experienced architects available in the USA. Certainly they did not need a beginner like myself. I am an agnostic, but perhaps there is a good Lord up there who made me take a step forward, the most important in my life, and ring the bell. I entered a beautiful, cool marble entranceway with a magnificent monumental staircase of the same material and a forged iron handrail in the back. In the hall there was a small desk. I was greeted by an elderly gentleman with short-cropped gray hair, and steel-framed spectacles, later identified as a retired Greek American. I responded to his question by saying that I was looking for a job. He directed me upstairs to see Mr Kirpich, the Deputy Resident Manager. Impressed by the elegant marble columns and the glass-enclosed winter garden, I knocked at the door and entered a large office with three desks, a small one on the left with a short young woman, probably a secretary. Against the far wall and in front of a window, was a desk with a gentleman of about 35 with a square chin, slightly wavy brown hair, brown eyes and glasses in solid dark frames. He wore a white shirt and a tie but no jacket. Apparently he was the chief, Mr Kirpich, the first American civilian man I had come to within 20 or so feet of. Actually, I had accompanied my father, a university professor, on his visit in 1946 to the US battleship Missouri which showed the flag in Greek waters for the benefit of the Soviets at the beginning of Cold War, had had lunch in the officers’ mess and had a photo taken below the bronze commemorative tablet recalling Japan’s surrender in Tokyo Bay in August on that very spot. But this time I was alone before this American who was probably 10 feet tall when standing up and certain to have a direct wire to the White House in Washington (I did not know of the Oval Office at the time), and were he unhappy with me for whatever reason, he would not hesitate to press that button, and I, together with the entire city of Athens, but not he, would be blown to pieces in a blue flash inside that mushroom cloud. Surprisingly, he had a friendly, reassuring smile and kind eyes. In a pleasant baritone voice he asked me to approach. In my stilted school English («The shirt of my father is white») I told him that I was an architect looking for a job. He nodded in a friendly way, reached into his drawer (but not for that button to the White House!), and gave me an application form to complete and return to him as soon as possible. I was too confused to remember how I left the office. I went home and completed the form very, very carefully. The words «single, married, divorced,» although clear to me, I looked up in my father’s English dictionary to be sure. The references I completed as follows: I listed my uncle George Papadopoulos, Fellow of the ASCE and subsequently Inspector General and Head of the Greek reclamation service, being certain that he would recommend me. I also gave the name of Alexandros Tsalikis, a good friend of my father, the recently retired chief official of the Greek Ministry of Public Works, and, unknown to me, a consultant to this very American company. He knew of my existence, but absolutely nothing of my qualifications. These references proved to be decisive when I returned to the manager. Again, very kindly, he directed me to see Mr Robert Gehr who would be my supervisor. This gentleman, also very friendly, asked me to bring samples of my work. I was able to dig up some old drawings from my student days, very elaborate architectural perspectives of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. While these drawings were not of the type this company required, they showed artistic style, competence and precision. As a result, Mr Gehr asked me what salary I expected. From French and Viennese German I knew the word, but to be sure I asked him if he meant «wages,» a word I recalled from an old article in a Life magazine I had kept at home. We agreed on the going rate of 2,000 drachmas a month. Familiar with Greek bureaucratic ways, I was very surprised and pleased to be asked to report for work the very next day, June 1, 1951 at 8.00 a.m. I was exuberant at having landed such a good job so quickly and unexpectedly. I was surprised at the friendliness, patience, and humanity of these people. An additional advantage for me would be to quickly improve my American English, including colloquial and technical terms. With my first paycheck I bought Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony on 78 rpm records, and Romain Rolland’s biography of Beethoven, a book I still have. The normal working hours were from 8.00 a.m. to 2.15 p.m. weekdays, and to 1.45 p.m. on Saturdays. Soon it became necessary to work overtime almost every day, three hours to 5.45 p.m. Many employees did, but having families, they decided that at a time-and-a-half rate this was enough. I, being single, lean and mean, volunteered for all the time necessary to finish the work at hand, and was the only one to do this. Because the company had contracted work in Iraq, then ruled by a pro-English king (Saddam Hussein was still in kindergarten), the Resident Manager, Mr Travis, had to fly to Baghdad, taking off by plane at about 11 a.m. with all the drawings. Thus, I worked frequently till 3 a.m., 18 hours at a stretch. After a few hours’ sleep, I was back at my desk at 8.00 a.m., having earned four days’ pay in a single day. Wow! When I had finished my night’s work, I left it on the front desk. The blueprint boy would pick it up at 7.30 a.m. and return the prints at 9.00 a.m., all rolled up and ready for Mr Travis to take along on his flight to Baghdad. I worked very carefully, knowing that there was no checking, except mine, so there were no errors. As a result, I never missed a single salary raise and in three years I more than doubled my pay to over 4,000 drachmas. I found that the Americans appreciated good, hard work and dependable people and paid them generously. During the first summer, Mr Travis invited us to a company dinner and dance party in an open-air restaurant in the Kypseli district of Athens. I happened to sit with my cousin Lola at Mr Travis’s table and next to his guest, a senior retired military officer who told us stories from the war. I was asked to explain my Italian-sounding family name which actually originated from a Greek island in the Cyclades. Another dinner dance was held at carnival time early the next year at Palaio Faliron by the sea, with the employees dressed as famed historic couples, such as Anthony and Cleopatra, or Napoleon and Josephine. Sadly, I cannot recall my partner or the people we impersonated. A year or two later, we had a big carnival dance at the elegant Acropole Hotel which lasted almost till dawn. I would like to think that the next day was a Sunday, because despite having drunk strong coffee, we were all unfit for work. This goes to show that, despite hard work, we also had fun. At some time KTA considered relocating to Lebanon but, fortunately for us, the company decided to stay in Athens after all. During August 1952, I took my vacation to the beautiful Pelion mountains with forests reaching down to the rocky beaches. The view was magnificent, extending almost to the coast of Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea. My companions during siesta time were Agatha Christie’s Monsieur Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple. On December 9, 1952, my mother who was German and a life-long German and French language teacher, suffered an unexpected stroke, and died on the 18th in the Evangelismos Hospital, aged 65. This was a terrible blow, and a turning point in my life. Fortunately, she did not suffer but it was very painful for me. The next summer I took a four-week vacation to visit my mother’s relatives and to Vienna to see an old school friend. In time KTA, now KTAM, signed contracts with the Turkish government for the Seyhan River project. This considerably increased our workload and was an added benefit for us. The company hired a large number of new engineers and leased the adjacent building, even cutting a door in the fire wall for easy access. A Turkish engineer of Greek ancestry frequently came over to check on progress. Also work was at one time contemplated for the Wheelus Air Force base in Libya (this in pre-Khadafy days, of course), but progressed only after I had left.