Memory That Was The Canal Zone
By Carl Posey - 1990
...As socialism loses favor around the world, the last vestiges of America's own flirtation with it are disappearing without a trace.
Not quite a decade ago, while researching a story on economic reforms in Bulgaria, I was taken by my enthusiastic hosts to a vast apricot orchard on the Danube. At a clutch of mean stuccoed structures that might have been in rural Central America, we paused. Here, they told me, is a clubhouse for workers, and over there, a commissary, and there, an administration building, party headquarters, dispensary. It took me a moment to realize that they employed the vocabulary of my childhood. For I was born and reared, I later explained to them, in another bastion of socialism: the Canal Zone that once ran north to south across the narrow waist of Panama. They chuckled at this news that the United States had once dabbled in a command economy, but not heartily; perhaps they imagined a sneer at their system. But if anything, I was commiserating with them, as I do now that both experiments have come to their sad, strangely similar conclusions.
Nowadays, one can almost stage the entire saga of America in Panama among the buildings, sea and sudden hills visible from the balcony of Leon Greene's eighth floor penthouse in La Cresta, a neighborhood that winds along a ridge above Panama City's Avenida Central, noisily clogged with garishly illustrated buses bearing ferocious names like El Cancer and El Terror. Off to the east, the isthmus runs toward Colombia. A journey to the west eventually takes you to Costa Rica. Residents boast that this peculiar east west segment of this oddly twisted land causes the sun to rise over the Pacific and set over the Atlantic strictly speaking, the Caribbean. The kink has a disorienting effect on those of us who have lived there it reverses the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, and seems to put the sun in the wrong place in the sky.
In the distance are the ruined towers of Old Panama, the once rich port of entry for the Spain bound wealth of colonial Peru. On our right is the oval walled city that succeeded it. In 1903, President Amador sent from New York to his government in this enclave the disappointing treaty that gave the United States what amounted to perpetual sovereignty over a ten mile strip of land across the isthmus.
The canal, the reason for almost everything visible from here, is a narrow, intermittent ribbon of bright water cutting through green hills in the distance. On the pewter bay, ships wait at anchor for their turn at the crossing. They lie beyond a scatter of small islands that rise from the ocean like the round backs of swimming creatures. The air is full of birds spirals of black buzzards and gulls, green clouds of noisy parakeets, hawks, herons. With mild surprise I think, why, the old place is beautiful!
When Leon Greene's father came to Panama, the walled oval by the sea and its entourage of mean shanties were about it. The place was marsh and jungle, and there was no canal. A father and grandfather himself, Greene, at 84, is one of the few remaining Americans who have seen the entire adventure in Panama unfold, and who now are there to watch it close. Most of his compatriots will have left before the end. Many are refugees of an odd sort, retreating to the United States not from a world that has changed so much as from one that has vanished. Like the aging children of a tropical Atlantis, they have watched their homeland steadily sinking out of sight.
In the 1970's, the United States and Panama, in the persons of American President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, agreed on terms by which ownership of the canal would revert to the nation it bisects. On December 31, 1999, this figurative Atlantis will vanish utterly, taking with it the last vestiges of a unique American experience, America's flirtation with socialism. For those who, like Greene, have adapted and evolved, it will be a sour note in a continuing symphony of sweetness. But for many others, the changes in Panama are truly the end of the line. At first glance, their experience may seem to have been simple. Some have savagely caricatured it as a society of red necks, jingoists, bigots and noting the plethora of lodges and temples joiners. In fact, life there was as large and vital as life anywhere. The difference was that always at the center, whether one consciously felt its presence or not, lay the canal.
To me, and I believe to others of my generation, the canal was one of the least interesting things about our small community. Watching the great ships transit the locks was like watching bougainvillea grow.
But for our grandparents and parents, the canal exerted a formidable gravitation. It drew people from small town America into the tropical jungle, shaped the way they lived and were employed, and presented them with a one of a kind instrument of vast complexity. It was conceived in the late 19th century to be run by generations of artisans and mechanics trained one might say doomed to sustain the technologies of the past. The Americans who colonized the place fashioned a life that endured almost intact for several generations, as unchanging as a bubble in amber. Then, finally overtaken by time, this insulated community was thrust suddenly into a much older, harder world. The amazing thing, of course, is not that such a community withered, but that it will have taken nearly a century to do so.
This surprisingly resilient adventure began on the Caribbean flank of the isthmus, the side facing civilization, as it were. Here the United States picked up the remnants of the project the French could not complete. The French strategy had been to hack out a Suez type ditch uniting the two oceans at sea level. Although the American design has been called the Big Ditch, it was conceived as an alternative to the impossible excavations envisioned by the French. The Panama Canal became not a channel but a bridge that carried ships up and over a dent in the low lying Continental Divide, from one ocean to another.
The Chagres River was sealed near its Atlantic end by an earthen dam, creating a huge artificial lake whose surface is about 85 feet above sea level. It became the main span of the .bridge. To reach the lake, canal builders constructed massive concrete and steel locks that, filled and flushed with Chagres River water, provided a set of steps from sea level. For most Americans drawn by the adventure, the first taste of life in Panama came in the two sister cities on the Atlantic side, Cristobal and Colon (from the Spanish name for Christopher Columbus).
Leon Greene was present more or less at the creation. "Dad came in 1907," he recalls. "At that time, a depression was on and he couldn't get a job. They were doing a lot of advertising to get people from the U.S. to work on the canal." While somewhat frail, Greene is still a tall, lean man with a passing resemblance to Douglas Fairbanks jr. "He turned down a job," Greene says of his father. "He couldn't bring his family with him. But then, when he was still having a hard time, he told them he'd come down if they'd provide some sort of housing. 'OK,' they said, 'if you find your own housing, you can come down.'So he signed up." Greene was born in Rochester, New York, that same year, and traveled to Panama with his mother and sister in what he calls the "year of eight." "We had a room on Front Street," he says, referring to Colon's bay front boulevard of saloons and shops, "up over a bar. You can imagine."
While Greene's father was a professional, primarily maintaining surveyor's delicate instruments, young Lackey Stapleton of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on the other hand, was perhaps more representative of the lads attracted to Panama: he had no technical skills to speak of. He began his career in Colon after eloping with Naomi Turner, also of Hattiesburg, in 191 1. The small, serious Mississippian spent several years moving back and forth across the isthmus until settling finally in Balboa, on the Pacific side. His movements reflected the campaigns of construction and early operation of the canal, when a chain of scrubbed American communities of screen porched, frame and concrete houses coalesced along the waterways In 1928, Stapleton and his family there were three children by then, my mother, Margaret, and Bess and Jim lived in Balboa, in a concrete, tile shingled duplex.
Taken as a whole, the Zone was an odd slice through the cultures of the United States. It was determinedly classless, a kind of idealized America largely free of crime, poverty, politics, unbridled ambition and private enterprise. The only profit making businesses allowed were those that offered services that the government chose not to provide. American banks had offices there, as did oil companies and shipping agents. To me, however, the quintessential entrepreneurs were horticultural: Morgan's Garden, a florist's intended, one supposes, to provide Zonians with flowering intimations of home; and the immaculate truck farms what we called Chinese gardens run by Asians.
Work was organized into divisions around the needs of the canal: maintenance, mechanical, dredging, ship operations, ports, and the like. Workers were assigned housing and furniture, which they augmented with fine linens, carved camphor chests and rich Chinese rugs from the Oriental bazaars of Panama City and Colon. Living in bungalows and duplexes, four plexes and large 16-family dwellings on stilts, workers received good salaries, generous benefits, and opportunities to rise to better quarters and perks as their seniority, family size, and position warranted. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.
For the most part, the system tumbled together administrators and mechanics, white collars and blue ones.
There were no rich and, among the white community at least, no poor. As in Communist Bulgaria, individuals could own automobiles and personal effects but not what Marx called the means of production. Unlike Bulgarians, however, Zonians could not build or own their homes. We bought American magazines, comic books, haircuts and hairdos, Cokes and Pepsis, hamburgers, shakes and cafeteria dinners at community clubhouses, which usually had a movie theater and often a swimming pool to swim well was important; the children of the Zone were just about unsinkable. Groceries and dry goods came from Panama Railroad Company commissaries where, until 1950, scrip called Commissary Books "commy books" was used instead of money. Its purpose was to restrict commissary privileges to those entitled to them, as people not affiliated with the Zone were nota restriction welcomed by Panamanian merchants.
Outsiders, meaning the residents of the adjoining host country, lived on their own economy; for example, paying the real cost of getting a cabin shaped can of syrup from the United States to the table. The Zone had its own postal system, in which one paid US. domestic rates for States bound mail; Its own judicial and law enforcement apparatus; its own firefighter seven its own fleet of plush Panama Line ships, on which, for a few tens of dollars per head, families returned to their home country for long stretches of vacation leave. We would sail to New York, take a train to Michigan, pick a new car off the assembly line, and drive for weeks around the continent. Seeing our Canal Zone plates, people would delight us by asking if we came from Suez. At the end of a long vacation, we returned to New York to board the Ancon, the Cristobal or the Panama for the voyage home.
Such perks were called "privileges," and one's access to them, "eligibility." By creating a small community of licensed haves, of course, the Zone created a larger one of have nots. Across a fenceless, invisible but palpable boundary, Panamanians watched like urchins with their faces pressed against a restaurant window, aware that if they were fortunate, they might be admitted, to some degree, to this privileged body by accepting a low job.
From a distance, perhaps the Canal Zone exuded an Orwellian odor, although it was anything but grim for white Americans working there. Beneath the inverted glass bowl of government control, life proceeded within a congenial framework of company, government and canal a world of picnics and formal dances, dinners and cotillions, Masonic temples and church lodges,. all easy and affluent, often gracious. Long after it had vanished in the United States, the world of early John O'Hara novels persisted in Panama. In Cristobal my parents and their friends went out to the elegant Strangers Club, poised above the dark waters of Limon Bay, where waiting ships cast long, rippling anchor lights. On special occasions we might take a fine meal in the airy dining room of the Hotel Washington, out on the seawall. Its pool, where I learned to swim, was filled with salt water from the bay, whose waves thumped against the stones just behind the ten foot high diving board. A sign cautioned against diving into the sea , although courageous children ignored the warning.
On the Pacific side, the Union Club cantilevered over the water from a jutting corner of Panama City's old seawall. There were beer gardens and night clubs and the fragile, screened elegance of the wooden Tivoli Hotel. In Panama, there was the Other Side, meaning the opposite coast, and the Interior, which was nearly everywhere else, but especially the land between the canal and Costa Rica. The lifestyles on the two sides of the isthmus were quite different. The Atlantic cities were gritty and canal oriented, while life on the Pacific side diffused more into the Republic of Panama. Everyone in the Zone knew everyone else, and tensions were few, even between generations. By today's standards, Canal Zone kids were paragons I tell my own children about this somewhat diffidently, finding us a little too good to be true. But it seems to me that well into the 1960's and '70's, most adolescents' problems there were of the type and magnitude celebrated in Thornton Wilder's Our Town.
This is not to say life there had no edge. We were living on the rim of real, honest to goodness jungle, with snakes and sloths and perhaps a ferocious cat or two, although most of the insect life was suppressed by the systematic eradication, year in and year out, of every single mosquito a leftover from the days when Panama was grandly pestilential. As boys, we thought World War 11 slithering around in the rain forest, cut by the tall grass, breathing resilient bugs, as we stalked one another with real machetes and surplus weapons from which the firing pins had been removed. We discovered that by crossing a mile of jungle along a narrow creek we could reach a treasure house beyond telling a clearing, fenced only at its exposed side, where the military dumped surplus Mae Wests, oxygen masks, .45 automatics (disabled), and the great, wonderful carcasses of abandoned or wrecked warplanes, where we lived out aerial fantasies. We would go out into the forest with our .22's and long knives, and hack our trails to nowhere, taking time to blast away (generally to no effect) at a fleeing ferdelance or boa, or to rake an ant city with our fire. In fact, the place seemed almost to have been designed for the entertainment of boys.
Employment was quite another matter: without private enterprise, there was nowhere to work, unless one competed for manual labor with West Indians. Like almost all my comrades, I had a disastrously unsuccessful paper route, dispensing the Nation, one of three Spanish English dailies then published in Panama, and carried sacks at the commissary for tips. Not until my stepfather put me in the way of a ton of boxed bat guano to sell as fertilizer causing my black 1938 Olds coupe to become celebrated as the "Batmobile" did my fortunes improve. The most successful among us went to sea, although we also whispered of the unspeakable maltreatment of cabin boys.
As we grew older, we boys would roll up our good clothes in jungle hammocks and camp in the dense forest near the top of Ancon Hill. After dark, we would change among the lianas and granite slabs the stone used to build the locks was quarried here and eddy down the seaward slope into Panama, to have a beer and a look at the floor shows. In a city that served every human appetite, it is noteworthy, I think, that adolescent American males were mainly browsers.
Of course, these innocent pursuits overlaid the usual grit of life. There was adultery among adults the evocation of the O'Hara novel was authentic and divorce, and the tragic deaths of children. In high school one heard hushed rumors of terminated pregnancies, generally attributed to someone older, usually a soldier or a college boy.
Nor was our famous egalitarianism everything it seemed. Some workers were very much more equal than others. The genteel officers' families on the Zone's numerous forts, airfields and bases lived as they did on all their other preserves. And here, as everywhere, nothing was lower than an enlisted man. In an ugly, possibly jealous, reflex among peers, dating female contemporaries were called Rappie bait (from the "RA" in Army serial numbers), a sobriquet from whose stain no reputation quite recovered. Fathers protected their daughters from soldiers like ferocious sheepdogs watching lambs. I remembered our collective hard heartedness later, when, as an Army private, I looked in vain for dates.
You could tell a man's position, to a degree, by his quarters. When my father worked as an admeasurer, the one who boards and measures ships to compute their tonnage we lived in a roomy house in Cristobal, with a maid's room beneath it, a small workshop and a place to park the green Oldsmobile picked up in Michigan. Admeasurers had perhaps the second best job on the canal, although some tugboat skippers might quibble with that. My father, who spent most of his engineering career with the Federal Aviation Administration, remembers his admeasurer days in Cristobal as his best times in the Canal Zone.
But the number one job in the Zone belonged to the Panama Canal pilots. They bore the same relationship to the waterway that aviators do to an airline, and were paid accordingly. They guided the big ships on their transits. The more equal you were, and the more children you had, the better your "privileges." And the pilots were the most equal of all. Inevitably, there was racial inequality as well. "When the Americans first took over," Leon Greene recalls, "we had trouble getting common labor. Somebody got the idea of getting West Indians. But they became morose. They missed their families. Finally, they had them bring their families over, and things were fine." But, he notes, the West Indians brought more than strong backs and a willingness to work. "Jamaican, Barbadian women came and brought their bright plants with them. Hibiscus, spider lily, oleander came from there they aren't native here." Now, ubiquitous hedges of hibiscus line isthmian streets.
Long after the canal was finished
until the bitter end, in fact, in fact the white society of the Canal Zone rested on a
much larger, largely unnoticed pyramid of West Indian labor. In the old days, they, with
other non Americans, were paid in silver, while Americans were paid in gold. This codified
the differences: gold equated with white American, silver with everybody else.
There were "silver" and "gold" drinking fountains, public lavatories, towns, clubhouses, commissaries. Panamanians who found work in the Zone were likewise put on the silver roll, even, according to one official, one who later became a president of Panama. One man's Swedish grandfather was on I the silver roll as well.
West Indians manicured the lawns, cooked, provided the service work the displaced American small town required. Most important was the maid. Almost every family had a "Jamaican" (the adjective used to describe any West Indian in Panama) maid, an industrious woman who often served the same family for decades.
For many newborn Americans there, our earliest sustained human contact was with one of these serious, wise women from the Caribbean, who spoke English in accents of impossible richness, and who gave white babies the grand affection for which their own children, one realized only decades later, generally waited at home. My first speech was Jamaica flavored, my mother tells me, although the maid is long forgotten. In Cristobal we had a 'wonderful woman named Edna, whom I remember as I would a lost aunt. Occasionally, these loyal servants received benefits of a small kind in their retirement: but more often than not, they would enter the lives of white families, work loyally and well, and vanish a few years down the line, not even their surnames remembered.
A large share of the early Canal Zone's population, like Naomi and Lackey Stapleton, came from the American South and brought their prejudices with them. Kind and generous and fair to a fault, the Southerners of the Zone could fabricate racial epithets that would make one cringe. And yet I do not remember, except for the rare brute who hated everything, that this bigotry or the unequal parallel societies created by the gold silver pay system, had the sharp, nasty tone that I discovered later in the States. It was still possible, after growing up around the Canal Zone, for me to be shocked by the segregated facilities of our Southern cities, like Washington, D.C. circa 1950.
On the whole, however, life in the Zone proceeded mostly untouched by strife or the ugly vicissitudes of global war or depression. That had been the intention, of courseto keep American workers happy and in place to serve the waterways To keep the workers happy, you put them into something very like home, only better.
Prohibition passed almost unnoticed in the Zone, where the busy saloons of the republic were only a few steps across an extremely permeable border. The Great Depression of the 1930's brought new workers to the Zone my father came in the wave just ahead of it, in 1928, trading a surveying job in Oklahoma for a better one building Albrook Field, where he and Leon Greene first met. A few Americans who had dabbled in the marketplace suffered.
Still, private enterprise had a sweet, siren call for many who had begun life in the Canal Zone. It was almost inaudible in true company towns inland, but the port cities at either end of the canal hummed like economic cicadas, and life in the adjoining Zone merged increasingly with all that real world turbulence just across the line.
From the beginning, the existence of such a purely American community has rankled Panamanians. The United States has been involved here for a century and a half; Americans built the legendary railroad across the isthmus in the 1850's. Nevertheless, America has always been seen by many as a great bumbling arriviste here. As in a marriage turned sour, every memory has become a bad one. The helpful presence of the USS Nashville in Colon harbor in 1903, a show that helped wrest Panama from Colombia, is seen now as gringo interference. The evolutionary changes in how the canal was run for example, the acceptance of Panamanians into the Zone's civil service system were regarded as too little, too late. One hears the argument that America's great crime here was to build the canal in the first place, as it deformed the country's natural economy and precluded self sufficiency as a nation.
The sense that the canal has some how spoiled those who live around it has also lain at the heart of arguments against the existence of a Canal Zone. Early on, the paternalistic place was seen as a kind of hive that bred only drones, a population of docile mechanics and artisans. In contrast to that view of blue collar lotus eaters, some feared that workers returning from the Zone's socialist stability would take one look at real capitalism at home and overthrow the system. I never thought of it as socialism, except for that moment years ago in Bulgaria, but then we rarely had a political thought people who wanted the vote voted in the States. Almost apolitical, the place was patriotic to a fault, anti Communist, pretty much whatever Americans were supposed to be.
Thus, being so utterly American, it was traumatic and bewildering to have this world suddenly destroyed by the flourish of an American pen. The 1977 treaty stripped away every vestige of the old life: the Zone was disestablished, most privileges disappeared, there were no clubhouses or commissaries, no residual fabric of a suddenly vanished style of living. The friendly Zone policeman was replaced by polished National Police bullies the United States had trained for Panama. I think there was some sense that the people of the Canal Zone deserved anything they got although living under a species of socialism, they were regarded as an aristocracy of mid level workers that, like all aristocracies, needed bringing down.
In 1979. when the treaty
became effective, there were about 3,000 Americans employed by the U.S. agency that ran
the canal and the Zone. Many workers transferred to the Department of Defense in Panama.
Others were ejected through attrition and early retirement, the enticement of cash
bonuses, and the stampede inducing fear of the unknown. By the end of 1990, they numbered
fewer than 900.
Of a total Panama Canal Commission work force of 7,600 individuals, 87 percent are now Panamanian, and that number will rise to 100 percent, give or take a handful of people, when the canal and everything else are finally turned over to the Republic of Panama at the end of 1999.
The people who miss the old life most are those whose careers lay at the very center of the enterprise: the ship's masters rated as Panama Canal pilots. Malcolm Stone and his wife, Jean, live in a pleasant concrete duplex in Cardenas, about five miles up the canal from Balboa. Stone is a spare, light haired man of middle height. Although 54, there is something much older in his face that turns out to be the shadows of past skin cancers, one of which caused part of his lip to be removed. (An unassessed but very real part of the American experience in Panama is a lifelong exposure to the tropical sun.)
Stone grew up on the Atlantic side. Like all Zone boys, he did what he could to earn pocket money but eventually chose the sea, signing on as a seaman during his high school summers. Graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, he returned in the 1960's to work on the canal as an admeasurer and tugboat master but yearned to be a pilot, which required both a master's ticket and experience on the ocean. "I decided to resign," he says wearily, angrily, "left Panama, a wife, two children, and went off for two and a half years. I raised my license to Master Unlimited and was back in December 1971 as pilot."
The hiatus in his canal career
still rankles, for the canal pilot standards no longer require high seas experience as a
ship captain. After the treaty, he says, "they hired people to be pilots who had
fewer qualifications than I had in 1969, before going back to get a master's license. I
had to train others. Many who came in had never dropped anchor on a ship. Going back to
sea lost me two and a half years of
government service cheats me out of 30-year service benefits. So I don't train anybody to pilot my ships. They can ride with me. But I tell them, you're not going to handle my ship."
Still, he finds some satisfaction. "Came through today," he says, "on a chemical ship, 106 feet wide" which gave the ship a scant 2-foot clearance on either side of the lock chamber. "You feel good when they say you're welcome back on their ship anytime."
Stone does not think much of the canal's future, as most of his fellows do not. He cites the condition of the port facilities in Balboa and Cristobal, and of the famous transisthmian railroad, which now carries few passengers and whose rusty tracks the jungle is doing its best to reclaim. "I want to get as far away from sand and salt water as I can," he concludes. "I just want to turn out the lights and open the lock gates." This from a man who first went to sea in the early 1950's and has spent 20 years coaxing great ships from ocean to ocean. Costumed as anger, his feelings are a form of despair.
Many who once lived there, or live there now on borrowed time, have felt that same tug of terrible sadness, caused less by having to leave than by the winking out cf an entire society. The lamentations, the sorrow, the old days, are celebrated in scores of regional reunions around the United States, where former Zonians assemble like the alumni of a defunct school. A former Balboa High School classmate of mine, writing recently in a California newspaper, lamented the loss of the Canal Zone, expressing a love for the life he had led there.
Love? I wondered. Is it a place one could love?
I never had. I hated the ambiguity of having been born abroad, felt always the colonial's base need to keep clear who was colonizing whom, and could not get away from Panama soon enough. I longed for unscreened windows, forests one could simply walk through, a life off the reservation of the Canal Zone. After finishing high school in 1951, I returned only four times. Beyond that, when a South American flight has paused at Tocumen Airport, I have stayed in my seat, smelling the familiar moist night air.
When the Canal Zone's final bell tolled, I felt nothing beyond a vague anomie and a zing of irony, thinking of the creaking old artifact the Panamanians had finally acquired. And yet, if I have any root system at all, it must be a species that grows in the thin, jungle soil of Panama.
Returning there last year for the first time in nearly 20 years, I experienced the sensation of writer Ray Bradbury's time traveler, who, having squashed a Jurassic butterfly, now finds the present subtly altered. The old place looks much as it always did. Much that was once busy and familiar is now derelict and empty. Form has scarcely changed, but function has changed utterly.
The ritzy Panama City golf club is a shabby urban park, the former Union Club a crumbling eyesore. At a French cemetery near the canal, I see my first ever Zonian mosquitoes: a gray cloud of them rises from a ditch; apparently the sprayers no longer lay down their suffocating sheen of oil on all mosquito bearing waters. The jungle moves in wherever it can, bringing, one supposes, its eternal diseases with it. The formerly pristine parks of Balboa are full of little kiosks where natives come to sell carvings and molas and T-shirts celebrating Operation just Cause. One sees little damage remaining from the latter a few pocked buildings, the cleared areas in Chorrillo where tenements burned' and were later bulldozed away. But the invasion did obliterate all law and order, so that Panama has become a dangerous place to live. A classmate and good friend, William Joyce, was murdered by intruders in his Panama home soon after the action. One imagines Bill happy nowhere else.
The roads, which are the same two and four lane arteries I remember from long ago, are perforated with potholes that evoke the streets of New York City and Washington, D.C. Here and there, maintenance crews have circled the depressions with white paint, flagging them for repair, which also spares night drivers. Unemployment is a rampant one quarter of the total work force, so that the economic engine huffs and puffs but sputters out after a few revolutions. Dazed by the changes wrought by the American attack, the country has still not rebounded from the Reagan Administration sanctions.
One hears the possibility perhaps the fantasy that help will come from someone besides Americans. "There's the new Panama Canal Administrator," Greene says, "the first Panamanian to hold the job. He's talking to outsiders about running the canal as a private enterprise. They are looking toward the Japanese, maybe they're interested." Others speculate that perhaps investors from Hong Kong may be attracted to Panama as the crown colony is cut adrift from the British empire a defunct colony with money helping one that's poor. No one seems aware of the irony that Panama, recently disentangled from one purportedly crippling relationship, would immediately embark upon another. If the Japanese take over the canal, I wonder, will they elicit the gleam of hatred that I now see in the eyes of Panamanians?
In Cristobal, the former municipal buildings teem with impoverished squatters, and looting has destroyed the shops of Colon's Front Street. Everywhere one looks the place is deeply, eternally, in decay, as it has been for decades. The charred ruin of the long abandoned Strangers Club broods over the bay; the Hotel Washington's saltwater pool is concrete rubble and high grass, although I can still discern the warning not to dive into the bay. The school I attended, the hospital where my tonsils were removed, the naval base that used to deploy its flying boats across the bay, the fecund warehouses where the Canal Zone once kept its food stores everything remains in place, but dysfunctional, like living people whose brains have been removed.
Standing in the rubble of this place, one feels that all of what has passed the brave construction of the waterway, the tens of thousands of births and childhoods of families like Malcolm Stone's or Leon Greene's or mine never really happened; that this wrecked city, this Caribbean town that evokes the worst of Africa or Haiti, is reality, and all the rest was just a dream.
Visit any other former colony and you will find an imprint of who was there before: the cuisine and language of France live on in Africa and Asia; the English gave an entire world their language and a taste for solid government; most of Spain's New World is Spanish speaking and Catholic. But we leave no religion here, and little language, no resilient government or administrative apparatus or even the armature of basic services. Instead, we leave a great artifact of turn of the century engineering, a mechanical fossil in concrete and steel.
From the wreckage of Cristobal, I find no evidence that we were ever here. It was not a colony, after all, but, as I once quipped to my Bulgarian hosts, an experiment. Now the experiment is over, the abandoned laboratory closed. Inhabiting a distant country for much of a century, we have, incredibly, slipped away almost without a trace.
Last update: October 3, 1998