Learning a new language can be very difficult. There is grammar to learn and tenses to master. Becoming fluent is an even greater challenge. Some day I hope to speak Spanish fluently; I think that would be impressive. But have you ever met someone fluent in five languages? There is a man I know who has unique talents and skills, and lived through amazing history. He is George Sakoulas, my grandfather (“Popoule” in Greek).
“Everyone has a hidden ambition,” George says. His own was to work with words. He had a dream of being a freelance writer. George came to speak English, Spanish, Greek, Italian, and German fluently, with a little Portuguese on the side. He says English was his best language—not bad for knowing no English at all for years, speaking only Greek with his family and community. The inspiration for the remarkable achievement of becoming a master linguist? He flunked kindergarten. He could not speak English, and he couldn’t go to a Greek school—there were none. After that, his pursuit of languages began.
His father was an impoverished Greek immigrant who sailed to America in 1910. His father opened a restaurant in downtown Kansas City, called the Triangle Grill, because of its location between three streets. It no longer exists, but curiously a sculpture of many different triangles is erected where it once stood. George’s mother immigrated later. She was about thirteen when they married. George’s father left his wife for America and lived there for eleven years before he had enough money to send for his wife (and, unexpectedly, his preteen daughter Nicoletta, George’s older sister).
“I was just a boy on my bicycle,” George once told me, summarizing his childhood. His bicycle story always makes me wonder at life fifty or sixty years ago. He had a bicycle delivery route. Helping those in need, he delivered medicine all over the Kansas City. He was paid 50 cents a week, and was paying off his bicycle, which cost $22.50. His mother was worried a car would hit him. He was hit twice, but did not quit.
The Great Depression dominated George’s boyhood, when money was scarce, foodstuffs, oil, and materials were strictly rationed, and unemployment was high. George spent a good deal of time making his own toys. He remembers making a scooter from roller blades, a two-by-four, and an orange crate. He made toy guns using wood, clothespins, and rubber bands.
George was athletic, and was one of the fastest runners in track, which he did at school and at a junior college in KC. He played basketball in grade school. He remained very small in high school, and was therefore unable to participate in many sports. We Greeks are not known for our height. He later got into boxing, and was a champion in his weight division. “I got a lot of respect,” he says.
His generation was into Frank Sinatra and others. He felt too old for Elvis when “the king” became popular, telling me he considered Elvis to be a “weirdo” and a “hillbilly.” When the Beatles came over to the US, he thought they “looked like girls,” and made fun of them. George says, “So many changes come” and that modern singers “sound like they’re dying.”
When World War II began in September 1939, the age for new recruits in the United States dropped from 21 to 20. Years later, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the age dropped to 18. In January 1943 George Sakoulas joined the army, interrupting his junior year in college. In 1943 the Allies invaded Italy, and the US began shipping Italian prisoners to stateside POW camps. Some were sent to a camp in Tooele, Utah, near Salt Lake City, which had been holding German prisoners already.
George was put in the infantry at first. There his linguistic skills were discovered and he was reassigned to the POW camp in Utah before he saw any fighting. “I hated it,” George tells me. While he was there he made applications to leave. He wanted to fight, not stay in the US. “Everyone wanted to fight,” he says.
“Other forces kept me from the war,” George says.
The army sent him to language school at Stanford (where he wishes he had finished, since Stanford is a prestigious school nowadays), where he improved his Italian. After that he was taken to Utah. As a translator, his primary job was to translate the commander’s orders. When he arrived at the camp, only Germans were being kept there—no Italians had yet arrived. George’s “baptism of fire,” as he calls it, came when a troop of Italian prisoners was finally brought into the compound. An old colonel who stood by him as the column of soldiers marched through the games.
The colonel pushed George towards them and ordered him to make them halt. George ran out in front, but did not remember the word for “halt.” So instead he shouted out “Stop!” in Italian, and the column obeyed. He later realized “halt” would have done fine; the Italian equivalent is “alt.”
Popoule wants it to be known how well the prisoners were treated. They were not abused in any way. He remembers life at the POW camp well. The Italians were allowed to cook their own food, and he would sometimes go down and eat alongside them, because their food was better than his own. He said he became friends with a lot of nice men.
The POWs were given tools for activities, and George received gifts like paintings. He was amazed to see a few Germans had constructed a small radio. The prisoners, if they attempted to escape (which happened rarely), were locked up for a whole week, with nothing to eat but bread and water. This was the only time prisoners were not treated well.
George oversaw a company of 200 Italian soldiers for the rest of the war. While the Geneva Convention prohibited hard prison labor, the Italians had plenty of tasks to keep them busy.
George never became a freelance writer. When he got back from Utah, he finished college at UMKC, receiving a degree in history and language. He then went into the restaurant business, where he was needed by his family. He married Goldie, my “Yia-Yia” (grandmother) who was also Greek. They met at a picnic at the Greek Orthodox Church, which they now attend regularly.