I attended The Encampment for Citizenship in New York City, at the Fieldston School the summer of 1956. There have been many of these encampments starting in 1945 with input from many famous people, such as Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and J. Robert Oppenheimer. The six-week encampments were directed by Algernon Black for decades, and they are still continuing. A brief history of the accomplishments of the Encampment. Many of the several thousand attendees of the Encampments have said this experience was a high point in their life; it certainly was for me. It wasn’t until much later that I realize just how important it was. A link to YouTube video – Long Live the Encampment for Citizenship.
I was twenty years old when I attended, which was a typical age for the students, and already totally in tune with the ethics and world view of the sponsors – The Ethical Culture Society. I thought of these people as just ordinary people behaving as reasonable people should behave. It has taken decades for me to realize just how extraordinary those ordinary people were; they were dedicating their lives to making the world an ethically better place. Perhaps everyone feels they are working toward that goal, but these Encampment people were so far out ahead that the world lost contact with them, although not they with the world. The Encampment was demonstrating how people could learn to appreciate other people, their life circumstances, their problems and decisions. The goal was to open young people’s minds to alternate ways of seeing opportunities for action, to present possible solutions, and ways of evaluating results, rather than their accepting pat solutions passed to them from unknowable authorities. After a lecture we would break up into small groups and discuss what we had heard and how it applied to our situations back home, or wherever we came from, and we came from very different places: Indians, Negroes, farmers, Manhattanites, foreigners, poor, rich, disenfranchised people and connected ones. It was a cross-section of the periphery of humanity.
Among the many field trips, we went to Hyde Park, the home of ex-president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s family, and we met with his, at the time, equally famous wife Eleanor Roosevelt. After she spoke to us as a group for a while, we formed a receiving line and spoke to her personally for a minute. When my turn came, this woman who was revered by my mother’s side of my family, said to me, “Charles, did you know our families are related?” I blushed in absolute astonishment and fled in embarrassment. Only much later did I discover that she was right. That among her life-long associates were the descendents of Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. That was the wealthy side of my family name who lived in upstate New York; my ancestral side of the family was consistently the youngest son of the youngest son, who continued exploring west, and remained economically middle class. My family relationship was real, but very tenuous indeed. (Update: 2014/07/01 I was just asked by the Encampment if this post might be referenced by them, so I thought it appropriate to reread it and verify the details. In doing so the family ancestry of Franklin Delano Roosevelt was checked, and I was dumbfounded to see my maternal grandmother‘s family Aspinwall name was also referenced. John Aspiwall Roosevelt was Elanore’s youngest son.)
After the Encampment I hitchhiked to Princeton, New Jersey and went to the Institute of Advanced Studies, where the Encampment had scheduled a meeting for me. It was the weekend and the building was closed, but after knocking on the door for a while, it was answered by someone whose face I recognized, but it wasn’t Oppenheimer, whom I was supposed to meet. He pointed to the telephone, and walked away to his office, and I was alone inside the main hall of the most famous scientific think tank in the world. I phoned Oppenheimer, and then hitched a ride over to his home, and talked to him for half an hour, mostly personal stuff about our common experiences, but my purpose for being there was to ask him to come to Washington State College at Pullman to speak to my Unitarian student group, the Channing Club. Oppenheimer had recently been denied the right to speak at the University of Washington at Seattle, and I thought I could ask him to speak to our off-campus student group. All that came of this effort was my faculty adviser, Cynthia Schuster, being instantly fired for corrupting the youth – me. She was one of my best friends at that time, but she simply vanished because of the McCarthy-era fanaticism that gripped the US. I never thought of myself as a radical in any way, but just a person who responded reasonably to the situations confronting me, and yet Joe McCarthy fingered me personally. That derailed my Air Force career as a pilot, but I got back on track a couple of months later, only to be derailed permanently a couple of years later.
Although these weeks may not sound like a typical success story, in fact they were the emotional foundation for quite a few more successful actions later in my life.