After recently re-reading a thick folder of letters from her mother, written from Lebanon in the 1950s, former Mayor Mary Craton found interesting insights into life in the Middle East at that time. After sharing some of this history with author and The Friday Flyer columnist Ken Cable, he encouraged her to share it with The Friday Flyer readers.
Last week, Mary provided the first four vignettes from what she calls “Tales from the Middle East – Circa 1950s.” Here are the final vignettes in that series, written in her own words.
Background: In 1952, my father (aka Daddy, Popper) took a position with a company that certifies the amount and type of oil on a ship after it is loaded. (It better have that when the ship gets to where it’s going!) My father was posted to Sidon, Lebanon, a small city about 40 miles south of Beirut. Oil was piped from Saudi Arabia and loaded onto ships there. He also traveled to terminals in northern Lebanon (Tripoli) and Syria (Bonais – in the news recently re ISIS.)
In 1954, when I graduated from high school, my mother joined him. I went to live with my best friend, Charlotte, and her family – thus my love for Italian cooking. I was headed off for nursing school in the fall.
These small vignettes are from my memory and from letters my mother wrote to me. She wrote me two to three type-written letters every week for four years. I have them all.
Vignette 5 – Fired as s Volunteer
Mother was a very devout Catholic. She went to Mass every day. She soon made friends with the nuns who ran a school for girls. They even invited her to come to Mass at their private chapel, so she wouldn’t have to walk into town in the early morning hours.
Her best friend, and the only nun who spoke English, was Sister Aquinas. Mother typed a lot of Sister’s papers for her. One day, Sister asked mother if she would teach English to the high schools girls. Mother jumped at the opportunity. The students were all bi- or tri-lingual – Arabic, French, English and sometimes more. Mother found them very bright. Soooo, she began encouraging them to get jobs with the airlines or multinational companies in Beirut after they graduated.
Oops! The custom was that when girls finished school, they stayed home until their parents chose a husband for them. This was usually a much older man because, as I understand it, the oldest son could not marry until his youngest siblings were all married. Obviously, the parents were VERY upset with my mother. Ergo, my mother got fired from her volunteer job!
Vignette 6 – I Go to Lebanon
It was 1967 and almost time for school vacation when I received a telegram (telephone calls were almost impossible to make) from my father telling me to get ready to come to Lebanon. Apparently, my mother was missing me mucho! Wow! I’m not going to talk about all we did, just to say we toured all over Lebanon: Beirut, The Cedars, Baalbek, Tyre. We also took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with the bishop and visited Damascus in Syria.
Regarding Jerusalem, not withstanding the holy sites and swimming in the Dead Sea, one thing really struck me. At that time, Jerusalem (officially) was in Jordan. This was before before the Five Days War. While in Jerusalem, we were standing outside looking directly into Israel. We couldn’t go to Israel because our passports would be Israeli-stamped and we would not be allowed back into Lebanon.
I saw Israel was green! There were trees! Around Jerusalem it was a total dust bowl. We were yards away and what a difference. Imagine what a little water can do.
Vignette 7 – We Get Stoned
Remember the Palestinian refugee camp beyond my parents’ house? One day, Popper took me to see a cave called Mia Mia (I think) where the Blessed Mother waited for Jesus when He was preaching in the area. We had to drive through the Palestinian camp to get there. Our car was stoned! Daddy said not to worry. We were safe.
Vignette 8 – Popper Threaten to Sell Me
One day, as we were touring a medieval castle, I wandered a brief way from my parents. A man came up to me and stared directly into my face! He was just inches away. I quickly ran and grabbed onto my father.
The man, not knowing my father understood Arabic, said to his friend, “I’m looking for a rich American girl to marry.” Daddy told me I better behave or he would sell me. Maybe I should have shown the man my teeth! PS: I didn’t behave; more on that later.
Popper didn’t sell me, but I was punished in a different way – another staring incident. Mother and I were waiting in the car while Popper went into a store. A man approached, put his head on his arm on the windshield and just stood there staring at us! Quite disconcerting!
Vignette 9 – Dating Georges and Louis
Soon after I arrived, I met Georges at a formal dinner dance in Beirut. He was the owner or president of the Bank of Sidon? A couple of days after the dance, he called and asked if I would like to tour his properties and go camel riding. Camel riding? Of course!
When I walked out of the house, there was Popper with a camera around his neck. I asked him what he was doing and he told me I had to be chaperoned. Me? A 21-year-old, independent American girl? Yes. Actually, Daddy was very discreet, standing off at a distance so Georges and I could talk, etc. I wonder where he learned to do that?
Anyway, it was a very nice day – especially the camel-riding. A few days later, Georges called again to see if I wanted to go his private beach. Problem: Daddy was up in Syria seeing to a ship. Mother and I discussed it and we decided I could go. Father was livid! I had disgraced him! But I got punished: Georges’ servant brought lunch to the beach. It was delicious AND I got dysentery. That’ll show me!
Louis was a Dutch engineer. He called and asked if I would like to go to the beach in Beirut. It was the same beach where the U.S. Marines landed in 1958 during a war. If I recall correctly, it was in front of the luxurious Excelsior Hotel. I remember seeing newspaper photos of people on the beach, just watching the Marines come ashore. Just another day.
When we were riding home in the taxi, Louis put his arm around me. The driver stopped. He asked us if we were married. We said no and the driver informed us that Louis could not touch me. Where was my chaperone when I needed one? I did not need to be chaperoned because Louis was European, unlike Georges, who, although Christian, was Lebanese.
Many years later, I saw Louis twice more. By then I was living in California. It was probably around 1967. Louis had business in the area and came by to visit me. Remember the gold chain I wear every day with my Canyon Lake Golf medallion? He gave me that chain on this visit. He had probably brought it back from Lebanon many years ago.
The next time I saw Louis was in the early 1980s. I was married then, and Bud and I were on a cruise to the Baltic Sea. Our first stop out of London was Amsterdam. I previously wrote to Louis and he met us at the ship and took us to his private club for lunch. He and Bud got along famously. They didn’t need me there. The two intellectuals had a marvelous time talking.
Vignette 10 – In Rome
Father arranged for me to spend a few days in Rome on my way home. A friend of my dad’s was supposed to meet me at the airport – no show. After a few anxious moments, I found an information booth and they told me how to get to my hotel. I arrived in the very early evening and decided to take a walk to the Trevi Fountain, which wasn’t too far away.
I was searching for a coin in my purse (one Louis had given me for that purpose) when someone handed me one. I looked up to see this handsome young man. After I threw the coin in the fountain, there he was again with a bouquet of flowers! His name was Peter and he didn’t speak a word of English. The only Italian I knew was some slang and not too nice words. Peter walked me back to the hotel and we said goodnight.
The next day I toured and when I got off the bus at the hotel, there was Peter. Oh my! I couldn’t tarry as I had a dinner date with a young soldier, Paul, a friend of the concierge. At least Paul spoke English. We had a lovely evening. The next day, when I left the hotel, there was Peter again.
He asked if I would like to go on his scooter to see the Castle Gondolfo, the Pope’s summer residence. I had no idea where that was, but we rode and rode and I was starting to get nervous. How do I get myself into these things? At least I didn’t have to try to talk to him, what with the noise of the scooter. He returned me safely, but from what little conversation we had, I learned that he had followed Paul and me on our date the previous night. End of Peter. Another date with Paul and it was arrivederci, Roma.
Mother returned home in early 1958 in time to see me graduate from nursing school. Popper stayed behind another several months as outright war was started May 26, 1958. All the employees of Aramco, Medco and Tapline were ordered to move into the refinery.
Daddy, although he was welcome, didn’t have to go because he worked for another company. He opted not to, so the U.S. government made him a sub-counsel. He was responsible for checking on and aiding any Americans (mostly missionaries) living in the area. He did move into the refinery for a while – but only because he was lonely! That’s where all his friends were.
When Daddy finally came home, he built his dream house on a private lake in the New Jersey woods. He called the lake “Longacoming” because it was a long time coming. The house was named “In’s’allah,” Arabic for God willing. And we lived happily ever after.
Weellll, not quite. In 1963, my girlfriend Charlotte and I left for California. I had received a fellowship to UCLA to obtain my master’s degree. I have an indelible memory of the day we left. As I backed out of our driveway, my parents were standing there, arms around each other, waving and crying. I will never forget that scene.
In a letter from my mother dated September 20, 1957, she wrote: “’Unrest’ is the Middle East’s middle name and it always will be.”