Having An Epiphany

Our resident unbeliever attends Tarpon Springs' holiest event.

click to enlarge THE CHOSEN: Alex Joanow, left, and Chuck Kyriakou, retrievers of the cross in 1988 and 1986, with the Polenic Dancers of New Jersey. - Max Linsky
Max Linsky
THE CHOSEN: Alex Joanow, left, and Chuck Kyriakou, retrievers of the cross in 1988 and 1986, with the Polenic Dancers of New Jersey.

Before we start, let's get a few things out on the table. As I've mentioned before in these pages, I was raised in a relatively areligious household. My mother is a Christian, though to be perfectly honest, I'm not exactly sure of what persuasion (and I'm well past the point of being able to ask). Whatever sect she hails from, I haven't spent too many Sundays in their church, or anyone else's. My father, meanwhile, is Jewish, but not so Jewish that he had me go to Hebrew School or be Bar Mitzvahed. Because of his mother, I've eaten my fair share of latkes, but as far as the nuts and bolts of the faith go, all I know is that apparently, somewhere along the line, somebody chose us. Or at least that's what we tell ourselves.

That's pretty much the breadth of my theological understanding.

So as I sat in Lenny's deli on Friday morning with a crew of Planet staffers, chomping down on the breakfast "Sampler" — a particularly un-kosher medley of four types of swine — I realized how completely unfit I was to write with any authority about what we were going to witness: The Epiphany in Tarpon Springs.

I'd been hearing about it for weeks, though nobody knew much beyond the basics: An Archbishop from the Greek Orthodox Church throws a cross into the water, teenage boys dive in after it, and the one who grabs it is blessed for the next year. The celebration is a very big deal in the Greek community, and tens of thousands of people show up to watch.

Sounded interesting enough.

But even though I'd read that this was going to be the Epiphany's100th Anniversary, and that His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, had come all the way from Constantinople (that's Istanbul for you laymen), none of it prepared me for the scene around Spring Bayou.

Fifty thousand people had gathered around the small bay, all eyeing the ominous group of rowboats arranged in a semicircle in front of a large cement dock. It felt like a high school football game, only with less beer and more meat on sticks. Middle schoolers, out of class for the town holiday, sat indifferently on the lawn, fiddling with PSPs. High school girls, seemingly all of whom were wearing those boots with the fur at the top, cruised the crowd, cellphones drawn. Their male counterparts pretended not to notice.

Black was the color of choice — if you didn't know better, you'd have thought the Epiphany was a funeral. Folks were dressed up — men in pinstripe suits with their hair gelled back, women in tight black dresses and oversized sunglasses. A JumboTron, almost impossible to see with the glare, played live video of His All Holiness, ZZ Top beard and all, conducting a service in the church down the road. Officers in green Fish and Wildlife Commission jumpsuits, guns strapped to the thigh, worked their way through the crowd. Their colleagues perched on the top of the two-story buildings lining the parade route from the church to water. You could feel the anticipation — people waiting for kickoff.

The parade was as cute as a parade should be — dancing troupes from Greek communities all over the country had made their way to Tarpon, and they tiptoed by in traditional garb, fists planted firmly on hips. The divers, 56 boys between the ages of 16 and 18, walked barefoot wearing board shorts and white "Epiphany Day 2006" T-shirts, the pre-dive jitters evident in their eyes. Then His All Holiness came through, surrounded by deacons in black robes. (Patriarchal bling is a sight to behold — each guy had a brilliant gold pendant hanging from his neck, diamond-encrusted with images of Jesus and Mary.)

After a blessing, the boys dove in and swam to the rowboats, where they watched the small white cross slip below the surface, then dove in after it, leaving a school of feet and a fountain of white splash in their wake. A few seconds passed. Then a hand reached up, the cross pointed toward the sky.

The Epiphany was over. And I had no idea what had actually happened.

One of the Planet folks in our group was raised in Tarpon Springs, and he got us into a lunch at Congressman Michael Bilirakis' house, just across the street from the bayou. There was baklava and stuffed grape leaves, with a main course of barbecue pork and baked beans. As I sat on the Congressman's front porch, wiping my mouth with an official U.S. House of Representatives napkin, I struggled to figure out what I'd seen. Sure, to my heathen mind the Epiphany had been an interesting, campy thing to watch. I knew that on a symbolic level the ritual was meant to evoke the baptism of Christ. But I still didn't know what the day meant to the town, or to the 16-year-old kid from Clearwater who'd snagged the cross.

Then I found the guys who could tell me.

Chuck Kyriakou and Alex Joanow grew up in Tarpon Springs, were baptized in the Greek Orthodox Church and played on a legendary Tarpon Springs High School soccer team. And every year, starting when they were babies, the two watched older boys dive for the cross. "As a kid, that's all you wanted to do," Alex told me an hour after the ceremony, nursing a beer on a friend's porch while the rest of the town partied at the sponge docks. "You spend your whole life waiting to be 16, so you can grab the cross."

Chuck retrieved it in 1986, Alex in 1988. Twenty years have passed, yet both men remember their lucky days vividly. Alex couldn't sleep the night before. Chuck shook in his rowboat, and not from the cold after diving in. They both remember opening their eyes in the brackish water, catching that glimpse of white near the bottom. And they both remember what it was like to come out, cross in hand.

"I know it's a cliché, but it was like a dream," Alex says, "That's the only way I can describe it."

Like the boy who grabbed it this year, both Alex and Chuck strode through the town on their winning night, carrying the cross on a plate as folks tossed money on it. They became local celebrities, leading the divers the next year. Neither said that he felt especially blessed; every boy who dives has been touched. Still, being the one has its perks.

"You're known in Tarpon the rest of your life," Alex says proudly. "This is the biggest milestone of my life, aside from my marriage."

I was starting to get it now. It's not like a football game. This is true tradition. It's honor. I was babbling on about my newfound enlightenment when Chuck, who'd been quiet, got a smirk on his face.

"You know what it's about?" He said. "It makes your mother happy."

Now that's something even a heathen can understand.

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