My Uncle Eric Before Me

Entrance to The National Institute of Panama
Image thanks to Maria over at Flickr

In my attempt at reliving the times of my people I’ve provided you with a bird’s eye view of what it was like to be a Westindian in a country such as Panama. From the piers of the Atlantic coastal town of a place called
Aspinwall, as the United States banker was taking over in this backwater country, to the diggers who came and started to dig the French controlled waterway.

We then provided a glance into what it was like to be a black person working again under the American banner of segregation starting with the first Westindian English Schools most of which were the first private schools founded in the country of Panama.

In this article, however, I would like to present to you another look at secondary education from the point of view of another brave Westindian youth, my young uncle Eric Reid, whose footsteps I so hoped to follow as I grew up. Although Eric met an untimely death at the tender age of nineteen he was perhaps the most intelligent and persevering of all my uncles. It was the memory of Eric and his ambitions to become a man of learning that paved the way for me to even hope to aspire to become an educated man in the land of Panama. I’ll try to give a glimpse of higher education since secondary school was considered quite an attainment in a time when the basic educational infrastructure in the entire country was, for the most part, absent.

Eric Reid was born in 1920 the next to the youngest son in my grandparents’ brood of seven children. As I mentioned before, the little bit of information I could gather about him was gleaned from my grandmother, Fanny’s, reminiscences- rantings really, since he died when I was only two years old. Since my grandmother had the habit of talking to herself, she soon discovered that she had a ready listener- me. I had to listen hard to make sense of the subject of her conversations with herself but many times I would hear her talking about her dead son, Eric and, “If only he had listened to me…” Well, seeing that the only way I’d get her to converse with me about this sensitive subject was if I started pressuring her for more information, I began to quiz her while she went about her household duties. I’d pester her relentlessly about this uncle of mine whose death seemed to cause her so much pain, and then his story would begin to unfold.

Eric was what one might call a “self starter;” he needed no one to urge him to take some initiative since he was always one step ahead in school. He was the first child on either side of both my families, the Greens and the Reids, to finish primary school and, of all things, be accepted into The National Institute, the most prestigious institution of higher learning for boys at the time, since its founding in 1907. Very few, if any, Westindian boys were admitted into The National Institute and you can readily believe me when I say that you had to be an excellent student- brilliant if you were Westindian- to be admitted.

Eric was also probably the best looking of my uncles and he was an impeccable dresser using some of the earnings from his paper route that he had built up for years to keep a fairly decent wardrobe complete with new shoes and hats. Strangely, my grandmother kept his entire wardrobe intact, as if he would come back from some trip at any moment. I often looked at his clothes hanging in our closet at home. You would rarely find him without an expertly starched shirt, gleaming shoes and a straw hat. The rest of the money he would hand over to his mother to meet the daily household needs of a growing family since she’d been the sole family provider after my grandfather, Joshua’s, death in 1929. The vehicle he used to keep up his route, his treasured bicycle, he had saved up for over time and soon he was a member of the San Miguel Westindian cycling team as well.

In his daily routine, which began before first light, Eric made The National Institute a short cut passage as he traveled through what was the Eastern entrance of the fenced off Gold Roll sector of the Canal Zone. Every morning, after completing his round of deliveries throughout the U.S. military installations, Ft. Clayton, Albrook AFB, etc., Eric would rush home to Calidonia to shower, dress and make the long walk to be in class on time at the Instituto Nacional. It was right about this time of morning that the Westindian English schoolmasters, Teacher Thomas and Teacher Phillips, would also be preparing for a new day of classes.

At lunch time Eric would eat out at a nearby Chinese restaurant where for fifty cents or even less you could sit down to a complete meal, since there was no one at home to meet him at lunch time. Once finished with classes for the day he’d head back home and work on any chores there might be pending since his mother worked at the Ancon laundry a short distance down the road on Fourth of July Avenue. It had been this way since his father’s death that Eric, as well as his brothers and sisters, had been raising themselves.

Sometimes, after his activities at lunchtime Eric might have some time to visit and purchase some books from the nearby bookstores. Bookstores were indeed a rare sight as were libraries in his time and also in my time when I attended The National Institute.

This story continues.

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