Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Panama City

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.

Picture of the Day: The Ancon Inn — El Paraiso de los Hombres Solteros

Ancon Inn 1a

The ink has faded with age, but not the memories I have of this club–the first club many service members checked out the first time they went to Panama City. I remember that there was a bus stop right in front of the door. You could hop, stagger, or stumble off the bus, right into the Ancon for a cold Atlas or Cerveza Panama or a Rum and Coke. From there it was down the street to the Ovalo or Paris. Maybe stopping off for some monkey meat along the way.

Ancon Inn 2aIn the two years I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base I checked out the Ancon a couple of times, but my favorite bar was the Ovalo and further down the street in the opposite direction, The Foxhole Bar.

Sixty beautiful hostesses? I never counted, but if the card says there were 60 of them, then there must have been. I wouldn’t have known or even bothered to have counted because I was usually pretty tanked when I went downtown with my buddies from Barracks 714.

The Ancon gets mentioned a few times in The Panama Affair and rightfully so.

Bridge of the Americas (Puente de las Américas)

You know the aphorism, “I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it?” Well, of all the bridges I’ve crossed, one of the most memorable ones I’ve crossed a number of times was the magnificent and historical Bridge of the Americas that crosses the Pacific approach to the Panama Canal at Balboa.

Completed in 1962 by the United States, the bridge was the only non-swinging bridge that connected north and south American land masses until 2004 when the Centennial Bridge (which spans Galliard Cut or Culebra Cut) opened. (There are two swinging bridges one at Miraflores locks and the other at Gatun Locks.)

The bridge is 5,425 feet long and is 384 feet above sea level. It was originally called The Thatcher Ferry Bridge, after the original ferry that crossed the canal at the same point. Interestingly, the ferry was named after Maurice Thatcher, a former member of the canal commission.

From 1976-1978 I was stationed at Howard Air Force Base on the Pacific side of the Canal and almost daily I crossed the bridge—either on my way to Albrook Air Station when I was working (delivering supplies or picking up repairable equipment)—or to Panama City and Balboa when I was not working. It was definitely a breathtaking ride across the bridge with the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Panama Canal/Miraflores Locks on the other. Even more awe-inspiring was glancing to my left or right and watching ships either approaching or exiting the canal.

Without question, crossing the Bridge of America’s was one of my more memorable moments during the two years I was stationed at Howard, especially this one night, just a few days before Christmas in 1976, when a bunch of us from Barracks 714 piled into this guy’s golden dune buggy and headed across the Bridge of the Americas to Panama City.

Crossing the Bridge of Americas in an open top golden dune buggy, standing up in the back and holding onto the roll bar singing “Jingle Bells” at the top of one’s lungs at Christmas in Panama—well, you can’t get any more memorable than that.

(In the photo, you can see Howard Air Force Base in the distance on the left; and right below the bridge near the oil tanks is Canal Zone Junior College. I took one class there, a history class back in 1978.)

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.

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