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

Driving a Volkswagon bus north on the Pan-American Highway from Panama to the Texas border was an adventure in itself. All the bridges had been completed with no more fording of rivers, and the road was in very good condition. However, moving from the home we’d made in the Canal Zone for nearly 12 years was wrenching, but Lynn and I, with our children Kerry and Kirk, had a lot to look forward to. We regretted that our oldest daughter Mimi wasn’t with us but she was already in college having her own adventures.

With Kerry, who was more fluent in Spanish than the rest of us, doing the translating, we crossed the border into Costa Rica after a beautiful drive through the Panama highlands. Most of Central America is mountainous with tiny, brightly painted houses teetering on the brinks of deep canyons. San Jose is a lovely modern city with a strong European influence. A side trip to view Mt Irazu, Costa Rica’s tallest mountain and the site of a recent volcanic eruption, was a sobering look at an ash covered wasteland.

The drive to Managua took us along the coast of Lake Nicaragua for quite a few miles. This vast lake had been under consideration as a likely location for the canal that was eventually built in Panama.  We spent a night at a very nice hotel, reassured by the big blue bottles of water in dispensers everywhere. The next morning a stroll down to the lakeside was an eye opener. We watched as men wearing the hotel uniform stood knee deep in the lake, filling the bottles while cows also stood nearby, also knee deep, placidly looking on. Fortunately Mom had lifted the ban on sugary sodas for the duration of the trip so no one got sick from the drinking water. I could only hope the water for my coffee had been well boiled.

We passed through a small section of Honduras, mostly jungle. To our surprise, a fully armed Honduran soldier stepped out into the road and flagged us down. Naturally we stopped, more than a little nervous. He climbed aboard, went to the back of the bus, sat down between the kids with his rifle across his knees, and off we went. Kerry tried a few words of conversation but got no response. He rode with us for many miles before he signaled for us to stop so he could get off. We decided that he mistook our bus for public transportation and probably wondered why the burly blond bus driver didn’t ask for a fare.

Enjoying dinner at a pension in San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, was memorable mainly because there were windows on all sides of the large comedor, or dining room, and no matter where we looked a volcano was looming in the background, looking over our shoulders. At that time El Salvador was the least advanced of the Central American countries, lost somewhere between native and modern cultures.

Guatemala has always been my favorite Latin country, incredibly beautiful with lush fields running almost vertically up and down the mountainsides. The cities have a strong Colonial influence. The indigenous tribes are colorful with their hand woven clothing, each weave identifying a tribe. They speak their native languages as they go about their daily business with an amazing amount of industriousness.

The Governor’s Palace in Guatemala City is huge and ornate, the reception area lined with rococo chairs covered in the most delicate yellow satin. Every time I’ve been there it’s been full of natives trotting barefoot up and down the elegant halls in their bright costumes, patiently waiting to take care of whatever business they may have. I wonder what they must think of their elegant surroundings.

We took a side road through the mountains that had absolutely spectacular scenery. Needing gas halfway along, we finally came to a station out in the middle of nowhere. It only had electrical power for an hour every morning so Lynn and Kirk had to get out and crank the gas pump by hand while the attendant watched carefully.

We spent the night at a pension with the most delightful family who seemed thrilled to have a family of Norte Americanos staying with them. The floors had just been mopped with kerosene so we were sure there wouldn’t be a problem with insects, if only we could breathe.

We were served a delicious Guatemalan meal, including what our kids called “black bean blop”, familiar from other trips. Just as we were nicely full, La Senora proudly entered with her specialty, a can of Spam neatly sliced. Our hearts sank. It must have cost them a great deal, and knowing it was a delicacy to them we each took a tiny piece, (I think I cut mine in half,) and sent the rest back to the kitchen for the family to enjoy in private.

If you like museums as much as my family does, Mexico City is the place for you. We spent a week there, making some interesting side trips to such lovely old cities as Cuernavaca and Taxco, and visiting as many museums as we could manage. After touring the brand new National Museum of Anthropology, we paused as we left and I turned around to take a picture. There, coming down the broad staircase, was a couple we knew from Panama!

It wasn’t quite the coincidence it seemed. Every year a new crop of young students interned at Gorgas Hospital in Ancon, and it was time for them to rotate back to the States for their residencies. We had heard that several of them, all young men with their wives, were driving back at the same time we were. We had dinner together that night and went our separate ways the next day.

We made an interesting stop at the Aztec ruins of Teotihuacan, huge pyramids, mostly restored and now a famous tourist site. Fortunately we had the place to ourselves. Ever on the lookout for bad food or drink, I was the only one of us who got sick. My memories of Teotihuacan are of a dizzying white brilliance over everything while I made a mad dash for the nearest pyramid and upchucked my last few meals, apparently the victim of listeriosis, which is caused by tainted dairy products. Fortunately we had the place to ourselves. I had a hard time living that one down.

We spent one last night at Ciudad Victoria in an North-American style motel with a North American owner/manager who served us her homemade American pie, coconut cream I believe.. The next morning we made our run for the border, arriving in Brownsville, Texas and headed for our next home, wherever that might be.

…to be continued…


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

Soon it was time for another promotion and we moved to the town of Gamboa, this time into two adjoining apartments in one of the old 4 family buildings, on the third floor again with lots of breezes and great views. Gamboa had most amenities although the high school students had to take the local train 17 miles into Balboa.

This train traveled between Balboa and Cristobal, a 50 mile run, several times a day. I’m pretty sure it was one of the most uncomfortable modes of transportation ever, beginning with the woven straw seats that invariably pulled the hair on any head trying to rest on them.

At that time, there was still no air-conditioning anywhere in the Zone, for an unusual reason. The Canal used “mules,” little tugs that ran on the shore alongside the ships in transit, doing the towing. They were all wired for 25 cycle electricity and almost all American built appliances were operated on 60 cycle  electricity. At this time conversion had just begun, a huge job that took several years. I  was overjoyed when we finally got our first air-conditioner.

Every two years all Zone employees were given 2 months of  paid vacation which we were expected to take in a more temperate climate. The Pancanal Company ran a fleet of small 200 passenger/freighters back and forth to New York or New Orleans. The cruise to New York took 4 or 5 days with a stop in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. Once in New York, we would buy a used car and drive across the country, catching up on Grandparent time and stocking up on items not readily available in the Zone.

We usually flew back and would have one suitcase crammed full of swimsuits. With five of us in and out of the water almost every day we went through a lot of swimsuits. They were available in our commissaries but not in any variety and never on sale.

Lynn began building two small runabout boats, known as Sea-Babes, under our building; one was to be for friends. When the boats were completed we spent many hours exploring the lakes and rivers. During dry season, when the lakes were low, artifacts and relics of past lives could be found. Several of our group found gold earrings, of both Indian and Spanish design, small decorated bowls and an occasional coin.

A lot of ceramic ginger beer bottles were found. Previous attempts at building a canal had been made before drinking water became safe. Ginger beer was imported by the caseful and the empty bottles were turned upside down and buried in mud so the flat bottoms formed cobblestone walkways. The only thing I ever found intact was a square hand blown case lot bottle, originally for rum.

By now Lynn had been promoted to Power System Dispatcher for the entire Zone. Any time there was a power outage, especially on a holiday, we’d remind him that it was his turkey in the oven in our all-electric kitchen so he was obliged to make sure our area went back online first. I don’t really think he had any choice in the matter but it was a fun tease.

Our next move was into the main city of Balboa, next to Panama City on the Pacific side. This time our big old 4 family apartment building was of masonry construction, also up on posts and we were once again on the 3d floor. This location was very convenient to schools, post-office, church, our favorite yacht club, commissary shopping, the theater and the clubhouse with its cafeteria. This was the heart of the Canal Zone with the Administration building, a bank and other necessary offices all within walking distance. The fun thing about this old building was that a marble placed on the floor at the front of the apartment would roll unaided all the way to the back of the kitchen.

After this we moved to one of the oldest structures in the Zone, a wooden single family house on posts, looking down across the city to the Pacific, and backing right up to the jungle. We were entertained with flocks of coati mundis doing acrobatics on the bird feeder and desperate to get into our kitchen so they could scavenge for food. An anteater lived just behind us and could be heard tearing chunks of bark off the trees in search of treats. We only saw him once but heard him often.

The tropical jungle was a big disappointment to me. I guess I’d seen too many “Disney” type depictions of jungles; monkeys chattering as they swung from lavishly flowering vines and animal eyes peeking out from under every bush. In reality, we saw a deep green wall of foliage, silent, solid and quiet, impenetrable and forbidding. There were gorgeous flowering trees during dry season but they could only be seen from a distance, as on a hillside.

Any cleared area would be a riot of colorful flowers of every variety; the leaves, caladiums, crotons and such were sometimes as showy as the flowers. Tropical flowers often don’t have a lot of fragrance with the exception of the torch gingers, frangipani and others of that type. They make up for it in brilliance; there were bougainvillea, hibiscus, anthurium, and poinsettias, to name a few.

This old house was due to be torn down soon so I was free to splash paint on all the inside walls to my heart’s content.  We soon had a shocking pink kitchen, a charcoal dining area and other gaudy rooms. This was 1960, after all. Besides, oil painting was now an absorbing part of my life and I was happiest with a brush in my hand.

Lynn finally began work on his dream boat, a 30 foot long trimaran, a sailboat with two outriggers, Polynesian style. When it was launched we gave it the Polynesian name of “Otaha,” meaning Man-o-war, or frigate, bird.

Most of the boat was constructed under the building. When it got too big and extended out into the yard, we covered it with tarps to keep it dry while not being worked on. Somehow he managed all of the construction himself, corralling any family member who happened to be in the vicinity when he needed an extra hand. Every article of clothing we owned had glue, fiberglass or paint stains somewhere on it.

The kids got to the point where they would try to sneak past him when they came in from school for lunch or at the end of the day, but he was usually on the look-out. I was now doing oil painting as a hobby so I was never too tidy at my best and was willing to do my share of boat building.

Launching the completed boat was a major event with a hired flat-bed and crane, a police escort and the usual parade of kids on bikes and yapping dogs. We had some wonderful family trips out to the islands in Panama Bay, usually with other boats along for a fun trip. The islands of Contadora and Taboga were among our favorites with their fabulous beaches. The artist, Paul Gauguin had lived on Taboga for a period of time before moving on to Tahiti.

By now I was seriously into painting and crafting. I especially enjoyed creating woodcut prints, using the native pre-Columbian designs as my inspiration. I entered two oil paintings in a prestigious exhibit at the Panama Art Museum and won second prize. To my delight, the museum purchased both of my works. I was also serving as Canal Zone branch president of the  League of American Penwomen so these were busy years.

Our last move while in the Canal Zone was to a newer masonry duplex in the town of Ancon. It sat on the corner of Almond and Calabash Streets, or as the kids called it, Nut and Pumpkin. This was a masonry building and at long last the electrical conversion was completed. I think I may have been the first in line to purchase an air-conditioner. I’m sure I was the happiest. We had to staple heavy plastic across the screened windows until louvered windows became available.

We drove a tiny Morris Minor car, painted white, known by its appearance as a doggy ambulance. All it needed was a red cross. Lynn’s pride and joy was a beat-up old Ford pickup, once painted silver. Its fenders were so bashed in he was accused of forcing it to fit into the narrow garage under the house. One of his sailing buddies was a retired Navy admiral. Lynn, having been a mere 1st class petty officer, loved to pull his wreck up to a shuddering stop at the military bases  while the admiral pulled out his I.D. and they sailed through the guard gate.

Our family was growing up and our life began to change. This was now 1964 and our oldest daughter had graduated from the local Junior College and was off to college in the States. The other two were now 14 and 16 years old. Times were changing and the Panamanian people, long the best of friends to the United States, began to get restless, wanting “their” land back. The legal aspects of the original treaty were argued for months, beginning in 1960. The Eisenhower administration had already sent a delegation down several times, red-tape was rolling and things began to get a little ugly.

When a group of young Panamanian students marched on the high school in January 1964, trying to tear down the American flag and run up their own, the reaction from the American students, including our own two young patriots, was immediate. There were weeks of strife, some shooting, and this was an unsettled time for everyone.

We sheltered some close friends, business people who lived in Panama City and and had begun to fear for their future. They stayed with us for a few weeks until things finally began to return to normal. A treaty was signed by both countries and the United States agreed to turn over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1999.

Somehow the shine wore off our lives and we realized the time had come for us to return to our home country. This was an extremely difficult decision for all of us after almost twelve years but we saw the necessity and began to make our preparations.

We bought a brand new 1965 Volkswagen bus and loaded it down. Goodbyes were very sad, our many friends had become our families and they were having to make decisions too. All the bridges were now completed along the Pan-American highway, and with no more rivers to ford, we headed north through Central America and new adventures.

… to be continued…

I must add a few comments made during conversations I’ve had with each of our children about their memories of the Zone.

Our oldest daughter, Mimi, recalls being a 5th grader in California and discussing the day’s events after school with her friends while sitting atop a butane gas tank. A few months later, more conversation with new friends, all sitting in a mango tree. She recalls spending 10 cents for after school treats, slices of green mangoes with lime juice. As a teen-ager she was able to work as an usher at the Balboa Theater, one of the very few jobs available to Canal Zone kids. She and I attended a class in DESIGN together at the local Junior College. She went on to graduate, I didn’t.

Kerry, our second daughter, remembers her dance classes and the “American Bandstand” type dances held every Friday afternoon. Some of them were televised on the local Armed Forces TV station. She remembers rushing home late from a scavenger hunt, muddy and grass stained, and having to pin her hair up, pop on her long white dress and shoes, and rush up a flight of stairs, late for a Rainbow Girls meeting, trying to hide her muddy feet.

I was the leader of her Girl Scout troop and over one momentous weekend, we obtained permission and the loan of enough jungle hammocks for 20 some girls, myself and 2 assistants. We spent a really interesting night camping in a jungle clearing. Needless to say, nobody slept.

Our son Kirk and Kerry both remember their after school snacks, bags of a tropical fruit called “ginip”  (there are several spellings). The Ginip Lady was a fixture outside Balboa Elementary School while they were students. Kirk recalls making a 1 mile swim in one of the lakes as a requirement for a Scouting badge. He actually swam it twice as he didn’t quite make it the first time. He was either 9 or 10 at the time and a very strong swimmer. I was his Cub Scout Den Mother before he went into Boy Scouts.

He was bitten badly on the leg by a coati mundi while we were touring the Fort Sherman Jungle Warfare Training Center once. The critter was tethered but he backed up too close and got a nasty bite and a scar for life. The medics in attendance gave him a tetanus shot and a bandage. While this was happening the girls spotted an enormous boa constrictor draped across the shoulders of 8 or 9 GIs who were strolling around showing it off. That was quite a place!

Kirk’s fondest memories were of our trips to the islands and following his dad around as he swung a machete through the jungle. Dad got over enthusiastic once and gave himself a nice gash on the leg. His treatment? – a swim in the salt water.

Thinking back, I believe that was our preferred treatment for most of our little problems, and a few big ones too. We did love those beaches.