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

After a 12 year sojourn in Panama, my husband Lynn, our two youngest children and I returned to the States late in the summer of 1965. He had saved up 3 months of vacation so we rented a small, furnished house in Mason City, Iowa. Being near our families was a very rewarding experience after so many years away. Kerry enrolled as a junior and Kirk as a freshman in my old high school and Lynn sorted through several job offers. Mimi, our oldest daughter, was in Missouri finishing her B.A. degree.

Lynn settled on a position at Palisades Dam in Swan Valley, Idaho, and we moved at the end of October. There were 24 modest 3 bedroom houses in the government settlement below the dam. We were on the banks of the Snake River, at about 6,000 ft. elevation. This was a drastic change from our years in the tropics and living in Idaho took some huge adjustments.

The scenery was  breathtakingly beautiful, especially after an ice storm, but we had a hard time remembering to put on our shoes, not to mention coats, hats, mufflers, boots and gloves. All amenities, including the high school were 54 miles away in Idaho Falls. The school bus left before dawn and returned after dark, making it impossible for the kids to take part in any extracurricular activities.

Kirk was eager to get out with his new friends and try all the winter sports, although he much preferred warm water sports and his old friends. Kerry never really adapted. She fell on the snow going out the door in the morning, coming in the door at  night, and who knows how many times in between. Neither of them complained but we soon realized we’d made a really bad choice.

Spring finally arrived with snow in the tulips on May 30th. Mimi and her guy, Howard, joined us for their small family wedding on June 1st, a joyous occasion, then they were off to start their new life.

Now that school was out, Lynn transferred to Yakima, Washington, a much more sensible move. We rented a huge old house near downtown. With a full, finished basement and an attic, it was the biggest house we’d ever lived in and we really rattled around in all that space.

I always wanted to be able to walk to a post office and a library, so this was fine with me. Kerry enrolled in a gloomy, dark old high school, not really a fun place for a girl in her senior year, but she coped. She soon found a part time job at the city library which she enjoyed.

Kirk was a sophomore at a new school in the suburbs and worked at various jobs, the worst being one where he had to keep smudge pots going in several hop fields overnight. He’d  arrive home at 7:00 a.m. to shower, eat, and get to school on time. Smudging soon became illegal and everyone breathed easier after that, in both meanings of the words.  We spent a lot of weekends camping in the meadows on Mt. Adams, sleeping among the wildflowers.

We soon bought a new 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in the suburb of Terrace Heights, Lynn enjoyed his job and I went to work in the Bon Marche department store. I also got back to my painting, found a congenial group of fellow artists and before I knew it, I was the president of the Larson Gallery Guild. Mimi and Howard were working at their first jobs in Yreka, California, not too far away.

Those were busy years and they flew by. Before we knew it, Kerry graduated high school, finished a course at a local business college, married a handsome young local lad and moved to Memphis, Tenn. when he joined the Navy. These were the late 1960s, war years again, Viet Nam was on everyone’s mind and the war at home consumed Americans with a never before seen divisiveness.

Our son Kirk joined the army as soon as he turned 18 and was sent to Ft. Lewis, Wash., then South Carolina and back to Ft. Lewis, then on to Vietnam where he served 2 tours of combat duty. We became empty nesters overnight, it seemed, a very lonely feeling.

Lynn dusted off his engineer’s papers and made two trips to Vietnam on a freighter. We sold the house in Yakima and moved to Marin, County, California so he could complete some requirements he needed for his licensing. Once that was finished we loaded both cars, both cats and a whole lot of STUFF and headed back to Oregon and the newly finished John Day Dam on the Columbia River. This being December 22nd, his brother, sister-in-law and a nephew caravanned with us, planning to spend Christmas in Yreka with Mimi and Howard.

We ran head on into a major storm that had me doing a donut in my little red Datsun on the iced-over I5 right out of Redding. Fortunately I had chains and 2 carloads of family to help me. Kirk met us in Yreka, having come down from Washington on a Greyhound bus that had to stop while the passengers helped chain it up.

Christmas Day was festive in spite of the weather, and the next morning Lynn and I continued up the Interstate. We got as far as Portland but were held up for four days as I84 East was closed due to ice storms. When we were finally led through by the Highway Patrol, it looked like a war zone with vehicles of every description in the ditches on both sides all the way out.

We had arranged to rent a small house in Wasco, Oregon, near The Dalles. That little town looked so dismal under cover of ice and snow I could only think how much better it would look by spring. Not so, by then it looked even worse. Eventually we moved into The Dalles, then across the river to the tiny town of Stevenson, Washington, settling into a truly spectacular view site on a bluff overlooking the river. The Columbia River Gorge is noted for its storms and we had our share.

At long, long last Lynn’s retirement become a reality. In January, 1972 we sold most of our belongings, stored a few things and moved into a 19 ft. travel trailer with an International Harvester vehicle to tow it. It didn’t take us long to head straight south, not quite non-stop, but we didn’t waste very much time getting to the Bay Area and warmer weather.

We spent the next few years wandering at will, making certain we took in every one of our beautiful states, including Alaska. We would have gone to Hawaii if possible, although we did eventually get there in the more conventional manner. We spent months visiting most of Canada, every state in Mexico and re-visiting most of Central America.

We joked that we’d finally found our true calling, being tourists. Lynn’s early retirement on a reduced annuity was challenging but we lowered our sights and traveled on. Eventually we found ourselves spending the majority of our time in the lovely old city of Guadalajara, Mexico. We became close with a large circle of friends, most of them American and Canadian ex-pats. Lynn joined the local branch of the American Legion (they had the best parties) and we made ourselves right at home.

Before long we realized we needed a home base and bought three acres and a cabin on the Grand Lake Of The Cherokees in Wyandotte, Oklahoma. It was heavily wooded, mostly oak, and we soon learned to take precautions against more than a few natural enemies.

We never hiked our woods without tucking pant legs into socks and dusting both with sulphur powder to keep the bad bugs out. The tornado hideout, known locally as a scaredy hole, was full of already shed snake skins of the  more dangerous types, and a giant centipede lived under the kitchen stove until our cat nosed him out.

We discovered a great way to spend our time and make a little extra income. We finished remodeling the cabin, then had an offer to sell it at a nice price. It was a case of “Why Not?”  We were still spending most of our time in Guadalajara so we took our ill-gotten gains, found a beautiful acre with another fixer-upper on it in Prescott, Arizona and did the same thing.

We became so fond of the next place we fixed up, in Arroyo Grande, California, that we kept it for 10 years, although we leased it out for 6 of those years and continued our travels.

By now we’d upgraded to a larger travel trailer and vehicle, making the rounds of visiting our children and other family members, then back to Mexico for the winters.

Finally tiring of travel, we bought a mobile home in the High Desert town of Yucca Valley, California. Our son Kirk, his wife Linda and our very first grandchild, the beautiful baby Sarah, all lived there. Kerry had moved from San Diego to Palm Desert nearby, and Mimi and Howard, having done their share of working and living in exotic places, were now in Lucerne Valley. When our strapping grandson Steve was born our family was complete.

We still had our urge to travel, but now we’d just jump in the car and stop over at motels.

Of course nothing is ever simple in life. Before we realized it, our Yucca Valley friends suddenly began to age and either move away or pass on. Kerry moved to Fresno, Mimi and Howard moved to Taft, near Bakersfield, and Kirk, Linda and the kids all packed up and went to Oregon.

Wondering if there was a message for us in all this moving, we joined the crowd and moved to Bakersfield, California. We found it to be a very pleasant little city with a nice old-fashioned appeal and lots of kind “down home” folks. The city was big enough to have all the facilities and amenities one could want.

Our first apartment was comfortable and convenient, but the neighbors were all young working families and we soon found ourselves getting lonesome. We moved into a lovely new garden apartment in a gated community just for seniors. The big old trees and grassy lawns appealed to us after so many years in the desert, and new friends were just outside the door. We made one more move, relocating to a shadier, more private apartment there and finally relaxing.

Sadly, Lynn, by now 86 years old, left me after a brief illness, ending our 65 years of marriage. In one of our last conversations he remarked that he had done most of the things he wanted to do in life, which I looked at as a pretty decent testimonial. I can only hope others might consider themselves as fortunate when they reach the end of their lives.

So here I am, back in Oregon, family nearby with lots of wonderful new friends, keeping as busy as I want to, and looking back on my 38th move as a good way to round out my own long life.

I probably should close with some words of wisdom, if only I had any. All I can say is, keep moving. It’s not necessary to uproot and go across country as often as we did, but stay in motion, one way or another.

The only lesson I ever really learned is that careful packing is highly overrated. Grab and throw, and sort it out when you get there. Who cares if it’s wrinkled, wrinkles come out. You’ll only need half of it anyway.

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.

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

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.

SOLICIT

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?

DISCARD

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.

IMMEDIATE  PROSPECT

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.

BANK  ACCEPTANCE

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

Thirty-Eight Moves (from my memoir)

Thinking back over sixty-five years of married life and doing some quick calculations, I was amazed to realize my husband and I had moved a total of thirty-seven times during our lives together. (The thirty-eighth move was the hardest of all, the one I made by myself after I was alone.) I had to do some serious thinking before I finally came up with a list of all the homes we’d had.

Any move that called for a Post Office change of address, a pile of old newspapers and a raid on the trash behind the local grocery store for usable boxes made the list.

In 1943, as a young Navy bride stepping off a train from the Midwest, I was thrilled with our very first home. Lynn, my new husband, had rented a studio apartment at 230 Oak St. in San Francisco.

I enjoyed the city so much in those days. It was fresh and clean, and the air had a zesty brilliance. The briny sea smell and the odor of roasting coffee gave it an extra piquancy.

The most fascinating feature of our new apartment was the Murphy bed, a novelty to me. I’ve never forgotten the experience of waking up to my first earthquake. Being gently rocked back and forth as the bed slid around was so soothing that the quake was over with before I even had a chance to panic.

Those were war years, World War II was in full swing, so five months later Lynn’s next assignment, the newly launched U.S.S. Oakland, was deployed to the South Pacific to join the devastating  battles already underway. This was his second deployment and his second ship. The first one, the U.S.S. Atlanta, had been sunk in a major battle the previous year with a huge loss of life. His injuries kept him hospitalized for some time but now he had recovered and was being sent back to the war.

We met during his thirty day convalescent leave and married after a three month engagement. The idea of my brand new husband returning to the nightmare of war was traumatic for both of us. However, he had no choice and willingly did his duty.

After the ship left, I moved back to Iowa until Lynn returned to San Diego four months later and I was able to rejoin him. Port cities seem to be so much busier than other cities, and San Diego, lovely as it was, was no exception. Housing in war-time San Diego was almost impossible to find, but we finally lucked out with a room in a small two bedroom cottage.

There were already three couples living there, one couple in each of the bedrooms and one couple in the living room. We were allotted the dining room and a fifth couple settled in on the screened-in back porch. With one bath and a tiny kitchen, the lack of privacy and the need for tight schedules created a lot of problems. The guys all showered at their duty stations, a big help and a savings on hot water.

Living like this was also highly illegal, as you might guess. The original renters kept subletting until every livable space was filled. We were just happy to be crowded in and wouldn’t have dreamed of complaining.

When Lynn rejoined his ship in the South Pacific, it was back to the Midwest for me, by now pregnant and feeling very much alone, hating the long gritty, greasy smelling train trips. Our first child, a daughter, was seven months old before she met her daddy when he was finally able to join us for a week in Iowa. We reluctantly left her with her Grandma, knowing it was for her own good, and we were off to San Francisco again for a brief two weeks together.

We were very fortunate that we’d been talked into leaving our baby behind, as difficult as it was. The two weeks stretched into a month and once again finding a place to stay in another war-time port city was a nightmare. Even the seediest, tackiest old hotels in the city were limiting occupancy to four or five nights before tenants were forced to move on.

The really old places reeked of the most unpleasant odors, and the sanitation left a lot to be desired. I barely unpacked each time we had to move. In the most forgettable of those awful places we left all the lights on 24 hours a day to keep the cockroaches at bay. Much as we missed our baby we were thankful not to have her with us under such conditions.

Once again the ship sailed and it was back to Iowa for me, another wretched train trip and a long, long wait for the war to end. By mid 1945 the war in Europe was over at last and in August the war in the South Pacific finally came to an end.

The entire country rejoiced! It was one of the happiest times ever.

I made another tedious train trip to the Bay Area with my tiny daughter and we had a joyful reunion with Lynn. We found government housing in the city of Richmond, an industrial city of about 100,000 at the time. It was the home of a huge Standard Oil refinery which sent acrid emissions across a vast area of the East Bay. Ramshackle wooden apartment buildings had been thrown up for shipyard workers and these were now made available for Navy personnel. Our little one bedroom apartment was very cozy and soon got a lot cozier. Sailors returning from one month leaves were flat broke and ready to board the ship, but found their leaves had been extended for another 30 days while the ship was being worked on, and they had no place to go.

We took in as many as we could, usually between 10 and 20 at a time and our splintery wood floor was lined with blanket rolls (no sleeping bags in those days) and snoring sailors every night for a month. Our bedroom was reserved for the three of us, otherwise the rest of the place was fair game.

Having learned a few basics of cooking as I helped my mother feed a family of nine, including an elderly grandfather, I managed to stretch ground beef and pasta every way possible so no one starved and we got through the month. Even though he had no money, any sailor always had a deck of cards with him so we passed the time playing our own crazy creation, Solitaire Tournaments, making up the rules as we went.

Lynn’s ship was sent to dry dock in Bremerton, Washington and we were given housing in the tiny town of Port Orchard. At that time Port Orchard’s only claim to fame was a large Veterans’ Home sitting on a hill, and the hastily built Navy Housing. In order to shop, a daily necessity, we walked across the grounds of the Home, waving greetings to any retired veterans who might be sitting out on the lawn. There was a boat landing at the foot of the hill and a small covered launch ran across the bay every hour, tying up at the foot of Bremerton’s main street. Since our apartments had no refrigeration we stowed fresh milk and other perishables in a wooden box set outside the bedroom window and accessible by opening the window and reaching in.

Both the cooking and the heating stoves were wood burning, possibly romantic in other circumstances but the smell of wood smoke is not romantic when it’s pouring out of an oven that is supposed to be cooking your supper. A big Navy truck dumped a load of logs in a pile every morning so our main recreation was chopping wood.

Our other recreation was endless games of pinochle during the long, dark evenings, with several couples gathering at one another’s apartments, putting the children down for naps and making batches of donuts from tubes of refrigerated  biscuits.  These were a brand new novelty and we would separate the biscuits, drop them into hot oil, brown each side, then drain and roll them in sugar, serving plenty of strong black coffee for a real feast.

Lynn managed to keep ahead of our firewood usage but when we were moved into similar quarters in Bremerton and the ship sailed on down to San Diego, we wives learned to chop wood in a hurry. We were very happy when we were allowed to follow the ship.

This time we were assigned to Quonset Huts in National City, just south of San Diego. Each Hut was divided in half cross-wise and wouldn’t have been too bad except for the high summer temperatures, those metal roofs overhead, a lack of insulation and of course, no air-conditioning.

We eventually moved into a privately owned apartment in half a garage. Being a Navy town, San Diegans had been housing sailors for decades and the city was full of innovative quarters. This must have been an extra large garage as there was room for two tiny studio apartments, divided by a shared bath. Dismal, yes, but quite an improvement over the Quonset Hut.

After six long, eventful, tension filled years, Lynn received his Navy discharge in November of 1946. We were profoundly relieved and overjoyed to be independent for the first time in our married life. We moved back to Richmond where we had family. He soon got his Marine Engineer’s papers and began regular trips back and forth to Asia with the Military Sea Transport Service. The MSTS was set up to re-settle personnel and dependents for the duration of five or six years after the war.

We rented another of the little apartments we’d lived in before, then returned to Iowa for a period of time, and  back to the Richmond apartments, where there were plenty of vacancies now that the war was over. Our two youngest children were born there, another adorable baby daughter and a strapping blond, curly-haired son, the apple of his daddy’s eye. With our family complete we qualified for a larger apartment and the extra bedroom was a real luxury.

And at last our sailor decided he’d had enough of the sea and he took a civilian job in Watsonville, California. I must confess, I may have hastened that decision along. Left alone for six weeks at a time, with two small girls and a newborn, I had one of those meltdowns where the oldest child is wistfully waiting to be fed, the toddler is having a tantrum, needing a change and a big hug and I’m rocking the rockers off my old chair trying to calm a colicky infant. I remember turning to a very hungry little girl and telling her, “If your daddy doesn’t start staying home we’ll have to get a new daddy.”  This remark was repeated to said daddy on his next turn-around and he only made one more trip.

Utilizing his engineer’s license, he went to work at the brand new Pacific Gas and Electric power plant and began a whole new career. We rented a big old place in town for a few months and at last we proudly bought our very first home. It was a small two bedroom fixer-upper on a half acre just out of town and it was OURS! This was 1952 and our house cost us $4,000.

Watsonville was a small agricultural community, known as the “lettuce capital of the world,” seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, very pleasant and livable.

Being an enterprising, think-outside-the-box type of guy, Lynn quickly realized that an extra building on our property which had never been used before would make a perfect addition to our small house. With a little ingenuity, some assistance and a lot of muscle it was soon securely attached to the house and we began our very first remodeling project.

Our realtor told us the building had been intended for use as a chicken house. With floors made of 2x4s it would have been the sturdiest chicken house ever seen.  We came up with a lot of hilarious jokes about the giant chickens we’d replaced.

We also bought our first little sailboat, a 12 foot Snipe, great for relaxing on Morro Bay. The bay was well protected, the water was icy cold and the little boat loved the spanking breezes. Lynn discovered sailboat racing, a sport most of our little family enjoyed for years, me being less enthusiastic than the rest.

SO . . . just when we thought we were finally settled, no more moves, ready to live the American dream most people aspired to, along came the biggest move of all and I was soon packing again.

…to be continued…