Fifty Years Later: America’s Magical Shores

The official stamp reads as follows: “Imm. & Natz. Service/New York, NY/ADMITTED/August 15, 1965.”

unnamedOn August 15, 1965, one of the most memorable days of my life and  exactly fifty years ago to the day, I landed at the-then ultra modern New York’s Kennedy International Airport and was dumfounded by the cantilevered and bold curvilinearity of its several terminals.

Some three months prior I headed to the Beirut, Lebanon American Embassy located at the end of the end of the beautiful Beirut Corniche. At the time the  embassy sat majestically in a cove in the quaint seaside Ein Mreise district. The Beirut Sea Scout/Troop # 2 quarters, located directly across from the embassy, was the epicenter of my teenage years, a place where I spent all my summers and weekends in activities that provided me with a rich reservoir of knowledge and survival skills that helped shape my personality and character. Outdoor activities included swimming, diving, fishing, boating and camping in a variety of scenic locales nestled in the Lebanese mountains.

I would frequently look at the embassy and imagine myself walking through the-then very welcoming entryway to apply for a student visa to study in the U.S. For me the gates of the embassy  were akin to the perennially beautiful Ghiberti golden Gates of Paradise that have graced the Florentine Baptistry doors for some five centuries.

Stateless and with meager family financial resources, I’d dreamed and read extensively about America’s magical shores, a country where the streets were metaphorically described as large highways paved with gold. All one had to do was to bank on hope, have determination, and a strong desire to succeed; and ample supporting stories about successful rags to riches triumphs were often narrated by Lebanese and Palestinian expatriots.

And why not? Hollywood enhanced this image by providing ample stereotypical images and narratives of a successfully rich  America where people lived in sprawling three-bedroom, two car garage homes with a Dodge, Buick or Chevrolet sedan and a family station wagon marked by those distinctive woodgrain exterior panels. The latter were always parked in  an enviable expansive space called a garage, a space that would be palatial family accommodations in a third world country. Children and dogs frolicked in backyard swimming pools, and beautifully manicured front lawns were the signature welcoming mat on which teenagers congregted to load their picnic baskets to head to idyllic sandy beaches where they partied and danced to Elvis Presley, Bobby Darrin and The Beach Boys’ good vibrations so they wouldn’t be lonesome that night. The Beatles and Warhol rocked the landscape of popular culture, and the older generations swayed to the words and rhythms of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Nat King Cole.

It was my first time to fly and my first time to leave home and the Near East. On August 8, 1965, 6.5 ft. former Oklahoma Baptist University star pole vaulter James Kirkendall drove my mother, sister and me to the Beirut International Airport. James was my minister, the best example of what a Southern Baptist ought to be and an American Ambassador par excellence. “Raouf,” said he, “when you get to Little Rock, you will cross the muddy Arkansas River and then head down to Arkadelphia.”

As soon as I heard about the muddy river, doubts began to set in. This is not the Arkansas about which I had read in the Encyclopedia Americana at the USIS (United States International News Agency which, I would much later find out, was a propaganda center to counter communist ideology). Everything I’d read about Arkansas described it as a combination of flat, agricultural delta terrain where cotton was king, and soy beans and corn were queens, and where a range of verdant hilly and mountainous landscapes ran diagonally to the north. From my extensive reading two things stood out: Arkansans bragged that if one were to build a fence around their state’s perimeter, Arkansans would be self-sufficient; and Arkansas’ Crater of Diamonds State Park  was the only diamond mine in the United States, a park where tourists prospected for diamonds in the open fields. The park was only 45 miles away from where I would be attending college. In 1965 Bill Clinton was about to embark on his sophomore year in college, and he might have by then smoked but not inhaled marijuana.

And “why would you want to go to a state that had serious racial tensions in 1957?” was a frequently asked question. All the friends who’d gone to study abroad went to either the East or the Wests Coast.  “I want to try something different” was my pat answer.

On my way to Frankfurt, Germany, where I was to spend a few days with my oldest brother and his wife, I recorded the following in my journal: “The cities look like octopi  … the cities themselves resemble octopi heads, and the extending roads more like extending, grasping legs. …  Flew over Greece and saw the three protruding slivers of land that resemble  a cyclopean’s deformed and stubby fingers.  Also saw Cyprus. … Crossing the Aegean we flew over Italy’s boot. …”

Instead of resting on the seventh day, I left Frankfurt, Germany with a heavy heart and kept checking the time on the watch my brother, Tony, and his wife, Nuhad, had bought me as a going away gift and off to college gift. I was the last of the boys to leave home and had qualms about leaving my mother and sister behind. And the fear of the unknown took over and gnawed at me as I flew over the Atlantic. Bored, I pored through two newspapers.  In the English The International Tribune I read about the outbreak of violence in Watts, Los Angeles, including soccer reports and a few articles on Rhodesia, a country that would later that year break away from the U.K. In The New York Times, however, the news and photographs were more grim. Splattered on the front page were horrifying black and white photographs of the riots which had broken out just a few days prior. Suppressed rage and centuries of discrimination, oppression, and exploitation exploded in fiery fury, destroying entire city blocks. Watts, Los Angeles was burning, and along with this scorching devastation 34 precious lives were lost, over 1,000 injured, and some 4,000 arrested. Worried by the ferocity of this volcanic anger,  the Washington, D.C. police issued orders to install a protective cordon around the White House manned with details of machine-gun embankments. The day’s edition also carried news about the escalating Vietnam War as some 190,000 troops were sent to wage a war against a faceless enemy; B-52’s had begun their carpet bombing sorties, and more detailed reports leaked out about the April, 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic by U.S. Troops, a venture in which over 3,000 Dominican soldiers and civilians and 31 American servicemen died.

For lighter news I read about the smashing performance of Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn in the classic My Fair Lady, Anthony Quinn’s  1964 stunning performance in Zorba the Greek, and Peter O’Toole’s staggering 1964 performance in Becket. And in the business section I gleaned that the U.S. unemployment rate was at 5.2%, Federal Debt was estimated at $322 billion, postage stamps at $.05, and a $.10 coin and sufficient change were the only requisites  a person had to have to make either a collect, or a long distance call.

Way back in 1965 immigration officials were visitor-friendly, even helping me with directions to the luggage area, and providing advice on how to haggle with taxi drivers and other tid bits about not falling prey to some city slicker bent on taking advantage of a greenhorn. During my three day New York stay with my cousin I got to visit the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Central Park, and Coney Island where, of course, I was treated to two foot-long hot dogs and saltwater taffy.

Because I wanted “to see the country” and because it was cheaper to travel by bus, I travelled from New York to Arkansas on streamlined Greyhound machines that lapped the miles in hot pursuit of destinations.  During a brief stay with my twin brother’s Charlotte, North Carolina host family, I was introduced to the great American pastime of grilling steaks, hamburgers, and hot dogs on wobbly-legged charcoal fired grills; and tomato and mayonnaise sandwiches added to this culinary novelty. Add bacon to the mix, and one was left salivating  for more of the crunchy salty delicacy. And pre-season t.v. football introduced me to a game I didn’t understand, a game where adult males fought each other and struggled back and forth on green turf attempting to move an invisible ball in either direction. It took me a while to understand and appreciate what “Hold Them, Hold Them!” and  “Deefense, Deefense!” meant.

Even though there were no beach parties to have been experienced during my  brief North Carolina stay with the Hendrixes, I did get to experience the new urban American  experience brought on by the post WWII sprawling suburbias that began in the late fifties and have gone unabated since. And the handful of t.v. programs such as Beverly Hillbillies, the indefatigable always-a-winner  Perry Mason, The Ed Sullivan Show,Andy Griffith, Bonanza,  and Leave it to Beaver added texture and color to a tableau I had previously begun to compose and was about to begin painting.

By the time the bus left Charlotte, North Carolina, and because my twin brother and I had a whole year’s worth of catching up on news (not to mention all the survival tips he offered, including a list of bad cuss words to avoid and safe ones to use), fatigue began to set in and I determined that upon departure from the station and should the extended, full row seat at the very back of the bus be empty, I would hie meself to the rear to lay me down to sleep. Fortune smiled on me in the form of an empty seat, and I did take a refreshing nap. At the next bus stop the driver walked up to me and said in a most mannerly way: “Son, you ain’t from this country, are ye?” “No sir,” was my prompt, and somewhat alarmed reply. “See that seat over thar, you belong up thar, anywhere from that point on up to the front of the bus.” Alarmed and fearing that I committed an egregious taboo, I promptly complied with his instructions.

And this was my introduction to Jim Crow laws. And for some three years on different occasions I would see signs that read “Whites Only” at the front of a doctor’s clinic, and “Colored” on the side door, including two local establishments.

One such experience stands out.

In the spring of 1967 some friends and I were heading to New Orleans to take in and enjoy the Mardi Gras festivities. Stopping for petrol and snacks at an El Dorado gas station, I headed to the men’s restroom located to the side of the building where I encountered two men’s restrooms. One displayed a “White Gentlemen” sign, and the other a “Colored Men” sign. Never in my life had I  encountered anything having to do with skin color. Religion? Sure, even to this day many Near Eastern countries still foolishly print a person’s religious affiliation, even by sect. (Any wonder that sectarian bloodletting and religious zealotry are macerating whole nations – with, of course, colonial schemes and weaponry?)  Nationality? Sure, and unfortunately it is these pervasive ethnic demarcation lines (whether it is Israel or the Arab countries) by which people are judged and treated that are anchored in devisive and medieval dynamics in a region that has recently fallen prey to intolerant behavior. Would I have insulted my friends had I gone into the “White Gentlemen” restroom? For after all, as a Near Easterner, the color of my skin is naturally slightly more tanned. And on occasion I teasingly tell a light skinned badly sun-burnt student “some get it naturally.”   On the other hand, if I went into the “Colored Men” restroom, I might also have insulted my friends. The day was saved when one of the fellas, emerging from the whites only restroom,  said: “Halaby, you better hurry up and take a piss, we’ve got a long ride ahead of us.”

That was then, and this is now. And even though occasionally I encounter old thinking, almost all the vestiges of the Old South have given way to progressive, broadminded, and enlightened thinking and conduct.

Fifty years later America is still waging wars of choice in Africa and Asia, and the former communist enemies are Al-Qaeda and ISIL, with Russia running at #2, and China at #3.  American war planes and drones are wreaking havoc and incinerating hundreds of thousands of innocents abroad. We’ve seen racial tension across the nation, and some communities are burning. Political, social and class divisions are more pronounced, and in your face, blunt, brusque, and uncompromising  politicians are front runners for major national positions of leadership. Religious intolerance and exclusivity are the new normal, and McCarthy-style inquisitions and secret eavesdropping are a fact of life. The media, including reporters, and especially investigative reporters, are partisan and clones of each other in an environment where the gotcha game draws audiences and reduces the news to ratings contests akin to sparring sporting events in which substance and truth are subordinated to personal vanity (Hannity and Mathews) and knockout derbies. The 5.2 unemployment figures are deceiving only because tens of thousands have stopped looking for work. Good paying and union jobs are exported,  thus denying millions of  Americans the promise and dream of security and financial stability. The National Debt is over 18 trillion dollars (how many zeros is that?). Rachel Carson’s warnings about environmental damage caused by man-made pollution have gone unheeded, and those who deny the global warming phenomenon wear their ignorance as a badge of honor. And fifty years later suburban metropolesis are still encroaching on precious agricultural lands,  homelessness is ever increasing, and around 35 million children go to bed hungry (every single night) in this, the land of plenty. Immigration officials are infinitely more business-like,  and one’s documents are scrutinized more carefully (thanks to computerized data). And American embassies abroad have been turned into uninviting fortified structures. Cell phones have pretty much done away with: “Operator, how can I help you?”  Today’s postage stamps cost $.49, and the Coney Island foot-long hot dog remains a great bargain at just over six or seven bucks, and up to $25 for one with all the trimmings.

I generally find that immigrants to the U.S. are more critical of American society than the natives, and I have come to the conclusion that prior to arriving to these magical shores, prospective immigrants (at least my generation) had, in spite of America’s shortcomings, high esteem and expectations of the City/Light on the Hill, the city that produced a Washington, an Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and a Kennedy. I did not come to the U.S. to claim my piece of paved-with-gold-street stretch of real estate; rather I came because I was a persona non grata in search of an education, identity, citizenship,  the freedom to be what I can be (and I use this trite cliché deliberately), to belong, and to move about freely without the demeaning check points and harrassing epithets of 18 year-old, Uzi-toting Israeli Fascists, serving a God they’d forgotten and about whom they know nothing.

In the late 1980’s my mother and sister emigrated to the U.S. to join my three other siblings (in California) and me in this, a country that, warts and all, is second to none.

Barely six years ago, in August of 2009, La Belle Femme and I travelled to Oklahoma City to celebrate James Kirkendall’s 85th birthday. He and Libby had never met La Belle Femme, and I was determined to see him and to express my deep gratitude for what he’d done to open a magical world for me. To celebrate, we took the Kirkendalls to the famous Cattlemen’s Steakhouse in Oklahoma City’s Historic Stockyard City. A steak had never tasted as good, and the memorable dinner was followed with a visit to the Kirkendall’s home for ice cream, cake, and to reminisce and talk about times past, his service to the Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon, his experience as an American hostage (he was the first in a series of such dastardly acts), his and our children. We spent much time looking at old photographs and mementos from their days in the Near East as true American ambassadors who represented  what is truly at the heart of American character – altruism, character, magnanimity, courage to speak the truth, and a host of characteristics far too many to list. And our communications by phone and email continued until late last year, when I called them to wish them Merry Christmas. Feeble but not broken, James and I had a good talk. He was concerned about Libby’s health.

Earlier this year and at age 91, James Kirkendall succumbed to a heart attack and passed away, leaving a large gap in the lives of all who knew him. Indeed, a giant of a man went on to earn his just rewards in the hunting grounds where only the holy and saintly are allowed to enter.  James, to this day I grieve at your loss.

Fifty years later I find myself a lucky, content, happily retired, fun-loving, ever-hopeful and optimistic American citizen, proud of both my Palestinian heritage and my American citizenship. And even though several trips to Arkansas’ Crater of Diamonds have not resulted in unearthing the precious gems, I have found three gigantic diamonds infinitely more precious in my wife, and two sons, and a fortune of gems in my family, former students and colleagues, the great number of friends that I have found locally, and across the globe.

What started for me on August 15, 1965 and all the in-between rich experiences continue to be threaded and woven in the waft and woof tapestry of my life, a tableau so rich, I wouldn’t trade it with nary a person or thing.

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Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.