An interview with William and Carol Hellums


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An interview with William and Carol Hellums
Physical Description:
47 minutes
William and Carol Hellums
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 044 William and Carol Hellums 7-8-2011
PCM 044
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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 044 Interviewees: William and Carol Hellums Interviewer: Diana Dombrowski Date: July 8, 2011 D: Carol Hellums at the Panama Canal Conference in Orlando, Florida. If I could ask you both first when you were in Zone, to what years? CH: From [19]46 really till I graduated from high school in [19]61. D: Okay. And you? WH: I was there [19]68 to [19]69. D: Okay. How did you and your family come to be in the Zone? WH: We met in 1968 in Miami Airport. General Torrijos had just pulled his cou p off some reason, Braniff Airlines put us up in the first class. I was flying military hat CH: Your ima gination. I was not flying as a student, but. WH: Anyway, we wound up at first class next to each other. There was some engine trouble, so they evacuated the tourist class, but left the first class people aboard, which we were just about the only ones, ser ving us champagne and scotch and full uniform, big old soldier, and this little lady sitting next to me had a blanket over her knees. I thought she was crippled. So, I was being very nice and so forth.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 CH: WH: She reminded me that we may not be able to get into Panama, proper, because there had been a coup and the Guardia had seized power. She wanted me to take of her until her parents got t here to the airport, or something happens when CH: revolution or coup in Panama, the last thing the party taking o ver wants to do is mess with the U.S. military. So, a soldier in uniform would be really good protection if things got iffy. So, I was very nice to him. D: WH: Needless to say, we were pretty well snockered by the time we landed in Panama. Lo oked out the door and there were all these armed guys out there. Seems like to me, I walked off the plane pushing her in front of me as a shield. But, she swears it was the other way around. CH: It was. WH: t to the airport -CH: Things were pretty stable by then. WH: -And gave me a ride back to the Zone, too. So we were able to get back. I


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 3 a lot of single, eligible females aroun d. Here I was, a bachelor then. So I called was getting ready to move to England to give up on the States or something then. She was going to be there a month, I just so happened t o have a little sports car and a very flexible schedule. In a day or two, she was bored as heck, too. We really had a nice month touring, and it was the month of Christmas, too. CH: In the Canal Z one in Margarita. WH: believe it. CH: WH: It was [19]68. It had to be. CH: End of [19]68, yeah. WH: Yeah. The astronauts were getting ready for the moon episode. It was just so surreal in Panama, singing Christmas carols in Margarita. [Laughter] That was U.S.S. Sturgis which had been a converted and megawatt electrical nuclear reactor, pressurized water. Turned it into a floating nuclear


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 4 s first. It was only done as R & D in the Army program, U.S. Ar my Engineer Reactor Group. This was a tri service organization made of Army, Navy, and Air Force personnel. The Army operated it. Had a bunch of small plans, more R & D type plans. They had one down in Antarctica, had one in Greenland, had one in Alaska, o ne in Sundance, Wyoming, one in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, then this floating one. It was trying to prove a concept. It would have been very relevant for, like, the Japanese disaster today, to be able to tow a big generator capacity plant, dock it next to the disaster area, and feed in the electrical lines, and you have power. The problems they had in Japan, they lost power for days and days and days. CH: WH: Yeah. So anyway, the Canal had been experiencing drought an d the Pa m Canal needs water to work because of hydraulics. Electrical power for the Panama Canal had been provided extensively by the dam down in Gatn. CH: All the power was hydroelectric. WH: So, they wanted to save the water, not use the hydro power. We brought her down, towed her down, I think it was April [19]68. Crew came down, about forty five of us, I believe, in the crew and nuclear operators. I wa s a health physicist also, constrained as a nuclear operator. But I got the job of


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 5 environmental monitoring, which meant that I would take water samples around the boat, sediment samples from underneath the boat. Then I would go out in the jungles and gath catch fish and so forth. em down and do radiological analyses of these samples, and then send out a report every month and every quarter and so forth like that. CH: Bottom line: he go t to spend his days hunting and fishing in the Canal Zone and around the lake. [Laughter] D: That sounds pretty good. WH: It was the ideal job in the Army. In fact, the big picture, this was a program put on by the U.S. Army back in the [19]60s, [19]70s. Actually came down and filmed me, one of the more interesting jobs in the program. CH: WH: They took a si ngle photograph of me sitting on the end of the pier with a fishing pole. Easiest job in the Army, I would say that. It was quite nice. Carol left after a month and went back to England. Couple months later, I was due to get out of my leave down and I went to England to see her. Went over for a couple w eeks and came back to Panama. The Army had guaranteed my right to drive back up from Panama through Central America, give me enough time to do it. Time


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 6 came, they let me out and I drove all the way up through Central America back to Texas to get out of the Army in [19]69. Real trip for me. Back then, it was a different world out there. [Laughter] It was an interesting tour and working on the reactor and everything. The thing worked fine for us. Interesting story happened after that: I think it was [19]74, s omewhere around there. I was out of the Army and lost contact, but they shut her down the reactor and was going to take her back to the States. So, they had a small crew on board as watchmen and so forth. It had to be towed by tugboats. It was just a big Liberty Ship with no power. They were advised against it because it was hurricane season, but they went ahead and did it anyway. There was a big storm off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, really bad storm. They had to cut the towboats loose, because they it. They brought hel icopters to get the crew off. Last man got off, and the ship rolled over to its side, and they thought for sure it was gone. But somehow she righted herself, and later on they were able to connect the tow cables up again and get her in. The innards of the ship, the reactor portions inside, were severely damaged. It was never used again. Last I heard of them, she was in a mothball decommissioned it. Anyway, it proved the concept that you cou ld build a floating nuclear reactor and it could be towed someplace and hooked up. But then, they Russians are actually doing this, building floating things for the disaster areas.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 7 oil. CH: It w save d WH: Yeah. CH: Yeah. Oh, well. WH: Anyway, that was my experience. D: WH: Most peop D: The nuclear reactor came down in [19]68 and provided electricity for the Zone until [19]79? WH: Somewhere in the [19]70s. I w as gone. D: It was handed over? Okay. WH: Probably damn near a decade. D: Yeah, wow. WH: It was a lot of fun.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 8 D: Yeah, and you mentioned your job was pretty unique. You were the only one doing that? WH: Yeah. The only one in the Army, really, for a floatin g nuclear plant. CH: During that time. WH: I set down in Gatn Lake right next to the hydro dam were familiar with the Zone D: A bit, yeah. WH: ba d suppos e call it. D: Did you notice any drastic environmental effects? WH: Well, there seemed to be a slight buildup of Cesium underneath the ship for a allowe d by law to let small amounts of contaminated material just go out, a our exit point, there Probably liked the heat. CH: Sucked it up, huh?


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 9 WH: concentrate the minute amounts within limits. But it was noticeable, and it was my job to pick up any slight variations and report. So, we instituted a program to get rid of t he moss. That was the only thing that I ever picked up that was weird. It operated totally within the prescribed legal lines. We were inspected by the Nuclear Regulatory back then the top energy commission. Everything we said, it had to be true or else. We were not only subject to the military but the federal f udge any figures there. They were all what we saw. Basically, I had to sign it. Nobody knew what I was signing anyways. [ Laughter] It was fine. Everything was on the up and up. Good crew, excellent crew. D: So the reactor was able to provide electricity for the entire Zone, or was it supplementing hydroelectric? WH: Probably was supplemental, because we had to bring down ano ther barge. It the other side of the canal and detached a small detachment to work that. Between them, they provided a large percentage of the power for the Zone. I CH: Randy Deacons would know, because he worked on the dam. How many megawatts they generated.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 10 WH: Yeah. CH: There were two dams. It was Madden and Gatn. So, the other one would have been hooked up at Madden. WH: The Gatn dam was the one they were worried about, because that was the one they lost the water once. [inaudible 16:00] anymore. CH: Yeah, right. WH: I understan Colombia. CH: D: The questions that I had prepared, you both can answer but your answers will probably be differe nt. What were living conditions like for you when you were in the Zone? Where did you live, that sort of thing? CH: remember much, but I can remember my mother complaining a lot about not being able to get fresh food. At one point, my dad bought a bunch of live chickens, because I guess the meat was so bad. So, they got chickens and kept them in the coop behind the hous e. He was a farm boy, so when they wanted chicken he went out and killed


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 11 a chicken [Laughter] just to have good meat. It was hard to get fresh milk. I Klim D: that name. CH: seven. A lot of people lived in very small quarters. I was an only child, so when I say my own bedroom, we were in one bedroom apartments until I was seven. But that was typical, normal. But it was nice. D: Did you live in the multi family housing? CH: Oh, yeah. No, u family around here? D: Yeah. CH: In [19]5 1, when we went there, every little town had its own dispensary with at least one doctor and dentist and a pharmacist. And my dad was a pharmacist. In [19]51, they closed all the little dispensaries and moved everything to Coco Solo Hospital and Gorgas Hos pital. So, they laid off a lot of doctors and dentists and


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 12 pharmacists, and whoever had the least seniority was the first to go. That was my dad in the case of Cocoli. We lived in Cocoli. We went back to the States for three years, and then they called him up and said, you want to come back? And he said yes. Where was I going with that? WH: Where you lived. CH: Anyway, yeah. The whole time we were there, first we were in a twelve family, which my mother always called a bat roost. The twelve family bat roost She hated it. It was basically just a single room, like a studio apartment with little divisions between living, bedroom, kitchen. Front to back, like the old shotgun houses. We were there for maybe a year? Then we moved to a four family house that had a separate bedroom, and living, dining, and kitchen. I guess after Daddy had been there about five years, we were able to move to a two bedroom apartment for a family. D: Bigger and bigger. CH: e came back, we were on the Pacific side. When we came back, we went to the Atlantic side, and my dad was at Coco Solo Hospital. Then we had a big house. [Laughter] I guess Gat demand, because we had three bedrooms and big porch. It was a two family house. Mama was much happier with that.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 13 D: I heard the Atlantic side was a little less populated or more rural. Is that the case? CH: Yeah, yeah. Given that Balboa High had about three times as many kids in the graduating class as we did, mu st have been about three times as many people D: WH: I lived there, too. When we first came down, I was in the barracks at Fort Sherman. D: In Panama? CH: Sherman? WH: I thought it was Sherman. CH: No. You were at Davis. WH: Was it Davis? CH: Fort Davis, yes. Sherman was across the canal. WH: Then went to Davis, and then living in the barracks there. Then, some of us got together and was able to get the vacation housing when the Canal Z one people CH: Oh, yeah. We lived in vacation quarters when we first went to the Atlantic side.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 14 WH: People take a couple months off, every so often, go back to the States. They need somebody to watch the place or t ake care of the dog. CH: We got a paid two month vacation every two years. Yeah, people would rent out their house. WH: Me and two other buddies, Army buddies, took over one near Gatn. It was party he Zone, especially on the Atlantic side because it was so small and everybody knew who you were, just about. So you had to somewhat civil and law abiding. [Laughter] D: Darn. CH: The Canal Zone police did not tolerate a lot of nonsense. WH: No, they did n CH: I daresay. WH: We had our peace. CH: You knew how not to get caught. [Laughter] Anyway. D: CH: WH: I still claim I wa s almost a resident of No riega.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 15 CH: Well that was in Panama, or Coln. WH: Coln, I think. When Torrijos took over, all the GIs were supposed to stay in the limits for us; that was just incentive to me to go into Panam some high school friend of mine, who was contracting down in the Zone working that Guardia g uy, officer was Noriega. CH: Maybe. WH: He was with the American military police. Of course, the civilians got to get out. I got cornered and everyone busts me. CH: Were you in uniform? WH: No, I was in the civies. Just happened a young lady that was at the table knew somebody and talked them out of it or something like that. Let me get out the marshalled. CH: Really? Wow. WH: d. He got two weeks restricted quarters or something like that. CH: Still. WH:


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 16 D: Where did you grow it? WH: Pecos. I was used to the heat, but not all the green. I loved the fishing; it was great fishing. The wi ldlife was wonderful. I had to go out and see the caiman and everything else. There was several jungle areas I went through, and there were CH: ral caiman living under the dock we used to waterski from. Nobody really worried about it. D: CH: They D: What was your school experience like? CH: School? D: Yeah. CH: School. [Laughte r] D: Okay. WH: You said it was miserable. CH: [19]60, there were riots in Panama. I remember we were bused through Coln to


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 17 get to high school because the high school was in Cristbal, which is surrounded by Coln. my mother being terrified for me to be driving through Panama at t hat time. There remember it, that we got out of school because there were riots in Coln. [Laughter] Other than that, the old Cristbal High was a beautiful building. I rem ember that. There were two big courtyards with palm trees and somebody brought in a big boa constrictor. We had him in the biology classroom, maybe six or eight feet. One of the girls formed a real relationship with the boa. [Laughter] She was the main one who took care of him; they were very close. She used to take him out in the patio and he would kind of go up in the palm trees and enjoy the fresh air, which is probably not your typical high school experience. D: No. Sounds a little dangerous. CH: He d id bite her once, but it was just a scratch on her cheek. I remember that. It diameter and six or eight feet long. He was taller, about the height of a grown man. Six feet. WH: Was it the size of the one I was going to jump out of the car and capture for you? [Laughter] You said it was a bushmaster, and you kind of froze in midair and came back into the car.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 18 CH: f this is D: Yeah, it is. CH: As I say, my dad was a pharmacist at the little local dispensary, and the doctor was a lot of drinking in the C anal Zone, a lot of alcoholism. WH: Yeah, there was. Yeah. CH: Which is not to say that sloth by the side of the road. I n his state, he thought it would be really fun to get the sloth. He took it, wrapped it in a sheet or blanket or something that he had in the car, and threw it in the back of the car, brought it home, and put it on the dresser. This is the story I heard, p robably from my dad. Puts this big thing on may have divorced later, but probably not just because of the sloth. He took the sloth and put it out in front of the house. They had a duplex. The sloth was out front, an d he had a collar or something and rope. So all the neighborhood kids went to see the sloth. These things have claws probably about the size of my two


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 19 than five, probably less. By this time, he was pretty annoyed. So, he was slashing with his claws, and all these litt le kids are getting as close as they can. D: That sounds dangerous. CH: People were a lot more casual about their children then. We used to go play in the jungle and swing from the vines and pretend we were Tarzan. The jungle was the little ravines. D: That sounds fun. CH: Oh, yeah, it was great. Then, a big boy started taking pets. So, after that we in the jungle anymore. I think there may have been one or two little boys whose parents encouraged them. [ that kind of restricted our jungle play. D: no jungle or boa constrictors there.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 0 CH: Back then, ther What was sixty years ago, you used to go out and chase mountain lions, for D: Really? WH: Accidentally. [Laughter] CH: By accident, but yeah. Just out running in the woo ds through the jungle or wherever. WH: Woods, in Texas. CH: So, what else? D: Did you play any sports growing up there? [Laughter] WH: CH: aggravation to my gym teachers. Wanted no part of it. D: CH: Oh, the Christmas tree burns, yeah. Yeah, the ship would come in with all the Christmas trees. You probably heard the Christmas tree ship. They do the same thing in Hawaii. The Christmas tree ship is a big deal when it comes in Matson. I


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 1 holidays, I guess Christmas decorations were kind of hard to come by. I remember my mother made soap sud s snow one year. She took Ivory flakes and whipped up this snow out of soap suds and put it on the tree. It stripped all the paint off the ornamen ts, which is wh y I remember it, because it destroyed all our ornaments. [Laughter] She was upset about that, because it was hard to get stuff back then. stocked, I guess. That changed later, although it was always very limited. Shall I daughter and the Capezio shoes? This was when I was in high school, jumping around again. One of my friends was the daughter of a dentist. I always tell Bill, it was kind of a classless society down there because everybod y had a job and and your quarters, unless you were head of the locks or something like that. Your quarters were based on years of service rather than what you could pay, rather than your job. If you h ad a big family or if you had a really important job, those were the only exceptions. So everybody had the same houses and you had to shop in the commissary, so you had the same clothes. One of my friends, her father was a dentist and they had more money. She used to complain about how she would go to the States and get fancier clothes than the rest of us had. Nobody cared. from the States, she was complaining something about Capezio shoes. Capezio shoes were the thing to


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 2 D: No. CH: I can just see her hearing this somewhere and going, that damn Carol! D: So, keeping up with trends, was it really that important to you or your classmates in the States? CH: No, not really. We were way behind and we knew it. As kids, I think we cared but WH: part of the Zone, but subsets. CH: Just kind of cycled through. I remember in high school, there was a kind of social thing between the girls who dated enlisted men. This was probably late high school. It was a sort of three level thing: girls who dated enlisted men, and then girls who dated high school boys. Then there were a few girls who dated military o fficers by senior year or so. Somehow that was they thought they were a little above the rest of us. [Laughter] D: CH: Yeah. On the Atlantic side, there were what? three m ilitary bases, and there were what? three, four, little separate communities, and then there would be


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 3 separate communities that were military bases. But we all went to the same schools. I think the military kids went to the Canal Zone elementary schools as well, pretty sure. In high school, we all went to the same school. There were two high schools: one on the Atlantic side and one on the Pacific side. It was pretty well there t hat long. It was pretty well integrated. D: Did you decide to go to college in the States? CH: Mm hm. WH: [Laughter] D: CH: Stanford. D: Oh, wow, cool. Okay. CH: I remember we had vacationed in California one year, and I saw Stanford from the train, actually, and decided I wanted to go there. So I did. It was far from home. I liked that. D: What were your thoughts or feelings about the turnover of the canal to Pan ama when that eventually happened? WH:


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 4 CH: Yeah, well. Yeah. But there they are. A little help from the Chinese. WH: I mean, it always felt wrong the way we took the canal, but it was quasi legal at the time it was built. I always felt a little like a colonialist down there, because we had this nice fifty mile wide strip that was clean. The grass was cut and everything was perfect. Then you stepped across the line, you had the fi lth of Panama, all these little shacks and shanty towns. CH: of Panama, there was as big a gap as there was between the Canal Zone and the poor areas of Panama. Wealthy su burbs of Panama ma d e the Canal Zone look shabby. I never really felt that guilty. WH: border and in town, the bars and so forth. CH: Yeah, and you saw Coln, which is the poorest part. WH: I will say I had no trouble in Panama, even Panama at night drinking. CH: WH: People were always very nice. CH: Oh, yeah, they were, sure. WH: It was good to me. I loved going out to Portobelo.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 5 D: How important was Panamanian culture or interacting with Panamanians? How did that affect your life at all? Was it really isolated from the rest of the country for you? CH: th friends were Panamanian citizens, but they were Austrian by birth. My best friend was one of t heir children. They lived in Panama in a big house with lots of servants. So, we had Panamanian friends, went to Carnival, but not really a lot of WH: The limit of mine was pretty much down in Coln: the bars and D girls and everything. CH: Oh God. WH: I was a soldier, honey. CH: You were a soldier. WH: CH: I guess on both sides, a lot of wealthier Panamanians sent their children to the Canal Zone schools. So, we had Panamanian friends in school. But again, the wealthier class.


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 6 D: Because they had to pay tuition? CH: Yeah, mm hm. And middle class. The pharmacist who worked with Daddy was Panamanian, and his kids went to Canal Zone schools. And they lived in Panama So, middle to upper class Panamanians. I think the really wealthy ones sent their kids to the States. D: Probably. WH: [inaudible 44:58] CH: Yeah, no. I actually went out once or twice with a couple of Panamanian guys at D: It appears so, yeah. Those are actually all of my questions. Are there any other WH: CH: think I ever really appreciated what a good childhood I had. We had a lot of freedom and it was very safe. I guess a small town in the U.S. would have been equally safe, but it was very safe, very comfortable life, really. Limited in a lot of ways, which I always struggled against. Everybody knew what you were doing, and who you were and what you were doing. But on the other hand, in junior high, my friends would take fishing poles and go down to the little pond by the railroad station and


PCM 044; Hellums; Page 2 7 go fishing, or go to the Gatn Yacht Club and just belonged to grab a cayuco and paddle out into the lake. As we got older, go out and wave at the sailors on the ships. [Laughter] No life jackets, no nothing. We could all swim really well, of cou D: That sounds fun. CH: Take our bicycles and go across the canal at the locks, and go cycling up to the dam or all around. WH: Tarpon Club? CH: you had to cycle back up that big hill. [Laughter] Just kind of ride around. WH: CH: D: Okay. WH: Thank you. I hope you get some use out of it. D: Yeah, I think we will. [END OF IN TERVIEW] Transcribed by: Jessica Taylor, November 26, 2013 Audit Edited by: Matt Simmons January 17, 2014