Burning the Candle at Both Ends
or
Why not to date Gamboa Gals
by
F.C. Townsend & S. Corbett
Balboa58@cox.net

 

            ‘Twas the summer of 1960; I was 19 and finally returning home after completing my sophomore year at Michigan Tech. It had been a long two years! Tech was located in Houghton on the upper Michigan Keweenaw peninsula. Weather-wise, the ice hockey rink opened the end of October and closed May 1st. Two hundred inches of snow were common as were fifty consecutive days of snow. Tech was a monastery with 2200 engineers and 100 co-eds. Dates with a co-ed were non-existent, and dating local high school girls was hampered by the “townies” resentment towards the “toots” (local slang for Tech students: engineers drive a train that goes “toot, toot”), much the same as we Zonians had for the military “Raps” (regular army personnel). I guess competition breeds intolerance. Anyway, I was mentally tired from three terms of sophomore calculus and physics. I was looking forward to home: home-cooked Panamanian food, my own room and bed, and hopefully a social life. Little did I know that my academically induced mental fatigue would soon give way to socially induced sleep-deprivation fatigue.
Being a civil engineering student and having completed surveying camp the previous summer, I applied for a summer assistant’s position with the CZ Engineering Division and was assigned to the Gamboa Dredging Division’s survey crew. My pay was a whopping $0.80 per hour; but with gas at $0.19, I couldn’t really complain. The hours were 6:30 a.m. straight through, no lunch or siesta break, to 2:30 p.m.
Every work day at 5:05 a.m., the alarm clock would sound, calling me to greet the new day that had not yet dawned. I’d quietly sneak out to the kitchen using the false dawn as light so as not to awake my sleeping parents and sister. A raw egg stirred into a glass of chocolate Carnation instant breakfast and milk was a healthy breakfast that took about five minutes to gulp down. After brushing my teeth, I’d scurry back to my bedroom to don my khaki work pants, blue cotton long-sleeved work shirt, Bata jungle boots with their army green canvas tops and rubber-cleated soles, and hat. Then I’d grab the lunch I’d fixed the night before (cheese and jelly sandwich, banana, and a couple of home-made raisin oatmeal cookies) from the fridge, put it in my 30-year “teefin” mochila bag, and creep silently down the back steps. 5:25 a.m.—I had 35 minutes to walk the mile and a quarter to the Balboa train station, cross the grassy field to the little league ballpark on Gaillard Highway, and catch the 6:00 a.m. work truck jitney coming from the corral with others of the Gamboa dredging division gang.
Knowing that Morgan Avenue was the quickest route, I trekked along Gavilan Road, crossed Balboa Avenue, and cut through some yards up to Morgan Avenue. The going was easy as there was little traffic at this hour.   
“Hello, Rusty, how you doin'?” I didn’t know if his name was Rusty or not, but that’s what I called him because of his coloring. The first several mornings, he protected his territory, barking up a storm, much to the chagrin of the sleeping neighbors. But now, we were friends, as he trotted alongside me in the dawning morning light while I scratched his ears.
Morgan Avenue is a spectacular sight, overlooking the town of Balboa as it winds along the side slope of Ancon Hill. To the right are the houses while the left side drops steeply down to the Flats.  Rusty and I trudged along, looking out at all the street lights twinkling below in the Flats and Barnaby Street, as Balboa still was sleeping except of an occasional chiva making its way down Balboa Avenue.
“Go home, Rusty,” I’d command as we reached the end of Morgan Ave.  I’d give his ears a final tug, and he’d look at me quizzically before trotting off—‘til tomorrow morning. Then it was down the hill past Balboa Elementary School, where my mother taught 1st grade, past the white marble spire of the Goethals Memorial, and off to the train station. Crossing the field, I’d leave a trail of footprints in the dew-damp grass. I had to speed up as I could now see the jitney coming up Gaillard Highway.
The jitney was a black flat-bed truck with wooden side benches. A rolled-up canvas tarp serving as the side windows could be lowered for rain, but this morning it was up. I slung myself and mochila bag aboard, banged twice on the metal roof to announce I was seated; and off we sped for Gamboa, some 17 miles away. The journey would take us past the entrance to Albrook Field, past Corozal, the Chinese gardens, and Morgan’s orchid gardens. The journey was devoid of conversation as the rushing wind whistled and the loose ends of the canvas tarp flapped. Despite the noise, most of my fellow travelers had managed the knack of sleeping on those thin, hard benches, a skill I would soon acquire myself. Often I’d put on my plastic rain jacket as I was damp with a touch of sweat and humidity from my morning walk and the breeze through the open sides was chilly. Coming down Clayton hill through the grapevine of the mist shrouding Miraflores lakes, we’d pass the abandoned townsite of Red Tank and pause at the Pedro Miguel Section of Surveys office. There I’d race upstairs to retrieve my orange surveying field notebook full of the previous day’s numbers and grab a yellow 2H pencil. Meanwhile, the crew would be loading several 5 gallon water coolers into the jitney. Although this was the supposed slow-paced tropics, we didn’t dawdle as the Gamboa launch was scheduled to leave at 6:30 a.m. sharp. The whole operation reminded me of an Indy 500 pit crew servicing a racing car.  We picked up speed as we crossed the Pedro Miguel railroad tracks and headed up Paraiso hill. At the Summit turnoff for Gamboa, we paused briefly to pick up the rest of our survey crew who had come in from Chilibre, often arising at 4:00 a.m. to catch a chiva to the turnoff.  The trip now took us past Summit Gardens and the Gamboa waterhole around the bend from the Penitentiary to the one-way Gamboa Bridge. The odds of catching the green light at the bridge were slim, so I always felt a brief lift of joy when we caught the light and could clattered right across into Gamboa/ Santa Cruz and the Dredging Division dock.
At the dock, our launch was dwarfed by the enormous crane Hercules towering above us as we loaded our equipment, water coolers, spare oars, and lunches aboard. During loading the chatter began, reminding me of a flock of parakeets. In this macho Latino workmen’s world, respect and camaraderie were expressed by friendly insults in a mixture of Spanish, Bajun, and broken English. A “good morning” or “buenos dias” was never offered. Instead, there were comments of “Donde consigo esta camisa?” for a different shirt or “Doan tell me you does have bacalo (codfish) for lunch again. I can smell dat tree day old fish from here!” Initially, as a white college boy, I was the outsider, an unknown the gang didn’t really know how to handle. I would have to earn their respect and acceptance. The first few weeks were lonely; my ear had not been trained to the Spanish and Bajun accents, and we had no shared experiences. Slowly that all changed; their finding out that I was the lowest paid gang member helped ease my way into the gang.  In a few weeks, their acceptance was shown as they began friendly insults about the reasons for my sleepiness—“Dem young bucks cain’t handle late nights and early mornings” and similar laughing, sometimes bawdy comments concerning my love life had me wondering for a second  if the early days of silence weren’t better.
At 6:30, ready or not, we cast off, southbound for the Cut. The maintenance vigilance of the canal required a minimum 40 feet deep water clearance through the Cut. Hence, every morning before the first transit, the Cut depth had to be surveyed to see if any landslides had occurred during the previous night and to insure that the night dredging operations had not accidentally left a high spot.  As the youngest crew member, I had the job of watching the fathometer measure the water depths as the launch traversed the cut between Gamboa and Pedro Miguel locks. The launch’s diesel engine roar made conversation impossible, and the gang consumed their second breakfast or resumed their napping. In several weeks as my sleep deprivation increased, I was truly coveting their early morning naps. However, I’d be stuck hunched over the electrostatic paper chart reeling from the fathometer as its scraggly lines eerily recorded the channel bottom. I’d note the canal station from the black and white navigation targets along the canal banks writing, for example, 40+55 on the chart. I couldn’t nap; I had to remain vigilant as the water depth in the Cut was crucial to a safe transit for the ships.
The canal waters in the cut were a greenish gray, steaming with early morning mist to announce another hot, humid day. Several pairs of parrots flew overhead as they left Gamboa westbound, chattering away about their proposed daily activities. “You does tink we can find dat mango tree we had lunch at yesterday?” I imagined their squawking conversation. The left-hand east canal bank was lime green saw grass taller than a man rippling in the early morning breeze while the right-side west bank was pure rainforest jungle that had overgrown the construction town sites of Gorgona and Las Cascadas.
“Forty-four feet, forty-two feet”—depths were scratched out by the fathometer as Contractor’s Hill loomed on my right. So far I had not observed any depths shallower than 42 feet—all was okay. We passed the dipper dredge Las Cascadas with its spoil barges alongside as it rested from the previous night’s work. On to the Pedro Miguel boat dock at the north entrance of the Pedro Miguel locks chugged our launch. At the boat dock, I’d tear the daily fathometer chart from its roll, wrap it with a rubber band, and record the date. Then I’d pass it to the messenger waiting to carry it to the Section of Surveys office, where we’d gotten water just 90 minutes before, for checking and archiving. “Nothing to report…A good run… See you tomorrow,” I told him.
Here at the Pedro Miguel boat dock, we’d pick up the 4 pangas (rowboats) and return to the dredge Las Cascadas to measure the excavation quantity from the night before. The gray pangas were strung behind the launch on tow ropes like a Christmas light string, each with an oarsman in the stern to maintain steerage. At Las Cascadas, the launch would drop us off, returning at 2:30 to take us back to Gamboa. With the launch went our radio communication, leaving us dependent on the dredge for emergency communications.  
Our daily surveying operation consisted of traversing the canal, sounding the depths with a weighted lead line. Tranca, the ebony skinned Jamaican giant, was the foreman. He and a machetero (to cut a trail) walked the east bank, locating the station markers. At the 50 foot stations, we would run a wire cable across the channel. Two of the pangas were equipped with a 500 foot reel of cable wound on a steel spool. They’d anchor the cable end at the east bank 50 foot station and row across the canal, trailing out the cable behind. Reaching the west bank, they’d anchor the panga and tighten the cable by reeling the steel spool. I’d be perched in the stern of one of the remaining two pangas with my notebook, ready to record the soundings as they were shouted out.             map
Gonie (short for Gonzales) was my pangero (oarsman). He was a short, nearly white Panamanian with few teeth and a serious side. Flynn, also a white Panamanian but with freckles and red hair indicating a touch of Irish flowing through his veins, was my sounder, tossing the weighted lead line. Flynn was a jokester and bi-lingual. We’d line up on one of the taunt cables, while a similar panga, minus a recorder, took the other. I would record for both teams as we simultaneously traversed the canal.           
“Que son las estaciones, Tranca?”     
“Treinta, cero-cero y treinta  mas cincuenta,” he replied.
I’d label 30 + 00 at the top of one page in my notebook and 30 + 50 on the other side.
“Listos? Entonces vamos,” I commanded and off we rowed across the canal.
At every 10 feet on the cable was a crimped marker, where we’d stop and take a sounding:
“Cuarenta uno point five,” shouted Flynn.
“Cuarenta dos punto uno,” came from the adjacent panga.
I’d write 41.5’ adjacent to the 10 ft. row on one page and 42.1’ on the other. And so it went as we rowed across the canal, until reaching the anchored reel panga. My notebook, looking thusly, would be turned in at the end of our day:
30+00                                                  30+50
10’                   41.5’                                                    42.1’
20’                   42.2’                                                    41.9’
30                    41.8’                                                    42.5’
¦                   ¦                                             ¦
¦                    ¦                                             ¦
460’                 43.1’                                                    42.9’
While Gonie, Flynn, and I were frying in the heat down in the Cut, busy about our soundings, the anchored reel pangas and Tranca were in the shade, usually with a fishing line over the side.
Every now and then “Ship a-comin’ boss” would have us frantically pick up our pace to complete that station before the ship arrived. The reel pangas would release the cable, which sank to the bottom, before the transiting ship’s propellers severed our cable-line.
The soundings soon became routine, and I was completely bilingual in my numbers. As long as I never heard a number less than forty (cuarenta), which would indicate a dangerous high point, I could do this in my sleep. Ha! How prophetic: in several weeks, I’d be so tired due my lack of sleep and the enervating hot sun that I would be almost sleepwalking my way through the soundings.
At 2:30, the launch would return to gather us up and take us back to Gamboa, a run of about 45 minutes. PCC paid for travel time out to the jobsite but not for the return time. Once again, almost everyone napped on the ride back, a habit I would soon follow.  Sometimes the pangas accompanied us; some days we merely tied them up near the dredge. We’d clamber aboard the jitney headed back to Balboa. At Pedro Miguel, just across the railroad tracks, we’d stop at the Section of Surveys main office, where I’d turn in my notebook.
“Todo esta bien?” asked Sedda.
“Yeah, nothing shallower than cuarenta-uno punto dos.”  I responded. “Hasta mañana.”
Some days I’d catch a ride home with my dad, who worked in that office; but most often I’d climb on the jitney. It was now 4:00 p.m. At 4:25, slowed by the increased traffic, the jitney dropped me off at the little league ballpark, where I began my 25 minute walk home. If I was fortunate, I’d avoid the afternoon rain shower and arrived home at 4:50, a long day—one round-trip to Gamboa.
Supper was at 5:30; and after reading the Panama American newspaper, I had little time for much else as I usually went to bed by 9:30 and was asleep by 10:00 p.m., a good seven hours sleep. However, this was soon to change.
After two weeks of this routine, I learned a former friend was also home for the summer. Unfortunately, she lived in Gamboa; but being young, I began burning my candle at both ends, living out Edna St. Vincent Millay’s little poem.
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!

So one Monday about 5:00 p.m., ignoring all etiquette protocol that demanded a minimum of 2 -3 days lead time for a date, I looked her up in the phone book and dialed 6 (prefix for Gamboa)-363.
“Hi, I heard you were home.”

“Me? I’m working out at Gamboa for Dredging Division.”
…       
“Umm, I know this is very short notice, but would you like to take in a movie tonight?”
…       
“Well, the movie at Albrook AFB starts at 7:30, but I’m not sure what’s playing.”
(Wow! At least she was considering going out…and on such short notice.)

“Great! I’ll pick you up at 6:45.”

“What are the directions to your house?”

“Keep right, second street to the left, fourth house on the right #106A. I got it!”

Great—a date! “Mom! I need to borrow the car tonight, and can we eat a little earlier?” I hadn’t even checked with my parents if the car was available for the night. At 6:15 p.m., fed and showered, I cranked up my mom’s tomato soup colored VW and began my second round trip to Gamboa. Mom’s VW had no air conditioning, no radio, and a top speed of about 40 mph. We, civilized folks from Balboa, used to tease the Gamboa kids about how isolated they were, living way out in the boonies. First, you had to negotiate 17 miles of narrow, twisting two-lane road from the center of activity (Balboa/ Panama City) and then be further restricted by the narrow one-way, one-lane Gamboa Bridge. Chuleta, even the Penitentiary was closer to Balboa than Gamboa. Yes mon, dey was isolated and restricted from civilization. You does have to have strong reasons to go to Gamboa!  Of course, the Gamboa Bridge light was red every time when you came down the hill by the Penitentiary. Apurate pues! (Hurry up!).
Her directions were good and I knocked on her door at 6:44. The door opened. Wow! I had not seen her since high school graduation two years ago, and the mango seasons had treated her very well!
“Great to see you after these years—you’re looking good.”
“Thank you; you do too.”
We exchanged small talk as we climbed into the VW and headed back to Albrook. Since this was pre-Just Cause and 9-11, the green sticker in the windshield announced the car belonged to PCC employees, so the guard waved us by without question. However, I drove very carefully on the AFB. Again at the theater, I showed my PCC ID and bought two tickets without mishap. Psychologically, I was always nervous when going to a movie on a military base as several times I’d snuck into the free movies at the 15th Naval District theater at Amador, free for active duty military and family; once or twice I was caught and escorted back to the gate entrance on Amador Road.
The movie ended at 9:30, and feeling cavalier, I suggested fried onion rings at the Drive Inn by the Civil Affairs building in Balboa. But noting the time, I decided to have the rings to go and began my third round trip to Gamboa. At her house,
“Hey, this was great! Would you like to go out again tomorrow?”
“OK, I get home about 4:30, and I’ll call you then to arrange the time and stuff.”
“Good-night.”
Hmmm, I pondered as I drove the 17 mile half-hour trip back to Balboa, sort of a cool reception. The “good night” wasn’t even a hand shake, let alone a hug or kiss on the cheek. It appeared that she was going to follow the CZ protocol of no kissin’ before the third date. I also noticed my awkward attempt to hold hands during the movie was rebuffed, but then holding’ hands meant something then. I pulled into our house about 10:45, yawned—Oh my gosh! I’d forgotten to make my lunch for tomorrow. Well, at least I’d had the foresight to shower before my date. So about 11:10, I set the alarm clock for 5:05 a.m. I didn’t fall right asleep, as I pondered the evening’s events and wondered what to do for Tuesday’s date.
Arrgh! It cannot be the alarm clock already. It feels as though my head had just touched the pillow. Tuesday and I sort of dragged along as I went about my work, recording the soundings, catching the good-natured jokes of my co-workers. At 4:35 p.m., I called her.
“Hi, I’m running a little late tonight, and doubt that I can get out and back from Gamboa to make a movie. How about, I pick you up at 7:00; we can grab a snack and catch up on old times.”
“OK”
“Great. See you at 7:00.”
Once again, I began my second round trip to Gamboa in anticipation of our second date.
“I thought we’d stop by the Diablo clubhouse and pick up some empanadas for a snack, OK?” Diablo clubhouse’s empanadas were legendary in those days; and at 25¢ apiece, they were an economical date. We got 4 to go, long with ketchup and napkins, and drove towards Balboa.
“Where are we going?” she queried as I turned onto Amador Road.
“Oh, I thought we go by where you used to live when you were in grade school.” I lied quickly in an attempt to conceal that I was actually headed for the Amador causeway. “OK?”
We actually did stop momentarily in front of her old house before continuing. Again, my green decal in the windshield passed us through the 15th Naval District guard gate, as I headed out to the causeway. Fortunately, she was not the least bit apprehensive as we stopped on the causeway to admire the lights of Panama City shimmering on Panama Bay and eat our empanadas. Now I was off guard and confused—didn’t she know that the causeway was a romantic parking place? Perhaps she’d never been here before and was just being coy, but I doubted that. Perhaps she was beginning to be comfortable with me. Anyway, we chatted, munched, reminisced about being in 1st through 7th grades together; then about 9:30, I began my third round-trip back to Gamboa.
“ Gee, thanks, Frank for a great evening; it was different.”
“OK, How about tomorrow night?” I was anxious to achieve that required third date.
“No, I can’t.” My heart slumped; rats, a rival, I thought. I didn’t need competition. Perhaps, I was still stuck in 7th grade.
“But, Thursday is free, if you wish.” Wow! My spirits soared.
“Well, good night.” We shared a brief hug, just enough to keep me anticipating.
I began that long drive home, past the Penitentiary, past Pedro Miguel where I'd be again in 8 hours at 6:20 a.m., into Balboa and home. The routine was fixed—make lunch, set alarm clock, get about five hours of sleep, and head for Gamboa once again.
Thursday morning at 6:00 a.m., I was alert. No date on Wednesday meant I’d had a fair night’s sleep. I had researched a movie for us. Midnight Lace with Doris Day and John Gavin was playing at the Diablo Theater. The Diablo Theater was great for me—nobody went to the Diablo Theater, so we could enjoy the show incognito as the movie had already played 1st run at Balboa and been over to Cristobal. Plus, Diablo only had one usher, who took tickets and stayed in the back. Midway through the movie, I reached for her hand and was pleasantly surprised. Great!  It didn’t even matter that our hands got a bit sweaty due to no air conditioning.
The Diablo movie ended at 9:00, and we began my third round-trip back to Gamboa. Since my mom’s VW didn’t have a radio, singing was the only alternative. Summer of 1960, Elvis and Connie Francis topped the charts, but Marty Robbin’s El Paso was my favorite. In those days, I was into Marty Robbins; so I began singing “Strawberry Roan”, not a romantic song, just a harmless ballad:
I was hangin' 'round town, just spendin' my time
Out of a job, not earnin' a dime
A feller steps up and he said, "I suppose
You're a bronc fighter from looks of your clothes."
"You figures me right, I'm a good one." I claim
"Do you happen to have any bad ones to tame?"
Said "He's got one, a bad one to buck
At throwin' good riders, he's had lots of luck."

She loved horses, so this song was an immediate hit for her. So I sang it over and over, as she was determined to memorize all the words. We hit the Gamboa straight-a-way, going “bird speed.” No worry, as the speed limit was 40 mph, and that VW with the pedal to the metal would only go 40 mph. Besides, no one was on the Gamboa Road at this hour.
I was anxious to get to her house; after all, this was our third date as mandated by CZ protocol. Back in 7th grade, I had had a serious adolescent crush on this Gamboa Gal, but my socializing had been limited to those awkward 7th grade sock hops in the Balboa gym. The ones where the boys were along one wall and the gals along the other, hence the term wall-flower. Courage was the word of the evening at those dances; as the record music began, I had to make a split-second decision as to whether or not I was capable of dancing to that song. If yes, I, plus the other boys, would hesitantly but courageously begin that long walk across the gym floor towards the girls. They were always chattering in nervous groups, casually pretending to be unaware of the approaching guys. Now the moment of truth as I approached my potential dance partner—would some other guy ask her first? But even worse—what if she turned me down in front of her girlfriends! Bang, Bang, Shot Down—I’d be humiliated and forced to slink back across the gym floor, or quickly select another girl, who would realize she was second choice. I was tense and squeakily asked, “Would you like to dance?” Whew! I was relieved at the casual “OK.”
We made our way out onto the dance floor and began those awkward dance steps—step, step, slide. CZ gals always placed their hand on their partner’s shoulders to maintain a safe distance. Ah, the protocol of an innocent time!
Back at Gamboa, I opened her car door; and at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the living quarters, she gave me a quick hug and peck on the cheek before scampering upstairs. No good-night kiss. The Gamboa Road at 10:45 p.m. is a long, lonely, dark stretch of highway with the jungle bordering both sides. The inky blackness matched my lonely mood as I headed back towards Balboa. My summer was evaporating; I was tired from only five hours of sleep; and worst of all, I was still stuck in 7th grade. As I reached the lights of the Pacific side townsites, my mood improved marginally. Around the Diablo crossing, an epiphany hit me—Que pendejo estuve! I had completely forgotten about CZ – PDA rules. PDA (public display of affection) was forbidden—period!  Obviously, the driveway, entrance, and stairs to her house were too public due to streetlights, neighbors, and front door lights. Yes, it was CZ protocol, not me, that had foiled my hopes. Albeit very tired, my sprits brightened slightly.
Friday found me exhausted. I made the 5:30 a.m. trek along Morgan Ave. with Rusty in a zombie like trance. I know tsetse flies are confined to Africa, but I began to wonder if they had arrived to Panama. Flynn, my lead-line sounder noted my exhaustion and pestered me unmercifully with questions so I couldn’t nap in the jitney or later in the launch.
“Hey, mon, you does look like sometin’ de cat done drag in. Whoppen? De gal friend keep you up all night?”
“Don’t I wish!” I thought to myself.
Over the weekend, I planned a killer date, our fourth, and dialed 6-363 for Monday night’s arrangements.
“How about spaghetti dinner at the Ft Amador Officer’s Club Monday night?” I proposed.
“Great. I’ll pick you up on the early side, around 5:00.”
“See you then”
Of course, I was late arriving home from work on Monday and barely had time for a quick shower before starting my second round-trip to Gamboa. She was dressed nicely tonight, obviously since we would be seen in public at the Monday night spaghetti dinner. Monday night dinners at the Ft Amador Officer’s Club were legendary: spaghetti, rolls, iced tea, and salad—all for $1.25. Grimes, the Panamanian head waiter, greeted and seated everyone with formal dignity. After dinner, as it was still light, we walked out to the patio overlooking Panama Bay, one of the prettiest vistas in the Zone. The lights of Panama City were slowly twinkling on, and the shrimp boats bobbed in the outgoing tide.
We climbed back into my mom’s VW, heading back towards Gamboa. But at La Boca road, I turned left towards La Boca instead of going straight down Balboa Avenue.
“Where are we going?” she questioned
“You’ll see,” I mysteriously replied.
We drove down to the Thatcher Ferry, waited our turn to board, set the parking brake, and walked to the ferry side. To the south was the canal entrance with ships lined up awaiting their transit. We could see Ft Amador, where we had just dined, and the Yacht Club. On the other side of the ferry looking north was the canal entrance with Miraflores Bridge and locks in the distance. A bridge we’d be driving across in about an hour. As we neared the west canal bank, we climbed back in to the VW. The ferry’s diesel engines roared as they reversed to slow us down as we bounced off the timber fenders to dock. I slowly drove up the timber ramp out on to Arrijan Road.
“I thought you’d like to see Contractor’s Hill and Gaillard Cut, where I’ve been working,” I explained to calm her nervousness. Turning right off Arrijan Road we sped along past Rodman and Cocoli, out past the third-locks project towards Contractor’s Hill. Arriving at the Contractor’s Hill parking lot, I was relieved to note no other cars of anyone we might know. We slowly walked from the car across the parking lot to the low safety fence at the Contractor’s Hill bluff. Looking over the bluff, 500 feet below we could see the muddy canal waters where just five hours previous I was sweltering in my panga recording the canal depths. Look—there are the shimmering lights of Pedro Miguel locks and further beyond on the horizon, the sparkling lights of Balboa and the Pacific entrance, where we had just eaten dinner and crossed over on the ferry.
I took her hand tenderly, and slowly turned to face her; my matador’s moment of truth had arrived. As I looked into her eyes, I watched hers close, and I knew my kiss had finally arrived! Umm! So nice—well worth the seven year wait! And with no one to observe any PDA, it was followed quickly by another and another, each one a little longer than the first. Although it would have been nice to linger, enjoying the company and the shimmering lights, a 5:05 a.m. alarm clock awaited; and I still had to cross over the Miraflores Bridge (which could be opened for ship passage), and subsequently the Gamboa Bridge (which could be a red light), both of which could lengthen my travel time considerably.  So reluctantly, we walked back to the car and began that long trip back to Gamboa. The stars and planets must have been favorably aligned that night as Miraflores Bridge was closed and we got a green light at the Gamboa Bridge. As we reached her house, I was treated to her customary quick hug and peck on the cheek. But before I could say, “Good night,” she asked, “Tomorrow night? What time?”
“Yes, of course,” I stammered, no plan in mind. Had tonight not gone well, I was considering moving on. “I’ll call you. Perhaps a 7:00 movie.”
Needless to say, my third trip back to Balboa this time was joyous. She had suggested the date—wow! As I sped along the inky black jungle lined Gamboa Highway, I savored the evening’s events. Granted my seven year wait from 7th grade to sophomore year in college didn’t rival the wait of Florentino Ariza’s for Fermina Daza in Love in the Time of Cholera, but it certainly equaled the seven year Egyptian famine that Joseph explained to Pharaoh in Genesis 41.
Tuesday morning found me exhausted; I hadn’t fallen directly to sleep, but tossed and turned, savoring the past dates over and over in my mind. The 5:05 a.m. alarm clock awoke me all too early, and dozing in the jitney ride to Gamboa did nothing to relieve my sleepiness. As the launch left the Gamboa dock headed for the Cut, Tranca, the Jamaican foreman, noted I was dragging. I’d never heard such merciful words as his “Hey, college bouy, you has been doin’ too much tom-cattin’. Best I run de fathometer for you dis mornin’.”
“Thanks,” I murmured, wanting to hug him but wisely refraining. I grabbed a life jacket for a pillow and closed my eyes for just a moment. It seemed like just a second, when “Wake-up, college bouy, we’s almost to Peter Miguel, an’ we doan want de boss-man see you sleepin’.”
Somehow I got through the day, prepared myself for Tuesday night’s date, and began my third round-trip to Gamboa.
My summer pleasantly evolved into a comfortable pattern of three daily round-trips to Gamboa, a date, followed by a 5:05 a.m. alarm clock, as I seriously burned my candle at both ends.  Millay was wrong—my candle lasted more than a night; it lasted the whole summer, giving a marvelous light to my time. I cannot remember all the dates; but I imagine they included Monday night spaghetti dinners at the Ft Amador Officer’s Club, empanadas at Diablo clubhouse after a movie, pizza at Napoli’s wood burning oven, and enjoying the lights from Contractor’s Hill and from Cerro Louisa just behind the Pedro Miguel train station, overlooking Pedro Miguel locks. All too soon the summer ended, and I had to return to Tech. I added up the positives: my Spanish and Bajun had improved, I knew Gaillard Cut and the Gamboa Road like the back of my hand, I could survive on 5 hours of sleep, and I can attest without reservation to the solid reliability of the old VW Beetle; I couldn’t think of any negatives.
Epilog
Although we promised to write, the distance and time were too great and the letters became fewer and fewer. Neither of us envisioned just a summer romance, and at least neither of us inflicted a heart-wrentching break-up on the other as the relationship faded. She is still etched in my mind and I think of her whenever I hear Marty Robbins “Strawberry Roan” or picture the Gamboa Road. So I’m grateful to that special Gamboa Gal who shared life’s journey with me that memorable summer of 1960 when I burned my candle at both ends.