In the Advocate September 2023:
I’m Just Here to Do Stuff, Part I
An Interview with Mike Andrew
By Angie Bartels
In many ways, knowing from whom and whence we came can define us,
both as individuals and as part of a larger community. It can also provide a compass as we move through the pres-ent and into the future. Mike Andrew felt this way even before he came to realize it.
Mike was born in San Francisco to parents of Greek descent. His father’s people were ethnically Greek from a town in Turkey. Mike’s grandfather emi-grated to the US in 1901 and became a maritime engineer. His family in Turkey lost their land and were expelled from their homes after WWI, during the reign of Ataturk in the 1920’s, in what the Turks called an “exchange of popula-tions” and honest people everywhere called ethnic cleansing. Most of the one-and-a-half to two million Greek refugees ended up resettling in Greece.
“A lot of them became socialists and communists when confronted with Greek right-wing governments that came to power either through fraudu-lent elections or through outright mili-tary dictatorship. But they didn't like to talk much about their experiences.
“Before World War II, my grandfather visited with his family in Greece all the time. They'd just take a boat over. Then, of course, during the war, they couldn’t do that. My grandfather died pretty young, soon after the war, and the families lost contact until my dad reestablished contact with his relatives in Greece. They were very reluctant
to talk about politics with my parents because they knew the kind of anti-left propaganda that was being run in in the US. It was dangerous to be pro-left in Greece until the 1980s.
“But one day I was talking with them alone and they opened up. They lived in Nea Smyrni, a suburb of Athens that was settled largely by refugees from Turkey. It was also one of the main com-munist base areas during the Civil War. So I asked, ‘Did you live here during the Dekemvriana (December 1944, when the right-wing Greek government, backed by British troops, defeated the Greek People’s Liberation Army and took control of Athens)?’ They looked at each other and said ‘Yes.’ ‘What was it like?’ I asked. ‘It was terrible,’ they said. ‘The British shelled us during the day, and at night the Greek fascists would come and murder people.’
“My mother’s people were from a little village in Greece called Derveni, in the Peloponnese about three hours from Athens. Part of the family still lives there today. My grandparents emigrat-ed to the US in the early 1920’s. During World War II there was a lot of resis-tance activity in that district, and the Germans retaliated by burning people's houses. Our cousins told me, ‘We were very lucky that the Germans let us leave before they burned the house. In many villages they burned the houses with the people in them.’
“Fortunately, none of my family went
to the concentration camps where they sent leftists after the war, when the British, and also the US to some extent, stepped in to install a right-wing government in Greece. Some of our relatives were blacklisted from employ-ment for a while. My uncle Taki told me 'We had to have one of our neighbors, who was friendly with the military, write a letter saying that we were okay and that it was all right to hire us.'
“My dad's father was a maritime engineer. My dad was going to do the same thing until World War II came along. My grandfather told him to go into the Navy because that would keep him out of combat. But then he ended up on a troop ship doing invasions all over the South Pacific. When he got out of the Navy, he went to college on the GI Bill and became an electrical engineer. He got a job with PG&E, the big public utilities company in Califor-nia. They discovered that he had a real talent for statistical forecasting, and even though he was educated as an electrical engineer, he eventually just did their numbers work. Unlike people today, he got a job that he stayed with for 40 years, and he retired with a nice retirement package. My mom still has survivor benefits from his pension.
“I grew up in a mostly middle-class neighborhood in San Francisco. My mom's mom lived with us, and my dad's mom lived only a two-minute walk away. The grandmothers were always a big part of our life when we were growing up. Although my brother and I used English as our primary language, and we always spoke English out on the street, in our house we spoke Greek to accommodate the grandmas. So I grew up being simultaneously American and not American, if you see what I mean. I feel very fortunate about that, because it certainly affected my worldview.
“When I was a kid, my mom had health issues, so frequently one of my grandmas would take care of us. My dad’s mom had a set of history books that I guess my grandfather bought when my dad was just a kid. It was a 13-volume set and went from ancient Egypt up to about the 1920’s or 1930’s. It wasn't that great as history, and if we were looking at it now, we'd say most of the conclusions were very outdated. What was nice about it, at least for me as a kid, was that it was well illustrated with line drawings and color plates.
But the thing I liked best about it was the foldout maps. You could see what Europe looked like in 1200 or 1500 or other dates in the past. For me that was important because you could see that the world wasn't always as it is today, right? And that means it doesn't always have to be like it is today.
“A lot of Eastern European people lived in our neighborhood. There were many Russians – children or grandchildren of White Russian emigres. They built a huge cathedral on Geary Street not far from our house. Little Russian shops sprang up near the cathedral, all of them with pictures of the last Tsar and his family in the window. There were also a lot of Sephardic Jewish families, more so than Eastern Euro-pean Jews. One friend’s father had been a German prisoner of war. After the war, he decided to settle in the United States. This friend was not allowed to have Jewish kids over to his house. His father wouldn’t permit it.
“There were also a lot of Chinese and Japanese families but only one African American family. In my fourth-grade class there was a girl by the last name of Kim. She was the first Korean im-migrant we had in class. Her first name was In-sook. But for some reason, by her second or third day in class, ev-eryone was calling her Shirley. I don’t know how she felt about that, but she accepted the name Shirley.
“My kindergarten teacher’s last name was Jimenez, but everyone pronounced it “Jimmy-nez.” Even she pronounced it that way. We weren't conscious of race or racism until later on in childhood when the civil rights movement was carried in the news. I remember being able to see it but unable to understand it or figure it out. I don’t think my mother could even figure it out. But my parents were non-racist. We weren't ever allowed to use racist slang or any-thing like that.
“I was kind of a pudgy and slow kid, uncoordinated. I would play baseball with the kids at the playground but I wasn’t particularly good at it, so I wasn’t much into sports. I liked to hang out with my parents and their adult friends a lot. I guess they thought I was amus-ing because I was kind of a smart-ass kid. My sixth grade teacher was very interested in Mexican archaeology. She would work on archeological digs in Mexico during the summer. She recommended books about the Aztecs, which I found very interesting. Find out what happened at Mike's high school and afterwards in the next issue of the Retiree Advocate.
Mike Andrew is PSARA's Executive Director and Editor of the Retiree Advo-cate. Angie Bartels is PSARA's Member-ship VP.
This interview is part of a series Angie is doing with PSARA members. If you have a story to tell, email organizer@ psara.org and we'll put you in touch with Angie.