OPINION: Three lives from the 1930s
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ONE: In the early 1930s when I was 12, my parents, six children, and Naka, who helped care for my younger sister and myself, occupied a series of bleak old apartments on Chicago’s South Side. Herbert Hoover was president, and all the country seemed poor.
This was in a time when World War I veterans protested against the government for promising and then delaying the payment of their bonuses. Those who were not employed set up folding chairs at street corners, a crate of apples on the sidewalk beside them, and a scrawled sign reading “Apples 5 cents.”
One veteran had a station on the street where we lived. He had lost an arm in the war and the sleeve of his jacket dangled limply by his side. When my mother gave me a nickel to buy an apple, I would visit with the veteran who called me “Buddy.”
“To a soldier,” he said, “the most important person in the world is his ‘buddy,’ someone who looks out for him, and has his back. Now you’ll be my buddy and I’ll be yours.”
Buddy told me he had been married, but not long after his return from service his wife left him.
“It was my fault,” Buddy said. “You’ll better understand what I’m saying when you get older,” he said. “Even if a soldier isn’t wounded by bullets or bombs, something inside him that is human and merciful dies. He can’t go back to the life he once lived.”
I remember his voice and face both sad.
“I had a son too,” he said, “a boy about your age. When my wife left me, she took him with her. I haven’t seen him since.”
The following spring I waited for Buddy to appear on our corner. Then, one day my mother showed me the newspaper that had a story about veterans setting up tents in Chicago’s Grant Park to protest their unpaid bonuses. One photograph showed a veteran with a limp sleeve dangling from his shoulder battling police. I recognized Buddy.
All that spring and into summer, I waited for Buddy to return to our corner, so I could ask him if anything came of the rioting and protests. I also wanted to ask him if he’d ever found his son. But Buddy never returned to the corner and I never saw him again.
TWO: The parochial school we attended was part of my father’s parish. Greek teachers taught Greek while English teachers were brought in to teach English. The most integral part of our school curriculum was the daily beatings.
The English teachers beat us in desultory fashion, part of their contractual obligation. But the Greek teachers, true to their passionate Mediterranean background, beat us with dedication and fervor.
However, none of the teachers, English or Greek, could match the zeal and ferocity at wielding the stick as our school principal, who we called “Mr. Beast!”
Mr. Beast prowled the corridors, classrooms, and schoolyard. Catching some miscreant in a real or imagined transgression, Mr. Beast clutched him tightly by the scruff of the neck while whacking him with the stick, the sound resonating like a hammer striking flesh and bone.
My father’s position as priest of our parish did not save me from punishment. If anything, Mr. Pappas intoned, I should know better, so my beatings were harder.
He pulled my ears, slapped me, and engraved tattoos with his stick on my ankles, knees, thighs, shoulders and back. No portion of my anatomy was spared his zealous attention.
To this day, many decades later, I can barely recall the teachers, my fellow students, or the subjects we studied. What remains vivid in my memory of our parochial school is Mr. Beast and the beatings he inflicted on us.
Mr. Beast is long deceased now. I continue to hope I will still meet someone who attended his funeral. I would ask them to confirm what I believe in my heart to be true, that they buried that Hellenic sadist with his beloved stick cradled in the coffin at his side.
THREE: In 1933 when I was 10 years old, concerned about my recurring bouts of fatigue, my parents took me to our family doctor. X-rays revealed tubercular lesions on my lungs.
At that time, if a family could not afford convalescing in a mountain sanatorium, the treatment was bed rest and prayer. I went to bed for what was to be a few weeks and began a period of illness that kept me in bed for two years.
By the end of my first year in bed, my condition had grown worse. I developed a harsh cough that brought up particles of blood. One evening I heard the doctor tell my parents that my condition was critical and even if they could get me to a sanitarium, he feared I was going to die.
I had assumed that death belonged to the old men and old women with cheeks like withered fruit I had seen in church. I could not comprehend death taking me so young. Then terror settled like a web snaring me. I feared while I slept I would be transported to the sanitarium, which I believed was the place one was taken to die.
Each night I fought sleep and lay awake long after my siblings and parents slept. When I finally slept, my dreams had become nightmares. Then Naka came to save me.
Her name was Marie Constand, but we called her Naka. She was of Swiss descent, but had married a Greek man called Joseph Constand. They had been members of my father’s parish in St. Louis and they became friends of my parents.
After my father was transferred to a parish in Chicago, Naka and her husband developed marital problems and they separated. Naka came to my mother in Chicago and asked to stay for a few days until she could find other lodgings. My mother consented and Naka remained with us for the following 25 years, helping to look after my sister and me.
In the prison of my illness, anxiety preventing me from sleep, Naka came to sit in a chair at the foot of my bed. She would keep vigil, she told me, and make sure I wasn’t moved. She sat with me every night for months, shredding her own sleep to allow me to rest. I saw her weariness as she brought me my breakfast tray, but she never faltered. After another six months, I was sufficiently healed to leave my bed and return to school.
Naka lived on with our family into my adulthood. She attended my wedding in 1945 when I married Diana. She died not long after our son’s first birthday.
Unrelated by blood, bonded only by love. I understand that if it were not for Naka’s devotion in her nightly vigil those months allowing me to sleep and heal, I would not have lived to marry, to have sons and to write my books.
Find more information on novelist Harry Mark Petrakis at harrymarkpetrakis.com.