50th Reunion-PTY Narrative

Balboa High Class of 1968

50th Reunion Trip to Panama

There must have been several thousand pictures taken during our 9-10 days of reunioning (pretty sure that’s not a word, but who cares), and as we know a picture is worth a thousand words. So, I’ll try to put into a few thousand words, what you will see in the pictures on our class website. Of course, everyone’s experience was different, and I didn’t attend every single tour, but hopefully you’ll get a good feel for the incredibly, wonderful time we had during our 50th class reunion trip home to Panama.

Jody and I got a head start on vacation by flying from Washington-Dulles to PTY on Sunday, January 21st. Local retiree and Diablo Jr. High classmate, Dave Bishop, met us at the airport and provided transportation up to the beach. He was having a golf week with some buddies at Coronado, and graciously deposited us at Marriott’s Buenaventura Resort near Rio Hato. I highly recommend the resort which had several pools, good restaurants, nice beach, best golf course in Panama, tennis court, volleyball court, and nobody there during mid-week.

Meanwhile on Thursday (January 25th) down at the Country Inn and Suites in Amador, our classmates were beginning to gather. Friday morning many of them awoke early to catch the train to the Atlantic Side, you know, the next side. They toured the new Agua Clara Locks and enjoyed lunch during their visit to Portobelo. On Friday afternoon, Jody and I made our way from Rio Hato to Amador in time for the class welcome cocktail party at the TGI Fridays restaurant next door to our hotel. The venue was an open air, covered section of the restaurant along the banks of the Pacific entrance to the canal. The liquid refreshments flowed, the dry season breezes blew, and the hum of classmates not having seen each other for a while threw a warm and inviting cocoon around the gathering. Adding to the ambience of the setting, and as if on cue, the 1000-foot cruise ship Queen Elizabeth sailed by on her way out to the Pacific and on to San Francisco. Local residents Rick “Chesty” Velasco, Mark Dillon, Johnny Moses, and Maggie Cedeño were some of the locals in attendance.

Nothing was planned for Saturday morning except a lazy breakfast with classmates and finding spots to stand on the Balboa Yacht Club pier, which was the start/finish line of the 10-kilometer, Amador Cayuco Race Regatta. We cheered on classmates Brooke Alfaro, Mark Dillon, Becky Fall, and Terri Smith Flynn as they paddled the cayuco “Bulldogs” up the Causeway and back. Congrats to our ambitious and fit mates, who successfully finished on the podium in their division. After lunch it was time for the pool and some more tropical sun for the lily-white visitors from the north.

Later in the afternoon, the gang boarded a mini-bus for the short trip from Amador to Casco Antiguo, for a walking tour of the historical part of Panama City. Think New Orleans French Quarter-like architecture, narrow cobblestone streets, the National Theater, plazas with many vendors, a foolish guy with a boa wrapped around his arm, you know, the usual stuff. It was great to see Fernando Alfaro and his wife, who joined us on the tour and for the rest of the evening.

Please pardon the story intermission. When I mentioned in the above paragraph, “. . . the short trip from Amador to Casco Antiguo,” I meant the distance, not the time it took to get there. All rumors, innuendo, Trip Advisor reviews, and whispered or drunken conversations about the bad traffic in and around Panama City are unfortunately all true. Panama City’s population is over a million people, and I believe the local transportation philosophy is that everyone in the family should own a car, regardless of whether they can drive or not. It’s not all bad all the time, but there are certain times of the day one does not want to be on the road. Coming back from the beach on Sunday evening is another horror show. But I digress from all the good stuff.

Back to Casco Antiguo, where we finished our walking tour and tried to bait the boa into constricting around a bottle of Cerveza Panama – no luck, it was a Cerveza Atlas aficionado. Our next stop was – surprise surprise – a bar. A very tony, roof-top establishment called Casco Casco, with 360-degree views of the Pacific, Panama City, Ancon and Sosa Hills, Bridge of the Americas, and the Causeway. An enjoyable evening ensued, where we feigned ignorance of the Spanish language when asked to move from tables with signs that read: “RESERVADO.” When it was explained that those tables came with a minimum bar tab of $300, we quickly regained our command of the second language and moved our culos away. The prices were a far cry from the 25-cent rum and cokes of our days of yore. After dinner, the bus took us back to Amador, with no traffic at 10:00 pm.

Sunday morning was a bit of a bleary-eyed affair. Some of us who claimed to have gone straight to bed after our foray into Casco Antiguo, just might have found our way to the “new” Balboa Yacht Club just a few steps from our Amador hotel. But the reunion planners did an excellent job by having the bus to our next destination leave in the early afternoon. After all, this reunion was to be a marathon, not a sprint! Although some of us view marathons as an endless series of sprints.

The bus ride to the Cubita Boutique Resort in Chitré was to be a 3-hour tour, yes, a 3-hour tour – sound familiar? I think Gilligan and friends were on their island less time than we were on that bus. We literally just crossed the Bridge of the Americas (affectionally known as the road of death), and classmates, who will remain nameless, were asking to stop for lunch. Since we left the hotel at Amador at around 1pm, one would have thought . . . well you know. The majority squashed that idea, so off we went, but about an hour down the road we came upon Quesos Chela, La Parada Obligatoria. By name alone, we had to stop. This place was not around in 1968; however, it opened shortly thereafter. We loaded up on empanadas, cheese, flan, and other goodies from this roadside gem for the trip to Chitré.

On the road again, it seemed a very short time, when classmates, who again will remain nameless, were requesting a bathroom stop. Well, having just stopped at Quesos Chela, one would have thought . . . well never mind. We found a place to stop and many of us did what 60+ year-olds do most often. Back on the road, our driver, Jaime, would soon reveal the extent of his command of the English language, when he declared, “no more pee pee.”  But, alas, we discovered that the team ice chest was nearing dangerously low levels of adult beverages. So, yet again, our Jaime pulled to the side of the road, this time at a bodega. To facilitate the stop, and so that the gringos/yanquis would not get ripped off, Jaime entered the bodega with a fist full of dollars. Somehow a few classmates slipped out of the bus to go pee pee, defying Jaime’s edict.

Finally, we were back on the Pan American Highway fully provisioned and bladders empty. We were only about half way to Chitré but had already been on the road close to three hours. Along the way, we passed many familiar sights and sites: Rio Mar (ahhhh!), Santa Clara (oooo!), Rio Hato (ohhhh!), Coronado (oh yea!), Playa Teta (Tetas? Where?). As we drifted off to our afternoon naps and our bladders began to refill, we miraculously arrived at our hotel. Although a somewhat strange location, the Cubita Boutique Resort was a very nice property with a large courtyard, pool, chapel (presumably for destination weddings), and the usual accoutrements one would expect. First impressions were very good; however, second ones, not so much. As Jody and I entered our room, I couldn’t help but notice that Lee and Jim Grant were already in there. Since there was only one bed and one chair, we did a paper-rock-scissors to figure out who got the bed.

The evening went much smoother, in fact, it was outstanding. Dinner tables were spread out in the courtyard under the dry season stars, while a buffet of suckling pig, sweet pl­átanos, and other tasty morsels were served up. We were in Panama the week before Carnival, and the local dance troupe, complete with their Carnival Queen, gave us a spirited demonstration of their dance routines. The evening ended . . . well I’m not sure how everyone’s evening ended, but our evening event was punctuated with a fireworks display. Kudos and a hearty well done to our host and reunion committee member Ricardo. Evidently, he attended Diablo Jr. High with us, and was an original investor in the Cubita Resort, but is no longer involved with the ownership. Kurt Muse seemed to know him, but then Kurt, the unofficial mayor of Panama, seemed to be well known wherever we went, go figure!

The following day, not too early thank you very much, most of us loaded up the bus with Jaime for a half hour trip to the Varela Hermanos Hacienda San Isidro, better known as the Ron Abuelo distillery.

Please pardon the story intermission number 2. During the relatively short drive from Cubita Resort to the rum factory, one couldn’t help but notice the three walled in motel-like structures with names like Las Flores, Tu U Yo, and Jardín del Amor along the way. Okay, I couldn’t remember the real names, but evidently the Province of Herrera has the need for a few Push Buttons.

Meanwhile, back on the bus, Jaime deposited us at the entrance of the distillery. We were welcomed by local staff with very nice Panama hats, not the traditional sombrero pintao that we know as a Panama hat, but nice ones all the same. After a brief introduction, we were loaded onto ox carts (yes, you read that right) to allow us to experience the old way of transporting sugar cane from the fields to the distillery. We probably saw thousands of acres (or even hectares) of sugar cane fields in that part of the country and surrounding the distillery grounds. How many of us remember rumbling through the jungle and cutting off a stalk of sugar cane with a machete and chewing it down to a nub so many years ago? Anyway, the trip in the ox carts was a great authentic experience, but for those of us in need of a baño and/or without a prostate, the ten-minute trip couldn’t get over soon enough. The tour of the distillery factory was interesting, but we really wanted to get on with the business at hand – rum tasting. Four different products were presented: Ron Abuelo Añejo, Añejo 7 years, 12 years, and Centuria. The first rum was the cheap stuff, which required a coke, ice and slice of lime to make it palatable. The 7-year was much better, but still probably wouldn’t be despoiled by a coke and lime. The 12-year was a true sipping rum, and the Centuria, which contained 30-year old rum, was a pure sipping delight. There is no truth to the rumor that classmates, who will again remain nameless, emptied all remaining rum from other classmates’ glasses into a common glass for later consumption. It was only the 12-year old and Centuria that was poached. Before we departed, our hosts served a nice lunch of arroz con pollo (what else?).

The next day was a travel day to the beach. But before we checked out, there was time for breakfast and a splash in the pool. Just an hour up the road we stopped for lunch at El Meson in Penonomé. I either didn’t listen or don’t remember, what the owner told us about the building, which was quite old and filled with religious artifacts by the original owner. I’m not sure how long it took to go from Penonomé to the Sheraton Bijao Beach Resort, but most of us napped as our bladders and drool cups filled. Check in was not as smooth as we would have liked, but we got settled in plenty of time for our next event.

That evening would be another special time and become one of the fondest memories of the reunion trip. We all cleaned up nicely and were transported to Johnny and Mariela’s apartment in Punta Barca, a short trip from the Bijao Resort. (Thank goodness, it wasn’t far enough for a pee break!) We ascended to the top floor of the complex, and the view of the full moon over the Pacific Ocean took your breath away. There were probably about 60 of us, and each was greeted by the hosts with balls caps for the guys and mola shoulder purses for the ladies. The food and beverages were wonderful with Johnny’s three, fine sons doing the honors on the grill. It was great to see Tom Duncan at Johnny’s. He is experiencing serious health challenges, but had a smile on his face the whole evening. Local resident classmate Ron Byrd also made an appearance at the party. Many thanks to Johnny and Mariela for being such wonderful hosts and sharing their beautiful home with us.      

The classmates went in many different directions the next day. Some stayed at the resort to enjoy the pool and beach, while others toured El Valle, and a small group of us played golf on the resort’s very nice course. It was reported that the El Valle tour was quite enjoyable except maybe for the Bataan-like, forced march through the countryside in search of the elusive square trunk trees. Many round and triangular trees were found, but no square trees, yetis, or Bo Coon were sighted. Sorry about the reference to Bo Coon, who is a Gamboa urban legend, probably only known to us jungle fringe dwellers.

Meanwhile on the golf course, Dave Bishop arranged for two foursomes to take two laps around the resort’s nine-hole course. Dave, Ken (Sue Howley’s husband), Omer (Nancy Pie’s husband), Jim (Lee Harwell’s husband), and yours truly Jim Borell were joined by BHS royalty. The ladies voted “most athletic” for their respective BHS classes of 1968, 1972, and 1976; Becky Fall, Martha Duncan, and Diana Duncan Bishop showed the boys how to punch the golf ball down the fairway. Ken was a seriously good golfer and Dave consistently hit the ball straight, if not long. (I’ve heard that about him). The rest of us scattered balls that found houses, patios, pools, lakes, streams, and jungle more often than fairways and greens. However, I can attest that a good time was had by all.

The following afternoon it was back on the dreaded “no pee pee” bus with Jaime as we headed for our next hotel, the Americas Golden Tower in the big city. But on the way, we made a couple of planned detours. First on the agenda was a tour of the old Howard Air Force Base. The runway is still intact, but the rest of the area was a busy combination of residential and commercial real estate. There was no “wow” factor, but certainly the area was being used much to its potential. Condos, stores, a school, businesses, and recreation facilities blended well in an attractive, comfortable, and very livable community. The overall feeling was that it is a much better place today than it was in our time.

Next stop was at our stately alma mater. The main building of Balboa High still stands brightly and proudly at the foot of the Administration Building’s hill. There is now a pantheon built onto the front of the building to honor the martyrs from the events of January 1964. (That’s a whole different conversation.) We were ushered up to the second floor into the former school’s library, which is now used as . . . well, a library, for the Panama Canal Authority’s training center. I don’t ever remember going out the front windows from the library onto the veranda, but since there was no chance Mr. Knick would show up, out we went for some photo ops.  

Next stop was our mid-city hotel, which turned out to be a beautiful, modern property. Some of us visited a top floor hospitality suite to help lubricate the night ahead. Various groups found the plethora of restaurants within walking distance and were quite happy to have a mall just a block away as well.

The next day was our second Friday together, and no blood had been spilled yet. The only injuries sustained were bruises caused by flying elbows as we raced off the bus to find bathrooms. This day was to be another special one, with a trip out to my home town, Gamboa, and to make a partial transit of the canal. Our first stop in Gamboa was the Rainforest Resort located at the former site of the Gamboa Golf & Country Club. The familiar view of an intensely green jungle and the Chagres River brought a flood of memories back to those carefree days of when your parents weren’t concerned about your whereabouts, just that you returned home by dinner time.

We were a tad early for the boat trip, so we rode around Gamboa, where we stopped at my old house on Sibert Ave. for photo opportunity, then down Williamson Ave. where Elva and Larry Sellens got to see their former home. If there is one place in the canal area that looks, feels, and seems unchanged from the old Canal Zone days, it’s Gamboa. Many of the homes are still vacant, but an equal number are inhabited. Did I mention they are building a new bridge across the Chagres? How many times did we ignore the traffic light on the one-way bridge at some ungodly hour only to be met halfway by a car legally crossing the bridge in the opposite direction. Gamboa teenagers were excellent at driving cars in reverse!

Finally, it was time to board our tourist boat and make the partial transit from Gamboa, down Culebra Cut and lockages through Pedro Miguel and Miraflores Locks. As a merchant mariner and sea scout, I’ve been through the canal many times on large ships, my father’s tugboat, and a cayuco, but this maritime adventure through the canal was another highlight in our highlight studded reunion trip. We locked through Pedro Miguel with a giant bulk carrier that was on its way to China and were joined in the two Miraflores chambers by a car carrier bound for Japan. Just a few hundred yards from and parallel to the old locks are the approach to and the new canal expansion Cocli Locks, where we could see an LNG tanker over 1000 feet long and 165 feet wide, on its way to Korea. The tour boat took us past Rodman; through Balboa harbor, which is now a large container port; under the Bridge of the Americas; past the long, abandoned pilings of the old Thatcher Ferry; down the Causeway, all the way to a marina between Perico and Flamenco Islands. What a day!

On Saturday morning, in another search for nostalgia and lost youth; Mark Dillon, Becky Fall, Jim LeFebvre, and I drove back out to Gamboa; but this time to climb into the cayuco “Bulldogs” for a couple hours of paddling. Becky kept us on pace in the bow of the boat, while Mark exhorted us on from the stern. The two Jims in the middle kept up as well as we could.

It was Saturday night in Panama, and what better place to have a pizza dinner than the old Napoli, just off of 4th of July Avenue. What used to be a very busy part of Panama City across from Ancon, is now a dingy and dark section of town. As 50 or so of us got off the bus to enter Napoli, some guy came up to us with a toy gun and demanded, “manos arriba.” We shouted back, “no entendemos,” and danced into the restaurant waving our hands over our heads. Some other classmates may have a different memory of that event, but don’t believe them.

From dinner, we were off to our farewell party at the Balboa Yacht Club, where we danced to the tunes of both the Trolling 69ers and Shorty and Slim. It was great to see Eduardo de Alba who made an appearance along with Steve Naar and Lance Hughes that evening. There were many familiar faces in attendance: Teddy and Mel Henter and Mike Young all class of ’69; and Bruce and Dean Houma who grew up in Gamboa. I knew many more of the faces, but the names escaped me. Of all the things we did and all the places we saw during our ten days together, those few hours that Saturday night in Amador brought us back to 1968 and all that was familiar to us back then. To quote Frankie Valli, “Oh what a night!”

All that’s left of this story is to thank the organizers, tour company, and my classmates for being such great travel companions. Mark, Maggie, Johnny, and Ricardo did a wonderful job in seeing to our comfort, enjoyment and safety throughout the reunion trip. Thanks again for the hats, mola purses, and bulldog t-shirts. Our tour guide was great. She never got frazzled, even when told for the 14th time that we all grew up there, and then all the classmates’ spouses would yell, “no we didn’t.”

We were an eclectic group. Some classmates I knew well, others I hadn’t seen since our 40th reunion trip to Panama, while others it has been even longer. But what we have now is a shared experience of a lifetime, that will bring smiles to our faces every time we think about it. Well, except for Lee’s husband, Jim Grant, who lost an arm off his glasses on day one and had to balance those glasses on one ear and his nose for 10 days. Saying nothing of the harassment he received from me about it the entire time.

We now have a 5-month rest and rehabilitation period. Who in the world has two 50th high school reunions? Yea, it’s us, BHS class of 1968. See you in Orlando in June!

Jim Borell