There was a joke in the 1960s that was popular among us government brats living in the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone.
The joke made light of political struggles that always seemed to be cropping up in surrounding Latin American countries, and I had long ago stopped repeating it.
But the recent mesmerizing pictures of battle raging on the streets of Panama has brought the joke to mind again.
It goes like this:
Two American tourists were visiting an unnamed Latin American country. (Imagine the Polaroid camera, the Bermuda shorts, the colored shift, the overpriced Panama hats.)
In one quaint city, they hired a tour guide to show them the sights and to act as an interpreter and historian. The guide showed them the cathedral, the marketplace and other points of interest, finally ending up in front of the bullfighting arena.
“And here,” the guide said proudly, “is where the brave matadores do bloody battle with the magnificent bull. Fighting the bull is our country’s favorite sport.”
Hearing this, the wife wrinkled her nose and exclaimed, “Isn’t that revolting? “
“No senora, " the guide replied. “ That is our second favorite sport.”
Twenty years have passed since I left Panama and the political joke has come back to haunt me. Once the paradise of my childhood, that tropical land is now a war zone.
Like millions of Americans, I have in recent years watched television reports of fighting in Nicaragua and El Salvador with detachment.
But with the failed coup attempt in Panama, and the sudden invasion that followed two months later, I realize with sadness that it is Panama’s turn to be a battlefield and my cherished memories have lost their innocence.
The first night of the attack by American military forces (it was a Tuesday--I remember because they cut off a rerun of “thirtysomething”), I couldn’t pull myself away from the television set.
While my wife and children slept, I stayed up long past midnight listening to the first sketchy reports by newscasters, who kept referring to places that were as familiar to me as Capistrano Beach, San Clemente Pier and Monarch Bay are to people in South County.
Hearing names such as Panama City, Balboa, Fort Amador, San Miguelito, Quarry Heights and Colon prompted a rush of nostalgia that did not jibe with the violent pictures that began coming out the next day.
I caught myself staring with fascination at footage of American soldiers, dressed in jungle fatigues, combing the streets of Panama City for Noriega loyalists.
In one moving 30-second report, hundreds of Panamanians left homeless by the insurgency were lining up in front of makeshift kitchens in the middle of Balboa, once the center of my childhood activities.
The glimpses of landscape behind the crowds jogged my memory and made me reminisce about a simple time, a time that I suddenly realized is gone forever.
For me, the Canal Zone was a playground with no boundaries. The jungles that surrounded my neighborhood in Cardenas offered adventures that rivaled Disneyland.
But in the Canal Zone, the monkeys, the parrots, the iguanas were real. They were as common to us as cats and dogs. One neighborhood kid even collected boa constrictors and poisonous snakes. As for me, I had several pet iguanas that I kept in the laundry basin outside the cement house.
The daily rains, which came and went in a matter of minutes, would flood the streets and create more fun than Splash Mountain. Only we called it Dirt Mountain and it became a favorite sledding spot after the rain turned the red clay into slick mud.
Sledding down Dirt Mountain, a hill that separated our neighborhood from Fort Clayton Army base, separated the men from the boys.
There wasn’t any television to speak of, so we created games that would last for hours. One particularly fun game was called frog chase. In that game, we took cardboard boxes and filled them to the brim with the hundreds of frogs that warmed themselves on the streets after nightfall. Then we would turn the boxes over and see how many frogs we could catch before they hopped into the bushes.
The iguana races were almost as much fun because mine often won.
The Panama Canal Zone was a close-knit community that seemed to have a purpose. We were all there on a mission that was ordered by the federal government. We were protectors of the strategic Panama Canal.
My father worked for the Federal Aviation Administration. Many of my friends had parents in the military. The parents of other friends worked for the Panama Canal Co., the administrative arm of the canal.
It was like living in a bubble. Everyone seemed to know each other. Most two-year assignments ended up lasting far longer. We spent a total of nine years there.
But when I heard one particular newscast the other day, I realized with a jolt that the life I remember is nothing more than a memory. It was when I heard about American troops invading the house of Manuel Noriega. His house, it turned out, had been built at the tip of Fort Amador, once the U.S. Air Force base for the Canal Zone. That was the spot to watch the sunset. It was my spot, not Noriega’s, I thought.
Today, I am contemplating the political realities, trying to sort through the political struggle that has torn Panama apart. Like millions of Americans, I am struggling to draw conclusions about the invasion and Panama’s role in global affairs.
It’s not easy though. There is no emotional detachment here. Despite reality, I long for the simpler, more innocent times.