A life in the sun

An unusual migration has occurred on the peninsula. A gathering of tropical fauna established permanent residence on the Miller Peninsula. They call themselves the Panama Crew.

The crew came from a 10-mile by 50-mile stretch that borders one of the world’s greatest engineering miracles — the Panama Canal. They regrouped in Diamond Point in the 1990s. The crew is comprised of Bev and Marty Hoffman, Robert and Gayle Rankin, Donna and Randy Grubbs, Judy and Robert Palumbo-Gates, Chris and Frank Bru and Wallace Teal.

“We were the first,” said Bev Hoffman. She and her husband bought their house in Diamond Point in 1990. It is an amazing house with a garden fenced by gnarled and twisted driftwood to keep out the many deer. Breathtaking views of the water surround their home.

Gayle and Robert Rankin and Judy Palumbo-Gates were born in the Canal Zone. Robert is a third-generation canal employee. The rest of the crew came to Panama as employees of Pancanal to work in the school system, which later was run by the Department of Defense.

“Panama taught us so much,” said Bev. “We loved every minute. Panama taught us acceptance and patience. (It) said, ‘That’s not important.’” She feels that Panama helped her and her family gain perspective on how society and status function in the United States.

Panama has an array of cultures within a slim slice of land near the equator. Many people came to Panama during the canal construction. Some North Americans stayed to run the giant locks.

When the canal opened in 1914, the Canal Zone territory was under U.S. jurisdiction and functioned separately from Panama. The Canal Zone was an enclave of American culture. Past this area was, as the Grubbs said, “the other side.”

“The only thing that separated us from Panama was a road,” said Gayle Rankin. That tangible barrier represented a huge difference in living standards. “There is a wealth and education division in Panama similar to that of other third-world countries,” said Bev.

She added that she was very aware of the differences. “Everything in the Canal Zone was run like in America. The schools had the same curriculum as that of American schools, the grocery shops had American food in them and the Canal Zone had its own police and courts. Essentially, if we felt like we had to have all of our own systems acting within another country, we are saying that their system is inferior.” However, she also said there was a great love between Panamanians and Americans. She and others in the crew said that the eventual political tension over the American presence within Panama never entered into personal relationships with Panamanians.

In the 1960s, a time when the canal was a source of international tensions, President Jimmy Carter signed the Panama Canal Treaties that called for a transfer of the canal to the Panamanian government by Dec. 31, 1999. The treaties signified the end of an era for North Americans living in the Canal Zone. The couples said there was widespread disappointment with the decision to return the area to the Panamanians.

“Panama, as a country, wanted their country back,” said Randy Grubb. The Grubbs said some “Zonians,” as the residents were nicknamed, really grieved. There also were concerns as to whether the Panamanians would be able to maintain the canal. “I learned just how arrogant Americans are,” said Bev Hoffman.

“For me, I knew it was time,” says Donna Grubb. “Something had to be done and the Americans had to give the land back.” As the transfer approached, the Pancanal Company began preparing the Panamanians to run the canal.

Things began to change in the Canal Zone. The Americans had enjoyed an amazing niche in Panama, said the Rankins. They had job security in a tropical paradise, a stable government and low-cost housing. “Americans were upset that the transfer was occurring. It was a good life and it was coming to an end,” said Robert Rankin.

For many Zonians, the first time they really began to think about life after Panama was during political rioting in the late in 1980s and a coup in 1989. This was the only time the expatriates expressed any real fear or danger about their residence in Panama.

Manuel Noriega was dictator of Panama and a CIA ally, but he fell out of favor with Washington in the late 1980s over deals with cocaine cartels and civil rights issues. U.S. President George Bush ousted him in a 1989 invasion called “Operation Just Cause.”

Randy Grubbs recalled ending up in the middle of a riot in Colon. “A storm of people came down the road, throwing things and making noise.” There was a 6 p.m. blackout enforced in the Canal Zone during the coup and the Rankins recalled that the U.S. military was detaining prisoners in part of the high school.

Panamanian snipers shot at the Hoffman’s daughter while she was riding a bus to the commissary; she wasn’t injured.

The Department of Defense distributed evacuation packets asking, “Where would you go if you had to leave Panama?” The Hoffmans realized they didn’t have a clue and started thinking about their options.

When asked “Why Diamond Point?” Bev explained that at a party she met a man who had traveled extensively throughout the United States. “I asked him where he thought the best place to live in the U.S. was and he said point blank, ‘Sequim, Washington.’”

She and her husband stayed on Whidbey Island while they checked out the area, and Diamond Point was their final destination. “We all love water,” Bev emphasized.

The Rankins were the second couple to choose Diamond Point. Robert Rankin’s mother was from Tacoma, so they had visited Washington many times over the years and they enjoyed the area. They bought a home in Diamond Point in 1993 and moved in 1999.

The couples described it as a “domino effect.”

Now the group of expatriates — turned Sequimites — participates in a variety of Northwest retiree interests. They mentioned how exciting it has been to own homes for the first time. They enjoy the outdoors and exploring the peninsula’s parks. They all still love the water and go crabbing, fishing and kayaking.

They seem grateful for the lessons Panama taught them and their new perspectives. Panama seems to have transfigured them and they have deep, fond memories of their time in the sun.

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