Mid April 1968, there were six
of us who flew from Charleston AFB on a night flight to Panama.
I will never forget waking up to see the gray light of early dawn barely
lighting the ocean below, then some patches of fog on darker jungle
terrain. ILTs Gerome DeRiso and F. Fredrick Kennedy were lawyers ... the
rest of us, Chuck Dickinson, Edward Boone, Glenn Shattuck, and me,
Warren Kirbo, the greenest second lieutenants in the army, were on
board, headed to Fort Amador, CZ, US Army Southern Command (USARSO),
"for assignment as the commander may direct....." Except for
Kennedy, the rest of us were in Class C-20 No.10, of the Low Altitude
Missile Department, where we were trained as platoon leaders for the
HAWK missile batteries at Fort Amador and Fort Sherman.
We deplaned at Howard to a just risen sun and went into the open air
building to wait for our bags. The first thing Lt. Boone and I noticed
were the sounds of the birds echoing in the building. Northerners DeRiso,
and Dickerson noticed the warmth. We all waited. I remember finding a
copy of a Miami Herald and finding out that Atlanta had just acquired
the St. Louis Hawks basketball team, and then there was the Atlanta
Soccer team, at that time, undefeated. We all remembered waiting. And
waiting. Nobody showed to pick us up.
Ten O'clock. After four phone calls and another two hours, a green chevy
finally appeared with a Spec Four driving. We all packed in, even though
he told us he was only allowed to take three. We drove over the bridge,
then through Balboa towards the street that would take us to Fort Amador
to sign in.
"Beautiful! This place is fucking beautiful!" DeRiso's voice
could be heard over and over again as we saw red flowered trees, and
blossoming bird of paradise plants, and blue flowered trees, and the
greenest lawns any of us had ever seen, especially after three winter
months in the west Texas deserts around El Paso.
By noon, we managed to sign in and find out that we would be most likely
headed for the 4th Bn (HAWK-AW) 517th Artillery, headquartered at Ft.
Clayton, wherever that was. Now in two cars, we headed for our new home.
But nobody was there, just a duty sergeant. The battalion was on a Field
Training Exercise at Rio Hato and would not be back for four days. We
were orphans. We had four days to kill, so what the hell? We were free.
As long as we checked at the battalion headquarters every morning ... in
case something happened, the married guys could go apartment hunting.
We also found out we would be staying in temporary quarters in a place
called Building 519, on the fifth floor. What we found when we got there
was that we were in a communal ward. 519 had been a hospital, and there
just happened to be six beds in what had at one time been the
psychiatric lock up. The steel doors were still there.
We were the only six people on the whole floor. No lobby. No radio. No
television. One phone. Plenty of silence. Plenty of nothing. Plenty of
time. The married guys, DeRiso, Boone, Dickinson, and Shattuck called
for an army taxi and left to get a car.
I left Kennedy, who was reading, and went downstairs to the lobby of the
old hospital. Open doors, open air, a jungle across the street. I
explored that, down the steep hill until we came to a concrete lined
ditch at the bottom, then climbed back up. There was nothing remarkable
to be found there, dead leaves, dirt, ants. Feeding bugs to the ant
lions under the portico of 519 was more fun. An hour or so later, they
return with a station wagon, and after waking Kennedy, we piled in and
spent the afternoon driving the length of Panama City, all the way to
Toucumen ... somehow we found Old Panama.
All the excited talk about all the "'good apartments" faded. I
guess it was culture shock. The day ebbed. One of them suggested we go
find somewhere nice and eat that night, and somewhere downtown we found
a clean looking place and ended up eating lobster. Everyone got sick ...
The next day after a false start with two of the others ... having to
take them back to 519 ...I had the station wagon entirely by myself.
They were all in the latrine or waiting their turn when I left. I found
the beach at Fort Amador. I found the road to the Atlantic side and
followed it to the split that went to Madden lake. I found the rain
forest. I found Gamboa and the big radio towers. I heard about a place
called Goofy Falls, that there were lizards there that could walk on the
water. The Chinese Garden -- off the side of the highway, as I remember
near Corozal on the canal side of the highway, I bought pineapples and
mangoes. By the time the sun was getting low, I had run out of places to
go, except back to 519.
The five were still in the latrine when I got back. As I remember I went
to dinner alone that night at a the VFW in a place called Curundu, on
the back road out of Fort Clayton, where I tasted fried won-tons and
ceviche for the first time. Except for a little gas, which was cured by
a half a roll of TUMS, all was well.
The next morning we spent the morning at Battalion Headquarters, reading
the Battalion SOP manuals, and we ate EVERY MEAL at the PX on Fort
Clayton where we all discovered empanadas. I spent the afternoon at 519
with every magazine and brochure we could find, while the others renewed
their search .. with lowered expectations ... for an apartment that
would not ruin their marriages.
Our routine settled down. Then reality struck. The cadre started
returning a day early. Everyone was married except for Fred and me, and
he outranked me. All my knowledge of the area was for later. I was going
to Fort Davis -- the other five were staying in Paradise.