I had been at Howard Air Force Base for just a little over a month before my friend Howard Hakkila arrived. It was great to see him again and we quickly started hanging out and having fun when we were not working.
One of the first outings that Howard and I went on was to take a train from Panama City across the isthmus to Colon on the eastern seaboard side of the country. Actually, we would be heading north because the canal runs south-to-north across the isthmus.
Howard was always adventurous with an insatiable appetite for history. He was quite well read and was always talking about history. I regret that we didn’t have the chance to take more trips around Panama together.
The train itself was pretty archaic, pulled by an old diesel locomotive, which jerked and shimmied when it started moving. Now that was really like stepping back in time. While the journey across the isthmus wasn’t that exciting—taking just a little over an hour to reach Colon—it was pretty cool to feel a part of history traveling along the canal.
At certain spots across the isthmus, the train tracks ran right along side the canal allowing us to watch some ships traverse the canal as they headed out of Gatun Lake toward Miraflores Locks and finally, out to the Pacific.
What made the journey all that more interesting was when we walked to the back of the train and stood outside on the platform as the train snaked its way through the jungle. Kind of made us feel a little special I guess. Howard said that he felt like some politician on a whistle-stop campaign trail standing there on the back of the train.
You know what was really trippy about taking a train across the isthmus was at one point when the train came to this clearing and there was immaculately manicured golf course carved out of all the jungle.
Colon was nothing like Panama City. It was pretty drab and lacked much of the excitement of the capital city. We didn’t spend a lot of time hanging out there. Just checked out some of the colonial-style buildings that were probably built around the time the canal first opened. Most of them housed the offices of shipping companies and were not worth much exploring.
We stopped in at the local YMCA, which didn’t have a lot to offer. After walking around the streets, we stopped in at some local watering hole, had a couple of rum and cokes and got back on the train to Panama City. Howard and I talked about coming back again at night to check out the nightlife and maybe spending the night, but we never did.
Without question, one of our more memorable nights (at least for me) was the night I got inked for the first time.
Actually, Howard and I had both planned to get a tattoo and had even gone down to this tattoo shop just down the street from the Buffalo Bar (which was off-limits to the military) a few nights before to select our tattoos. The tattoo shop was pretty drab—just the kind of hole-in-the-wall shop with its walls covered with a lot of flash of “old school” tattoos—that you would expect to find near some military base overseas.
As for our “first tattoos”—I had my heart set on a tattoo of a flag and Howard, hailing from Minnesota (not to mention his Finnish ancestry) was going to go with a tattoo of a Viking. We told the tattooist that we would be back the in a few nights and would probably be wasted, so we didn’t want to make any mistake when it came to choosing our first tats.
During the holiday season, our supply squadron gave us all a nice Christmas present by having skeleton shifts. I was off the week before Christmas and Howard had the following week off. Back then, most people only worked an 8-4 or 9-5 shift—probably one more reason why so many people had wanted to be stationed at Howard. On the night Howard and I were going to get our tattoos, Howard, who had been off that week, had already gotten an early start drinking with Lee Wilson (his roommate) and an airman who had recently arrived in Panama, John Grimshaw.
I met up with the trio at the base NCO club and tried to catch up with them sucking down one rum and coke after another. It was the day before New Year’s Eve 1976, but you would have thought it was New Year’s Eve the way we were celebrating that night. After we felt that we had adequately prepared ourselves for a night on the town in Panama City, it was time for a quick bus ride that would take us out of Howard, past Rodman Naval Station, across the Thatcher Ferry Bridge and finally the bus stop outside the Ancon Inn.
The tattoo shop was located just down the street from the Ancon Inn and down another narrow side street to the right.
While Howard and I went there to get our tattoos, Lee and John headed off to one of the more popular watering holes nearby to wait for us. When Howard and I got to the tattoo shop there were no customers inside so I went first. I sat down behind the wobbly wooden counter and rolled up my sleeve on my right arm. The tattooist used a toothpick and tattoo ink to draw the outline of the tattoo on my arm. Next, he sterilized the needle by dipping it in some rubbing alcohol and then lighting it with his Zippo lighter. A car battery that he had rigged up on a small shelf behind a chair that he sat on when he did a tattoo powered his needle-gun. Before he started to work on my tattoo, I had Howard run to a bar down the street to get me a rum and coke. Drank a lot of rum back then as well as Cerveza Panama.
The buzz of the needle-gun was too much for Howard, who after bringing me my rum and coke, decided to stay outside as I the tattooist prepared to begin doing the outline of the tattoo. I could see Howard through the doorway holding onto a wooden utility pole as if he was going to pass out. He didn’t hold onto it too long—before he said something about wanting to join Lee and John—but promised he would be back. He never did come back. Well, there was no turning back now and a lifetime of getting inked was about to begin.
After I got my tattoo, I eventually caught up with the trio at the Fox Hole Bar. The photo of all us that night sitting in the Fox Hole is one of the more memorable photos I have in my possession.