Path between the Seas — Panama Canal Zone, 1978

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.