"Recollections Of A Canal Zone Childhood"
By Ruth C. Stuhl
Star and Herald Newspaper - March 29, 1964

For those of us who grew up in the Canal Zone during the 1920s and 1930s, the dry season was a time for picnics and excursions as it is today. Roads were fewer and sometimes rougher but the old automobiles were better suited for country byways than are today’s low-slung automobiles. For the romance of the open road nothing today can compare with the old open touring car. The passengers may have eaten a bit of dry season dust but in what style!

There was no Transisthmian Highway. The Panama Railroad offered a scenic ride across Gatun Lake where many of the partially submerged forest trees still stood tall above their drowned roots. A birds’eye view of the Canal could be had by flying in an Isthmian Airlines seaplane from Balboa to Cristobal for $7.50.

Madden Dam and the road to it, were finished in the early 1930s. There was a Pan Canal town site there for a few years. When the "Road to Alajuela", as I first knew it, still had the attraction of novelty. We would drive out to hunt for wild begonia plants and fossils.

All day excursions were made on the old road to Chepo, which crossed early Spanish cattle land. The Pacora River was a favorite picnic spot. Nearby the U.S. infantry fought mock battles in the dust during the annual dry season maneuvers. I remember watching from a knoll as little figures, the Reds and the Blues, ran around amid dancing heat waves and puffs of dust. Tony Malagutti tells about capturing a general by throwing firecrackers into his tent. This was only about ten years before the first atomic bomb was dropped.

In the other direction from the Canal, over the new Thatcher Highway, lay Arraijan. It was a very small village but it had a lovely waterfall and swimming "hole." This was known as the "Crab Hole" among my acquaintances. Unfortunately, wartime gasoline restrictions put an end to these excursions for a few years. Then when the war ended, the village had grown so much, upstream from the falls, that the purity of the water was in question.

My first recollection of a trip to El Valle goes back to the days of the 30 M.P.H. maximum speed limit when it seemed a long day’s journey to anywhere. During the preceding year my mother had clipped colored pictures from magazines and pasted them in scrapbooks made from brown wrapping paper. Then with the homemade books and a supply of pencils and lollypops, we were off in the family Ford for a day of adventure over the high road to El Valle.

Mother selected a country school on a ridge along the El Valle road. The little school had few teaching materials and the teacher seemed genuinely pleased with the books and pencils. The school furniture was typical of that day. The children sat on benches which were simply planks resting on five-gallon kerosene cans. The five-gallon can was seen all over the country, and it was used in as many ways as ingenuity could devise. The countrywomen carried it to the pump or the river for water, walking home with the cans balanced on their heads. Cut flattened, they could be used as waterproof roofing or siding.

To venture far into the Interior seemed to me something akin to going on a safari. Remember the African films of Martin and Osa Johnson? My family made a number of camping trips in the company of two or three other families. Fences were few and the cars just chugged off the road and cots were set up on the sun-baked, burnt sabana. We relied upon the dry season to be dry and slept without tent or roof.

I recall only one occasion when we had any night rain. We were late in making camp on the road to Ocu and in the last light of sunset an ant nest was overlooked. I think that the ants and the rain greeted us about the same time. Some members of the party decided to spend the night in Ocu. The accommodations there were all that could be expected in a little country town away from the main road and infrequently visited. The rain stopped and some kind of a truce was arranged with the ants, but those who had gone into town complained that they were plagued by bats and cockroaches all night.

Although camp was always established at some distance from the nearest native dwelling, an occasional campesino and his wife would call to offer hospitality in the form of a glass of unfermented corn chicha. I remember my parents, having heard the story of a chew-and-spit method of preparation, gritting their teeth and striving to do the courteous thing.

The sabanas beyond Penonome were the nearest thing to the North American plains that I had seen. I had read how the pioneers on the plains burned buffalo chips for fuel. One evening after supper when the adults were relaxing, I gathered a supply of the local equivalent of buffalo chips. This was quietly placed on the campfire and I sat back to learn about pioneer fuel. Soon everyone’s nose was twitching and my experiment was discovered. No-one complemented me on my zest for knowledge.

The moon during Holy Week is full and bright. It is hard to sleep in the open under a moon bright enough to read by. The country dogs would howl and the roosters would crow, and clippetty-clop, out from town would ride the cowboys, full of rum or seco and unsteady in the saddle. I saw one fall amid hoots from his comrades. They placed his saddle beneath his head and his horse followed the others off into the night. At dawn he lifted his saddle to his shoulder and strode off toward home.

The climax of Holy Week in the Interior villages was the night of Good Friday. Indians and other country dwellers from remote regions would sometimes walk several days in order to be in town on Friday. That night there was a procession with the appropriate statuary from the church. Torches were carried and "penitenters" carried heavy wooden crosses.

In Penonome, while the procession went round and round the square, boys sold large beetles that lit up like fireflies. They carried these in sections of bamboo. The beetles, when purchased, were pinned to a woman’s dress or a man’s belt. There the living beetle, pinned through the middle would remain alight.

All adventures had to come to an end and we would start for home early on Holy Saturday. Holy Week traffic was heavy even in those days. There was neither Miraflores Bridge nor Balboa Bridge. Everyone waited for the Thatcher Ferry. One night we waited for three hours. There was no hump for the drive shaft in the old cars and I was apt to end my Interior adventures by falling asleep on the blanket on the floor during the long wait.