History Items of the Canal Zone

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Burning Sosa Hill - A tradition

I guess this story begins in January 1960 at the Balboa Teen Club, the execution at least. It was well into dry season and the 5-foot tall saw grass on Sosa hill was calling out to all the BHS students, "Burn me! Burn Me!" There is some background you need to appreciate this seemingly unnatural and illegal urge.

The grounds maintenance division kept the hill clear of trees and allowed only the tall saw grass to grow there. I have been told that it was originally done to minimize and control the wild game and varmints living on the hill in the center of the Balboa urban area.

Sosa hill is the backdrop for the Balboa Clubhouse and pool and is encroached upon by Tavernilla Street that climbs up from the old City Bank of New York on Balboa Road at Stevens Circle. Tavernilla descends on the other side to dead end at the foot into Laboca Road. Turning right at this "T", Laboca road heads along the foot of Sosa into the town for which it is named. On the way it passes, the Balboa gas station, the Canal Zone College campus and the site of the Thatcher ferry ramp on the edge of the Canal. The road merges into Roosevelt Avenue and continues to the right passing by the old Industrial Division and docks on the left, the Balboa Quarry on the right and meeting Balboa Road at building 9A, the old Teen Club, and the Commissary Annex. It is a BIG hill . It is about one third mile wide by one half mile long, right in the middle of town.

At the top of Tavernilla Street between quarters 785 and 787 was an asphalt road leading to the very summit were there were several small buildings, radio towers and the hill lights. Near the "T" of Laboca and Tavernilla another small road called Union Place ascends to a tank farm. Directly across Laboca road from the "T" is Williamson Place housing area.

One year in the early 1950ís the hill had caught fire just after dark and burned throughout the night. It was early in the evening when the fire started and the sky glowed all night. There were spontaneous parties in the Balboa Flats, on the Prado and in Williamson Place. As always, anything for a party! It was better than fireworks -- the fire ebbed and flared in the shore breezes.

The only downside was that the firemen had to work all night to make sure the buildings and fuel tanks on the hill werenít torched and that none of the homes that bordered the grass were threatened by sudden wind changes. Then there were the small animals -- opossums, anteaters, honey bears, snakes, even a few deer -- wandering around Laboca and Balboa that were a nuisance for a few days.

All in all however, the enjoyment of beauty of conflagration was a 9 on a scale of 1-to-10 in the eyes of the residents. The accidental fire began a tradition -- a rivalry between the teenage Zonians to set the grass on fire so it burned at night to be watched and the firemen who wanted to set controlled daytime fires to avoid danger and long hours.

We had all heard of the exploits of other BHSers who had tried with varying success to burn Sosa; and with varying levels of anonymity. Most got caught or thwarted by public safety watchers posted each afternoon around the perimeter. They watched all approaches to the hill. They also swooped down on an area as soon as any flame was spotted and put out the fire; usually catching the perpetrator at the same time.

My plan required,
1. Avoiding going up the hill once the grass was being watched, and
2. Not being in the vicinity of the fire when it started.

I had been to "Banyan Tree" exercises and had collected belts of both 30 and 50 cal machinegun belts for making firecrackers. For my plan I extracted powder and filled several baby food jars. In each jar I put a model airplane motor glow plug with wires properly soldered to it and screwed the top on tight. I put each jar in a 1-gallon paint can that I first filled 3/4 full with a 50/50 mixture of sawdust and kerosene. These cans were then strategically placed, one at a time, on the hillside about 100 feet up the slope. I say strategically because it needed to be where the breeze would carry the fire no matter from which direction it blew; it just needed to be brisk. Strategically because it was done during the rainy season while the grass was still green -- and unwatched.

Commo wire, also collected at Banyan was strung from each glowplug to a spot by the quarry on Roosevelt Avenue that they never watched because it was a virtual cliff no sane person would try to scale.

Three months later the grass dried and the watchers watched and John Carlson, Walter Monroe and I met at eh Balboa team club with a nine volt dry cell battery. It was rumored that the next day the firemen would light the control fires. It was tonight or wait another year. The breeze was perfect. I enlisted John and Walter to drive me down to the quarry and to return to pick me up after a drive around the hill. I would be walking toward Laboca and away from the fire.

I connected the battery for a moment to the wires and, though it was imagination Iím sure, I heard pops from the other side of the hill as I touched the wire. I then dropped the battery in a storm sewer, pulled in 1500 feet of commo wire, balled it up and tossed it after the battery.

My calm stroll toward Laboca became more worrisome as time passed and no pickup and a glow began to show in the sky toward Balboa. I was relieved when lights showed coming down Roosevelt but it turned to terror when I saw it was a CZP car. I kept on walking and the car passed me -- surely I was too far away for him to suspect me. He made a "U" turn and came back. It was Mr. Tomford. He asked what I was doing walking toward Laboca at 8:00 at night. When I told him I was just out walking he asked me to come down to the station with him. He had stopped Walter for driving without lights in Balboa -- he had forgotten to turn them on -- and then taken him in because he had no license. Two and two made four when the picked me up, since John and Walter were driving my car. The belts of ammo in my trunk along with the one sample of the paint can I had saved to show clinched the deal. Walter and John had little duplicity so I "fessed" up. I figured my dad would get me off like he always did... WRONG!

Old Judge Crowle gave me a choice. On one hand I could enlist in the US Air Force, on the other I could spend some time making license plates. I had already passed the entrance exam with a maximum grade and been accepted... It was a no brainer. In 30 days I was in Lackland, TX, doing basic training.

As a point of interest, there were some great parties the night of the fire and it WAS spectacular. They released me to my dad in time for me to go to the party on the Prado with Walter, John and Pio Schultz who showed up later. Everyone knew I did it that night but the next day it was made public in print in the Panama American local news.

Yep... we was bad boys!

Added from an email 11/16/2002

I lived at 785 on Tavernilla St from the time I was about 4 until I entered BJHS (I graduated BHS in 1946). We, my family (The Magees) all enjoyed watching the fire burn down the hill every year with no harm done to the area. Sometimes there were more than than the one fire on the hill. and the only time there would be any trouble was when the other side of the hill caught on fire and travel toward the Balboa Theater, and Club House. We all, in some little way, participated with the other kids on San Pablo as well as Tavernilla, and believe me we set some really spectacular fires.

Did you know that the Army would - at least once a year - hold maneuvers on Sosa Hill. They would move all of their gear up the hill on huge Army mules and their food would be delivered morning, noon and in the evening by an Army Mess? The mess would set up their vehicle at the base of the hill behind House 785. All the kids would join them and eat with the troops. It was party time. We also used Sosa Hill for watching the 4th of July Fire Works, and getting great glimpses of the large number of Navy Ships when they docked at Balboa Piers while they were on maneuvers. At one time a Mrs. Stevenson had a commerical garden at the first rise at Sosa and had a bunch of Chinese Gardeners taking care of the huge garden of roses. There were also quite a few local rate private gardens ( corn, beans, etc) given to local rate employees on a land-lease basis. If that hill could talk it could tell so much that so few can remember or even knew occurred.

Peggy Magee Keller

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Author Dale C. Clarke.
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