An interview with Davis Stevenson


Material Information

An interview with Davis Stevenson
Physical Description:
35 minutes
Davis Stevenson
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


General Note:
Interviewed by Candice Ellis

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Source Institution:
University of Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
PCM 031 Davis Stevenson 7-8-2011
PCM 030
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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix 241 Pugh Hall PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 Phone 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when c onducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview transcripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SP OHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the original oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim document of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interview ee; subjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelling corrections SPOHP transcribers ref er to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


PCM 031 Interviewee: Davis Stevenson Interviewer: Candice Ellis Date of Interview: July 8, 2011 E: This is Candice Ellis with Davis Stevenson on July 8 th 2011 at the Panama Canal reunion right from the beginning. How did you find yourself or how did your family come to the Canal Zone? S: Well actually I was born in the Republic of Panama, one of the rarities. My father w as the editor of the Panama American which was the newspaper published in Panama. One side was English and then you turn over to the other side was Spanish. And I was born on Calle E studiante on July 9, 1930 coming to the Canal Zone is ra ther opaque. My dad was one, he was a newspaper man so he was all over the place, but then we moved into th e Canal Zone for a couple years. H e worked for the Panama Canal Company and we lived on Ancon Boulevard. Then the family left, we went to Do wners Grove Illinois. T hen we went to Puerto Rico Haiti and Santo Domingo. Three days after Pearl Harbor was bombed, we left on the last S.S. Cristobal, the Panama Canal railroad boat for Panama. And we came back into Panama and we stayed ever since, and I joi ned the army in 1951, and went off to retire as a full colonel. The other day I was trying to think about the I remember as a little boy riding the train across the isthmus and looking out Gatun Lake at all the stumps that were still up, the tree who were flooded, and I was always amazed by it. Today when I go back it kind of br ings back memories to see this, most of them are gone. I


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 3 went to Balboa High School, I graduated from Balboa High School, was a mediocre student [ Laughter ] E: How did your father meet your mother? Was she in the Zone? S: No, my father met mom in Puerto Rico and they were married in a town called Caguas, Puerto Rico. My mother graduated from college, wanted a degree in ee so the only t hing she could get the degree was in astronomy. She was a school teacher in Panama. E: They kind of moved around. I know you mentioned so you lived in the Zone and then you left briefly and came back. S: Yeah. When we came back we lived in Panama, and that was during the war. E: So did you live in the Zone during the war? Or did you live in ? S: No no, we lived in Panama, and then later on we moved to C urundu which was an army town. My dad went to work for the army in C urundu Heights. E: Okay, but that first time that you guys were there, y our father was working for the C anal? S: No he was the editor of the Panama American the Panama newspaper, and then he went to work for the canal company for four or five years.


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 3 E: Right. What kind of work did he do for them while he was S: You know, had lost their job because of the economic problems. A lady had my dad resigned so she could t ake his job. We went back to States and down this road then to Puerto background is rather opaque. Sometimes I thought he was a reformed alcoholic or something [laughter]. E: What was it living like in Panama for the first time? Did you guys have the Panama Canal housing? You know how they S: No, no, no. We lived right in Panama City on E: Okay so even when he was working for the canal, you S: No we moved in and lived on Ancon Boulevard for a couple years, and I can remember sitting on our back porch and seeing the iguanas going up and down old then. E: Do you remember if it was a single family home? Or wa s it one of those S: No it was a four family, the old French construction E: The big, right, yeah.


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 4 S: Yeah, on Ancon Boulevard E: And then where did you attend middle school and elementary school? S: Wel l, we were travel ing so much, my mother t aught me. I went to Calvert School which was an extension school many, many years ago for students overseas. And I ended up back in the Canal Zone. I did not speak good English because we were in Latin America, had become totally bilingual, but my English was terrible. When we came back to the Canal Zone, because of my language problem I had trouble in school, so they put me back in sixth grade in Ancon with a teacher by the name of Sue Co r e who was a very famous writer, and she was my mentor. In sixth grade I went to junior high school in Balboa and Balboa High School. E: What was Balboa High School like? Was that a fun experience? S: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I look back well at the time I di because like school but I look back at it and I think, you know, we make lifel ong friends there that we still t oday in fact I was out and bumped into a guy I graduated with back in [19]50. E: And would you say that the quality of education, you think? Even though you


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 5 S: Excellent. I mean the schools were very, very good schools. It was a great focus on education and I can remember we used to have flag football, and all of a All of us were so excited that now E: Oh [laughter]. S: many years and they had black and white, we all used to sit around. And then the army came in with a colored T V. So it was quite an experience. E: Yeah. Describe an average Saturday night for a high schooler living in the area. S: Drinking beer at El Rancho [laughter]. E: Yeah? [ Laughter ] S: You know, we were such a close I was a boy scout and we did a lot of scouting stuff, scouting. And we hung around we used to have clubhouse s, every town had a clubhouse Like at Ancon clubhouse there was a great big field to the right of the clubhouse and you faced it where we used to play rigole via n [6:25] kick sports, they encouraged a lot of sports. The canal company made it was a utopian experience in a communist setting because the government controlled everything, an d it was just great fun.


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 6 E: The government brought clothes in? S: No, no, no. The government gave us jobs, they controlled the housing, and your house was based on your grade, so if you were high up, you were high up in the pecking order. E: Right. I thi nk somebody mentioned that just shopping was difficult within the zone, you know, shopping for clothes and stuff like that. That a lot of it was S: Well we had the commissary. The commissary was built, and their guidelines within the commissary are pretty limited, and they had their clothes and things And when I grew up, Canal Zone people very seldom went to Panama. In fact, I think my father in law, who was a tugboat ca ptain, did not go to Panama in all the years he was there until I married his daughter and then they started going into Canal Zone we had our own bakery, we had our own dairy, we had our own ice cream plant. So everything was taken care of. They went on annual vacation to go to Cristobal to go on the ship to New York or New Orleans. So there was E: So there other reasons?


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 7 S: and they had no reason to go. Now a lot of Americans had places up at the I think the reason that the interface, number one, was transportation. W hen we were growing up horses were just s tarting to disappear and the Panama Canal Company took care of everything. We had our own movie halls, we had our own schools, we had our own clubhouses, own police force, own post office. So why go to Panama? We h ad everything here. And the community is very close. If you lived in Cardenas, everybody in Cardenas would get together in parties. E: Yeah, and you mentioned transportation. How would you have gotten into Panama if S: There was a bus; they used to have Chvias, what they call Chivas If you go down to museum you see models of them. Were truck bodies where they built a Chivas. E: Chivas, okay. S: And we used to go to Panama in Chivas. E: And then the travel between the Atlantic and Pacific side there was a railroad.


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 8 S: The railroad, then during the war they built the road, but in those days cars were we really started crossing the isthmus on the road. There was an early morning train, a ten b all games in the tunnel. I was waiting for the tunnel, it lasts about 30 seconds. You try to sneak in a kiss with a girl there. [ Laughter ] E: Oh really? [ Laughter ] Was the train a place to socialize as kids? S: would get on the train, have a good time going across the isthmus. E: How long did that journey take? S: About an hour, hour and fifteen minutes. And it stopped at Peter Magi ll Gamboa, Frijoles, Gatun i t stopped, and they had kerosene lamps inside it. We were, as I say, everything was taken care of. It was a lot of fun. E: I guess we can move on to just different traditions like Christmas and New Year s and celebrations lik e that. How were they celebrated? S: Normally Christmas the company would bring the Christmas trees a nd they had one day where everybody rushed out and get in line and all the Christmas trees were out in a big lot and you run and grab yours. And the big thing after


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 9 Christmas, we used to collect the Christmas trees and we had what they call a Christmas tree burn where all the different parts of town collected them and in town a big battle between towns. Guys wou ld sneak in; the Zonians still p ractice it here in the states. Like i n Tallahassee they have a big Christmas tree burn, where after Christmas all the Christmas trees were brought in and we would have a barbeque. E: Be fun. S: Oh, i t was, it was a lot of fun. E: Was it common for kids to have a part time job? S: Most of the part time jobs were like ushers at the movie hal l. And during the summer the company had a student program, but jobs like you find in the states, there were no Burger K ings or anything like that. There was just, a lot of us would sell sodas at the ball game to make extra money, or try to sell mangoes on the street, but here were no jobs because remember the government controlled E: And how long was your family in the Canal Zone? When did you guys leave for the last time?


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 10 S: My father pass ed when we came back in [19]41, my father passed away in [19]63. My mother passed away hundred remember now. I joined the army in 1951 and left with commission, spent a year with a airborne regiment, then I was assigned to Panama run met my wife June, grandmother was a telephone operator at Gatun in 1914 when the canal opened. So her roots were way back. E: So you went back to Panama with the military. S: Yeah. E: What kind of work were you doing there? Just stationed there? S: I was a lieutenant in the United States Army. I was a crew leader in the 33 rd Infantry Regiment F rom there I was very fortunate to be assigned to a diplomatic post which lead to a great military career. I was a first lieutenant and I was assigned to the Paraguay Army mission for two and a half years, which le d to other assignments due to my thorough bilinguity and the fact that I carried a Panamanian passport. E: Was leaving Pana ma the several times that you did, was that ever difficult for you because I know it is a very tight knit community?


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 1 S: movi ng was always a new adventure. W e and my wife retired from the Panama Canal Company, and we left in [19]89. I wanted to stay but she wanted to l eave. She was scared of Noriega, but I was still a full colonel in the army and from talks with some of my senior officers, I knew the invasion was coming but I had no details. I tried to tell June, be patient, they are going to get rid of Noriega, but she decided So, she retired and we came back to the states. E: And that was in 1989. S: [19]89. Both our children were born in Gorgas Hospital. My son was born in Gorgas, my daughter was born in Gorgas. My son was born in Gorgas, I was overseas in the army. [ Laughter ] E: Aw. When did you get to come back? How old was he? S: Well June brought him back to me. He was about two months old when I was in Paragu ay. E: Were you there for the riots in 1960 ? S: Oh yeah. In fact, I participated in them. E: Really? S: Yeah, w e went out to dinner and my wife and I and our two children. As we walked out of the Tully Hotel I saw the trouble. So I took June home and I came


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 2 til about one A.M. And I took my car instead of trying to get back across, I went all the way around the forest reserve, went and told June, rents or her parents. So I drove all the way back around that night. We stayed in I think about a week, then we went back to Panama and then we went back and lived with her parents for another two or three weeks until things calmed down. E: And what was the tension like then? Was it pretty bitter between ? S: Well you know, it was really after the fa ct, I wrote my paper for General Staff College on the riots when I graduated from General Staff College. And I really think the resentment was always that we were there kind of remember when we went into Panama the ascendency of power in the United States was colonialism. We had taken the Philippines the Spanish American War, so I think we went in there with that attitude, not intentionally. But English was the dominant language, we had silver and gold rules, did anybody discuss that with you? E: Yes. S: Gold and Silver rules, they paid the local rates in silver and the Americans in gold. So we were brought up under that attitude and there was a lot of resentment from Panama because they had to come through the Canal Zone T he Canal Zone pretty stressed them when they were going between their


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 3 coun try. And I think if I was a Panamanian I would have felt the same way: wait a minute, these guys right in the middle of my country. And the politicians stirred rid of t he zone; get rid of the Americans. And I think today when I go back, that of what happened. When the treaty was coming in, the military was leaving and there was a guy they shined in the barracks we had shoe shine boys you take all your boots and month. There was a young man that polished shoes for twenty two years in the barracks, educated three children through college based on that thing. The sand blast Indians that did the pot walloping, the cleaning up with the mes s halls, m ade a very good living be em. No GI ever did kitchen work. So the politicians stirred it up because it was to their benef i t. A lot of the Panamanians say good living. And another big resentment was in the Canal Zone maybe they pay two bucks an hour. In Panama minimum wage would be 50 cents. So there was room for rese ntment. I was a great proponent of not signing a treaty. In fact, I put together a petition to congress; I did a lot of work. But now I look back and I see k that it was a good thing we signed the treaty because if we were still in P anama in the Canal Zone, everything would be painted gray and there would be no change because of the government. But when I go back to Panama City all the condominiums going up, I see all the improvements. What


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 4 the commission has done with the product we have no resentment about that now. E: During those riots, would it have been dangerous for Americans in the Zone to be traveling in Panama City? Was that ? S: e borders. They And most of the Americans a lot of Americans came over to the Canal Zone and just stayed I was standing on the street corner about three weeks after the riot and a Panamanian came up and said some thing to me in Spanish, gringo w hu ebon which was a real insult. And I said, panameo malcriado I said, Panamanian without any manners. And the guy I thought was going to fall off the curb because he never expected a comeback in Spanish. And for many years there was slight tension, but it was real low. E: Yeah, a nd where did you relocate when you guys left? S: Well my daughter married a boy from Georgia, and so we had a place in Florida, my daughter called, we were talking to her on th e phone before we left, she says, dad, you know, you were gone a lot you know, E: And that difficult for you?


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 5 S: sitting here talking to you this morning today is my day. If I come back here tomorrow morning ay a lot of people will. If I do adventure. And I do, I really do. I looked forward to talking to you. e probably have no great impact upon the world, but I had a good time talking to you. [ Laughter ] E: Well what the experience was like, and one o interested in is just race relations in the Zone. S: Let me say this: the Panama Canal was built mostly by Southerners. You know, they came out of the South so naturally they had that bias. But when I look back on it, I very true that the black community in the community; t h ey lived in their own towns, and they worked side by side and had different pay scale. fountains and the gold f ountains. I think that growing up that there was any b at the Ancon clubhouse when I was growing up by the name of Johnny. We used to come in to clubhouse


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 6 Jackman who was a black man who did our, when we went to the gym he took the racial tensions t hat we had in the South I E: Right that, you know, how are they playing out in th e Zone? S: upset about Jews. And they say oh, the Jews this and that. And I why? We ll because maybe his father was or he was supposed to be. The racial E: S: You know, it only seems by people up here in the United States who try to build into it something that did not exist because it politically it suits their needs. Now there was tension between Panamanians and Americans, but again that goes back to the fact Canal Zone schools. Their parents paid the tuition for them to be educated, they went to the States and got education s and came back. And I think when they start talking about the racial probl em in Panama,


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 7 failed. They brought in Chinese, they failed Finally they decided to go to Barbados and bring the West Indians in, and they could stand the weather and the work Very true that they were a side thing. Again, at that time the United States army was segregated, the government was segregated, so it was a spillover from the United States. But because there was not politics involved, there was none of the tension. E: Well S: As a kid, you know we, in fact, we were at breakfast with another friend of mine who was Norton Thomas We talked about when we were boy scouts going to the ball game [23:43] I says, Nort remember when the trucks would come down with the fogging machines for the bugs? We used to run behind the trucks. Today the environmentalists would have a fit with that. E: Oh gosh, yeah. S: Or sitt ing on our back porch and seeing a deer walk through the back yard from Ancon Hill. Or Nikki or a trees full of parakeets, and it was a unique I was very fortunate to grow up in a unique situation which very few citizens ever get to do. I many times I stand in the rock wall [24:21] watch that ship go


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 8 part of history, not very many people can say that. E: How often do you get to go back there? S: I go back there three times a year. E: S: getting ready now to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the opening of the the University of Chicago and other universities. E: You should take some UF students. S: Pardon me? E: You should tak e some UF students to Panama. S: Oh yeah. But in the military, the United States Army was in Panama way before the U.S. military used to cross the isthmus on their way to California. I saw a morning reporter report where they start ed with X number of troo p s and they crossed the isthmus, you know, lost them to yellow fever and this when they were waiting for the ship to come down from San Francisco. Commanded by Captain Ulysses S. Grant and he crossed the canal. And the railroad was built to


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 1 9 transfer the gol d across. So when you look at Panama, my god, how intertwined E: really hoping that some good research is going to come out of this because it really is such an incredible source of, you know, all these experiences and different dynamics that set it apart from the States and just made it its own interesting place. Do you guys have like a house down there or do you just stay ? S: We owned property; we sold it. I owned a farm down there in the Canal Zone. In fact, for many, many years guys from the Canal Zone would own the automotive distributorships. I think the first Balboa brewery was set up by an American family. The first whiskey distillery down there was set up by an American family. So that there was a lot of interaction because remember in the Canal Zone there su pply the beer? they manufactured it in Panama and brought it company, they set it up and s ame thing if you want to buy an automo bile they it so you had to go to Panama. E: Is owning land there expensive now or is it ? S: Real estate values are going out through the roof because of the boom down there, but the cost of living normally is low. Food s for us is inexpensive, I mean,


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 2 0 for Pan amanians it might be expensive with the dollar economy. Remember that Panama is a dollar economy; Latin American where you can drink the water right from the faucet because of the American i nfluence with the filtration plants in th because of the Panama Canal. So the influence is spread in both directions. E: maybe S: Well let me go back to this racial thing becaus e I was at a board meeting where somebody trying to create something that did not exist because of a liberal bias or political bias in the United States. A lot of us though t very fondly of the blacks, the word Nigger was ever used down there; it was West Indians. And I think it grossly overplayed, trying to make an issue. You asked me about it; why did you ask me? E: you know, American presence in Panama and I guess just out of curiosity how does that play out when stateside; you have the civil rights movement, all the violence before it, everything that followed it. So just because it is so closely associated with the mainland, you have to kind of wonder what the state of it was I guess, i s you know, it was much


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 2 1 different than what was happening elsewhere, but with that said, what was are trying to S : Well I realize that. E: Yeah, just curiosity really thing. S: Well nt to take a look. Look how many Canal Zone people married Panamanian women. E: it obviously is very different. S: And not lower ca se, a lot of high class, middle class Panamanians. Th marry the trash. A lot of people say, this, but they were well educated Panamanian women. Go out and look around, all the wives. Now the big, big blow in the Canal Zone, speaking of that, was when they integrated the police U.S. ranked as policemen and firemen, b ut that was done away with S o they were integrated in to the communi ty. There were some mumbling about that but it


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 2 2 E: Right. When did the integration happen? S: an ex Canal Zone worker E: the U.S. so S: Well the extension was because the Southerners that built the canal. E: Right. S: And nothing else. Their influence was great there. Most of the carpenters, steel workers, all those people came out of the South and there were deep roots in to image this morning. [ Laughter ] E: You really as a historian of the South and figuring that out, and I think you know, the more of these I do the better understanding I have of the conditions down there and what it was like and i S: Well if you want to do some side research, take a look at the population of the Canal Zone. How many of us joined the army and served in th e military? See how many were boy scouts and became eagle scouts, how many of them went


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 2 3 Unit ed States. If you look at say, an average town of 5,000 people in the United States, see how many got a college degree, advanced degrees, how many joined the army It would be a nice research project because the results stand: most of the Canal Zone kids went off to college. The majority of us went off to college. A lot have joined the arm y and spent time in the army. Most of us were boy scouts. E: How high up in the ranks did you go for the boy scouts? S: In the military? In the boy scouts? E: Yeah. S: I was a star scout. I was on my way to being a I was a senior patrol leader, but you know. E: Was there opportunities for higher education within the zone or in the area? S: We had the Canal Zone College junior college for a long time, then Florida State came in and Univer sity of Louisiana came in. You c ould take courses there. E: They established satellite branches? S: Yeah, a nd the Panama Canal Company had a n apprentice program which was equivalent to four years at college. When you graduated from there after four years in their apprentice program you were well trained, well educated technician elect ric i a n, plumbers, iron workers, pipe fitters. And most of them


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 2 4 migrated in to the Panama Canal. If you ever go down the Panama Canal and you go in the cont rol house, get down below, and look at the work where the different colored cables come down that they installed back in 1914, they come at perfect right angles, down perfect right angles. The Panama Canal had a fantastic apprentice program, one of and a lot of Canal Zone boys took it and stayed there as electricians and everyt thing else. [ Laughter ] E: Mhmm, interesting. S: [Laughter] E: Well thank you for your time. S: Oh my pleasure young lady, and I hope that we contribute to it and I h E: I think you really did clear a lot of interesting things up for me. That was great. Thank you. S: And I hope we dispel this racial thing ; consistent E: like, you know, looking out for that and tense to that, but I understand that it was just, in the North it was completely different, you know, the way that it played out there. And then we have this, and it i s relatively un rese ar ched, and the pu blication s on the Panama Canal have really been earlier things about the


PCM 035; Stevenson; Page 2 5 building of the canal and not this vibrant you know, social aspect. So to see what people are going to do with this. S: What other town, or company in the world, could have 3,0 00 people show up every year to a party? E: Yeah. S: Have you been out there in the lobby in the evening? E: Uh huh. S: E: interviewed maybe last year, and they say, oh yeah, I know th at, yeah. So I came down here, Dr. Ortiz had given me a few readings to do and little things about it, but I still had no idea. And I started doi ng the interviews and I thought, I am so jealous. [ Laughter ] S: [L aughter] Why are we s o lucky and you not? E : bratty, but it sounds really neat. S: [ E nd of interview] Audit Edited by: Scott Kraff February 5, 2013