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.
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.
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.