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My Ithaka – A Life of Many Journeys

April 23, 2021
By Peter Nicollelis

This story was prompted by my reading of the poem ‘Ithaka’ written by the Alexandrite-Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy. This poem is Cavafy’s summation of Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, the account of Ulysses’ (Odysseus’) journey from Troy back to his island kingdom of Ithaka – back to his faithful wife, Penelope, and to his son, Telemachus. 

Cavafy leaves us with the admonition that we each make our life journey back to our own Ithaka, a long one – full of adventure, enlightenment, wisdom, and discovery. With the caution not to be frightened by an angry Poseidon or by the man-eating Laistrygonians or Cyclops.

My personal Odyssey began in Astoria when I was a child. My first adventure was when I completed my Boy Scouts prequalification test, making a 14-mile hike and then camping out. I performed that adventure with my other 12-year-old, Pine Tree Patrol mates of Troop 23. It was the spring of 1940.

That adventure began with my solo subway ride. I can remember boarding the train on the elevated subway station on Broadway in Astoria and then pulling into the underground Main Street station in Flushing. I remember disembarking and walking up two long flights of stairs to daylight on Roosevelt Avenue.

We looked for and found Northern Boulevard and began our 14-mile hike to Alley Pond Park in Bayside. The direction was easy, we just kept walking east along the street. Northern boulevard was a wide, main road but the traffic was very light compared to today's. 

I can remember being impressed seeing large, stand-alone, three-story, single family homes with grass lawns that I sighted along the way. What a stark contrast this was to the blocks of attached, multi-story, red brick apartment buildings in Astoria I thought to myself.

Once we arrived at Alley Pond Park we selected our camp site, which we later named ‘The Valley’. We erected our canvas tents, started our campfire and began preparing for dinner. The hike had taken us over six hours to complete. There were no fast food watering holes along this major artery that sliced through northern Queens. Besides … none of us had any spare change to afford a purchase of any sort. The only change we had left was reserved for our five-cent, subway carfare back to Astoria.

We fast forward to December 8, 1941, one day after the Japanese navy and airforce had completed their sneak attack on the American navy base at Pearl Harbor on the Hawaiian Islands. President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared war on Japan before a joint session of Congress. Three days later, on December 11, Adolf Hitler, prompted by our declaration of war against Japan, declared war against America.

The United States was now involved in the war in Europe against Germany and Italy and in the far east against Japan.

There was an immediate assessment of the requirement for a wide variety of military equipment and munitions. Thousands of existing factories, large and small, manufacturing civilian equipment were converted to military production.

There was also an immediate manpower mobilization for the war effort. A national military draft recruiting system was established. Every physically fit and age eligible male, ages 18-45, was given a draft classification number: 1-A classification meant that you would be the next group mobilized. 

A 4-F classification meant that you were not likely to be called unless there was a dire need.

A rationing system was also established for all sorts of commodities: food, gasoline, clothing, shoes, and dozens of other items. There were also national collections driven for scrap iron, aluminum, cardboard, and newspapers.

I focused on how my life and future plans would be affected by the war effort.

I realized that I would be entering high school at age of 14 years in 1942 and that I would be 18 years old at graduation – of draft age with 1-A classification for immediate recruitment for combat duty. I became very concerned about that prospect and began thinking about how I could improve on my military service status. And survival.

I thought out a plan for myself. A plan which I believed offered an improved opportunity for survival if I became engaged in the international world war conflict.

My plan was to make every effort to complete high school in less than four years – say in 3 ½. If I accomplished that important first step, I would then apply to enroll into an accelerated engineering college program and complete one year of engineering studies before becoming draft age. Another possibility was to obtain a deferment from the draft or become a candidate for OCS (Officers Candidate School) upon reaching the draft age of 18 years. I figured that an engineering degree would make me a candidate for assignments other than on the front lines.

As it worked out, I was able to double up on my math, science, and English courses and also attended summer school at the Rhodes School in Manhattan. I completed the NYS Regents requirements and completed my first year of engineering studies at New York University by September 1946.

Fortunately, the war with Japan ended on September 2, 1945, but my plan for survival had been activated. I continued with my plan and it was enhanced. I enlisted in the army in September of 1946, served in the Army of Occupation in Japan, and became eligible for the GI Bill of Rights and its educational benefits. I utilized those benefits to complete my engineering studies when I was discharged from the army.

I could not have foreseen how significant the decision I had made in 1942 at age 14 would affect my future career and my life – or of the many adventures it enabled.

I have since had other adventures working on significant engineering and communication projects on Long Island and internationally in Greece, Italy, North Africa, France, England, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

I can truly say that there were several special events or happenings I experienced that were significant and worth describing but I will begin with one that occurred one evening after dinner in a North Italian pension. I was there completing engineering surveys evaluating potential sites for U.S.-Air Force Communication Stations – a tropo-scatter system that  stretched from Turkey with relay stations in Greece, Italy, France, and England. The timeframe was the summer of 1962. This communication system was vital for the operation of the SAC (Strategic Air Command) which protected the free world during the Cold War.

I had recruited an Italian surveyor to assist our team of engineers. We had dinner and it was still daylight. Our surveyor, who was also our driver, suggested we drive to Verona – a beautiful city in northern Italy only a 30-minute drive from where we were staying. We agreed and Enrico got us on the auto strata and we arrived in Verona in no time. During the drive, Enrico asked if we would like to attend an opera performance in Verona. We all agreed.

Enrico knew his way around the city and knew exactly where to find parking for our large van. After parking we followed closely behind Enrico through the gathering crowd to an isolated ticket booth away from the crowd. We purchased tickets for the opera Aida that was to be performed in the ancient Roman arena later that evening. Enrico led the way to seating on the limestone steps with an excellent view of the stage that had been created for the performance.

The arena filled with young, Italian opera aficionados and we became part of the excitement while we waited for the lights to dim and the opera to begin. We were spotted as Americans and became engaged in conversations with the young Italians wanting to practice their English conversational skills.

What followed was a beautiful performance of Aida. A performance I will never forget. There was one scene in particular that I can vividly recall to this day. It was the sight and sounds of the orchestra playing Radames’ victory march into the arena. Radames first appearance on the set was on stage right. He rode, standing tall, in full military dress, in a gold-colored chariot pulled by a white stallion, the large horse galloping on the wide walkway that surrounded the very top of the ancient Roman arena. Radames descended from the chariot and proceeded to march down the entire height of the arena to the stage level. He marched to the resounding beat of the triumphant march:

Dom … dom … dara … da dom … dom … dara da dom … da dom.

There were other memorable challenges along the way – challenges that tested my commitment to mature and to succeed as an engineer.

To have succeeded in gaining the ability to stand before a live audience and to report on current world events; to have performed the land survey services for the construction of 5,000 Levittown homes in 1948 (last year I was asked to speak before the Levittown Historical Society on the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of Levittown); to have constructed our family summer place with my father in the years 1948-1953; to have participated in the site selection of communications stations that  supported the U.S.-Air Force’s SAC atomic bomb delivery deterrent during our Cold War with Russia; to have participated in the planning, design and construction management of  the international wing of the TWA passenger terminal at JFK airport; to have completed a forensic survey and report on the construction project for  the improvements and enlargement of the ship repair and drydock facility of the Neorion Shipyard on the island of Syros in Greece; to have contributed to the preparation of the design and performance criteria for the construction of the Dubai Drydock facility in the United Arab  Emirates; to have supervised the design and construction of a 110,000 square foot office/computer laboratory for Western Union in Mahwah, NJ; to have managed the design of piping additions and modifications for the oil production facilities throughout the eastern province of Saudi Arabia; to have managed the design and construction management of Hilton Hotel Projects in Jeddah, Riyadh, and in Jubail; and to have managed the development of design criteria for the construction of ten 100-bed hospitals in Saudi Arabia.

My memorable experiences of enlightenment include: the visits to and the studies of the Parthenon and the other antiquities on the  Acropolis; the visit to view the Parthenon (Elgin) marbles displayed at the British Museum in London; the visit to view the Acropolis of the Ancient Hellenic Kingdom of Pergamos; the visit with my father and son to Pergamos to find my father’s paternal home (that was my father’s Ithaka journey); the visit to the Pergamos Museum in Berlin and the viewing of the Altar of Zeus; the visit to the Louvre in Paris to view the Winged Victory and Venus de Milo sculptures, and the oil painting of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo di Vinci; the visit to Florence to view the marble sculpture of David by Michaelangelo; the visit to the church of Maria della Gracia in northern Italy to view the Last  Supper by Michaelangelo; the visit to Rome to view Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Coliseum, and the Pantheon; the visit to the Patriarchate and the Aghia Sophia and the Church of the Chora in Constantinople, Turkey; to have completed a pilgrimage to Agio Oros.

And now, my life goes on. I continue writing. I thank the Lord I am enjoying each day with my Helen, my loving wife and soulmate.

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