The Panama Canal Review ... August 3, 1956

One of the first cars Juan Batista Brunnel P. ever drove for the Canal organization, "way back before the first war," was a Model T. Ford sideseater truck with a pair of kerosene carriage-lamps mounted just below its vertical windshield. For years he has carried a picture of old No. 203 in a wallet in his pocket.

The old car was a far cry from the shiny streamlined sedan in which he made his last trip last month as driver for the Housing and Grounds Division.

Although he was on the rolls of the Motor Transportation Division for close to 35 years, he was assigned throughout that entire period to what used to be the Quartermaster's Office and is now the Housing and Grounds division. He cannot even guess the number of miles he has traveled, running official errands and carrying his boss to look at houses and offices and shops on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone.

He marks his years by the men he drove. His first permanent passenger was B.C. Poole, District Quartermaster from 1908 to 1937, and his last was Jack C. Randall, Chief of the Housing and Ground Division. Born in the Province of Bocas del Toro when Panama was still part of Colombia, Mr. Brunnel came to live in Panama City when he was only six. He remembers Colombian troops garrisoned in Chiriqui, the old prison on French Plaza, and in what is now the National Theater.


During the "1,000-Day War." which preceded the Panama revolution, he was pressed into quasi-military service himself, although he was "still in short pants" as he puts it. His particular job was carrying food to his father who was fighting near Empire. Not infrequently he had to hide in the bush to keep his supplies from being seized, and he remembers with pride that one of his companions-in-hiding was a famed woman patriot, known as "La Negra Liboria."

Local historians say that La Negra Liboria was a "full-blooded negress, tall of stature and heavily built. She believed in God but swore by Dr. Belisario Porras, her commander-in-chief in the 1900-02 civil war. Almost invariably dressed in trousers, she held the rank of major and is reputed to have led her contingent in the battles of La Negra Vieja and La Arena, in addition to other actions of lesser importance."

When Mr. Brunel was in his teens, he was put to work in a Panama City garage where he learned automobile mechanics and how to drive. His training proved to be a veritable life saver when his father died and he found himself the man of the family. He proved to be such a good driver that he was sent, immediately after he went to work for the "corral," to the "division which wanted the best drivers."

At the time he began driving for the District Quartermaster's office, Fort Amador was being built by the Canal's forces and a trip to Amador was generally a daily event. In those days, there was not a single house between Balboa Road and Fort Amador, and Amador Road was a long bare highway along the bay.


His job kept him busy daytimes and, sometimes, after hours, but when had any spare time he served as a private chauffeur in the evenings. One of his steady customers, he remembers, was Gov. Harry Burgess. For several years he drove the Burgesses in their private car to evening parties and receptions.

Governor Burgess was the only Canal Zone Chief Executive for whom he ever drove in a private capacity, but a good many of the Governors have ridden in his official car at one time or antoher.

Now that he is retired, he isn't quite sure what he will do. After 35 busy years he doesn't think much of sitting around doing nothing and hopes to find something to do.

He doesn't expect to change his recreational pattern, though. Every possible Saturday for years he has driven his family out of town for a picnic. Between times he listens to his radio. Classical music is his favorite and he has a running, if friendly, feud with his step-daughter, a cha-cha-cha fan, regarding their music preferences.

Presented by CZBrats
January 16, 1999
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