Saturday Night Date. 1958
by
Frank C. Townsend and Sydney Corbett
Balboa58@cox.net

While the “special” dates of a Christmas or Valentine formal with elaborate gowns, corsages, queens and courts, and polished shoes are certainly more flashy, I seem to remember more fondly a full moon dry season Saturday night movie date. Not the most romantic, nor extraordinary, but a comfort in familiarity.

Having a late November birthday meant I did not receive my driver’s license until our spring semester. Consequently, throughout my BHS years, except for that last spring, I double dated to the formals, after football game dances, and parties. It’s hard to be a “Swinger” when your mode of transportation is only a bicycle, or your dad has to drive you. So, my final spring semester at BHS, mobility! Saturday night I was allowed the family car, a bright red Ford station-wagon. My dad’s nickname was Red, red was BHS, and so red was our car.

My senior year, my date lived about ½ mile from me in Gavilan Area on Plank St. We had dated during my junior year, but those dates were confined to walks to Balboa Theater or the Teen Club. But now let me tell you of a Saturday night movie date, dry season ’58.

She always had an 11:00 curfew, so timing was critical. Diablo theater movies started at 7:00. So I’d carefully drive “Red’s red” (my dad named everything including cars) through the narrow streets of Gavilan to pick her up at about 6:30 and then down Balboa Road to Diablo. Now Diablo Theater was great. At Balboa Theater there was always the risk of seeing someone we knew, or worse a younger sister or neighborhood kid who would sit directly behind us restricting any privacy or hand-holding. In addition, the ushers at Balboa all knew you and certainly must have taken Special Forces night training as they roamed the aisles to be sure no “funny-business” was occurring. I’m sure if night vision goggles had been invented, those ushers would have been issued them. Instead they relied upon huge 3 battery flashlights. Heck, they even patrolled the “cry-room” and back rows in the balcony. But Diablo—nobody went to the Diablo Theater. The movie had already played 1st run at Balboa, been over to Cristobal, and then back to Diablo before crossing the Isthmus again to Margarita and finishing up at Gamboa.  Diablo was too far for younger noisy kids and only had 1 usher, who took tickets and stayed in back.  So we’d hold hands in the darkness, ‘cause holding hands meant something then’, and watch the movie.  It didn’t even matter that the hands got a bit sweaty due to no air conditioning.

Diablo movies ended at 9:00, allowing us 2 hours to share; and while my 17-year-old hormones may have had ulterior ideas, that was not our relationship. Two hours, two hours? My date included food and a moonlight drive followed by a boat ride. How, you might ask? Read on.

Some may argue where the “best cuisine” could be found, but at 9:00 p.m. the French-fried onion rings at the Civic Affairs Building drive inn were impossible to beat. So off we’d go, across the Diablo railroad crossing to Galliard Highway, around the end of Albrook Field to the drive inn. The onion rings would be “to go” as I had some serious driving to do.

We also can argue about the most romantic parking spots in Balboa. The Ft. Amador causeway had spectacular views of the lights of Panama City across the bay on one side and the Canal lights on the other side. I’d be the first to admit that lights across moonlit Panama bay are unsurpassed. In fact, a snapshot forever in my mind’s eye is dancing to Lucho on the patio of the Ft Amador Army-Navy club on a moonlit night. But the causeway was always well patrolled by MPs, who loved nothing more than to harass us “locals” and restrict any parking along the Causeway. You may consider the back side of the Administration Building parking lot, but there always was a cop roaming on duty; and Albrook Field lights really are not all that spectacular. Of course, the side street by Gorgas Hospital along Ancon Hill has a fabulous view overlooking the lights of Panama City. Unfortunately, I learned that neighbors of that street suspected parked cars as potential prowlers and were not hesitant to call the cops, or check you out on the pretense of walking their dogs. So I had a different idea of a spectacular view of glimmering lights.

It was now 9:30, we had our onion-rings, and we’re back on Galliard Highway headed for Ft. Clayton. The radio would be tuned to HOXO’s Hit Parade and we’d be munching onion-rings as I sped past the Corozal cemetery, on past the Chinese gardens on the right, and zipping by Morgan’s Gardens on the left, until we approached Miraflores locks and the turn across the Miraflores Bridge. This was the point of no return. If the bridge was open, my trip was finished, as there was not enough time to wait for a ship to clear the locks and the bridge to close and still make the 11:00 curfew. If this were the case, then sadly, we’d be forced to return to Balboa. But look – the bridge is closed!
Miraflores Bridge is a great engineering steel girder bridge. Quite complex as it had a major curve as the approach lined up to span the locks. It was sort of a bascule bridge, except that it swung horizontal instead of vertical. But the principle of cantilever weights to balance the swinging portion was still the same as the old bascule bridge. Candidly, my mind was not contemplating engineering at that moment, as I slowed and crept across admiring the view. To the north, the lights of Pedro Miguel locks shimmered on Miraflores Lake; and to the south, the lights of Balboa and the Pacific entrance to the canal reflected off the water.

It is now approaching 10:00; and although the romantic parking spot at Cocoli Lake of the 3rd locks project awaited at the end of the bridge, there wasn’t much time. Off we sped past Cocoli, past Rodman, pausing only momentarily to turn off the head-lights, leaving on the parking lights, along that dark stretch of road so as to enjoy the moonlight. The darkness gave us that sense of togetherness by just being alone. Turning the lights back on as we passed Cocoli, we’re now at the Rodman intersection of Arraijan Road; and I turn left at the blinking yellow light. And now, dear reader, you know my destination: I have precious time to make the 10:30 Thatcher Ferry.

After 8:00 p.m., the ferry schedule shifted from two ferries every 15 minutes to a ½ hour schedule, as only one instead of two ferries was used. The West Bank left on the ½ hour, while the La Boca side was on the ¼ hour.

We made it!  There are still a few cars and a chiva in line as I pull up and we start loading. Now at 10:30 on a Saturday night, there is very little ferry traffic; and we share the ferry with about 5 vehicles. I set the hand brake, and holding hands we walk to the side. Where else can you enjoy a moonlight boat ride? The moon is overhead, reflecting off the waves like a million sparkling diamonds, while the dry-season breeze whispers in our faces. Looking south, you can see the lights of Ft. Amador, the ships anchored awaiting tomorrow’s transit. In the far distance are the lights of Taboga. Look up, there are the 4 stars of the Southern Cross.  Do you remember the 1st time you saw the Southern Cross? I don’t remember my 1st time, but I clearly remember it from the Thatcher ferry. Look north, there are the lights of Rodman, Balboa pier, and in the distance Miraflores locks, which we just passed over a ½ hour ago. A quick embrace and back into Red’s red as we approach the La Boca exit. The ferry glances off the wooden piling like a bumper car, and the diesel engines roar in reverse to slow us down.

It’s 10:45, and being the last car on means being the last car off. Hurry, hurry, move that chiva--- my date is becoming a little anxious. Finally we’re off and down La Boca road. In ’58, there is no La Boca town site; but I avoid the urge to speed, a ticket would be disastrous. Past the Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), where we had after-football dances, and on past the Balboa Police station. Turn right onto Balboa Road and cut in behind the YMCA and St. Mary’s School. As we round the corner, I can see that the back porch light has not yet been turned on. At 11:00 sharp, my date’s mom would turn on the porch light signaling curfew and time to come upstairs.  We made it with a minute to spare and a chance to “say good-night” quickly. Aww—the light turns on.  Another Saturday night becomes a fabulous memory.

Epilog

In 1962, the Thatcher Ferry Bridge or Bridge of the Americas opened, and the Miraflores Bridge and ferries were decommissioned. My Saturday night date is now no longer possible and is just a memory, much like the CZ and the date who shared those moments.