George Vasiliades had an uncle—also named George, born in Greece in 1901 – who was already long in Baltimorewhen the family back in Karpathos was trying not to starve to death.
The older George wrote letters back to the village telling of his life in the New World. If the streets were not paved with gold, the plates were heavy with food.
Anyone who had relatives in the U.S. “were wishing to come to America," said George, recounting the long and arduous journey his father took to get here, paving the way for the rest of the family.
Wishing to get to the United States and landing here are not the same thing.
Point of origin: A mountainside wheat field in Karpathos.
Destination: the Moonlight Café at the corner of East Baltimore Street and South Broadway, about halfway between the waterfront and Johns Hopkins Hospital. The diner was owned by Uncle George, a man came to the States about the time World War I ended, dug coal for awhile and found his calling, as so many expatriate Greeks do, making a spatula sing.
Uncle George was intent on bringing the rest of the family over, beginning with his brother Antonios, a farmhand/stone mason and the father of young George. In early 1956, Antonios got word from Athens that his paperwork was in order. It was January 6 and he had four days to report to the embassy.
And thus began the ordeal, with the clock ticking on the chance at a visa, of finding Antonios on the mountain side to tell him the news.
Young George, then 14, and his brother Bill, were dispatched like Hermes, the messenger of Olympus. Their father had four days to get to the American embassy in Athens.
"The phone call came about 7 in the evening and my father was in the fields with my mother, about four hours away. He had to catch a ship to get to Athens,” remembered George.
George’s grandmother suggested he sleep for a few hours before making the journey and about 10 p.m. that night he set out with “only the moon” to guide him. The brothers George and Bill traveled a narrow dirt road in the pitch.
“We were scared,” he admits.
After a few hours down the road, George—wearing raggedy shoes with the front open from wear—tripped over a large stone and ripped the nail on his big toe. It was well before dawn.
They happened to be near a cousin’s house, where a man came out to see what the commotion was and wrapped a rag around George’s bleeding foot.
The boys were given goat milk for strength and walked another hour before finding their parents encampment near the wheat fields.
[It was not unlike the Poles and Polish-Americans in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood—many of whom would eat at the Sip & Bite in their golden years—who spent Depression-era summers in the strawberry and bean fields of AnneArundel County, picking crops and living in tents.]
“My father heard us calling for him and he knew the embassy had called. He knew!” said George, excited by the memory. “He threw his bag of seeds on the ground and went back to the village. He had to catch a ship.”
Bill and George accompanied their father to Diafani (or “transparent,” named for its clear, pure water) on the northeast coast of Karpathos to catch a ship to Athens.
“The ship never came,” said George.
A fisherman was leaving port in a small boat and agreed to take George’s father on a trip from Karpathos to Rhodesto Athens. About an hour into the journey, in rough seas, the engine failed in rough seas and the boat began to drift.
And drift and drift, with no word from Antonios, who by this time had missed the embassy appointment. He had left with the fisherman on Friday night. With no sign of them by Saturday morning, calls went out to all points between Karpathos and Rhodes.
“My grandmother just sat at the window looking and the sea and crying, 'He’s dead, he’s dead,'” said George.”
After three nights at sea without food, the storm had pushed the boat to Tylos, about six hours from the destination. Antonios and the fisherman were picked up by a passing ship who took them to Rhodes.
Antonios made it to Athens, anxious and terribly late. Only to be told he was a known Communist, an easy brush people used to paint their enemies in the wake of civil war. It took three months to clear up the mess. A few days before the Greek Orthodox Easter of 1956—April 23rd that year—Antonios came to his village to say goodbye. He left his wife and children with promises to bring them over as soon as possible.
The boy who tore the nail off of his toe while racing to give his father a message?
He got a new pair of goodbye shoes from Athens, black patent leather.
And the priest came to give a blessing of farewell to a stone mason headed for a life of hard work and plenty over a short order grill.