An interview with John Morton


Material Information

An interview with John Morton
Physical Description:
34 minutes
John Morton
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


General Note:
Interviewed by Sarah Blanc

Record Information

Source Institution:
University of Florida
Rights Management:
All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
PCM 039 John Morton 7-8-2011
PCM 039
System ID:

Full Text
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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 039 Interviewee: John Morton Interviewer: Sarah Blanc Date: July 8, 2011 B: Morton on the Panama Canal Zone Project. Mr. Morton, can we just start with some details about your life, where you were born, and some details about your parents? M: Well, I should start with my grandparents, who went to the Canal Zone during construction. My Grandfather Morton was a conductor on the railroad. At the time, the railroad was heavily involved in removing earth from the various cuts that were being formed to accommodate the canal. He earned the Roosevelt Medal with one bar, indicating that he had four years of construction service. On the other side of my family, my Grandfather Bath, Charles Bath, he came to the canal as a military officer in sanitation, an d he was a sanitation inspector during my father, he went to work for the canal at age fifteen; he came down with his dad. B: Down from where? M: Down from Cedar Rapids, Io wa. He started work on the Cristbal Piers at age fifteen in an agency called the Receiving and Forwarding Agency: R.N.F.A, it was commonly known. He served an apprenticeship as a machinist and wound up with the railroad and retired in 1959 with thirty sev


PCM 039; Morton; Page 2 was born in the Coln Hospital, as was my brother after me and my sister, five years later. We stayed in Coln until 1940, and then we moved to the Pacific side, living in Ancn at that time. My mother and father divorced in a bout 1943, and my sister left with my mother. They went to California. My brother and I continued with our education in Balboa High School. He left to play baseball, and I stayed on and get an apprenticeship, telephone office repair, and was drafted into t he Army in 1953. Came back in 1957 and got my degree in accounting at the University of Tulsa, and went back to work for the canal. Worked in various positions in accounting, and then I wound up in the executive planning staff and the treaty planning group B: good life. M: Well, as a kid, we had the run of everything. It was such a safe place that no one minded their kids running around anywhere they pleased. Even at ten or twelve years old, World War II was going on, and we could go down to Albrook Field at that time and see the planes coming in, taking off. Go up to a place called Diablo and construct their little play airplanes. Ten, eleven, twelve years old at that time. B:


PCM 039; Morton; Page 3 M: Yes. Went to Ancn Elementary School, and then Balboa High School, and I spent a short time in Canal Z B: So you went to Canal Zone College before you were drafted? M: Canal Zone College after my Army period on the GI Bill, and went fr om there to University of Tulsa where I completed my degree. B: How did you choose University of Tulsa? M: Well, I was in the Army with a fellow named Jerry Buchanan who lived in Tulsa. He invited me to stay with him and his family if I wanted to go to th e university B: M: That was very nice of him. See, I went there in 1958, I believe, and graduated in worki ng in New York City at that time, and came down to Tulsa to be with me. We got married down there in 1960. B: So you knew each other before and then you were both in the States at that time?


PCM 039; Morton; Page 4 M: Yes, I met her at Canal Zone College. She graduated from Cris tbal High School in 1957. I graduated from Balboa High School in 1951. We got married at Tulsa. My first son was born in 1961, right after I graduated from college. B: And you were back in the Canal Zone for that? M: Mm hm. B: So what did you do immediate ly out of college? M: I went to work with the accounting division in Balboa Heights. From there I moved onto well, they were looking for people to get involved in computer programming. The canal was initiating a computer system in various areas of the oper ation. They were looking for computer programmers. I raised my hand and learned a little bit about computer programming and went to work there for a while, and then went with the systems division which was implementing the computer operations that were bei ng started. B: These computer operations, were these for accounting or were these for the locks? M: No, for accounting purposes. Yes, storehouse, the retail store, and payroll. Those were the three primary functions that had nothing to do with the canal o peration at all. B: How long did you do that?


PCM 039; Morton; Page 5 M: Oh, for a couple of years. Once the systems were in operation, I moved on to From there, I went on to executive planning staf f and got involved in the treaty pla nning. That was about 1973, [19] 74. B: How did you get conscripted into that? M: Well, it was part of the job They put you where they wanted you and needed you. It was very interesting. B: Definitely tell me more about that. M: treaty provisions that were being discussed by someone else at higher levels. We knew that certain things were coming about, and we had to plan for those changes. That was ou r whole approach to that problem, just to plan for the changes that we knew were coming from the treaty. Changes included loss to the military of functions like schools, hospitals. Those two functions were operated by the canal, as well as the canal. Those functions were being divested to the military down there, D.O.D. Along with that, there were a lot of personnel changes. A lot of our personnel were being transferred to military. Some were being reduced in force, and all of those things had to be planned and carried out a deadline : there was a five year approach to what was going to happen in the


PCM 039; Morton; Page 6 future, and then there was the long range aspect of it. The various bureaus in the canal had to develop a five year plan on how the treaty would be implemented, and then beyond that what they foresaw as a long term effect on their operation. Some were eliminated. Some of these bosses were writin g a plan to eliminate their job effectively. [La ughter] B: Wow. Did they have difficulty finding employment in the Zone after that? M: It was nearly impossible to find employment in the Zone because a lot of the positions were being transferred to Panamanians. The workforce as a whole was being reduced buy a house in the former Canal Zone, we left and went to the States to live. B: Okay. So did you do that after t his job was done? M: distasteful, so I left. My wife wanted to go; she was tired of living down there anyway, and my two kids were in the States. It was time for me to go. B: W hen was your second child born? M: Second child was born in 1963 in Ancn, Gorgas Hospital. B: Okay. So they both eventually moved to the States. Did they move for college?


PCM 039; Morton; Page 7 M: Yes. They actually worked for a short time in student positions with the canal, which gave us f our generations of having been employed with the canal or D.O.D. in the Canal Zone. My oldest son left the Canal Zone to start an apprenticeship in Houston, Texas, and my youngest son was just graduated from junior college with his A.A. degr ee, and he wanted to pursue his education in Austin at the University of Texas. So, we moved to Austin. B: M: B: great M: Oh, cool. South by Southwest? B: [Laughter] Yeah. M: Really? [Laughter] Sixth Street. B: of Texas. M: c oncerned. B: Mm


PCM 039; Morton; Page 8 M: Mm hm. They both went to Balboa High School, where they graduated. My youngest went on to Canal Zone Junior College at that time, it was called. He graduated two yea rs later with his A.A. degree and wanted to go to the University B: Do you think that their upbringing in the Canal Zone was different from yours? M: re growing up now in the [19]70s and [19]80s, and things are a lot different. Technology was different, cars were different. They wanted their cars and enjoyed them. The facilities had improved a lot over the years, as you might imagine. I think they had a lot more fun than I did [Laughter] because I was walking to get around and they were driving a car. B: [Laughter] Do you think their history classes were more American history or world history? M: Oh, definitely. Yes, world history. In fac t, when I was i n junior college, they were teaching early world history. But the history was mostly dedicated to U.S. history. Not too much about Panamanian history. You can appreciate that the Canal Zone was kind of a colony, and the people there were colonists. They st ayed by themselves, pretty much. A lot of Panamanians in the workforce, and I would say the Panamanians, United States citizens got along very well at work. But there


PCM 039; Morton; Page 9 was not a lot of integration between people in the Canal Zone and people in the Republic of Panama. It was really two different societies. B: Were you there for the riots during the treaties? M: Mm hm. Yeah. B: Did you get to witness any of that? M: Well, not really. In 1964, the riots were primarily in the border areas of Panama City. I drove down towards that area and covered my car and parked and could see that the U.S. and military tracked vehicles parked, lined up along the road. You could hear the bullets flying ove r, but there was really no danger there. We were three or four or five blocks from any activity. Those were the only riots that I can remember being significant in my period of time. B: Was the treaty something that you talked with your neighbors about a lot, or was it really a topic that M: It was a hot topic. There to do. Of course, a lot of those people were losing their jobs. There was a lot of uncertainty in their minds about what they were going to do in the future if their job was lost. So y Panamanians, rightly or wrongly, were interested in having that area to call their own.


PCM 039; Morton; Page 10 B: But you had to stay for five years aft er the treaty because of your job? M: aspects of it that were coming into play before that. Actually, I left in December of [19]83, and that was really before any of the major functions transferred either to the military or to the Panamanians. B: Did your wife work in the Zone, too? M: While the kids were young, she took part time jobs with the military. Then she went full time with the military later on. Just before we retire d, she got in about ten years, I think, working in criminal investigation division as a secretary and stuff like that with D.O.D. B: Did your family have any sort of traditions in the Zone or the community? M: We had our circle of friends, and we enjoyed p artying with them either in the Canal Zone or in Panama City, either at a hotel or go to dinner at one of the various restaurants downtown. We formed a gourmet club where we went to Wood was part of that. B: Oh, was he? [Laughter] M: Yeah. Joe and Beth.


PCM 039; Morton; Page 11 B: So, when you moved to the States after living in Panama and in the Canal Zone for so long, what was immediately striking to you about your new life? M: Well, it was different. A lot more convenient. All the stores in the world were around you. You called it the land of the big P X. It was different having to own and maintain a house and the yard around th e house, and getting used to paying taxes on property. Having to call people to do repairs on your house when they were necessary and then having to pay them to do it. In the Canal Zone, the government took care of all the housing and all you did was call the plumber, and he came and worked on it, and he left. It cost you nothing. So that was a big difference. B: Do you still feel like you made the right decision to leave? M: n Panama. It was a matter of deciding where in the States to live. B: But it was an easy decision because your sons were there. M: Oh yeah, oh yeah. B: because of a treaty; they wer e just moving here for school. Did they like it more here?


PCM 039; Morton; Page 12 M: came for work, had his struggles. He was really an infant at eighteen. When you find yourself landing in some U.S. city at the age of eighteen never having lived trying to figure out how things were gonna land in their favor, and whether they all right. B: Have you been back to Panama multiple -? M: Only one time. B: When did you go back? M: Coln, which is on the Atlantic side. Since I had lived in that area for a short time in my life, we just took a taxi and cruised around the city of Coln. That was pretty much all we did on that trip, but a couple of years ago I went with my youngest son and his wife. We spent five days on the Pacific side and looked at some of our old haunts, my old house. We got to ride a tug in the canal, and saw B: What was your impression of the Canal Zone now? M: a wonderful job of creating new business, expanding their existing businesses, and taking


PCM 039; Morton; Page 13 advantage of the canal area. There was a huge container operation down there, Canal Zon e to their advantage. B: Did it look the way it did when you left, or did it look different? M: No, there were a lot of changes, particularly in the housing areas. Some improvements, and some old houses still standing empty and kind of run down looking. A was very run down, and the B: How long have you been coming to these reunions for? M: been here for three years. B: Okay, so three years ago was your last one? M: Yeah. B: M: Old times. B: Share stories?


PCM 039; Morton; Page 14 M: aches and to that age. [Laughter] B: The las strong views about the treaty. I asked them, when you come to these reunions, really talk about it. M: Tha B: M: Generally, I would say people are much happier now than they were in the Canal Zone because of the facilities and the entertainment and their laptops, silly stuff that people do. [La ughter] Coming to the reunion and partying. B: Have they done anything spectacular at these reunions, like M: Have I? B: Well, not you, but the people who put it on. Have they had anything memorable M: No. B:


PCM 039; Morton; Page 15 M: They put on a nice dance. I would say they work hard to put on a very nice ve gotten bigger and bigger because of the size of the group. B: M: is party stuff. B: people keep making to the group coming here and the bar running out of liquor over there. M: B: Maybe more in the [19]80s? [Laughter] M: Earlier, yes. When the hotels were smaller, they had a reunion where that actually happened it even exists anymore. They absolutely ran out of booze. And t he bartender [Laughter] B: when there is contentious issues floating around. And no one fights about it.


PCM 039; Morton; Page 16 M: There were probably disagreements among the people over whether the treaty was a good thing or not. But by and large, I would say that the people that left the Canal Zone to live in the States are pretty happy they did it. B: So what do you think is important for people to take from your experience and your life living in the Canal Zone? M: trouble. People have different ideas about religion and where it is in your life, but I do States. You try to do the right thing, you work hard, keep your boss happy, and keep the kids on the straight and narrow. B: a little too much, they M: Well, it was easy to do down there. It was a definite party atmosphere in certain restrictions on drinking and things like that that are common in the talking about back in the [19]80s and [19]70s. B: Yeah, yeah. Is there anything else that you wanted to share today? M: No. Sorry about that. I was going to rely on questions rather than speaking eamships. We could come


PCM 039; Morton; Page 17 to the United States every two years on a so called free vacation. The canal paid to go to your home of record, but they would give you an equal amo unt of dollars, I would say, so that even if you spent all your time in New Orleans, you would get enough money, as long as you vouchered it, to go to your home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, if you wished. People could come to the States on the Panama Line ships and travel around in the States and have a virtually travel free vacation. They regularly in Panama. Those were good memories for me, to be able to travel in the States with m y dad and then have my own wife and kids to travel with, drive around in the States. We saw a lot of the country, and it was a nice opportunity. We would come up for a month, which is unheard of up here. You get a week or two vacation, but we get a month. B: Did you take advantage of that every two years? M: Not every two years, because although transportation was free it still cost you a lot of money. B: Did they give you off from work as well? Did you have paid leave from work? M: Paid leave, oh yes sur e. B:


PCM 039; Morton; Page 18 M: Yeah, it was very good. Beyond that, there was a time where we got our pay was equated with civil service payroll. Our pay was civil service related plus twenty five percent for a while. They reduced it later on to fifteen percent, which, I call it, our tropical differential, which was very nice. Pay was excellent, the work was good. B: manage all of these things on your own, like your home? M: B: Yeah, I see. M: wife was glad to be in the States. [Laughter] B: Always nice to have your family back to gether again, too. M: Yeah. B: M: happy to go on. B: M: Okay, good.


PCM 039; Morton; Page 19 B: All right, thank you. Once July 8, 2011. [END OF INTERVIEW] Transcribed by: Jessica Taylor November 26, 2013 Audit Edited by: Matt Simmons January 17, 2014