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The Education Of An American Dreamer

How A Son Of Greek Immigrants Learned His Way From A Nebraska Diner To Washington, Wall Street, And Beyond.
by Peter G. Peterson

Beacon in the Night

Kearney, Nebraska, where I grew up in the 1930s, was a good-sized town by the standards of the plains. It was large enough for people to want to eat at all hours of the day and night, and the Central Cafe, my father's restaurant, was there for them. It was half a block from the Union Pacific railway station, its neon sign blinking through the night beckoning the train crews rotating off their shifts and the passengers who had arrived, for whatever reason they had come, at the absolute midpoint of the United States. Kearney was halfway between Boston and San Francisco, 1,733 miles from each, as attested by the plaque near the swimming pool at the 1733 Park where I played as a boy.

My father had worked for the railroad. He took a job no one else wanted, washing dishes in the steamy caboose that serves as living quarters to a crew of laborers laying track in western Nebraska. From washing dishes he learned to cook, which he much preferred to driving railroad spikes and hauling rails and ties. But the track crews couldn't work through the Nebraska winter, so when the crew crossed paths with a traveling circus looking for someone to feed its collection of roustabouts, aerialists, and animal tamers, my father took off with the circus. This was sometime around 1917, five years after he arrived at America's golden shore from Greece, a boy of seventeen who spoke no English and had a third grade education.

Other cooking jobs followed, and he learned more about the restaurant business. He learned to speak English. his employers often gave him room and board, which allowed him to save much of what he earned. Finally, his experience and his savings reached the point where he was ready to start out on his own. He bought and quickly sold restaurants in Lexington, Nebraska, and in Iowa before settling on Kearney, a town with growth potential and not much competition. It had a college that he envisioned as a source of cheap, smart labor, a handful of Greek families that would make him feel at home, and a vacant lot downtown near the railway station. He bought it and built the Central Cafe, whose sign was a beacon not only to the travelers who passed through Kearney but to its townspeople as well.

"Home of Fine Foods Since 1923," read that sign in inexhaustible neon. That was the year my father opened the cafe. It stayed open twenty-four hours a day, and for twenty-five years it would literally never close. He married my mother a year later. Two years after that I came into the world, and by 1934, when I was eight, I was counting out change to my father's customers.

My biggest challenge as a boy was trying to fit in. But fitting in was really tough, because I wanted to be 100 percent American while my parents clung to their Greek customs. They pulled furiously one way, I the other. All children struggle to escape their parents so they can define themselves, but mine had roots deep in another world.

"The Education Of An American Dreamer is one of those books that won't let you put it down once you start reading and it holds your attention like a vise. Peterson takes you from his childhood days in Nebraska, through his college experiences, as a businessman, into his years of politics in the Nixon administration, and beyond. It is an outstanding personal and historical look at America over his own lifetime, while bringing into focus many of the details about business and politics that affects us all. It is the real story of an American Dreamer."
~ John M. Roberts, Project Manager-MoneyMatters101.com~

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