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“On the morning of the fifth I woke up early in Colon.... and put on my white suit. Incredibly, awfully, it had shrunk again.... The jacket sleeves ended unacceptably far above my wrists, the trousers above my ankles.”
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TO CARLOS GARAY it was all a catalogue of wrong deeds by the Colossus of the north. Garay and his ministry protested against our selling postage stamps in the Canal Zone, robbing the Republic of revenue; protested against our permitting Chinese truck farmers to grow and sell produce in the Zone, taking business from Panama City shopkeepers; protested against our establishment of a Federal District Court in the Zone, run by my friend Judge Crowe; protested against our continued operation of the railroad across the Isthmus, which competed with Panamanian bus companies. In the Panamanian view none of these activities was sanctioned by any of the bilateral treaties, and they harmed Panamanian interests. Garay got particularly worked up over the Federal Court, which often tried Panamanian citizens on what Garay insisted was Panamanian and not American soil. I did not like Garay's hard and bitter way, but we maintained a polite relationship. And, although I did not say so to Garay, I thought that the United States could easily change several practices which damaged our relations.

The most important of these was the Canal Company's method of hiring persons at the professional level. They would not hire Panamanians for responsible positions, on grounds of national security. But even if one thought this reasonable, and I did not, there was the additional fact that the Company hired Americans locally where possible. This policy had resulted in the creation of a colony of Zonians, people whose families had lived in the Canal Zone for two and often three generations. They held American passports, but many or most of them visited the United States only when they were forced periodically to take home leave. Nor were they all North American by origin; many had Panamanian mothers or grandmothers. But they hated the Panamanians in the Republic. Their fatherland was the Zone, the ten-mile-wide strip between the seas. And although few of these people ever went to Washington, they had found their voice in the Congress, among members easily swayed by arguments that a change in hiring practices would weaken security. The Zonians also disliked our Embassy. We did not, admittedly, stand up for them. We were more concerned about overall American interests.

Fidel Castro had come to power in Cuba some months before I reached Panama, and there was a certain amount of pro-Fidel feeling in Panama, as elsewhere in Latin America. It had one pitiful result. A group of students in Santiago, the capital of Panama's Veraguas Province, decided to emulate Fidel, took whatever rifles and shotguns they could find in town, and went up into the low sierra from which they sent a manifesto down to Santiago, proclaiming revolution and calling on the peasants and townspeople to join them. Two companies of the Guardia Nacional, Panamas combined military and police force, were sent into the sierra where they found and soon killed all the young men.

I traveled when I could to Veraguas and other parts of the interior, the area between the Zone and the Costa Rican border, which the Pan-American highway made relatively accessible, although much of the road was then still unpaved. Our Embassy contained a large element from the US Agency for International Development, whose members clearly accomplished little. Many of them did not even speak Spanish. I liked to travel to the interior with two American military officers who made up the US Army Mission to Panama, which I thought the only effective aid element we had in Panama. They were both veterinary officers, and their Mission had been created during the Second World War to inspect Panamanian beef for consumption by the 100,000 American servicemen who were occupying Panama. Now; the two officers were mainly engaged in running an artificial insemination program, which was injecting into Panamas small native cattle a strain of the disease—and heat—resistant Santa Gertrudis breed developed in Texas. By 1960 Panama, which had been importing beef, had begun to export. The Panamanian ranchers ran big ranches and many were powerful people. One, Rodolfo Chiari, became President while I was in Panama. These ranchers complained to us about the problem of squatters, poor peasants who had no title to the land but were nevertheless present in numbers on the big ranches, where they practiced primitive cut-and-burn agriculture which soon rendered the soil infertile. But land titles in Panama were seldom clear. I learned that many of the big ranchers similarly lacked title to the land they used. But they were a boon to the national economy and the squatters were not; and the ranchers had the power. (In more recent years, many poor peasants have moved from the interior into the virgin forests of Darien, between Panama City and Colombia, which new roads have made accessible; and there they continue to cut and burn and ruin the land.)

Panama was a continuing series of interesting if modest adventures. My Russian was fluent, and I spent one day in the canal on the bridge of a Soviet freighter bound for Vladivostok with a cargo of Cuban sugar, serving as interpreter between the ships captain and the canal pilot. I became interested in the Cuna Indians, an admirable nation who inhabit the San BIas Islands along Panama's Caribbean coast and also the valleys of the Bayano and Chucunaque rivers, which flow through Darien into the Pacific. I spent several weekends in San Blas villages, chartering a small plane to fly to landing strips along the coast which our military had built during World War Two. Another weekend I traveled with a young Canadian missionary, in a slim long piragua made from a single tree trunk and powered by an outboard motor, up the Bayano to primitive Cuna villages little touched by the outside world. The results for reporting to Washington may have been meager, but I came to know Panama better than most foreign diplomats.

After some months I was happy to say goodbye to my chief the First Secretary, transferred to South America. He was replaced by Edward Clark, an energetic man who had served in Panama before and now renewed his friendships with many leading Panamanians, including the President of the Republic. The vacant number-two position in our section was filled by Neil McManus, a hard-working and good-natured Irish-American who ended his career a decade later as our Consul General at Belfast. Most importantly, Ambassador Harrington went into retirement and was replaced by a Republican political appointee named Joseph Farland, who as ambassador to the Dominican Republic had made a name for himself by standing up to the dictator Trujillo. Joe Farland and his wife got off a Panama Line ship in Cristobal harbor and were met by his new staff and by a large and friendly crowd of Panamanians. Many of the latter were carrying signs which, instead of expressing anti-gringo sentiments, said ‘Yankee Stay Here! Dont Go Home!

What this meant was that the State Department had decided for reasons of economy to close the American Consulate in Colon. Cristobal and Colon (which in English would be Christopher and Columbus) were twin cities at the Caribbean end of the Canal. Cristobal, in the Canal Zone, was the deep-sea port. Colon, the larger place, just over the border in the Republic, could handle only shallow-draft coastal shipping but had once been a prosperous place. The opening of the railway from Colon to Panama City, in 1853, had made the trans-Isthmian route the fastest way from the eastern United States to booming California; but that had lasted only until 1869 when the first transcontinental railway was completed in the United States. Later the construction of the canal, and then military and civilian works during World War Two—including work on a never finished third set of Canal locks—had brought prosperity back to Colon. And for decades cruise ships had stopped regularly for a day at Cristobal so their passengers could tour and shop in Colon. But after 1945 canal employment had dropped sharply, and the cruise ships had stopped coming. Colon had opened a new Free Trade Zone, but in most of the city, which received an average 140 inches of rain a year, the mould was literally growing up the walls. Now, the Panamanians complained, the American government, by closing the Consulate it had opened there even before the railroad was built, was going to show that it thought Colon was finished.

In succeeding weeks we heard intimations that there might be anti-US demonstrations again this year on 4 November. Not over the flag issue, but because we were closing our Colon Consulate. My new ambassador made clear to Washington that he did not think that was a good reason to have demonstrations. We should keep the Consulate open. Sorry, said the State Department, but we have transferred the consul and vice consul and there are no replacements... but if you think it important, we do not mind if you send an Embassy staff member to Colon to maintain an official presence.

The next week I began commuting across a continent, perhaps the only member of the American Foreign Service ever to do so. The Panama Railroad train left Panama City at 0700, four old coaches and a diesel locomotive, and after a pleasant hour’s trip through the forest and along Gatun Lake I would reach Colon where Victor Lambert, the Consulate’s only remaining Panamanian employee, would meet me in the consulate Ford and we would driveto the Consulate and raise the flag. Our premises consisted of two buildings which had once been the residences of senior army officers, with an acre of gardens bordered by a former 16-inch gun emplacement. The gun emplacement was now inhabited by large parasol ants which periodically invaded the garden and were in turn attacked by Victor with chlordane.

I enjoyed having my own post, although it was a little one, as a vice consul aged 28. I traveled up and down the Caribbean coast of the Republic, once even traveling with Mr. Farland on a navy minesweeper—there was no road—to the ancient town of Nombre de Dios, named by Columbus on his last voyage. Soon 1 had made friends with Colon’s business and politicalleaders, including Jose Dominador Bazan, a colonense who was Second Vice President of the Republic. Most evenings I took the train home, but occasionally my wife would leave our children with the maid in Panama City and join me for an evening in Colon. When the November holidays came—the fourth was the national holiday, but Colon also celebrated the fifth as Colon Day—I left my family at home and moved into the Consulate for three days. The holidays would be special this year. The Canal Company had softened its stand on flags, and had agreed that on the fifth, after a ceremony at Colon's city ball, Colon’s officialdom could march into the Canal Zone behind the Panamanian flag.

On the fourth I wore my best Haspel suit to an official reception and luncheon in Colon. But formal dress in Panama was a white suit, and that was indicated for the fifth. Soon after we had come to Panama my wife had found me some good linen, found a Hindu tailor, and for $40 the tailor made me a handsome white suit. I wore it once, the maid washed it and it shrank a little, I wore it again and the maid washed it and put it away. White-suit occasions were not frequent.

On the morning of the fifth I woke up early in Colon, had coffee and a mango, shaved, showered, and put on my white suit. Incredibly, awfully, it had shrunk again, and drastically, at its last washing. The jacket sleeves ended unacceptably far above my wrists, the trousers above my ankles. I was due at City Hall at 10.00 and the invitation said white suit. The Second Vice President would be there; everyone who counted would be there. The Cuban Consul would certainly be wearing his white suit; all the consuls would. I found that by pulling the trousers down below my waist I could almost achieve a respectable trouser length. If I kept my arms somewhat retracted in the sleeves, I would not look exactly like a teenager who had sprouted Out of his clothes. I dressed, and drove to City Hall.

I made a quick entrance on arriving—the Second Vice President inquired politely if I had hurt my shoulder, as I tried to retract my arm after shaking his hand—and took my seat with the other consuls. After long oratory we went down to the street. The notables began arranging themselves for the march, behind the Colon firemen’s band and the honour guard with the flag. I stood on the curb watching. The Second Vice President came over to me and said ‘But you’re going with us!’ No, Vice President, this is your day. ‘But you are; we would feel insulted if our friend the Vice Consul didn’t come. This is an historic occasion!’ Yes, but it's your occasion, not mine. ‘Bridges, you wouldn't want to insult us?’ No, Vice President, I’ll come.

The band began to play a march. Maneuvering the waist of my trousers down below my navel again, I joined the other white-suited gentlemen. The Vice President was on my right, the Provincial Governor on my left. Off we stepped. The Cuban Consul was in the row just behind me, and I wondered if I heard him say something about gringo tailors. That no longer bothered me. What bothered me now was what the Canal Company people, a jingoistic lot, would say if they saw the American Vice Consul marching into the Canal Zone behind the flag of Panama. We rounded the corner of Front Street and the Zone was just ahead of us. Standing on the corner was the head of the Atlantic Division of the Canal Company, looking straight at me. I winked at him as we passed. He did not wink back.

An hour later I got back to the Consulate and quickly phoned Ambassador Farland to tell him, before Tom CaIdwell could, about my forced march. Well, he said, CaIdwell had already phoned him, pretty angry, but he had told CaIdwell that he shouldn’t be upset. Sometimes in diplomacy people might be forced to do things that others might find funny. I sat looking at my white trouser cuffs up near my knees arid thought, Funny is the word.


 


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