Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Howard AFB

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.

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.

The unexamined life is not worth living: Personal favorites and popular posts #2

Since I started blogging a little over five years ago I’ve blogged about all kinds of topics and subjects from the birth of Jeremy Aaron and my life in Asia to waxing nostalgic about growing up in the 1960s/1970s and serving in the United States Air Force.

With over 1200 posts, I have some personal favorites, some of which are also popular with readers:

Buckacre – Country rock from America’s heartland

Although I missed out on catching Buckacre live when they were playing the Circus Lounge in Spring Valley, Illinois in the 1970s, I would have the chance to get to know some of the band’s former members in the early 1980s when I was helping out The Jerks or catching Longshot (later Big Kids) at Friday’s and other bars in the Illinois Valley. I had already written a few posts about The Jerks, but when I came across this video of the band on YouTube, I thought it would be nice to write something about the band. The post got a lot of hits and some comments from many people who remember seeing Buckacre at the Circus as well as people stopping by to see how former member Les Lockridge is doing; he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease earlier this year and there was a benefit for him this past May.

WGN’s Family Classics with Frazier Thomas

I am surprised by the number of hits and comments this post has received from people remembering Family Classics and how much they enjoyed watching the movies every Sunday on WGN, Channel 9 out of Chicago. I was even more surprised how much many of these people enjoyed the theme music and wanting to know where they could find the music online—prompting the grandson of the composer of this bit of music to leave comments.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and other stories – Part 3

It was a lot of fun for me remembering the time I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone from 1976-1978. That was an important time of my life and my military service in the United States Air Force. Howard Hakkila was my best friend at Howard AFB; we had met earlier that summer at a military hospital in Denver waiting to get our Yellow Fever shots.

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.

Pictures for Lily, Part 1

I am not quite sure what I am going to do with this; whether it will be another one of my literary non-fiction pieces or part of a larger work. What I can say is that this came to me the other day while listening to the Who’s “Pictures of Lily” (if you haven’t already figured that out). And when the Writing Muse inspires you it’s best to listen to her not to mention The Who.

 

I fell for a woman named Lily and almost got arrested for it.

 

At least, that’s what I thought was going to happen when I heard her father yelling in Spanish to some police officers as I ran out of her apartment building in Panama City one December Saturday afternoon in 1976.

 

Busted for Love. Not quite looking for love in all the wrong places but that would have been one cool Country and Western song except I really wasn’t into Country and Western music at the time and I seriously doubt the Guardia Policia or whatever it was Spanish would have thought so either.

 

What I was into was sucking down Rum and Cokes and letting my hair down—what little I had to let down.

 

I had been at Howard AFB for three months and when December rolled around I got my first stripe. I was now an Airman. No more Airman Basic Miller. I was now Airman Jeffrey Alan Miller. Yeah, moving on up in the chain of command.

 

And speaking of things rolling around, every time the weekend rolled around you would find me at the base NCO Club—myself and practically every other single person on base as well as a bevy of Panamanian ladies lined up outside the club waiting for someone to sign them in. I swear they came in by the busloads—Canal Zone buses and these brightly colored and embellished chiva salsa-blaring buses—every Friday and Saturday night. That was before they stopped letting those buses stop on base (the buses had to go through base because of the Panamanian towns like Veracruz just outside Howard and the Canal Zone).

 

And that’s where I met Lily a few weeks before I sewed on that first stripe.

 

She was the friend of a friend who had been seeing one of my buddies and one night we were introduced. She was rather plain looking, not all painted and perfumed up like some of the women who came to the NCO club every weekend. Some were working girls looking to make a little extra money on the side; others were looking, as some older enlisted types would tell you, for that ticket back to the Land of the Big BX.

 

I didn’t think Lily fit the bill for either category. The first few times I saw her she was quiet and shy. With the little Spanish I had picked up and the English she knew we could have some small talk other that “phew, it was hot today.” This was Panama. It was hot every day.

 

We danced to the music of The Kiwis, a popular Filipino band (that if I am not mistaken was still playing every Friday and Saturday when I left Howard two years later in 1978), and she even let me slow dance a few times with her. At the end of the night I would walk her to the bus stop and that is where we would say our good nights.

 

“Be careful,” said an NCO who lived in my barracks, “if she gets your hooks into you you’re done for.”

 

Yeah, right Sarge, I thought. Good advice coming from a guy who had already been married three times.

 

“Not my Lily,” I said.

 

I was calling her “my” Lily and I still didn’t even know her real name.

 

“Well, don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said and then continued pleading with his current girlfriend to give him a second chance.

 

Another weekend rolled around but this time, instead of dancing to The Kiwis and drinking my Rum and Cokes we saw a movie at the base theater. Wow, a real date with popcorn, too. Well, kind of because her friend had tagged along. Good thing because there were no Spanish subtitles but it was a comedy and Lily laughed a few times and her friend translated the rest.

 

And then, while we waited for the bus to take Lily and her friend back home he friend asked me if I wanted to come and see Lily the next day—a Saturday, during the day.

 

“Meet us in front of Viva Department Store at 1:00,” her friend said.

 

I had just sewn on my first stripe and now I was going to be able to spend an afternoon with Lily. This was definitely something I could write home about.

 

That night, as I lay in my barracks’ room I thought about Lily. I wanted to bring her something special; something that she would remember me by.  But what could I bring her?

 

And was Lily her real name?

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.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and other stories — Part 1

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. 

Off they go…

off_they_goThis photo was taken the day before all of us left for Chicago and then onto sunny San Antonio for Air Force basic training.

Six weeks later, only three of us would still be in the Air Force; one month after that only two of us. I would also be the first person to come home on leave at the end of August.

Later that year, when I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base in the Panama Canal Zone, I would meet one of the Air Force personnel assigned to this Air Force display.

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