Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Vietnam

Armistice Day

That’s what my grandparents called Veteran’s Day.

Back when I was a child growing up in the 1960s, I often spent Armistice Day/Veteran’s Day at my grandparents’ house east of LaSalle. It was on one of those Armistice/Veteran’s Day when my grandmother told me about the origins of the holiday.

“The armistice was signed on the eleventh day of November at the eleventh hour,” she told me.

“What’s an armistice?”

“It’s the end of a war.”

In this case, it was the end of The Great War. The war to end all wars.

War was still something off my radar screen, but this was the 1960s and America was at war again. I heard news about guerrillas and couldn’t understand why gorillas were fighting. The only gorillas I knew was that gorilla in The Jungle Book.

This was 1966 and 1967. I would soon learn about Vietnam.

My grandmother, who was born in 1911, was two years younger than I was when she first remembered the war to end all wars. At precisely 11:00, my grandmother and I walked outside. She told me that would face the east and remember those who died. Back then, a whistle from the Alpha Cement Mill east of LaSalle sounded along with a fire siren to mark the moment the armistice was signed.

Having done our dutiful remembrance, I spent the rest of the day playing before my grandmother took me back home.

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

                        ~ President Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day speech

Over the years, I remembered veterans standing outside banks in the Illinois Valley handing out/selling paper poppies for small donations. Folks took the poppies, twisted the thin metal paper-covered strips and proudly wore them on shirts, blouses, and jackets. My grandfather or grandmother gave me a coin to drop into the can and I awaited eagerly for the veteran to hand me my poppy. I didn’t know what these poppies meant at the time. For me, it was a moment that I shared with my grandparents, like standing outside on the eleventh of November and remembering the war to end all wars.

Poppies. In the seventh grade I learned all about them and their significance.

My English teacher, Mrs. Assalley, a Syrian immigrant, had the class keep a poetry notebook. One of the poems I transcribed inside my notebook was “In Flanders Fields” by John McRae:

In Flanders Field

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Little did I know at the time, how fitting the poem was for the thousands of young men who began to come home in flag-draped coffins to their final resting places in our nation’s cemeteries.

Over the years, Armistice Day and Veteran’s Day would have other meanings for me, first as a member of the armed forces, and one special Veteran’s Day in 2000 when I met Medal of Honor recipient General Raymond Davis USMC at a special ceremony on Knight Field at the Yongsan Military Garrison which commemorated the northern campaigns of the Korean War, including Kunu-ri which I wrote about in my Korean War novel, War Remains.

Today, this very special day that I first celebrated with my grandparents over 40 years ago is just as significant then as it remains for me today.

It is a day to honor all those who served and to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice. And, in the words of President Calvin Coolidge, “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.”

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.

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