It was early morning on the Third of November of 1951 and my first year at the National Institute. I joined my fellow patriots who were already assembled and lined up outside the school at the foot of Ancon Hill before the watchful eyes of the twin statues of the vigilant Phoenixes.
We were about to kick off the Third of November parade as tradition had dictated ever since the Institute opened its doors to the best and the brightest of Panama’s youth. I was taking it all in with a sense of exhilaration and gratitude that I had finally made it to the noble ranks of the Institutores.
My story leading up to that much awaited day, however, had started the year before when for my birthday I had been presented with an impeccably white sharkskin suit as a gift from my grandmother. Years later I would discover the origins of this finely tailored, beautiful and, for me, symbolic white suit that I wore with such pride on my first Third of November march with my school. It had, in fact, been my deceased Uncle Eric’s gala suit to be worn on special occasions at the Institute.
The fact that it had belonged to my Uncle Eric made this day supremely special and I was giddy with feelings of patriotism for my Panama. It was my day of triumph just to be present that day with all the flags with their lovely golden edges festooning the store fronts and people’s balconies all around me.
It was quite a different story than when I was just standing as a spectator on the sidewalk on Central Avenue. Although it had always filled my young soul with the same feelings of patriotic fervor throughout my primary schools, the privilege of being part of it that day and witness first hand the pomp and ceremony had me flying high. I was now one of the many aguiluchos to lead the parade during the important Independence Day Celebration.
Even my accessories had to be special for that day and I recall how I had gone shopping at the Curundu Silver Commissary for a complete set of undergarments and a new shirt. The list included a brand new long sleeve white shirt, white marina and white shorts to match. I also needed a white handkerchief and a pair of black shoes, with matching black socks and a black tie, as called for in the gala uniform.
I was as busy as my dear grandmother who stayed up ironing and fussing over the brand new white shirt, and prepared the suit that I would wear. Her skill as a laundress at the Ancon Laundry came in handy the night before our march as she bustled around me and over me until I looked approvingly at myself in the large mirror in our living room. Throughout all this commotion my grandmother kept “talking in the Spirit” to the young man who had once owned the suit- her son Eric. My dazzling image seemed to bring him back to life for her.
That morning I left the home kind of late though early enough to be able to walk to school with some other boys who lived in the same neighborhood. It would be the first time that I would come to know some of those boys as fellow Institutores as we all identified ourselves. They were the boys who lived beyond San Miguel Hill and who were our neighbors although we had not known each other as yet.
It was inevitable that I would get caught up in the infectious spirit of patriotism that my grandmother had cultivated in me all my life. It seemed that on that morning she transferred to me all her nationalistic passion as she reminisced out loud about the period of time before I was born. Ironically, I felt happy to be viewed as that son she had admired but who had vanished for her in death. In fact, I was glad that I could be for her, for just once in my life, a replacement son, hoping that she too would see in me the loyal, loving son just who would take care of her and the family- a family she had sacrificed for during years of labor at that giant Ancon Laundry Plant on the Canal Zone ever since 1929.
We paraded on two days that year- the Third and the Fourth of November, the latter being Flag Day and no less special than the Third. For both days it was just my Mamí and me. Just to see her standing on the sidewalk on the corner of “P” Street and Central Avenue as I marched by in the Institute contingent made me feel that I had finally reached that special place in Mrs. Fanny Reid’s treasure chest of Love. Although I had never before seen the white Sharkskin suit until that year, it became symbolic for me of the moment that I had opened her heart and she had released in me all those feelings of love she had kept locked up all the years following the death of her son.
The end of school year came and vacation time caught me with time on my hands again to continue investing my energy in the trade of dentistry. So, I returned to the clinic for that summer, just as I had done the previous summer vacation. Even a girl who had rejected me before had come to make up with me, probably wondering which of the young girls in the neighborhood were keeping me away from her.
In fact, one night I was able to make it home at an early hour. But before I could settle down to rest for the night I had a surprise visit.
This story continues.