Sometimes images from a life-altering event can remain fresh even after 45 years. For me every January 9th brings back images from 1964, when I was a 6th grader living in Panama. That was when I saw the effects of my first political experience explode into the world news and leave 25 dead and many more injured.
I was purely a bit player – a crowd extra – in what led up to that day. The fact that I was only 11 years old at the time provided an element of farce to what transpired. One thing I learned from then was how quickly mindless fun and frivolity can turn to tragedy and fear.
In 1963 President Kennedy ordered that all American flags in the Canal Zone be accompanied by Panamanian flags, to acknowledge Panamanian sovereignty over the Canal Zone. This order wasn’t popular with many Americans living in the Zone, who mistakenly felt it was really kind of an American colony. After President Kennedy’s death, the Governor of the Canal Zone decreed that as of January 1st, 1964, American flags would not be flown over schools, post offices, cemeteries, etc., to avoid the aggravation of flying Panamanian flags there as well. It would turn out the Zonians weren’t happy with that order either.
I was living in Panama because my father’s American company had a warehouse there due to the canal. Because my parents didn’t work for either the U.S. military or the Panama Canal Company, they paid a monthly tuition to send me and my sister to the American schools in the Zone. (It was believed easier to get into an American college from the American schools than from those in Panama, due to the American curriculum. This was why numerous Panamanian families who could afford it also sent their children to the Canal Zone schools.)
Shortly after we returned to school from Christmas break that year, I became aware of a growing restiveness among the Zonians: they were unhappy about the absence of the American flags from the usual places. The first demonstrations took place at Balboa High School, clearly visible a few hundred yards across a green from my elementary school. Along with the one on the flag pole, there were soon numerous American flags attached to parts of the school, waving in the tropical breezes.
The sentiment quickly spread and demonstrations broke out around the Canal Zone. One such demonstration took place at Ancon elementary school, the other elementary school on the Pacific side of the Zone. Bizarrely, it was reported the students there occupied the administration office (remember, these were elementary school kids), took a flag and ran it up the school flag pole.
At Balboa elementary school, we weren’t quite that brazen. Or maybe the adults in charge were a little more…adult. But we did have lunchtime demonstrations, running up and down the playground waving flags that had magically arrived for us. (Actually, one of the suppliers was a Panamanian classmate named Ramon, who was a natural leader/instigator.) It was all very exciting and fun. So much fun, in fact, that after school we waved our American flags out of the windows of our school bus as we rode through the streets of Panama City to our homes.
Looking back, that was a clearly dumb and provocative thing to do. But what did we know? We were just kids caught up in the moment.
On the evening of January 9th, things came to a head. Panamanian students marched to Balboa High School, where they wanted to symbolically raise their flag and then take it back down and leave. Americans surrounding the flag pole resisted, a scuffle broke out, and the rest – as they say – is history.
For me, the specific chronology of what happened over the next few days has faded from memory. What remain fresh are fragments of memory. My parents had gone that night with friends to the Ft. Amador officer’s club in the Zone. (As a WWII vet, my father qualified for membership and we went there often.) As news bulletins started breaking on the Canal Zone TV station and we gradually realized something was up, we began to wonder how and where they were. (Not really knowing what was happening, they wound up having to make a very circuitous route to find a safe way back across the Canal Zone border to Panama City – encountering a loaded convoy of armored personnel carriers in their journey. )
As I recall, the next morning my dad drove over to the border near Ancon to check out the destruction from the night before. One of the things he saw (which he later photographed) was at the burned out Pan-American building – apparently destroyed because it had “American” in its name. (The building was owned by a Panamanian.) On the side of the building someone had written in red paint “Johnson-you-kill-Kennedy Yankees Killers Go home Soberania O’ Muerte!” (“Sovereignty or Death!”) It was an interesting statement – Haiku-like – revealing an anger at Americans combined with a hinted sense of loss for the recently killed Kennedy. (Only 7 weeks before, Panamanians had widely mourned Kennedy’s death.) It also reflected a certain Panamanian sense of how leadership succession might take place.
The rioting persisted for about 3 more days. During that time, we were confined to our apartment. NBC Monitor, a weekend radio show, reported Panamanians were going from house to house in Panama, dragging Americans out into the street and lynching them. (This turned out to be false, although we did occasionally see cars cruise down our street decked out with Panamanian flags and filled with angry young men.)
With little else to do (there weren’t computers, iPods, video games, etc. back then, and the news was frightening), my family spent countless hours playing Rummy Royal, a board game my mom had gotten us for Christmas. Looking back, it was a peculiar time of crushing boredom and very real fear. It was awful. After the riots ended, we never wanted to look at that Rummy Royal game again.
History will show that the events of that weekend eventually led to the renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty and the returning of the canal to Panama. The Zonian belief that they could preserve their illusory American colony from “foreign” interlopers blew up in their faces, eliminating their “homeland” instead.
The events of that time shaped me in a number of ways. How I – all of us, really – had gotten mindlessly swept up in the feelings of the crowd made me very leery of large group activities. Years later, when I attended the occasional anti-Vietnam war demonstration, I was always on my guard to avoid getting swept up in any kind of mob action. In retrospect, the events of January 1964 gave me my first awareness of the way individual and group behaviors can be intertwined.
I also developed a very ambivalent view of flags and flag waving. Make no mistake – growing up for seven years in Panama made me very appreciative of what it meant to be an American. I felt as if I had won a lottery of birth. But looking back, all the passion, death and destruction over flags just seemed like a terrible waste. This wasn’t Iwo Jima, symbolically staking claim to land in the midst of a desperate war against tyranny. This was a bunch of Americans who had been too long away from their true homeland, caught up by a passionate moment into believing they could stake a claim to someone else’s rightful land.
My ambivalence and discomfort with flag-waving remains to this day. The way everyone started displaying flags on their houses after 9/11 made me uneasy. I sensed again a rising tide of nationalism that could become unreasoning and dangerous. Looking back on what our country has done in the world since then, I feel a sense of disappointment and emptiness not unlike what I felt in 1964. Look at all the death and destruction that has been wrought, born from the idea that we might somehow redeem the greatness of America by waving our flag where ever we want.
I don’t want to get preachy here, but I feel this needs to be said. America is not great because we can wave our flag in the face of other nations. Such actions only bring resentment and hatred.
America is great because of our ideals – as represented by our Constitution and Bill of Rights. America is great because even when our leadership differs tremendously on what course our country should take, the succession between leaders takes place through ballots instead of bullets. America is great because at our best, like President Kennedy, we sometimes inspire others with genuine hope and idealism. When we are at our best, many others around the world see us as truly a sweet land of liberty.
Sometimes, a seed of admiration for our idealism shows up in the most unlikely of places – like an angry message painted on the wall of a burned out building.
It’s the peculiar fate of America that even with our military might, we are not geared to lead the world through coercion. We’re not good at it and, deep down, the idea of empire makes us uncomfortable. Perhaps due to our rebellious origin, it’s not in our national DNA. But we are very much geared to lead the world through inspiration.
It is now January, 2009; a new era beckons. It’s time to return to our natural path.
=== Fair use for January 24, 1964 Life Magazine cover ===
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# It is a historically significant photo of an historical event
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===Photograph of Pan-Am building by Donald M. Higgins===