Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Howard Hakkila

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.

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.

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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