After it was all working, I made the mistake of following CPAN shell's suggestion of upgrading itself. Any use of cpan.pm now results in a nasty zlibVersion error and rude return to host shell without closing the lock file. :^(
CPAN.pm v1.54 apparantly requires Zlib 1.08, while Debian 2.1 provides Zlib 1.01.
Upgrading Debian Zlib to v1.08 would also force an upgrade of 15 other .deb's, including apache, mailtools, and perl itself with all associated libs. Needless to say, I'm not thrilled with that idea on a production host.
Is there a cpan method for downgrading itself?
Update: couple suggestions from young_perlhopper - install latest zlib (gzip?) to a non-default location, AND/OR rm cpan.pm and do a manual make/install. Or, I may try copying CPAN.pm v1.202 from working Debian box at home.