by Dale Cockle, CHS '54
The impossible dream. I had one during my Sophomore year at Cristobal High School. Cristobal High School was located on the shores of the Caribbean. From some of my classrooms there were only coconut palm trees swaying in the trade winds between the school and the lapping waters of El Caribe. We are talking about Panama where I was born and raised. I was fifteen years old.
The impossible dream? I wanted to take my Harley Davidson motorcycle by steamship from Panama to the United States and ride around the States during the coming summer vacation. Of course my mother would not hear of it. My father was another matter. He reluctantly gave in to my wishes under the conditions I proposed to sweeten the deal. As part of my proposal, I agreed that I would finance the whole trip from earnings of my newspaper route and that I would handle all the logistics.
To ship the motorcycle, it had to be in a crate. So I built a reusable crate (the top was attached to the base with carriage bolts) that could be reused for the return trip. Shipping and customs documents had to completed. Part of the deal was that I'd do it all. I did. A friend of mine with a pickup truck helped me move the crated motorcycle to the port's shipping dock. I had to buy a round trip ticket for my passage too, now scheduled for the first sailing after school let out in the last week of May, 1952.
The steamship was the S.S.Panama, the flagship of the Panama Line, owned and operated by the Panama Railroad Company (part of the Panama Canal Company) for which most civilians in the Panama Canal Zone worked (and hence, cheap rates). It was a beautiful ship very similar to a smaller cruise liner. The boat trip was of five days duration and included a call at Port au Prince, Haiti. The U.S. port of destination was New York City.
Several of my friends were traveling to the States also unaccompanied by parents. Four of us shared a stateroom. We had a ball during the trip. The cuisine (can't just call it food) was unbelievable, and the swimming, shuffleboard and ping pong were fun. Our evenings on the top observation deck with the young ladies were memorable too.
Our port call at Port au Prince was interesting. We did not dock. All movements between the ship and the piers were by motorboat and cargo barges. Young Haitians in their rowboats encouraged the passengers to throw coins into the clear aqua colored water after which they would dive. Several of us brave fifteen year olds went ashore, hired a taxi, and went sight seeing. The taxi driver suggested several destinations and activities that we politely declined.
On the morning of the fifth day, before full sunlight and breakfast, almost all the passengers were on deck to sight Ambrose Light, the first sign of landfall. Most of us had paid to pick a time for the "land ahoy" pool. I don't remember who won it but it wasn't me. After passing Ambrose Light (a lightship as opposed to a lighthouse), we could see Sandy Point, N.J., and then the New York City skyline. We passed the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on the port side and Governor's Island on the starboard side. We went to the left of the tip of Manhattan to go up the North River (Hudson River, really) passing the Battery, South Station and the Wall Street area that I would later have to visit.
We proceeded up the North River until the Empire State Building was on our right, and with the assistance on two Moran tugboats, we docked at Pier 64 at the end of West 24th Street. We all disembarked and waited on the dock for our baggage. Several families had family automobiles aboard, but I was the only person waiting for a crated motorcycle. It finally was lifted out of the hold and set on the pier, where I opened it, removed the Harley, and prepared it to hit the road (minor assembly required). I negotiated with the pier supervisor to store the crate until I would return three months later to reuse it. We all said our goodbyes on the pier and we started on our vacations.
After gassing up at a nearby gas station, I got onto the West Side Elevated Highway and proceeded north to the George Washington Bridge which I crossed into New Jersey. My destination for the day was not far away. I was headed for the house of my mother's cousin, a widower in his 80's, in Bergenfield, N.J., with whom I stayed for a couple of days.
I had to return to the main New York City offices of the Panama Line located on Pearl Street in the Wall Street area of Manhattan. I took the bus from Bergenfield to the New York end of the George Washington Bridge where I switched to the IND "A" Train subway. That took me under the city all the way from 128th Street to the south end of Manhattan where the steamship offices were. We passed under Washington Heights (little Puerto Rico) and Harlem on this route. I took care of my business regarding storage of the crate and my return passage, and returned to Bergenfield encountering no problems.
Now I was ready to start the long trip. Leaving Bergenfield, my first destination was Westchester, Pennsylvania, where an ex-girl friend was living . That took about five hours via back roads across New Jersey through the Delaware Water Gap, through King of Prussia in Pennsylvania, across the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the Lincoln Highway (U.S. 30) and finally into Westchester. When I knocked on the door, my friend's Aunt answered it. She was a bit taken aback by my appearance. When I looked in the mirror later I could understand why. My face was black with road dirt from all the trucks that I had followed. At future destinations I would stop at a gas station and clean up before knocking on any doors.
After a few days there, it was time to move on. The next destination was a bit further than the first leg. Macon, Georgia was a long stretch from Westchester, Pennsylvania. Most of the trip was via U.S. 1, through Baltimore, Maryland, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Virginia, Raleigh, North Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina, Augusta, Georgia and across to Macon. There, I was to stay with my brother's in-laws, the Smalleys, on the campus of Mercer University. Professor Smalley headed the English Department at Mercer. While there, I met a lot of the faculty's kids and some of the college students. They all made me feel very welcomed and we all had a good time. I was introduced at the SAE fraternity house which made a big impression on me as a fifteen year old, and visited a state DeMolay (I was a member in Panama) convention.
I was enjoying Macon but had to move on. I was heading back to North Carolina to visit family friends in Spruce Pine located high in the Smoky Mountains near Mount Mitchell (highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi). But I had to pay a courtesy call in Decatur, an Atlanta suburb next to Stone Mountain. That turned out to be enjoyable and the view from the mountain was unforgettable.
The Decatur to Spruce Pine trip was beautiful passing through Hendersonville and past Chimney Rock. I arrived at my friends' house at dusk, my favorite time of day in the Smoky Mountains.
To get to my next destination, I had to cross the Smoky Mountains into Tennessee, proceed west to Knoxville, and turn north to get to Freedom, Kentucky. In those days there were two Freedom, Kentuckys, but I knew which one to go to. Before I got out of Tennessee, I was stopped by a local policeman. He was right out of TV - a large belly hanging over his belt and wearing yellow sunglasses. His police car was a '49 Ford that looked like it came out of an original Perry Mason show. He didn't want any motorcycle trash in his town. The Panama license plate and a drivers license in Spanish made him uneasy, but when I assured him (in English, of course) that I had no intentions of staying in his town, he permitted me to continue. However, he did follow me for a couple of miles past the city limits. I did feel better after I crossed into Kentucky forty-five minutes later, even though a downpour of rain started. I arrived at my friends house after dark, soaked to the skin and shivering.
I was really looking forward to the next stop in Paoli, Indiana. The friends there were my own friends of my age who had lived in Panama for a couple of years, as opposed to friends of the family. That was a fun place because Darrell Craig had an old junker Model A Ford painted red. He wanted to drive my motorcycle, and I wanted to drive his car. What a tradeoff!
Although I didn't want to leave Paoli yet, I had to visit members of the family in Manhattan, Illinois. So, leaving my motorcycle with Darrell, I took the Greyhound Bus to Illinois. Oh what fun figuring out what to do to catch a local bus to Manhattan from downtown Chicago! Well, I went to Joliet on the bus and had to hitchhike the last thirteen miles to Manhattan.
The week I spent there included visiting the local cemeteries to personally witness that my family had once been there in great numbers. I also had the opportunity to mow hay and stow it in the barn. That was fun because I got several turns at driving the big red Farmall M tractor. A week of that and I was ready to go back to Paoli, Darrell and the Model A. No hitchhiking this time though - My father's cousin gave me a ride to Joliet to catch the bus.
I got back to Paoli just in time for the Orange County Fair. Darrell played clarinet in the high school band. I borrowed a trombone and he and I both played in the band at the fair. The row in front of the trombone section was the saxophone section, and there was girl who played alto sax to whom I was attracted. Her name was Bettye, she had a ponytail and beautiful blue eyes. Later that evening I got to take her home in the red Model A - Darrell was satisfied at the time getting to use my motorcycle. Bettye became my number one girlfriend for several years, even though I was in Panama or, later on, in college most of the time.
The time came to depart Paoli, Bettye, the red Model A and Darrell. It was time to start heading back to New York City, and the boat trip home. There was only one stop on this leg that has held memories for me. It was Columbus, Ohio, which to this day I think is one of the nicest cities in the U.S.A. I visited my brother's brother-in-law and sister-in-law who lived in Bexley. They let me drive their Mercury with automatic transmission and overdrive. I'll never forget the amusement park east of Columbus where the roller coaster went out over Buckeye Lake.
Two days after leaving Columbus, I was back in Bergenfield, New Jersey with my mother's aged cousin. He enjoyed hearing about the trip, but was amazed that nothing had happened to me. Somebody was worrying about me I finally realized.
I had to make the trip to lower Manhattan again to firm up the return passage for me and my Harley. I had to confirm that the motorcycle crate was still on the pier. Something terrible happened that day though. In the Pearl Street subway station adjacent to the steamship offices, I witnessed a suicide. A middle aged lady jumped in front of a train as it entered the station at a high speed. Here I am, a fifteen year old kid from a foreign country alone in New York City, and I am the only witness to such a gruesome incident. I realize now that things like that happen every day in a city like New York. The police took my name and a short statement at the scene, and I never heard about the event again.
Three days are left before the ship is to leave. I took my motorcycle from Bergenfield to Pier 64, packed it in the crate and turned it in for the return trip. I then went to the Sloane House YMCA and checked in. I went to several movies, saw the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, and rode the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island during these last days. Another terrible thing happened to me on my last night. I was in the common shower on my floor in the Sloane House, and I was approached by an older man who wanted to play "drop the soap". That scared the "you know what" out of me and I evacuated the area rapidly with soap and water all over me. I checked out the next morning and went directly to the safety of the S.S. Cristobal, sister ship to the one I had taken to New York.
The return trip was pretty much the flip of the Panama-New York transit. But one can't help being thrilled by the view of the Statue of Liberty and Governor and Ellis Islands. There was another great thrill as the Cristobal breakwater of the northern (Caribbean) entrance to the Panama Canal came into view. Home again in Panama after seeing the "World"!
I have never written about this experience before, but I should have, because it probably was the single most important event in my life. I left as a kid and returned a slightly older person, but with confidence, independence, and a tested and developed sense of responsibility beyond my years. No other experience in my life would change me so much in such a short period of time. I was no longer a boy, but a young man I had become. Not such an impossible dream either!
Dale S. Cockle
August 14, 1996