The Military Side to a Canal Zone Childhood
by George Chevalier

I would like to recall the excitement the Military provided in our childhood in the Canal Zone. Before WWII all the ports and piers were open to us kids to come and go as we pleased. The U.S. Navy Sq. composed of several destroyers and a light cruiser were often as not at pier side. The password to go on board to be shown around was; "Are you a Boy Scout"? And of course we answered yes sir. Foreign warships usually required an adult to be present. The ability to go aboard commercial vessels was dicey at best. Every year during dry season the Army would stage vast war games with the 11th Combat Engineers from Corozal battling the 33rd Inf. from Fort Clayton. Some times these duels would take place out near Pacora and other times in the jungle back of Empire. The Army Air Corp were very active in these games and were my groups favorites when the plans called for bombing attacks on Albrook Field. Search Lights and the listening devices were set up in various locations about Balboa and I recall the ones that were set up behind house 787 Tavernilla St., at the start of the path up Sosa Hill. We would gather around as close as they would tolerate in the evening to watch as the listening mechanical ears would detect the approaching planes. Then the huge searchlight would come on to comb the night sky until the plane was caught in the beam of light. The lead plane would seek to drop a large parachute flare that would turn Albrook and part of Balboa into daylight. When the flare went out we would follow its track of descent in the dry season sky which normally brought it down in Balboa or the tank farm area. These were priceless treasures to us if we managed to get to one first and escape without an older boy taking it away from you. They were so big the average youngster could jump from high places in questionable safety. From my bed in the corner bedroom of 790C I could lay at night and have a ringside view of the antiaircraft guns at Ft. Amador firing at sleeve targets being towed by planes. The sleeve would be illuminated by searchlight and you would hear the roar of the guns as well see and hear the explosion of the shells. It was a great thrill to watch the bi-plane fighters in the daytime dog fighting in the sky over Balboa Harbor Basin. A decidedly dangerous pastime was to go to the end of the Albrook runway opposite the train station and hide in the grass and wait for a landing plane. For this we preferred the old bi-plane bombers because they usually had an air crewman sitting in the nose looking out through what were isinglass windows. Just as the plane arrived over our heads we would leap up and toss gravel at that shocked man in front. But being careful of the need to duck if the wheels were passing too close. You could only do this once or so because as soon as the first pilot got to his hanger and Ops. office he would have sent a MP on motorcycle out to chase you. We would be long gone and sitting in the shade of the Railroad Station enjoying a cold Orange Crush from the Oller Kiosk. We had free access to all the Military Posts to roam about and ogle the formal parades and at Albrook if approached favorably Hanger Chiefs would at times let you sit in the cockpit of our favorite planes. We would troop the back street behind the barracks row hitting each Sq. mess hall and panhandle cookies or cinnamon buns which were usually baked every day. The Mess Sgt. routinely asked who your father was for he assumed you were Army Brats. We learned early on to claim our Dads were Captains or Majors but don't say Col. for they were far and few between and no doubt known to the Sgt. The military dumps provided us with many a treasured souvenir. Yes we kids owed a lot to the military in growing up for it's many diversions in our lives.