What McCullough calls a "rigid caste society" began with the canal's construction. Unskilled West Indian laborers--recruited mainly from Barbados, Martinique and Guadeloupe--were paid in Panamanian silver balboas. Skilled Americans were paid in gold-backed U.S. dollars.
The "gold" and "silver" standards persisted throughout the zone's existence, largely because they were nominally based on citizenship, not race. Americans lived in gold towns, with their own schools and playgrounds, and were eligible for better-paying jobs. Heavy labor was for the West Indian workers' descendants, who lived in silver towns.
The soldiers and sailors who protected the canal, passing through on two- or three-year tours of duty, fell somewhere in between. Young women from Canal Zone families did not usually date military men.
"It was an extremely segregated place," Egger said.
When Zidbeck was 12, back in 1943, one of his neighbors here in Balboa invited children from the silver community of La Boca, about a mile away, to play softball. Just as the game was starting, a playground director appeared and told the children they could not play.
"We were so disappointed that we didn't think of an alternative," he said. "We knew there was a color line, and we didn't tempt it."
U.S. Government Earned Great Loyalty
Lambert, who still lives in the quadruplex where he raised his family in the old silver town of Paraiso, said he feels no bitterness. His great-grandfather came to Panama from Martinique to work on a failed French canal-building effort at the end of the 19th century.
When the company went bankrupt, workers were stranded. They were relieved to sign on with the Americans, who arrived in 1904.
Lambert's father and grandfather also worked for the canal, and once his disagreement with the canal police blew over, Lambert got a job in the maintenance division. After 30 years of service, he retired in 1987 as a $5-an-hour liaison for the security division, good wages for Panama.
"You were sure you would get a fair break, even though they had a double system," he said. "I don't have any resentment against the U.S. government because it made sure I had a job. That's why we were so loyal to the U.S. government."
For a place so regimented on issues such as race, the Canal Zone also had its progressive side.
"The Canal Zone was America's experiment in socialism, and it was a very successful experiment," Zidbeck said. "It was not utopia, but it was close. You weren't rich, but you knew there was something to eat every day."
"We were the children of tradespeople who were making very good salaries," he said. Housing, groceries, schools and recreation--including swimming pools and tennis courts--were all subsidized by proceeds from canal fees.
"We weren't raised from a capitalist viewpoint, so none of us ever had any push or drive," Egger said. "I grew up in a town that when the pipes broke, you called maintenance."
In fact, in the Zonian version of the old "how-many-does-it-take-to-change-a-light-bulb?" joke, the answer is: "Two, one to pour the drinks and another to call the Canal Zone electrician."
Zone Is Fast Becoming a Memory
This lifestyle of orderly concrete houses, shaded lawns and wide streets contrasted increasingly with the chaotic, deforested growth of cities outside the zone. Panamanian resentment was manifested in riots, beginning in the 1960s, that finally resulted in the 1977 treaty to turn over control of the canal to Panama.
Panamanians were to be hired and trained to take over canal operations. In 1979, the zone became part of Panama, except for the bases that until 1997 housed the U.S. military's Southern Command. The last base will close when the canal is turned over to Panama.
Zonians like Egger, who had moved away but wanted to return, found they could not get hired. While those with seniority could stay on, there were no new jobs for Americans, just two-year contracts.
What hurt Lambert most was seeing what happened to his alma mater, Paraiso High School. The school was supposed to continue operating as part of the Panamanian school system, he said.
"We had a welding shop and a plumbing shop, probably $48,000 worth of equipment," he recalled. "By December, there was nothing there."
Panamanian employees took the lights from the ballpark, pried loose the air conditioners and replaced the cedar doors with plywood, he said. The school is now a government building, and students are bused to another location.
The last of the Zonians are now collecting mementos for a future museum in Florida. The Balboa High School plaque, a reproduction of the Canal Zone seal that numerous freshmen polished at the behest of seniors, was removed from the school in February along with several other class gifts.
Many landmarks will exist only in memories. The Balboa Yacht Club, the setting for many a first drink and first date in the zone, burned to the ground in February, provoking the suspicions of many Zonians.