Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Howard AFB 1976-1978

The End is Near

TPABookCover5_25x8After almost two years of writing, revising, editing, and doing it all over again, my latest novel, The Panama Affair will soon see the light of day.

It’s been quite the journey. In fact, this novel originally started out as a screenplay in the spring of 1980, just a few months before I got out of the United States Air Force on May 9th. Although that screenplay was lost, I recreated some scenes from it for the novel. Additionally, there were two short stories, “Love Song from the Zone” (which was part of my MA thesis) and “Pictures for Lily” which also served as an inspiration.

I had planned to publish this novel in November, but due to circumstances beyond my control, it had to be delayed. It was to be a blessing in disguise. The delay was the best thing that could have happened to the story because in that time I rewrote some major scenes and added other ones which strengthened the story. The manuscript I have now is ten times better than the one I thought was ready to publish seven months. Stephen King is right. The best thing a writer can do when they finish a novel is put it away for a couple of months. You’d be surprised how it reads, and perhaps doesn’t read, after you have put it away for a while.

And once again, my designer, Anna Takahashi, has come through in a very BIG way with her cover design. This by far is her most impressive cover design.

I can’t wait to share this book with the world. It’s been a labor of love and I have laid to rest some ghosts from my past while resurrecting others.

I’m happy with the yarn I have spun.

 

The Panama Novel eclipses 60,000 words and counting

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Today I reached another milestone: 60,000 words completed for the Panama novel. Realistically speaking, this novel will most likely end up being around 65,000-70,000 words depending on the final chapters.

This photograph was taken right around the same time I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base. On the left is the hangar that I worked of from 1977 to 1978 when I worked in the Repair Cycle Support Unit. That was a pretty awesome job: I went around Howard as well as Albrook picking up items which could be repaired at stateside depots. After I processed them, I had to take them to Packing and Crating for shipment back to the States or pick up repaired items on base and return them to supply.

In the background in the center is the base gym and beyond it, the parade field. My barracks was located on the right next to the first three-story building which was where one of the chow halls was located.

Panama Daze

Howard AFB 2

You might say that I have been in a daze since I started working on my new novel which takes place in Panama during the 1970s-1980s.  For the past two months I have been working on this new novel as much as I can when I am not teaching or spending time with my children. Because of my schedule and wanting to spend time with my children, I only write in the morning from 5-7 and in the evening from 9-12. Surprisingly I have been averaging around 500-700 words a day. I’m nearing the 55,000 word count mark and I can easily see this novel coming in at around 65,000-70,000 words.

Without question, this is my most ambitious novel since War Remains which contains to stay in the top 50 for Korean War best sellers at Amazon. Today it is at Number 7.

There has been a lot of research and more to come.

It really feels as though I am back in Panama. That period of my life, from 1977-1978, was such an important time. I am happy to finally write about it.

One of these days…

I’m going to have to get around to writing a book about the time I spent at Howard Air Force Base and Panama. I have a few essays here, “Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories” but I haven’t been able to take these stories to the next level. I haven’t been able to tie these stories together; I haven’t come up with some interesting story.

Why Panama?

The two years I spent there, from September 1976 to September 1978 were two of the most important years of my life. I had some good times when I was there and met some very wonderful people.

There’s  a story somewhere in those two years, just waiting for me to tell.

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!

Rain on me

imagesIt’s another rainy day in Daejeon—the kind of rainy day when you know it’s going to rain on and off all day. There are the occasional cloudbursts, not what you would call “raining cats and dogs” but more along the lines of a swirling, blowing rain that is accompanied by gusts of wind rushing down from the hills and mountains that make up so much of Korea’s topography/terrain.

Now when you talk about some real cloudbursts—when it rains so hard you can’t see anything in front of you—well that reminds me of this time when I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base in Panama and I got caught, better yet, stranded in one of them. I was working in the After Hours Support Unit—this section in the 24th Supply Squadron—where I took supply requests and delivered whatever had been ordered “after hours” (on weekends, holidays, and night). It was a real cushy job, one day on and three days off, but on the weekends or a holiday it was a 24-hour shift.

One Saturday afternoon, this call comes in from maintenance for a C-130 radome (a large, black cone-shaped covering for the radar on the front of the aircraft). This C-130 was from a squadron of Air Force National Guard C-130’s on TDY (temporary duty) rotation as part of the Southern Command’s mission in Central and South America. The radome came in a wooden box about the size of a Volkswagen and I had to use this enormous forklift to deliver it to the aircraft.

It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, and the sky was this lovely azure blue accented with clumps of white, billowy clouds. Just a glorious day on the Isthmus of Panama. I started chugging down the flightline with this img_3374radome, soaking in the sunshine and humidity. Didn’t notice at first how those lovely, fleecy white clouds had turned gray and ominous. And when I did glance up the sky, wondering what the heck had happened to the sun that had been hidden by those clouds, it was too late.

The skies just opened up with a torrential downpour. There was nothing I could do but stop where I was. I turned off the engine and waited. The rain came down so fast and hard,  I couldn’t see beyond the forklift. It rained for about 10-15 minutes and then stopped. Those gray clouds turned white and fleecy and then the sun reappeared along with that lovely azure sky. I swear I could see the steam rising from the flight line.

As for myself, I was soaked but once the sun came out; my fatigues started to dry. I started the forklift and continued on my merry, chugging way down the flight line to the C-130’s. By the time I arrived, about 10 minutes later, my fatigues had pretty much dried.

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.

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