Getting Busted In Greece, Part Two

FEATURE by Willard Manus

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I heard the roar of that high-speed marine engine.
Lifting my head up out of the sea, I peered through my face mask and saw the Greek Coast Guard cutter barreling across St Nicholas Bay at full throttle.

Quickly, I swam toward the tiny island where I had anchored my skiff. Once there, I unhooked the clasps on my dive jacket and clambered aboard the boat with spear-gun in hand, then began reeling in the float which held my day’s catch: a five-pound grouper and a large caravida (spineless lobster).
As the cutter bore down on me, I had a sickening realization: it was May, the one month in the year when spear-fishing was forbidden in these waters.
What to do?
For one irrational moment I thought about tossing my gear overboard.
“I haven’t been spear-fishing,” I’d tell the Coast Guard. “I just came out here to splash around and look for sea-shells.”

Yeah, and you’d also like us to believe that you’re a man from Mars, right?
Nothing to do but sit tight and wait for the authorities to arrive.
The cutter came to a sudden, wave-churning halt about ten meters from me.
“Pull your anchor up and row over here,” the officer in charge called out. He was wearing a spotless white uniform with a twist of gold braid on his shoulder. The rest of the crew, a half dozen of them, stood behind him, clad in grey fatigues and smirking at me.
Moments later, the officer put a foot over the side and jumped down into my skiff, with a heavy thud. Then he picked up my spear-gun and waved it around.
“Look at this,” he shouted. “You have broken the law. You have committed a crime!”
“I’m very sorry, sir,” I said with all the sincerity I could muster. “I have just returned to Rhodes after a year in the USA. I simply forgot that it is forbidden to spearfish in the month of May. I hope you will forgive me. I’ll never do it again, you can be sure of that.”
The officer stared at me, then made a face and addressed me in English. “I did my higher studies in your country,” he said. “While there I learned this expression: ignorance of the law is no excuse.”

* * *
After writing out a summons–-I’ve just been given a traffic ticket at sea, is all I could think–-the officer gathered up all of my things: wet suit, spear-gun, weight-belt, line, knives, float, mask and flippers, and handed them to his crew.
“I could also confiscate your boat and outboard engine,” he said. “But I have decided to give you a break in that regard.”
He did not, though, allow me to retain my catch: the fat grouper and lobster.
Have a nice meal on me, I muttered to myself as the cutter backed up, made a turn, and raced off.
* * *
That night I went to see my good friends, the Mavrikos brothers, who ran a family restaurant in Lindos’ main square. Over coffee, they sat and helped translate the summons for me.
“You are technically under arrest,” Michali said. “You will be put on trial and if found guilty could face a sizable fine and maybe even a jail sentence.”
“All this fuss over a lousy fish or two. It’s hard to believe.”
“You need to take this seriously,” Dimitri said.
“Do you think they’ll really stick it to me?”
“It’s certainly possible.”
“What should I do about it?”

“It’s hard to say,” Michali replied. Then he smiled and added, “But as we say in Greece, every house has at least one open window.”
The window in this regard was Christos Michaleas, a Captain in the Rhodes Coast Guard. An Athenian, he had married Michali’s cousin Roula and was now living in Pefkos, a rural village just south of Lindos. I visited the captain in his small, bright-white villa whose garden walls were carpeted with purple and red bougainvillea.
I handed him a folder containing photocopies of some of the travel articles I had written about Greece over the years. Many of them dealt with my life in Lindos: arriving there in the early 1960s and falling in love with the village; learning Greek; putting down roots that had held fast for some thirty years.
Other articles dealt with the joys of diving in Greece, chasing after fish in the depths of the emerald-like Aegean.
Captain Michaleas read these articles carefully (his English was excellent), then glanced at me. “You have certainly written many positive things about Greece,” he said. “Out of respect for that, I will go and see my boss and ask if he will consent to meet with you. I’ll let you know what his response is.” * * *

The wheels of Greek justice ground exceedingly slow. Months went by and still no word. The agony of not knowing my fate was compounded by the frustration of being unable to go out spear-fishing, put food on the table for my family.
Finally the summons came from vice-Admiral Aristotelous Anagnos. A small, plump, grey-haired man in an immaculate white uniform bedecked with medals, he received me in his office overlooking Rhodes’ main harbor. He flicked through my dossier with a stern look on his face. “The law against fishing in May was passed a few years ago for a specific reason, an important reason: to protect our dwindling stocks of fish when they are spawning. You are in agreement with that law, are you not?”
“Yes. Of course. I am fully in favor of it.”
“Then why did you break the law?”
I repeated what I had told the officer at sea–that I had been away from Rhodes for over a year and had simply forgotten that it was illegal to fish in May. “I can assure you that I will never break this law again,” I said earnestly.
“But you already have broken it. As a foreigner you should have been more careful.”
“That is correct, sir. Unfortunately, I failed in that regard.”

The Admiral once again flicked through my file, then set it aside. “You have committed a criminal offense,” he repeated, “but in light of the fact that your writings have helped bring tourists to Greece, I have decided on the following punishment. The case against you will be dismissed, but only after you have written an apologia and submitted it to this office.”
* * *
An apologia. I had to break open my Greek history book to fully understand the ramifications of this command. It went back in time to the year 406 B.C. and the Trial of the Generals after the battle of Arginusae. Socrates, as president of city council, refused to charge the generals with dereliction of duty, insisting that it would have been an illegal and un-democratic thing to do.
Later, after Athens lost its war with Sparta and was forced to surrender unconditionally, Socrates again found himself in opposition to the authorities. The junta that had taken power ordered him to issue an arrest warrant for a prominent resident alien. Socrates refused to do their bidding.
As a result, he was put on trial for treason. His defense-speech, the apologia, was written for him by Xenophon, one of his disciples. The speech did not persuade the junta; Socrates was found guilty and sentenced to death (the philosopher then took his own life by a self-administered dose of hemlock).

So here I was, having to follow in the footsteps of the immortal Socrates. Although I was not obliged to deliver a speech to a jury of my peers, I certainly had to sit down and write it out. This I did, with much trepidation. I put together a three-thousand-word apology to the Greek Coast Guard, admitting my guilt and remorse, but also asking for forgiveness and compassion, emphasizing once again my love for Greece. I also made a list of the many books and articles I had written about the country which had become my second home, my patrida.
After Michali’s wife translated the apologia into Greek, I sent the finished copy to the Admiral and awaited his response.
* * *
Another two weeks went by before I heard back from him: the case against me had been dismissed. I was instructed to come to Rhodes to collect my things. I obeyed and went to Coast Guard headquarters where a clerk led me to a back room where my dive equipment lay scattered on the floor. It was all there, everything that had been taken from me--except, of course, for my catch of the day.
That night, in the Mavrikos restaurant, I spotted Captain Michaleas sitting in a corner, over a plate of moussaka.
I went to him, thanked him, and ordered a bottle of Rhodian champagne. As we sat there sharing it, I asked him about the fate of my apologia. “What will happen to it?”
“It will stay in the files forever,” he replied, with a smile. “It is now a permanent part of Greek history.”