History Items of the Canal Zone

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Memories of the Panama Canal Zone
cronicled by
Howard L. Clarke, Jr.


After getting through the eighth grade with good grades and contemplating going to High School which was just across the street in Balboa was a dream come true. In those days 1932, the court house and Balboa jail was in between the grade school and the high school. And the judge of the court was Judge Blackburn. I knew him well, us kids used to get into a little trouble from time to time and we had to face old Judge Blackburn. He would go through the court procedure to scare us half to death, and then ask one of the policemen to take us in the back of the court, and show us the cells we would have to go to when we got out of line. This antic would keep us in line for a while and then into our old tricks again.

The first day of school was always a happy day for me, it seemed something new was always a treat. Like meeting new kids and kidding with old friends that we new. Usually there was a new teacher, especially going from grammar school to high school. The first day was a “do nothing” day which suited me fine. Us kids always looked our best and acted in accordance. We learned which rooms we had to go to. This was different from grammar school. In grammar school we only had a one-room class and never moved from it, and the teacher never changed. In high school this all changed.

I will say up front I did not do well in high school, oh, for the first month or so I did well, especially in Wood Working class, English Spanish and Mechanical Drawing. Sorry to say with only those courses I could not make it through my sophomore year. But trying hard and doing my best I made it.

My life was raped around sports. Baseball was my favorite and as a left-handed thrower I wanted to be a pitcher or a first baseman. My pitching arm was not too strong so I went for the first baseman’s job and made it. My only problem was finding a left-handed first baseman’s mitt. And as the money was tight in our home I had a hard time purchasing my baseball spikes. The school supplied the uniform, which never fit me. I was not very heavy only about one hundred and fifteen pound soaken wet.

My best friend Walter Kunkel went out for pitcher and he made that position. Walter and I grew up friends and stayed that way until way later in life, in fact when World War 2 started. That is another story so I will keep that for later.

Here is a good place to tell a story about Walter Kunkel. At nights when we wanted to go some place and perhaps get into some kind of trouble Walter’s Dad would not let him out of the house. Walter and his family lived in a four family concrete house on Balboa Road. They lived down stairs. So when Walter did the supper dishes he would put his shirt in the garbage bag and take it down stairs to dump. When he got down stairs he would take his shirt out and we would take of. He knew when he arrived home after our late night outings, his Dad would be asleep.

When Walter and I first became friends, he was a scary kind of a young kid, and I was just opposite, not scared of anything. When I would get into kid fights Walter would always hang back, this all changed years later in a Bar on the Limits, which was a dividing line between Panama and the Canal Zone. Which no one paid any attention to.

When we got a few bucks and wanted to splurge, Walter and I would go to this bar and purchase some ten-cent a glass beer. While we were drinking and half in the bag, a friend of ours by the name of Owen Corrigan came in and he was also half in the bag. Well, Owen started to get on Walter and call him some not so good words. Walter put up with it for a while and then I told him not to take that entire cursing and lay one on Owen to put him in his place. Walter did just that and Owen landed on his rump on the floor. Walter was so scared he ran like a deer, and that was the last I saw of him that night. I helped Owen to his feet and he said he deserved that and we had a few more beers. We were both around sixteen years old at the time.

Another thing Walter Kunkel and I used to do to pass the time away, when we had a few bucks, was go to a dime a dance place about a block from the place where we drank our beers. After a couple of beers we would go there with a pocket full of dimes. We would pick out some of the native girls we knew, and go get a ticket for a dance costing ten cents. We would get on the dance floor just as the music started, and would dance with our girls and do the rumba, the reason was and I am guessing this, to get as close to the girls as we could and perhaps take one of them home after the dance hall closed up. We were just fooling our selves. We did not have the money for this foolishness, we thought we could go home with them for love, what a laugh.

The next three years of high school was about the same, I was getting failing grades in most subjects, oh, in physical education I got good grades, wood working and Mechanical drawing was passing, but it was down hill for the most part. As the saying goes “I just kept my head above water”.

So, the bad news was I failed in High School and had to make up six months to get the credit’s I needed to pass which I did, thank the Lord. Without a High School Diploma there would have been no jobs with the Panama Canal Company.

During my school years I did go to Sea and make a trip to South America, and another trip to Yokohama Japan, working as a seaman or a sailor, the pay was not so good but it was money and that is what counted. More on this later.

The way I got an idea on going to sea during my high school holiday, which was three months was: A friend of mine during those days named Petuch Conlin. He was a few years older than I was. I missed him one summer and when I met him and asked him where he had been, he told me he went to sea for a few months. I asked him how he did that and he told me, to go and visit all the Steam Ship companies in the Port Captain’s building, and tell them you would like to get a job on their ship, and give them your phone number, or visit them every week or so, and ask them if there are any openings for a seaman or sailor. And if their is any they will consider you for a job.

So for my first job was an ordinary seaman on the S.S.Santa Elisia, a grace line vessel that traveled down to South America, and stopped at most all the ports along the way. My job was night watchman.

This job consisted of walking from one post position to another. Another job was to see that the sandwiches were in place for the watches in the gallery, and the coffee was in good shape. Also wake up the mates for their watches When I was going from place to place I had a watchman’s clock and had to turn the key on each and every one of them. I guess that was to make sure I went around and checked the positions to see if they were safe and nothing out of place.

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