Latin America 1950s

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PART 1 -


These reminiscences were submitted by Michael Merry



Early in 1958, Commercial Cable Company made an agreement with ITT (the parent company) to provide up to a dozen young ACPO’s, fully familiar with both Morse and 5Unit tape, to travel to Latin America where they would pass on their knowledge to All America Cables and Radio personnel at the Stations on the company's main line route from Lima, Peru to Balboa, Canal Zone and on to New York.


The man given the task of training the aspirants was Nobby Clark, an experienced ACPO himself, with many years working with CCC. Nobby’s wife was from Belgium and his patience, good humor and teaching abilities were surely due in part to him having to learn Flemish to court his bride. In November of 1958, a notice appeared on the CCC main office information board which stated in part that the company was seeking young men to be trained to handle the transition from Morse to 5Unit in South America. Applications were called for forthwith and some forty persons applied. The first three selected were Patrick Cleary, Maurice Hale and myself. Training commenced early January 1959. It was explained to the students that they would have to work their regular turns as well as spend four hours daily in the third floor training room with Nobby Clark.


The first thing was to teach two of the students to read Morse. I had learned it during my training days at Great Northern Telegraph Co. and this was a distinct advantage. GNT required graduated students to make no more than one error per 1,000 words and not more than one erasure in 100 words, high standards indeed! The 5Unit was something we were all familiar with and was no problem. We learned how to pass Morse tape from hand to hand, scanning first letters, and as we became more accustomed to them, whole words. After a few months it became second instinct and we were all soon very efficient. During the training period the class was regularly visited by the Superintendent, Mr. Walsh and once the students were given a talk by Joe Cheek who had served in the Azores and who had some knowledge of overseas service. In July Nobby told us to get our passports and we all made the necessary arrangements. We were told that Pat Cleary would go to Salinas in Ecuador, a cable head where the Lima/Balboa cable landed and Maurice Hale and myself to Balboa Canal Zone, a U.S. possession that bisected the Republic of Panama and was the location of the Panama Canal. We were given a great send-off by Ron Baxter, Brian Stamp and others one evening at a small pub in Bishopsgate Churchyard. On Saturday August 18th 1959 we met at Cromwell Road and took the coach to London Airport. None of us had flown before and this was a great adventure. We caught a flight to Amsterdam and there we found out just what traveling in luxury meant. We were booked first class to Panama City where Maurice Hale and myself would de-plane then Pat Cleary would travel on to Quito Ecuador and travel bus to Salinas on Ecuador's west coast. We boarded a KLM Super Constellation, the twin-boom long distance aircraft which had been the C69 in WWII. Our model was the Lockheed L-749A (The Constellation proved prone to engine failures, earning the nickname "World's Finest Trimotor" in some circles )


I remember the flight well. There were only seven first class passengers. A famous surgeon on his way to perform an operation in Peru. An elderly couple returning to Peru. Maria Bueno, who had won Wimbledon a month earlier at 17, and we three. Maria Bueno was stunning and we gaped open mouthed at her for hours while trying to talk to her in English and her replying in Portuguese. As for the elderly couple, we learned little or nothing of them. The aircraft held less than 100 passengers all told. We went from Amsterdam to Zurich, on to Paris, down to Madrid and then to Lisbon. Over to Azores, down to the Netherlands Antilles at Curacao and landed at Tocumen in Panama some 36 hours later. During the trip there were numerous prizes for the first class passengers. Guess the exact time the wheels touched the runway on landing, guess the exact time the aircraft crossed a coastline etc. At every stop we disembarked and were provided with meal tickets at terminal restaurants. In those days there were not a lot of travelers and we were free to talk round in the duty free areas, not that any of us had money to spend!


I recall disembarking down the steps of the Super Conny (there were no jet-ways in those days) at 2 in the afternoon on a Sunday and feeling the 98 degree heat and 100% humidity. We were met by Kelly DiBella who we learned was a AAC and R Supervisor in Balboa. We put our suitcases into the trunk of his Chevrolet and rolled through Panama City to Balboa. DiBella was not a talkative man but the journey was an eye-opener for us as we had never seen anything like this tropical wonder. We had all read about the Canal Zone but was this the Zone? The description was nothing like what we were seeing! Half naked children played on the sidewalks, and garbage accumulated in huge heaps. There were bar’s everywhere and the people were laughing and smiling as they enjoyed their weekend (this was, after all a Sunday) Then, in one block, we went from squalor to luxury as we crossed from Panama City into the Canal Zone we had read about. Manicured lawns, clean buildings (many of wood) no garbage in the streets and well dressed citizens driving new cars.


We arrived at the Cable Office on Gavilan Road in Balboa around 330pm and were shown our rooms in the bachelor quarters on the second floor of the building. It was very hot and humid and there was no air-conditioning or fans in the rooms. There were about eight rooms on the second floor plus a communal bathroom and toilet. The next day we met Ida Omphroy who we learned was the maid and to whom we would pay $10.00 each month to do our laundry. Later we learned that anything that was lost usually ended up in Ida’s private room. I recall Peter Stevens and myself breaking into this room one night and finding a virtual treasure trove of comforts and goods that Ida hoarded, never distributing the table tennis rackets or balls or letting us have the other games that had obviously been purchased for the bachelors at one time of the other. We also found she left out crumbs for the cockroaches which abounded in the quarters.


We settled in gradually, finding that the nearest “Commissary” or eating place in the Canal Zone was about a mile down the road and a meal cost about $1.00. The bus cost 5 cents each way. Our salary was $200.00 monthly so it’s easy to work out that food and transport plus laundry each month was over $100.00. We had to buy our own bedclothes, as well as any soft drinks or other comforts. Stamps and writing paper to stay in touch with home and suitable clothing for the climate. Looking back I don’t know how I managed to save enough to purchase a car (a 1952 Pontiac), buy gasoline and go out once a month into Panama for a few drinks and a meal. All of us were usually broke a week before the end of the month and finished up eating green mango’s with salt and vinegar from the large tree in the back yard of the office. Those and the occasional loaf of bread with peanut butter were staples for the bachelors at month's end. The senior staff were mostly Canadian ex-pats and the juniors were ourselves and boys from Panama. There were also half a dozen messengers, who, for ten cents or so, could find cheap meals (shark meat, tripe, and the famous ‘Limits 50 cent’er’ purchased down the road where the Canal Zone met Panama and consisting of some unidentified (but tender) meat, rice, potatoes and salad). We would also splash out 25 cents for an 18inch long "micha" bread roll costing 5 cents, butter 5 cents and 15 cents worth of ham. A huge sandwich which could last a boy all day!

So this was the Canal Zone. It had seemed so exotic when we were in London but it soon because second nature to see the strange sights that were everywhere. A giant Sloth in the Mango tree along with hideous Iguana’s. The occasional snake and bats in the storehouse at the rear of the office.


After a few months the second group of boys arrived. Malcolm Wollaston, Ted Bass and Dennis Sheehy and then another group with Mat McMahon, John Haywood and Peter Stevens. All were absorbed into the Canal Zone culture and worked their shifts (there were three, eight to four, three to eleven and ten PM to six AM.) After you worked your shift you were free to do whatever you pleased, but because of lack of funds, there really wasn’t that much that could be done. The Canal Zone was very restricted for the Cable Office staff. We were not “Zonians” and were only “tolerated” at the Club House for food and allowed to purchase no more than $100 monthly total at the other stores (grocery, furnishings, liquor etc) Everywhere we went were asked for I.D. and had to show our “Commissary Cards” which had no photo on them and which were in fact useless outside of the Canal Zone!


We made do though and found our own ways of amusement. I was fortunate enough to meet Al Cooper, the son of the Station Mechanician and through him, made friends with boys from Balboa and then with the Panamanian operators. Now, fifty five years later I go back to Panama (from Miami) every three months and always have dinner with Ricaurte (Negro) Franco, an ACPO who I worked with in those early days and who was the first person to invite me to his home in Panama. Along with Malcolm Wollaston, this is my oldest friendship. Peter Stevens was released by AAC and R in 1964 and started his own Shipping Agency in Panama which thrives today. His daughter worked for me for a while in the late 80’s. Wollaston was released but went on to rise to the top at 3M as Chief of Communications, an extremely important post. Maurice Hale died in Scotland in 2008. I lost track of John Haywood (but found him in 2009, see Part 6 of the story!). I heard Dennis Sheehy was retired in Ireland. Mat McMahon (believed deceased in US some years back). I met up with Pat Cleary in Dublin in 2009 (see part 3 and part 5 of the story). Ted Bass married a girl from Panama and I believe was transferred to either Lima or Salinas and then sent back to London. I have no further knowledge of him despite searching.


I went back to CCC in September of 1962 and had lunch at The Ship with Nobby Clark and recall seeing a few people I knew at the office. Then at the end of November 1962 I returned (happily!) to Balboa. During this period I took a Sales degree and in 1964 I was promoted to the position of Assistant Manager of ITT Standard Electric in Panama.


I stayed at ITTSE until late 1968 when there was a military coup and the President, Dr. Arias, was overthrown. (My father-in-law was the President's Chief of Staff). As it was known that I had been responsible for spiriting the President, my father-in-law and four of his cabinet members, along with a car full of arms, out of Panama on the night of the coup (11th October 1968), the ITT Division Chief, General McNitt, (embarrassed that on my invitation he had attended the Presidential Inauguration a few weeks before), arranged for my release from ITT.


Two months later, when things had settled down a bit, I became General Manager for Central America for Western Union International in Panama and in 1975 was transferred to Puerto Rico to become GM for the WUI/Cable and Wireless operation, Puerto Rico and Virgin islands. While there I also worked with WOSO, the only English language radio station on the island, as a news reader and host of the early show. I returned to Panama in 1982 and had my own business until 1985. I then worked as Vice President of Marketing for Caleb Brett, an Inchcape Company, servicing the GATT contracts with Venezuela and assisting in setting up a new laboratory for fuel analysis in Balboa. Then in 1987 I met up again with Scott Rumbold, an old friend from Reuters, who asked if I was interested in coming to work with Telerate Systems. Telerate (later to become Dow Jones/Telerate and then Dow Jones Markets) was expanding with a new Division into Latin America and after interviewing in New York, I was hired. By the end of 1987 I was made Division Vice President. There I stayed, traveling extensively from Chile to Bermuda and all points in between, until 1995 when I left them. I then wrote TV scripts for a financial program and produced a widely read monthly Financial Report. These days I work with a friend who owns a local Telephone Company. I travel occasionally. I’m married (52 years) and have two sons and two grand children. My wife and myself travel throughout the state of Florida and to Europe for recreation and this,keeps us pretty busy. I wrote my first novel in 2002 and this was published as “The Golden Altar”. Going to Google and putting in Michael James Merry will bring up the details. In 2008 another novel was published, "The Reluctant Colonel", the book can be perused using the previous Google instructions. There is also a Spanish version. In 2014 "The Education of Santiago O'Grady", a book of short stories was published. also available.


It’s a long haul from CCC and Wormwood St. From Ron Baxter, Maisie, Joan and Rowena. From Ernie Herbert (who rarely worked, preferring to pay 'Norman' to do his shift and having plenty of money from a pools win to do so). To the ham rolls in the canteen (Mr. Daly) when on night shift. The Rifle Club with Tom Hood and the magnificent suits of the Supervisor Guy Shorter. Aubrey Wollaston, the overtime king, having every prank in the world pulled on him and taking them all with a wonderful good nature. I recall his moped being attached to the dustbins in the back yard and him driving out pulling them all over. He would also sit at the end of the belt near the Adrena when doing overtime on night duty and the ACPO’s waking him up by sending burning carbon paper along the belt to him. I remember the “flimsy’s” getting stuck in the shute leading to the Telephone Department and helping out down there calling messages to clients on Christmas Day. The thrill of going out at lunchtime and having a couple of drinks on those holidays and the general friendliness of the people I met. It’s been a long time but those memories will always stay with me.

Mike Merry 2005 (


News as of July 21 2014

Mike Merry - See Part 1/Part 8/Part 9 of the story - Lives in Miami.

Maurice Hale - see part 4 of the story Deceased Scotland 2008

John Hayward - See part 6 of the story - Retired, Ontario Canada - visits Florida yearly. Met them 2.13/2015 Naples Florida. Doing fine

Pat Cleary - See part 3 of the story - Retired and living in Ireland - Frequent Facebook posts from Pat!

Peter Stevens owns Agencias Delfin, a Shipping agency, in the Republic of Panama. Doing fine, lunched with him July 18 2014.

Malcolm Wollaston - See part 2 of the Story- Retired in Somerset - Was doing fine in Nov 2013

Mat MacMahon - unconfirmed report that he passed away in the US some years back.

Denis Sheehy retired and living in Ireland.

Click here for Part 2

Click here for Part 3

Click here for Part 4

Click here for Part 5

Click here for Part 6

Click here for Part 7

Click here for Part 8 - AN ONGOING, UPDATED description (with photographs) 1959 thru 2012)

Click here for Part 9 - AN ONGOING UPDATED description starting with "Returning to Panama" This page has both text and photographs

Mike Merry at Nobby Clark's school CCC London 1958
Mike Merry & Peter Stevens - London 1959
Maurice, Mike, Ron, - London 1959
John Hayward and Maurice Hale - Weston Super Mare 1959
John Hayward with Mike Merry AAC&R Bachelor Quarters Balboa 1961
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Johnny Haywood, Embassy Official, Pete Stevens, Mike Merry, British Embassy Panama 1962
Mike Merry Peter Stevens Balboa Canal Zone 1961
Mike Merry - Gen Manager - Western Union International Central America, Taken in Panama 1969
Mike Merry with Peter Stevens - Puerto Rico 1977
Mike Merry - Paraguay 1992
Mike Merry with Malcolm Wollaston - Somerset 2009

Cover of New Book Published February 2016