My Life at Age Seven

Map of Fort Gulick
Map of Panama - Canal Zone - Fort Gulick

At Fort Gulick, Canal Zone, my father's family with five and a half children was large enough and his rank as captain was high enough that we soon moved out of our half-building quarters into the whole-building of Quarters 32. Years later, when Fort Gulick was being turned over to the Panamanians as Fort Espinar, the New York Times published two articles that showed military housing at Fort Gulick. I felt certain that one photo showed the building in which my family lived for two years, so I asked a co-worker if she could read the quarters number faintly visible in the photograph, and she said "Thirty-two". The photograph of Quarters 32 by Scott Dalton was published on page A3 of the MON.4.DEC.1995 national edition of the New York Times.

Quarters Thirty-two had three levels. The ground level had no outer walls and consisted of a carport and a maid's quarters in the middle of an otherwise open area. The second level was kitchen, pantry, dining room and a large living room, for which my parents bought rattan furniture. The third level was master bedroom with tiny bathroom; another bathroom with a deep shower that I tried to swim in; and three bedrooms for us five whole children. My whole sister lived in her own bedroom and my half-a-sister lived in her mother's womb until she was born in Coco Solo.

About thirty feet of grass and lawn separated our military quarters from the massive wall of the Panamanian jungle. When I tried for the first time to enter the jungle, I pushed aside some vegetation hanging down and I stepped into a massive, dark cavern formed by the canopy of giant trees and the overhead vegetation. Immediately a rock hit my forehead, thrown by some stupid army-brat from one of the wooden platforms nailed onto the high-up tree branches and slowly rotting away in the hot, wet jungle. It was a scene right out of "Lord of the Flies". The children of fathers who were an officer and a gentleman by act of Congress were shedding their patina of civilization and reverting to feral hominids in the jungle primeval. I could have lost an eye to their vicious, savage behavior. I quickly retreated and my heart was filled with despair that maybe the jungle was too dangerous for me to enter.

I waited until another day and I tried again. There was no mob of feral boys up in the trees, so I climbed up and looked around. Bi-yearly waves of American youngsters had nailed climbing struts to a big, central tree and had made up-in-the-air forts here and there among the thick branches. The boards looked so warped and rotten that I did not dare stand on them.

Soon my brother Larry and I were exploring all the way down to Gatun Lake, which was about two hundred feet lower than our house and about five hundred feet away from our house. There was a well-trodden pathway through the jungle between the cavern of the trees and the makeshift dock at the edge of the lake. We were forbidden to swim in Gatun Lake for fear of crocodiles. I fell in once, but quickly clambered out. At the PX (Post Exchange) we would buy fish-hooks and try to catch fish in Gatun Lake. When we baited our hooks with white bread, immediately a swarm of minnows would appear and devour the bread. One day my brother Larry did catch a sizeable fish in Gatun Lake and our family ate it for dinner. At least twice my father and a friend or two took Larry and me out fishing for mackerel in a chartered fishing boat. We would catch several dozen mackerel and have a big mackerel feast up in the parking lot of the Officers' Club on a hill across the street from our military quarters.

We lived actually above a mere fingerlet of Gatun Lake and we could see more of the jungle crowding down to the water on the far shore about three or four hundred feet away. There was no such thing as a beach on Gatun Lake like you might find on a lake in North America. The jungle grew not only down to the lake-shore but out over it. Our family sometimes drove to the saltwater Pina Beach or Kobbe Beach, where we could swim only within the giant sharknet built to keep Jaws away from us. It was still scary because a rumor went around that a barracuda had snuck in and bitten a boy's arm or leg off. To this day I fear the barracuda, but Green Lake in Seattle has had only escaped caymans from the Woodland Park Zoo and some basketball-sized turtles that stay submerged for three minutes. Some years ago I was lying as usual under the Yum-Yum Tree at West Green Lake, and I heard an old man talking Spanish to some boys about "el Lago de Gatun" and I wanted to brag to them that I had haunted Gatun Lake for two happy years of my boyhood, but somehow I held my tongue.

At Fort Gulick in Panama, some neighbors with a boy Larry's age and another boy my age would take my brother Larry out in a canoe on Gatun Lake and they would shoot either a BB gun or a 22-caliber rifle at crocodiles, but I never got to go with them out in the canoe. One day there was a rumor that a family had caught a baby crocodile and was keeping it in the metal wash-basin of the carport beneath their quarters. I went to look and, sure enough, a crocodile about one foot long was staring up at me from the metal basin.

Iguanas were everywhere, falling out of the trees with a splash into Gatun Lake, or running in the street below the concrete curb that hemmed them in. We were forbidden to approach the iguanas, because their long, enormous tails might lash us and hurt us. Our neighbors' maid, Gitigoriah, would catch an iguana, slit it open to get the egg sac, and eat the plump white iguana eggs as a native delicacy -- which grossed me out. Gitigoriah also kept a miniature "marmoset" monkey in a chicken-wire enclosure beneath the concrete stairwell leading from the carport up to the family quarters. We army-brats could not communicate verbally with Gitigoriah, but Major Hogan spoke Spanish with her.

On the same street where the iguanas ran and where I often went roller-skating, the Army would send a DDT-truck through about twice a year in the early evening. The truck would drive slow and release behind it a large cloud of DDT to poison the mosquitoes. Some other kids and I enjoyed running in the cloud of DDT behind the slow-moving truck. Of course in later years I wished that I had not gone running in a swirling cloud of poisonous DDT, but Rachel Carson had not yet written "Silent Spring" and in my feral boyhood, though I walked through the jungle of death I could fear no evil, for I was the wildest boy in the jungle.

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the Mentifex Autobiography at age:
01, 02, 03, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09, 10,
11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20,
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