"This Was Panama"
By Ruth C. Stuhl
Star and Herald Newspaper - March 25, 1964

The Third Locks Project and World War II marked the end of an era in Canal Zone history, the twenty-five year period following the opening of the Canal. I have discussed the differences in the child’s world of then and now with several persons who grew up here during the 20s and 30s. All agreed on the trend from small town to suburban life and the changes that have accompanied this. My own recollections of the closing years of that era are obviously subjective and whole-heartedly prejudiced.

Today, we are fenced in and fenced out. During the quiet years before we fattened on a war economy fences were few, even on the military reservations. Fort Amador was an attractive little Coast Artillery post with dirigible hangar – a place where one played golf, swam, had picnics by the sea near the Commanding Officer’s circle, and heard band concerts on Sunday evenings. There was no guard gate to pass.

The other Army posts were as open. The highway ran through the posts of Corozal and Fort Clayton – no gates, no guards. Corozal was a place of old French cottages and stables, a place where you took your pets to the vet in the stable area and looked with awe at his tilt table for horses, a place where you could collect pigeons from the attics of the old houses and various pieces of discarded military equipment from the dump. The skeleton of a fuselage section carried home in triumph from the dump provided hours of flying in the back yard for the followers of "Phineas Pinkham" and "G-8 and his Battle Aces." The Army Air Corps pilots were dog fighting high over Balboa in the old pursuit planes and their maneuvers were followed with rat-a-tat-tats from the junior ground forces.

Fort Clayton had something very special: polo. Sitting on the close-cut green grass with the "chock" of the struck ball and the sounds and movements of the horses, it was a world in which barrage balloons and smudge pots were inconceivable.

Even Quarry Heights was so unworried about the state of the world that it was fenceless and it was possible to obtain permission to have picnics atop Ancon Hill. With a little discretion, any energetic youngster could make it to the top without permission. What a site for a hotel or something similar to Bogota’s Mont Serrate! There used to be a saddle area on the hill, which was kept clear of brush and on the Canal side a path descended through foot-high grass. By this route you slid most of the way on your bottom over the slick grass. Never saw a jaguar.

The Balboa dock area was also unfenced and open to the public. It was possible to stroll down the dockside to look at ships. Once a cargo of Japanese five and ten-cent store merchandise had to be dumped on the dock because of a hold fire and the small fry came like flies. When a Japanese navy training ship announced that it would receive the public abroad, we all lined up. Unfortunately, they required that shoes be removed and feet dunked in a foul-looking bath of disinfectant. My father decided that this was a deliberate insult to Americans and all we saw were the beautiful dwarf trees in the officer’s quarters visible from the dock. It must have been about this time that scrap iron was transiting the Canal en route to Japan and someone was distributing stickers that carried a simple drawing of a bomb and read "Boycott Japan."

Also possible in this fenceless world was the thrill of seeing a ship’s anchor cast at the foundry in the dock area. Such events as the launching of the tugs "Arraijan" and "Alejuela" at Balboa dry dock were celebrated with ceremony and everyone turned out. Anyone fascinated by railroad engines could visit the roundhouse if he behaved himself. It was a world full of interesting things to be investigated independently – those who wear seven-league boots need not trot at the heels of tour guides. Perhaps people felt less harried in the days before the jazzed up atmosphere of a war-orientated psychology engulfed us. Even the undertaker at the Gorgas morgue when confronted badly with "We want to see a dead person," good-naturedly gave a glimpse of the stock on hand to a group that wandered in on impulse. Some nosy "Mrs. Grundy" reported this to a smothering mother whose daughter was kept on "house arrest" for a week. So the kid became a nurse.

Where Williamson Place is today was then just an area of high grass and gullies. The Boy Scout shack stood in the middle of this area with two World War I machine guns flanking the walk. It was a wonderful place for tracking and exploring. When these things and lighting fires palled, there was the possibility of taking on the Empire Street rowdies in an exchange of insults and rocks.

The Mecca of my own neighborhood was Sosa Hill. We spent hours in the shade of the oil tank which once stood a little below the signal tower watching the harbor and Albrook Field. In the dry season all would rally for the burning of the hill. When the firemen arrived, we emerged from hiding and became volunteer firefighters. There was no greater bliss than staying as close as one dared to the magic of a grass fire and then going home at twilight, itching from smoke, ash and saw grass cuts, to take a hot bath.

The Commissary did not stock a year-round supply of toys comparable to that of today and the Christmas toy sale was a big thing. But who but a ninny needed expensive toys. An unlimited number of youngsters could participate in rubber gun warfare using homemade wooden rifles with clothespin actions that fired rubber bands cut from old inner tubes. One beautiful afternoon was spent by Barneby and Tavernilla Streets in a prearranged assault and defense of the gardeners’ shack above Mrs. Stevens rose terraces on Sosa Hill. When the ammunition ran out, there was an unlimited supply of clods of clay. An occasional clout to the head might produce a howl from some lesser being, but generally this was considered good clean fun.

A little more questionable was the stealing of sugar cane and corn from the land license gardens on Sosa Hill and along the Curundu River conduit. A successful foray on Sosa Hill might wind up with a corn roasting under the bridge on the hill. An unsuccessful raid might result in being marched down the street to one’s home where the gardener claimed recompense for the stolen produce. Before the notorious "Skunk Hollow" rose out in the mud at Curundu, there was a tree-lined lane, pleasant for horse-back riding, that led in the general direction of Chiqui pool. A side excursion down the Curundu River conduit led to gardens. My one trespass in this direction ended in a wild retreat when an irate gardener was flushed out of a sugar cane patch. Humorless man, he flung his machete after us and we made Olympian time out of there.

On the more decorous side there was our neighborhood mission society. Today the local churches presumably channel such impulses. We met in the basement of a concrete four-family under the chairmanship of a grade school Baptist. The first rule made by our society was that no one was to scratch during meetings. We were happily unprejudiced. Any kind of a show was a treat and most of us popped into St. Mary’s hall on Saturday mornings for the illustrated Bible lectures before going swimming.

An annual event, which had quite an impact on the local communities, was the visit of the Pacific fleet. At this time limeade or mango stand could do a good business on Balboa or La Boca roads, although the trail of broken bottles between the docks and the Limits suggested no great interest in either limeade or mangoes. Some La Boca residents of that day kept goats in the tank farm area and at least one sailor arrived at the gang plank leading a newly purchased goat.

There was not much traffic nor was there threat of violence in town or out. The maximum speed limit was 30 M.P.H. it was safe to ride a bike as far as strength permitted. Whether by bike or foot or the singing trolley cars, it was possible to explore this wonderful world safely. There was an excellent program of supervised recreation but that complemented, not replaced the activities that we initiated ourselves. There was no television to coax one into a state of bored inertia and a healthy child was considered capable of walking, or riding a bus if occasion arose. To have ridden a school bus would have meant missing the opportunity to knock down mangoes along the way and on rainy days to be deprived of the chance to walk through all the puddles so that one arrived at school with wet shoes and was privileged to remain barefoot all morning.

Enough, lest one become like "Poor Jim Jay" who "Got stuck fast in yesterday."