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Young or old, Greek or not, they honor holy custom

Published January 7, 2006

TARPON SPRINGS - With a crowd of 50,000 to 55,000 on hand, Friday's 100th Epiphany offered a kaleidoscope of scenes and voices:

* * *

The patriarch and cross divers attracted the most attention, but altar boys Alex Pazos and Michael Pappas, both 12 and of Clearwater, wanted their 15 minutes of fame.

They asked a St. Petersburg Times reporter if she wanted to interview them. She did.

Reporter: This Epiphany is the biggest one yet. Are you nervous?

Alex: My brother is probably more nervous; he's diving.

Michael: It's very important. It's a once in a lifetime ...

Alex: ... experience.

Michael: It's good to be Greek.

* * *

While the faithful came to church wrapped in scarves and coats, the cross divers huddled outside in hooded sweatshirts and swimming trunks.

"The water is going to feel like jumping off the Titanic," said Minas Trihas, 18, of Palm Harbor.

At least the boys aren't diving in New York like Nikos Michalis Spanakos, 67, did in the 1970s.

"The musicians who marched us down, their instruments froze," he said.

After hours of shivering in the shaded courtyard of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the boys joined the procession to the bayou. Their feet blackened from walking barefoot in the streets, they began shaking each other's hands, wishing each other good luck.

They were followed by a fleet of gold-clad clergymen.

His All Holiness Bartholomew emerged from the church, surrounded by men in dark suits and sunglasses. Wires snaked behind their ears. All along the route, law enforcement spotters kept an eye on the crowd from rooftops.

The patriarch walked slowly, blessing the people in the crowd who put down their cameras long enough to cross themselves.

"The water is warm," said Nicholas Stamas, 16, of Tarpon Springs, perhaps trying to convince himself.

* * *

Aleck Alissandratos, a cross diver coordinator who retrieved the cross in 1977, gathered the boys together and gave them some advice: Don't splash around on the surface.

"The guy who gets the cross every year is the guy who keeps diving, keeps diving," he said. "... Don't be the first to find out who caught the cross this year, gentlemen. You have the rest of your lives to know who caught the cross."

* * *

First-time Epiphany-goers Nancy Nickell and Judy Wilson arrived at Spring Bayou even before the sun.

The two women sat in lawn chairs at the edge of the water bundled in sweaters with fleece blankets draped over their legs. With Starbucks coffee cups in their hands, they watched the gray sky turn blue just before 7:30 a.m.

Nickell, a Palm Harbor resident, has children who attended Tarpon Springs Middle School.

"When you live in Palm Harbor and your kids go to middle school in Tarpon you understand the significance," said Nickell, a Roman Catholic. "You don't have to be Greek to get it."

* * *

Paul Wislotski, 46, of Largo, rolled a large easel on wheels along Spring Boulevard, stopping periodically to distribute crayons and encourage people to draw a picture on the white canvas stretched on the frame.

"I've been doing this for 10 years," he said. "I tell them to draw whatever they want."

But within reason. No peace signs, no yin-yang symbols, no political statements. This piece of art, he said, is a gift. Wislotski presents each year's canvas to the lucky young man who retrieves the cross.

"It's a piece of people's hearts that they give to him," he said.

Wislotski doesn't draw on the canvas himself, except to add a decorative carrot to someone's bunny rabbit, more sky to a sunset or leaves to a vine.

"I'm like a conductor," he said. "This is a symphony of art."

He especially likes it when people add embellishments to other people's pictures. That's when he thinks the whole piece starts to come together.

"Hey, sweetheart, fill in those lines!" he told one little girl drawing a flower in a corner. He offered her another color.

"Every flower needs a bug."

* * *

In line at a service station for the only restroom evident within blocks of Spring Bayou, Joyce Smith said she and husband Don Smith of Clearwater read about the Epiphany celebration in the paper that morning. They aren't Greek, but they decided to come.

"I've lived here 48 years," she said. "Finally made it!"

* * *

Memories of the past and hopes for the future were on the mind of George Kanaris, 46, who dived for the cross each year from 1976 to 1978.

Friday, Kanaris waited to see his 17-year-old son, Rousso, a junior at Lecanto High School, dive into the chilly waters.

Kanaris rocked back and forth, tucking his shivering hands deep in the pockets of his windbreaker as he tried to stay warm.

The week leading up to Friday had been emotional.

"When he got his Epiphany shirt, I was crying because I remembered the very day I received my shirt," said Kanaris, the vice president of St. Michael's the Archangel Greek Orthodox Church in Lecanto.

As Rousso and the other boys ran for the water, Kanaris cheered: "Rousso! Rousso! Rousso!"

When the boys reached their boats, a quietness fell over the section roped off for parents. Rousso had reached the second boat on the left.

"That's the money boat," Kanaris whispered. "I know, because that's the one I always went for."

* * *

Steve Katsougrakis of Safety Harbor emigrated from Sparta, Greece, to New York 50 years ago. He and wife Freeda have been coming to the Tarpon Springs Epiphany celebration for 25 years, ever since they moved to Safety Harbor.

They had five girls, not a cross retriever among them.

"We used to mess with my mother and tell her we were going to jump in, but we never did," said Mary Hunt, the youngest of the daughters. "She would say, "You're not allowed! You're not allowed!"'

This year, the first of the grandchildren was diving for the cross. Phil Xanthoudakis, 16, of Safety Harbor, is the son of Hunt's sister Georgia Xanthoudakis.

"We've been waiting for this day for a long time," Hunt said.

Will it come for any of the girls in the family?

""No," Hunt said. "That will never happen."

* * *

In the courtyard of the Sponge Exchange, Spiro Skordilis, 75, was singing in Greek and working his magic on the bouzouki, a stringed instrument that looks like a large mandolin.

Originally from Athens, Greece, Skordilis hit the lottery there and bought himself a bouzouki first thing. He moved to Tarpon Springs in 1978. The state has recognized him as a master of bouzouki, one who teaches others to keep the Greek tradition alive, said his wife, Kay.

Two women danced to the music while others listened and shared a bottle of wine from a bench nearby. A family ripped off pieces of a Greek sweet bread with almonds on top called toureki, from Hellas Bakery.

In the street outside the courtyard, Greek dancers held hands and danced in circles to music by a band, with the boats on the Anclote River as their backdrop.

[Last modified January 7, 2006, 01:35:06]

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