Two Long Minutes in a Van in Glyfada
by Steve Mitchell
You know, I don’t write much about the specifics of my military service. There’s no reason why not, really. I just don’t. I just haven’t.
Lately, though, this one memory has been on my mind. I’ve told this story any number of times, so, for those of you who’ve heard it, I offer my apologies.
This is one of my most vivid memories of Greece.
During the first Gulf War, I was stationed at Hellenikon Air Base, near Athens Greece. The base was in the midst of closing when Iraq invaded Kuwait, so by Desert Storm, we were down to the barest minimum of personnel with rotating crews coming in from other parts of Europe.
The threat of terrorism was high. Americans were jumpy. Greeks were jumpy.
To accommodate the temporary crews, everyone still living in the barracks was moved to a contract hotel, the Apollon Hotel. Two coworkers helped me move my stuff. I packed it all in cardboard boxes and we loaded it into the squadron’s white Volvo passenger van and headed for the hotel.
I remember it was dark. We were about halfway to the hotel when we saw a roadblock – a police car with a uniformed Greek, and a Greek in plainclothes. The man in plainclothes blocked our lane and gestured with his hand out, palm slightly down, for us to stop.
We weren’t supposed to stop or pull over for anyone and the SSgt. who was driving the van mentioned that, but the man in plainclothes stood in our path. After some brief debate, the SSgt. slowed to a stop in front of the police car. He left the motor running. He left the van in drive.
We were three tense Americans, for sure.
From the front passenger seat, I watched the uniformed police officer through the windshield. He stood directly in front of me. Was he really police? I couldn’t tell. He was skinny and wore an ill fitting, short sleeve uniform. His shirt was half untucked. I couldn’t make out his badge and didn’t know what it should look like anyhow. His hair was unruly and disheveled. He seemed like a guy playing dress up.
But, he carried an automatic machine gun pistol.
For at least 30 seconds, I kept my eyes on him and his pistol. He held it, barrel down, near his hip. I told myself if he raises that pistol, it was maybe a mac 10, if he raises it, I’m gonna hit the floor boards and push the accelerator with my hand.
While I watched him, the plainclothes officer came over to the driver’s window. I heard the SSgt. say something about how we’re Americans and we’re going to the Apollon Hotel.
We’d been told to never, ever, give our ID cards over to anyone not American.
The first thing the plainclothes officer asked for was our ID’s.
“We can’t do that,” said the SSgt.
The plainclothes officer pondered that a moment and asked again about our ID’s.
“We can’t give you our ID’s,” said the SSgt. “If you want to go with us to the Apollon we can speak to the police there.”
The plainclothes looked us over. He looked at the boxes. He asked, “You are American?”
“So, you have ID?”
The plainclothes officer made a gesture like, “So, what is the difficulty here?”
The SSgt. said, “We have ID’s, but we can’t give them to you.”
By this time it was fairly clear they were actual police but it was also clear they were nervous and getting more nervous.
I considered how we appeared to them, in our white Volvo full of large, unmarked cardboard boxes. None of us fit the corn fed, G.I. stereotype. We weren’t in uniform. We didn’t look like TV Americans.
The uniformed officer rocked side to side. He looked to the plainclothes for guidance. The plainclothes officer stayed courteous, but grew more serious. I remember thinking “Oh man. Now we’re gonna get shot because they think we’re the terrorists!”
The SSgt. conferred with us quickly and then said, “Look, we can’t give you our ID’s but we can show them to you.”
The plainclothes officer agreed and we eagerly pulled our ID’s and held them up for him to read. He looked them all over and then gave us that particular greek assent, half shrug, half nod.
And we went our way.
Two long minutes, in a van, in Glyfada.
I wouldn’t forget something like that either and I could feel my heart beating faster just reading this. Why do we do that? I know you are alive to write this, for heaven’s sake? Good writing, I guess! 🙂
🙂 Thanks, Leslie. And thanks for reading it. I left out so many details for brevity’s sake.
Hey Steve, I think I lived across the hall from you in the dorms, until I moved out to Ano Glyfada. I remember those times, the barricades and Greek turreted vehicles stationed around the Appolon Palace, Very tense times!
I remember you. It’s good to hear from you you.
Yeah, things were jumpy. Do you remember the turreted Greek speed boats in the harbor? Or the unmarked, armed Greek escorts for the shuttle bus?
I spent a few years at HAB (’84 to ’87) in the 7206th SPS and can definitely appreciate the emotions expressed in your “2 minutes in a van” story.
What a wild and (at times) fun experience.
While I was there, our USAF bar (Bobby’s II in Ano Glyfada) was bombed, the Apollon (Palace) Hotel was attacked twice (hand grenades & car bomb), an Army bus blown up, and a few U.S. embassy (JUSMAG) personnel were shot.
More than anything, I miss the Greek salads (which NEVER included lettuce).
Your story spawned a few great memories. Thanks!
You’re welcome and thanks for reading and commenting.
I have many fond memories of my time there. And I really miss the cheap souvlaki and tzatziki.
I’d heard about the Army bus and the car bomb and the shootings. I’d never heard about the hand grenades.
Once, I almost dived under a van when I was helping some buddies move. A Greek on a moped drove by with his turtle neck pulled up high, covering half his face (it was cold). He put his left hand suddenly in his pocket and I was *this close* to diving for cover, but the hand never came out and he went on by.
And I was tdy once with the guy whose car got blown up. He was Army and I forget his name. He told me the Army immediately pcs’d him and the Greek government actually bought him a new car!
I also remember a Purple Heart ceremony for two guys in our squadron (6916th) who’d been in Trafalgar’s (I think it was Trafalgar’s) when a bomb went off. They felt kind of sheepish getting Purple Hearts for basically being cut by flying glass while drinking beer!
Hey it’s Jerry Hensley I lived there from 1981 to 1985 and worked in 922d Strategic Squadron. I worked for a bald headed TSgt Tony Giangreco that was married to a Greek Lady named Irene. The two Loves of my Life!!!
I played on the Base Basketball and Football Team. I had a friend that was in that Bomb blast at Bobbys Bar (Ed and Candy Curnette) both burned pretty bad but survived. My best friend there was Gary and Cathy Forte. My email is Jerry.email@example.com or 740 442-1571 would love to talk to some guys that played on those Teams.
Thanks And God Bless You For Your Service
SSgt Jerry Hensley
922d RC-135 Strategic Squadron
I’m not on Facebook anymore, but there was (is?) a group there comprised of folks who’d served at Hellenikon Air Base. They’d posted a lot of great photos too. I hope you find some of the folks you served with.
I was stationed with the 7206th SPS from ’84-’87 as well & remember vividly the same incidents plus some. Those were crazy times.
If you remember me hit me up on FB.
Awesome story. I came home early, but we lived less than a block from where the guy got killed by a car bomb in 91. Always very nervous when in public there. But it was a beautiful place. My daughter was born in Athens in 1987.
Yeah, I guess I left about a week before he was killed. I knew the neighborhood but I didn’t know him.
We had such a small community, his death was sobering, for sure.
Thanks for reading and commenting.
I played in a UK female fronted 5 piece rock and called Nitelife, in 86/87,,we played Nea Makri,and The Apollon Palace,on our Med tours
That’s very cool. I never did make it to Nea Makri.
I just now googled the Apollon Palace and it’s still there. The rooms look updated but the dining area is much the same. I’d love to go back and visit Glyfada and Greece, but there’s other places in Europe I’d like to see first.
I have to start saving my pennies!
I played there for the American forces in my English Band National Hero when things were nice and peaceful. Late 1970’s from what I can work out. We had a totally different van experience. Following our 2 month contract in the NCO club we got a job playing in a club on the main drag called Bitchoulas. One night we decided to hold a fancy dress night. Peter the guitarist was dressed as a woman and I was a chinese man. At the end of the night we had our eye on these two australian girls and offered to give them a lift to there hotel. We tried our hardest to talk them into entertaining us in there room but they were having non of it. While on our way there and me being very drunk and driving spotted a chair in the road from a road side restaurant. Closed by now. So decided to show off with no style whatsoever and hit it with my van. No big deal the chair went flying as did the girls once we got them to there hotel. While traveling back feeling dejected as we approached where we had hit the chair Peter said HIT THE RESTAURANT so I went straight onto the pavement and onto the restaurant terrace. We found it very funny as the tables and chairs went flying over the wind screen, that being until we hit a low hanging branch from a tree and ended up without a windscreen. (they were made from toughened glass in those days so just shattered into little bits) Dejected we went to Bobby’s Bar. So there we were a man dressed as a girl along with a chinese man. Not a good look, when this greek girl came past on her bike. I had met her before and really fancied her so in a last bid for some cheeky fun asked her if she wanted to come back to my place and to my great surprise and delight she agreed. I dumped Peter loaded her bike into the back of the van, pushed her into the front seat just shrugging when she pointed out we had no window, took her home and thought I had eventually got myself a good result only to discover several days later that she had a dose of the clap. So you see what you get for being a bad boy eh. Well deserved however I have to say it was well worth it.
That’s some epic shenanigans, there! You know, while I was stationed in Greece, I met people from the UK, Greece, Sweden, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Italy, Germany, Ethiopia, America, Argentina, the Philippines, and I don’t remember where all else, but I don’t think I ever met any Australians.
I definitely spent my fair share of time at Bobby’s!
Was at Hellenikon 85-91 and never heard NOT to show IDs to Greek cops. Usually as soon as I showed, no ticket ever given.. LOL.. Maybe if you had just shown and said you were from Base you’d have been on your way quicker
Until that night, I’d never actually seen anyone stopped or known anyone to have been stopped by the Greek police.
You know how it is in the states; when the police stop you, you hand them your ID. That was our mindset but, in our squadron, we’d been specifically instructed in the days before to never give our IDs to anyone not in the US military. So, after a bit of back and forth, our Ssgt volunteered we could show our IDs, just not hand them over, which was fine.
The whole exchange didn’t take very long but it sure felt like a long time!
Tight writing, I wasn’t expecting it. Good story. So Ex – military? Onward.
Thank you. Yeah, I was US Air Force, enlisted. Onward.
july 1983- sept 1986 at 6931st. Wife and I would visit Athens and stay in Glyfada when there. We were in Bobby’s Bar on one visit just a couple weeks before the bombing. We all on Crete felt really bad for those at Hellenikon and almost everyone there had visited Bobby’s at least once on trips to Athens. Thankfully Crete was very much laid back from the Athens attitude found in almost any large international city. Other than some Libyans checking us out about that same time, even getting a room in the American Hotel, everyone watching them, especially Greek police who eventually told them to leave the area, nothing much terrorist related happened during the time we were there. Sure wish some days I could walk down to the local taverna, have some “stick” and saganchi (fried cheese), a plate full of fries, and a great salad, tzadziki, and a bathypetros lemonada, cheap radio playing local music in the background. My Greek friends are passed on, their children with children of their own now. I still hear from one of their youngest grandchild once in a while, she and my oldest were both looked after by “Yaya” her grandmother. “Yaya” sure cried when we left and she lost her “Americano bambino” she’d cared for from birth. Great people there at Crete. Bad time there right now in Greece. Wish them the best. Wouldn’t mind retiring there, or at least spending a year or two, when things settle down more. I was running a search for any old story on Bobby’s Bar and the bomb and ran across your blog. Yassas.
Hi, James. Thanks for commenting.. I had a buddy stationed in Crete around 1988.
I miss tzadziki for sure, as well as souvlaki.
A couple of guys in my squadron were attacked (before I was stationed there) by a two Libyan oil workers with knives; it had nothing much to do with politics. Luckily, a third American with them, who was about 6’5″ and who loved to fight, intervened and had the two oil workers subdued by the time the Greek police showed. The police then, also, beat the oil workers before arresting them. The two Americans did end up with some nasty scars, one on his head, and the other on his neck.
I was stationed there from December 1984 until June 1986. I remember the demonstrations at the front gate, and getting stuck off base . Luckily, I had a friend who lived off base, so I spent the might at her apartment. Anyway, I was assigned to Det 3, 625MASG….we serviced the Air Force planes that came into the air terminal. I was a “702” who maintained the T.O.’s for the aircraft.
Aircraft mechanics from Ramstein, Rhein Main, and Incirlik would come TDY and stay at the Apollon. Some of the guys would run into the dining room, yell “Dead Bug!!” and fall on the floor. I remember Sussex 1 and 2 in Glyfada. Greek farmer salads, crepes, and souvlaki. I didn’t miss the constant tension though. Stini yasoo!!
Yassou, Beth! I was a 208 (cryptologic linguist) at the 6916th ess. I’d heard about the demonstrations where the base commander had the fire department “clean the inside, base perimeter” and hose protesters off the fences. I remember Sussex but I think I spent more time at Trafalgar’s, and I definitely spent more time at Bobby’s. Also, there was the Spider’s Web which we’d go to now and then. I don’t miss the tension either, but I do sometimes much of the rest of it.
I was in the 2140th communications at Hellenikon from ’79 – ’81 and we hadn’t a care in the world really. I did spend a night in a Greek jail for some grabass that started by drinking too much at Bobbies. I lost my first stripe, but my “punishment” was to build a couple of picnic tables and photograph a general on his trip to Crete. Those were the good old days, when times were much simpler….
Did Bobbies get rebuilt after the bombing or did it close down? We were there pretty much every weekend, but this is the first I knew of the bombing.
I watched a walking tour of Glyfada this weekend and didn’t recognize anything. The old time charm seemed to be missing.
The only thing I see on Google Maps for the base now is the old runway. Is this where Hellenilon was?
Hi Steve, Bobby’s was rebuilt and I spent way too much time there. I manage to stay out of Greek jail, though! I heard that’s an experience to be avoided. I seem to recall someone saying Bobby’s closed not long after Hellnikon was shut down, but I could be mistaken. Anyhow I know Hellenikon AB shared a runway with Athens International but I can’t really recognize anything from the aerial view. I’d like to go back and visit some day.
I was stationed at Hellenikon from Jun 73 to Jul 78. Spent many nights at Bobbys 1 and 2. I hated to leave Greece in 1978 and return to the States.
Yeah Bobby’s 2 is where we always wound up at the end of the night! I’d really like to go back and see what Glyfada is like three days.