Reunites Former Classmates
by Susan Harp
The Panama Canal Spillway
April 9, 1998
On the first day of the Ocean to Ocean Cayuco Race for Explorers, Balboa High School students Fred Garcia, Bob Donley, Bob Hughes and Marshall Harris caused a sensation when they showed up for morning classes wearing home-dyed green T-shirts and gold earrings in their left earlobes. The year was 1966, and their boat, the Bejuco, was the defending champion for the second year in a row. At the end of the three-day race, they emerged the winners with a total time of 6 hours, 52 minutes, and earned the honor of being the first crew to retire the race trophy because of their three year run.
Reminiscing about the old days might take place while sitting in lounge chairs on the patio for some, but the foursome decided to do some more active reminiscing when they picked up their paddles last week for the 45th annual race. They challenged themselves and the competition once again -- after a 32 year break. The Bejuco no longer in existence, they commandeered the Snafu to compete in the patch boat category, the only class open to paddlers over 21 years of age.
"It was a lot less formal in the 60s." said Donley as he enjoyed a tropical evening in Cardenas two days before the race. The group had been attending pre-race meetings, learning about the safety rules and observing the head-to-toe color coordinated outfits of the seriously competitive crews in the trophy categories reserved for youths ages 15 to 21. Hughes added, "It was a kid's race then, with no sponsors and not much parental involvement except through the Boy Scout organization."
What possessed the four former classmates, now spread out across Texas, Arkansas, Virginia and Florida, to return to the Isthmus and subject their not-so-young anymore bodies to the grueling race? "It started as a way to have some fun," says Hughes. "Since then, we have renewed so many friendships. People made paddles and T-shirts and found the boat, trailer and sponsors. It's making more memories than we ever thought."
It all started two years ago when Fred Garcia, whose brother, Tony, works in the Panama Canal Commission Marketing Division, paddled in a cayuco for fun during a visit to Panama. Enthused about reliving the good old days, Fred used the Internet sites set up by former Canal Zone residents who live off-Isthmus to find his three former team-mates. They had not seen each other for at least 20 years. As casual talk turned to serious plans, they were lucky to receive local support from Diablo resident Jan Weade, who provided the Snafu, arranged most of the logistics in Panama and even designed T-shirts advertising the foursome as "Real (old) Men."
A week before the race, they began practicing paddling the Snafu, and Fred Garcia claimed, "For people who hadn't been together for 30 years, it seemed like it was yesterday." Weade, whose daughter competed twice in the Snafu in the last few years, said that because of parental involvement with the kids and the commitment involved, "The race has really helped hold the community together."
No matter the outcome of the three days of competition, it seems the race has also reached far beyond the community to bring four friends together again.
From The Canal Record, June 1998