IT'S A REMARKABLE turn of mind in our country built upon wave after wave of immigrants: Most of us--the sons and daughters or grandchildren or great-grandchildren of foreigners--have come to take our American birthright for granted. In the land of assimilationand the melting pot, we don't spend much time puzzling over the circumstances of our citizenship or the potential consequences if our forebears had chosen a different path.
Maybe it's a Greek thing, but my heritage plays tag with my consciousness on a fairly regular basis, reminding me what might have been and how lucky I am. Yiannis Kiriakou, my paternal grandfather, was born in 1900 on the Greek island of Rhodes, then underTurkish occupation, and immigrated to the United States in 1920, when Rhodes was under an Italian thumb. It wasn't foreign occupation alone that impelled young Greeks to leave. Fighting between Greeks and Turks after World War I ended with the great populationtransfer, as the Turks called it, or the disaster of 1923, as the Greeks called it. Whatever it was called, the two sides expelled millions of the "others" from their lands. Greece was a mess. People were starving, there weren't enough jobs, and the governmentwas actively encouraging young men to go abroad for work.
Yiannis, one of eighteen children, only nine of whom lived to adulthood, chose America as his destination. Other young Greeks decamped for Egypt or Lebanon, colonial capitals in Africa, reputedly untamed Australia, and the countries of South America insearch of work. I have friends and acquaintances in all those places and have visited many of them for business or pleasure; with all respect, I cannot imagine any of them as home.
My grandfather boarded the SS Themistocles, bound for New York, mainly because an older brother, Markos, had preceded him and had set down roots in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, eighteen miles southwest of Pittsburgh, where he worked in a steel mill. The ideawas to find a job, work hard, save money, then perhaps move back to Greece and buy a farm or small business. John, my grandfather's Anglicized name in the United States, embraced this idea with a vengeance. He labored in the Canonsburg steel mill, pinched pennies,and managed to save $10,000 in a decade. That's $10,000 in 1930, the equivalent of roughly $130,000 in today's dollars. It was more than enough to buy two parcels of land on Rhodes, one a forty-five-acre farm inland, another a smaller piece on the beach. Healso came into an ample dowry with his marriage to my grandmother, Ekaterini Capetan Yiorgiou--Katina for short. The newlyweds planted olive trees and some crops on the farm and settled in for the nonce. But only eight months later, Yiannis got a letter from his brother in Canonsburg. Markos reported that the U.S. Congress was going to change the law and make itmuch more difficult for immigrants to become citizens. If Yiannis had any intention of bringing his bride to the United States, Markos said, he had better act immediately. My grandfather had always planned to return to America, a land he had come to love. Thatvery day, he literally walked away from his fields and told my grandmother to pack the steamer trunks and make ready for the time of her life. His first journey to America had been awful. The Themistocles was a small ship with cramped quarters on a long passage of several weeks. This time, the nearly illiterate peasant farmer would do it right. Yiannis booked first-class passage on the MN Saturnia;he and my grandmother arrived at Ellis Island in February 1931 and almost immediately made their way to Canonsburg, where they remained for two years before moving to Farrell, another Pennsylvania mill town. It was there in 1934, on the kitchen table of a rentedhouse, that my father came into the world--the first Kiriakou boy born in the United States.
My grandmother Katina was an educated woman, fluent in three languages, who taught Greek and Italian for a while during the Great Depression. But for most of her life, she was a homemaker while my grandfather labored in the mill; he retired in 1965, takingover his sister-in-law's butcher shop for the rest of his working years. By that time, in the late 1960s, my own father had married, my kid brother and I had been born, and our family had moved to 307 East Fairfield Avenue in New Castle, a town about twentymiles from Farrell. That's where my two younger siblings, Emanuel and Tina, and I grew up.
New Castle, like many towns in western Pennsylvania, fell on hard times when the American steel industry got whacked by foreign competition, but in those days it was a thriving community of fifty thousand or so. In our household, education was everything.My dad, Chris Kiriakou, was a teacher and a musician with multiple degrees who eventually became an elementary school principal. He encouraged my mother, Stella, to further her education as soon as their youngest, Tina, was in kindergarten. She did, startingcollege when I was in fifth grade and graduating when I was a high school freshman; afterward, she got a second degree and taught school for two decades.
Both my grandfathers had been members of the United Steelworkers, and their children were union people, too--my dad in the American Federation of Musicians, my mom in the American Federation of Teachers. Kiriakou households were solidly Democratic: Morethan two decades after Franklin Delano Roosevelt's death, my paternal grandfather still kept a picture of FDR on top of his TV.
Because of their union backgrounds, the running conversation in the homes of my grandparents had less to do with things Greek than it did with the Depression-era politics that so profoundly influenced them. My paternal grandfather would recall attendinga rally for Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants who had been tried and executed for murder--wrongly in the view of many--in the 1920s. I was curious about these and other larger-than-life characters of his youth, and I spent time in the local libraryas a young teenager doing my "independent" research on their exploits. What I discovered in the process became a lifelong passion. These men and their stories had been immortalized in song, part of a canon of folk and protest music that preceded my grandfather's arrival in America and now reaches into the twenty-first century.Greek music was omnipresent in my life, but it was the songs and ballads of people such as Woody Guthrie, honoring Sacco and Vanzetti in recordings from the mid-1940s, that captivated me with messages of revealed injustice. The television era was coming ofage when I was a kid, but I was hooked on the sounds of social justice--music created by people who, in many cases, were my grandfather's chronological contemporaries. Later, when I was in college, the great Pete Seeger and a host of other folk-music iconscame into my life, singing about the Big Muddy, the Swedish immigrant labor organizer Joe Hill, and more. My grandfather also got me hooked on something else when he gave me a transistor radio. I was only eight years old, but my addiction to a technology that predated the television age by three decades began one night when I heard WGN in Chicago and thought,"Wow, if I can get a station that far away with this little radio, what can I get with a good radio?" My father answered that question when he bought me a shortwave radio and helped me to erect a forty-five-foot tower outside our house. Suddenly, I was tuning in to broadcasts from places that were thrilling and exotic, whispering in my ear in clipped Britishaccents on the BBC World Service or in perfect, unaccented American English on Radio Moscow. There was a separate dressing room in our old house that I converted into my "radio room." I pasted a big world map on the wall and put pins in all the countries whoseshortwave stations I'd been able to verify. The alarm clock helped: I'd set it for all hours of the night so I could listen to some obscure station in Romania or the South Pacific or Africa. Who are these people? I need to know more about them, what they looklike, what they think, whether the kids are like me or different. And how different?
School, for me, was a joy. The public elementary schools in those days were very good and New Castle High School was exceptional. We had teachers who had done things in life, who had had fascinating careers before they turned to teaching. One had beenan economist, another a microbiologist with a Ph.D. Dorothy Poleno, my favorite, was a U.S. Navy intelligence officer before she retired to become a teacher. She taught a senior class called World Cultures, where we learned about the Soviet Union and its military.It was like taking a college course, with plenty of participation and interaction with the teacher.
I was active in almost everything--the American Field Service program, the debating society, the Key Club, and more--and I played baseball, my one sports passion. But it was the combination of stimulating teachers, my addiction to those radio broadcasts,and a gathering interest in politics that began to shape my future. November 4, 1979, turned out to be pivotal for me: On that day, Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held dozens of Americans hostage for what would be more than fourteenmonths. I was completely transfixed from the start: I listened to foreign broadcasts, read everything I could on Iran and its recent revolution, watched Walter Cronkite every night on CBS News--"And that's the way it is," followed by the date and the numberof days since the hostage crisis began. I was barely fifteen years old, but there was talk of a military draft, and I wondered whether I'd be called up to go over there to free our people. The thought was at once exhilarating and frightening.
In short, I was a news junkie, even in my middle teens. There was an essay contest at school that I won, the prize for which was to become mayor of New Castle for a day. The real mayor let me sit in his chair, walked me around city hall and introducedme to all the department heads, gave me a personal tour of the city, then popped for a big working lunch--at Burger King. I asked him whether, as mayor for the day, I could fix a ticket for my dad. He said no. Then it was five o'clock and I went home.
With that I was hooked on politics, complementing my Iranian-inspired fascination with the Middle East. What sealed the deal was a one-week scholarship I won called Presidential Classroom. Two of us from my high school were selected to spend a week inWashington, D.C.--a full day at the Senate, another at the House, a third at the Supreme Court, and, of course, a tour of the White House. We joined kids from other schools and listened to speakers from government agencies--the CIA, the FBI, and the DefenseDepartment. And we heard representatives of a labor union and a right-to-work group square off in a debate. We also met our senators and congressmen and visited both the National Cathedral and the Islamic Center of Washington. It was a fantastic hands-on week.And it convinced me that there was only one school for me: the George Washington University in the nation's capital.
I had already circled GW as a possibility, which didn't exactly thrill my father. He wanted me to go to the University of Pittsburgh, where he had studied for his Ph.D., finishing all the requirements except the dissertation--the price he paid for my birthin August 1964. Pitt, he said, had a fine Eastern European studies program; besides, it was a lot less expensive for a Pennsylvania kid than GW would be. But I didn't want to go to college only an hour away from home. And, more to the point, I was more interestedin another part of the world: My major would be Middle Eastern studies, which didn't exist in the Pitt curriculum. GW was one of only a handful of schools with a quality Mideast program, I said, and it was in Washington to boot. Dad said we'd talk about itagain, but he never raised it as I moved forward. I applied for early admission to GW and got applications from Georgetown and the University of Virginia as well. I was naive: Georgetown and UVA would be my backup schools, I thought, not caring that they weremore competitive than GW. In any event, my grades were good and my SAT scores were strong; GW accepted me and the other applications went into the trash can.
I was ecstatic and told Mom and Dad of my good fortune. They sure knew how to deflate a guy. They sat me down at the kitchen table and explained the financial facts of life to their eldest child. They were happy for me and very proud that I had been acceptedat such a fine school, but there was no way they could afford to send me--not with tuition of $4,600 a year, plus the room and board and books and everything else. I would have to go to Pitt.
I walked away from the table like a whimpering pup whose favorite toy had suddenly been snatched away. But then I thought, This can't be! I've got to make this work. And I did. Before I was done, I had applied for and won more than a dozen scholarships.Many of them were small--the largest were $500 and $1,000--but they added up to enough to make tuition. I took out college loans and my aunt Chrysanthie helped, too. When I got to GW, I ended up qualifying for a half-tuition scholarship so long as my gradesremained good. They did. With that, cumulative scholarships covered my tuition, room, and board--just under $8,000 a year--and a job in GW's music department covered the cost of books and incidentals.
Washington for a college student who happened to be obsessive about politics was about as close to heaven as you can get in this life. Fortunately, my roommate, Ed Harwitz, was as fanatical as I was. We bought copies of The Almanac of American Politicsand began to digest it, one congressional district or one Senate seat per night. The next day, we'd compare notes. We also used our copies as autograph books. This was the early 1980s, when security wasn't the first order of business at the U.S. Capitol. Youcould walk around, buttonhole congressmen, even stroll right into the Senate cloakroom. It was amazing how few people turned us down. Ted Kennedy smiled slightly but said no, and Robert Stafford wanted to know if we were constituents. Neither one of us wasfrom Vermont, so he just walked away. William Proxmire lived up to his reputation for crankiness and wouldn't give us the time of day. But most everyone else was approachable and cooperative: Barry Goldwater, a gem of a guy; Bob Dole, very friendly; John Glenn,just great. Glenn and Gary Hart even stood for pictures with us.