An Adventure with the Inter-American Geodetic Survey

An Adventure with the Inter-American Geodetic Survey

 In April of 1949 I began an adventure that lasted only 15 months but had an incredible impact on my life.  I landed in David, Panama on April 1949 with only 13 dollars and a plane ticket out of the country.  As chance would have it the next morning as I waited for the bus that would take me to the Canal Zone and Panama City an American jeep pulled up in front of me with military personnel from the Inter-American Geodetic Survey.  After a brief discussion, in which I told Major Cox of my adventures wandering down through Central America to David, I was offered a job with the IAGS as a light-keeper.

I was 18 years old and in dire need of a job.  This one sounded wonderful, a Boy Scout’s dream job!  The little they told me about it made me excited to get signed up and on the job.  Major Cox told me that they hired graduate civil engineers from John Hopkins, Cornell, etc. but after several weeks or a month on the job they went back to the States as they were not able to live in the bush.  I, on the other hand, looked forward to it.

In time I met other new recruits, guys who were sailing around the world on a three-masted schooner and needed to replenish their supplies but had no money.  A stint with the IAGS allowed them to refill their pantry.  Wanderers, adventurers, they all fit in for a shorter or longer period of time.  And I was one of them.

I had left the U.S. in January of 1949 with a bicycle heading for South America.  I had $180 dollars to cover costs.  The bicycle proved more cumbersome than useful and was sold in Guatemala.  I was travelling as a Boy Scout and met up with leaders and scouts in each of the countries I visited.  In every country I would go on hikes with the Scouts, on horse-back trips, climbing mountains and exploring caves.  I was ready for more adventures.  Obviously Major Cox thought I would be a good employee and wrote a letter requesting that I be signed up by the IAGS.

What follows is my journal of the time I spent with the IAGS.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the road, I lost the journal for the central part of the time with the IAGS.  I filled it in with information from my per-diem reports of where I was and for how long.  I also filled it in with my travel orders so I knew where I was at any point in time but missing were the personal notes of hiring natives and cayucas, joining them in village fiestas, etc.  I have added some of that based on my memories, now 70 years later.

I travelled with a small Bolsey camera and took some photographs, mostly in black and white.  I could not afford color.  The photographs presented here are mainly from the early times with the IAGS.  Some were taken on a later trip to Central America in 1951 when I was in the Army.  I have incorporated the photographs in with the story as best I could.

As I look back on those adventures with the IAGS I speculate on what I learned from that experience.  Besides being one hell of an adventure what was the long-term gain from that year and a half working with the Inter American Geodetic Survey?  Let me see if I can come to any conclusions

  1. I greatly improved my use of the Spanish language.
  2. I gained a great appreciation for the native peoples I worked with and a greater understanding of their culture of survival under the most trying conditions.
  3. At age 18 I learned to take on serious responsibilities, at times supervising upwards of 20 native workers.
  4. My command of mathematics increased immensely.
  5. Good planning became a necessity as one could not go to the corner store to purchase a can opener when on the top of a mountain.
  6. I learned team work as the survey party moved across the nations we were working in.
  7. The experience reinforced my global perspective as we moved from country to country.
  8. I learned self-reliance.
  9. I read constantly while waiting for the clouds to part so we could “see” the other sites and measure the angles between them. My reading of Pascal’s Ponse helped me pass the French language exam many years later.

Now, at age 89, I have become aware that there is nothing on the internet or in print that tells of those early days in the IAGS.  This is my contribution to the history of those days.  Enjoy.