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 …