Gamboa News

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We Were All Part Fish

chronicled by
Lyla "Lou" Womack

Excerpt from a letter
to Arden Lou Cooke O'Daniel
August 6, 2001


Lou Womack
Well Arden, I went on the internet the other night and found the "CZ Brats" webpage and within it were a whole array of photos of Panama. I must admit that a place has been tucked away in my heart for Panama like no other place on earth. I saw the sunset at Amador, the Prado, the Panama skyline, (when I was there, there was one skyscraper... the El Panama) the Gamboa Bridge, the Hercules, Pearl Islands, Taboga, Far Fan, and Balboa High School with two flag poles. I guess after the flag raising incident two were placed there. Other pictures were the Chagres, all of the animals and birds, San Blas Indians, Central Avenue....an on and on.

The one picture that caused me to wince was an aerial view of Gamboa. Do you know what the first thing was that I spotted, the swimming pool with itıs three pools. How many, many hours did we spend there while we grew up? Remember Pom-Pom Pullaway in the 12 foot pool? How the caller would yell out, "Pom Pom Pullaway, come away or I'll pull you away!" I can still remember the rush that went through me when he said that and a little fear that I might be caught while swimming to his side of the pool. Then as he tagged one person after another the anxiety would build because more and more people would be "It" to catch me. It was a lot of fun.

Do you recall how we would play chinese puzzle by holding onto each others hand, maybe about five of us in all and we would twist, dive under legs, around bodies to tangle ourselves up. Then the person who was "It", once again, would have to come and figure out how to untangle this mass of arms, legs and bodies.

My Dad taught me how to swim in the four foot pool. He came down one day to observe how I was doing at the pool and all he could see was a head bobbing up and down around the four foot pool. I still remember that step it had in it right by the edge. When I taught school I would write stories for my first and second graders about my childhood in Panama and this is a story I wrote about "Learning to Swim".

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Learning to Swim

(written for my second graders)

I used to love going to the swimming pool and playing in the baby pool. I was so small that only my tippy-toes could touch the bottom of the four foot pool. So when I wanted to go into the big pool I had to hold onto the edge of the pool, otherwise I would sink in the water over my head. At times I would sink in the water and I would jump and hold onto the edge again. Iım sure I looked like a bouncing ball in the water going up and down, up and down.

This went on for quite some time until my Dad became aware of how I got around in the four foot pool. He felt sorry for me so one day he said, "I'm going swimming with you". We went into the big four foot pool. As he stood away from the edge he would call out to me, ³Push off!" When I did, my heart was racing very rapidly as I was filled with the thought, "Is he going to catch me? I canıt touch bottom without getting my head covered with water! What if he didnıt catch me?" Trembling and shaking.....I pushed off and wouldnıt you know it....my Dad caught me each and every time. Pretty soon I started to move my arms and kick my feet as I pushed off and......I was swimming! From then on I didnıt need Dad to help.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Our coach was Mr. Greiser taught me how to dive into the pool. In my mind I can see him show me how to hold my arm just so and then coaxing me to just let my body fall into the water. The first time was a little scary but then after some practice I wasnıt afraid anymore. I never was on the swimming team like Jimmy Morris and what was the name of that little tyke Pat who even swam the locks? Everything centered around that pool with all the swim meets.

Did you ever jump off of the top of the tower? I donıt think I did. I jumped off of the third one. Thatıs as high as I got. Second, was never used for diving, just jumping. I did dive off of the first diving board. That was it and I never touched the bottom of the twelve foot pool. I came close to it but never made bottom.

Many fond memories were made at the pool. Some not so fond memories were when I was sitting in the dental chair at Doctor Yates having him drill on a tooth. All the time I was wishing I was in the pool. I could hear and see the kids having a good old time while tears were streaming down my face.

Another part of the aerial view was the place on the canal opposite Gamboa where the Hepworths from England would dock their sailing boat and invite us to come over for the afternoon. We were the bathing beauties, you and me, Lucy Driscoll, Mary Dillon and Eileen Bleakely. I came across a photo of all of us sitting on the bow of their boat with the Dredging Division in the background. Can you believe we swam all afternoon around their sailing rig, diving in the water and getting back on board just to dive in again and again, that is until it was time for "English tea" in their galley. That was the first time I had tea with raw sugar and cream. I donıt know how we got over there, probably one of our parents. Dad had a 3 Horsepower motor on a row boat so it was probably him.

Boy werenıt we oblivious to the creatures underwater? We used to swim at the Gamboa Yacht Club all the time. Then one day a great big crocodile was hauled in. To me at the time it looked like it was twenty feet long. I know for sure that I never went swimming in that water again.

On the weekends Dad would take me and my friends to the Hyacinth Control to swim and row boats and cayucas for entertainment. I loved my little cayuca because it was so easy to steer. The rowboats were a little harder and once in a while Iıd miss the water with my oar and practically fall backwards off my seat.

In later years when I would think of how hot and humid it was in Panama and we had no air conditioning then I'd recall our key to keeping cool...the water. We were like fish. If we werenıt in the Gamboa Swimming Pool, weıd be in the Chagres River or the Panama Canal swimming. Being surrounded by water on the Atlantic and Pacific, the beaches were always an attraction. How many different ones we had to choose from such as Far Fan, Amador, Santa Clara, Taboga when the tide was out and the Pearl Islands. Yes, we did live in a tropical paradise.

On the many trips to the Pearl Islands I recall seeing sharks fins very vividly projecting a slicing cut through the water which I believe made me very aware of the creatures just below the surface of the mighty waves of the Pacific Ocean. Always without fail I would never swim over my head in the ocean for fear of sharks. I donıt know if you did the same. When I would go out to Amador with my friends, the only place where we could swim farther than our height because of a sharks net, I would always wonder if there was a hole in that net when my feet no longer touched the bottom while swimming to the wooden raft in the middle. Did you wonder the same thing?

Arden, there are so many, many memories, I feel like I should write a book for all of us who lived there in that wonderful era of time. No one but those who lived it can understand the loss we are going through now as our home will no longer be the same. I never went back. Maybe because of it I have lived on memories that have become such a part of me that I was there even though I wasnıt. Memories cannot be erased no matter what.


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