By GLENN GARVIN
Herald Staff Writer
PANAMA -- They couldn't have known, they say. They were just teenagers,
they never dreamed that their innocent little protest would end 35 years later with
the United States handing the canal back to Panama and going home, pulling the
plug on everything their parents and sometimes even grandparents had worked
``Oh, don't even go there, don't ask me that question!'' wailed
member of Balboa High School's class of 1964. ``I've asked it to myself a
thousand times. Is it our fault the United States is leaving Panama? Look, we
were just kids. We would never have done it if we could have foreseen all this.''
Balboa High, the most powerful symbol of the perfect little America
in the middle
of Panama that used to be called the Canal Zone, graduated its 85th and final
class Saturday, and about 800 alumni flew in for a daylong round of tearful parties
that was part reunion and part metaphor.
Operated first by the old Panama Canal Co. and later by the U.S. military
children of Canal Zone families, Balboa High could have been plucked from Des
Moines or Wichita or Tulsa. It had a football -- not soccer -- team, cheerleaders,
yearbooks, homecoming queens. You could get by there without knowing a word
of Spanish, and many kids didn't.
It was everything the American families in the Canal Zone loved about
and everything their Panamanian critics hated. Whichever side you were on,
Saturday's farewell was momentous.
``This is the end of a way of life,'' said Lynn Saarinen, Balboa class
of '74, now a
Houston lawyer. ``I don't think that's an exaggeration at all.''
Students altered history
But the irony -- excruciating or delicious, depending on where you stand
Saturday's farewell was that its seeds were planted 35 years ago right there at
the Balboa High flagpole, when a couple of hundred students raised the Stars and
Stripes in defiance of a U.S. military decree.
Angered Panamanian students marched into the Canal Zone to hoist their
U.S. troops and Canal Zone police officers turned them away. There was trouble,
and when the smoke cleared four days later, 21 Panamanians and four
Americans were dead, hundreds injured.
Panama broke diplomatic relations with the United States, and by the
end of the
year, President Lyndon Johnson had agreed to start negotiations over control of
the canal. In 1977, those talks finally ended with a treaty abolishing the Canal
Zone and handing the canal itself to Panama on the last day of 1999.
``It all goes back to us, the infamous class of 1964,'' said Karen Hicks,
educational consultant from Bethlehem, Pa., as she poked at a piece of cake at
one of Saturday's parties. ``We started the ball rolling, and this is where it
Hicks and 15 or so of her classmates who attended Saturday's ceremonies
doing the same thing they do at their class reunions: talking over the events of
Jan. 9, 1964, trying to figure out exactly what happened and why, wondering if it
all could have ended any differently.
Lord, do they wish it could have! They loved the Canal Zone. Some of
third-generation Zonians whose grandparents helped dig the canal. It crushes
them to think they were the ones who unraveled it all.
``I would not have made one single move I made that day if I had thought
was going to happen,'' said a California businessman who feels the topic is still
too touchy to give his name. ``We didn't want to change anything. We loved the
It all started at lunch that day, everybody agrees. At The Clubhouse,
a cluster of
stores and restaurants where a lot of the youngsters ate, the word somehow got
out that the U.S. flag was going to come down from in front of Balboa High at 2:30
p.m., a casualty of a military directive that the American and Panamanian flags
had to fly side by side or not at all.
Perhaps 100 or so students, most of them seniors, decided to walk out
at 2:15 to form a human blockade around the flagpole to prevent anyone from
striking the colors. But when they got there, the flag was already gone.
Somebody found a small one, and one member of the class of '64 -- no one at
Saturday's reunion was willing to reveal that person's name -- shinnied up the pole
to attach it at the top.
Later, the Balboa youngsters watched the confrontation between U.S.
forces and the Panamanian students, but they didn't take part in it. Nor did they
tear down a Panamanian flag, as has sometimes been reported about that day.
Ex-students reject image
But after the rioting, the flagpole incident grew to mythic proportions.
years, the Balboa students have found themselves painted alternately as
American superpatriots and spoiled colonial brats. They don't recognize either
``We were just pawns, unwitting pawns, and I think the Panamanian kids
too,'' Hicks said. ``I believe a lot of the chain of history is like this. Somebody
recognizes that all the precursor elements are there, and they take advantage.''
Some of the Balboa students had been whipped up by their parents, who
angered by the new flag policy but afraid of losing their jobs if they protested,
Hicks said, and the Panamanian students were incited by leftist militants who
were looking for an excuse to confront the U.S. presence.
``But really, we were just teenagers,'' agreed Honey Dimitriadis, an
executive from Mobile, Ala. ``We were trying to get ahold of Beatles records, and
wondering who we were going to the next dance with, and what colors the gym
should be decorated in.''
Two views on flying the flag
The Class of '64 has debated endlessly whether it was justified that
day in raising
the American flag. Hicks says no: ``We were guests in this country. We should
never have acted that way.''
Dimitriadis thinks it's more complicated: ``I think it was insensitive
not to fly an
American flag. My grandparents lived in a railroad car while my grandfather
worked out there in the mud, building the canal. My grandmother lost three babies
to diphtheria. . . . The Zonies had earned a right to be proud of the canal.''
But what everybody agrees is that the flagpole incident ended in a disaster
unfathomable dimensions that seem to grow as the years pass. ``There was
nothing political going on that day,'' said David Kimberling, now a software
engineer in Albuquerque, N.M. ``All we wanted to do was protect our flag. . . . But
it sure didn't turn out very well, did it?''
Copyright 1999 Miami Herald