Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Canal Zone (page 1 of 2)

And so it begins

TPA_ebook AprilOn June 9, 1976, I started Air Force basic training.

On June 9, 1980, I started classes at Southern Illinois University.

On June 9, 1989, I arrived in Japan to teach English.

Today I published The Panama Affair.

Coincidence? I don’t think so.

After almost two years of writing and revising and then writing and revising more and more, my novel about Panama finally entered the world today. It was a long journey that actually began in 1980 when I first sat down and penned a screenplay about Panama (which has long since disappeared). Of all my novels, this one was the most challenging because of the twists and turns in the story but it was also my most rewarding effort (right up there with Ice Cream Headache) because of the memories I drew upon to bring this story to light.

A lot of memories in this one.

Like all my other books, I hope this one will be successful. There’s always this feeling of apprehension when you come out with a new book. After all those months of writing the story and getting yourself out of all the corners you wrote yourself in, you hope that people will be interested in what you have created. You’ve done all you could do to promote it and hope all those friends who “liked” your status on Facebook or other social networking sites when you uploaded the photo of the cover or shared a blurb with them will be interested in reading the finished product.

Hope. That’s a big word when it comes to self-publishing. It’s not easy these days when you find yourself competing with thousands of other authors who also hope their writing endeavors will also pay off. The market has become a lot more saturated than it was when I published War Remains in 2010.

Without question, it’s a nerve-wracking experience to self-publish. First, you hope that you’ve done all you could have done to tell a good story; then, you have to start marketing and promoting your book. I am at a bit of a disadvantage living in South Korea. It’s not like I can contact a local bookstore and do a signing. Sadly, and sometimes tragically, I have to rely solely on Facebook to let the world know of my literary accomplishment. I’m not alone, though. Indie authors rely on reviews and word of mouth testimonials to help promote and market your book. Those reviews and testimonials will ultimately determine if your book is successful or not.

 And so it begins again. I’ve written and published another book. It’s a good story. There will be many who will like it; others will probably say it was an okay story. Some readers will write reviews; others won’t. After eight books, I know what to expect and what not to expect, but I never give up hope, yes, there’s that word again, that this book will be the one.

In the meantime, I am working on my next book because that’s what writers do.

City on Fire

800px-Panama_clashes_1989

Nearing the end of my novel about Panama and the exciting conclusion which takes place during Operation Just Cause.

Will Kevin Rooney save the friend who betrayed him by the stealing Inez, the girl of his dreams, away from him ten years earlier?

Will Buck Smith, the CIA agent, allow his Panamanian friend, who he saved in the 1964 riots, escape?

With US forces invading Panama City in search of Manuel Noriega, the lives of five people intertwine. Before the night is over only a few will survive.

Panama Daze

Here’s a real photographic blast from the past for you!

Bud Tristano, this guy I was stationed with at Howard Air Force Base back in 1978 sent this photo to me the other day of us standing next to Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the canal.

Thanks for the photo Bud!

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.

Getting inked for the first time

showtats002I hadn’t given much thought to getting a tattoo when I joined the Air Force but when I got to Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone in September 1976, my first duty station, I had a change of heart: three months later I was ready to be inked.

What brought about this heart of change was seeing the ink that some guys in my barracks had done by a tattoo artist in Panama City. After I had seen their ink, which had been specifically designed for them, I thought it would be cool to have my own tattoo. And that’s exactly what I decided to do at the end of 1976.

Actually, I was not the only one who was interested in getting some ink done. One of my best friends Howard, who I had met that previous summer at a military hospital in Denver (while we were waiting to get our yellow fever shots) and who was now in the same supply squadron as I was, had also been thinking about getting a tattoo after he had heard me talking about getting one.

Once we had decided to get a tattoo, we went down to this tattoo shop, not far 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. There were lots of eagles, panthers, tigers, anchors, hearts (with Mom written across them), Geisha girls, Mermaids, and dragons.

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 tattoo artist that we would be back 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 (his roommate) and John, an airman who had recently arrived at Howard.

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 (which spanned the Panama Canal) 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 we 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. The thought of getting hepatitis or some other jungle disease hadn’t even crossed my mind.

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 the tattoo artist began to draw the outline of the tattoo on my upper right arm. 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.

At first, when the tattoo artist started to do the outline, the pain felt like a stinging, burning sensation and reminded me of a cross between being stung repeatedly by bees and scratched by a cat. As for the tattoo artist’s technique, it sort of reminded me of when I was in elementary school and used the point of a geometry compass to gouge my initials and other acronyms on the wooden top of my desk.

Not long after Howard had left, in walked a group of GI’s stationed at Fort Clayton, who just got in from two weeks of jungle training. They were all liquored up and itching to get some more ink done.

As soon as they saw me and the little ink the tattoo artist had already outlined, I was fair game.

“I think he’s going to pass out,” said one of them. “Look at him, twitching and grimacing.”

Well, I was grimacing a little. Actually, it was more than a little, but I was not about to let these guys know what it truly felt like.

“Hey, you’re not going to pass out are you?” asked another taking a swig of his Cerveza Atlas.

“No, I am not going to pass out,” I replied gritting my teeth.

Please don’t let me pass out.

“If you think that hurts, take a look at this,” said another GI.

He unbuttoned his shirt to reveal a large tattoo of a lion on his chest.

“I am going to have him finish it tonight,” he said proudly. “If you want to know what pain really feels like, have one done on your chest.”

“Shut up Johnson,” said one of his buddies, punching him in the arm. “Don’t listen to him. He cried like a baby.”

“Hey, you want to step outside?” said Johnson, about ready to throw a punch.

“Lighten up the both of you,” said another GI.

“Would one of you guys mind getting me another rum and coke?” I asked. I took out a few damp, crumpled bills from one of my pockets and tossed them on the counter in front of me.

“Sure man,” said one of the GI’s. “Anyone else need a drink?”

It took a little over two hours to do the outline and then have it colored. I had a couple more rum and cokes and by then I wasn’t feeling too much pain at all. The GI’s from Clayton were impressed and even bought me a few of those rum and cokes.

“Welcome to the club,” said the guy with the lion on his chest as he patted me on the back and then plopped down in the chair that I had vacated. “I’m next.”

After I got my tattoo, I eventually caught up with Howard, Lee, and John at the Fox Hole Bar. They were all pretty well trashed by then but still wanted to see the ink I had done.

“Let’s take a look,” said Howard.

I rolled up my shirtsleeve on my t-shirt and removed the white gauze covering the tattoo artist had put on. Although the bar was dark inside and there were tiny beads of blood across the tattoo, they could still make out the design.

“Cool,” said Lee.

“That’s awesome,” said John.

“Maybe I’ll just have to go back there another time and get my tattoo,” said Howard sheepishly.

“Yeah, that would be cool,” I said.

Howard never went back, but I did, in fact I went back that same night to have another one, a small one inked on my left forearm and two weeks later, to have one done on my upper left arm. Twenty-one years later I would finally get around to having that smaller one (an airplane propeller with the initials U-S-A-F written above it) covered up, which would begin a tattoo metamorphosis or awakening of sorts that would take me to tattoo shops in Bangkok, Phuket, and Yokohama.

As for that first tattoo, it has long since been covered up; however, the memory of it and that night in Panama City all those years ago has been permanently tattooed in my soul.

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.

Pictures for Lily, Part 2 (concluded)

On the day of my big date with Lily I threw on the best shirt I owned, splashed on some Mon Triomphe (it was either that or my roommate’s Old Spice), “dragged a comb across my head” and like the song also goes “made the bus in seconds flat”—but even if I didn’t, another one would come along in a few minutes.

 

Oh yes, and I prepared a small gift for her, but I’ll get to that later. Right now I had to catch a bus.

 

Now there were two ways that I could get downtown—I could take the more reliable and safer Canal Zone bus or I could have an exhilarating ride on a chiva bus, these brightly colored and embellished salsa-blaring buses where you yelled “parada” (I hope my Spanish is not too rusty) when you wanted to stop.

 

I opted for the Canal Zone bus. After all I was going to meet the girl of my dreams Lily. And maybe today I would find out if Lily was in fact her real name. And it would also be the first time I would see her in the light of day and not in some darkened corner of the NCO club underneath the neon lit Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

 

It was about a 30-minute bus ride from Howard AFB to Panama City depending on traffic and how many times the bus stopped. As always it was really cool when the bus crossed the Thatcher Ferry Bridge spanning the Panama Canal—on my right was the Pacific Ocean and on my left the canal with Miraflores Locks in the distance.

 

Once we were still in the Canal Zone, but once we crossed the bridge and passed some military housing on the right with Balboa on the left we were then traveling on Fourth of July Avenue. At this point you were in Panama with the Canal Zone on the left—with Quarry Heights and Gorgas Army Hospital visible on the side of a large hill.

 

There were a few bus stops along the way before I got off in front of the Ancon Inn one of Panama City’s more infamous bars and the one that almost everyone who was ever stationed in Panama visited at least once. And right across the street was the Central Department Store where Lily and her friend were waiting for me.

 

For most GI’s stationed on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone, this area was Panama City’s notorious red light and entertainment district. Sadly, it was also one of the older, poorer and squalid areas of the city manifested in the strata of Third World poverty and suffering. Ironically and sadly, it was also where all the Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines came to play.

 

I had been down to this part of town a few times since arriving in Panama—both at night and during the day. At night it was hanging out in bars like the Ovalo Inn or the Ancon Inn tossing down Rum and Cokes or Cerveza Atlas or Cerveza Panama (which kind of tasted like Heineken) and playing the slot machines. I had also come down here a few times during the day for some shopping as well as, believe it or not having a hamburger at McDonald’s (there were two in Panama City that I knew of in 1976) or some decent Italian food at this Italian restaurant Napoli.

 

And now here I was meeting Lily.

 

Modestly dressed in jeans and a floral print blouse, Lily looked lovely in the bright afternoon sunlight. There was a bit of awkwardness on my part not knowing what we should do—like shopping or having a bite to eat—when her friend dropped the bombshell.

 

Lily wanted me to meet her parents and family. Funny how that thought had not crossed my mind when we talked about meeting today.

 

Be careful. If she gets her hooks into you you’re done for.

 

Perhaps it was nothing more than a formality. Maybe Lily really did like me. I know I liked her a lot. Maybe this is what we had to do to take our relationship to the next level.

 

But before we took it to the next level, we had to first get to her apartment and that was a journey into this oldest and poorest part of Panama City. Familiar landmarks and buildings disappeared as we headed down one narrow avenue and turned onto another. I could smell the salt air from the ocean in the air mixed with raw sewage and rotting vegetation.

 

I must have been the first foreigner to have ventured this deep into this part of the city judging from the looks and stares I was getting. This was 1976 and there had been a couple large demonstrations against the U.S. presence in Panama and the U.S. owned Panama Canal.

 

It took us about 20 minutes to reach her apartment building at the end of a narrow avenue hemmed in by crumbling colonial-era buildings with long wooden shutters on the windows and wrought iron lattice work along balconies. Inside it was cool and noisy—kids running up and down the hallways, televisions blaring from inside apartments.

 

Lily’s apartment was on the fifth floor, which offered a commanding view of the city, the Pacific Ocean in the distance and where we had come from. Her mother was ironing clothes while her father was watching some boxing match on TV. In another room, I could see two young girls, no doubt Lily’s younger sisters preparing food. Religious icons covered the walls along with a photograph of what looked like Roberto Duran, the famous Panamanian boxer.

 

There was a lot of Spanish being spoken now and I am not too sure if the parents had been told that I was going to come here. I was offered a seat and some water. The father, dressed in a pair of slacks and a white t-shirt didn’t take his eyes off the boxing match. Her mother on the other hand tried to make me feel comfortable by smiling a lot.

 

Maybe it wasn’t a good time to give Lily what I had decided to give her, but now that I was in her apartment, I figured it was just as good a time as any. It was a photo of me, taken a few months before I joined the Air Force when I still had long hair. Maybe it was a little cheesy to give someone a photo of one’s self, but I just wanted Lily to have it and to know that I cared a lot, or was at least starting to care a lot about her.

 

On the back I had written, in what I hoped was passable for “I love you” in Spanish, “Te quiero.”

 

I gave it to Lily who smiled when she saw what it was and read what was on the back. She showed it to her mother.

 

“Te quiero.”

 

On the TV, one of the boxers had knocked out his opponent and was dancing around the ring. People were shouting and yelling. I looked over at her father and smiled. He did not smile back.

 

Te quiero.

 

In Spanish it means, “I love you.”

 

Lily, my Lily.

 

More Spanish was spoken. This time by the father who I now could tell was not too pleased with my presence. On the other hand, maybe it was lunchtime and he was just hungry. Or maybe he was upset that the boxer was knocked out. That much I could detect in his tone.

 

Then Lily’s friend suggested we step outside.

 

Lily, her friend and I walked outside and walked up another flight of stairs to the rooftop. Now I could really see where I was at and how far I had come that day to be with Lily.

 

Her friend did all the talking.

 

It had pretty much come down to her father not wanting Lily to date any service member and that I should leave. Lily was quiet and her eyes were red.

 

“You should go now,” her friend said.

 

“I’m sorry,” said Lily in a shaky voice.

 

She handed back the photo I had given her and ran downstairs.

 

I stood there for a few seconds not knowing what to say or do. Her friend said that she would walk me back to the bus stop. There was something I had to do first, though. I wanted Lily to at least keep the photo I had brought her.

 

On our way back down, I stopped at her apartment and knocked on the door. Lily’s father answered. I asked if I could see Lily to give her the photo. There was some yelling and all kinds of Spanish that I knew was not good for me and in the background Lily crying and her mother trying to calm her and her father down. Her friend got between Lily’s father and me. More Spanish. It was getting louder. On the TV another boxing match. The sound of the bell.

 

Now people were opening up doors and sticking their heads out of noisy rooms to see what all the ruckus was in the hallway and someone yelling “Policia.” More shouting and yelling followed.

 

That’s when I knew it was time to get out of there as quickly as I could. Except the yelling did not stop even after I ran out of the building. When I looked up, I could see some people standing on balconies shouting “Policia, Policia.” At least that is what it sounded like to me; but I wasn’t about to stay and find out if my level of Spanish had dramatically increased to the next level or if it all had been some minor misunderstanding.

 

I walked quickly, not running as not to draw any attention—as if I could get out of drawing any attention being a foreigner in this part of the city. A police car passed me but the occupants inside, two stern-looking officers, paid no attention to me.

 

When I safely made it back to the Ancon Inn, with freedom just across 4th of July Avenue, I ducked inside the Ancon for a drink to steady my nerves and calm me down. A few beers later, I was ready to go back to base.

 

Lily never showed up on base again. I heard later from her friend that when Lily’s father found out she had been going to base all those Friday and Saturday nights he was really upset. When I showed up with Lily that December Saturday afternoon at her apartment that must have pushed him over the edge. I couldn’t figure out why she had invited me if she knew her father would be so upset.

 

There was one more thing I wanted to know.

 

Yes, she did.

 

And yes, Lily was her name.

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 2

Fox Hole Bar — Panama, 1976

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.

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