I also felt a need to answer to my extended family. Greeks came to America from dozens of islands and hundreds of villages, but here they formed a single clan, united by heritage, language, and a need to achieve. Those of us in the second generation understood that honoring the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents --the laborers, cobblers, waiters, and cooks --meant getting a good education and putting it to good use --as doctors, lawyers, professors, and politicians. Assimilation for Greeks didn't mean blending in; it required standing out. If a Greek like Ike Pappas was on television, all of us watched; if another like Nick Gage wrote a book, all of us read it; when Congressman John Brademas missed his chance to be Speaker of the House, we all felt his loss; when Vice President Agnew resigned, we all felt ashamed --a disgrace lessened only by the grumbled observation that he got what he deserved for changing his name and leaving his church. The rules were so clear they didn't need to be said: Make your name, and don't change it. Make us proud, and don't forget where you came from. Drilled into me were two awkwardly compatible ambitions: public service and professional success. Priests serve; immigrants succeed. I would try to do both.
But first I wanted to blend in. Here's where I'm my mother's son. As a boy, I would spend hours upstairs, lying on the floor with my feet pressed against the radiator, leafing through yearbooks to find pictures of my mom --a pretty girl with dark hair and a wide smile whose American friends called her Gloria instead of her Greek name. Her picture was everywhere: Gloria at the newspaper, Gloria in the glee club, Gloria behind the wheel of an old jalopy filled with friends.
In high school, that's the life I wanted. I still served in the altar and studied enough to get good grades. But I wanted to be one of the guys. So I snuck onto the golf course next door, went to the track, and played poker on Friday nights with the money I earned on Saturdays as a caddie, dishwasher, and busboy. I noticed girls, but they didn't notice me.
Politics didn't interest me. Instead, I poured myself into sports. I was a chubby kid, pretty well coordinated, decent at soccer and softball, but no natural athlete. I was barely five feet tall, so instead of basketball, I tried out for wrestling. The first practice was murder. Afterward, I could barely drag myself to the car out front, where my mom was waiting for me. I got in and announced I was quitting. Then came a surprise. Usually my mom let me do what I wanted so long as I stayed out of trouble. This time she just said, "No. Stick it out."
I'm still grateful. Not that I became a champion, far from it. I lost my first match 19Ð2 and never caught up. I guess I never developed the killer instinct. Before a bout I would look up at the clock from the side of the mat and remind myself that win or lose, the ordeal would soon be over. You could pretty much sum up my high school wrestling career with an item from our local paper my sophomore year: "The agony of defeat is etched in the face of Orange High School's George Stephanopoulos," read the caption beneath a picture of me getting pinned.
Wrestling, in short, was more about what the sport did to me than what I did to my opponents. Cutting weight was an extreme exercise in self-control. I woke up extra early to run a mile or two before school; did sit-ups and push-ups while watching TV at night. I dieted on oranges and ran through the school hallways wrapped in plastic to sweat out that last pound. Even water had to be rationed in the hours before weigh-ins. To this day, when I put my mouth to a fountain I unconsciously count the sips. On Labor Day freshman year, I weighed 120 pounds. By November, I was wrestling at 98. My body showed me what it could take, which helped my mind turn around and instruct my body to take a little more. Though I wasn't a champion, what lingered for me was an addiction to exercise and a belief in the power of discipline.
© 1999 by George Stephanopoulos. Published by permission of the publisher, Little Brown.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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