Physicist, Oceanographer, Aerospace Technologist, Rancher, Land Developer and Lecturer
Panama and Me
Skyline of Panama City from the Bay of Panama
I am both a Panamanian and U.S. citizen with dual citizenship, born in the Republic of Panama to a Panamanian mother and to a U.S. father. Both families have a long history in the Western Hemisphere, one arriving in Central America from Spain and the other in North America from England. I speak, read and write both English and Spanish fluently. My Panamanian roots were from among the first families to arrive in Panama in the early 1500's from Spain, and my U.S. family also were among the first arrivals in Virginia from England in the early 1600's.
I am a U.S. citizen by right of my father being an American. I was born in the Republic of Panama and registered there, and then my father got me a proof of birth letter with the declaration of U.S. citizenship from the U.S. Embassy in Panama City, Panama. Later on in life this was going to cause me some problem when I was given a very high security clearance while in the U.S Army and later, working as a Civil Servant for the Navy. But this proof of birth business was straightened out and I was given those clearances without any further problems.
I also have a Cedula, which is a little card that proves that you are a citizen of Panama and gives you the full rights and privileges of a Panamanian citizen. I was born in Santo Tomas Hospital, the photo following this paragraph. It is a very beautiful facility right on the beach in Panama City.
Santo Tomas Hospital on the beachfront in Panama City. I got this beautiful photograph from Sharon Glassburn, a Canal Zonian and a great photographer
"Dickie Lee" as I was called at this age
Life started for me right here, at Santo Tomas Hospital situated on the waterfront in Panama Bay. My mom had an appointment with Dr. Prieto, the best of the best of baby doctors in Panama long before my birthdate, with an appointment made for her by my grandmother who was in Panama City while my mom (and I in the womb) were in San Diego. When we arrived in Balboa on January 19, 1935, I was ready for my entry into the world. A fast drive from the dock in Balboa harbor to Santo Tomas, and behold, I arrived late that morning of January 19. Just made it! But it all turned out well.
We lived on the outskirts of Panama City, in San Francisco de la Caleta, just outside the city limits. In those days there were no paved streets in that part of Panama City. In today's modern Panama City, San Francisco is a modern city with high rise buildings, great restaurants, shopping centers, the home of the Atlapa Convention Center, and also the home of the notorious Manual Noriega.
I grew up with Panamanian kids and in our home, we only spoke Spanish. There was no need to ever speak English. My grandmother never did learn any English.
The Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal located just a few miles away from San Francisco de la Caleta where my Granddad built two homes right on the waterfront for our families.
My relatives also did not speak much English. My dad was fluent in Spanish as was my grandfather who lived in the house next door. Granddad had built two houses next to each other right on the waterfront on a large piece of land when he retired from the Panama Canal. I grew up with my bedroom window looking down at the breaking surf below me during every high tide. What a great sound that was for me with only a screen over the window opening separating me from the ocean.
Because there is a 22 foot tide on the Pacific side of Panama, at low tide this allowed for almost a mile of dry land to walk on and explore the rocks, tide pools, and any debris that had come in during the previous high tide. What a paradise for a young lad to have at his doorstep. This really tied me in to the ocean at the very beginning of my life.
My Catholic Beginnings
At the time I was born, my family were staunch Catholics. So, I was baptized as a baby in this beautiful cathedral, the main cathedral at that time, in the old section of Panama City. Somewhere in my pile of boxes in a storage shed I still have the old films made by my dad as I was being baptized in February 1935. I was being held by my Godfather, Carlos de Seda. They lived right across the road from us in San Francisco de la Caleta and were wealthy people, very influential in the Panamanian politics at the time, and good friends of my grandfather, Ed Galliher.
This cathedral shown in these two photos was built in the late 1600's after the original cathedral was burned down by the pirate, Henry Morgan also in the late 1600's. The remains of that cathedral still stand in what is now called Panama Viejo or Old Panama located in the current suburbs of Panama City. That photo is also shown below.
The new Cathedral in "Old Panama" or Casco Viejo as it is now called. A friend from Panama, Allan Hawkins took this photo and the next photo and sent them to me to use on my web site. Thank you Allan.
This Cathedral was built soon after Henry Morgan destroyed the first one which is now in ruins and is a major photo op in Panama for tourists
This photo and the next are of the original Cathedral built in what we now call "old Panama". This beautiful architectual piece built by the Spaniards was burned down by the English pirate, Henry Morgan
The Panama Canal
Gatun Locks on the Atlantic end of the Panama Canal
The Panama Canal Zone under the United States
After the completion of the Panama Canal in 1915, eight towns were developed that housed the white skilled employees of the Panama Canal. These were the days long before racial integration. The black employees were in three towns. The Canal Zone was a 10 mile strip of land, five miles on each side of the Panama Canal route and all controlled by the U.S. as if it were their property.
Each town had its own schools through elementary school level and their own recreation and shopping facilities. There were two high schools, one in Balboa on the Pacific side and one in Christobal, the Atlantic end of the Canal, and the middle schools were also located in those two towns. When students in any of the towns got to that level, they were transported either by bus or by the Panama Railroad to Balboa or Cristobal.
Employees were classified as either "Gold Roll" or "Silver Roll" signifying either white skilled or black unskilled employees, and each group had their own support facilities that were kept totally separate. This system was in use all the way through the 1960's until segregation was stopped in the U.S. and subsequently in the Panama Canal Zone as well.
Rent on the houses was very cheap and utilities were provided at no cost. All the outside and inside maintenance of the houses was taken care of by the government. An employee could even ask for furniture to fill his home as he required at no cost. Every two years, an employee on the Gold Roll was eligible for vacation to the US on the Panama Railroad ships at little cost and he could bring back a new car on the ship every time that trip was taken.
It was a utopian life living in the Canal Zone, and appropriately called "Paradise".
Churches were also part of the communities, their facilities funded by the particular denomination. In the case of the Catholic denomination, they also maintained elementary schools on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the Canal. Clubs such as the Rotary, Lions and others also had their own buildings, paid for by that particular group. The Postal System had a Post Office in each town and the system was under the US Postal Service.
Many Canal Zone employees did shopping for fresh vegetables in Panama because the vegetables that came via refrigeration on the Panama Canal ships was often not of good quality by the time it reached the commissaries. Meats were from the US as were all the normal canned goods. Fresh bread was baked right on the Canal Zone by US government bakeries, but many people went into Panama to buy their breads which were excellent.
The ship shown below, the Cristobal, was one of the three "cruise and supply ships" that the US Government ran to take care of our needs in the Canal Zone. They were our transportation to and from the US for vacations. The other ships were the Panama and the Ancon. Not luxury, but very nice. All three of these ships were built especially to keep the Panama Canal supplied with all the necessary materials and food for the operation of this U.S. operated waterway. I made a lot of trips on these ships from Christobal to New York or New Orleans. This was the way I got from home to school in Illinois for high school. Ship to New York and then a train to Chicago. And from age 15, this was done all by myself. I would get off the ship with my bags, catch a cab to Grand Central Train Station, find the train going to Chicago, get on the train, get to Chicago, get on a land commuter train, the Aurora and Elgin Railway, and make my way to Wheaton Academy where there was a train stop. Quite a trip for a young man on his own. I grew up fast!
During WWII these ships stopped serving the Canal Zone and were incorporated into the fleet of merchant ships supporting troop and supply movements all over the world. Supply of the Panama Canal Zone became a problem and was carried out through the U.S. Military Supply System.
SS Cristobal in the Canal - Three ships exactly like the one shown were the supply ships that kept the Panama Canal employees supplied with foods, clothing and other necessities from the U.S. and also provided transportation from Christobal to New York for vacations.
Life in the Panama Canal Zone
When I reached the age five and right at the beginning of the war with Germany, the Panama Canal administration made my dad take quarters in the Panama Canal Zone to be closer to his job as a tugboat Captain, and we were assigned a beautiful home in Gatun overlooking the Gatun Locks. We still kept our home in San Francisco de la Caleta and used it on weekends and whenever my mom wanted to go home to see her parents. I attended first grade in Gatun and didn't know much English at the time.
On December 31, 1999, the United States gave back to Panama the entire Panama Canal with its military facilities, all the civilian housing, the shops and industrial buildings, the schools and also 10 mile wide strip of land where they had built the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone. Lost with the Canal was the life style for Americans working on the Panama Canal that could not be matched anywhere in the world. It was truly a Paradise! The role of the American in Panama was finished in this fashion. Panama was now on its own to operate the Canal.
I have included some photos of the Panama Canal Zone in this section, but to really get a great view of hundreds of photos, you ought to go to my friend's web site, Dino Barkema's site at www.chagres.com. There you will get to view all the cities and towns in both Panama and the Panama Canal Zone. Enjoy!
In this section I will cover just a tiny bit of what life was like, some of the housing that was provided in the Canal Zone, the safety of living in the middle of a beautiful country and the wonderful support that the United States Government provided for its unique people that were willing to "sacrifice being gone from the U.S." and willing to work in that hot, disease ridden environment called the Panama Canal.
In reality, I can't think of a better place to have grown up in. Sure, there were some things that made life different, living in the tropics. But overall, life here was fantastic. We lived among the cockaroaches, scorpions, mosquitoes, and leaf cutter ants that destroyed any plants around the houses, and so many other bugs that I can't begin to remember them all. We had heaters built into the closets to keep the clothes and shoes from becoming covered with mildew. And we never put on a pair of shoes without first banging the heels on the floor - this to make sure no scorpions had crawled into the shoes and were hiding in the toes, ready to bite you.
But other than those few disturbances, we had a great life. The houses weren't luxurious, but very livable. And when I was in my youth, we didn't have air conditioning in our houses or cars as we do now in today's world. It was HOT, but we survived. In fact there were no windows in the houses, only screens since there was no need to close up the houses without air conditioning. The sounds of the jungle living in a town such as Gamboa and having nothing but a screen between you and the animals of the jungle were fantastic. The problem that not having windows created was rain blowing right into the houses during the heavy and sometimes stormy rain periods we have in Panama. They finally put crank-out windows on the houses and they helped keep out the rain. But no air conditioning until the late 1980's. You had to be innovative to keep the rain out. In today's world, people wonder how we did it. We children loved it; not so sure the adults thought it was all that great!!
I have lots of great photos of houses, recreation facilities, churches, banks, clubhouses, etc. as well as the Canal itself, and more on what life was really like in the Canal Zone. Because of space limitations in this web site, I have only included a very small representation of all those photos. You will enjoy it.
I love going through the Canal on the cruise ships for it brings all the memories back again. And I love being asked to do the narration for the transits. It frees me to express my feelings for the place and to remember all the many things that went on in our lives in this great place. Cruise ship passengers do not get to see this side of a cruise through the Canal. There is no way they can imagine what it was like to live in the Canal Zone.
Panama Canal Zone School System
The United States Government spared no expenses in setting up a school system that equalled any found anywhere else in the world. Teachers all had to have Masters Degrees or the equivalent, and were excellent. Classroom sizes were such that teachers could easily handle the load. Every town had its own school. On the Pacific side of the Canal, there was one Junior High School (Middle School in today's parlance).
There was also only one High School on each end of the Canal. These higher level schools were located in Balboa and Cristobal. Students living in Gamboa took the Panama Railroad train to get to and from school. Special busses were provided for after-school sports and other activities requiring the student to stay later than the normal school hours. The following are photos of some of the various schools in the Canal Zone. Each town had its own school except for the 2 high schools and 3 middle schools mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.
Balboa Elementary School
Balboa High School
Balboa Swimming Pool
Gamboa Swimming Pool
Housing for Civilian Employees
The builders of the Panama Canal knew that in order to keep the work force happy and steady, there was a need for adequate housing for its employees. This was well done. The rents were very cheap and almost all of the responsibilities to take care of the buildings and grounds was done by work crews from the Service Division. The housing was built in the fashion of other tropical efforts by the French and even from our own Southern States. Almost all of the houses were raised up from the ground by posts to keep the humidity and bugs from becoming a major negative factor. All the windows had screens, but at the beginning, in 1915 or so, none of the window openings had actual glass windows to keep out the rain which fell in major proportions during the rainy season which lasted from April to December, and when it rained, it was very heavy, so the lack of windows created a major problem in the housing. Windows were finally installed, but there was no air conditioning in those days, so it was HOT inside the houses. Insulation was not in vogue at that time. The following are examples of the types of houses that were built. And by the way, assignment to the houses was done by seniority and position, so those with higher level jobs got the prime houses.
Housing for military families was taken care of on the many military bases spread throughout the Panama Canal area. These homes were also well planned and very comfortable.
Each of the seven towns on the Panama Canal Zone had its own "clubhouse" which included a restaurant, bowling alley, and movie theater. Each town also had its own swimming pool, a fully equipped gym, athletic fields for all the sports, tennis courts and what was called a "Commissary" which was the clothing, foods and all other kinds of dry goods. Many employees also shopped in Panama City and Colon for other things like fresh fruits, breads, special clothing, etc. Each town also had a church, in fact, several churches depending on the needs and requirements of that community. These were all what might be called "Company Towns" run by the U.S. Government and all the materials that were for sale brought in to the Canal Zone from the U.S. by one of three ships that the Canal Zone ran specifically for that purpose. Fresh fruits and fresh meats were not available unless the buyer went into Panama to their markets which were plentiful and readily available.
The military families were authorized to shop and use the Canal Zone facilities, but the Canal employees were not authorized to use the Army/Navy Commissaries or Exchanges.
Housing in Balboa with St. Luke's Church in the center
Single Cottage in Balboa Heights
4-Family Quarters in Gamboa Ridge Heights
Our single family cottage in Diablo
Housing in Balboa
Gatun Duplex Quarters
Balboa 4-Family Quarters on the Prado
Industrial Park in Gamboa on the Canal
Canal Zone Administration Building built in 1915
My departure from the Panama Canal Zone
One of the rules that all employees of the Panama Canal had to agree to when they accepted employment there was that they were responsible not only for their actions but the actions of their families as well. During my elementary school years I did not create much of a problem for my parents, but as I got older things changed. I was a hyper-active kid and got very involved in activities far beyond what my age group should be involved in. Fortunately in those years there were no drugs, and I did not drink or smoke and I had never cared for girls, but I sure created other problems for my parents. I was a confirmed addict to sports, and in this way met some unsavory characters. I even was a batboy for the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers during their Spring training in Panama. By the time I was a freshman in high school, I was a problem!
I had a difficult time paying attention to the rules of good conduct. These were the end of the war years (1943 – 1947) and there were a lot of things to lead a young aggressive and restless youth into trouble, especially on the Panama Canal, and I got into many of those things unfortunately. My dad decided in 1948 that he should send me to the United States for the rest of my high school years while I was a Freshman at Balboa High School. I was very unhappy with this decision since all my friends were in the Canal Zone and Panama. I was a pretty active kid, inclined to get into trouble, especially with all my family members living in the Republic of Panama where there were a lot of things that could get me into trouble. After the second world war, there were lots of opportunities to get into things that were not legal nor appropriate for me to be involved in. Participating in riots, which during those years was the thing to do, was also included in that list of do-not's! Since I had dual citizenship, and spoke Spanish fluently, and had Panamanian relatives that were the leaders in Panama, sometimes I would take the side of the U.S. in the riots and other times the side of Panama. When it was convenient I joined my cousins in Panama throwing rocks at the Americans. So my dad had some good reasons for wanting to get me into a different environment!
The pastor of our church, Balboa Heights Baptist Church, had just recently gotten out of the Army as a Colonel, and he was also a graduate of Wheaton College in Illinois, a well-known Christian college in the U.S. He and my dad became good friends and they colluded to send me to Wheaton Academy, the prep school for Wheaton college.
I was enrolled in the summer of 1949 at Wheaton Academy just outside of Chicago, a school with very high academic standards and which was attached to Wheaton college. My family all made the trip from the Canal Zone to Illinois where none of us had ever been, and took me to the campus of Wheaton Academy, which was about 30 miles west of Chicago. When they left, I knew no one. My folks didn't even know what winter clothes to buy for me since they had never lived in a cold climate. I was 14 years of age, on my own 4,000 miles from home with no family anywhere in the northern part of the US. I had never seen snow and had never been in a cold climate..
I was not a happy camper at this stage of my life!
In my first year I broke an ankle while playing football, and had an appendectomy during the year as well. What a mess to face in my first year away from home, and by myself! And then at the end of the school year, I had to make my own way from Wheaton Academy, 30 miles from Chicago and catch a train to New York city to get on the ship back to Panama to return home. 15 years old and all alone in New York City. A very lonely time in my life, with no family for Thanksgiving or Christmas, and no one to provide special help when I needed it. I toughened up and became a "loner". I learned to take care of myself! I grew up pretty fast!
But then I have to add in here, that Wheaton Academy turned out to be a haven of learning for me, learning more about myself, and God, and others. My roommates taught me a lot. I learned to obey rules. I also learned to lean on God for my strength when I became very depressed. I made friends in the dormitory that year that have lasted all my life even to today. I can still pick up the phone and call classmates that live all over the US and it is just as though we were back in those days at Wheaton Academy! We were all in it together. Away from home for the first time, lonely, and yet learning about living on our own and learning about depending on God for what we needed.
I wouldn't trade those years at Wheaton Academy for anything in the world! The faculty was superb, and became not only our friends, but almost like our parents. Those that are still alive today are still like that! The last cruise on which I was a Guest Lecturer on the Noordam with Holland America in 2007, there were about 80 of my former teachers and classmates that made the trip to listen to my lectures and reacquaint ourselves with friends of the past. What a great time that was.
At the Academy our meals were served family style at tables for eight with a faculty member at the head of the table. We learned manners and how to carry on conversations during meals. And the living conditions were excellent at the Academy. The sports programs were superb, and the teaching was all about life and how to get along in life, and how to respect God and include him in our daily life. I have asked God for forgiveness for all the times that I was angry at my parents and the former pastor of our church for sending me away from home.
I was home for summer vacation between my junior and senior years at Wheaton Academy when my dad died of a heart attack. I was carrying him in my arms to the doctor's car in front of our house in Balboa, Canal Zone when he died. I was 16 years old at the time. What a blow this was to me personally and to the family as a whole, and it made my future very unsettled for some time. However God stepped in to help me, and a wealthy businessman in the United States offered to pay all my expenses for my senior year if I would return to Wheaton Academy. So I returned to Wheaton Academy, a little late for the start of school, but finished my senior year there at Wheaton.
Future of the Panama Canal
The Maersk McKinney Moller Container Ship - Note the height of the containers loaded on this ship. This height has the Canal Pilots concerned for the effect of the winds when these shps are in the new lock chambers. the containers act as giant sails in the wind.
Long before the United States relinquished control of the Panama Canal to the Republic of Panama, it was a known fact that the Canal as it exists currently with the chambers and facilities for handling ships being very much out of date. The canal was initially designed and built in the early 1900s, and ships had grown much larger since those days. The photo above of this Maersk container ship is typical of the kind of ship that is now transversing the oceans of the world. The ships are routinely more than 1000 feet long, longer than the existing lock chamber and wider than any existing lock chambers widths. The existing Panama Canal cannot handle these new ships.
Expansion of the Panama Canal
Even after the Canal was completed in 1915, it was already suspected that at some point in the near future it was not going to have chambers wide enough and long enough to be able to handle shipping that was expected in the future. Even though such ships had not yet been designed, there were these thoughts. During WWII it became apparent because of the width of the battleships at the Canal was too small. The aircraft carriers didn't fit at all. A third set of locks, as they were called, were started in 1939 and 1940, however when WWII began in 1941, all work was suspended and the new lock diggings were left as they were, unusable except to collect water from the rains.
The plans for expanding the Canal were never begun again until the Canal was turned over to Panama in 1999. What planning had gone into "third set of locks" was then immediately resurrected and new chambers were again brought to the forefront. After the Canal was turned over to Panama, engineers from both the United States and Panama began the task to draw up plans for another new "third set of locks". The new chambers were to be 150 feet wide and 1500 feet long. It was felt that this new size chamber could accommodate the freight carriers (known as container ships) of the future.
Existing Gatun Locks on the right side of this aerial view and the early work for the expanded new Gatun Locks on the left side.
Another view of the Gatun Locks with the existing chambers in the right half of the photo and the new passage on the left side of the photo. Gatun Lake is at the top. The seaward side (i.e. salt water) is at the bottom of the photo.