(The following story captures the fond and memorable experiences of one of our beloved Gyambo residents, Ronaldo E. Sealey. He wrote a hand written version of this story years ago before he passed in November 2001. Before he ‘moved on’ he gave the hand written copy of the story to his sister, Olivia Sealey and made her promise to edit, type it and share it with our community. She completed this promise recently and sent the story to the ‘Gyambo Reunion Group’ in June of this year for publication in our website. By taking this action she fulfilled her promise to Ronaldo and bequeathed a gift to the entire the ‘Gyambo community’ that he loved and deeply respected. We hope that you will enjoy this trip down Ronaldo’s ‘memory lane’ and be inspired to share your memories of ‘Gyambo’ with us in the future.)
Since there’s no more Canal Zone, I would like to tell you of a place called Gamboa on the Isthmus of Panama, where I grew up. There were two sides to Gamboa, one for black people and one for whites. The blacks at that time could not venture on the white side. We, the blacks had our own school, theater, gym, clubhouse, commissary and post office. The school only went to the eight grade then we had to travel by bus to another black town called Paraiso where we attended high school.
Well, let me begin to tell you about Gamboa. This was a town where we all knew each other. There was no crime so you didn’t have to lock your doors. We had one police car, one fire engine, one doctor and one ambulance. The only doctor’s name was Dr. Senser. He was so thorough in his work that he had you take your clothes off just for a simple cough. That’s why I hated to go to him. All in all, he was the best. Everybody liked him. People who didn’t know Dr. Senser, just didn’t live in Gamboa. His secretary’s name was Doris Edgill, but I can’t recall his nurse’s name.
** There was always something to do in this town. It was one great big adventure for me, a very mischievous, active little boy. Both my parents worked so we had a little freedom. But Mrs. Headley, Butch’s mom and my sister’s godmother, was always there to keep her eyes on us and to make sure we wore the right clothes to school. If we weren’t properly dressed, she would send us back upstairs to change. She is gone now but she will surely be missed.
** You see, our houses were built on pillars so we had a downstairs, which we called the cellar, and an upstairs. Under the cellar was where we parked our cars, did laundry and played. Each apartment had its own section. Most people fenced their areas but we didn’t. In our apartment there were two bedrooms with a living room, bath and kitchen. In that little apartment my younger sister and I played hide and seek. The apartments were connected to the neighbors’ by a side door which we never opened, but we traded conversation and funny books (comics) under the door.
On our way to school I would hide my shoes and go bare feet. All I did at school was watch the clock because I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so I could go home for lunch. Every morning my mother prepared lunch for my sister and I before she left for work. I remember this one time she made tuna fish sandwiches with onions. Let me tell you, onion was something my sister hated. Anyway, she refused to eat it and I mischievously tried to force it down her throat. If it were not for our next door neighbor Mr. Figueroa, she might have choked. I was a bad boy that day and I remember getting a good beating for that one.
** Now noontime was just as busy as the mornings. I would take my slingshot with me and after school I would go hunting. You see, our town was surrounded by water and mountains. In order to get there you had to travel via a one-way bridge to go fishing, hunting, and swimming or even go to find fruits in season. The best fruits were on the white man’s property, so we had to steal them.
Let me tell you of a little incident that happened to my friend Bobby Stultz and me. We were going for oranges this day and as we crept quietly in this man’s garden there was a bees’ nest hanging on a low branch. My head hit the nest and angry bees responded. I never ran so fast in my life. I nearly broke my leg getting out of there, but, as kids we returned to get those sweet oranges. The next day we would go for sugar cane, cashews, mangoes, and soursop. We took whatever was in season. We would hunt birds, iguanas, turtles, armadillos, and all sorts of wild animals. There was nothing better tasting than iguanas. They looked like lizards but tasted like chicken. Myself and another friend of mine, Edgar Williams would steal Arturo’s dog because he could sniff out these animals really good. The dog’s name was Gipsy. He was half beagle and half mutt and he had that hunting instinct.
** Now swimming was another of our activities. The whites had a swimming pool but we weren’t allowed to use it. We had to go to a swimming hole we called Culvert. This was located down the “New Road” that led to the banks of the Canal. That’s where we blacks all learned to swim. We had a couple guys drown down there. The two I remember are Kenneth Sealey and Myrie. We would hide our cut-offs in the bushes so we would have something to swim in. Those days we couldn’t afford swimming trunks. Our cut-offs would be some old pants, jeans or khakis – even old drawers. I got so many whippings for going down to that place. You see, whenever ships passed they created strong currents that would pull the water out of the swimming hole which, of course, was very dangerous. But as was well known, you couldn’t tell us kids anything.
** Next, there was our “clubhouse” where the best pastries anywhere in the world were sold. Our pastries came from Mount Hope Bakery which was located on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama next to our intramural sports rival, Rainbow City (formerly Silver City). Our baked goods were delivered at around noontime and you could smell the aroma a long ways off. We had meat patties that were the best, jelly doughnuts, lemon buns, cookies, apple pies, sticky buns and a wide variety of other goodies. One would eat these treats with a “Rickey” (a great tasting mixture of carbonated water and cherry syrup). The pastries only cost a nickel and the cost of a Rickey was fifteen cents.
** Our movie theater was the noisiest on the isthmus. We paid just fifteen cents for a ticket and we had great times. Everyone had his own self assigned seat. There was this guy named Gussy (or his more formal name Horace) who was the one who collected our tickets and gave us back the stubs. He was a little slow so we took advantage of that. We would try to sneak past him and when we couldn’t, we would climb the outside rafters ( this was a dangerous stunt but we called this adventure going to the movies in “Encanto”, named after a theater in Panama City) where we watched the movies through the screened openings at the top of the theater walls.
** We bought groceries at the Gamboa commissary, a two-sided structure. The “Silver” side for black patrons and the “Gold” side for white patrons. We were not allowed to shop on the white side. When and if we ever did, they would call the cop who would escort you out. There was no rampant crime activity in Gamboa, nevertheless a police presence was always there to make sure there was peace in this divided community. As I recall, there were only three policemen working three shifts. 8AM to 4PM, 4PM to 12 Midnight and 12 Midnight to 8AM.We even had nick names for these cops. I remember one cop we called Billy the Kid because he wore his gun belt low. There may have been only two shifts because, like I said, we had no crime. So it’s possible there was no 12 Midnight to 8AM shift. In any event, this cop, Billy the Kid was “a pain in the butt”. He hated black people. I recall him telling me one day: “Hey boy get down to your nigger town”. Until today those words have stuck with me.
** Our school was great. We had some very good teachers. The first principal I knew was Mr. Morgan, and then came Mr. Conliffe and then Mr. Webster. Our teachers were Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Haywood, Mr. Cragwell, Ms. Geneteau, and Mr. French, who was our Phys-ed teacher.
Elementary school was one big fun time for me. Sometimes I wonder how I made it to high school.
** We played a lot of games like the one we called “base” where you selected some object as a base and if you left it, unprotected and another player captured it, you got a whipping from all the players in the game. Then there was a similar game called “lata” or “pan”. In this game some unlucky player got assigned to be “it”. To move up the chain from being ‘it’ you had to be brave, cunning and fast. This meant that as the ‘it’ you would set a can down in the middle of the street and go looking for the other kids in hiding without straying too far from the can because someone might get to it before you could rendering you to being ‘it’ for another round of play. The challenge was to be quicker than other players at uncovering their hiding places while protecting the home based ‘can’. So, if you saw someone approaching, you had to get back to the can and hit it on the concrete (pavement) three times, saying out loud “one, two, three” and naming the player and specifying where they were hiding, for example by saying, “so and so is behind the (electric) meter or by the wash tub or anywhere else where they may have been hiding. This was our version of “Hide and Seek”.
** Another game that we played was “New Flew” where you had to dig a slanted hole in the dirt and make it slick with water then try to pitch an even amount of marbles into the hole. It could be any amount of marbles as long as you got an even amount in the hole.
I must admit that as a youngster, one of my favorite games was playing mama and papa where one would build a card board house and mess with the girls.
We also did a lot of fishing but with a white cord and hook. I would boil flour, water and sugar and roll it into dough to be used for bait. We caught only two kinds of fish in those days : Pot Cover and Tarpon. The Pot Cover was funny tasting no matter how you cooked it. The Tarpon was another story. You couldn’t eat them because there were too many bones and they grew to an enormous size. The biggest one I saw was about twenty-five feet long. I saw it under our one-way bridge (The Gamboa Bridge). My friend Edgar Williams and I would fish on the concrete blocks that held the bridge up. The train ran about a foot from our heads. Mr. Jackson, one of the adults in Gamboa who worked with the Dredging Division and at times patrolled the banks of the canal in a launch, often caught us fishing under the bridge and would chastise us and worst would report us these incidents to my dad. This was not the same as reporting it to the cops but a way of protecting me and my family from losing employment on the Canal Zone. You see…Mr. Jackson was one of my dad’s drinking buddies.
** Here are some tidbit memories of my growing up in Gamboa. Our town drunk was a guy we called “Limpy” who, on paydays, would sit in the clubhouse and drink beer until he got drunk. Then he would start to sing.
** In the evenings inside as well as outside the clubhouse was filled with people. Adults buying “night chance” (lottery) and kids buying Mrs. Sobers fried yucca, carimanolas (ground meat wrapped in a cassava mass) and meat patties to take to the movies.
** In the mornings Mr. Walters sold newspapers (The Star & Herald) and Mr. Paul sold gasoline. We also had a train station where Mr. Walters was the person in charge.
** As I said before, there was no crime in our town. The only incidents I remember were: Once while playing baseball, one boy hit another one in his head with a bat. The other incident involved me when I made a spear out of a broken machete and a tree limb. While playing with this spear, it got stuck in Rogelio Sprauve’s foot.
** There was a guy on Front Street we called “Big Man” who had a tamed deer (and other animals) inside a fence bordering his work place (the transportation division that later became the site for the skating rink). He also had a garden down the New Road, near Culvert (our swimming hole) where he grew yam, yucca, sugar cane and several other vegetables and fruit that he guarded vigilantly against young vandals.
** It didn’t seem like we lived in the Republic of Panama because Gamboa was our own little paradise isolated from everyday life and politics of the country of Panama. Our everyday language was all English. The only time I got into the city of Panama was when I had to go to buy lottery tickets for my mother, on holidays, during carnival, on Independence Day (Nov 3rd,) and on Easter to go to the movies.
** At Christmas time we had more fun because as kids we got gifts and participated with the whole family preparing for the holidays by washing our screen wires (screened windows), painting our apartments and overall cleaning. Several youth groups formed choirs that went through the town singing carols. It was the time of year that the cops relaxed their stringent vigilance and allowed us venture close to the division lines between the separated white and black sections of Gamboa during New Year’s Eve when we held hand with our girlfriends/boyfriends and walked across the bridge and slowly back to our residence. That was a big thing back then.
** These tidbits are just some of my treasured memories. I’m sure there’s a lot more to be told, but this is all I can remember for now. I’m dedicating this story to my father Mr. Christopher Sealey because without him, we would not have lived in Gamboa. You see, he worked in the Dredging Division of the Panama Canal Company.