WE BOUGHT AND PAID FOR THE CANAL, BUT
IS IT OURS?
by Keith Taylor
Sailors and Marines can expect to end up
in a situation where the bullets are flying and their lives are in danger. But their
families? Yup, them too if they follow a service member overseas as mine did in late
1963. We never found out for sure how much danger, if any, my wife and kids really faced
in quarters D-1 close to the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal Zone, but they
left the Zone with their own sea stories.
I was thinking of our three-year tour recently, thanks to all the hubbub about the turnover of the canal in a few weeks. We were there because the Navy needed someone to keep tabs on the ping pong balls at the Security Group Activity at nearby Galeta Island, and I was just the ensign for the job. I'd traded in a senior chief's crow and several gold hashmarks for one little gold stripe and ended up with the collateral duty of special services officer.
The memories of Panama became more poignant when my son, Mike, found a picture of D-1 on the Internet. This on a great site put up by a couple of self-proclaimed Canal Zone brats, Virginia Hollowell Hirons and Lesley Hendricks. Both were born and grew up in that bit of United States placed in the middle of another country.
Our Navy brats gave with "awww's," "oooh's" and "aaah's" as they checked out the zonian brats site. Cindy, our youngest, gave with an "awww" when she saw the rubble that used to be the huge swimming pool where she'd spent countless hours learning to swim.
Andy gave an "ooooh" when he saw Manzinita Bay where he caught a huge barracuda from a little pier jutting into the bay from in front of the house. He carried that thing around until folks couldn't tell him from the 'cuda. Beckie said "aaah" when she remembered how the sailors whistled at her as she walked past the barracks. Her mom and dad remembered that they wished she'd taken a longer route around. Reggie got a taste of the Army by enrolling in the ROTC course in high school; that's probably why he later joined the Navy. Mike says a teacher at Coco Solo inspired him to become an electronics engineer.
But they had other, more vivid, memories. All hell broke loose a few days after we got there. It had been simmering a long time and it might not be completely settled yet, some 35 years later.
Panama had long insisted that the ten mile wide strip of land carved out of it's middle belonged to it. In 1959 President Eisenhower, under pressure, ceded Panama's titular sovereignty over the zone. In 1963 President Kennedy agreed to fly both country's flags except on military bases.
By the time we got there in late 1963 that wasn't working very well for the simplest of reasons. Few places had two flag poles, so the governor ordered that neither flag be flown. He hadn't reckoned with the patriotic feelings of the citizens of two countries. High school kids in the Zone hoisted the stars and strips in front of their high schools and post offices in defiance of the governor's order.
Thus challenged, some kids from a nearby Panamanian high school crossed into the zone and demanded to display their flag and to sing the Panamanian National Anthem.
No two stories on what happened next agree, but the incident involved the national symbols of a two countries, one proud and small, the other proud and much larger and much more powerful.
A scuffle led to a bigger scuffle and a bigger scuffle to a riot. Soon flags from both nations were burned, cars overturned and destroyed, ten folks killed, scores injured, diplomatic relations suspended between the tiny country and the huge one. Marines were called in and our new duty station became an armed camp. Some folks swore they could hear bullets were whizzing by. I found myself with more than ping pong balls to worry about.
It's funny how you can look back and see things from a different perspective, perhaps even ask yourself "what if?" What if our police had escorted the Panamanian kids into the zone, maybe even saluted their national symbol as they held it high. It was their flag and maybe even their country. They were as proud of it as the zonian kids were of ours. Suppose our high school kids had recognized a patriotism as strong as their own and joined the Panamanian kids in singing their national anthem?
Suppose folks had just shook each others hands?
But that's hindsight and some folks are grumbling that we ought to reconsider the treaty which will return Panama territory to Panama. Recently hundreds of thousands of petitions were delivered to congress suggesting we consider just that. Former chairman of the joint chiefs, Adm. Moorer echoed Reagan's 1976 statement: "We bought it. We paid for it. And we aren't going to give it up."
Later, and after he moved into the White House, Reagan did not lift a finger to abrogate the treaty signed by his predecessor. Carter, himself, had merely finished what Jerry Ford had started, and it has passed muster with every president since then.
Panama owns the place. We have recognized that for many years now. We cannot go back on our word now. The big, proud nation can afford to be that gracious.
Keith Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article first appeared in the November 15th issue of The Navy Times. CZBrats thanks Mr. Taylor for allowing this to be published here.
November 18, 199
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