Thirty-Eight Moves, Part II (from my memoir)

My husband Lynn and I were happy to be settled after numerous moves up and down the West Coast during and immediately following World War Two, while he completed his six years of Navy service. We chose Watsonville, California, a pleasant little town on the Central Coast a few miles from the Pacific Ocean.  Lynn began a new career, we bought our first house, our toddlers were thriving, and our oldest child started school. Life was good.

Or so I thought. My restless husband began bringing home tales of life in the Panama Canal Zone! Two of his fellow workers had just returned from employment there, and Lynn’s interest and enthusiasm were growing. At first I was aghast. The whole idea seemed unthinkable, but the more we heard the more intrigued we became.

The opportunity for a better job and salary, the year around warm climate, good schools and the chance to live in a familiar environment while exploring a foreign country were just a few of the reasons we became interested.

Diligent research gave us the facts we needed to make our decision and it was a go. In January, 1954 we disposed of our house, car, small sailboat and excess belongings and flew south to a new life.

Lynn became an employee of the U.S. government’s Panama Canal Company. His first job was as an operator at the Madden Dam Steam Plant, one of the two huge plants that provided all the electricity for the locks and the rest of the Canal Zone.

Stepping off the plane into a tropical night was our first of many cultural shocks. The heavy warm air felt like a velvet blanket we could almost lean back into. The fragrant, fresh smells of ocean and jungle  and the constant breezes  were a pleasure, the 90 degree temperatures and extreme humidity were not.

We soon learned that the maximum daily temperatures hovered around 90 degrees, dropping to 75 degrees or so at night. The winter months were the dry season, and the rest of the year was known as rainy season although sometimes it was hard to tell the difference. The humidity was always astronomical. A 24 hour day that close to the equator meant sunrise at almost exactly 6 A.M. and sunset at 6 P.M. year around.

We spent our first night at the Tivoli Hotel, a building right out of Somerset Maugham’s “RAIN.” The Tivoli dated from 1906 and had housed many dignitaries, including President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt on their first visit to what was now an unincorporated territory of the United States, the Panama Canal Zone.

An enormous wooden structure set on a rise overlooking Panama City, with deep verandas all around, the Tivoli was the social center for the Canal Zone and Panama. The huge ballroom held dances, weddings, proms, monthly art shows (I was to hold my first one-woman show there myself in years to come) and every type of celebration. Their Sunday evening Happy Hour Buffets were legendary and we went often. Our children loved it, the only time Mom threw nutrition out the window and let them pig out.

Our first morning in my first foreign country, we bypassed the restaurants at the hotel and walked a short distance across the border to a colorful little cafe in Panama City, anticipating who knew what exotic and exciting new foods. So what was on the menu? Ham, bacon and eggs, pancakes and white toast. At least the freshly squeezed O.J. was perfect and the coffee was excellent.

The next day we were escorted to our new home in the town site of Los Rios on the Pacific side of the Canal, a brand new two story masonry duplex built on a concrete slab. Almost all Canal Zone houses were wooden multi-family buildings raised up on posts for air circulation so our structure was quite a novelty. Such a novelty in fact that most of the Zone’s 10 to 15,000 residents were refusing to move into the new residences, leaving them available for newcomers.

A typical Canal Zone dwelling had a distinctive look. Either wood or masonry, they were wobbly looking on full one story supports. Huge overhangs protected all the windows, which were screened but had no glass. Age and harsh weather conditions gave them a worn appearance, although they were well maintained. The closets were fitted with outlets for heat rods to keep shoes and other leather goods from turning green.

We found our duplex to be very comfortable and soon settled in and began exploring our new way of life. The Canal Zone, as you may remember, is an area ten miles wide and fifty miles long, splitting the country of Panama from the Atlantic to the Pacific  Oceans. In the early 1900s it was leased to the United States by the country of Colombia, owners of Panama at that time. The terms of the lease were “In perpetuity”. Not too much later the new country of Panama achieved independence from Colombia, with more than a little help from the U.S.

We found the Zone, and of course the Canal itself to be endlessly fascinating. We all fell in love with the country of Panama for its beauty, culture – both the pre-Columbian and the influence of the Spanish conquerors – and most of all, the wonderful people, a mixture of indigenous native tribes, Spaniards, West Indians and various Europeans. English was spoken everywhere except in the interior of the country. We joined Spanish classes as soon as possible, mainly to get to know the country better. I was so charmed by the wealth of pre-Columbian design I developed a lifelong love for primitive art.

The Panama Canal Zone was definitely a company town with two distinct cultures. We North Americans were designated U.S. or “Gold Rates,” whereas the West Indians originally brought in from the Caribbean as canal construction workers  were called Local or “Silver Rates.” Two separate lifestyles were maintained with separate town sites, schools, commissaries, cafeterias, clinics, theaters and other facilities for each Rate.

Older residents of the Zone resented being described as “colonial” but to us newcomers it seemed apt.

A third culture included the U.S. military bases. They were the only places in the Zone that were fenced and guarded. They had their own commissaries and other advantages and sent their children to the U.S. rate schools along with ours. We North Americans had no shopping privileges on the military bases although we mingled socially and were welcomed at the Officer’s Clubs and private beaches.

One hospital, Gorgas, served everyone and was widely recognized as specializing in tropical diseases. It was maintained by the U.S. Army. The Health Department was one of the most important of all the government offices.

The earliest French attempts at building a canal in an insect-ridden location had been defeated by constant illness, including yellow fever. Every effort was made over the years to eradicate the causes, mainly mosquitoes.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, trucks were sent out every evening at dusk, driving up and down the streets, emitting clouds of DDT. We know better than to use that dangerous chemical now but it did an excellent job of keeping the insect population down. All areas of still water were sprayed, too. The only insect to survive the DDT onslaught was the cockroach and there was never a shortage of them.

The country of Panama was its own separate entity, a colorful, bustling republic, fully accessible from the Zone with no fences or barriers separating the tidy streets and quiet lives of the Zone and the noisy, florid turmoil of any typical Latin American country. As in so many Latin countries, the population was a melting pot of natives and immigrants.

Several small Canal Company passenger/freighters kept our Canal Zone commissaries and storehouses filled with the necessities of life, especially foodstuffs. The Canal maintained a dairy for fresh milk and there were bakeries in each commissary; otherwise, everything right down to the eggs was brought down from the U.S. Cold storage eggs can lose their appeal pretty fast.

There were produce gardens scattered around the Zone, run by Chinese families, colorful in their broad conical hats.  Fresh greens and other veggies were plentiful at those places. The public markets in the Panamanian towns were great for the huge varieties of fresh seafood and tropical fruits.

We especially loved the seafood and made early morning runs to the markets several times a week just to get our fill. The stalls were scoured, scrubbed and closed long before noon. I learned that there are seven distinct parts and flavors to a sea turtle, most of them delicious, especially with plenty of fresh lime juice and garlic.

The rate of exchange in Panama was one Balboa to one U.S. Dollar, making it easy to negotiate. Bargaining was a way of life at the public markets.

Panama didn’t have its own national cuisine, Sancocho being the only really native dish. This was a rather bland stew made of bits of meat, chunks of squash, ears of corn and any other thing handy to a thrifty cook. Most of the foods, Arroz Con Pollo, empanadas, baked or fried plantain or yucca were dishes brought from the Caribbean. European and North American foods were popular, too. There were lots of good little cafes and everyone had a favorite. Excellent Chinese restaurants were also popular, but there were no North American fast food franchises at that time.

I always felt sorry for the hundreds of cruise ship passengers who passed through the Canal, impressed by its wonder, but never seeing the true wonder of the country.

We spent a lot of time in the Interior, driving up to our favorite beach at Santa Clara, a 60 0r 70 mile trip, where simple little cabins were available to rent. Surrounded by water, we took full advantage of two oceans only 50 miles apart, two huge lakes, the beaches, the islands and many rivers. We were never without a small boat, either sail or outboard. It was an ideal place for young children.

It took us awhile to adjust to the climate. Our five year old son ran around free in a cool pair of shorts until I noticed a bad sunburn developing across his shoulders. Fine, I had made him some little shirts of crinkle nylon, the latest thing for hot weather. Not good. He came up with heat rash over the sunburn. The next thing was a tropical rash on top of all that. By the time he began to recover I was fearing I’d be arrested for child abuse.

Incidentally, Canal Zone schools were North American in all respects and included students from all the military bases in the Zone. English was the common language, of course, but Spanish was taught during all twelve years of school.

Lynn was soon transferred to the Atlantic side town of Gatun and we were assigned two adjoining apartments on what was the third floor, considering that the first floor was open  to the world. This was a wooden twelve family unit that had to date from the days of the “diggers” (canal construction workers, pre-1914). As the saying went, “If the termites ever quit holding hands the place will collapse.”

The big advantage here was that the building looked directly out on the Canal, downstream from one of the locks. Huge trees and heavy foliage hid a good part of the view but the tops of ships could be seen gliding almost silently past our front windows, day and night, nothing to be heard but the low throb of the engines.

My stepfather, visiting us, never tired of looking out, remarking how happy he was to see some part of our government making money.

By now we were into school events, Scouting, swimming lessons, dance classes, Rainbow Girls and all the activities three kids can get interested in.

Several members of our families, including three sets of parents; my mother and stepfather, Lynn’s mom and his brother, and also his dad and stepmother came down to visit us,  fortunately not all at once. With our double apartment we had plenty of room for company. Touring colonial ruins with their reminders of Caribbean pirates such as Henry Morgan was a favorite entertainment for all of us. Other family members visited us from time to time and were always very welcome.

Living away from our families as we all did, our friends soon became our families with a closeness never forgotten. Holidays were especially meaningful. One oddity that took a little getting used to was the fact that social events always called for dressy attire. A simple morning “coffee” meant one’s best bib and tucker, high heels and all, but no stockings, not in that humidity.

… to be continued …


Blarney as Our Second Language Redux

(This is an update of my blog from a year ago. I still think it’s a good idea!)

Shure and haven’t I been speakin’ the Blarney since I was a wee lass?

Okay, enough of the phony Irish accent.  I never was good at it anyway.  I just wanted to emphasize the fact that Blarney, that soothing, delightful manner of addressing others, is a great way to communicate. You don’t have to be Irish to speak it but it doesn’t hurt.

Blarney just might be the universal second language our world needs, long sought after, a means of expression understood by everyone.

So what is Blarney anyway?  Well, all you need is a soft smile and a sweet, sly voice, or maybe a soft voice and a sweet, sly smile.  Sometimes called the Gift O’ Gab, sometimes schmoozing, or soft soap, it’s occasionally rather insultingly referred to as B.S.  The Blarney is a much kinder means of communicating, the idea being to establish a good feeling with the person to whom you are speaking.  A tiny white lie is never amiss as long as it makes your listener feel good.

Blarney is the perfect language to use with curmudgeons, crabs and cold hearts, or anyone having an off day.  When voices get tense and an argument seems imminent, lay on the Blarney and talk the combatants down.  When spirits are low, Blarney is the way to cheer people up, flattering the bejabbers out of them.

For example, you haven’t slept, the bags under your eyes could hold bowling balls and you look like you barely survived The Perfect Storm.  Do you want to hear  “Ye gods, what a mess.  What happened to you?  Go back to bed and get up again.”

Or would you rather hear  “Oh, you poor love, you aren’t quite yourself, want to tell me about it?”  That’s a no-brainer and that’s why the person now speaking to you just became your new best friend.  So you’re being schmoozed, you know it, it feels good and so do you.

There is a lot of Blarney going around right here at our retirement residence. I hear it all the time and I love it.  Whatever the reason, our age group, our similarities, the fact that we all have one foot on the proverbial banana peel, it’s beautiful to our ears.  Maybe we’re just naturally nice people; whatever,  schmoozing is soothing.

Oh sure, there are always those who can’t resist a snide remark or a snarky comment but they’re few and far between and they just need a good dose of Blarney to calm them down.

If only our world leaders would learn to use the Blarney, think of the benefits.  Our legislators need to start addressing one another as  “The esteemed gentlewoman or gentleman from the great State of Euphoria”  without the undercurrent of sarcasm we hear so often.

They could then communicate with representatives of the most powerful countries of the world at the next Global Summit in an equally sincere, flattering fashion, thereby setting the stage for success.  Imagine a Global Round Table discussion right here

in our own country with current world leaders gathered together.

An affable Donald Trump is welcoming all the delegates with open arms.  Vladimir Putin and Benjamin Netanyahu are questioning Kim Jung Un about the efficacy of Rogaine on male pattern baldness.  Jung Un, who resembles an overwatered Chia Pet, is nodding vigorously, repeating over and over, “Is good, is good” in Korean Blarney.

Angela Merkel and Xi Jinping are happily trading recipes for Rouladen and General Tso’s Chicken.  Francois Hollande and Teresa May have set aside centuries of dissension to agree on the proper pronunciation of such common words as CHANNEL versus CHENEL or the usage of LOO versus PISSOIR.  Pope Francis and Italy’s Mattarella  toast the fact that neither has ever owed the other rent or taxes; and so it might go.

The African contingent and the Scandinavians are smiling, deep in conversation, as are the Central and South Americans. The Canadians are arm in arm with the Greeks, learning traditional  dances.  The bad boys from ISIS have been exiled to the kiddies’ table in the corner until they agree to shape up.

Each session begins and ends with the delegates clasping hands, swaying slightly and singing  “Kumbaya.”  Pots of herbal tea and platters of Snickerdoodle cookies are consumed.  The warm fuzzies break out all over, all because everyone is speaking our common language, the Blarney!

Hey, it’s worth a try!!

Erin Go Bragh!

Writing Class

My writing class begins each session with a 6 minute “hot-write.” Someone chooses a word or phrase at random from a thesaurus and we’re given 6 minutes to write whatever comes to mind, using that word or phrase.

Here are a few examples I’ve come up with:


Length versus width multiplied by breadth. What does that mean anyway, and how should it be used? I once knew but I no longer have the foggiest idea. It does sound good, though.

Length by itself can conjure various meanings: a length of fabric might end up as a new garment. The length of a speech might bring glassy eyes and yawns to hundreds of people. Length used in Track and Field or horse racing would be measured microscopically and gloated over or brooded on.

The length of this mini-essay has reached its maximum width and breadth; it isn’t elastic enough for me. The length of my attention span doesn’t stretch well, either.


So…licit. My translation: Sorta licit or sorta legal. Of course there are other meanings, no need to go into all of them (Standing on a street corner, for example, checking out the prospects) but I like my interpretation better. Kinda semi legal but maybe not quite. In light of the current political situation lately it’s a good word to throw around, and definitely non-partisan. One can think of any number of situations that are so..licit right now. Will anyone ever figure them all out?


Dey keep dealing me dis card and dat card but dey don’t do me no good. I need dose cards to fill out dis flush. C’mon, c’mon, I need some luck. I got hungry kids at home, I need cash. I already blew thirty bucks on dis game and I can’t discard no more of dese cards. I gotta get dat flush.

Oh, oh, here we go again, another round. C’mon, c’mon, c’mon, a queen, a queen, any old queen will do – red, black, green. I can’t stand da pressure. W H A T ?!! A trey??  Dis is da end! I’m sunk! I’m gonna tear up dis card and all the rest of dem cards. No more cards for me.


I have no idea what my prospect might be, immediately or later. From my vantage point it doesn’t look good. I was prospecting away, grubbing for those precious nuggets, knee deep in ice water when a sudden eddy in the river swept away what few prospects I had, pan and all. My immediate thought was, who opened the dam gates? Anyway I’m looking for a new pan and I’ll be right back out there, immediately or shortly thereafter, but I’ll check with the dam operator first.


I thought I could always bank on your accepting me as I am. I absolutely banked on it. Now I find that, not only were you not accepting me for who I am, neither were you accepting me for the “me” I want to be, the “me” I try to pass off on other people or the “me” I plan to become some day.

I need to be able to bank on all those people, my schizophrenia demands it. My bank is getting to the point where they’re not accepting me either, just because of you. My 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th personalities have decided we don’t accept you either, and you can bank on that.

Signed, Joan, Joan, Joan and Joan