Canal Record - December 1988
by Esther R. Fisher
Resident of the Canal Zone from 1919 to 1950
Wife of William G. Fisher, resident from 1914 to 1950

I am thinking today of a little town called Gatun. For centuries it had lain quietly between two oceans beneath a tropical sun almost unknown to  the world. But when the Panama Canal, that marvel of the century, was completed and the ships of the world came almost to its door, Gatun woke up and became a place of importance.

If you happened to live there during the 30's and 40's, you knew it as a place where there were no strangers, no rich, no poor, but just friends and caring neighbors. We all went to one commissary, one doctor at one dispensary, and our children all went to one school.

Going to the commissary was almost a daily event. There we found plenty of food, really all we needed, but there were no frozen foods, no fresh milk, some not-too-fresh eggs, and perhaps some rather wilted vegetables. Somehow we knew how to put it all together and come up with a delicious meal. There were plenty of native fruits - bananas, mangoes, papayas and alligator pears - and we could buy a few fresh vegetables from a Chinaman who sometimes came around with two baskets hanging from his shoulders.

The commissary sold various other things we needed. If we happened to be there when a bolt of new material came in, we might buy a few yards to make a dress, and in a short time our neighbor might be wearing a dress of the same material. If a little kitchen appliance came in and several people wanted to buy it, lucky was the one who got it.

Remember Christmas time when the larger commissaries kept open the Sunday before Christmas so that we could go there and see the big display of toys piled high on the counters and shelves? We walked around and made a list of things we wanted to buy for the children, then rushed back to the store the next day to grab them if they were still there. Then no other shipment of toys for another year.

If you were there during the war years when the ships could not bring us Christmas trees or toys, you were glad if you had an artificial tree to use. If not, perhaps you fixed something to take its place. I remember that our clever doctor's wife made a large paper tree for their children, and at our house we brought in a little pepper bush which grew on a nearby hillside and used it for a time. Some of the men in Gatun made toys for the neighborhood children, working in their spare time in the under-the-house shops.

The Union Church of Gatun, which some of us attended, played an important part in our lives. For many years Sunday School and church were held in the old lodge hall. We were happy when it was torn down and our new church was built, even though part of the time we had no pastor. We women found ways to earn some money to help pay for building the church. Remember how we cooked that tough Argentine beef till half-way tender and served good meals to the public once a month, or how we had a stand down near the locks and sold soft drinks to the tourists who got off the ships there for a brief look-around? In working together, we grew closer together and made life-long friendships.

If you were there in the early years, you may have lived in one of those large four-family up and down frame houses with the screened-in front porches. They stood about a yard back from the narrow sidewalk and there were long rows of them, all just alike.

Some of us were given big ugly iron cookstoves to use, a bucket of coal dust to burn in it, and some kindling with which to start a fire. We soon got rid of ours and bought a two-burner coal-oil stove with a small oven to set on top. That helped a lot. We lived in these houses rent-free for many years, and later when rent was charged for all the houses, these old 4-family ones rented for ten dollars a month. Perhaps there were little inconveniences here and there, but we were all in it together, and wasn't it really fun?

We think of the many advantages that life offered. We could go down to the locks and see the ships of the world go by. We could step across the street from Cristobal and Balboa and be in a foreign country, Panama. Walk down the narrow streets with its stores, built just off the sidewalk with the front side standing open.

If interested in history, you could ride out to Old Panama, once a happy little town by the ocean with its stone tower and other stone buildings lying in ruins, destroyed years ago by Sir Henry Morgan and his pirates seeking gold.

Yes, Gatun, you were through it all, past, present and into the future.  As for our home away from home, we will always cherish the memory of the years spent there. Sometimes in our dreams, we seem to walk again along those quiet streets at night in the glorious moonlight and feel once more the soft touch of your balmy, caressing breezes forever blowing.

Presented by CZBrats
December 24, 1998

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