Growing up in the Panama Canal Zone

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Written by Ruth Pinkerton   
Tuesday, 14 February 2006 10:48
I was born at Coco Solo Hospital and lived the entire 19 years I was there in Margarita, next to Rainbow City and Colon. I am blessed for being raised there and sure wish I could have offered the same to my children. My father was raised in old Cristobal, which was located along the water by Colon. His father, Cpt George K. Hudgins, Sr., was a pilot that transferred from the Great Lakes in 1930 to navigate the canal. My grandparents both were employed by the Canal Zone Government, my grandmother, Ruth Winters Hudgins worked for the Port Master, I believe, and was very active in the American Red Cross.

My father, George K. Hudgins, Jr, married a native Cuban, Gladys Portales-Gonzalez, and they had three children; I am the oldest. My father was a locomotive operator for the Gatun locks and retired with 35 years of service.
I have fond memories of going to school at Margarita Elementary, walking back and forth and then learning how to ride a bike and then riding to school. On the corner of Espave Ave and 4th Street (i think) there was a tree that got hit by lighting almost every year, poor tree looked rough. One of the best memories is of "rainy season" when it would rain for six months. I recall 5-7 days of constant rain, and we learned to play in the rain, "two hand touch mud football", sliding down the hill behind our house, playing in the streets because the drain system was backed up from so much rain. And the rain was warm and smelled fresh. We used to go to the Margarita swimming pool alot and it was fun to swim in the rain and see the drops piercing through the water while you were underwater looking up, the sound was peaceful.

They had lifeguards there who maintained control, you took swimming lessons to earn your badges (B beginner, A advanced, S swimmer) that were free and then you could walk to the pool by yourself and enter with your "B badge". Parents didn't have to worry. Many memories flow through my mind such as the rings or jewelry we would make out of the Black Palm seeds, we spent hours sanding and polishing them, they looked nice. There were the "Christmas Tree gangs" battling over trees to win the big prize at the yearly Tree Burn on the hill at the Womans Club. The smell of trees, the crackling sounds as they burned and ended the Christmas season for us. The food that was cooking and all the competitions that we took part in, three legged race, potato sack race, egg toss and many more.

I had a newspaper route for four years; I delivered the Miami Herald every afternoon after school on my Yamaha 100 road bike, my mom would help to roll the papers or did them herself. Oh, the playgrounds that we had all over Margarita, there was always one close to your home. During the school year the gym at the school would stay open till 4:30 allowing us to go home and change and then return and play longer. The swimming pool on the hill, the old gymnasium that was turned into a Skating Rink brought many nights of great fun, the old commisary was painted "red" and became a youth center that was called "The Barn" all around the time of Woodstock. I remember seeing Carlos Santana perform there. Then there was the Margarita Service Center with the little store inside where I would buy my country music, a small bank, a bakery that would make fresh bread in colors of red/green for Christmas, and other Holidays and the best "bear claws" I have had any where. The cafeteria made delicious meals, especially the Johnny Marzetti, with loads of melted cheese. The milk and ice cream (butter pecan, eskimo pies) made at the Mount Hope Plant was delicious and I have not met their match to date. One of the best things from Cristobal High School in Coco Solo was the cafeteria, the hot dogs or french fries with Chili on them, and then the "famous meat empanadas" from the hot machine, you talk about delicious, two would make a meal with ketchup on them. There was the great movie theater that was not air conditioned, 25-50 cents for a great movie, and the "Owl Show" at 10:00 pm on Friday nights.

Many of those nights I walked home down the middle of the street where it was the brightest (you see they showed a lot of scary and Dracula movies). I remember seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 2001 Space Odyssey, The Sound of Music, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (they even sold the candy bars in the store), many John Wayne movies and many more. The small Post Office and then there was the 8 lane bowling alley, what joy we had bowling on Saturday mornings in our League and just hanging out with out friends, sipping on "real" cherry cokes. I was also very active in the Little League and Pony League baseball, I was their scorekeeper for several seasons. Many good days seeing parents cheer their children (mainly boys) and cheering on our friends. Riding our mini-bikes (Honda 50, Honda 75, Yamaha 125, Yamaha 250) in the "Gulley" across the street from the Skating rink and over towards the Womans Club. Many men would ride their dune buggies there also, great joy when you climbed up the hills without crashing. We had a nice library, barber/Beauty shop and a Bingo hall upstairs in the Clubhouse. Last to be mentioned were all the Churches located in the town of Margarita. We had the largest number of churches than any township in the Canal Zone.

We had so much at our fingertips and it was so convenient to walk or ride your bicycle to do anything, Girl/Boy scout house, a tennis court, many playgrounds, safe neighborhoods to play in, and the great weather, most of the time it was a cool refreshing breeze. The prettiest sight I remember is seeing pairs of macaws flying overheard or a flock of parakeets squawking and reeking havoc in the trees as they roost for the evening. I miss the birds and nature the most. You hear birds here in Florida, but mainly at night when everything has calmed down for the day and there isn't so much noise to block nature out. Finding pollywogs or fish in the ditch behind the house. I remember bringing home frog "froth" leaving it ina fish bowl and pollywogs would hatch and then become tadpoles. We were very in touch with nature, at one point almost stepping on a cayman in the ditch, until he opened his mouth. Climbing mango trees, eating fruit off of them even the green ones with salt. We could walk about and pick lemons, limes, bananas, mangos, kiwis, coconut or pipa and just eat on the go. Who ever thought of having a McDonalds close by; not us.

I could write forever, and maybe I shall one day. But for right now you can check out a couple of websites that have alot of memories on them from other "Zonians". I consider myself Panamanian also, because there is no such country other than Panama that has such kind people. When I went to La Chorrera, 7 years ago, to bring my ailing parents back stateside, I was welcomed by so many good people bringing me meals and wanting to share stories. I have a love for my "home country", but find it hard to go back to without the military and Canal Zone Police there for protection. Even the families that I met with wouldn't go outside at night due to the "maliantes" and we did hear gunshots every night for the two weeks that I was there. I know that can happen anywhere, but there was a great sense of security when I lived there growing up. Growing up in a third world country blessed me to appreciate alot in life that many people take for granted. We didn't have alot of materialistic things, but we were blessed with so much more by being raised in such a beautiful country surrounded by such beauty.

 

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Memories
written by JORDI CLARAMUNT , March 10, 2008
I might add de famous KC hamburgers, the yearly fairs at the catholic church, Gatun Yacht Club floating ramps. And you are right, I have not been able to find better tasting empanadas as the ones sold at the club house and school cafeteria.
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You go, Girl!
written by Paul Londynsky , August 27, 2008
That was how I remembered it. I was in Gatun for the first 3 or 4 years I was in the Zone, then over to the Pacific side. Gaturn was awesome for a kid - cayuca in the Lake, swimming at the GYC. We used to paddle over to lighthouse landing and put pennies on the tracks for the trains to run over. During rainy season, the little drainage ditches would flood, and the local kids all went swimming. I remember lunchs with my Dad at the Spinning club by Gatun Dam, and hikes all around Ft. San Lorenzo (which is on a list of the most endangered historical sites in the world). We rode bikes without helmuts, had cars without seatbelts, and fearlessly ran though the saw grass. We ate picnic snacks on the hills overlooking the the 3rd lock cut. And, somehow, we lived to tell the tale. Today, I can't even let my kids walk to school alone. I would take the old zone any 'ole day.
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The Canal Zone was the safest place in the world
written by Anita L. Cole , September 08, 2008
When I lived there, our church participated in the Trick-or-treat for UNICEF program. I went around with a cardboard box shaped like a milk carton collecting for them. One year I got close to $300. I was in a group of kids no adults. No one worried that we were going to be hurt or robbed.

People drove a lot better in the zone too. The zone had the lowest car insurance rates in the world, because the driver's test was so strict and you couldn't just flash a license from somewhere else. You had to pass both the written test and a test where you actually drove, including parallel parking within 8 inches of the curb and stopping on a hill.

The police were all polite and professional. The MPs while not as professional, were also polite and helpful.

I voted against Carter because he ruined all this for so many people, and I haven't seen that Panama is any better off now that they have control of the canal.
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My Dad
written by Robert Smith , September 18, 2009
My father was born in Pamana in the 30's. He told me about his life there. It sounded grand. I was stationed there from 83 - 86 and then again from 89 - 90. I loved being there.
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Brings Back Wonderful Memories
written by Glen Nicolaisen , May 14, 2010
I was born at Coco Solo Hospital in 1959 and lived in Margarita untill I was 14. I had the greatest childhood growing up in the Canal Zone. My mother was Panamanian and I got to experience all of Panama. Reading all these comments brings back so many wonderful memories of childhood . From snook and peacock bass fishing to the summer recreation at the Margarita Gym, to Christmas Tree gangs to climbing trees to pick roseapples. What a great life for a kid. Thanks to everyone's comments and to know we were the few, the proud, the Zonians.
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Great Memories
written by Ray Simon , May 23, 2010
Thank you thank you and thank you Ruth/all. You've brought back such wonderful memories. My father was US Army and we lived on the Atlantic side - one year at Ft. Davis (1973) and the remaining two at Ft. Gulick. I loved skating at the rink on Saturday nights over in Margarita that was fantastic!!! Only went to Cristobal Jr-Sr High School my 7th grade year and recall not wanting to go back to the US. Anyone remember gi-nups (spelling)? They were round, fleshy, sweet and tart fruit with a small pit. Loved them! Again, thank you Ruth. I love Panama!
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Still want to go "home"
written by Jae Genest , June 19, 2010
What a great site! At 62, I think back to growing up in the Canal Zone and wish time machines existed so I could go back and never leave. What a great place to raise children ... no worries, just be home by the time your Dad gets here. Life was wonderful there. I feel very blessed to have been raised in that little piece of Paradise. Ginnups? I now live in S. Florida and some months back while at a stoplight, there standing in the middle of the street was a man holding two bags of "ginnups". I bought them both! Hadn't seen ginnups in years. I'm glad to see that I'm not the only one with such special memories of home.
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Balboa
written by Bill Az , March 07, 2011
I lived in Panama City in the 70's. My weekends were spent in Balboa and Fort Amador. I still remeber the taste of those empanadas!
Living in Panama City was wonderful since I had the best of both worlds. I partied with americans and panamenians alike. They were great times.

The first girl I ever made out with lived in Fort Clayton. Her name was Kim Shapiro and I only mention it because we ere both so young I don't think she'll be mad. She must be around 53 now and I still remember her.

I used to skate at the Balboa skating rink every Friday. Did any of you go there? I remember Bobby or Billy with an irish last name and his sister Pat. He alway wore a
referee shirt and was sort of the authority there.

I remember the great cheeseburgers I had at Fort Amador beach.

I don't think I could go back and see what became of those treasured memories.
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Canal Zone Music
written by Robert Bryan , October 27, 2011
Great memories. I lived in the Zone for 25 years. Graduated from BHS 77.
I still think about home quite a bit. I just finished my new Cd with songs about our special paridise. Check it out at www.canalzonemusic.com
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Canal Zone Music
written by Robert Bryan , October 27, 2011
Great memories. I lived in the Zone for 25 years. Graduated from BHS 77.
I still think about home quite a bit. I just finished my new Cd with songs about our special paridise. Check it out at www.canalzonemusic.com
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Church
written by Rita Hodge Lowry , December 22, 2011
We were stationed at Coco Solo and Ft. Davis from 1972-1975. We attended a small church in Margarita and I was thinking it was Margarita Baptist Church but cannot locate it. I have found The Holy Family Church in Margarita and was wondering if the name has been changed. I hold such fond memories of Panama and shopping in Colon. I have retired and moved back to Arkansas and have finally found a small church which I wish to join and I will need to see if I can get a letter of membership. Can anyone assist me? Thank you and everyone have a very Merry Christmas.
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Canal Zone Brat
written by Gil Payne , May 13, 2012
I left the Panama Canal Zone in 1955. Born at Gorgas Hospital and attended BHS. Lived at Albrook AFB and my adopted father who was stationed at Rodman Naval Base. Living in the zone was never dull. We had a teen club on base and in 1953 with my 2 good budies, Lacy Brown and Marving Hughey we were part of 12 cayucos sponsered by the Boy Scouts of America from the various bases in the zone in the first Panama Canal Zone ocean to ocean race. To commemorate our 50th year, in 2003 we got together in Panama courtecy of the Ocean to Ocean Race Committee and were guest of honor in that years' race. It was trully an honor to be present for this great event. Once a Zonian always a Zonian.
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...
written by Paul Garner , October 09, 2013
Hi,
I use to deliver the news paper in Margarita. Do you remember those nurses in the quarters close to the Margarita club house. so The only name that come to my mind is Kay Parks. I had a stroke so forgive my spelling
that was over 35 years ago I would take that blond to Pina' and remote parts of gatun lake only by my Yamaha 175
we also went to santa clara I would love to drop her a line. On that paper route I would take my money to Mrs Brown in Coco Solo. I married my CHS girl friend. Do you go to Facebook all the people from CHS and BHS are on there..........................
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Canal Zone Brat
written by Ruth (Hudgins) Pinkerton , December 24, 2013
I had forgotten about this post so many years ago. I still live in SW Florida in the town of Port Charlotte. My parents passed away in 2006 and it is hard being an orphan without a hometown or parents. I keep in contact with many Zonians on FB and other websites: Panama Canal Society of Florida, www.czbrat.com and love seeing pictures of their families or pictures of home.
Merry Christmas/Feliz Navidad and a Happy New Year/Feliz Ano Nuevo to all. May 2014 bring each of you blessings that you may pay forward in helping your fellow man.smilies/cheesy.gif
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