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

My father's older brother Nick was the first to make the passage. By 1912, he had a job at a meatpacking plant in Milwaukee and could send money for my father's ticket. The Titanic sank that year, but my father's trip was uneventful in his fetid quarters deep in the ship's bowels where he longed to breathe fresh air. He entered America through Ellis Island and headed to Milwaukee to meet up with Nick as soon as he cleared the immigration hurdles. His first job, at a fruit stand, fell through because he could not understand the customers; if asked for "a couple of apples," he would heave a sackful on the counter. Soon, however, Nick got him a job at the meatpacking plant. It was the starting job from hell, feeding cattle hooves and horns into grinding machines to be processed into fertilizer, the kind of job that to this day immigrants are willing to do because their foothold in America is that precious. Choking dust rose from the machines; the men fed them with one hand and clamped damp rags over their noses with the other, which was murder on their arms and shoulders. My father almost gave up and headed home. But he stuck it out and moved up to cutting meat, learning the fine points of reducing cattle and hogs to roasts and chops with very little waste. When he moved on to the railroad job, he changed his name to Peterson, as Nick had done before him. If he was sorry for it later, he could blame the Union Pacific timekeepers who claimed they could never understand him when he said Petropoulos. And as he grew into his twenties and cooked for railroad laborers and circus folk and saved money and set his sights on building the cafe, he waited for someone to marry.

My mother, Venetia Papapavlou, lived in Niata, in southern Greece southeast of Sparta. The Papapavlous had prospered by comparison with the Petropoulos clan. Yanni Papapavlou—or Big John, as her father was known—had land and a big house. Like everyone else in the village, he had no electricity or running water. Rain supplied drinking water that was stored in big clay pots called amphorae, and there was a cistern that provided water for the garden so that no one had to haul water from a stream.

Olive, almond, fig, orange, and lemon groves, wheat fields, and vineyards dotted the landscape beyond the house. Only the olive groves qualified as a commercial operation. Big John had an olive press and used the proceeds from the oil to purchase more olive groves. He paid his workers with the very crops they harvested; the olive pickers were paid one bushel of olives for every four they picked, which he would then press into oil for them. The men who picked grapes and stamped them to make wine kept much of it for themselves and sold the rest.

My mother remembered an abundance of food prepared by her mother, Demitroula. Hungry neighbors always knew they would be fed, and her father's generosity extended to the local schoolhouse, where he would hand out small cloth bags filled with a mixture of sun-dried raisins, fruit, and almonds. On weekends this became the stuff of barter and a social life, with Big John hitching up his horses, piling his children—known collectively as Little Big Johns—into the wagon, and driving to town to trade the bags of fruits and nuts for other goods. If there were any bags left, he would give them away rather than carry them back home.

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