Danny Tyree: The Panama Canal turns 100 years old
On Aug. 15, the Panama Canal (which greatly enhances maritime trade by providing a shortcut between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans) celebrates the 100th anniversary of its opening.
The Tyree family has a multigenerational interest in this milestone.
The U.S. Army generously sent my Tennessee plowboy father to the Panama Canal Zone in 1946. As a history buff, I’m sure he knew about the casualties associated with the construction of the canal. A total of 22,000 lives were lost to accident or disease when the French attempted the gargantuan task (1881-1894). Another 5,500 workers died during the 10-year U.S. phase of the project.
Dad had his own brushes with accident and disease. His comrades onshore gave him up for dead when a sudden storm engulfed his canoe with massive walls of water. Working as a medic, he treated case after case of nauseating ear infection among the natives. Perhaps that explains why, later in life, he broke into a cold sweat any time a receptive listener chirped, “I’m all ears!”
Dad made many friends among the Kuna Indians, who lived on the nearby San Blas Islands. I had to take it by faith that such an obscure tribe actually existed, and my mother would roll her eyes whenever Dad waxed nostalgic over the “San Blas Indians”; but when my wife and I went to the Smithsonian Institution in the late 90s (a couple of years before Dad passed away), we saw a whole exhibit on the Kuna Indians and viewed that as sort of a vindication for Dad.
One of Dad’s favorite remembrances of the Canal Zone involved a movie that caused quite a stir at camp. A little research reveals that it was Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 thriller “Notorious.” When Ingrid Bergman’s character observed, “Of course I’m a marked woman, you know? I’m liable to blow up the Panama Canal any minute now,” all the homesick G.I.s cheered.
My own interest in the Panama Canal came during the beginnings of my political phase in high school. Like many people, I viewed President Carter as treasonous for signing the 1977 Torrijos-Carter Treaties, which would relinquish U.S. control of the Canal Zone in 1999. All sorts of predictions about dire consequences were bandied about by conservative pundits. Admittedly, after 15 years of Panamanian control, nothing really bad has happened. And to add insult to injury, I missed my senior prom because I was trying to track down Carter’s Kenyan birth certificate. (Still, somewhere in a Habitat for Humanity attic...)
Who knows? Yet another generation may become involved with Panama. My son Gideon (age 10) has spent half his life aspiring to be an engineer. As luck would have it, the American Society of Civil Engineers has named the canal as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World (alongside such marvels as the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, Donald Trump’s hair, Chris Christie’s fork...) And the canal needs expansion to accommodate the increasing number of larger and larger ships.
Danny Tyree welcomes reader e-mail responses at firstname.lastname@example.org.