Pete Peterson's 'The Education of an American Dreamer'

Outside the cafe my parents' social exposure to Americans, and certainly American girls, was at best limited. I do not recall ever being with my parents in a non-Greek home. This lack of interaction resulted far more from fear than any real distaste. Like many immigrants, past and present, my parents worried that popular culture, represented then by things like jazz and swing (they only played Greek music!) and the equivalent today of hip-hop, rap music, and suggestive advertising, would engulf their children and sweep away their values, even their respect for their customs and rules.

My father enforced with his hands the importance of respect for him and his rules. If I came home even five minutes late at night, he slapped me, always after asking if I preferred the blow anapodi or dipli –backhand or forehand. I always chose anapodi because the slaps seemed less hard. I quietly, but deeply, resented this extreme and bullying discipline that none of my friends had to put up with.

This cultural tug-of-war came to a head in my senior year in high school, when I led an effort to win parental support for a lighted, chaperoned dance in the school gymnasium. I had learned ballroom dancing from my Uncle Bill Peterson's American-born Greek wife, Helene, of whom my mother disapproved not just because she danced American style, but because she also favored innovations such as store-bought clothes over the home-sewn variety. I had visions of a swing band playing all-American wartime hits like Jimmy Dorsey's "Tangerine" or Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Cocktail" and chaste couples dancing on the hardwood floor, and I went all out for this, my first extracurricular crusade. The proposal went out to a vote by parents, and I was shocked and embarrassed to learn that my father, from whom I'd kept the knowledge that the whole thing was my idea, was one of only five parents to oppose it. I'm sure he wanted to reduce the chances of my involvement with a non-Greek girl. The dance happened nonetheless, in a very well lit gymnasium under the watchful eyes of our high school teacher chaperones.

Our high school dance was just a small example of the changes taking place. The day that really changed everything had happened two years earlier. I was fifteen, in the tenth grade, and that Sunday morning I had gone to the home of one of my Greek friends to listen to music on the radio. Suddenly the music stopped and a shocked announcer reported that Japanese planes had attacked the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. We listened in rapt and frightened silence as new details came in—battleships sunk, planes destroyed, soldiers firing pistols at the attacking bombers. I'm not sure either of us knew where Pearl Harbor was.

I raced home to get my mother's reaction. She never listened to the radio and had not heard the news. That night when my father came home he was grim. Though I sometimes heard him singing "God Bless America" softly to himself as he was shaving in the morning, with all his Greek attachments I had never fully realized his devotion to America. His voice shook and tears filled his eyes as he spoke of the sneak attack on "the greatest of all countries."

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