The Canal Zone
Is Paradise Lost
Panama evicting last Americans

Daily News Washington Bureau Chief

Friday, November 19, 199
BALBOA, Panama

ust to the side of the Goethals Monument — the white marble memorial to the Brooklyn-born engineer who built the Panama Canal — the Panamanians have erected their own monument, an in-your-face digital clock ticking down the seconds until the U.S. hands Teddy Roosevelt's great ditch over to Panama.

For many Americans living here, the garish timepiece represents the triumph of chutzpah over traditional Latin grace, of payback time. But also it unmistakably signals what the last of four generations of gringos on the Isthmus of Panama have dreaded for two decades:

On the eve of a new millennium, the American century in Panama is finally over.

"It's time for us to go," says Col. Dave Hunt, the Air Force officer in charge of turning out the lights in America's Hong Kong. "We're doing so."

panama_ls.JPG (8480 bytes)
The SS Ancon carrying laborers from Barbados to the Panama Canal Zone in 1909.

Since 1903, when President Roosevelt essentially stole Panama from Colombia by sending gunboats to support the breakaway province's independence in exchange for permission to build the canal, Uncle Sam's dominant presence in the small Central American country has been a given. The U.S. dollar, in fact, is Panama's legal tender.

Now, 97 years later, the Americans are pulling out for good — lock, stock and Burger Kings. Disappearing with them are the last remnants of a colonial lifestyle so idyllic that one Web site of former Zonians wistfully calls itself "Lost Paradise."

At high noon on New Year's Eve, under the terms of the 1977 treaty brokered by President Jimmy Carter and the late Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos, the 85-year-old-canal becomes the property of the Republic of Panama. Simultaneously, the last few American military bases and their 9,000 acres of prime real estate will be transferred to the Panamanians.

The final acts in the U.S. withdrawal are playing out with military efficiency. On a recent tour, the grass was still being cut at Howard Air Force Base, whose idle 8,500-foot runways were the jewel in the crown of U.S. drug-busting operations in Latin America. But everything from horses and computers to the drums from the Mountain View Chapel choir have been recycled to dozens of air force bases.

Meanwhile, civil engineers were almost done with what they call pickling — repairing, cleaning and sealing the handful of buildings still open. Howard officially closed Nov. 1. Only two dozen soldiers are left at sprawling Fort Clayton, once the headquarters of all U.S. Army troops in the Southern Hemisphere.

"It's an absolute ghost town here," says a Marine military policeman unhappy to be in the caretaker business. "You can drive around for an hour and never see another living thing." In a sure sign that the end is near, the military's last Burger King closed at the West Corozal support base last month.

To many Americans, the demise of such a durable icon as the canal remains unpopular two decades after the treaty relinquishing U.S. sovereignty "in perpetuity." Republicans are gearing up to make "Who Lost Panama?" a 2000 campaign issue. Vice President Gore pointedly declined to represent the U.S. at handover ceremonies in December because he didn't want his appearance to become grist for GOP attack ads.

"It's a very strategic part of the world, and we shouldn't have given it up," says Karen Hughes, presidential hopeful George W. Bush's communications director — herself a Zonian in the 1970s, when her father was the canal's last military governor.

In its heyday, the United States Canal Zone — a 10-mile-wide enclave stretching from the U.S.-built towns of Cristobal on the Atlantic Ocean to Balboa on the Pacific — was what the great-grandson of a canal dredging engineer calls "a company town in the good sense of the term."

The canal, 14 major military bases and dozens of "townsites," where canal workers and their families lived, were administered by the Panama Canal Co., a U.S. government agency. From cradle to grave, the company provided subsidized housing and just about everything else.

"It was the only successful experiment in communism in the history of the world," jokes a top U.S. official of the company's largess.

Zonians had their own schools, hospitals, social clubs, commissaries, bakery, dairy, Little League, postage stamps, Pop Warner football leagues and mortuary – even a railroad, junior college, U.S. district court, hog farm and mattress factory.

What couldn't be made or procured locally was shipped in; the arrival of the company ship Cristobal loaded with fresh oysters from New Orleans always was big news at the clubs. The Zone's lifestyle was "Small Town, U.S.A.," recalls Carlton Morris, an Illinois businessman who lived there from 1961 to 1985. "Just a perfect little world."

Crime was virtually nonexistent. Doors were seldom locked, and kids never had to worry about their bicycles being stolen.

"The Zone was a wonderful place to grow up," echoes Roberta Sanchez Baumgardt, who lives in New Jersey but grew up at Coco Solo on the Atlantic side. "I always felt safe in the Canal Zone. I wish I could have raised my children there."

Panama was such a dream posting, in fact, that Kim Keisling's wife burst into tears in 1972 when the Green Beret captain told her he was being reassigned from Fort Sherman to a hardship post — Hawaii.

"The entire Zone looked like a beautifully manicured golf course," recalls Keisling, who lives in El Paso, Tex.

But that began changing in 1979, when the treaty kicked in. The Canal Zone, the company and its commercial enterprises were abolished.

The quality of life soon plummeted. The Balboa clubhouse, where schoolkids hung out over Cokes and empanadas, went out of business when the Panamanians jacked up the prices. The company's Flavor Rich ice cream and Mary Jane ladyfingers became history. For the first time, litter and billboards began popping up. The Panamanians started renaming streets — Fourth of July Ave. now commemorates Panamanians who died in 1964 anti-American riots. The railroad fell into disrepair, then died after the Panamanians slashed its maintenance budget. The elegant Balboa rail station became a strip mall, anchored by a McDonald's with a huge golden arches sign that still sends Zonian blood pressures soaring.

The U.S. military bases were the last outposts of the company's culture, but now they're history, too. The Pentagon's Southern Command moved from scenic Quarry Heights last year to a drab industrial park in Miami. Fort Amador, a picture-postcard Army post at the canal's Pacific entrance, is being bulldozed for a shopping center. Gorgas Hospital, named for the Army surgeon who conquered malaria and yellow fever on the isthmus, closed in 1997.

Like the grizzled Texas Ranger captain in "Lonesome Dove" who drinks a toast to "the sunny slopes of long ago," the Zonians mourn a way of life that exists only in memory. Even so, many are staying on.

Byron Efthimiadis, the chief pediatrician at Gorgas Hospital, bought a Navy officers' fourplex at Fort Amador with his wife, Caliopi, daughters Clea and Maria and son Andrew, a canal pilot.

Jill Berger, a fourth-generation Zonian thrown out of work when Fort Sherman closed, has launched a guided-tour business with her husband. "It's still a wonderful place," she says. "And it's our home."

But for thousands of displaced Zonians, memories are more bittersweet. "I have to think for a minute when I'm asked where I'm from," laments Lt. Col. Thomas Wesley, an Army chaplain at Fort Detrick, Md. "My home is gone."

Reprinted with permission by The New York Daily News

December 6, 1999

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