And its easy to find nostalgia items on the Internet. Auto licenses from the former Panama Canal Zone with the legend Funnel for World Commerce are for sale on eBay . Zonian yearbooks from Balboa High School where generations of American students studied on the Pacific side of the canal and Caribbean yearbooks from the old Cristobal High on the Atlantic side are offered for upward of $100 on the Internet.
It was beautiful, very good schools. We all thought we had a great education, said Ted Henter, a third-generation Zonian who now splits his time between St. Petersburg and a beach home in Panama.
It was a cradle-to-grave society where everyone had a job, remembers Pablo Prieto, who worked for the Panama Canal Co. under the Americans. Because you had to leave the zone when you retired, it was filled with younger, able-bodied people and everyone knew everyone else.
Old Canal Zone ties bind tightly. To this day, I still have friendships with the guys I went to school with, said Tom Wilder, president of the society. He left the zone in 1979 after President Jimmy Carter decided to give the Canal Zone away and is retired from the Marion County Sheriffs Office. I get together with these guys several times a year and we tell the same old stories over and over again about how nice it was to grow up in the Canal Zone.
While many former Zonians have left Panama, others have trickled back. Henter, a retired software entrepreneur, started to come back for visits in 1998. Now Ive decided to make Panama my main home, he said. I like it here better than the States. Its less restrictive and, of course, there are the mountains and the beach.
The old zone has changed a great deal.
Blocks and blocks of white buildings with red tile roofs with wide eaves the old apartment buildings and offices of the Panama Canal Co. fan out from the current headquarters of the Panama Canal Authority. Many of them have been converted to government offices.
Balboa High School, scene of the 1964 flag riots when a scuffle over the right to raise flags outside schools in the Canal Zone and a torn Panamanian flag escalated into two dozen deaths, is now a training center for the canal authority. At the former schools entrance an eternal flame now burns and a columned monument is engraved with the names of the 21 Panamanians who lost their lives.
Fourth of July Avenue, once the dividing line between the zone and Panama City, is now Avenida de los Martíres (Avenue of the Martyrs) in memory of those who died during the flag riots, which were really more about sovereignty of the canal than a torn flag.
The U.S. Southern Commands old Horoko Golf Club has become the Tucan Country Club and Resort. The elegant homes in Quarry Heights where the Southern Commands top brass once resided are now in private hands.
One of the biggest changes is at Fort Clayton, now known as Ciudad de Saber (City of Knowledge), home today of the Metropolitan School of Panama, United Nations agencies and other nongovernmental organizations and technology companies.
Its changed tremendously, but I think its been a good change, said Wilder, who now lives in Ocala. They took the good things from the American era and ran with them and other things theyve improved upon.
As for the anti-American sentiment that smoldered when the canal was transitioning from American to Panamanian hands, I feel like that is gone now, he said. The Panamanians make you feel welcome.
Jorge Quijano, the current canal administrator, says when he was a boy there really wasnt much cause for Panama City residents to go into the U.S.-controlled area.
For instance, the Miraflores locks, now the site of a museum and a large observation platform where visitors can watch ships from around the world go through the locks, were closed to the public, he said.
That was always part of the tension the country was split in two by a foreign state, he said.