Sunday, June 28, 2009
Go Tell The Spartans
(Above: Andy and his buddies on R & R in Naples. Perry is second from the left; Andy is second from the right.)
One of the most historic places in Oakland is the King's X Bar. It was the birthplace of not one but two cultural icons: fantasy football, which started at the King's X in the early 60s, and trivia contests, which started at the King's X in 1970.
That's where I came in. I had graduated from law school and was getting ready to take the Bar exam when I heard that the news director of KCBS was looking for a ringer for the station's trivia team because he was tired of losing to the guys from the King's X every year.
To put me on the team, he had to give me a job. And that was the end of my legal career.
But even more historically significant than the King's X was the man who owned it from 1968 to 1991, Andy Mousalimas.
He made every customer feel welcome. But you had to shout when talking to him because he was hard of hearing.
In 1991 Perry Phillips, the Oakland Tribune's entertainment columnist, died; and I decided to write an obit.
I had heard a rumor that during World War II, Perry belonged to a hush-hush Greek-American commando unit for the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) who parachuted behind enemy lines into occupied Greece to sabotage the Nazis.
So I called the CIA to check it out. And the CIA guy I talked to said, "It's true. But if you want to know more, there's an OSS veteran in your neck of the woods named Andy Mousalimas who can give you all the details. He's a real hero."
I was floored. Andy had never mentioned a thing. But, then again, bragging was never his style.
I started hanging out with Andy and his fellow former commandos, and the stories they told - both of their wartime experiences and of the discrimination they suffered as Greek-Americans before the war - made the hair stand up on the back of my head.
Every one of them had a price on his head. Anyone who turned him in would receive his weight in gold - no small temptation for a population that was systematically being starved by the Germans.
"But not one single person ever turned us in," Andy said proudly. "Never."
His commando unit destroyed bridges, locomotives, trucks, power plants railroad track, pillboxes, armored cars, culverts, boxcars, telegraph poles and mine shafts. They killed thousands of enemy soldiers and pinned down tens of thousands more.
They got under Hitler's skin so much, he issued the infamous Fuhrer Order No. 003830: “From now on, all enemies on so-called commando missions are to be slaughtered to the last man." And many were.
Andy's hearing is almost completely gone now, the result of his eardrums being shattered by German bombs. But he's still going strong at 84.
This spring, the U.S. Army flew him and his wife, Mary, to Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, where his unit was honored by the Special Forces.
I called him last week and told him I was going to write this column. He said OK, but he had one condition:
"Make sure you don't glamorize it," he said. "There's nothing glamorous about war."
Happy July 4th, Andy. Efharisto. (That's Greek for "Thank you.")