Not sure if you are ready for this, but in perusing my messy photo files I came upon this rather marvelous photo of My Mom, Dad and Me taken in 1936 when we spent 6 months living in the Panama Canal Zone. Aren't we gorgeous?
(And don't forget, my Mamma had the most exquisite bright red hair, just a shade darker than copper wire and just as electrifying.)
I had not intended to go into this subject right now, but, having found the photo at enormous effort I decided I had better fetch it out and stuff it into a draft blog while I had it in my grasp so to speak. And now that I am gazing at it fond memories keep erupting all over the place so I guess I am stuck with doing a feature on our idyllic 6 month stay in, what was for us, a very exotic and exciting place.
In 1936 my Dad was given the opportunity to relocate to The Panama Canal Zone to participate in a project to build a settlement for some of the Canal Workers in Panama. (My Dad was an Architect, Engineer and Naval Architect and was sent down by the Navy Yard In Philly where he was employed). The whipped cream and cherry on the cake was the fact that he was encouraged to take his family with him as part of the arrangement...(transportation via a 6 day journey by ship was free). Being extremely ingenious and aggressive, Pappy was able to locate an American resident of the canal zone who was about to return to the US on a sabbatical and arrange to rent their house while they were gone. Naturally he had managed to find one of the more senior residents whose seniority entitled them to a fantastic near mansion in the nicest part of the Zone. Holy Moly.....not only a sea voyage (my first ever), but a posh residence and, for us, the most exotic local imaginable.......a heavenly gift for sure.
I was in the 4th grade at the time. Fortunately, because I was very bright and at the top of my class, leaving before the semester was quite finished and attending school in Panama in the fall until we returned was no problem. Off we went in May just after my 9th birthday and I was out of my head with excitement over the prospect of this amazing experience. For someone who had hardly ever been out of West Philly (not counting brief excursions to Pittsburgh and Atlantic City....max distance 200 miles) it was like being transported to the Moon or Mars, and the reality was hardly less fantastic than interstellar travel. The Canal Zones on each coast of the Isthmus of Panama were U.S territories. Panama City which abutted the Zone on the Pacific side, which is where we were bound, was just a few miles journey by car or Jitney (the taxis of the area) and was almost primitive and totally exotic by our standards. And, a few miles by car in a different direction plunged you into the Jungle....no, I mean a real jungle with wild animals (mostly monkeys were seen) and gorgous wild birds. trees festooned with wild orchids and hanging vines ala Tarzan and leaf covered paths where you had to be nimble in order to avoid certain threats like snakes and armies of huge ants which, when they crossed the path could cause you to wait for 10 or 15 minutes till their ant caboose finally passed and you could safely continue on. Those ants were biting fools and were NOT to be messed with epecially in the numbers making up their formidable 12 or 15 inch wide moving column (many carrying bits of cut leaves on their backs). We would tramp for hours (with a knowledgable guide to keep us out of trouble) through thickets, over streams and along various paths hacked out of the brush with huge machetes......the Panamanian curved swords. It was so different from West Philly it might as well have been on Mars and I was in 7th heaven.
And there was more....much more. The weather was balmy, the sky was an incredible cerulean blue, breezes ruffled the palm trees and the tropical foliage and to put it mildly, life was good. The Canal Zone enjoyed a number of lovely Government amenities, not the least of which was a large pleasure center which featured a cafe with a fantastic old fashioned soda fountain, a Commissary where you could purchase all your groceries at fab prices and an Olympic size swimming pool, the use of which was free to residents. At the time I did not know how to swim, but I was crazy about the water and had already spent hours frolicking in the shallows of the Atlantic ocean getting shrivelled by long immersion any time we went to Atlantic City. I could hardly wait to get into this huge pool and frolic thererin.....meanwhile, I spent time in the lesser heaven of the soda fountain imbibing incredible chocolate sodas and dreaming of dashing back and forth with gay abandon in the deep end of the pool. Incidentally.....the weather was always warm and tropical so swimming season never ended. The months from around November thru March were the rainy season and the rest of the year was very dry but it was always comfortably warm.
I can already see that this narrative is going to need several blog chapters so I am going to publish this section and go see if I can locate some other photos from that idyllic period and I will pick up the story with my incredible experience of learning to swim......which, as you may have already guessed, was not in any way ordinary or normal..........mainly because my Father decided he would undertake the project of teaching me to swim and you should already know enough about my Father to be properly terrified on my behalf. You can stop trembling.....I can reassure you that I did somehow survive.
The New Yorker covers: July 7 & 13, 2008
8 hours ago