When Shirley Vaucher recognized knickknacks from Panama in James Riley’s window (shadow box) in the hallway at Garden Plaza — little buses and a ship with flag — she was flabbergasted.
She was being given a tour of the facility by Phila Goins, sales director, when she spotted the items.
“Oh, those are from Panama,” she exclaimed. When told that was the window in James Riley’s apartment, she exclaimed, “You don’t think he would be the same one.” Riley, 89, has lived for the past three years at Garden Plaza. Vaucher, 86, lives in Dothan, Ala.
Goins asked Vaucher what Riley’s wife’s name was and when told it was Nyra, she called his son, Jeff Riley, who lives in Cleveland, and asked if Nyra was his mother’s name.
“How did you know that?” he asked.
So began a reunion of families after more than 60 years — an unbelieveable incident. Vaucher’s granddaughter Cheryl Lopez was visiting another granddaughter, Susan Andersen, in Ooltewah, and picked up her grandmother on the way to visit Garden Plaza in Cleveland.
No one had a clue that the two families who had been neighbors in the Panama in the 1940s were to cross paths again.
Vaucher also has neighbors in Dothan, who were their neighbors (to the two families) who worked in the Panama Canal Zone Commission, so at lunch, they traded stories of how their lives had intertwined since those Panama years.
The Panama Canal Zone was a 553-square-mile territory of the United States — five miles on either side of the Panama Canal.
The Rileys and Vauchers lived in the 1940s in Panama Canal Zone — he 35 years and she 32 years. Their children grew up together and went to school together. Two of their sons were born in the same hospital and graduated in the same class.
RiIey ran the telephone company in the Panama Canal Zone and he laughingly said he had 12 ladies answering phones.
Vaucher came from San Bernardino, Calif., to Panama. She was library technician in Panama Canal Zone Library, the Community Public Library, and the Company and Military libraries. Her husband, Johnny, was a systems analyst.
Riley went with his family to the Panama Canal Zone from Iowa. He arrived in Panama when he was high school senior before World War II. He told of how he traveled back and forth (20 miles) to school. He said one morning, the bus stopped and the driver explained the kids had to put out a “fishing line.” One the way home, the bus stopped again to see if the bait had been taken — “they were fishing for alligators.”
In school, the kids had to toe the line, Jeff said, or they could “ship you home.” Both parents had to work or they wouldn’t be allowed to live there and they were responsible to control their children.
Lopez said there was no other place in the world like the Panama Canal Zone — “like a fairy tale.”
In comparison with living in the United States, during that time, living in the Panama Canal Zone was on the same level.
There were no air conditioners or washing machines, and electricity was not too dependable anyway. Jeff said sleeping in the tropics was a bath in perspiration. “We’d wake up with wet sheets — have to wash them in big tubs on washboards and hang out to dry before 10 a.m. when the rains would start.”
Their first washing machine was a roller type. The big thing was electricity — or maybe, you could say the “little” thing. On a 25-watt cycle, light bulbs blinked and electric appliances were unheard of.
There were about 3,000 employees in the Canal Zone at the time and everyone felt like it was just a “big family.” Lopez said there was a continuous stream of activities, and “we loved it.” Although they lived in Panama City, visits to their grandparents were always fun.
Riley explained the good shopping opportunities: On the Atlantic side, you could shop in the commissary and on the Pacific side, you had the market.
At its peak, there were some 10,000 people in the Panama Canal Zone. The United States signed over control of the Panama Canal in 1979 and the full operation of the territory was turned over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999. The community that was doesn’t exit now — it is no longer — however, memories will keep the “fairy-tale city” alive for many generations.
And these neighbors know the importance of holding small things dear. Who knew a couple of knickknacks would bring friends together from a bygone era?