My Reflections of Canal Zone Clubhouses
by Louis J. Barbier (BHS 57’)
Now, for a voice out of the past! When I remember the Canal Zone, I think of all the great clubhouses! They were really great and bring back lots of neat memories. So, I would not be a true Zonian if I did not share some of my memories of these grand institutions, the clubhouses I knew while growing up in the Canal Zone. First, every town site had a clubhouse. There was Balboa, Gamboa, Cocoli, Ancon, Pedro Miguel, Margarita, and my favorite Diablo! Yes, the clubhouse was where it was happening in my day. Something that of all the years I have lived in the states, I have yet to discover. It was the camaraderie and the wonderful experiences of hanging out and hooking up in the clubhouse which will be lasting memories for me. When I attended JR. High in Balboa we had lunch on the second floor of the Balboa Clubhouse. It was great and it was dirt cheap. Fact a dollar or the Balboa would take you a long way back in those days. Then in Balboa High School we did lunch at the Balboa Clubhouse in the back near the doors that led to the swimming pool. It was the best gathering place after school. No TV in my day until 7PM or later, we all had loads of homework. Mostly though we listen to the radio when doing our homework at night to shows like “The Shadow”, “Hit Parade”, “Gunsmoke”, “Lone Ranger”, The Six Shooter”, “Suspense”, “Dragnet”, and so on. This was all before the Teen Clubs. The Balboa Clubhouse like others in the Canal Zone had an honest to goodness soda fountain. It was super! My favorite drink was a Cherry Coke. Of course, there was also banana splits, chocolate malts, hot fudge sundaes, and so on........all from scratch. When the soda fountains past into history along came the Balboa Theater. It was the best movie house on the Isthmus. In fact, I thought it
was the best theater in the whole world with a balcony and super-Hi-Fi almost stereo surround-sound. Matter of fact our high school class’s graduation with pomp and circumstance was the first to be held in this brand spanking new theater. And what about the old commissaries. I think we were the first to come up with a shopping type malls or plazas with everything so close together. It was convient and lots of fun to shop at the Panama Canal Commissary and the many stores from shoes to furniture. Then, hey shopping on those balmy tropical nights to 9:30PM during the week was quite an experience. After we went over to the clubhouse for a Tutti-Fruity or an RC Cola. We would all sit there under the slow turning ceiling fans and swap stories. Now lets travel over to the West Bank, where on a Saturday night, in the Cocoli Clubhouse the old folks played Bingo and we eat those delicious fried Wong-Tongs out back and washed them all down with chilli’n ice cold Balboas. That was the life as we told stories. We thought then that those days would never end.
Then on a Friday night we would jump into our hot-rods, scooters, or the family bus and head for the open road at 45 MPH to our destination the Diablo Clubhouse. Yes, that was the life. Those nights will always be unforgettable. Sitting at a corner table drinking soft drinks and feeding the juke box. Oh, the great music of the fifties! Then for a bit of fresh air we go out to the parking lot out front to hear the roar of the chariots of steel as the owners were continually fine tuning their wonderful machines for maximum performance. Most of us had chopped V-8’s without any of the stuff that ruins the engine and waste gas today. Yes, gas was cheap, 15 cents a gallon tops. Then there were the bikes. The rage back then like today were the Harley Davidson’s. We also had Indians, BMW’s, and those fantastic British Triumphs. There was one fellow who was the envy of all, he had a Vincent Black Shadow. That bike was powerful and very silent. It was all black accented in chrome and at an idle it purr like a bad cat. A real mean machine that went like the wind on the straight away from Los Rios to the Miraflores Bridge Light. Yes, we had to use the Miraflores Bridge to get to Cocoli before the Bridge of the Americas was built and after the ferry stop running from La Boca to Farfan Beach area near the back gate of Naval Station Rodman.
And look at us.......we were all dressed like the “Fonz” from “Happy Days” or James Dean in the movie “ Rebel Without a Cause”. That is where our senior class got the idea for the BHS Plaque that we placed under the clock in the hallway of Balboa High. Yes, it was cheap to dress back then, because every day we wore a white T-shirt with a pair of levi’s, a black wide buster brown belt. black engineer boots with steel horseshoe taps....kind of loose to get the right sound as we walk down the halls of good old BHS. The jacket was optional. It could be a plain nylon wind breaker or like some of the real old timers who hung out on the verandah of the Tivoli Guest House called them “Wind Cheaters”. But the guys with the bikes wore black leather motorcycle jackets with hundreds of zippers. And most people sported flat-tops or very long hair kind of full with a Dean Martin drop in the front and a nice “Duck” in the back. Even some girls wore it like this. And some of us with really curly hair had that wind blown look before we even had portable hair dryers. But we all used Top Brass or Brylcream.......a little dab will do you. The Panama Canal Commissary was always in stock with this greasy kid stuff. But I’m getting off track. Let’s get back to Diablo Clubhouse on a Friday night when we waited with great anticipation for the “Horror Feature” of the week. Pretty lame stuff compared to what we now see on cable these days. But “Night of the living Death” and “The Werewolf meets Count Dracula or Frankenstein” produced some really wild screams from the theater-goers. We also on one occasion were provided 3-D glasses to really experience the movie. We also had ushers back then with flashlights. There was one who had been a marine or was going into the marines and he loved to go around like a drill sergeant throwing his weight around. On one occasion we all were viewing “Destination Moon” and the movie was almost over when the shiny silver rocket was getting ready to blast-off and pandemonium broke when a few people ran toward the screen, yelling that the “rocket would not leaving without them”. Our favorite usher went into action and there was some scuffling and he removed one of the perpetrators with a full-Nelson. Judo was the rage then at the YMCA. Yes, those were the days.
The clubhouses served us well they were community centers, a study halls, home away from home and a place we all went where everybody knew your name like the theme from “Cheers”. It was the first stop after getting back from our states-side visit. Or before moving on to other things like a drag on the Gamboa straight away where you could hit a plus 45MPH. Really fast for a 52 Willy’s Jeep Station Wagon. Not your cup of Java, then a little ride out to Contractor’s Hill on K-9 road to see those wonderful canal races. When down-sizing hit us and the count-down began toward high noon 31 Dec 1999, people started to leave and the canal zone clubhouses became fewer in number. We still had Diablo!
Then wa-la the “Snake pit” in Curundu became a favorite watering hole. People stopped going into Panama City at night to places like “El Rancho” or for you really old timers the Balboa Beer Garden that had become a “Bingo Parlor”. Wow, changes were coming with the treaty. Much of those raunchy establishments on J street south of the Ancon Inn were placed “Off Limits”. The 4th of July Avenue became a natural boundary at night. So, to unwind we could find our friends at places like the Snake Pit in Curundu, the little bar in the Knights of Columbus. Balboa Yacht Club, VFW, Elks, The Amador Club, and so on. It was safer and you met a better class of clientele and could relax without having to watch your back all the time. And what about those telephone calls to your favorite hang-out asking for you, where the standard reply would be, “ He ain’t here or you just missed him.”
Normally, the simple chore of going out for some of that delicious Panama Canal Bread without the holes that toasted up so fine with a really great cup of Duran Coffee in the morning and a dash of milk from the MT Hope Dairy Farm, was the excuse to check in at the Clubhouse or watering hole for a quickie. Yes, for me it was paradise and now paradise lost..........The clubhouse was part of the human fabric interwoven so closely that made the Panama Canal Zone the place to live.
I can remember one occasion getting a return assignment to Panama, and I was getting my pre-deployment physical at Carswell AFB Texas in 1968, when the medical technician asked me. “Where you heading?” I drew in a short breath and with a great deal of pride answered, “ I’m on my way to the Canal Zone!” Wow, he replied, “ I did a short tour there and really loved it. Especially hanging out at Diablo Clubhouse. It was great for meeting people.” I came back with a big smile from ear to ear and said, “Yea, I know!”
Some people would even sleep at the clubhouse. Although the Canal Zone Police frown on sleeping in the clubhouse. And usually a love tap with their night sticks and a friendly suggestion of , “ You go on home now.” Back then J-walking, illegal parking, loitering were laws that were strictly enforced by the Canal Zone Police Department.
The clubhouse was also the site for some heavy-duty studying or cramming for semester final exams. Yes, those were the days, we thought they would never end. Well, I could go on and on........but from the clock on the wall I can see it is getting late. Too bad there is not a clubhouse near by where I could go and see what is really happening. The TV has the “Talking Heads”, but they’re boring. And I realize I could go out for some bread and milk, but I’ll wait til dawn for the nights around here can be like walking through Chorrillo at 3 AM in the morning. Not good. Hoped you have enjoyed my reminiscing of the old clubhouses I knew and grew up with while living the “Happy Days” in the old Canal Zone.Hasta la & Buena Suerte !
(Lou Barbier -