Latin America 1950s 2

These reminiscences were submitted by Malcolm Wollaston

It was a pleasure to read Part One (by Michael Merry). It is a good job that he is now sitting behind a desk, because Nobby Clark would have thrown a tantrum if he has seen so many typing errors in 3.5 A4 pages……..Mike however would argue now that after 8 days without power, he is typing the dark. Well he used to do a lot of things in the dark.

His account of the story is pretty dammed good, and brought a lot of memories back to me.

I think the first group was indeed Pat Cleary, Maurice Hale & Mike Merry. But I think the second group was Mat McMahon, John Haywood & Peter Stevens. I am fairly certain that the last group was Dennis Sheehy, Ted Bass & Malcolm Wollaston ( Son of Aubrey Wollaston) .

As I seem to recall it was Mike Merry & Peter Stevens who meet me at Tocumen Airport on 1st January 1960, after the same kind of journey as the others.

I remember spending my 18th birthday aboard the Cable repair ship “All America” transiting the Panama Canal.

Ted Bass did marry a girl from Panama, and rather than being sent to another station, was released and returned to England. AAC&R had a rule for the 9 new boys, have as much fun as you like, but you are prohibited from marrying in your first 3 year contract, and if you do, you are history…………..

Mike accounts of life in Panama and the Canal Zone are also pretty good and accurate, and I joined in to the full.

In late 1961 I was posted to Salinas Ecuador, said my good byes in the Canal Zone of Panama, and boarded a Constellation of PANAGRA (Pan-American-Grace-Airways) en route Panama, Bogotá (Colombia), Quito & Guayaquil (Ecuador). Quito is at an altitude of 10,000 feet near the top of the Andes. As we ‘rotated’ (took-off) the right inboard propeller sheared from the engine and sliced into the cabin and lodged itself literally 6 inches in front of my toes. By this time we were over the end of the runway with no way back. We glided 400 miles and 2 hours to land (as an emergency landing) at Guayaquil 10,000 feet below at sea level. Fortunately the hotel had a good laundry !!!

At Guayaquil I met up with Frank Chatburn (son of Lawrence Chatburn) station manager at Salinas, who was arriving by sea from Miami. A couple of days later we headed out of Guayaquil for Salinas, some 200 miles west, to the furthest western land point in the South American Continent. Just 300 miles west of the Galapagos Islands. This 200 mile journey took more than 6 hours. There was no road as we would understand it today. It was a track across a desert region, with 2 or 3 small towns to break the journey.

Arriving eventually in Salinas, a really tiny little fishing village with less than 150 people, very close to the Equator. Located on the northern side of a slim peninsular little more than 2-3 miles wide. Less than 1 mile West was a disused airfield used by the United States Air Force during World War II. On the southern side was the equally small village of La Libertad (Freedom Town) and that it was !!!. Nearby La Libertad was the Anglo-Ecuadorian Oilfields enclave of Ancon, with its expatriate compound of Brits, which provided a little bit of culture and entertainment. Down the road from the Cable Station in Salinas was the sea front, with a wonderful 7 mile long white sandy beach. Virtually totally uninhabited, no buildings, nothing, except a wonderful wreck of a freighter blown on to the rocks in about 1958. One Bar in town, 2 taxis, 3 other privately owned cars. No Bank, No Shops, No Roads ! - The cable station was a very large villa right on the beach. Fully air-conditioned (i.e. there were no windows whatsoever !). The bachelor accommodation that Dennis Sheehy and I shared was a large 3 bed bungalow, veranda, lounge, dining room, servants quarters including kitchen. 2 servants lived in the back room off the kitchen, ran the house, did all the cooking, all the washing. The office was a 2 minute walk away. Shifts were simple – 12 hours on (days 6am-6pm)(or nights 6pm-6am) , 12 hours off – 7 days a week for 3 weeks, then you got a week off and were sent to Guayaquil for a company paid 4-5 day break, staying a good hotel, doing some shopping, enjoying civilization, then back over the desert for your next 3 week stint and a shift change from day to night or vice versa. Very very different from Balboa (Canal Zone). Total staff was about 5 people: Station Manager (also the technician), and he worked 9am-5pm and you had better have a good reason to call his house at the other end of the compound outside those times. 3 Operators, a Generator man (we supplied power to the whole village) , and an ‘odd job man’. That was it!. South of Panama there was no 5 unit Murray Code, everything was CRO (Cable Recorder Operating) Morse Code, Ink Syphons. We were the relay station between Panama & Peru. We quickly picked up the technical side and if anything went wrong between 5pm and 9am, were we expected to fix it and mark the log accordingly. There was a wall mounted telephone & mouthpiece with a separate ear piece, Hand Ring Winder to call the Station Managers House…… We had tie lines in Salinas to Quito and Guayaquil, those offices only opened 8am-5pm, so during the day we broke the chain from Panama to Peru, and fed in local (Ecuadorian Traffic) to the North or to the South. During the night we looped Peru to Panama in both directions, so we could get on with the regular technical maintenance jobs, whilst at the same time very frequently checking and adjusting the signals, adjusting the Bias, inking the siphons, checking for any local traffic. It was very rare for the lines to be idle, they were always full of traffic.

We usually worked in ‘shorts’ only, but often wore a tee-shirt during the day. Nighttimes maybe nothing ! – the lowest Winter and night-time temperature was about 85 degrees F. Summer and day temperatures were usually around 110-125 F, but pretty good Ocean breezes always fanning though. Our servants brought meals to the office day and night.

One night after I had been there a year at about 3AM the gates to the cable compound were crashed down by a large armoured vehicle. A dozen soldiers poured into the office, rifles raised, fingers on the trigger and ordered me to cease operations. My hands were on my head instantly. Things quickly calmed down and I put an immediate “FLASH from MSL to MBL & MLA (Copy MNY) “STOP STOP STOP (transmitting) Military takeover of cable station, ordered to close down UFN”…………….. under Rifle Point……………….. I didn't understand Spanish and they didn't understand English…………risky, but it worked.

This translates as “From Manager Salinas to Manager Balboa, Manager Lima, Manager New York – Immediately stop transmissions to this station, Cable station occupied by Military, ordered to cease communications until further notice”. The coup d’etat in Ecuador 1962 was the result……… Frank Chatburn was quickly on scene in pyjamas and soon had the soldiers sitting down quietly, rifles laid aside, out came the beer and the cards, and I am very nervously and carefully carrying out technical maintenance duties and figuring out the bloody mess I was going to have in putting things back together again…………SALINAS was the only place in Ecuador with any ability to contact the outside world by cable in those days, so it was vital that the military shut us down……..Frank Chatburn ordered all operators on duty, and the entire station crew each worked side by side for 24 hours to clear up the mess.

Pay day, once a month was spectacular. On a salary of about $280/month, free accommodation, servants and food, it was expensive living, albeit very primitive. 50% of my salary was directly banked in New York. The Ecuadorian Sucre at that time delivered about 20 Sucres to the Dollar, and a 20 Sucre note was the largest that any one local could handle or change. More common were 5 & 10 Sucre notes. So $140 dollars a month was delivered in 5 & 10 Sucre notes, which just about filled a small hand-held airline bag. We tipped the servants, paid the household Bar bill, almost never ran out of money, little to spend it on, and no where to spend it !!

I spent about 1.5 years here, and was ‘released’ (redundant) from AAC&R in mid 1963. I returned to England, worked briefly in the Foreign Exchange dealing room at The Chase Manhattan Bank in London. In 1965 I joined 3M Company in Wigmore Street (behind Selfridges) in London, as a ‘Teleprinter Supervisor’ London was 3Ms major message switching operation outside the USA with a vast network stretching eventually to encompass Africa, all of Western Europe, the Middle East and out to Singapore. In 1998 I was permanently transferred to 3M Corporate HQ in the USA as Worldwide Telecommunications Manager, retiring in the USA in 2002 after 38 years service. Returned to England in 2003 and now live in Othery, Somerset. Happily located in the peace and quiet of a small village, after 45 years of tramping all over the world.

In 2000 I returned to Salinas during part of a South American business trip. I could barely recognize the place. Now the Ecuadorian Riveria Resort. A 4 lane highway from Guayaquil. The old cable station now the Salinas Yacht Club, with a vast array of expensive boats. The Airport is now open with a lot of private planes. The streets are paved, hundreds of expensive cars. 7 mile beach has 30 storey skyscrapers along almost its entire length. The wrecked freighter is still on the rocks !. My old bungalow was just about to be destroyed and redeveloped, having been the Salinas Public Library for the last 20 years !. The Ancon oil fields closed down and derelict. The Sucre was now the US Dollar one-for-one.

It would be interesting to hear from the other 7, and collect their stories and recollections, so Maurice Hale, Dennis Sheehy, Ted Bass, Johnny Haywood , Pat McMahon, Peter Stevens, Pat Cleary (see Part 3), where are you ?

Malcolm Wollaston, Somerset England November 2005

Mike Merry and Malcolm Wollaston - Somerset 2008
Malecon Salinas Ecuador
Salinas Ecuador
Malcolm Wollaston and Denis Sheehy - Panama 1962

Click here for Part 3