An interview with Irwin Frank


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An interview with Irwin Frank
Physical Description:
45 minutes
Irwin Frank
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


General Note:
Interviewed by Diana Dombrowski

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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 037 Irwin Frank 7-7-2011
PCM 037
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Full Text


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 037 Interviewee: Irwin Frank Interviewer: Diana Dombrowski Date of Interview: July 7, 2011 D: This is Diana Dombrowski at the Panama Canal Conference in Orlando, Florida. here to interview about life in the Panama Canal Zone. Could I ask you to please state your name and how you spell it? F: Yeah my name is Irwin Frank, I R W I N F R A N K. Middle initial is Z. D: What does that stand for? F: Zane after my grandmother. D: were you in the Panama Canal Zone? F: I was born there in 1935 and lived there until my father retired and I graduated from high school, Balboa High School, class of 1952. D: To st art off with, how did your family or you come to be in the Zone? F: My father went there, I think he was sixteen years old. His sister and her husband, Charlie and Celia Cantor owned the Metropole Hotel which was on the site which was later the French Baz Bazaar still exists but at the time it had an escalator, it was a fancy store in Panama City. So he went there and his sister as I understand it took him under her wing and he got a job on the canal. I suspect he s aid he was twenty one to get the job when he was sixteen which is no big thing but he stayed for forty


PCM 037; Frank; Page 2 years In 1927 he married my mother and I had a brother class of 1947 from Balboa High School who passed away about twenty some years ago and he and I were both raised in the Canal Zone. I lived on the Prado in Balboa, my whole life was in two locations, both w ere within a half mile of the, keep off the grass, kindergarten through high school. D: Okay cool. What kind of housing did you live in there? F: On the Prado we had four fam ily concrete structures and it was quite a thing. Housing was assigned by service and my father went there in 1912, he was a Roosevelt Medal holder and because of his long service we got very good housing so we could walk all over right next door to the di spensary, you could walk to the Steven Circle which had the clubhouse, the commissary and the post we had pretty good housing. D: Okay, were you close to school and everything? F: Oh yeah I walked to school all the time, never locked the doors, it was never a problem. D: Okay, was your house air conditioned?


PCM 037; Frank; Page 3 F: No we grew up without air conditioning, without television, we had one telephone in the house i t was a candlestick phone, and we lived well. It was a very good life, in fact I think I live well today but I lived just as well in the Canal Zone, it was just a different era. So we had vacations on the Panama Line which were easily equivalent to a Princ ess Line today, just the ships were smaller instead of being seventy five thousand tons they were fourteen thousand or so tons. But they York and during the war we flew on the P an Am clipper to Miami and went on the Pennsylvania railroad in a Pullman car to New York for a vacation. So looking back I would say the older I get, the smarter my parents become. My father used s. It was an unusual arrangement we had as far as for the working man and especially for the white man, the Americans. The colored was another story but I grew up not knowing there was a thing called a racial problem or poverty because we had none of that in the Canal Zone. I used to go to my school proms, I had a tuxedo. No car had a Panama but nobody had a radio, nobody thought about all these gadgets but we lived very well, just we lived in a different time. We had maids, I used to wear have maids. D: [laughter] Me neither.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 4 F: association gave B alboa High School a extraordinary or outstanding in many, many categories back in about 1947 1948. I remember seeing the report and it just know you have to go to class and put u p with it. D: teachers at the school that left a really distinct impression. F: The t eachers were not transferred from the inner city or anything like that, they were there for thirty years, they were part of the society. And my father used to play poker at the Elks Club with some of the teachers and it was never mentioned to me in school but I think I could tell by the look on their face if they won or lost the night before but they never discussed it with me naturally. But trigonometry teacher who happened to be a graduate of the United States Naval Academy who did not follow a naval career, called the house one morning at nd I went flying into that school room at about seven thirty in the morning still chewing my


PCM 037; Frank; Page 5 breakfast. Now that to me was the ultimate PTA meeting, when you get a call like that at the house D: It sounds like a really close com munity. F: from a teacher and it was that kind community. Never locked the door, the key would be under the mat or the flower pot somewhere, but there was never a need to lock the door. D: row up? F: Yeah I never owned a sweater D: Oh my god. F: It was hot. Once it got cool and I had to have a sweater in the whole time I was D: Where did you go in the United States, d id you need a sweater then? F: atskill s, whatever. We had an extraordinary life when I tell my kids today, and we live well but no better than we had in the Canal Zone. It was an artificial environment. D: Did you have much interaction with the other Panamanians? F: D: Oh wow.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 6 F: rned it in little interaction with the locals. We were an American community and when Teddy R oosevelt was the president he needed Americans to go there to be the cadre for building the canal and basically I think what he said was, you will be Spanish. Nowhere in the Can al Zone to my knowledge did they fly the Panamanian flag. I left in 1952 twelve years later in Time magazine there was a story about flag riots. The Panamanians were carrying on, it was their country. We had our own police force, our own postal system. If my mother gave the maid D: [laughter] F: But I grew up on it. It came in a gallon can, like a gallon of paint can, just a gallon can of powdered milk and if my mother gave the maid a can of Klim she better give her a note because Canal Zone police would probably stop her and want to know where she got the Klim. Was it stolen because she was on her way home Schools were totally segregated; it was probably as bad as apartheid in South Africa, so much so t hat there was no racial problem.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 7 D: Yeah just no tension existed that you were aware of. F: The blacks did not only live in different towns, they used we had commissary books they had a two and a half dollar commissary book that w as brown, tan. The whites had five and fifteen dollar that were salmon colored. They used different colored money in terms of the coupons for the commissary. The dollar was what everybody used in Panama and the Canal Zone. But they rode not just in the bac the train they rode in the back of the car. They had a different section of the train separated by the baggage car. The railroad station was divided by the baggage room. Segregation Canal was built I would say on the back of the black man. The white man was the cadre, he gave the orders. There might have been five to seven thousand whites but the bulk of them were from the Ba DDT or whatever strapped to his back spraying ditches for mosquitos to clear of malaria, that kind of thing. The labor was done by the b lack man. The supervision was done by the white man who was paid in gold and blacks were paid in silver. There was a gold roll and a silver roll so that made all the difference in the world and very very few Panamanians were hired and some got on the gold roll but most of everybody else was just on the silver roll except for the Americans. D: And this is continued with the commissary but colors too.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 8 F: Commissaries were not integrated, they were different. The blacks shopped in di fferent commissaries; they were not allowed in the white commissaries. The black commissaries were in the black towns. Now when they started that these people were brought from Barbados, the Panamanian is fair skinned but they did not hire the Panamanians they brought people from the Barbados, Jamaica, places like this. And they gave them a house and three meals a day so compared to what they had they were probably then in 1904 through 1914, the construction period, they probably were living well. But the p roblem was they had schools for the kids and an American class would be maybe thirty five, forty kids but the black classes would be a whole different story where they would have ual, far from it. But they ended up with a generation that wanted better than their parents and hence racial problems started. I remember in 1950 the parade through Balboa, the town I lived in, by the AFL CIO and that was where the labor problems started, getting chilly in here. D: were in the states? F: I beg your pardon? D: Did you follow the racial problems in the s tates, like did you keep up with the news back in Panama?


PCM 037; Frank; Page 9 F: to this country. But I can tell you this, I did not know as I grew up that the w ord nigger was a derogatory term. Just never knew it, it was just a figure of speech word but I would never think of using such a word. I never knew there was a problem just that it was segregated. never sat next to a black child in school. I guess the armed forces were desegregated about 1948, Truman did th rich Panamanians or from the diplomatic corps who would come with their limousines and so forth. Other than that it was strictly wh ite. D: school like in terms of maybe rivalry between the other schools, did you participate in that? F: There was another school, Cristobal High School, on the other side of the isthmus and there was a junior college. We had a rivalry there but that was about it. The locals rate schools later, the silver the black, there was no rivalry we never played a game against them, nothing. But the rivalry was between the schools, the d ominant school was Balboa High School on the Pacific side. Cristobal was minor and the Canal Zone Junior College was just small.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 10 D: Okay, did you play any kind of sports growing up? F: Yeah I lettered in football and track. One y ear we flew from Panama to Miami to play against Miami Jackson High School in the Orange Bowl. D: Cool. F: They flew us up and the year, it was either before or after, about 1950 I think maybe the year before it Miami Jackson came to the Canal Zone over T hanksgiving. We all put them up in our homes and the fellow who stayed with me was named Delmonico and I think he was from the Delmonico Steakhouse family. But there was all kinds of sports and in the summer time they had programs. We lived well, remember? We had archery, tumbling, boxing, all these D: Yeah it sounds idyllic, it really does. F: have it again. D: Did you ever ride on or do you have any memories of the Panama Railroad? F: Yeah, to this day when I see PRR which means Pennsylvania Railroad, I see Panama Railroad. The PRR was the way to go. It ran across the isthmus, it left Balboa, there was a 7:10, a 12:20, a 4:40, an d a 10:10. How is that for remembering?


PCM 037; Frank; Page 11 D: F: they were rebuilt by the mechanical division in 1924. There was a sign pa inted in the car, the wicker seats, gas lights, and they were beautiful. One of them still remains at Summit Gardens and is in total disrepair, you would never know it was the same car, kids climb on it now in Panama but they were beautiful cars. They have since rebuilt the track, the Balboa Train Station is not in use they run as far as Corozal to I guess now in We had real choo choos where the steam would chug out of, these were steam ferent. D: Yeah, how were your holidays celebrated? Any different from back in the States, like Christmas or New Years? F: Not that I know of. The only thing we had was the Christmas tree gangs and they made Chicago in the [19]20s probably look like nothin g. The thing then was to take all the old Christmas trees and there would be gangs who would steal the Christmas trees and have big bonfires and whatnot. D: Cool. F: And that was about it, there was no snow.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 12 D: some people in South Florida who do that actually. But I have your Christmas tree. F: Those Christmas tree gangs used to really cause damage. They houses were all raised a nd you would park your car underneath and people would build workshops and whatnot and they stored the trees in there and then the kids would tear these workshops down. One time the police made a sweep in the schools and took everybody in that they knew wa s involved with this. They police station to get the kids out, it was a story. D: So you stole some Christmas trees too? F: We were stealing Christmas trees, the Christmas tree gangs. D: Did you ever have a job when you were living there? F: Yeah I was a playground assistant for sixty cents an hour and that was about the only job, that and delivering papers maybe. I used to set pins in the bowling alley. Got my knee bonked by a bowling pin one time but maybe lifeguard jobs, those were the only jobs you had. Nobody really needed a job, there was no poverty. Everybody had what they had, nobody was rich nobody was poor. D:


PCM 037; Frank; Page 13 F: And it depende D: How was life changed when World War II was going on in the Zone? F: which was like a premier street. One time a barrage balloon broke loose and landed right on the Prado, that was a big excitement. Every Fourth of July we would have displays o f military hardware and that kind of thing. My father worked twenty four seven with the shipping because he was in charge of the ports at Balboa. He was called Stevedore Foreman but he never carried the bananas, he was in charge. And it was total chaos as far as I know for him with the coming and going of the Pacific Fleet. I remember going aboard the Missouri when it came back, I remember going aboard the Boise, the North Carolina, the Shangri La, these are ships that are part of naval history today. I rem embered when the Franklin went through, it was so badly damaged nobody went aboard, but it went just an awful lot of that and we had Japanese prisoners at the quarantine station which is now where the fifth naval district headquarters were. Its right near where everybody stays at the Country Inns in Amador and we went driving by just to see the Japanese prisoners. Besides barrage balloons we had air raid shelters under the house. My earliest memory of the war years was when at six years old my job was to stand there and hold a burlap sack open so that the men would fill was the air raid


PCM 037; Frank; Page 14 shelter And the big thing was to break into the lock cabinet and steal maybe the D: safety or anything? F: No, no never. When I was six, seven, eight years old I hardly understood the Japanese might have bombed. Nothing like that. D: Yeah, did you practice air raid drills in the shelters? F: We did, my brother was an air raid warden and h ad a pith helmet and a whistle [laughter] which was a big deal. He was five years older than I. But no I never felt threatened, I never knew the difference. D: Okay what were your thoughts and feelings about the turnover of the Zone to Panama? F: Well all we really turned over was the control of the canal, we never owned anything. We never owned the Canal Zone, Panama never ceded the Canal Zone. The Canal Zone always belonged to Panama. We had a lease on the Canal Zone, the Hay Bunau Varilla Treaty, which was 1903 was never signed by any Panamanian. It was signed by Bunau Varilla who was a Frenchman and he worked for the New French Canal Company. The company was formed after the Lesseps failed at building the canal. He got himself appointed as the


PCM 037; Frank; Page 15 Ambassador Plenipotentiary by Panama. The president of Panama was not present when he did all this but he went into the White House and went into the state department and when John Hay, who was then Secretary of State, he signed the Hay Bunau Varilla Treaty. The company from France was represented by a Wall Street attorney, I think his [Interview interrupted by telephone ringing] F: delightful young lady wh o is a history major is interviewing me. Yeah [laughter]. Okay call you later, right. Bye. My wife in California. D: Oh wow [laughter]. F: Anyway, they signed the Hay Bunau Varilla Treaty and the French were represented by a Wall Street lawyer, I think hi s name was Cromwell. And forty million dollars was paid to the French in exchange for their rights to build the Panama Canal that they had received from Colombia. And nobody to this day knows exactly what happened to that forty million dollars. Now the nex t day the president of Panama, named Amador, arrived in New York and he was fit to be tied when he found out the treaty had already been signed. No Panamanian had signed it, Bunau Varilla was French. And it said, the treaty will be in perpetuity and the United States will act as if they were soverei gn. No lease in this country, in the United States, is good for more than ninety nine years. But still the lease


PCM 037; Frank; Page 16 for the Canal Zone which basically cut the country in half said, it will be in perpetuity. Well when the Panamanian s found out what was going on they kind of had questions but at the same time they became a country. Before that they were a province with Colombia, now they became a country so they had mixed emotions about whether this is good or what. But when they fina lly woke up to what they had, they had a foreign power cutting the country in half. It was as if we had a strip ten miles wide running the length of the Mississippi River with a ma had. D: Yeah that kind of dealing is so common in Central America at the time. F: But it was not tenable from the get go in my opinion. It was an artificial arrangement so when the Panamanians finally woke up and the pressure started, and it started under Eisenhower, they wanted their country back because no Panamanian was allowed to lo iter in the Canal Zone. The maids with their tins of Klim and their notes, the Canal Zone police knew to let them pass. But Panamanians were only allowed to traverse the Canal Zone but not loiter in the Canal Zone. When Panama woke up to what they had unde r Eisenhower in the [19]50s they started agitating. And by 1974 it got to where they signed the treaty to turn over the Canal Zone. And they were smart, they had a twenty five year transition period to Rios and Carter. But Carter did not give away the Pana ma Canal, it happened to come to fruition on his watch but it started I think under the


PCM 037; Frank; Page 17 Eisenhower Administration. The Panamanians wanted their country back and they are better off, I think, for it because they got this new cana l under construction now and the Americans remained the United States taxpayer and it would have been a flashpoint had we remained, with terrorism and whatnot. Because the Canal today is a two lane proposition and it would take little more than a large firecracker to shut it down so there would have been a lot of trouble had we remained. D: Do you go back ever? F: D: Yeah, yea h. F: Path Between the Seas was the Panama Canal was started the year after the first factory in the United States wa s electrified. So here you had electricity for the first time and long a year later they started the Panama Canal which runs on two thing, electricity and gravity. The Panama Canal was built with electricity one year after the first


PCM 037; Frank; Page 1 8 factory was electrified in the United States. It ran on twenty five cycle electricity. Everything today is sixty cycle and if you could find an incandescent bulb I grew up with twenty see that but then it was twenty five cycles and it was the first time that a consortium between the government and private industry worked, it was a forerunner to the Manhattan Project which built the atom bomb. D: Really? F: Well we did the same thing the re between General Electric and the United States government and later between the government and all these private companies who did the Manhattan Project which built the atomic bomb, so there is a parallel. Not exactly but it is a parallel of what can be D: when you lived there? F: Only as human interest to people who were interested. As an American I was not one, my parents did not get involved I did not get involved with the local culture. My father knew all of the influential Panamanian business people because he ran the Port of Balboa which is at the southern end of the Panama Canal and all the cargo for the upscale stores went across his do cks, therefore he knew all the wealthy Panamanians who owned those stores. He got involved; my mother did not. My mother basically was from Brooklyn and she never assimilated, we kept


PCM 037; Frank; Page 19 to ourselves. So the Panamanian culture, it was nice, but no more than the D: Okay, what inspired you to do all this research into the history of the canal? When you left were you just really interested? F: When did I do i t? D: Yeah and why? F: I became interested. I learned everything after I left. I took a look at, where have I been? I was living history and I decided to find out what I had done, and so I did. D: Yeah, those are actually my questions. Would you like to speak any more about F: Just I think that the country Panama is much better off with the Americans gone. I think the Americans are probably better off with the Americans gone, having left. They pull the Panama Canal Treaty, the Hay Bunau Varilla Treaty of 1904, was probably the used swizzle. that is finagle, in perpetuity as if we were sovereign. What went on in France with the French investing their money was the Madoff Scandal of its day. And Gustav Eiffel of the Eiffel Tower was sentenced to prison as a result of that because everybody invested money and they lost it. Gustav Eiffel never went to prison, he got off somehow but he was sentenced to prison. So the whole thi ng when you get done, it was a finagle.


PCM 037; Frank; Page 20 However, it did create the Panama Canal which to this day is very influential in world commerce. It is significant, ships go through twenty four seven today and there is going to be more. So did it accomplish something for mankind? Yes it D: Okay, thank you. F: The Panama Railroad was the highest cost railroad t o travel on in the world per mile. D: F: They charged more per mile than any other railroad because all the gold was going back and forth. Also at one point stock in the Panama Railroad was the highest priced stock on the New York Stoc k Exchange. D: Hmm wow. F: D: F: Well the railroad was owned by the American entrepreneurs. One named Aspinwall the town of Colon used to be called Aspinwall. They changed it to Colon which meant Columbus for Christopher Columbus. And Cristobal is Christopher and Colon was Columbus. But it was called Aspinwall. The United


PCM 037; Frank; Page 21 States government later bought the Panama railroad and it was the first transcontinental railroad, it went from coast to coast before the Union Pacific and Central Pacific went coast to coast. The P romontory spike, the gold spike, at Promontory Point, Utah, the Panama Railroad started about 1856 way before the Central Pacific and Union Pacific across the continent. It was the first transcontinental railroad, the Panama railroad. It was costly to travel on and the highest priced stock on the New York Stock Exchange. Without it there would have not have been a Panama Canal. To get the labor, I still remember the labor trains to bring people in back and forth and they moved, they spoiled the excavation by way of the railroad so they could dig. D: Yeah you gotta put the land somewhere [laughter]. F: The town I l ived in, Balboa, was built on fill. D: F: The house I lived in is now condemned. The other houses on the street are used as offices by the Panama Canal Company, the Panama Canal Authority. The house I lived in is condemned, you ca n see cracks around it because of subsidence. It was built on fill. D:


PCM 037; Frank; Page 22 F: D: Cool, is that P r a d o? F: P r a d Al e m a n but it was known as the Prado. And I remember when they went from left hand drive like the English to right D: Okay, all rig ht. F: Okay. [End of Interview] Transcribed by: Liz Gray, December 6, 2013 Audit Edited by: Matt Simmons, January 10, 2014

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