When the Colonel was 14, his Air Force NCO dad got his second most significant set of orders, as far as the impact on the Colonel's life was concerned.
The first most significant was in 1966 when he was sent to Vietnam for a long and family-stressing year, during which the Colonel attended the fifth grade in Columbus, Mississippi and got his first real lesson in the lunacy of racial segregation. But that is grist for another post.
In January of 1970 the Colonel's family flew to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone.
That month the Colonel started in the second eighth grade class and third junior high he attended, but his school-hopping days were finally over. The result of the Colonel's previous 9 years of itinerant education, during which he landed briefly on 11 different schools like a confused honey bee visiting different varieties of flowers and returning to the hive with an unusable mixture of pollen clinging to its legs, was a polyglot of disconnected learning, disparate educational philosophies, and classmates known too briefly to be classified as friends. At Balboa High School in the Panama Canal Zone the Colonel got a real education from a first class high school, at which he miraculously stayed for his entire high school career.
We stepped off the plane that early January afternoon into 90 degree temperatures and 90 percent humidity -- a warm, moist embrace that wrapped the Colonel and held him for nearly 5 more years.
The Panama Canal Zone was a slice of time-warped America straddling Teddy Roosevelt's crowning achievement and dividing a banana republic situated on an isthmus stolen from Columbia in a relatively bloodless American sanctioned revolution. Teddy took what he wanted, and he wanted an American canal.
By the time the Colonel got there the Panama Canal Zone was at its zenith. Governed by a US Army general appointed by the US President and ruled by a strict set of regulations called the Canal Zone Code, the Canal Zone was a country club-manicured, and nearly crime-free American oasis in a turbulent and poverty-stricken region. The Zone's permanent residents, American employees of the Panama Canal Company referred to by themselves and others as "Zonians," were proudly American, but undeniably influenced by the Panamanian culture surrounding them. They ran the canal and tolerated the large US military presence that brought a steady stream of temporary residents to their idyllic haven.
Little wonder that the Colonel's Panama experience became such a significant influence on him. It was a wonderful place for a teenage boy -- swimming weather year round, unspoiled beaches, lakes and bays full of fish, and rain forest (we called it jungle) to explore.
In Panama, the Colonel found a scout troop and made Eagle.
In Panama, the Colonel discovered a passion (won't call it talent) for writing and was published for the first time, in the high shool literary journal, "Isthmian Inklings."
In Panama, the Colonel found a group of guys with budding patriotism in their hearts and made plans for military careers that many executed well beyond their wildest dreams.
In Panama, the Colonel found a girl who became his best friend, later wife, and now the joy of his life.
In Panama, the Colonel found faith in a gracious God whose faithfulness, mercy, and provision never ceases to amaze him.
The most idiotic American President of the twentieth century (he will go un-named, but his initials are James Earl Carter), in a fit of never-rewarded international do-good-ism, gave the Canal Zone "back" to Panama (actually, Nixon started the process, but we won't go there).
If you want to be technically legal about it, we should have given the Isthmus of Panama (and the Canal) back to Columbia, from whom we took it at the beginning of the century.
The Canal, one of the technological marvels of the twentieth century (and even the present century), still runs -- Panama had the good sense to keep on many of the Zonians who had the expertise to run it, until they could train their own. But the zone itself, its American affluence once starkly contrasting against the poverty of Panama on either side, has largely fallen into neglect; a line no longer sharply demonstrating the wealth and power of the American Empire.
Just as well. The Canal Zone of the Colonel's youth is brought to his mind every time he looks into his high school sweetheart's eyes.