While some might call it a casual summer romance, a brief one-week infatuation, a coincidental interlude between two college students brought together by utter chance, meeting Susan Samson in Mid-August of 1968 was a memorable and life-changing experience. Within days of our embracing and our bidding each other farewell, Susan kept her promise; she wrote me a letter onto which I have held as a memento of a brief yet meaningful friendship from the turbulent 1960’s. But infinitely more significantly, I have held on to this letter because on Friday, August 23, 1968, Susan exhibited immaculate individual poise, unimpeachably exceptional moral fortitude, and an upright and flawless integrity well beyond her 19 years.
In desperate need of summer employment, in April of 1968 I responded to a campus-placed bulletin board advertisement by the Ft. Worth, Texas-based YMCA Camp Carter. Hitching a ride with a colleague, I travelled the seven-hour, 310 miles on what used to be a two-lane highly-trafficked and congested highway to engage in a three-day interview/tryout at the camp site. Nestled in the middle of a busy urban setting, the 350-acre campground was an island of tranquility on which meandering lakes highlighted the landscape’s placidity, hence creating a serene environment in which hiking, canoeing, archery, horseback riding, and campfire gatherings helped the young 7-14 year-old campers develop an appreciation for the natural environment, taught them team work and how to compete in a variety of sports and waterfront activities, and attuned them to creativity (music, art and crafts projects) by tapping into their imaginative aptitudes. The camp could well brag that it “[promoted] lifelong skills.”
Bordered by a river to one side, the well-planned layout took advantage of the land’s rolling terrain; cabins were huddled in the midst of large expanses of giant pine and oak trees, and, with the exception of the riding stables, all the camp’s lodging (cabins) and activity structures circumscribed the dining hall and the expansive covered pavilion strategically located within leisurely walking distances from these two main nerve hubs; the first nourished the physical wants and needs, and the latter, the epicenter of collective communal activities throughout the day and the leisurely, more tranquil, and more meditative activities during the late evening and night hours, promoted social interactions. The pride of the abundance of luxurious verdant and tree-canopied spaces was a 352-year old oak tree that was given an appropriate appellation — “Grandmother Oak.” This year the tree celebrated her 400th birthday.
Housed in a large, open air tent (built on a wood-floored riser and lined with military-style cots) on a slightly remote hilltop, my primary duty in June was responsibility for the oldest campers in a first-of-its-kind quarters for the 12-13-year old campers. I was tasked with making sure that the twelve campers in my charge got up and were ready, headed to the dining hall for three “solid” meals, went to bed, and attended the activities for which they signed up — on time. In between I served as a life guard, assisted with the waterfront activities that included canoeing and fishing, and worked with Wrangler Jim saddling horses and assisting with the horseback riding activities. Unbeknownst to my superiors, I allowed the older boys to stay up later than the lights-out designation, spending one-and-a-half hours around the campfire narrating stories and “just talking.” A memorable outcome of these conversations was a discussion on racial matters proposed by a white camper. While all the youngsters in my group were, by and large, fairly tolerant of the first and only African American camper, a heavy set chap was overt in his dislike and proved it by avoiding, not talking to and/or talking rudely to his fellow black camper; so deep was this dislike that it culminated in a rude statement made at lunch on the second day. “Give me the meat plate,” he commanded in a harsh, condescending, and insulting tone. I immediately chastised the youngster and demanded that he apologize and re-phrase his request in a polite and civil manner – to which he assented in a half-hearted attempt. And it so happened that as the youngsters were pairing up for swimming relay competitions on that same afternoon, neither the black camper nor his contentious fellow-camper had a partner; they were thus partnered by default.
Compelled to cooperate in this compulsory partnership, the outcome was most rewarding, for not only did the lads learn the importance of tolerance, respect, and team work, but they also won two of the competitive events. Much later the same evening and seated by his black friend around our campfire pit, the white lad fessed up; he had learned prejudice from his grandparents and parents, he explained. In his words: “when I go to my grandfather’s warehouse I have seen how he talks to Negroes [his wording] and what he does after he shakes a Negro man’s hand. He puts his hand behind his back and wipes it on the seat of his pants. Now I know why I was rude at lunch, and I am sorry.” For the duration of the camp session these two lads were inseparable.
During the month of July I was assigned the task of undertaking a canoe trip on the Rio de Los Brazos de Dios (The River of the Arms of God), so named by the early Spanish settlers. Putting in just below Possum Kingdom Dam and to the west of Ft. Worth, and in the company of an assistant, 14 twelve to fourteen year-old youngsters, eight canoes, camping gear, and five days’ supplies, I spent twenty-one consecutive days on the river, stopping every four or five days at a pre-arranged bridge destination, to debark my exhausted and well-tanned charges, to pick up yet another group of eager and aspiring future outdoorsmen, and to reload and replenish the supplies. Initially we floated east and then headed south for some 175 river miles, floating in the center of Brazos Dios’ arms and through some of the most scenic and beautiful river basins and flats I had ever witnessed, including white water rapids in which team work and canoeing instruction (rowing, steering, and maneuvering in rapids and around boulders) and proper packing paid off – for should a canoe tip over in the whirling rush of the rapids, one’s food, shelter and other gear remained secure, dry, and serviceable. In this pristine aquatic setting on the Dios’ Arms waters we encountered an assortment of wild life, including eagles, hawks, crows, buzzards, gigantic snapping turtles, myriad birds in richly mantled and colorful plumage, wild goats, deer, wild hollow swine, water moccasins, and a variety of fish. The biggest excitement for one of the groups in the lead (and around a sharp bend in the river) was to come upon –and row up to — a group of twenty-something mixed sex skinny dippers. Caught unawares, the swimmers had no choice but to position themselves in neck-high water so as to maintain a measure of modesty. It took a lot of coaxing to relieve the bathers of the garrulous and intrusive, if not gawking gazers.
The long hours of serene placidity on the meandrous zigzagging bends and shoals of the waters of the Arms of God were frequently disrupted with the chop –chop-chopping noises of military helicopters. Vietnam era vintage Hughes OH-6 Cayuse; Huey Cobra/Bell, Iroquois UH-1/Boeing, and Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight helicopters swooped down to within 100 feet of the canoes in rehearsed and precise military training exercises so close we could see the instructor pilots’ and their protégés’ facial expressions. And, on occasion, when the terrain afforded a flatter topographical setting, a larger medevac helicopter performed a quick landing and take-off in preparation for the arduous challenges they would face in the war jungles thousands of miles away, a bloody and senseless war that would eventually be dubbed the “Econam War.” Not only were these noisy contraptions the only link to the civilized world, but the occasional vaporous spray was also soothingly refreshing, especially during the midday hours.
At the invitation of Wrangler Jim and his wife I accompanied them to (what I was led to believe) a Baptist church. This was my first and last experience at a Pentecostal service during which there was much boisterous hand clapping, foot stomping, an outburst of celebratory music led by more than one choir director, and an expansive theater-style stage-full of musicians including three drummers, a large host of brass, wind, and electric guitar players, all of whom gyrated in praise and joy. And, of course, there was a plethora of speaking in tongues. As the sermon progressed, talking in tongues became more audible, dramatic, sustained, almost acrobatic and synchronized in the form of responses to the preacher’s promptings. At the end of the service women walked to the front for the “laying of hands,” swooned into the arms of men positioned behind them, and were then led to recover and regain consciousness on the front pews. Towards the end of the service and in an attempt to assure Wrangler Jim that I was attuned to the goings on (including a good measure of personal apprehension, maybe even slight fear), I twice spoke in Arabic , my mother tongue. While I had no comprehension of the hodgepodge medley of tongues testified on that Sunday, I knew that my words were meaningful. Call me highbrow if you wish, but I prefer the more subdued church experience. And the Fort Worth Star Telegram sent out a reporter to photograph and interview me. In a special Sunday society section I am depicted holding on to a canoe propped up by youngsters with the following headline: “From The Cedars of Lebanon to the Pines of Camp Carter.” And to this day I wonder why the caption didn’t read “From the Hills of Palestine to the Pines of Camp Carter.”
During the month of August camp officials employed me and Charlie, a camp counselor holdover, to work for the camp and serve a miscellany of groups who rented the camp facilities for a week at a time. And thus it was that my last week of employment coincided with the Sunday arrival of a large group of Jewish junior/senior high and college age students. My responsibilities were restricted to canoe instruction, helping cook, serve, clean the dining hall, and life guarding at the swimming pool.
Perched on the high life guard stand, I first saw Susan on the opposite side of the pool on Monday afternoon, made brief eye contact, and nodded. Off duty later, I was formally introduced to Susan by her younger sister, and I soon discovered that Susan was a sophomore English major, like me, about to head to St. Louis to begin her sophomore year at Washington University, just 413 miles north of where I, too, was attending college. Building on this common ground, I would spend the precious little free time visiting with Susan, and from the start, I informed her that I was of Palestinian descent. Even though we both knew that there was a manner of undeclared Jim Crowe demarcation line imposed by our Jewish and Palestinian backgrounds, we did not allow these differences to deter us from holding back on our friendship. Susan was bright and beautiful; she was witty, possessed a remarkable sense of humor, and she talked circles of poetry, drama and literature around me. Her trademark bubbly laughter endeared her to all.
Someone, an older female staff member, was watching this budding friendship with much apprehension and promptly reported her concerns to the rabbi in charge. Imagine the semblance of a cartoonish double sized Golda Meir dressed in sack dresses in an assortment of tinted and hued peachy coral and garish washes, thick glasses, and relatively short, stringy hair. From what I recall, she was incapable of relating to the young people; and, they avoided her. I also recall that because she had previously visited Israel, she was asked to speak about her experiences in group sessions. By Friday morning she was determined to stop our by-then growing comity in its tracks and began to suggest that one should never trust Palestinians or turn her back on such because one would likely be knifed or, worse, get killed. Mind you, this was just over a year prior to the war of 1967. Susan and I were fully aware that within twenty four hours we would be parting ways and our friendship was an admixture of dreamy endearment and foreboding disquiet. We pledged to stay in touch.
Charlie and I helped the cook in preparing the Friday night serving of the Seder dinner. Charlie (and to this day I don’t quite know why) asked me to deliver the three large sliced loaves of French Bread to the head table and place them in front of the rabbi for the Kiddush/blessing and the launching of this austere Sabbath ceremony, a traditional ritual that has no doubt been reenacted for millennia in every corner of the world. Needless to say, the aforementioned counselor was visibly upset, yet I went about my business busily delivering trays of food and drink to the congregants and, of course, sneaking glances in Susan’s direction. And, because Charlie and I were invited to a post-dinner dance at the pavilion, we made fast work of cleaning the dining hall, washing dishes and silverware, scrubbing pots and pans, and mopping the floors. Soon after we finished the menial chores (in record time), we eagerly and quickly high-tailed it to our temporary makeshift cramped storage/sleeping quarters just off the pavilion. We promptly showered, put on fancy clothes we had previously purchased for the new school year on our Saturday off, rubbed a more than generous amount of Brylcreem in our hair, and finished slicking up with a generous dousing of Old Spice. We rode high, Charlie and I; we were ready for the world, and the world was ready for us. We took the few steps out of our quarters and stepped into the pavilion. Abuzz with music et avec les gyrating jeunes, Charlie and I were about to laissez les bon temps roulez. While Charlie made a bee line for his date, I walked over to Susan; we exchanged hugs. Her beautiful smile radiated in the dim glow of the pavilion lights. The night was still young, and there was much dancing in me to while the night away.
Having lived in an all-Jewish West Jerusalem neighborhood for the first fourteen years of my life, I was all too familiar with Jewish lore and culture, and I spoke fluent Hebrew. And for an hour all went smoothly. Imagine, if you will, a young Palestinian leading young Texas and Oklahoma Jewish kids in a variety of Hebrew/Israeli songs and folk dances, including “Daveed, Melech Isra-el,” “Mayim Mayim ve Sason, “ and “Kol Doh- dee, kol Doh-dee.” Akin to the Palestinian Dabke and the Greek Zorba-style dances, the Jewish folk dances soon morphed into a blast of late1950’s and early 1960’s Rock and Roll, the Cha Cha, the Twist, and the Limbo dances.
I distinctly recall that, during a slow dance with Susan, the Rabbi walked up to me, politely tapped me on the shoulder, and stated the following: “Mr. Halaby, I am going to have to ask you to leave. This is a social event for our campers, and you don’t belong.” Shocked to my core and momentarily speechless, I quavered a response thusly: “D- d-did-did I do anything wrong, Rabbi?” “No, it would be best if you leave,” he responded. How could an incredulous thing such as this have happened – in the United States? The Land of the Free? That Light on the Hill? Shocked and in disbelief Susan and I looked into each other’s faces; no words were exchanged, and I distinctly recall my walking away from her brutally bruised and in utter disbelief – she stood there as one struck mute, blind, and deaf – all in a single wallop. The Rabbi had every right to ask me to leave, I rationalized, and in the storage-turned bedroom space I took out a newly purchased LP, inserted it on Charlie’s turn table, and tried to nurse my anguish, frustration, and pain away with Johnny Mathis’s Chances Are, It’s Not for Me to Say, and Twelfth of Never.
Shortly I answered a knock on my door. And, as if the event transpired only yesterday, the memory lingers very vividly; the Rabbi stood in the doorway, apologized profusely, and implored me to join the party. At first reluctant and taken aback by this change of heart, I spotted a smiling Susan standing behind him. Affirmed by his demeanor and the official removal of this wedge of bigotry between Susan and me and drawn even closer to her by a very strong bond of genuine friendship, respect, and warmth, I dispensed with my pride and joined the crowd.
I would later find out that it was Susan and the strength of her moral convictions that saved the day. She chided the Rabbi for dismissing me while allowing Charlie to stay on and, to score her resolve, she chastised him with the following (paraphrased) arguments: For a whole week we have been instructed in moral values derived from the Talmud and Torah, and for a whole week love, tolerance, kindness, harmony, and decent values have been drilled into us. Your decision to ostracize and dismiss a person who happens to be a Palestinian flies in the face of the entire week’s teachings. Why? Why have you set such a very poor example for us?
The precious scarce moments left us were full of a mixed bag of apprehension, anticipation, testing, and unspecified fear – that fear of the mysteriously strange and nameless unknown, that undefined insecurity and alienation upon which we accidentally stumble in the detours of our lives. And it felt as though the whole week’s experience got down to our being two swimmers caught in the undercurrent of the gigantic ocean of the zeitgeist turbulence of the 1960’s. At the same time the end of my first summer in the United States afforded me a world of challenges, hope and possibilities, and the desire to persevere and to plod on, to defy the odds and, in the lyrics of that generation, “to dream the impossible dream.”
On the next day I would bid farewell to Susan, her sister, the Rabbi, and the many newly acquired Jewish friends. And, as she promised, Susan sent me this letter, a letter I received in September, 1968, 48 years ago to the year, the month, and the day, and a letter onto which I have held as a most precious memento of the summer of 1966.
So, Dear Susan, even though I have responded to your letter almost half a century ago, and, even though we’ve not communicated lo these many years, 48 years to the week and, to be exact, to the day, I want to write you again to assure you that I have never forgotten our friendship, neither have I forgotten your courageous stand and your convictions. And on occasion when I think of Mary Evangelista, Noam Chomsky, Anna Baltzer, Gideon Levy, Amira Haas, Mother Teresa, Raoul Wallenberg, Gandhi, MLK, Gadi Sternbach, the numerous Jewish contributors to CounterPunch, and the thousands of decent, peace-loving activists in the United States, Israel, and around the world, I think of you, Susan. And after being subjected to a harrowing and gosh awful and degrading strip search nightmare at the hands of Israeli soldiers at the Allenby Bridge crossing in 1988, I had so wished you were there to chastise these heinous and callous offenders with your sensible logic, your compassion, and your do right character. And I have often wondered where you are and how you are doing, whether you have been blessed with a loving spouse (as I have been), with children of whom you are proud (as I am of mine), and whether you live in Ft. Worth – or St. Louis, or – elsewhere!
In response to your statement of September, 1966 (“You know, Arab – you’re a friendly twin and you’ll always be on the top of my friend list –” I am herewith, and albeit 48 years later, responding to your missive. “You know, Susan – you’re a friendly sister, and you’ll always be on the top of my friend list — where you’ve been, and will continue to be.”
All the Good Books affirm the following: blessed are the peacemakers for their moral fortitude is always guided by a dynamic magnetic needle, a needle that is always pointing and anchored towards that guiding North Star of sterling ethical and moral values. And blessed are you, Shoshana (lily), for you’ve lived up to your eponymous attributes by paving the road on which you’ve journeyed with purity of heart, magnanimity of character, beauty of spirit, and enviably exemplary goodwill. Most significantly, you’ve spoken in that universal tongue, the tongue of audacious valor, and on behalf of a universe in desperate need of courage, justice, peace, and harmony.
Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor of English and Art at a private university in Arkansas. He is a sculptor, a photographer, a peace activist, and an avid gardener. firstname.lastname@example.org