Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Finding Atlantis by Hal Ackerman

No summer will be remembered more passionately, in more vastly different ways that the summer of ‘69. Events that occurred within sixty days redefined the outer limits of humanity. In both directions. There was sublime peace and love at Woodstock. There were bloody corpses in Bel Air. Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell/Charles Manson. Helter Skelter. Teddy drove Mary Jo off the bridge at Chappaquiddick. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. And I went in search of Atlantis with the woman who would someday become my second ex-wife.

Oh yes. And there was Vietnam.   

I had just written a searing political satire that I was certain would cause the entire American populace to rise up against the war, and that I would be my generation’s Aristophanes, our Jonathan Swift. Some unscrupulous people tried to wrest the play’s authorship from me, and in the end it was not done in the prestigious theater that would have been the pulpit to carry its message. It did not end the war. I did not become the voice of my generation. I needed to get away, and when I read about the dig I wrote to the director-general of antiquities for the Greek Ministry of Culture, Professor Spyridon Marinatos (whose name I still love to say out loud), informing him that I was an American photojournalist interested in visiting the site. Some part of that statement was close to being almost true. I was an American with a 35mm camera and writing implements.

The war was far more ferociously opposed in Europe than it was in the States. Every traveling American was held personally accountable. But in this two-week period from lift-off to landing, the other side of our national split personality captured the hearts and imaginations of the world. People broke out in smiles and celebrated us--“Americani! Astronauti! La Luna! La Luna!

We were heading south through Italy to the port of Brindisi, where we would cross the Adriatic to the mainland of Greece, take a brief detour through the Peloponnesus, where I would make a pilgrimage to the theatre at Epidaurus, ancient home to Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides (the voices of their generations), then on to the port of Pireaus, from whence we would take an overnight boat to the island of Santorini.

The boat left at dusk. We traveled deck passage amidst our guitar-playing, hash-smoking, moving glob of hippie cytoplasm. After six hours the engines stopped. We were a few hundred yards from shore in a lagoon that had once had been the caldera of the volcano that had erupted and split the island of Santorini in half, and, if speculation was correct, had buried Atlantis. Before us was a two-thousand-foot cliff that had been the center of the island. With the engines cut it was perfectly quiet. Moonlight shimmered across the lagoon. You did not have to be on acid to be on acid. 

We were instructed (or herded) to climb overboard onto a small motor launch that carried us the last few hundred yards to the harbor. There, we were hustled onto the backs of mules that were prodded by muleteers who ran alongside their animals up the thousand-foot stone spiral staircase, prodding them with long sticks and a Greek word that sounded like ”delax.” The little whitewashed town rested at the top on a plateau, where innkeepers awaited the arriving tourists in a feeding frenzy of hospitality. Still. Compare that to the experience of a stranger getting off a bus or a train in ANY American city… at midnight. Would there be anyone to greet him but pimps and hustlers?

The dig was at the far end of the island at a site called Akrotiri. The bus went out there one day each week, which by our good fortune was the following day. The three-hour ride was over one-lane roads without guardrails, precariously terraced hundreds of feet above a sea that had already swallowed a continent. I had only seen archaeological digs in movies, where hundreds of workers wearing tan shorts and pressed shirts scurried around the hillside, showing their new amazing finds to the head scientist, who frequently exclaimed ‘eureka.’ When we got off the bus we found two guys with shovels and a wheelbarrow. Because this was grape growing country for world-famous Santorini wine, the excavation was being done so as not to disturb the crops. Rather than digging an open pit, they had tunneled underneath the farmland and made a cave. Long, witchy white-tipped roots dangled free and exposed into the hollowed space, like blind worms wriggling to find nourishment. It made me think a bit of how our marriage was starting to feel. When you fall out of love, everything is a metaphor. I’m sure she felt it too, but we were both smart enough or frightened enough not to say anything. There were no guardrails to break the fall into the ultimate truth that neither one of us wanted to face so far from home.

The bus had to return. There were no hotels within miles, meaning that we had to make the return trip on the very same bus, and that this entire trip will have been for half an hour. Either that or…well, there was no or. Maybe the workers sensed this. They allowed us to peek at the few artifacts that had already been unearthed. Among them, huge clay cisterns that once held olive oil. This was an early equivalent of the US Treasury’s repository of gold at Fort Knox. Ten years later there would be a huge twenty-page spread in National Geographic of the amazing treasures that dig had yielded.

We returned to Athens on July 20, 1969. By then we had forgotten about their voyage. I was lying on a metal army cot in a youth hostel in Athens. Men and women had separate accommodations. I splurged and went for “Very Especial,” which meant that the quarter-inch thick, stained mattress was covered by a semi-laundered sheet. It was too hot to sleep and around ten or eleven o’clock I went for a walk.

It wasn’t much cooler outside the youth hostel but at least there was a breeze. Presently I came upon a cluster of people gathered in front of a closed and locked appliance store. Inside the gated windows an eleven-inch black and white television set was turned on. There, in that fuzzy flickering image I saw Neil Armstrong set foot on Tranquility Base and utter the most famous misquoted line in history.

With all the strange smells and sounds around me, I felt as displaced and remote from my home planet as Armstrong was from his. I chanced to glance up. Above and behind the appliance store, in the same visual frame as the astronauts walking on the moon on that fuzzy TV screen, stood the Acropolis and the twenty-five-hundred-year-old Parthenon, its marble pillars gleaming in the light from the moon that was now being trodden for the first time in the life of the Universe. And tilting my neck up just a few more degrees, there was that very 4.5 billion-year-old moon. My own private trinity.

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Until his retirement in 2015, Hal Ackerman served as co-area head of the UCLA screenwriting program. His first novel, Stein, Stoned, won the Lovey Award for best first novel in 2011. His short stories have appeared in  New Millennium Writings, Southeast Review, (Winner there of Robert Olen Butler’s pick for World’s Best Short Short Story),  and most recently in the current Idaho Review Testosterone: How Prostate Cancer Made a Man of Me” won the William Saroyan Centennial Award for Drama, and was named Best Play at the 2011 United solo Festival in New York. 

Judge's Comment: We are hooked at the start into what is to be both an archeological and a personal journey: it's 1969, 'And I went in search of Atlantis with the woman who would some day become my second ex-wife.' Wonderful evocation of the time:  'We travelled Deck Passage amidst our guitar-playing, hash-smoking, moving glob of hippie cytoplasm.' The description of the breakdown in the relationship is stark: 'There were no guardrails to break the fall into the ultimate truth that neither one if us wanted to face...' An oh so sad story, but with a beautiful, uplifting ending.