Living through historic upheaval


Mrs. Gregson, my seventh-grade teacher and principal at Las Palmas School in Puerto Armuelles, Panama, rings the bell in the afternoon during recess. This is unusual. We gather outside her classroom, where she stands on the stoop to address us. A strict, no-nonsense woman, she looks at us somberly. She tells us the unthinkable: President John F. Kennedy has been assassinated.

It is Nov. 22, 1963. I am 11 years old. Little did I know then that this historical event would lead to another one less than two months away on Jan. 9, 1964, which forever disrupted my idyllic way of life.

Wake up! Daddy is nudging me. Something has happened. He leads me to the room of my little brother, Johnny. Mommy is there in her house robe. It is early morning and pitch black outside. I hear the din, in waves, from the open windows. Angry shouts ... confused clamoring, accusations ... all in Spanish.

Daddy says some Canal Zone students from Balboa High School and some Panamanian students clashed over their flags last night. The American students tore the Panamanian flag in a scuffle, and it has caused a national incident. The whole country has become anti-American. Even our tiny, backwater town, located very close to the Costa Rican border on the Pacific Ocean, is affected.

My knees knock uncontrollably. I am suffocating with fear. More angry shouts; different sounds now, like something cracking, maybe big sticks breaking. Daddy says they will not come to our house now, they are just sending him a signal.

They will come to our house tomorrow night, maybe try to destroy it, he says. Mommy will help you pack. Captain Dick Prescott (his twin-engine Beechcraft pilot) will fly Mommy, Johnny and you to Golfito (Costa Rica) at the first light. You will be safe. I will stay behind. Uncle Griff and I will go up to the pastures behind the house with our shotguns. We will be safe. Everything will be OK, he says, as the air is temporarily knocked out of me from one of his powerful hugs.

As an adult, I learned that in January 1963, Kennedy had agreed to fly the Panamanian flag alongside the U.S. flag at all nonmilitary sites. After Kennedy’s assassination, the governor of the Canal Zone limited the order by decreeing that neither flags would be flown at nonmilitary sites, such as schools, police stations and post offices.

This created strife and dissent among the “Zonians,” which eventually resulted in bloodshed, riots and the seeds of change to move ownership of the Canal Zone from the U.S. to Panama. I also learned that 21 Panamanians perished that night.

I celebrate my 12th birthday 10 days later in Golfito with my mother and Johnny. My father and Uncle Griff are safe, although our home is vandalized, our cars set afire.

My father, the general manager of tropical divisions for United Fruit Company, no longer feels it is safe to raise his family in the tropics. A Southerner, he is able to move his operations to New Orleans instead of Boston, the company’s headquarters. My parents fly to the States to make arrangements for the family.

I am left alone with Johnny to finish the seventh grade in Bananera, Guatemala, another company division town, under the guardianship of Uncle Griff and Aunt Louise. I do not see or hear from my parents for four months, receiving only secondhand information about them.

It is a difficult time, missing my parents and feeling out of step with my guardians. I can’t wait for the school year to end so that I can reunite with my family and go home.

Summer is almost over and our household belongings are shipped to the States. Banana boxes are loaded as I board the ship, one of the Great White Fleet freighters able to accommodate 12 passengers. I situate myself on the aft deck. The ship sets sail as I watch the lights of the beloved town of my childhood get smaller and smaller until I see only the dark expanse.

Dori Hunter owns a residential construction company with her husband, Victor. She is a landscape designer and an avid gardener who lives in West Ashley.