The Dreamers: Part 5 of 10
Rosa inhaled the fragrant aroma of coffee beans as she hurried past stacks of shipping crates at the bustling Port of Balboa. The Pacific Ocean gleamed in the distance, its access transformed by the canal bisecting Panama just miles inland from the dock.
She still found it astounding to gaze upon massive cargo ships and tankers gliding by. As a child, Rosa had listened to her grandfather, Pedro, tell wondrous stories of helping build the canal that conquered nature’s barrier dividing two continents.
Now at 22, Rosa felt destined to play her own role assisting the waterway’s operation. She took pride in being part of the contingent of Panamanian administrators being trained to replace the outgoing Americans upon full canal handover on December 31, 1999.
The date loomed imminent after decades of rising Panamanian nationalism demanding return of the canal. Rosa and her young colleagues faced the daunting challenge of preparing to take command of one of the world’s most strategic assets. The stakes were immense.
Arriving at the new Canal Administration Building in Balboa Heights, Rosa was thrilled to walk the same polished marble hallways where U.S administrators had lorded over Panama’s economic lifeline since 1914. Now space was being cleared for Panamanian department offices and workers.
On their lunch break, Rosa and co-workers Roger, Eva and Miguel shared apprehensions about Panama assuming solo oversight of such a highly technical operation. The Americans’ expertise had dominated for nearly a century.
Roger said their crew represented a changing of the guard, ushering in a modern Panama no longer subservient to foreign powers. But were they ready? The canal was the pulse of the Panamanian economy. Failure was unthinkable.
Eva argued that the builders of the canal like Rosa’s grandfather had shown Panama could achieve impossible dreams through faith in themselves. Their generation must embrace that same bold spirit.
Rosa was heartened by her friends’ courage. “My grandfather carried the same doubts at our age,” she said. “But he always persevered. If we stay true to our mission, Panama will thrive.” The others nodded, drawing strength from her words.
In subsequent weeks, the training intensified, supplemented by advisors from world renowned Delft Hydraulics Institute in the Netherlands. Rosa absorbed details of every intricate technical and mechanical aspect of the canal’s massive lock system and the critical role of skilled human operators. The Americans had amassed near century of specialized experience and instinct running the machines that she and her colleagues had to rapidly learn.
On December 1st 1999, Rosa stood proudly in a freshly polished Panamanian Canal Authority uniform alongside reporters and officials for a ceremony lowering the U.S. flag on Canal Administration Building and raising Panama’s banner in its place for the first time.
The same transition occurred across the Canal Zone as the old stars and stripes came down after eight decades of American control. Panama’s red, white and blue flag ascended beside revered national symbols like the Panama Canal Administration Building and Gorgas Hospital.
At the nearby Miraflores Locks, Rosa watched closely over the shoulder of U.S. Lieutenant Jim Bierderman in the Canal control room overlooking the massive lock chambers. Her hands traced his movements as he gave the intricate series of orders to fill the chambers with water, open gates, and guide ships safely through. His assured expertise came from years commanding these behemoths of the waterway. But soon that mantle would pass to Rosa and her generation.
On December 15th, Panama’s president-elect Mireya Moscoso toured the canal facilities, accompanied by a nervous contingent of Rosa and her colleagues. Their familiarization training had accelerated, each specializing in an area like machinist operations, scheduling, tug maneuvering, lock controls, or electrical systems. But doubts lingered if they were truly prepared.
As the president’s delegation crowded into the canal control room, a warning light suddenly flashed red indicating a mechanical failure in the pedal drives of Lock 2’s miter gates. Murmurs of concern rippled through the visitors.
Rosa calmly walked over to the control panel, assessed the signal, adjusted hydraulic pressures, and directed a mechanic team via radio to Check the gate hinges. Her swift proficiency in a crisis drew nods of approval from spectators. Confidence grew among her peers at Rosa’s leadership.
With two weeks left until the formal US handover, Rosa worked tirelessly day and night to master the canal operations. She pored over manuals, studied system diagrams, and quizzed veteran American supervisors. . Her grandfather’s spirit seemed to fortify her during the exhausting final preparations.
At last, December 31st arrived. Rosa stood straight and proud in her uniform cap and insignia as the clock struck midnight. Church bells rang out across Panama City while fireworks filled the sky. Rosa smiled thinking of her beloved grandfather Pedro on this momentous night as cheers erupted around her. A new era for Panama and its cherished canal had begun.