© Snow Frost
Revisiting the Canal Zone was an excitement for me...things have changed a little, but the Canal Zone will always be "home" in my heart. It is great to be able to show my sons where I grew up. I think growing up in the Canal Zone during the years of 1947-1967, were great. Although there are quite a few changes in Panama now....I find little has changed "drastically" at this time. It was great to grow up in the Canal Zone...it will be sad when the time comes to turn over this beautiful paradise to Panama....gee, there will be no Canal Zone...my place of birth will have a different name. I will always take pride that my grandfather helped to build the Panama Canal with the French, and then with the United States...he too was proud. He had made those huge maps at the museum there in the zone....all hand made during his "lunch hours".
© Irwin Frank
I returned from Panama yesterday. Dick Holt, his wife and I went. They stayed and went to Volcan for 2 weeks.
The place was surreal. It was like "Back to the Future" only more so. Imagine no one coming or going from any house. However, somehow I could see the ring-o-leveo game in progress and hear Mrs. Claughsey practicing her scales on the Prado. Except for a few that are being used for ACP land offices, the entire Prado and Barnaby Street are boarded up. You can't even go under the houses. There are iron gates. I tried to get them to unlock my house. I chased around from Dr. Hunt's house to Bob Metivier's house until I found the right person. (Dick Holt is fluent in Spanish, which helped. It was because of his silver tongue, infinite charm and unparalleled beauty that we got past an armed guard and into the atrium of the Balboa grade school--while he watched us.) It turns out that my house is condemned, and not even workmen are allowed in. If you recall, Balboa is built on landfill from Canal Construction and, after 80 years, subsidence is taking over. There are big cracks all around the house. The houses on Morgan Avenue are gone, as are most of the wooden houses in "downtown Balboa,".
Went to Gamboa, and it's pretty much untouched. A resort company took over and refurbished many of the houses. We went into one the like the Holt's lived in.
I went into the unit where the Schroyers used to live, next door to the Boynton's. It's now an office. People were very curious about what changes I saw. Walls and doors were moved, and the kitchen was moved, etc. I suspect that took place when they rewired. We never had fluorescent lights. No one I talked to ever heard of 25-cycle power. It appeared that what CZ buildings are in use are occupied by the ACP, the Canal Authority. Some of the residences on Tavernilla Street and in Williamson Place and the Gavilan Area are lived in.
If you want to invest in real estate, the Balboa Clubhouse and theater are for sale. To me, that has the same ring to it as if I were told that Mount Rushmore is for sale. The theater is the same, but unused. I even got up on the stage, where I played a clarinet solo at my BHS graduation. Joan Forbes was my accompanist.
What is clear is that the Zone we knew is no more. I didn't see another North American in the CZ the entire stay. The place is very clean, and the Prado looked manicured. Panama is doing a good job of upkeep and preservation. They plan to keep the Prado intact. There are no vendors at Stevens Circle, but I did buy a lottery ticket from one at the Post Office. You can't get into many public buildings.
We went into Fort Clayton, where we talked our way past a guard with an assault rifle pointed our way. All I saw was a boys school and police station. I can't figure out what they're so busy guarding. A guard even stopped me from taking a picture of the Governor's Mansion on Ancon Hill, and Balboa baseball field is fenced and locked.
There are fences and guards all over, including the commissary, BHS, Balboa grade school, the dispensary and others. We got into the BHS compound because the Panamanian guard recognized us a gringos and wanted to tell us how proud he was to be in charge and could even keep the Americans out now. It wasn't long ago that the Americans chased him off the Zone when he came to swipe mangos. (That was back in the days when you swiped something besides a credit card.) Almost all of the mango trees in Balboa are gone, as is the coconut palm outside my bedroom window and the rose apple trees on Roosevelt Avenue. Imagine, we outlasted the trees. If you want to feel like a dinosaur, try going home. The PRR train tracks are gone, but a new road bed is in place and new tracks are coming. I doubt that many people now are even aware that there was a PRR with real choo-choos, not diesels. How could they know? The water tower at Balboa Train Station is gone. Tony Oller's candy stand in front of the station is gone. The station is now a mini shopping center. (Does anyone remember the trolley that ran from La Boca to Ancon, or the watering trough for the CZ Police horses across the street from the YMCA?) The garages between the Prado and Barnaby Street at the clubhouse end remain and even look the same. However, I am sure they were rebuilt. They are now used as shops by the ACP.
Everyone was friendly and helpful. We sensed no hostility. The admin is full of ACP people who seem to be autonomous and a world apart from the Panamanian political mainstream. We went to the Balboa swimming pool, where the honcho is a local guy named Vince who retired from the PC. He used to swim for Red Tank as a kid and was tickled to show us his scrapbook. It went back 20 years. (My last visit was 31 years ago.) He didn't know what I was talking about when I told him the bleachers and the Harriett Morrow monument used to each be at opposite ends of the pool. They are now reversed. He was so happy to see us that he gave us the Panama Canal (ACP) calendar off the wall in the swimming pool office--not too big a deal, since the year only had 2 more days to go.
Speaking of a blast from the past, you can buy Klim everywhere, including Costco, in the same tin we used to get in the commy. It now comes in a half-size. Hadn't seen one of those in 50 years. I brought back a little tin, and will decorate my garage with it. (note: It was a "tin of Klim", not a "can of Klim.")
Panama has a big job merely trying to figure out what to do with the tiger they have by the tail, but it appears they are heading in the right direction.
© Dick Holt
The old Canal Zone as we knew it is gone, that is, the people. The place remains pretty much the same. You drive up the streets and they haven't changed. The houses look exactly the same. The grass is mowed, and there is no garbage anywhere. What is missing is the Americans. You don't even see many Panamanians on the streets. And the ones you do see are well dressed working people. In fact they dress better than the Americans dressed.
Change is inevitable as time progresses. The change that took place in Panama on the Canal Zone could have been done differently, but those in control, Jimmy Carter especially, did not choose to take the moves that would have created a position of honor and recognition for Panama while the place was being run by the US. So what happened had to be. As we age, we see all kinds of things aging around us and changing. That is tough to take for some people. I even find it hard sometimes.
That is partly what has happened in the Canal Zone. Actually Panama is doing a magnificent job in keeping the place just like it was. The maintenance of all the grounds is superb. All the buildings are painted and well maintained. Irwin is hurting because the house he lived in is crumbling and breaking apart. That could have happened even if his family was still in it. A lot of wooden buildings have also fallen apart, mostly because of the termites and their appetite.
So don't be sad. And you should definitely plan to return and see your old land before you yourself reach the age where you will enter the ground and soon be forgotten just like we all will be in the Canal Zone.
My best to you. I am still here in Panama with my wife for a few more weeks enjoying the beauty of the high country. Dick Holt......
formerly of BHS 52
and a clarinet student of Irwin Frank, a tough teacher
© Sheila Bolke
We went to Panama mid-December for a few days for a wedding. If any of you all go to Panama, be sure to eat at Nikko's in the old Balboa Bowling Alley......it has great old pictures of the Canal Zone from the 20s, the 30s, the 40s.....really terrific!...and they have good food. My husband had some pineapple that was wonderful....I just laughed and told him that Panama has the best pineapple....they are yellow pineapples (not like the white Dole ones from Hawaii) and probably Taboga Pineapples at that....papaya, pineapple, soursop gelato, fried bread, tortillas, bollo.....it was gooooooooooood.....anyway, put Nikko's on your tour. We were too early for mangoes, rose apples or ginnups!
© Irwin Frank
As expected, it is taking time to digest all I saw in Panama. I mentioned that we got into the atrium of the Balboa Grade School, courtesy of Dick Holt and his power of persuasion. What I failed to mention was that, if you listened carefully, you could still hear the caroling from the grade school Christmas pageant. It was held in the afternoon, and we all stood on the steps in front of the doctor's office to sing. Perhaps the open atrium allowed the music to go to a better place!
The Balboa High School Pageant was in the evening under the direction of Mr. Branstetter. As I write this, I can hear John McGinnis, singing "The Holy City" in his tenor voice.
So who was John McGinnis? We sang his song. Don't believe me? Look at the inside cover of the '51 Zonian. It has the words and music to the school song "Seniors Stand Up and Sing" by John McGinnis.
John was, I believe, BHS '45. He won an appointment to the US Military Academy at West Point from the Governor of the Panama Canal. He was enroute home for Christmas when his plane crashed into Toboga, about 3 minutes short of Albrook. He was outstanding at just about everything except athletics, but he tried.
Speaking of athletics, the baseball scoreboard outside the centerfield fence along Roosevelt Avenue is missing. The termites probably quit holding hands.
Incidentally, the Balboa Grade School doctor was Dr. George Eugene, and his nurse was Miss Elicker. I visited Dr. Eugene's grave at Corozal Cemetery, now known as the American Cemetery. He is buried near my uncle. There are many family friends and familiar names there, including Dick Holt's father and grandfather.
I earlier wrote about the guard in the BHS compound who used to steal mangos on the Zone. While talking to him, we were standing in the street between the high school and the gym. All the time we were conversing, I could see the kiddie car rides on the Fourth of July going up and down that street, while boy scouts from Troops 3 & 15 rode on the outside to protect the little ones in the cars.
And then there was the evening skating we used to do on that same street. Whoever never got a skinned knee when the clamps came loose on the front of his shoes so that the skate was hanging by the ankle strap, has never really skated. I recently saw a pair of those skates, skate key and all, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Who knows, maybe they had once been mine.
For the minutia buffs among us, the street where all this took place is the same street where Mr. R. W. Clark, the Balboa Junior High principal before Mr. Castles, used to park his car with the 1948 CZ license plate 1020 (for those of you who may have forgotten, I gave you that number in 1987, 1992 and 1999. When will you ever learn to remember?)
© Dick Holt
I wish all of you could be here to enjoy this fantastic place called Volcan. I am sitting in Bill Hemingway's office on the second floor of his home that he has rented to us, looking out at the most beautiful scenery you can imagine. Mountains all around us, clear blue skies, and white puffy clouds in the distance down toward the ocean which is about 40 miles away in the direction of David.
We have just come down from Dino and Melodye's home site where they are working to prepare to build their home. The site is up on the slope of the mountain leading to Volcano Baru which towers above the site. In any direction you look are beautiful heavily wooded mountains, not jungle, just beautiful trees of all kinds with lots of pine trees mixing in to make it even more beautiful. We found our own way up to the site and were talking to Dino's hired hand when Dino and his second hired hand whom he calls his jefe drove up. I think Dino was surprised that we had found it.
From any room or any direction you would be inside the proposed home, you would have a fantastic view. You are above all the other houses and farms in the area, and the view toward the ocean is uninterupted. Town is only about a ten minute drive down the mountain.
Not very far further up the mountain, in a settlement named Cerro Punta, or Point of the Hill, are two former CZ people who are building a bed and breakfast in probably the most beautiful surroundings we have seen anywhere. Janet and Glenn Lee own a family plot of a cabin that has been added onto over many years. Attached to that will be a four room hotel-type setup that is gorgeous. What a place. I will write more about this later along with their email address. Janet went to BHS and Glenn retired from the CZ when the transition took place. My cousin Tito Chiari's wife, Margie, and Janet worked together for the Panama Canal. Small world.
Last Saturday night we attended a dinner party, New Year Eve party actually, at Charly Garcia's home in El Valle. Over 30 were in attendance, many of them BHS and CHS grads. Included were my cousin and his wife. We all found very quickly how small the world really is in Panama when it was discovered we knew a lot about each other and had mixing families. I'll cover more on this later also. Charly and his mother were our host/hostess for two nights at their home, a beautiful estate there in El Valle. My cousin has also built a beautiful estate in El Valle and we were priveleged to be invited over to see that and enjoy the family.
We have driven over 900 miles so far in central Panama with Dino and Melodye. We have found my roots in Penonome and Nata and have actually visited and had lunch in the house in Lajamina that Dino was born in. His Aunt fixed a typical Panamanian meal for us and we sat in the very room to eat that Dino was born in. In Nata, we found the oldest church in North America, built in 1522. On the wall of the building housing the Mayor's office were my family names, Gonzalez and de la Guardia, in honor of the founding fathers of that city. They treated us like royalty. What a fantastic time that was for all of us.
© Richard Holt
It's 2AM here in Volcan and I couldn't sleep so thought I might pass on a wonderful bit of information on something many of you have been interested in with respect to Dino. As you know, the power steering pump on Dino's Jeep went bad on his return trip from Lajamina and he has been without the full use of his car for a few weeks. Yesterday we got it fixed thanks to the wonderful world of communications and friendships. Here's how.
Dino's brother in Seminole, Florida bought the pump and had it shipped to Panama where it was picked up by Charly Garcia. Charly got it to Ferguson Transport in Panama City who in turn got it to Volcan yesterday. Dino and Melodye and my wife and I went to the Ferguson office at about 11:30AM in Volcan in my rental car and waited for the truck to arrive since the girl in the office said the truck would get there between 11:30 and 12:00. It got there at 11:45 with the pump. The driver unloaded it and then went to have coffee across the road at the local panaderia (bakery). Dino couldn't get it released by the clerk, so I walked across the road and got the driver to come back and take care of this matter.
We then took the two ladies home to their respective houses and picked up Dino's Jeep and I followed him to the local repair man's shop. He said he would get right on it but needed steering fluid so I drove Dino back to Volcan from Paso Ancho (about 3 miles), we bought the fluid and went back to the shop. He and I then drove up to his finca and picked up his hired hand and took him home. Two hours later I picked up Dino at his house and we went back and picked up his Jeep, fully fixed.
All of this brought about by support and cooperation between family and friends and the internet and good communications and Zonelink where we have all met, including Dino and Melodye. A little human interest story in the middle of the night.
This place is somewhat remote from the rest of the world until you mix in the communications that we all enjoy so much and take for granted sometimes.
© Richard Holt
A parting note......
The time has come to say goodby to Volcan. We are leaving today for Panama City and then tomorrow morning from Tocumen back to Los Angeles. What a wonderful three weeks we have had here in Panama, remembering old times, and renewing our knowledge of our old stomping grounds and family homesites.
Even though ownership of the Canal Zone has changed, the place really hasn't gone through much change up until now. Panamanians, in general, are really concerned by the fact that although the Canal now belongs to them, they still don't see any benefits from this fact, at least at the working class level. I will write more about my observations and many many inputs from all levels of people I have talked to while traversing from one place to the other during these days.
Yesterday we spent a fantastic day being hosted by Mrs. Martha Carey, the widow of Bob Carey and the daughter in law of Jack Carey. Jack, whom I knew, was a Captain on the ferry boats and lived across the Prado from Irwin Frank. Mrs. Carey owns considerable acreage in this area, planted to a great extent in coffee. She was the guide and I drove our 4X4 rental Pathfinder all over the mountain roads that surround her property. We saw country that you would never see from the highways. Coffee trees everywhere. And we saw the homesite her son Rob plans to construct his home, tucked way back in the most remote location you can imagine, but unbelievably beautiful. Rob and his brother Tom both plan to live there some day. Rob lives in Raleigh, North Carolina and Tom is a geologist currently working on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. He and I have communicated this past week several times.
The roads we were on were little more than jeep trails, making it a real challenge to drive them. The Pathfinder made it but at times I wondered if it would or not. All the coffee is sold at harvest to another grower who then sells it to Starbucks of Seattle. So we got to see where some of the Starbucks coffee comes from.
Last evening, Martha, who is now 77 years of age, hosted a dinner party in our honor with some ex-zonians in attendance. We had a wonderful time talking about old times, and comparing notes on where Panama was today. Quite interesting. These are all wonderful people, and they are loving living here in this beautiful part of the world.
I plan to write periodically on what I have observed while we have travelled throughout Panama. I will make these in short blurbs so that it won't be too tiresome to read.
In the meantime, we really want to thank Dino and Melodye Barkema for being wonderful hosts while we have been here. They have given of their time and energy to see to it that we have seen everything we wanted to see. We have eaten well and are going home probably weighing somewhat more than when we came.
Our best to you all........ Dick and Cheryl Holt
© Richard Holt
What we had expected to find in our visit to the old Canal Zone weren't there. Thousands of Panamanian citizens all over the place, residents of Panama sitting out on the lawns in Balboa, beggars with their hands out, posters of every kind plastered on walls, trees, buildings. Kiosks and vendors tugging at your sleeves as you passed trying to sell you something. Garbage and refuse in the streets and undumped garbage cans overflowing. Baseball fields and playgrounds full of kids playing. Street lights busted and not working. None of these! Not one!
I know from some of the mail I have received that many of you are apprehensive and almost afraid to plan a trip back to visit your old stomping grounds because of your concern for what the effect of the total destruction of the Canal Zone might do to you. You don't have to feel that way. It's all still there. Not much has changed in over 20 years when I lived there last. Like Irwin Frank mentioned in his posting on December 31, there was no one coming or going from any house. The place is deserted! The Balboa swimming pool is still there and in beautiful condition. The only movement in and out are of a few ACP employees going in to work out. And the girl's gym at Balboa High School is the same. The sign on the door says that entry is restricted to ACP employees only, and that only if they have joined the exercise club. Even then, the gym was deserted. At Balboa High School itself, there were some cars parked around it, but you have to go through a 8 foot high fence to get on the school grounds, a fence that is posted with NO TRESPASSING signs. A guard came out and asked why we had ignored the signs, but let us take pictures anyway.
If you have any apprehension at all, it may come about because ghost towns are scary in themselves. Balboa, Diablo, Gamboa, Pedro Miguel are ghost towns. There's no one there! The lawns are all manicured, as we jokingly refer to them. There is no garbage anywhere. And there just aren't any people anywhere you look. We didn't see one beggar on the whole trip of three weeks. And we weren't bothered by shop keepers tugging at our sleeves trying to sell us something we didn't need.
But the ghosts of the past, our childhood and young adult-hood, were there in my mind as I looked out over the playing fields in Balboa and Gamboa. I could remember my brother George, Dale Cockle, Eddie Napoleon, Irwin Frank and other guys on the baseball fields and the great games we used to play. And then looking out over the Balboa fields, I could picture Fred Cotton, Clair Godby, Dick Dillman, Sam Maphis and the other guys that I started the 1951 football season with. And Coach John Fawcett trying to talk me out of going back to the States that fall so that I could stay on and play for Balboa High. Worth the trip!
You can't take a picture of what the Chinese are doing in the docks area of Balboa, however. There are people there. And the guards at the gate won't even let you get your camera out and take a picture even though all you can see are the giant booms of the container cranes towering over the docks. Pier 18, of course, is gone. And the landfill that now goes from the docks almost to Diablo is also off limits to photography. Why, nobody could answer for us. Why the secrecy that the Chinese have clamped on this area is beyond anyone's comprehension. They have the contract from the Panamanian government to operate Balboa harbor, and they are keeping it a secret. How about that? And you can't take a picture of the Governor's Mansion up in Balboa Heights either. Why? We couldn't find out! A guard stopped us.
The Balboa Elk's Lodge is still in full operation, and we had a chance to eat there and enjoy the corvina filet with ajillo, a fantastic dish of boneless corvina (white sea bass) covered with a blanket of finely chopped onions in a garlic flavored mix. In five days of being in the Panama City area, I think I ate seven or eight meals of corvina con ajillo, and then on our return to Panama City, out on the causeway at the El Ranchito, had another, and final dinner, of the same thing. I think I had all my share of Omega 3 fish oil for the next few months.
We got around on this leg of our trip via taxi, thanks to the help of Dino Barkema, who provided us with the services of his niece's husband, Jose Luis, who owns a taxi in Panama City. This tremendous young man took us everywhere for five days. We hired him by the day, not by the trip. Irwin, Cheryl and I split the fare three ways so it was very reasonable for what we got. Irwin was taking pictures of everything, and Jose Luis got to where he had his foot poised on the brake pedal so that when Irwin hollered "picture", he could quickly stop so that Irwin could jump out and get his shot. He went through about 20 of the loaded throw-away cameras in five days. We even had to go back to Cosco twice to buy him more cameras.
After being in the Panama City traffic for this short time, I would strongly recommend to any of you contemplating a visit, don't drive yourself around Panama City! The traffic is overwhelming, to say the least. One-way streets run against your good common sense. But they work. Stop lights, when there are any, aren't paid attention to by any of the drivers. And a stop sign only means you slow down a little. You don't know you are on a one-way street until too late! And by then, you are in deep trouble with the amount of traffic there is. And also by then you have already been stopped by the Traffic Control cops and are in the process of getting a ticket and possibly having your license taken away (even though while we were there a move was made to have this practice stopped). Too many tourists were ending up going to the Central Police station to retrieve their driver's licenses and pay big fines. A good way to stop tourism, they have decided. So you may not lose your license, but you will end up in a mess! And if you have any kind of an accident, you can't move your vehicle until a traffic cop gets there and writes the whole thing up. If you do move, then you are really in deep trouble.
© Bill Collier
I first went to Panama in 1967 to attend the Jungle Operations Course on the Atlantic side. I didn't return to Panama until May 1990, but I was depressed just looking at the old Fort Gulick area and later the Fort Davis area too. When the bulk of the remaining troops left in July 1999 things went much further downhill at a greatly faster rate. The closing of the Post Libraries, Moviehouses, Post Offices, PX/BXs, and gas stations and Comissaries as well as other support facilities like the Customs Liason Office in Balboa made it not worth the hassle of living in Panama anymore. I always lived off base and speak enough Spanish to get by so it wasn't like I was forced into areas I had not already dealt with.
As a member of the Road Knights MC, I travelled all over Panama (51,000 miles on bikes in 5 & 1/2 years) with Panamanian friends so I am familiar with life outside the old Zone. I have no desire to go back, but am concerned about the lives of the many Panamanian friends and co-workers who are still there. They deserved much better than the deal they got from their political leaders. At the final Party for those who worked for me, I chokedup and couldn't give a final speech. Scraps of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address paraphrased kept running thru my mind and I brokedown and cried. So I thought it best if I left rather than bring down the others at the party.
We (Panamanian wife and our Daughter) flew to Fort Worth, Texas on Nov. 30, 1999, and I have never looked back or wanted to return to the Panama that we left. The Panama of old is gone forever. I miss it and can only imagine the loss felt by the Zonians.
© Erwin Frank
My father used to run Pier 18, and I thought it was bad enough when they demolished that. Then I saw that "under the clock" in BHS is gone. However, if you think things can't get worse, they can. Get this: The letters and name "Balboa High School" have been removed from the front of the building above the library. It is no longer identified as BHS. It is merely a fenced structure!
I notice there's mention of Fastlich Field. Does anyone know who Fastlich was? OK, I'll tell you. Alberto Fastlich was a Jewish refugee from Hitler who made it to Panama. He opened an upscale store store on Central Avenue, where he sold goods from around the world. His cargo came across Pier 18, so my father knew him well. Apparently he became somewhat philanthropically in his old age, because the field where I practiced football was not then known as Fastlich Field.
We had two Chinese rugs in our house that Fastlich sold us. One was 8x10 and the other was 11x13. They were in our dining room and living room on the Prado. My mother donated them to charity in California when my father died and she moved. I still have curios in my home that came from Casa Fastlich.