Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: U.S. Air Force (page 2 of 3)

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.

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.

Are You A Stooge?

It was exactly 33 years ago today when I started Boot Camp at Lackland Air Force Base in sunny San Antonio. Of all the essays I have written the past few years, this would make my Top Ten List of favorite essays.

Anyone who has ever served in the military at one time or another is bound to have at least one or two interesting stories about basic training-whether something that might have happened to themselves or somebody else.

When it comes to having or telling such stories, I am no exception with at least one of those stories: my first night of Air Force basic training.

Let’s just say for all practical and semantic purposes that I was asking for trouble, and lots of it, by what I decided to wear on the day I reported to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in June 1976. Whatever possessed me to put on an orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt that morning when I got up in the Avenue Motel in Chicago, I’ll never know.

Ironically, I had cut off most of my long red hair a week before because I didn’t want to stand out too much when I got to basic training. I guess if I had been really worried about standing out, I would have given more thought to my wardrobe choice that morning.

There were eighteen of us-including myself and six other guys from the Illinois Valley-leaving from Chicago on an evening flight to San Antonio and our home for the next six weeks: sunny, scorching Lackland Air Force Base. Those of us from the Illinois Valley even made the front page of the local newspaper. The day we left, there was this F-104 aircraft display at the Peru Mall and the local Air Force recruiter seeing a potential windfall to attract more recruits, came up with the idea to have us pose next to the aircraft. “Off They Go” was the catchy headline someone came up with for the photo. Three months later, only two of us would still be in the Air Force.

(And in the “Stranger than Fiction” Department, six months later, when I was at Howard Air Force Base, Panama Canal Zone, I met John Hill one of the Air Force personnel who had gone around the country setting up this display. I must have shown him this clipping from the Daily News Tribune my mom had sent me or mentioned it when he told me that he was there. )

We had spent the previous night in Chicago at the luxurious (just kidding) Avenue Motel on Michigan Avenue, where back in 1976 new recruits for all branches of the service were put up for the night before spending the next day doing all the cool processing stuff at the induction center on Van Buren Street. After a full day of doing that in-processing, paperwork, and raising our right hands to “protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” so help us God, we were put on a bus to O’Hare and later flying down to San Antonio.

Before getting on that bus to the airport, two of my friends and I decided to play a prank on our recruiter, or as Greg said put it, “to make him piss his pants.” We found a pay phone and called our recruiter collect-telling him not to hang up because “we only had one phone call.” We really freaked him out for a minute or two before we told him we were joking.

We must have thought we were styling to fly down to Texas on Braniff Airlines. (Remember Braniff and their “Fly the Colors of Braniff” slogan?) For many of us it was our first time on an airplane and some were terrified. The guy I was sitting next to-one of the guys from my hometown-was so scared, he didn’t say a word for entire flight.

When we got to San Antonio’s airport, the life we had once known was soon to be over, after we were met by very friendly sergeants who made us feel welcome by telling us exactly what they thought about all us new recruits. Funny, how “move your G-D asses” can sound so threatening when spoken in a rapid, staccato-like baritone voice. Doesn’t make any difference what branch of the military you serve in, you are lower than slug scum as a new recruit.

After being herded onto buses along with other recruits who had flown into the airport, we were taken to an in-processing center on Lackland where more friendly sergeants greeted and welcomed us.

“Get you G-D lazy asses off the bus and get your damn asses inside and sit down and don’t touch anything that doesn’t belong to you.”

Really friendly stuff.

During our in-briefing, one of the guys I came down with from the Illinois Valley-the same guy who was freaked out on the plane-raised his hand and asked one of the sergeants if all of us from the Illinois Valley would be put together. Back then, the Air Force had this seemingly innocuous recruiting ploy-the “buddy system”-to get more people to enlist. You and a friend would join the Air Force and then do basic training and maybe, if you were lucky even technical school.

However, once we were all there sitting together during our in-processing at Lackland, reminding one of the sergeants that you had joined under the “buddy system” maybe wasn’t such a good thing to bring up at the time. Nothing like calling more attention to yourself when all you wanted to do was just get through what was most assuredly going to be a very long night.

Give the guy credit though, that was a pretty brave thing to do. I know I could have never done something like that-then again, I am the guy in the orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt, remember?

“The buddy system, huh?” bellowed the sergeant.

The whole room got quiet.

Why did you have to mention that, I whispered, jabbing him in the ribs.

“Okay, we’ll make sure all you “buddies” are put together.”

Hey, the Air Force wasn’t so bad after all. And that’s how the “Chicago 18” as we were collectively called after that evening all ended up in the same basic training flight. Whether or not the Air Force had this arranged when we all left Chicago or if it was decided right there during our in processing I’ll never know, but all of us “buddies” were going to spend the next six weeks together.

Then came the “piss test” to make sure none of us were under the influence of any mind-altering or mind-expanding drugs. We were all herded into a large latrine and ordered to urinate. With everyone jockeying for urinals so they could urinate on small litmus-like strips of paper, the scene inside the latrine was pretty chaotic-like the restrooms in the late innings of a ballgame at Wrigley Field.

The problem was, I couldn’t pee to save myself in a fire. I had gone to the bathroom on the plane and as I stood there in front of the urinal, I couldn’t even squeeze out a drop. I was so desperate that I was about to ask someone if they had some urine to spare. I wasn’t alone though. When most of the crowd had thinned out, there I was still standing there with a handful of other new recruits who either were very shy when it came to relieving themselves in front of other men, or like myself, had nothing to give.

I was so desperate I was about to ask someone if they would piss on my litmus paper-fearing the worst when I had to tell my sergeants I had no piss. No problem because another friendly sergeant approached us and said that we could come back tomorrow with our drill sergeant. I was certain that my drill sergeant whoever he was wouldn’t mind bringing me back to the in-processing center the next day for my piss test. After all, it was only a piss test.

After we were fed in a nearby chow hall (and the best darn French toast-made of Texas-sized bread-I’ve ever tasted; the last peaceful meal I would enjoy for six weeks) we were finally taken to our barracks. Home, sweet home.

Fate was again with me that night because as soon as the bus we were on stopped in front of the barracks, I was the first person whose name was called to get off.

The barracks were on the second floor with an open area underneath for recruits to fall into formation. It was dimly lit and as I stood there waiting along with the other recruits who continued to file off the bus, I could make out some shadowy figures emerging from the darkness. As they moved closer, I could make out their distinctive “Smokey the Bear” hats and the sound of their metal cleats on their combat boots clicking on the concrete floor.

Before I knew what happened, one of my Training Instructors-or TI’s as they were affectionately called-was standing in front of me staring at my orange “Three Stooges” T-shirt and yelling at me.

“What are you? A stooge?”

When my TI asked me if I were a stooge, imagine R. Lee Ermey, the DI in Full Metal Jacket asking the same question. Just try to hear Ermey’s voice in your head to get an idea what my TI sounded like asking that question.

It was only then when I realized just how serious that wardrobe mistake I had made in the morning.

“No sir,” I said meekly.

“Don’t call me sir. I work for a living,” my TI barked staring me down with the rim of his Smokey the Bear hat barely touching my forehead.

Perhaps a bit cliché after similar utterances made by drill instructors in countless military movies like Stripes and Full Metal Jacket, but still effective. And this was just the beginning for the onslaught of verbal barbs and slurs-the likes of which I only thought were uttered in the movies-that the TI threw at me.

“I think you are a stooge.”

“Yes sergeant, I am a stooge.”

“I can’t hear you.”

This sounded a bit like Sergeant Carter in Gomer Pyle.

“Yes sergeant, I am a stooge.”

Around this time a cadet from the Air Force Academy who looked just as threatening as he glared at me joined my Training Instructor. Gee, everybody it seemed was getting in on the act, and at my expense.

“Take off that shirt and turn it inside out Stooge,” the TI ordered.

If there ever was a record for someone to take off a T-shirt, turn it inside out, and put it back on, I would have set it that night.

“Where are you from, Stooge?”

“Illinois, sergeant.”

“Illinois? Do you mean to tell me that you came all the way down here from Illinois just to piss me off?”

“No sir. I mean no, sergeant.”

Yes, I definitely made a good impression with my Training Instructor that night.

We were out there for what seemed like an eternity (as cliché as that might sound) standing in formation, playing “pick them up and put them down” with our suitcases, being yelled at and in my case, being reminded that I was still a stooge and would be for the next six weeks depending on my good fortune or misfortune.

Of course, right about now I was beginning to worry about having to tell one of my Training Instructors that I had to go back to the in-processing center for my urine test in the morning. They were going to appreciate that a lot.

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.

Crossing the Isthmus of Panama with Howard and Other Stories — Part 4

Let’s look at the scorecard thus far. 

It’s 1976. I graduated from high school on June 3; six days later I was at Lackland Air Force Base doing my basic military training.

On July 4, we could stay up past 9:00pm to celebrate our Bicentennial. From our barracks’ windows we could see a fireworks display. Happy Birthday America. 

Six weeks later I am at Lowry AFB in Denver, Colorado. A few weeks later I was in Panama. 

So, there I was—eighteen years old and settling into my first duty station. I was living in Building 714 on the third floor. The second floor was for CAMS (if I am not mistaken, it stood for the Consolidated Aircraft Maintenance Squadron) and on the third floor it was all for Supply including the airmen who delivered the jet fuel. 

The barracks, which had supposedly been built during World War II (or so I was told; then again, it could very well have been another one of these military/urban legends that I have come to accept as the truth over the years), had originally been an open-bay style. Later, the Air Force with their infinite wisdom decided to give airmen a little privacy and remodeled the barracks with a block of rooms on either side of a central latrine. However, the hallway would run along the outside of these rooms which meant the rooms, at least in this barracks would have no windows. The only rooms that had windows were the row of rooms at each end of the floor/building.  

Supposedly, this design was the easiest one to convert the open-bay barracks into individual rooms. Another reason, which I am sure sounded good when explaining the window-less rooms to someone who was going to be stuck in one for two years, was that the heavy monsoon rains would be a problem. I think more had to do with the central located latrine that would have posed more problems re-designing the floor to accommodate rooms on either side. Now the biggest challenge for the shakers and movers would be how to keep these rooms “cool” in the stifling heat and suffocating humidity. So, this central air conditioning system was designed to pump cool air into the rooms 24/7. And when it worked, it worked quite well keeping us all cool as a cucumber (except there was still a bit of a humidity problem and you always had to watch out for mildew). On the other hand, three times the system broke in the two years that I was there and those rooms became like ovens without any circulation at all. Of course, with the hallway running along the outside of these rooms there was no way that you could keep your door open. 

My first roommate was a bit of a trip. Going by the name of “JJ” he had turned his half of the room (the back half) into his own private boudoir. He had a couple of black lights, posters, beads, most of the furniture and a steady stream of young Panamanian ladies coming and going all hours of night and on the weekends (how he managed to sneak them in and not get caught was one of the great mysteries of my early days at Howard). 

He’s the one who got me in trouble with the First Sergeant not long after I arrived when he refused to help clean the room for a Saturday inspection. Later, he got busted for drugs or something and was kicked out of the Air Force (by then I had already moved into another room). 

Barracks life was rather quiet for the most part. I can’t recall spending much time in the barracks other than hanging out with a few friends like Howard now and then. Off duty meant hitting Happy Hour at the NCO club and then later a bus ride to Panama City and bars like the Ancon Inn and the Ovalo Bar (my favorite bar) or the Fox Hole.

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.

Air Force comrades

We both were stationed at Lackland Air Force Base

When On and I took a taxi to the Inter City Hotel we had the same taxi driver we had the last time we were here. He also remembered us. 

While he was driving us to the hotel, he said that he had once visited the United States back in 1968 when he was stationed at Lackland Air Force Base and then later, Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. 

I was at Lackland Air Force Base eight years later in 1976 for six weeks of Air Force basic training. 

Wow, our taxi driver and I both were stationed at Lackland Air Force Base. 

Air Force comrades. Pretty cool, huh?

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

As a feature writer for the Korea Times, I’ve gotten to do some pretty cool and neat stuff over the years like flying in an F-16 back in 2002.

Into the Wild Blue Yonder

By Jeffrey Miller
Feature Writer 
 

F-16 Flight 2002OSAN AIR BASE—It takes a special kind of man or woman to strap themselves into the cockpit of one of the most sophisticated fighters in the world today, and then go soaring into the sky.

Since 1979, when F-16 was first introduced, thousands of pilots from air forces around the world have taken to the skies in this $20-million piece of aerospace wizardry. At 23, F-16 is still the pride and joy of all those who have experienced both the power and the thrill of flying this awesome aircraft.

Although movies like Top Gun or aerial demonstrations by the United States Air Force’s Thunderbirds or the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels have given those of us in movie theaters or on the ground the vicarious thrill of what these fighters can really do—what is it really like to experience flying in a jet fighter?

While this thrill of experiencing has only been reserved for this elite fraternity of pilots, there are some of us mere mortals who have been given that once-in-a-lifetime thrill of flying into the wild blue yonder.

 Life Support/Physical/Egress  

The U.S. Air Force has a special incentive program which gives selected airmen (usually airmen who have been singled out for exemplary duty) the chance to experience what it is like to fly in an F-16—and in some instances the same aircraft that they might even work on. In addition, these “incentive flights” also give civilians—entertainers, ambassadors, and members of the media—an opportunity to experience first hand the thrill of flying in a jet fighter.

Whether you are a pilot or a reporter for the Korea Times, everything starts with the airmen in the Life Support section. It is here in this section that these airmen take care of everything from the flight suits and helmets to the G-suits and survival gear. Their job is simple: to protect the pilot both in the aircraft, and in the event of ejection, protect him and her outside the aircraft.

Suiting up for my F-16 flight in 2002

It takes almost two hours to prepare and practice getting on what I will have to wear for my fight—for most pilots it would only take them about 15 minutes to get suited up. The G-suit sort of fits like “chaps” from the waist down, on top of the flight suit. In a real aircraft when the pilot pulls g-forces, the G-Suit (actually only pants which cover the legs and stomach section) inflates and squeezes the pilot to prevent all his/her blood from rushing to their lower areas. This helps keep the pilot from passing out due to the effects of g-forces.

“If you throw up in the mask,” says one of the airmen who helped prepare my suit, “or on the suit, it’s a case of beer.”

Fair enough.

After a quick flight physical to make sure that things like my heart and blood pressure are okay and that I can clear my ears (to avoid rupturing my eardrums) it’s off for a brief, but highly important run through of the egress system of the F-16.

In the event of an emergency, I am walked through all the things that I need to know if I have to eject. Using a mock- up of the cockpit of the F-16, I not only get the chance to familiarize myself with all the controls and handles that I should not touch, but also practice getting out of the cockpit in case of an emergency—in the air or on the ground. Finally, you are shown a video of what not to do in the cockpit and what happens if you do—like accidentally bumping the stick with your right leg.

How am I going to remember all of this? 

Pre-flight  

After a good night’s sleep and a light breakfast (just to be on the safe side, I pass on the usual eggs, bacon and sausage) I’m back down to Osan early in the morning for the flight which is scheduled for early in the afternoon.

Unfortunately, the weather is not cooperating. Snow, mixed with rain has been falling intermittently since I left Seoul and from what I’ve heard from personnel on the base there’s only 1,000 feet visibility. There’s a 50-50 chance that this mission will be scrubbed. Normally, it’s not the kind of weather that would ground a training exercise, but the military doesn’t like to take any chances with media aboard.

While we wait for the “go sign,” I attend my flight’s briefing, which is conducted by my pilot for today’s mission, Capt. Eric “Magic” Denny. This is not some free media ride for me. It’s still business as usual for these pilots, even with me in the backseat.

He goes over our flight plan and explains what time we’ll take off, where we will be going, what to expect once we are airborne, and our estimated time for touchdown. Normally, these briefings can last anywhere up to an hour. Denny, who has been stationed at Osan since April 2000, enjoys taking people on incentive flights—especially the airmen on the ground. He has logged over 1,200 hours in the F-16 since he started flying it 10 years ago.

“My favorite kind of incentive flight is when I can take up my assigned aircraft’s dedicated crew chief to show him or her what the aircraft that they work so hard on can do,” explained Denny. The weather finally cooperates. It’s time to get suited up. 

The Flight 

The real trick is how to get into the cockpit wearing with what feels like over 70 pounds of life support gear. It looks so easy in the movies when you see these fighter pilots scrambling up the ladder and jumping into the cockpit. Basically, you have to position yourself on the edge of the cockpit with one hand on the opposite side; swing your legs over and then, sort of plop yourself right into the cockpit.

Easy, right?

Next is the arduous task of fastening those belts and harnesses, as well as hooking up the G-suit hose and your oxygen hose. You practically have to be a contortionist to twist your body around to strap yourself in and get hooked up. After you are all fit and snug in there, the first thing you notice is how small it is inside the cockpit. It’s a good thing that I’m not claustrophobic.

Sitting there in the cockpit, I try to remember everything that I was taught the day before. Denny does one final walk around of the fighter with the crew chief and we’re ready to go. When we taxi out of the hangar—following behind another F-16—this whole experience begins to register, and yet I feel calm and collected.

Rolling down the flight line toward the runway, Denny and I can talk back and forth on the microphone; between the chatter from the control tower and other planes, he talks me through everything that we are going to do. Two F-16s, one right after another, take off in a thunderous roar, which resonates across the flight line. One last check of the plane by some airmen on the flight line.

“Captain, let’s have a great ride,” I say.

“Roger that, Mr. Miller,” replies Denny.

There are two planes ahead of us, and then it’s our turn. When the afterburner kicks in you are pushed back into your seat as the jet picks up speed moving down the runway. The takeoff is no different from most commercial flights—it’s just faster and steeper. It’s only when you make your first turn, slicing through the clouds as the jet rapidly climbs higher into the sky that you really feel as though you’re flying in a jet fighter. I look out the left side of the canopy and I watch the other F-16 pull up along our side that has joined us for some close and tactical formation work. Both planes are just a few feet apart. Flying this close in formation with another jet gives you a great appreciation and respect for these pilots that know how to handle their aircraft.

The first time the aircraft pulled some g’s you feel this tremendous squeezing sensation on your legs and lap as the G-suit goes to work. I feel a little light-headed, as though I am going to pass out. I take three deep breaths; clench my legs and force out a grunt to get the blood back to my brain and the feeling passes. Then there are a couple inverted rolls, another turn and more g’s.

Denny, who routinely flies the F-16 about four times a week, loves the way the aircraft handles in the sky.

“I would say the most exciting part of flying the F-16 is exercising the capability to both shoot down the bad guys and then drop bombs on them,” explained Denny. “And it’s all rolled up in one agile little aircraft.”

Despite the lousy weather, we were able to climb to 16,000 feet to some better weather. There, the two jets performed some fighting wing maneuvering, and some basic aerobatics. It’s no wonder these pilots love what they do best. We get to play cat and mouse with the other jet for a little interceptor practice. A couple rolls here, and another turn there.

“Can you see him, Mr. Miller?” asks Denny as we climb for a better look. “There he is, at 1:00!”

I look up through the canopy and spot the aircraft. This is intense, as we pull another couple g’s in high pursuit of the aircraft.

 So, what does it really feel like? Have you ever been on one of the world’s fastest and highest roller coasters? Well, take experience that and multiply it by; say a million and you’ll have some idea. Up there above the clouds as the plane rolled one way, then another pulling a couple g’s here and there, all you can do is marvel at what this fine aircraft can do and the men and women who fly them day in and day out. Better yet, to paraphrase William Shakespeare, what a piece of work this aircraft is.

 We wrapped up this media flight with a radar trail recovery for an ILS instrument approach to a full stop landing. I did not pass out. I did not throw up. Looks like those guys in life support owe me a case of beer.  

Debriefing  

Although just along for the ride, I now have joined a select group of mortals that have been able to experience the rush of flying in a fighter. Back on the ground, it just so happened that on the day of my first flight was also the last flight for the former 51st Wing Commander, Brig. Gen. David Clary who departed Korea recently. There is a round of handshakes and some congratulatory pats on the back from some of the pilots in the squadron who had gathered to meet Clary.

Without question, the F-16 is a marvelous aircraft. It’s no wonder that in Korea, it plays a pivotal role in the US-ROK alliance as an integral component in the air defense of the peninsula. While the thrill of flying any kind of aircraft is reserved for those brave men and women who are ready to fly into harm’s way at a moment’s notice, it’s these airmen on the ground in both air forces that keep these beautiful winged warriors ready to go. It’s only fitting, as pilots taxi pass the control tower, that they raise their arms over their heads as a symbolic gesture of camaraderie for the men and women on the ground who keep them flying. These pilots might get all the glory streaking across the sky in their wonderful, sophisticated flying machines, but they know who the people are that make this all possible.

Years ago, I was one of those people on the ground that “kept them flying.” Who would have thought that 22 years after I was discharged, I would finally get my “incentive flight?” It was definitely worth the wait.

Later, during an interview with Clary, we get to compare notes. “How was your flight?” the general asks. Given time, I probably could have come up with a hundred or so superlatives to describe the experience of an F-16 flight, but for now there’s just one word that sums it all up.

“Awesome,” I reply with a huge grin.

Would I go back up into the wild blue yonder again?

You bet.   

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