Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Panama (page 2 of 2)

Goofy Falls Revisited

snapshots051It is always so cool when something I’ve blogged about—especially an essay about the time I was stationed in Panama or growing up in the Illinois Valley—generates some comments or reconnects me with people from those periods of my life or places I’ve lived or visited.

Today it was someone coming across a blog I had written about Goofy Falls, this freshwater swimming hole in Panama not too far from Tocumen International Airport. Turns out it was Bud Tristano, someone I was stationed with at Howard Air Force Base and we even lived in the same barracks. What a small world, huh? (Check out the link to his website with some cool pics of Panama.)

This is a photo of the area near Goofy Falls where we parked our cars before walking down a trail to the falls. From left are Hector, Radar, and Bill Davis—three people I was stationed with at Howard from 1976-1978. That’s the Pacific Ocean in the distance and the mountain peak was right about where Howard Air Force Base was located.

Goofy Falls — Somewhere in Panama

Path between the Seas -- Panama Canal Zone, 1978I can’t recall the first time I heard about Goofy Falls when I was stationed in Panama at Howard Air Force Base from 1976-1978 or understood why it had been called Goofy Falls in the first place but for many people stationed on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal, it was an alternative to the beach at Howard and Fort Kobbe and the adjacent Veracruz Beach.

I do remember that the first time I went to Goofy Falls was in May of 1977. Some of the guys from the 24th CAMS Squadron (Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron) who I knew quite well and who lived in the same barracks as I did (Barracks 714 was shared by CAMS and the 24th Supply Squadron) had already been there and were raving about how great it was to go swimming there. We had all been to the beach at the far end of the Howard AFB/Fort Kobbe military installation as well as the supposedly off-limits Veracruz Beach (I think it was off-limits because there were no lifeguards and shark nets) and some of the guys were just looking for some other cool place to hang out in Panama.

So, one Saturday afternoon a bunch of us from the barracks piled into two cars and headed off to Goofy Falls, which was located about an hour outside of Panama City. What I do remember about where it was located was somewhere past Tocumen International Airport (Aeropuerto Internacional de Tocumen) in sort of in a small rocky valley carved out by a stream and erosion. I know we parked on a small hill and that in the distance we would see Tocumen, Panama City, and the Pacific Ocean.

We had to walk down a path about a hundred yards or so until we came to a freshwater pool fed by a stream that had rushed over the rocky terrain that created Goofy Falls. It was also quite interesting how the geography had changed once we had traveled into the interior-gone were the rain forest-like jungles that surrounded Howard-and now, the geography appeared more like grasslands characterized by dark red soil. The falls were not that spectacular by any means-there was some cascading action over the rocks but what really made Goofy Falls cool was that you could slide down one of them into the lower pool (there were, if I am not mistaken two upper pools).

It was definitely more fun-when one slid down the falls or jumped/dove off some of the rocks into the lower pool-than just swimming at the beach at Howard and Fort Kobbe or Veracruz. The water was cool and quite deep-not sure if anyone ever tried to touch the bottom. In addition, it wasn’t too crowded: there were a few Zonians there along with some other service members when we arrived. Maybe that is one of the reasons why a lot of the guys had raved about it so much because it was sort of like our own private swimming hole.

We brought plenty of beer and other beverages that day and got a pretty good buzz going soon. I just remember a few of the guys who had gone out there that day: Rusty Steele, Harry Tschida, and John McPherson. Aside from John and Harry everyone else out there that day had served in Vietnam. That’s one of the things I will always remember the most about the two years I was stationed at Howard: how a lot of the guys I hung out with had previously served in Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos. There was even one guy who supposedly was assigned to Air America and had brought his Thai wife along with him to Panama.

I forgot to wear suntan lotion that day and with the hot sun glaring down I ended up with a pretty nasty sunburn. Indeed, it was so bad that later in the evening I swore I suffered from a mild case of shock. After we had gotten back to base and had chow, some of us went to Veracruz beach to keep on partying. Even though it was around 80 degrees I was shivering but by then my skin from where I had gotten sunburn was burning me up.

The next day I could hardly move. I couldn’t report it to my supervisor when I went to work on Monday because I could have been reprimanded or if my supervisor wanted to really make a fuss out of it, I could have gotten an Article 15-non-judicial punishment. What I got though was worse: I was assigned to a detail to help set up some booths for the base carnival later that week. There was no way I could get out of that detail. It was a classic example of Catch 22-either I got out of the detail because of the sunburn and risked the Article 15 or I suffered being out in the heat setting up the booth. I opted for the latter. In the end, it took me over a week to recover from that sunburn.

I would end up making two more trips to Goofy Falls before I rotated back to the States in September 1978. Just add Goofy Falls to the list of other memories I have of serving in Panama: driving across the Thatcher Ferry Bridge that spanned the Panama Canal, taking the train across the isthmus, hanging out in the Ancon Inn and Ovalo Bar and getting my first tattoo.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part 4

Let’s look at the scorecard thus far. 

It’s 1976. I graduated from high school on June 3; six days later I was at Lackland Air Force Base doing my basic military training.

On July 4, we could stay up past 9:00pm to celebrate our Bicentennial. From our barracks’ windows we could see a fireworks display. Happy Birthday America. 

Six weeks later I am at Lowry AFB in Denver, Colorado. A few weeks later I was in Panama. 

So, there I was—eighteen years old and settling into my first duty station. I was living in Building 714 on the third floor. The second floor was for CAMS (if I am not mistaken, it stood for the Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron) and on the third floor it was all for Supply including the airmen who delivered the jet fuel. 

The barracks, which had supposedly been built during World War II (or so I was told; then again, it could very well have been another one of these military/urban legends that I have come to accept as the truth over the years), had originally been an open-bay style. Later, the Air Force with their infinite wisdom decided to give airmen a little privacy and remodeled the barracks with a block of rooms on either side of a central latrine. However, the hallway would run along the outside of these rooms which meant the rooms, at least in this barracks would have no windows. The only rooms that had windows were the row of rooms at each end of the floor/building.  

Supposedly, this design was the easiest one to convert the open-bay barracks into individual rooms. Another reason, which I am sure sounded good when explaining the window-less rooms to someone who was going to be stuck in one for two years, was that the heavy monsoon rains would be a problem. I think more had to do with the central located latrine that would have posed more problems re-designing the floor to accommodate rooms on either side. Now the biggest challenge for the shakers and movers would be how to keep these rooms “cool” in the stifling heat and suffocating humidity. So, this central air conditioning system was designed to pump cool air into the rooms 24/7. And when it worked, it worked quite well keeping us all cool as a cucumber (except there was still a bit of a humidity problem and you always had to watch out for mildew). On the other hand, three times the system broke in the two years that I was there and those rooms became like ovens without any circulation at all. Of course, with the hallway running along the outside of these rooms there was no way that you could keep your door open. 

My first roommate was a bit of a trip. Going by the name of “JJ” he had turned his half of the room (the back half) into his own private boudoir. He had a couple of black lights, posters, beads, most of the furniture and a steady stream of young Panamanian ladies coming and going all hours of night and on the weekends (how he managed to sneak them in and not get caught was one of the great mysteries of my early days at Howard). 

He’s the one who got me in trouble with the First Sergeant not long after I arrived when he refused to help clean the room for a Saturday inspection. Later, he got busted for drugs or something and was kicked out of the Air Force (by then I had already moved into another room). 

Barracks life was rather quiet for the most part. I can’t recall spending much time in the barracks other than hanging out with a few friends like Howard now and then. Off duty meant hitting Happy Hour at the NCO club and then later a bus ride to Panama City and bars like the Ancon Inn and the Ovalo Bar (my favorite bar) or the Fox Hole.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part 3

 

When I first arrived at Howard AFB in September 1976, there were very few airmen below the rank of E-4.

From what I understood, before I arrived most of the airmen stationed at Howard had served in Vietnam—either at bases in Thailand or Vietnam. Whether or not that was true or not, or one of the military/urban legends associated with the base (another one was about whether or not you could swim because if the canal was ever sabotage, the side of the canal that Howard was located on would be under water) there were a lot of E-1’s (Airmen Basic) to E-3’s (Airmen First Class) arriving at Howard in 1976 not long after the Tactical Air Command had taken over the United States Southern Air Command.

As one of those E-1’s arriving I was soon put to good use pulling all kinds of lousy duties/details like cleaning offices (which I thought was absurd later when most duty sections paid Panamanians to do the cleaning—like we did in the barracks) as well as painting the hangar floor (where some of the supplies were located) battleship gray. I got to do that my first weekend at Howard; guess they were waiting for me to arrive. Come to think of it, when I did arrive, I was the lowest ranking airman in the supply squadron. Yes, all that military training was being put to good use—and now I was being put to good use cleaning the Chief Master Sergeant’s office and painting the hangar floor.

At the same time I wasn’t too keen on working in the Base Service Store and maybe my attitude could have been a little better because I started off on the wrong foot rubbing some people there the wrong way (maybe that is why I was having to pull all those lousy details). That probably got people thinking about finding a different job for me as it were because not too long after my friend Howard arrived I was soon transferred out to the Repair Cycle Support Unit on my way to a better position that I would stay in until I left Howard AFB in September 1978.

The Base Service Store carried everything from toilet paper and cleaning supplies to pens and stationary. Most of the time I worked there was spent stocking the shelves in either the store or the hangar where supplies like boxes of government issued toilet paper were stocked (none of this 3-4 ply stuff that you can pamper your butt with these days). My AFSC (Air Force Specialty Code) was 64530 Inventory Management Specialist—a fancy expression for supply.

The one nice thing about the Base Service Store was that you could meet a lot of different people on any given day. Stocking shelves was a little boring (I had done that the previous year when I worked at K-Mart) but it was cool working along the flight line and watching A-7’s, C-130’s and C-141’s landing and taking off.

One thing that I found surprising about being stationed at Howard was that many people worked from 9-5. No wonder so many people wanted to extend their tour of duty there. Many of the people I would get to know in the first few months I was at Howard had been in the Vietnam War like Larry Easterly who had been a gunner on a Huey (he had done two or three tours in Nam) and for them, coming to Howard was like being on R&R I guess. Maybe that was just another one of those military/urban legends or something that I have come to accept as the truth over the years.

When I first arrived at Howard and got a glimpse of the base and later Balboa in the Canal Zone it was like nothing had ever seen before. I regret that I hadn’t been a little more up on my history of Panama. However, when I was in the sixth grade, my classmates and I made a clay model of Central America and if I am not mistaken, I was responsible for making the Panama Canal.

I would soon learn, as I had not when I was making that clay model that the canal did not run East-West, but instead North-South.

There would be a lot of things I would learn in those first few months of being in Panama. I did get to see a little of the Canal Zone a few days after I arrived with my sponsor Airman First Class Gary Grimes. He took me to Balboa and Miraflores Locks and I got to see a ship transiting the canal for the first time. It was also a real treat to cross over the Thatcher Ferry Bridge and see the Pacific Ocean on one side and the canal on the other. No matter how many times I crossed that bridge in the two years that I was stationed in Panama it was always a thrill for me.

Ron Cortez, Cerveza Atlas, Cerveza Panama, Monkey Meat, the Ancon Inn, Ovalo, Paris, the Foxhole, Gran Morrison, Chiva buses….

 UPDATE: August 2015

My novel about Panama, The Panama Affair is now available at Amazon!

Panama. It sounded just as much exotic as it did foreboding for Gary Taylor, Kevin Rooney, and Frank Costello, three airmen assigned to a military base in the Canal Zone during the 1970s, who soon became enraptured with its beauty, danger, and adventure; for Buck Smith, an analyst for the CIA it was a constant source of frustration and anguish as he followed the meteoric and deadly rise of Manuel Noriega.

Things become complicated when the airmen cross paths with one of Smith’s associates in Panama City and the lives of these individuals become intertwined in drugs, deception, and death. The airmen will be forced to face their demons, but doing so only leads to more strife.

Friends will become enemies. Old hurts will resurface. The death toll will rise. No one will emerge unscathed.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part I

I have to confess that I wasn’t too crazy the day I found out that I had orders to Panama.

At first, on that cool Denver morning at Lowry Air Force Base in the summer of 1976 when our orders for our first duty assignments were passed out, I didn’t even know where I was going. All my orders said were Howard AFB CZ Zone. None of my sergeants that morning knew anything about the base. It wasn’t until later that day when I asked one of my instructors that I found out where I was going.

Although I might not have been too keen on going overseas then, by the time I left Panama two years later and the years since, I have fondly looked back on the time I was there.

During the two years I spent in Panama I got the chance to meet a lot of cool and interesting people—some who had previously served in Vietnam before coming to Panama—while others, like my good friend Howard Hakkila had only been in the Air Force for a short time.

I first met Howard the day we both had to get our yellow fever shots at some Army hospital in Denver. Turns out we both were in the same technical training school and chances were we would probably end up working together. We did. For the first couple of months we both worked together at the Base Service Store stacking toilet paper and handing out tools before I was transferred to another section. Guess I must have complained too much that working at the Base Service Store was like working at K-mart.

When I arrived at Howard Air Force Base in September 1976, I was part of this wave of airmen being assigned there after the Tactical Air Command had assumed control of the base (previously it had been under the auspices of another command). Later I would discover that most of the personnel assigned to the base prior to the arrival of all these airmen were E-4 and above, many who had come to Howard right after American’s involvement in Vietnam.

As soon as I walked out of the commercial airliner that brought all military personnel to Panama from Charleston Air Force Base, Howard’s tropical charm with its manicured grounds and massive white buildings with ocher terracotta roofs was like nothing I had ever seen before. It almost was though I had literally stepped back into time. Too bad someone from my squadron didn’t know about time: no one was at the terminal to meet me and I had to wait for almost an hour before someone was sent to pick me up.

My first month at Howard was one extreme after another—with a lot of sensory overload thrown in for good measure. However, it started off as bit of a downer.

When I was taken to my room the first day I arrived, I couldn’t believe that this was the Air Force that I had joined. Those beautiful looking tropical buildings that had appeared so lovely when I espied them from the MAC (Military Airlift Command) Terminal were not so inviting once you were inside.

Built sometime during World War II (or so it seemed) they had at one time been these large open-bay barracks. Then, someone got the idea that the airmen stationed at Howard should have their own rooms, so a block of rooms was built on either side of a central latrine with additional rooms at each end of the building. If you were lucky enough to get a room on the end, you would have a window. However, for most of us hapless airmen, who were assigned to one of these rooms in the middle, there were no windows.

Okay, so I would have a room with no window. At least air conditioning (which he had no control over) was steadily pumped into the rooms (except a few times when the power plant that supplied the air conditioning broke down) which keep us cool. And if I really wanted a view, all I had to do was step outside and look out one of the windows, which ran the length of the barracks. Had a nice view of the parade field that dissected the middle of the base.

Then, I got to meet my roommate who would be one of many interesting and colorful characters that I would meet while stationed at Howard. Except, he was perhaps too interesting for my liking, at least for being my roommate.

Establishing his territorial claim to the room, he had taken over the back half of the room and turned it into his own private boudoir with lots of blacklight posters, beads, and the constant smell of incense burning (no doubt to camouflage his propensity for some burning some of the local herb).

Sadly, we did not hit it off too well. After informing me that this was his “crib” we hardly ever saw much of each other.

We did have one small run-in, which was no fault of my own. Not long after I arrived, the First Sergeant inspected our room and gave us a number of demerits—which included everything from mold inside the refrigerator to garbage in the trash can. Not wanting to get on the bad side of the First Sergeant (who had a bad-ass reputation in the squadron) I freaked out over the demerits we got, but my roommate assured me that the First Sergeant wasn’t that serious and not to worry about it.

The inspection was on a Friday and that night, like almost every Friday night that I was in Panama, I started off at the NCO club before heading downtown Panama City for another night of drinking and debauchery—crawling back to my room and in bed sometime early in the morning.

I had only gotten a few hours of sleep when there was a thunderous knocking on the door, quickly followed by the door being thrown open. Rubbing my eyes, and wondering who in the hell would be knocking on the door at this hour of the morning, I could just make out the silhouette of this gargantuan figure standing in the doorway. Espying the stripes that ran up and down the figure’s arm, it didn’t take me long to realize that I was in big trouble.

“Get your asses out of bed,” bellowed the First Sergeant, “and get ready for inspection!”

Inspection, what inspection I thought as I groped for my glasses at the side of the bed, relieved that I had not brought any woman back to my room.

In his hand he held a copy of yesterday’s inspection report and waved it in front of my face as I approached him. I could hear my roommate stirring in the back of the room.

“You were supposed to have this room in inspection order,” he said.

I wanted to say that it was Saturday morning, but looking at my First Sergeant in front of me wearing heavily starched fatigues with sharp crease marks on the sleeves that could cut paper, my instincts told me better.

My roommate though, beat to me to the punch. Finally out of bed, he was mumbling something about that it was too early in the morning for this kind of shit.

I picked up a copy of the inspection report that was still on the desk from yesterday and looked at the demerits we got. Okay, mold in the refrigerator that would have to be cleaned, but when I saw a demerit for garbage in the trash can, what I said next even surprised me, no shocked me.

“Where else are we supposed to put the garbage?”

Ouch. If I wanted to make a lasting impression on my First Sergeant and be forever in his graces, I definitely pushed the right button.

“Get your asses dressed in your uniforms and report to my office in five minutes,’’ barked the First Sergeant as he reeled about and stormed out of the room.

I quickly threw on my uniform, but my roommate didn’t seem phased by what had transpired.

“Don’t worry Miller,’’ said my roommate, “it’s all just an act.”

Five minutes later I am standing in front of my First Sergeant’s desk getting a good ass-chewing, the likes of which I had not had since I was in basic training the previous summer. If it was just an act, the First Sergeant was having one heck of a performance.

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