A Return to Fort Davis 2005 in the former Panama Canal ZonePosted: July 26, 2015
by Hudson Phillips
Fort Davis is referred to as “Davis,” or in local dialect, “Dah-vees.” (Roads into Davis are unmarked.) The former military base is still “present,” but, to keep this in military terms, it is “not accounted for.” Former officer and non-commissioned quarters are now the homes of Panamanians and some new homes and condos have been constructed on the former military base. Local residents are, generally, very helpful in giving travel directions but it is always important to remember that you are a stranger in what is now THEIR neighborhood. Our visit included 88 year old Col. Ernie Nelson ret. (A former Post Chaplain at Davis in the ‘50s), and his daughter, Karen. I represented, my father Col. Hudson Phillips, now deceased. (former Protestant chaplain at Davis at the beginning of World War II) and his family. Fort Davis experienced many changes during and since the periods that we had lived on the Post and it took us some time make adjustments.
The old post theater was our beginning point. The movies that I saw there as a child are now hailed as “cinema classics”: Beau Geste, King Kong, Citizen Kane and so many others. The classy art deco building is recognizable today, though in a terrible state of neglect. Some of us remember the days when a special bugle call summoned people to the evening feature from all points of Fort Davis. Most walked to the movies and that path is ingrained in their minds. Karen realized that, when she lived at Davis, she could see the theater from her house. Though doctored and embellished by landscapers and carpenters, the location of the house is apparent. Chaplain Nelson got out of the car and straightened up to his full 6’2. It was clear that he was becoming a colonel again. With a little more effort we found Karen’s other home and the Post swimming pool. The gym was around the corner. Karen had been in some kind of competition at the time she had lived there so we both peered in and imagined the thousands of basketball games and the oceans of sweat. We continued to push for MORE, MORE.
We drove passed a cluster of old buildings that were grouped together, as members of a bygone generation would be. It looked like a setting from the movie, “From Here to Eternity”-A squared off parade ground, rows of pre World War II barracks and was set to be in close proximity to the sound of a bugle. Roads had been changed to smaller lanes, giving the impression that this part of the Post was now in the margins, awaiting demolition. At one time this had been the main thoroughfare. I looked long and hard, like a Romanoff family member studying the face of one that claimed to be Anastasia. The long, unattractive building by the road seemed out of place. I didn’t remember anything so shabby and useless looking. But, to my right, several large duplexes and a playground caught my eye. I asked if we could circle round one more time..
We talked with a man who had lived at Davis in ’48. I said, “Too bad that the Post Exchange isn’t standing. If I could see that I would know everything.”
“Go round the corner again,” he said. “It’s right there.”
We whipped back around. I studied that long, useless looking building, and reconstructed its facade in my mind. “Oh God in heaven!” My father’s office and the library would be right inside the door. On the left had been the Post Exchange. Other services had been housed here. This spot had been the very center of Fort Davis just prior to World War II.
Davis had been the home of the 14th Infantry-known to some as the “Jungleeers” and to others as the “Dragoneers.” If you had lived here then you would remember that all of the bugle calls ended with a “tag” of six extra notes. This was an indication that you were a part of something special. Your place was “ At the Right of the Line.” The notes designated the position of this regiment in a military formation. Legend tells us that this place of honor was earned by the role of the 14th in the Boxer Rebellion in China.
The final coordinate was the playground on top of the hill. In 1941, my father took a photo of me on my horse, “Señorita. We were in the midst of the playground with the PX in the background. A fifty-year-old tree now marks the spot. I had been there 65 years ago. In the back of our old quarters I looked to where piles of sand had been dumped the week after December 7th. It was explained to me at that time that this was to help extinguish incendiary bombs. The maid’s one room shack continues to stand next to the row of deep gray basins, where she scrubbed the laundry and us kids with various caustic substances. I took a long look and then walked down the narrow steps on the hill, as I had in 1941, when my family had been evacuated to the States. Once again, I did not look back.
Our drive home was quiet and reflective. Mystery had become history and we were satisfied.
This is an actual account of two military families revisiting a former military base in 2005 in the former Panama Canal Zone. American families once lived in places like this in other parts of the world but Panama was, perhaps, the most representative of the unique military culture that families once experienced. With the closing of bases, this experience is being repeated all the time.