An old soldier's war stories
by Jack Neely
Every morning, he looks like the happiest man on Market Square. Always grinning, he drops in at the Tomato Head to pick up some day-old bread. On the way around the Square, he greets everyone he sees.
Then he settles into his chair behind the counter at #27, a gray-painted brick Victorian building on the west side. Upstairs, its windows are arched, in the style of another century. Built around 1880, the building had already had a commercial history by 1903, when Dennis Gallagher opened his saloon here. Local prohibition hit in late 1907, and Gallagher tried to keep the place open selling "soda waters." It was a soft-drink saloon up until World War I. That failed, as did most of Knoxville's saloons that tried to adapt. Around 1915, Max Reich opened his grocery here, and ran it for over 30 years. In the '50s, this was Kirk's Hardware.
Today, when the phone rings at 27 Market Square, Harry Caracostis picks it up and says, "Mall Package." His Mall Package Store is the oldest business on the Square, and the only one that retains the word "Mall"officially retired by mayoral proclamation in 1986in its name. The Mall Package Store opened here just as the city was unveiling the bright new suburban-style "Market Square Mall" in 1961, and just after we re-legalized package liquor. Harry claims his is the oldest liquor store in Knoxville, and it probably is.
Illuminated mainly by natural sunlight in the mornings, it's an eclectic place that sells bottles of Scotch in the $50 range, but also bottles of Boone's Farm at $2.77 and hip flasks of Early Times for $2.54. He even sells several varieties of apparently legal corn liquor.
Harry's customers are as various as his product, and by 11 a.m., there's a steady stream of them. Some, in tailored suits and ties, appear to be lawyers or bankers. Others look like maybe they slept outside last night. They're black, white, old, young. If they have one thing in common, it's that they all seem to know and like Harry, and they call him by name.
Harry Caracostis was born 72 years ago in the tiny village of Marathia, in the region of Evritania, in the countryside about 200 miles northwest of Athens. He lived in Greece for more than 30 years; today he still has a strong Greek accent and sometimes struggles with English. You may well wonder what brought him to Knoxville. But Harry's family was settling in Knoxville even before he was born.
His older brother Nick came over in 1920 and ran the restaurant on the corner, known for decades as the Gold Sun. Now 94, Nick Caracostis still lives in Knoxville.
Harry followed in 1960. He worked for several years at Chubby's, a pancake house at Clinch and Market, and fondly recalls the 300-pound proprietor. "A really busy place. We served 850 people a day. We had a donut machine, made 300 donuts. A nickel a donut. An hour and a half, and we were sold out." Albert Gore, Sr., used to stop by and get coffee.
He and his wife, Elaine, married in 1966. Their two daughters are now grown, both UT grads with good jobs.
Harry had intended to come to Knoxville about 20 years earlier than he did. In Athens on Oct. 26, 1940, he got his passport to leave for America. "I had visa, passport, everything." He went home just "to say goodbye to everybody.
"Two days later, the Italians invade. It was impossible to leave. It was a bad time. The Greek government was not ready for war. Italian military thought it was easy to take over Greece. They used to wear pajamas to fight.
"I remember when the Italians came in together with the Germans. I was 14. Bad. They came into the villages, took everything we had: chickens, goats, sheeps, calves, milk. We had to have so many chickens, so many goats. If we didn't have it ready, they would come to our houses and get it. Sometimes they would burn the houses, destroy everything.
"Winter, 1941, thousands of Greeks in the streets, starving. They would pick up bodies from the streets in garbage trucks. I remember it with my eyes. A little boy, three or four years old, didn't have nothing to eat. He fell in the street.
"In summer 1942, things started to change. Greeks stopped to give Italians and Germans everything. Started to fight, the revolutionaries and the guerrillas. Just a little bit, enough to make trouble.
"Before Christmas, Italians went into a little village and they kill the most educated peoplepreacher, teachers. Eleven people they killed. Hung 'em up. People got wild. Started to support the revolutionaries. A lot of support for the revolutionaries, the guerrillas, a lot of young people join up.
"Revolution was pretty well organized. British soldiers came to my house. They came to help the revolutionaries against the Germans. I joined the revolutionaries in March, 1943. At first, I was just playing soldier. Then, we fight the Germans in three-four places.
"In one fight, near Arta, my lieutenant, he'd been wounded in the neck." Harry shows on his own neck where the bullet entered and exited. "I tied him up with first aid, put him on my back, and carried him two miles. Two miles, on my back."
He doesn't mention that the man he saved was somebody you might know. Gus Nassios, who moved to Knoxville in the '60s, ran a restaurant on Broadway called the Open Kitchen.
Harry went to officers' school in the mountains and, at 18, became a second lieutenant. "At that time, the Germans start to pull out from Greece. We had an order to fight them any place we could. Three British fighter airplanes came every day, with the gun machines. RAF fighters hit the German trains. Outside Lania, summer 1944, the Germans hit the British airplane. The pilot flew it into the train's engine. Kamikaze. Next day, another RAF fighter hit, had to land in a field. My platoon, we recovered him."
The allied victory didn't bring peace. Harry says the Greek Civil War, which followed, was worse. "Big mistake for both sides, left wing, right wing. I was not fighting. I left and went home. I was very disappointed with both sides."
"I went to Athens, worked in nightclub, the Argedinafancy restaurant and nightclub. Bring big shows, dancers." Among his customers was King Paul of Greece.
"Here in Knoxville, things close down at 12. There, places open at 12. People tried to enjoy themselves. They paid more attention for a good timea good life.
"I was a busboy at the bar. We had a lot of American customers during Marshall's Plan. I remember a man named George Morgan, always gave me $5, every single time." He remembers one customer better than the others. "Onassis came in with a big bunch of $5 bills, gave them to everybody."
He spent more than three years in the national army, much of it spent stationed on the Albanian and Bulgarian borders. In Salonika, they trained "in the American style," he says. "They gave us leftovers. Leftover machine guns, bazookas."
His family sent several of his older brothers to school: One became an attorney, another a contractor, another an electrical engineer, another a civil engineer. "I was the last one," he says. "They bring me here. That's the old fashion: the oldest brother to support the younger ones." He still grins just like a little brother.
He says he likes America, but misses some things. "My life was messed up with American style and Greek style. I work too hard in this country. Seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for four or five years. Not a day off. I lived better over there than I did here." He mentions several Greek Orthodox holidays, each with its own traditions. Still, he says he likes America. "Great country," he says.
Today Harry recognizes most of his customers, and sometimes surprises one with a question. "Where you been, jail?"
"Why is it everybody thinks I've been in jail?" complains the tattooed man. "I've been to Boston. I've been to Chicago."
Some don't come to shop. Since Peroulas closed a few years ago, Harry's place has served as a gathering place for old Greek chums who pull up a spare chair and chat and, sometimes, argue about Kosovo.
Harry admits he's skeptical about the future of downtown. "Back in 1973, they talk then: business coming back, business coming back. Still the same thing; we're not better, we're worse." Friends expected Harry to retire a couple of years ago, but that when he heard some were fretting that his package store was somehow bad for Market Square, he found the heart to stay and resist.
"My health is not good," he says. "I'm a cancer victim. Taking chemotherapy. Today I feel fine. I don't know about two months from now." And, again, Harry Caracostis grins.