Cocoli .. Where the living was Easy
by Louis J. Barbier (BHS 57’)

 Nestle on the west bank of the Panama Canal, just past U.S. Naval Station Rodman off Bruja Road lies the enchanting town site of Cocoli.

Cocoli for many years was my home. In its hey day it boasted everything from a clubhouse to a clinic dispensary for common prescriptions. There were four family houses, duplexes, cottages, single apartments for the bachelors, and also 12 family units. It was a bustling town like those carved out of the jungle of the Panama Canal building days. Yes, living in Cocoli was fun! I can still see it in my mind’s eye as if it were only yesterday. The main part of the town was on a mesa surrounded by a series of low hills to the west that led toward K-9 Road and Miraflores Locks. A portion of the town dropped away rather sharply to the west past the Cocoli Elementary School. It was affectionately known as “Sleepy Hallow”. Yes, just like the “Halloween Tale” we all had to learn in grade school. And on an spooky night when the moon played hide-seek among the low dark gray mist clouds, you might even see the headless horseman ride up the hill out of “Sleepy Hallow” on his shiny white horse and he would rear up........and we would all run home as fast as our small legs would carry us. It was really scary attending first and second grades at Cocoli.

Then the big day came and we graduated an went to Junior High in Balboa. It was all a knew experience with the bus and all but we survived to hit the big time by starting the experience of a life time at Balboa High. I was now a freshman at what I thought then and still do today the best school in the whole world. Nothing could compare. Our teachers were hand picked and were continually challenging us to grasp the understanding of the world around us.

Like a hamster on a treadmill, I lived a very busy life in the Canal Zone. We had all kinds of activities from Little League Baseball, High School Football, Track, JR. ROTC, Boy Scouts (Cocoli Troop 13), YMCA, and after school clubs. It was a day full with the Canal in the middle. We would crossed it at least twice daily living in Cocoli. And sometimes more if we went over for the “Horror Feature” of the Week at Diablo Clubhouse & Theater Complex.

You may ask at this point what am I leading up too? Well, we’re going back to the Future to the years of the late 50’s. I was attending Balboa High School and living in Cocoli. Living in Cocoli meant riding Army style Ambulance Buses driven by Navy Civilian Drivers to and from Balboa High School every day during the school year.

A typical day started with my Mother yelling at me that it was time to get out of bed now or I would miss the bus. I usually didn’t get out of bed until the third yelling session of get a move on or you will miss the bus. The bus would go down our street of tropical quarters an up another. Sometimes I would have to chase it, but most times I could catch it right at our front door. But, no sweat I had a system. All my books were stacked on a small table by the door. My clothes were out from the night before. It was usually penny loafers or blue suede shoes with black pegged pants that hung low on our hips and were held up with a spaghetti thin silver belt and a flashy shirt for days we dressed up to go to school. All other days it was Levi’s with a white T-shirt, black thick buster brown belt with Engineer Boots or penny loafers. We would also wore sneakers, Keds, that usually could be bought for under $10.00 at the Panama Canal Commissary. Yes, those were the days when your Yankee Dollar did wonders.

So the drill was after hitting the floor was to fly through the shower with the quick 1 - 2- 3 of a Marine taking a shower in about a minute and a half. Then brushing ones teeth like Flash Gordon or Rocketman. I had it down to a science. The next step was a couple of spoonfuls of hot nourishing Quaker Oatmeal (we had it every day...we still do.) wash it all down with a cup of that black delicious Duran Coffee and as I headed for the door grab my lunch box. This was the industrial strength black job that the construction workers used and were sold at the Panama Canal Commissary. This was all before we got those fancy colorful ones with Roy Rogers, Red Ryder, Daniel Boone, etc. My lunch was usually a peanut butter & jelly sandwich and a bologna sandwich. Plus a fruit. This would be an apple or maybe a banana. What I didn’t have in my lunch box I could pick-up off a tree around the high school. Like mangoes or crab apples and so on.

Our favorite hang-out for us for lunch was the ROTC Building where we were treated to real combat footage of World War II. We sit there spelled bound as we would watch our troops land on Omaha Beach or the Marines Amphibious Landings on some lonely well defended beach in the Pacific. It was an education in the history of The World at War.

Sometimes we would head on down to Balboa Railroad Station to visit with Tony who had the Concession Stand and watch the local come chugging-in to discharge freight and passengers from the other side. We would sometimes on a dare hitch a free ride down to the Panama City Station and rush back to school with some of our friends who had cars and lived in Ancon. But Tony’s Concession Stand was where it was at for the latest stateside magazines. I never figured how he did it, but he always had them on sale at least a week before Morison’s. And Tony had everything from A to Z. Sometimes, when he was really busy with customers, he would even let us get our own sodas from one of the three large chest-freezers he had in his cubicle. Back then all sodas were served in returnable glass bottles. For Tony we always returned our empties. Besides Tony was a friend. He was a great source of local gossip and number one BHS Booster. On nights we traveled by train to Cristobal to play the Tigers in football, he opened especially for us. He was often there again to greet us on our returned trip around 11:30 PM. Yes, those were the days.

Our Pep Rallies were out of sight too! The members of the team got to wear the team jerseys. I can still hear: “ Red & White may it fly as an emblem of our Team so brave.....and so on” There were further cheers. Also a pep talk by the coaches. The President of the Senior Class would also say a few words. Meanwhile the marvelous cheerleaders were leading the student body in subsequent cheers while the band played. Then we often closed with “ B - A - L - B - O - A .....who do we appreciate.......” or “Fight......Fight.......Yea BULLDOGS !!!” or something like that with the crowd going bananas as the nights team roster was announced. Then we all went back to our afternoon classes to await the magic hour of 3:00 o’clock and then rush for the buses to take us back to Cocoli.

It was a regular stampede to find your bus. You wanted to be first to board so you get a window seat. The best section of the bus was always in the back. Then we rode along the canal and sometimes it was a regular race to beat a north bound ship to the Miraflores Bridge. After that it was down hill to Cocoli and home. On game night we ate light. Say the Rosary. And it was back to Balboa. We usually had to be back by 6:00 PM to suit-up for the game. The trainers were there to tape our ankles and assist us with our protective gear. We tried to conserve our energies with very little movement. The locker room was usually as quiet as a tomb before the game. One could look around the walls and see such sayings like: “ Remember the banana that leaves the bunch gets skinned” or “A Winner never quits and a quitter never wins”. And my favorite; ”It is not the size of the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog!” Being Bulldogs this was apropos.

Meanwhile butterflies bounced in my stomach, doing flip-flops at will. Oh, the tension before the game, could be cut with a knife. Then the head coach would come in an gives us our final instructions and what we would do if we won the toss. Then we would all stand and head for the door with, “Let’s get them....Go.....Team! “ ringing in our ears. Being a smaller middle-guard or linebacker wearing jersey number 59, I would be talking to myself as we all headed for the bright lights of Balboa Stadium, saying things like; “When the going gets tough the tough get going or I can do this ! Act like a Winner....You’re a Winner!”

Then as we streamed through the gate the crowd would roar and the band would go into a traditional fighting song. The play by play announcer would direct the crowds attention to the team and the expected starters for tonight’s game. We would all do a few warm-ups and body contacts before heading to the bench and our national anthem. I had a habit of looking down toward the low end of the field around the five yard line. It usually glisten like a pond with water. Always praying that if my number would be called and I would not end up in the bottom of a pile-up and drown in 3” to 5” of water. I can now see the headlines in the “Pan-American” sports section: local BHS player drowns on the field of play. Yes, as far as I was concern this was the worst that could happen to me. Forget the broken bones, bloody noses, shiner, and bruises from the collision sport of Football. Which I saw my share of these in my career with BHS and later with the “Green Devils” of CZJC.

The dream was to get in the game when you were sitting on the bench. On one occasion, we were way ahead. We were driving and deep in the opponent’s field of play, my number was called and so was a friend of mine. Since the last couple of games had really been close, he had stopped wearing his hip pads. It was easier to warm the bench without these pads. As we ran toward the coach, he spotted the lack of pads on my friend and yelled something about his intelligence or lack of same..... So, we all huddled around so he could put on his pads. Now, you know what often goes on in a huddle besides getting the play from the sidelines and the count right. Sometimes, we didn’t get much playing time, so on the way back to the locker room we made sure we went down and muck about in the mud so our game uniforms looked like we had been in the thick of things. Not good to end the game with a really clean uniform. Football taught us all a lot about the challenges of life. The discipline, teamwork, order, and regardless of the odds if you believed you could would! So, when we came off the field with a slight limp, some bruises, a bloody nose, and winners too! We all were walking tall. We were on top of the world knowing that we had given our all for our Alma Mater - BHS!

After the game, the hot showers, the ice packs, the wintergreen, it was time to retire to the Clubhouse to rehash the game and just chill out. And for me, I looked forward to the long ride home to Cocoli. Our bodies ached all over and we knew that tomorrow it would be worst but we felt very content knowing we lived in the greatest place in the world. Thinking then as now......”It doesn’t get any better than this.” And those who remember those capture images of those happy days gone by can honestly say, “How about that.....been there done that.” Yes, it was really fun the town site of Cocoli.......where the living was easy.

Yes, I realize it is all gone now to the dusty pages of history. I can’t go back now for the DeLorean is in the shop and my Flux Capacitor is on the blink. But maybe, just maybe.......tonight after the day’s commitments have been satisfied, I’ll hit 88.8 MPH in Z’s-ville and I’ll escape to days gone by when things where a bit plain, somewhat simple, and to Cocoli where the living was easy....Buenas Noches.