So there I was, a whistle around my neck, lifeguarding the women and
children at a Navy base swimming pool, while the Navy men helped fight a
dangerous, fast-moving Greek summer fire.
I was on a two-year dream vacation as a Navy wife living with my husband
and young son outside Athens, spending as much time as possible at the
pool during the dry, hot summers on the Navy base at Nea Makri. When the
nearby Air Force base sent its children for swimming lessons, I was
asked to take a Red Cross Water Safety Instructor course so I could help
The weekend after I passed the course, the fires began, but because it
was so very hot Command was reluctant to close the pool. So my first day
on the job I spent alone and in charge, if not control. Hadn't even sewn
my new WSI badge to my bathing suit yet, so had to pin it on just in
case anyone doubted my professional authority.
It was a small Navy base, and all the wives, both officers' and enlisted
men's, knew me and humored me in my new role. All was fine until the Air
Force bus arrived: Not kids this time, but young airmen who were
unimpressed by my pinned badge and thought my pathetic attempts to keep
them from cannonballing off the high board were amusing. I finally moved
the Navy kids to the shallow end and let the guys jump on top of each
Not sure why the Air Force wasn't up in the hills with the Navy and the
Army fighting the fires, but I had heard why the airmen didn't have
their own pool on the big support base at Pireaus: When the Air Force
tried to build one, somebody forgot to put in drains, so they simply
decorated it with potted palms and used it as a conversation pit at
Oh well, we were all a long way from Vietnam where the war was still
raging; so the Army, Navy and Air Force kept in shape by giving each
other a hard time, telling or, if necessary, making up stories to make
the others look bad.
The Marines, in case you were wondering, were mostly seen in Athens
guarding the embassy during this period. Greece was run by a military
junta in 1970; it was a strange world for Americans who were safer than
we would normally be in our own or another foreign country, law and
order being dictated and enforced here. The Greek people probably didn't
feel so safe under a dictatorship, but they had recently fought two
terrible wars, first with the Germans, then with the local communists,
so were allowing it temporarily.
This was one reason for the fires. Over the years the trees that were
removed for use as battle cover and for fuel during hard times had been
replaced by low shrubs -- thyme, myrtle, lentisk -- all of which were
pungently aromatic but fast-burning during the dry summer months,
especially when the meltemi winds blew.
I don't remember so many fires at one time as we are seeing on the news
this month, or people dying in them. Arson was probably one of the many
crimes that people didn't commit while the junta was in charge. (Don't
you wonder why democracies seem to have a harder time scaring and
deterring the bad guys? There's a lesson in here somehow that might have
to do with Alberto Gonzales, but I don't want to think about it while
I'm on vacation.)
I recognize many of the sites of this month's fires, especially the area
around Olympia in the Peloponnese southwest of Athens. We were there one
February, when the air was cool and tiny wildflowers clustered among the
I was puzzled, though, by media references to the island of Evia until I
saw it correctly spelled Euboea. It is a very large island, off the
eastern shore. It could be seen from Nea Makri and when I first saw it I
thought it was Turkey.
We went fishing there once. My husband and son had poles, and I had
things to toss into the famous current in the channel called the Euripus
between the mainland and the island. The current changes direction
several times a day, and legend says that Aristotle threw himself into
it, despairing of ever finding the cause -- the implication being that
he committed suicide out of frustration. Other sources tells us that he
died of colic.
It's tempting to go with the drama over the colic, but I can't imagine
anyone as wise as Aristotle killing himself because he didn't understand
something. He knew there were many things he didn't yet understand. My
own theory is that he did, indeed, throw himself in, just to see if he
could figure out the ebb and flow as he bounced around.
I can relate to that -- probably because, after Labor Day, I shall be
throwing myself back into the political current, frustrating as it can
be, hoping to someday understand it and impart that understanding to
Good thing I was once a lifeguard, and can swim.