When I had seen the tree that was marked as a cedar but turned out to be a Juniper in Lebanon, South Dakota, I knew that my next destination would provide an answer as to whether that first town was the only one that got a fake cedar, or whether there were more of them. In fact, it was also supposed to answer some pressing questions that had been swirling in my head since before I left Beirut.
I head towards the center of the town in Lebanon, Nebraska and, as with many of the small towns I have seen before along my trip, there are no people to be seen; I'm alone on the empty streets. The stores around me look as if they were abandoned decades ago. One of them has in front of its locked doors a vending machine that belongs well in the 1970s. A few steps away is a public telephone post with its receiver off the hook. I put it to my ear and I can hear a busy signal. It's unsettling to say the least. The sign at the town entrance said Lebanon had a population of 70. Where have they all disappeared?
I continue walking on that road and, at the intersection, I find the town hall, a small one-story building. Right next to it, there it is, a tall juniper tree, not unlike the one I saw in South Dakota, but better maintained. There isn't any plaque next to it, but I'm almost certain that this is the supposed cedar that was sent from Beirut and stayed in a nursery in Ohio for 2 years before being sent back to town.
And herein lies a key question I am trying to find answers for. Back when the delegates from the Lebanons of the US came to the country of Lebanon in 1955 for a visit, the representative from Nebraska was a tree expert and he – not the one from Ohio (1) – was meant to take care of the saplings for two years. But a tragedy prevented this from happening.
In March, 1955 six of the delegates returned home to the United States. Charles Harris from Nebraska stayed behind to go on a tour of the Holy Land. On April 15, he was shot dead in Jerusalem.
He was not the mayor of the town, but was chosen by the elderly mayor, Chester Keith, to represent him. Charles was only 24 years old. He was an Agronomy senior at Nebraska University, and had taken the semester off so he could go on his visit to the Middle East.
I leave Lebanon and head towards McCook, the nearest town with a library, some 40 minutes away. I want to research their archives for any information I could find on Charles. I see many articles there that ran about him in the newspapers following his death. One in particular mentions his last home address. Coincidentally, it is only a few blocks from the library. Charles Harris had been born in Lebanon, but he, his parents Tipo and Jessie Mae, and his sister Margaret, 6 years his junior, had moved to McCook later on.
I walk towards the house wondering who might be living in it after all these years. I knock on the door and introduce myself to the lady who opens. She is very surprised to hear the Harris name after all these decades. She and her husband have bought the house from Tipo, and she very well remembers the family, and how devastated they all were after Charles' death. Especially his father. She remembers Tipo as a jovial man who, as a lodge Mason, used to dress up as an Indian snake charmer in the town parade. But he was never the same after the loss of his son.
My fascination with Charles' story doesn't stem only from his death, but rather from the peculiar circumstances under which he was killed. Back in 1955, Jerusalem was a split city, the Jordanians on the East side, the Israelis on the West. In between the two sides there was a territory controlled by neither side, aptly called No Man's Land. On April 15 Charles, wearing blue jeans and a red fez (2), wandered into that area and was shot by a Jordanian guard.
Many contradicting reports followed his death. One such report mentioned the guard saying he shouted a warning when he saw the young man walking in the restricted area, but Charles ignored his warning so he shot him(3). Another said that Charles had been talking to an Israeli soldier and then he went crawling by the Old City wall, after which the guard opened fire (4). There even wasn't any consensus about where he was shot, either with three bullets and the deadly one lodging in his chest, or with one single fatal bullet to the head. Just one month prior, Charles had written to his Farm Fraternity in University saying: "We in America have much to give these people in the Near East, but we have so much to gain from them too, in the way of love and understanding."
A United Nations investigation followed. Colonel Brewster, head of the Israeli-Jordanian Mixed Armistice Commission, issued a statement saying the death was a tragic error and that there was no violation of the general armistice agreement. He said that Charles had probably crossed the line from Jordan into No Man's Land, an area which is forbidden to all persons and therefore a most dangerous spot. He, however, added: "We are time and again called upon to act when an animal wanders into No Man's Land. Why should we not be alerted when a human being crosses the demarcation line?"(5)
I return to the McCook city park with my RV that evening, figuring I would return to Lebanon the next day, hoping to meet someone who might have more clues about Charles' story. Early in the day, I had posted a picture of the town's sign on Instagram, and I receive a message from a woman who lives there, asking if I talked to anyone about the history of the tree. I tell her about the tragic event that surrounded the tree, and then comes the unexpected answer: "My mother was a classmate of Charles' sister. Would you like to meet her?" I can't believe my luck and, yes, I very much want to meet her.
The next morning, Mrs. Virginia Grafton and I meet at the Lebanon Presbyterian Church. She is a very welcoming, soft-spoken lady who must be in her late seventies. We talk a little about the history of the town, but I really want to know more about what happened in 1955.
She describes Charles as a man who was mature well beyond his years. In fact, even our government attested to that fact. Lebanese officials had sent a letter to his parents, dated March 13, praising him for his serious-mindedness. It was the last word on him his family ever received(2).
Mrs. Grafton later drives me to the tree I had seen the day before, and it is the supposed cedar they received. "I can attest to the fact that this is the tree because I was there when we received it; it came in a very small package," she says. I ask if Mayor Keith had regrets for sending Charles on his behalf and whether the town people had negative feelings about the tree, given the tragedy. She says that the mayor did feel guilty for a long time, but that he couldn't have gone himself due to his age. As for the tree, people don't associate it with Charles. "In fact," she adds, "when the tree grew a little, we started decorating it every year for Christmas. And it was Mayor Keith who used to decorate it at first. And we kept following this tradition until a couple of years ago when someone stole the decorations, and then we stopped. And by then it was too tall to reach anyway."
Going back to the subject of Charles, I ask if she has any memories from the time surrounding his death. "It was devastating," she says. "His dad took it very hard. We were all told that he went to some place where he shouldn't have been. No Man's Land. Growing up around here you can go anywhere you want to go; Charles probably never realized the area where he was going was restricted."
Charles Harris receiving, in March 1955, a cedar young plant from Zalfa Chamoun. Picture from our archives
I am in no way a conspiracy theorist, and never was. But this story has one additional element of intrigue. Back when I was researching the mayors' 1955 visit to Beirut, I found out that the trip was organized in the United States by the now-defunct "American Friends of the Middle East." (AFME) When gathering information about this association, I discovered that despite its friendly name, the association was a front to, and was funded by the CIA, seeking to advance a pro-Arab view in the USA. Quite surprising...
Then I followed the source, and it was a book by History professor Hugh Wilford, "America's Great Game: The CIA's Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, published in 2013. I purchased it instantly.
As the title mentions, it wasn't the whole agency that was pro-Arab, but a secret faction within it. AFME was one part of their covert operations. On paper, this association was headed by Dorothy Thompson, the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany after writing an article critical of Hitler, and who Time Magazine called in 1939 the second most influential woman in the United States after First lady Eleanor Roosevelt. But behind the scenes, AFME was led by Kermit Roosevelt Jr., grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and personal friend of Jamal Abdel Nasser; he was the Chief of CIA covert operations in the Middle East. Kermit's cousin, Archibald Roosevelt Jr., was the head of the CIA's Beirut desk, and husband to a now-renowned Lebanese-American journalist of Druze origins called Selwa Shkeir (Americanized as Showker). AFME's recruiter was an anti-Zionist rabbi called Elmer Berger.
How are AFME and the CIA connected to Charles Harris' trip and eventual death? So many questions rush to my head... First, at the end of February 1955, before the mayors' delegation came to Beirut, they all convened at AFME's headquarters in New York City, a building called "Middle East House". Then Charles Harris flew alone to Beirut on March 1st, and the other six followed him a day later. Why?
Second, as Mrs. Grafton told me, the family never got Charles Harris' body back. She drove me to the cemetery and showed me the stone they had put as remembrance. It read that Charles Harris is buried in "Ramallah, Jordan." I had read in the paper that the US State Department informed his parents that, under law, the body could not be removed for one year after the burial. But Mrs. Grafton mentioned that Tipo went to Jordan after that to try and repatriate his son's body, but they wouldn't allow him. Was there any fear that exhuming the body might reveal a different story than the one mentioned in the press?
Since Ramallah is now in Palestine and since, as a Lebanese citizen, I can't go there, my research unfortunately ends here. With so many questions unanswered. Was Charles Harris a spy? Maybe one day, details about him would be declassified by the government. I know I will keep hanging on to these threads I have. But for now, it's time to continue my trip and to move on to another Lebanon.
1: Albany Democrat-Herald – 7 September, 1955.
2: Lincoln Evening Journal – 15 April 1955.
3: New York Times – 15 April 1955.
4: Jerusalem Post – 18 April 1955.
5: New York Times – 17 April 1955.
6: Lincoln Evening Journal – 22 April 1955.