Outside magazine, July 1997
"Bar stools?" I asked Tom Pattison.
"Yeah, three of them," he replied. "Nice ones, too, made out of really good wood. I helped liberate them from Noriega's private island in 1990, just after the U.S. invasion to capture the generalisimo — Operation Just Cause. And then some bastard stole them from me. If there's one thing we Zonies can't tolerate, it's a thief."
T-Bird, as Tom Pattison is known, is the consummate Zonie, part of that tight, diehard enclave of Americans who have helped keep the canal operating as smoothly as a Swiss clock for the better part of a century. A strapping guy who looks vaguely like Jethro Bodine, he's a third-generation resident of the ten-mile-wide, 43-mile-long anachronism that until 1979 was the Panama Canal Zone.
We were sitting outside at the Balboa Yacht Club, southwest of Panama City, only 500 yards off the Pacific channel that leads from the canal locks at Miraflores. There were interesting vessels passing by: cargo ships, stadium-size cruise liners, an American nuclear submarine. The Balboa Yacht Club was once a classy way station of international travel as well as a polestar of Canal Zone society, but the place has fallen into disrepair. It now looks like an abandoned warehouse, its windows either boarded-up or smashed. The formal restaurant upstairs was closed years ago. The steps are wobbly, the flush toilets tricky. Yet it's still a tradition among Zonies to meet on the downstairs deck at dusk, because the Balboa Yacht Club is one of the planet's truly blessed spots to watch a sunset.
That's what T-Bird and I were doing as we sat beneath ceiling fans in the bar, looking out over the segment of water that since 1914 has joined the Pacific and the Atlantic as inexorably as it's united three generations of a unique American strain. It's a strain soon to become extinct. Twenty years ago, there were more than 10,000 Americans working on the canal. Today, there are fewer than 600. This steady downsizing is all the result of the Panama Canal Treaty, a sweeping document signed by President Jimmy Carter back in 1977. When the treaty went into effect two years later, the U.S.-run Panama Canal Company was abolished. That meant no more Zone legal system, no more Zone police or fire departments, no more Zone schools. Since then American workers have been "involuntarily retired" at a steady clip, and the gradual transfer of power has proceeded exactly according to plan. In December 1999, the final transitional step will be made: The canal itself will be turned over to Panama and to the Panamanian staff that will run it in toto. "I may have to leave here in two years," T-Bird said. "We may all have to leave, eventually."
But T-Bird wasn't leaving, he said, without his stools. He went on to explain their odd, sordid history: As the smoke was clearing from the U.S. invasion of Panama, T-Bird and a couple of Navy SEALs decided to go diving for spiny lobster off Naos, a small island connected by causeway to the Panama City suburb of Balboa. Naos had been one of Noriega's infamous lairs, and he'd declared it off-limits to the general populace. "So no one had been diving around Naos for years," T-Bird said. "My friends and I figured it would be loaded with lobster, and we wanted to be the first ones there after the invasion."
According to T-Bird, the SEALs took an immediate interest in a certain octagonal house on the island that locals knew as Manny's Hideaway. It was rumored to be Noriega's party retreat, a place with reflective glass windows behind which, it was said, many strange and depraved acts had been performed.
"While I was out there diving for lobster, the SEALs broke into the house, no problem, and decided to take a few choice souvenirs from Noriega's bar. All of a sudden, furniture was raining down on me, big leather-back swivel stools dropping through the water like depth charges! Normal people would have tossed them into the boat, but not those guys. With them, everything's got to get wet first."
T-Bird somehow made it home with three of the stools, his share of the spoils of war. Then one day in 1992, he returned home to discover that he'd been burgled. Since only the stools were stolen, T-Bird surmised that whoever took them had to have been someone who'd heard about their unusual history.
But now he'd hatched a plan. He wanted me and my traveling companion, an Iowa-born resident of Balboa named Jay Sieleman, to go on a kind of treasure hunt. "The other Zonies, they're not going to tell me where my stools are," T-Bird said. "To them, it's all just a big joke, like a game of keep-away. But if you get Sieleman to take you all around the Zone, well, they might tell you the real story."
It was an attractive proposition — a built-in excuse to get out of Panama City and sample the mood of the last remaining Americans. Certainly Sieleman, an old lawyer friend of mine who's now assistant general counsel for the Panama Canal Commission, could give me a pretty good entr‰e into Zonie society. And if I got lucky and found T-Bird's stools, there was a real possibility I could shame him into offering me one of the things out of gratitude. A war relic from the hideaway of Generalísimo Manuel Noriega would be a first-rate keepsake.
T-Bird wished me luck and impressed upon me the mission's importance. "I risked too much to get those damn things," he said. "Dealing with the Panamanian Defense Forces? Man, I could've been killed! By God, I'm taking those stools with me."
"Let's get started off on the right foot," Sieleman told me. "I hereby decline to listen to or even acknowledge anything you might say concerning bar stools that were allegedly misappropriated by — or stolen from — that coconut-head, Tom Pattison. I don't know what happened, and I refuse to learn. Over the last decade, our friend T-Bird has been heading for a fall, but it's only now that he's truly begun to debauch himself. I've got my reputation to consider."
As he said this, Sieleman was at the wheel of his minivan, and we were driving northwest along the canal, passing through sweltering suburbs. He waited patiently while I watched in amazement as a Japanese freighter was lowered through the locks at Miraflores. After that, we made a stop at Lakeview Golf Club, a long-established West Indian stronghold, where we ate pig's feet and watched a cricket match. Clearly, as far as Sieleman was concerned, he'd signed on for an innocent tour of the region. Any discussion of stolen goods would not be tolerated.
Sieleman is a laid-back American in his midforties with a finely tuned sense of lawyerly style: He's got immaculate hair; his clothes hang just right. Since moving to Panama in 1987, he's also become a passionate mountain biker and rainforest devotee. Among his numerous enthusiasms, Sieleman is probably the most important promoter and dedicated patron of blues in the region — which is why he spends so much time in bars "doing research." His house is a shrine to his favorite blues musician, Taj Mahal. Or so he'd told me. "You've got to see my place when we get back," Sieleman insisted. "You'll love it!"
No doubt I would. Back in the late teens and twenties, the Panama Canal Company had built classic lapstrake homes of a military style known as "U.S. Billets, Tropical." Constructed on stilts and made of California redwood (specially freighted in for the job), with roofs of copper sheeting, they're open and airy but as solid as a seagoing ship. They were built for the long haul at a time when carpenters took their craft seriously. As we pulled into the village of Gamboa, about midway between Panama City and Coln, the old homes were a reminder of just exactly what it was the Zonies were giving up: orderly streets of trim white houses set beneath tropical green, with porches that looked out over a broad stretch of the canal. Since 1979, Gamboa has seen a gradual influx of Panamanians, but overall the village still resembled some American small town from the fifties that had been picked up, public swimming pool and all, and transported to the rainforest.
Earlier, Richard Wainio, a child of the Zone who is now director of the Panama Canal Commission's Office of Executive Planning, had explained to me the original thinking behind these neighborhoods. "During the old days," he'd said, "the Zone worked on the company town concept. Housing, schools, parks, movie theaters — everything was provided. The company wanted to attract stable, career-oriented family people and keep them happy here not just for a few years, but for their entire lives."
If their domestic life was cozy, the work assignment the Zonies faced was daunting as hell: to endure intense heat, insects, and tropical diseases while hacking their way through 40 miles of jungle; to construct one of the largest earth dams ever built while devising an enormously complicated system of locks; to keep ship traffic moving despite depressions and wars and political unrest — and to keep doing it 365 days a year for more than six decades without a single strike, walkout, major screw-up, or scandal.
Just as the company had hoped, many stayed on for the rest of their lives. Which is why the transition is now proving to be so traumatic for the last remaining hangers-on. It's been a wholesale uprooting that Sieleman, a more recent transplant, has found difficult to watch. "As a good liberal Democrat, I'm for the treaty," he told me, "but it's worth noting what the treaty did to the people all these houses were built for. As of '79, the sons and daughters of Zonies have found it harder and harder to become permanent employees of the commission. The treaty took a lot of jobs away, and it changed a lot of futures. It doesn't mean there shouldn't be a treaty — there should. But it sure affected a lot of people."
People, for instance, like Bob Dollar,the chief engineer of the tugboat Gamboa. A can-do guy in his late forties with a ponytail and tattoos reflective of his Harley past, Dollar grew up a Zonie and will be leaving, like most of the others, in 1999. One afternoon we were out on the Gamboa, and Dollar's skipper, Oliver Beckles, allowed me to steer the 94-foot, 258-ton tug southeast for a stretch of the canal. Below, in the galley, chicken and rice were simmering on the stove, adding texture to the pleasant maritime odors of diesel, electronics ozone, and polished brass and teak. Off to our right, the shoreline was a vine-veil of tropical foliage. To our left were rolling green hills, steamy countryside that seemed somehow aloof from the canal's steady ply of commerce.
It was nice being out on the tug, but also nerve-racking. I had to pass by a couple of Japanese freighters port to port, a tricky maneuver in tight quarters. Any lapse of judgment might instantly result in a couple million dollars' worth of damage. Those few white-knuckle minutes pressed home for me the operative reality: that down inside the canal's narrow confines, it's all business.
Bob Dollar works at the same job that his late father worked before him. "Sometimes," Dollar said, "when I'm on a different vessel, I'll go through the ship's log, and there's my dad's name. Chief engineer, same as me. I get a kick out of that. It means something knowing that my family played a small part in the history here."
Dollar began to describe what will probably be his final project in the Zone. "Over the last few years," he said, "our duty has been to handle the dredges and scows that are widening Gaillard Cut, one of the narrowest parts of the canal. By the time we're done, though, it'll be wide enough to handle two-way traffic. It's always been kind of a bottleneck." Then he added, "I don't want to sound like a dweeb, but I like the idea that when we turn the canal over, it'll be bigger and better than it's ever been. After that, it's up to the Panamanians."
Dollar, who plans to move to St. Croix in 2000, said he wasn't bitter about the prospect of leaving. "All I'm trying to do is concentrate on enjoying these last couple of years," he said. "I think all the Zonies are. It's a good place. We all know what we're losing. We'll miss it terribly, but that's the way things go. It makes me pay attention to things, knowing I'll be the last American here to do what I do."
While in Gamboa, I was invited to three different parties, where I was afforded ample opportunities to make discreet inquiries about T-Bird's bar stools — but no one seemed to have a clue. At one of these parties, however, I did receive an intriguing anonymous note: "Have you searched T-Bird closely?" it said. "The stools may have disappeared while he was sitting on them."
Yes, very cryptic. Clearly the Zonies, so long marooned from the world, were experts at manufacturing entertainment. Less obscure was their penchant for reminiscing. I filled my notebook with snatches of rueful conversation and many drunken declaratives that seemed to distill life in the Zone. The Zonies sometimes spoke as though they'd already left the place: "The best part of living here was surfing at Pina Beach, waterskiing near the docks in Gatun Lake, Friday night dances at the Red Barn in Margarita, sneaking caimans into the Gamboa swimming pool ..."
"There was a big-time rivalry between Cristbal High School (on the Caribbean) and Balboa High (on the Pacific). Didn't matter what clique you were in — jocks, straights, juicers, stoners — everyone got on the TransIsthmian train and partied all the way to the football game ..."
"When you think about it, Zonie life was just about as good as it gets. No unemployment, almost no crime, first-rate housing, great facilities, great security. But man, if someone screwed up bad, the Company would ship those people back to the States just like that! One day the family would be there, the next day they'd be gone."
In the old days, a favorite pastime was to sit on porches, eating chorizo sausages, drinking Soberana beer, and playing a game that was actually first dreamed-up by T-Bird. The game was "You Know You're a Zonie If ..." From my notebook: "You know you're a Zonie if you are intimidated by the menu choices at a U.S. Pizza Hut. If the primary color of your car is gray putty bondo. If your lifetime goal is to own a fireworks stand. If your boat has a better paint job than your house. If you consider a six pack and a bug zapper quality entertainment." And finally: "You know you're a Zonie if you can name the president who gave away the canal, but you can't name any since."
This same sort of playfully combative nostalgia was equally in evidence among the Americans I met in the Atlantic gateway town of Coln, about 25 miles north of Gamboa. A city of 156,000 people, Coln is still a favorite destination of drunken sailors. It's a place of ratty bars, prostitute curb-stations, and way too much traffic on busted streets that were never designed to handle the burden of what Coln has become — Central America's busiest and tackiest duty-free seaport. My first stop was the Elks Lodge, BPOE 1542, where I made a courtesy call on Camille Mazzerolle, exalted ruler of the lodge. Mazz, as everyone knows him, has worked in the Zone off and on since 1955, and he is a social fixture among the Zonies. Though Mazz clearly hated to see the place change, he said he thought the transition was going as smoothly as could be expected. "The Panamanians are good people," he said. "They'll do their best. But I'll tell you what, we Zonies are going to throw one hell of a good-bye party on December 31, 1999. And we're going to have a party every year after that at our annual reunion in Orlando."
Later that day, I met a couple of Canal Commission employees (requesting anonymity) who saw a much bleaker future for the canal. Look what happened, they said, when the Panamanian government took control of the TransIsthmian train. Throughout all the decades of Zone operation, they said, it had been a dependable means of daily transportation between Panama City and Coln. Now, they claimed, the entire rail system was a wreck. The train was in such bad shape that it seldom ran more than once or twice every couple of weeks, and there was no dependable schedule. "The Panamanians can't handle it," one of my companions contended. "It's going to be an absolute mess when they take over the canal."
Back in Panama City, though, my Zonie friends quickly buoyed my spirits. "You worry too much," T-Bird told me. "No matter what happens, you can't help but love this place."
When I visited Sieleman's classic old digs in Balboa for the first time, he was equally upbeat. He said, "The Panamanian National Assembly is doing everything it needs to do to make certain that all the legal infrastructure is in place when the transfer takes place. You don't think they know the world is watching?" As he spoke, I was roaming around his living room, looking at all the Rolling Stone covers and the man's collection of beer bottles, listening to the Taj Mahal CD he had playing on his elaborate sound system.
"Grab a seat," he said, "and relax. We'll have a Soberana, then head down to the yacht club for sunset."
So I grabbed myself a seat — a heavy, high-backed bar stool, one of three in Sieleman's kitchen. They were nice ones, too.
Illustration by Mike Reagan