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The Nation: The Canal Zone: On Edge

5 minute read

The 8th century Caliph Harun al-Rashid once took a Heraclean slave girl into his harem. So homesick was she that the Caliph built for her an exact replica of Heraclea, her native Greek city, at her exile on the banks of the Euphrates. To many the American enclave of the Panama Canal Zone seems such a Heraclea, almost a parody of country-club America, an elegant company town set down in the Panamanian jungle. But that picture is something of at stereotype, as TIME’S Bernard Diederich discovered when he visited the zone last week. Diederich s report:

The rains have begun. Balboa is a riot of color, of blooming red hibiscus, bougainvillea and lilacs. Overripe mangoes rot on the ground. On a weekday morning, the only, sound on the quiet residential street is that of power lawnmowers. Says the wife of a Panama Canal (Pancanal) executive: “Don’t write that our lawns are manicured. It gives the wrong idea. After all, this is just smalltown U.S.A.” On another street, Dolores Irwin, wife of a canal pilot and resident of the zone for a decade, points to her clipped lawn and says, “It’s for health reasons. Mosquitoes breed in the long grass.”

Wherever one goes in this 647-sq.-mi. zone bifurcating the Panamanian nation, Zonians are on the defensive.

“This is not country-club living,” they say in exasperation, not the enclave of air-conditioned colonial privilege that it has been portrayed, not an opulent anachronism in a world of nationalism. They point to the termites at work on their houses, the jungle growing up to the kitchen door, the “yacht club” at Gatun Lake that amounts to little more than a raft children dive from, while their parents drink beer and cook the family dinner: barbecued Panamanian beef. The club, like the zone’s four non-military golf courses, was built by the employees, not the company.

At times the towns in the zone have the feel of, say, Longview, Texas. There are 10,000 Zonians—civilian Americans who live there. The rest of the 35,000 Americans in the zone are mostly military personnel and their dependents —not real Zonians, as they define themselves. A total of 45 churches serve the population. Local Boy Scouts are active. The zone has Little Leagues, an Elks Club, Masons, Knights of Columbus, two American Legion clubs, ROTC at Balboa and Cristobal High Schools, gun clubs, credit unions, six riding clubs, four beaches, four yacht clubs. If it is not an immense country club, the zone does offer the Americans there an agreeable life. Whatever the merits of Strongman Omar Torrijos Herrera’s case for Panamanian control of the zone, few would readily give up their lives.

Last week, black and white children were exercising in the playground of St. Mary’s Mission school on Balboa Road, while parents picked over the shelves of the Pancanal commissary, where eggs sell for 720 a dozen and cigarettes $3.10 a carton. On the entrance, across from the post office and movie theater, a 1776 marching scene and patriotic colors are painted. Only an Indian selling “mola,” pretty San Bias Island decorative cloth, suggests that this is not the U.S.

Politically, Zonians are a mixed lot.

There are many Democrats on the Pacific side—some Zonians estimate 70% —and mostly they support Jimmy Carter. Joyce Ousborn, for instance, says of Reagan: “We don’t need another hothead. Carter looks good to me.” In the more militant and isolated communities of the Atlantic side, the Americans seem almost exclusively pro-Reagan. At a meeting of the Margarita Civic Council on the Atlantic side, an informal poll found one was pro-Carter, one pro-Ford and 20 for Reagan. “Reagan has the right perspective on the canal,” they say.

In the small community of Los Rios on the Pacific side, Jim Fulton, 40, a Canal Zone policeman and his wife, Pat, live with their three small daughters. Many of their neighbors have boats and trailers in their backyards. In the evenings, husbands and wives, barefoot and in shorts, barbecue on their small front lawns. Jim sits at his kitchen table with a friend, one of the 39 Panamanians on the 262-member police force. Fulton, Alabama-born, was raised in the zone; his father worked on the canal. “I’m grateful for what Reagan is doing,” says Fulton, “no matter what his motives. But I like Jimmy Carter. I’d like Jimmy to get things cleaned up in Washington and get rid of that goddamned Secretary of State.”

In the book-lined sitting room, Pat Fulton is busy on her Ph.D. thesis for Alabama’s Auburn University on the Argentine Writer Jorge Luis Borges. She came to the zone ten years ago. “My in-laws gave me the spiel about beautiful place to live, beautiful place to raise kids; it was paradise. For the first 2½ years I thought the top of my head was going to blow off: the boxed-in feeling, the apathy, the cultural wasteland.” Now she finds the atmosphere less insulated and isolated. She became head of the Pacific Civil Council and has even traveled to Washington to plead the Zonian case before a House subcommittee.

“When we have had scares about a new treaty before,” says Pat Fulton, “there would always be two sides down here. One would say, ‘We are going anyway now.’ And the other would say, ‘No, your kids will graduate. Don’t worry. We have had these scares for a long time.’ ” So they have, but this time there is a different edge to the anxiety.

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