BY STEVE BAILEY
Copyright is held by the author. This memoir story will also be published in The Bookend Review in August 2021.
I was about nine or 10 years old when my father took me to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. That movie made a lasting impression on me. Even today, at age 70, emotions will wash over me whenever I hear the whistling of that song from the soundtrack. It opens the movie with World War II prisoners in a Japanese camp returning from a day of forced labor whistling as they march. An orchestra joins in as if it supports their courage and their defiant spirit against the Japanese.
My father fought the Japanese in World War II. He was a paratrooper jumping out of planes to kill as many Japanese soldiers as he could. I wonder if he thought about those Japanese he killed while we were watching the movie in a small theatre built by the federal government. We lived in the Panama Canal Zone, so everything around us was made by the federal government. Our house, my school, the neighbourhood pool, the library, the grocery store, and of course, the canal itself were all US government structures. The only way to escape that was to cross a wide street called Fourth of July Avenue into Panama City. Then I was no longer in small-town America but a raucous, spirited Latin American city. The Panama Canal Zone housed federal employees and their families who, in some capacity, contributed to the operation of the canal.
For five Saturdays in a row, my father and I took 10-mile hikes so I could earn my Boy Scout hiking badge. We would begin before dawn and cover as many miles as possible before the tropical sun made its appearance, and vigorous walking became an uncomfortable activity. The route we took included a stretch of road that paralleled that part of the canal where it was a big deep ditch. Then it was known as Gaillard Cut named for the American engineer who oversaw the project. Today it is called Culebra Cut.
The sun would not yet have risen when we reached this part of our hike, but the large florescent lights on both banks of the canal made Culebra Cut easy to see. On more than one occasion, we could see ships moving slowly through the illuminated water. The Panama Canal operates 24 hours a day. On the opposite side of Culebra Cut, there is a sunken road, and from that vantage point, ships in the ditch looked like they are on land moving through a field of tall grass.
Five-thousand, six-hundred men died building the Panama Canal, many of them at Culebra Cut. The abundant rain of Panama soaked the sides of hills made top-heavy by the excavation. When that gave way, avalanches of mud would rush down on hapless workers. The canal killed a diverse bunch of working people, white and black Americans, Panamanians, Jamaicans, and Chinese.
“The River Kwai March” did not run through my head on those hikes with my father. Facts about the canal and its history did. As part of the socialization process, schools in the states taught young people about the history of their state. Canal Zone schools socialized us with the history of the Panama Canal. There were class activities that glorified Theodore Roosevelt, the president who made it all possible. George Washington Goethals, the army engineer who oversaw the canal’s construction, was revered and memorialized with a massive white fountain that high school students like to fill with soap suds. There were lessons about William C. Gorgas, the doctor who protected the labourers from deadly yellow fever and the namesake of the Canal Zone’s largest hospital.
There were no lessons about Roosevelt’s blatant imperialistic behaviour or the roughshod way he manipulated the new and inexperienced Panamanian government into a lopsided treaty. Nor was anything taught about racial segregation in the Canal Zone during and after the canal’s construction. Much like southern towns of the time, black Zonians lived nowhere near white Zonians.
The road that paralleled Culebra Cut turned left away from the canal to wind around a hill called Contractor’s Hill, a source of many of the fatal mudslides. It was terraced to stop the slides and thus had a flat top that provided a panoramic view of the Cut. It was a favourite place for teenage parties.
Our route did not take us there. Instead, we took an intersecting road that wound its way deeper into the rain forest that comprised much of this part of the isthmus. Once while on this road, we encountered a long thick boa constrictor crossing in front of us. We stopped and watched until the serpent slid off the macadam and disappeared into the tall grass that lined the side of the road. Boas are not poisonous, but they have lots of teeth that curve inward towards the throats. A bite can result in a nasty wound. There are twenty-one venomous snakes on that isthmus, and I grew up believing that all snakes are dangerous.
My father fought the Japanese in environments like that. I wonder now if he had feelings associated with the war as we walked along. If so, he did not show it.
Like many combat veterans, my father did not talk much about the war. It was a reference in time he often used in conversation. I remember him frequently starting a sentence with “Before the war” or “During the war.” Whoever he was talking with understood which war he was referencing. Can veterans of today’s wars do that without someone asking, “What war? We were in a war?”
More than halfway through our hike, we arrived at a river. It was smaller than the Kwai river in the film, which was really the Kelani River in Sri Lanka. Here we would break and enjoy the refreshing water before resuming our march.
By then, the sun was up and making its presence known. Sunrise and sunset on the Isthmus of Panama are fast. In the morning, the sun pops up from the horizon with a short time between “dawn’s early light” and its appearance. Sunset is just as rapid with the sun dropping behind the horizon and night pouring darkness over everything. Sunsets are beautiful but brief.
We took a different route back to the car, and by the time the hike was complete, it was hot. I would treat myself to a Fizzie when we got home. My father would take a nap. After a week of work and school, we would do it again. It was the morning activity for those five Saturdays.
I was a poor student, and my bad grades were a source of tension between my father and me. The only time he ever beat me was over grades. When I was a sophomore in high school, my parents decided to send me to a military school in Minnesota. It was quite an adjustment for a boy who had never seen snow. My fellow cadets and I learned how to form up, dress right, and cover. And we learned how to march. When we did our first pass and review, the band played “The River Kwai March.” For the first time since arriving, I felt homesick.