Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Panama (page 2 of 3)

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.

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.

Panama Daze

Here’s a real photographic blast from the past for you!

Bud Tristano, this guy I was stationed with at Howard Air Force Base back in 1978 sent this photo to me the other day of us standing next to Miraflores Locks on the Pacific side of the canal.

Thanks for the photo Bud!

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.)

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.

Rain on me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Panama Red

“Hey! Who torched that joint?”

Believe it or not, the first time I heard the song “Panama Red” was in the summer of 1976 when I was stationed at Lowry AFB in Denver, Colorado the day I found I was going to Panama.

Whether or not that was supposed to have been some weird, hazy foreshadowing or what, those guys from New Riders of the Purple Sage knew exactly what they were singing about.

And speaking of singing, or at the very least listening to Robert Plant sing—jump forward to 1977. One night a group of us from our barracks went to a movie theater in Panama City near the Continental Hotel (in what was the more upscale parts of the city) to see Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same.

Most of us already had a good little buzz going after we had left the base and taken a Canal Zone Bus to its terminal in Panama City and then jumped on a smaller chiva bus to the theater, about 20 minutes away.

Obviously, Led Zeppelin wasn’t that popular in Panama because there were plenty of seats in the theater. We found some good seats near the front when suddenly we smelled something burning. To be sure, we were a little alarmed and paranoid when someone a few rows behind us lit up some of that herb. Now if my memory serves me right there was this Panamanian law (it might even have been an urban legend) that stipulated if you were with someone who had broken the law you could also be arrested for “guilt by association.” In other words, if someone fired up a joint inside a nightclub or a disco and the police busted in, everyone could technically be arrested.

Although I never heard of that happening while I was stationed in Panama, that was what a lot of people were worried about in that movie theater when we all got a good whiff of that bud burning.

“Are you crazy? Do you want to get us all arrested?” someone said at the back of the movie theater.

“Put it out,” said another moviegoer.

“Man, we’re going to get busted,” said Hector, one of the guys in our group.

“Don’t bogart that joint,” someone whispered.

Nervous laughter.

“Pipe down,” said someone else, “I’m trying to watch the movie.”

More laughter when the pun was figured out.

We all expected the police to bust in at any minute and arrest us all but whoever had lit up had quickly extinguished that bud and we could all—once our paranoid had dissipated along with that good buzz we had when we came into the movie theater—enjoy the rest of the movie.

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.

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