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Greek-American Stories: Super Men

If someone was to ask me what my favorite Greek song is, I’d have to hand them a list. There are many. But, one would top of the list, and, that song is ‘O Koutalianos’, written by song writer, Manos Loizos and his partner, Lefteris Papadopoulos. It happens that there once was a man of such distinction. Panayiotis Antoniou born in 1840 on an island called, Koutali (spoon) in the Sea of Marmara, who at 20 became a seaman. Not yet aware of his strength, he was on board a ship docked somewhere in South America when sudden monstrous winds threatened the ship that rose and fell and swayed and was in dire danger of being hurled against the rocks and destroyed. The anchor had to be lifted. but, the chain wouldn’t move. It was impossible due to the battering winds. All the seamen gathered and struggled without success to lift the chain attached to the anchor. After a time, the seamen gave up. The captain, witnessing the men’s efforts, felt defeated.

Then, something in Panayiotis urged him to come forward and do something. A surge of strength and conviction overcame him. He felt an assurance that he could do it. He grabbed hold of the top chain while the others watched. He pulled and pulled upwards towards the deck until the anchor came in sight. The captain then ordered the ship to be steered away from the rugged rocky shore, thus saving the ship from destruction.

Not only the captain but the men were astounded at Panayiotis’ strength. For the first time he realized the power in is body and he decided to compete in sports – wrestling was his first attempt. His amazing abilities took him to many countries in Europe and, eventually, America. After defeating a few well-known champions in wrestling, it was arranged that he fight a tiger. The performance had been widely advertised. After three hours of wrestling and overcoming the animal he was lauded as amazing and unbeatable. And, the event won him a sizeable amount of money. But, his wounds were considerable.

In the late nineteenth century, healed of his extensive wounds, he entertained in various arenas to enthusiastic crowds by lifting cannons, fighting bulls, and bending thick bars of steel. It has to be said that Panayiotis was known not only for his strength, for his intelligence – he had knowledge of several foreign languages.

This indeed a rare and special man! Perhaps, his genes stretched out from ancient Greece. Time passed and he felt nostalgia. All he wished for was to return to Koutali (spoon) and to live quietly and comfortably. He married and had four sons and there is no evidence that he was unhappy. Then, WWI brought upheavals of every kind and nothing was heard of him until 1916 when, like so many Greeks, he was expelled from his home, as were many others – Greek and Armenians – in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, relocated to other places like the outer regions of Asia Minor. His burial place, too, is unknown.

Strong men were referred to as, ‘O Koutalianos.’ Then, in 1972, during the Greek military junta, a song was written about a military man who ruled with an unrelenting show of strength, threatening anyone with a different outlook, and causing numerous imprisonments and exiles but, in reality, he was a frightened, hen-pecked husband whose wife was named Despina. Manos and Lefteris had planned to write a song along those lines but friends warned against it and strict censorship prevented it. Instead, they wrote the song about the now obscure strong man. It made money. 

It is probable that everyone had a ‘Koutalianos’ in their lives. The Koutalianos in my life was my father, George, an iron and steel mechanic, born on the island of Simi in the Dodecanese islands and who was an amateur wrestler, having won three medals. One was given by the NY Athletic Club. He had amazing strength, as I remember well. He was a sergeant in the National Guard and was awarded another medal for being a ‘Pistol Expert’. Growing up, I enjoyed hearing stories and history he’d tell about ancient Greece, the heroes and mostly about his favorite, Archimedes, about whom he could recite and describe his many feats. He played the guitar and oil painted huge canvasses, never selling any but giving them away to those who’d admired them. He was a proud American but a prouder Greek.

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