Saturday, February 15, 2014

The Army I Knew: Panama, Part 2, or, Hootchie Mamas, Push-buttons, and Peace Brides

So if you recall we left young SP5 Chief getting off the aircraft down in Panama in the late autumn of 1985, having asked the Army to send him to Japan or Italy and ending up instead assigned to HHC, 2nd Battalion (ABN)(LT) 187th Infantry when the old 3rd Battalion, 5th Infantry was reflagged as a jump outfit.

Another time I'll talk about what I did during my time there. But tonight I want to talk about who I met there.

The Americans were the usual gang of nice kids, assholes, hardasses, goofballs, tough professionals, ambitious careerists, weirdos, manics, and wild men you find in any military outfit.

It was the Panamanians that were new to me.

They locals came in two basic varieties (like all people): men, and women. The men I'll talk about in the next installment; tonight I want talk about the women.

The women I knew mostly as business girls (since prostitution was one of the major commercial activities of Panama City and probably had been ever since de Lesseps showed up with a bunch of horny Canal diggers) or as girlfriends, or wanna-be girlfriends, of my fellow GIs.
(Here's an odd fact; many of the working girls in Panama were Colombian. One of them claimed that she was, like many of her competitors, working in Panama to pick up enough money for a dowry after which she was going to return to Colombia and settle down. I have no idea if this was true, if she believed it to be true, or whether it was the sort of bullshit a working girl thinks a john wants to hear. But that was her story, anyway)
The working girls were part of the scenery in the GI clubs down on Calle J, "J Street"; the Ancon Inn, the Ovalo (or Ovalvo, I honestly don't recall which; we called it the "Oval-Oh"), the Buffalo Bar, where a chunky young woman once offered me the use of her body for five dollars (and where I recall I gave her the five and recommended she value her favors more dearly if she wanted others to do the same), and the bizarrely-named "Blue Goose" near the edge of the city.

(This photo of the Ancon is from the Sixties, BTW: it looked considerably dumpier when I knew it.)

At this point I should mention one of the freakish parts of this pay-for-play side of Panama was the "push-button".

Here's a very sweet little post about one foreign couple's adventure in a Panama push-button.(
I want to stop here and recommend this blog, Along the Gringo Trail, for anyone interested in modern Panama. Clyde and Terry really do a nice job of describing my old home station, and they seem like fun people, besides. Well worth the visit, and you can say I said so)
Here's another one that's a little less polite.

The bottom line on these places is that they're the Panamanian equivalent of a Japanese ラブホテル (rabu hoteru), a "love hotel", a place where a couple - living in a place where typically all four generations share a shotgun shack and everyone from abuela to the littlest niños know when anyone in the family sneezes, farts, or scratches their ass - could go to knock off a piece in the afternoon or spend a couple of hours romantically entwined.

You basically drove into a garage and pushed a button to close the door. Then you got out of your car and opened a door and there was a room. With a bed.

There was a slot for payments, and usually a sort of small alcove where you could get food or drinks. You did your business, picked up the phone, someone invisible totted up your bill, you payed, they opened the garage door and you drove away.

While I've got you here I should tell you the story of Doc Pollo and the Pushbutton.

One of the 2/187th medics had a sort of salt-lick scheme for Panama dating that involved fried chicken.

I don't know if this is racist or sexist or what but it was a fact: Doc Pollo used to run down to the local Kentucky Fried Pollo (and, yes, that was the actual name; it was your regular U.S.-type Colonel Sanders KFC complete with the red-and-white face of the goateed old cracker on the sign and the greasy fried chicken inside) and pick up a bucket and then go stand on a corner downtown.

He'd take off the paper lid and waft the aroma of the stuff all around and within ten minutes he'd have half a dozen cuties hovering around him. The lucky girl would receive her first wing and she, the wing, the rest of the chicken, and Doc Pollo, would be bundled into his little Ford for a drive to the nearest pushbutton.

One afternoon Doc promised an infantry pal that he'd demonstrate his special catch-and-release methods, and the buckets of chicken were purchased, the designated cuties selected, and the two bold paratroopers and their ladies retired to adjoining garage-suites in the "Fuente de Amor" pushbutton.

Story goes that Doc and his bride-for-three-hours chose to snack first and were reclining on the mattress nibbling and sipping when they heard the first distant cannons of the other couple's 1812 Overture.

The two of them paused, greasy fingers pressed to their smiling lips, as the thunder in the next room rose to a crescendo when Doc Pollo sat up, grinned at his paramour, dropped a half-eaten drumstick back into the bucket, and seized the headboard and started hammering it against the wall.

"Oh, baby!" he roared "Yeah, baby! Do it! Harder! Faster! Wider! Bigger! Ride me like a wild mustang, my mad angel of lust!"

The angel stared at him for a moment in pure incomprehension, suddenly snorted with laughter, and began pounding on the mattress shrieking "Aieeee! Mi caballero! Martillo me como un clavo, mi jinete loco de las llanuras!"

They kept up this din for a couple of minutes, until the noise from the adjoining room had stopped. Then Doc and his giggling chicken-lover slowly subsided.

In the quiet they could hear some scuffling around next door and a faint "What the fuck they doin' over there..?"

Things were calm for a while after that and slowly the couple in the other room began working up a head of steam again.

But when the noises indicated that the two alpinists had almost summited the Matterhorn of Love Doc Pollo and his galpal began their pounding clamor of simulated insane monkey sex.

Again, the noises from the other side of the wall ceased and Doc and his partner quieted down.

This time the only comment from the other rooms was a heartfelt "GodDAMN!"

According to Doc Pollo this alternating attempted-concupiscence and simulated-rodeo-sex went on several more times, until he and his chica finished their chicken and, growing bored with their game, decided to sate an entirely different hunger.

But he says the driving the girls back to their corner, driving back to post, and even for a couple of days after that when he and his pal would run into each other every so often the other GI would just give him this...look.

Aside from the casual encounters with the women of Panama interested in GIs either just for fun or for profit there were other ladies who had more long-term interests in mind.

These were the girls who were the girlfriends, or wives, or wanna-be-wives.

I'm sure that many of these peace-brides probably loved their GI husbands and married them for love. But it's hard not to suspect that at least some of them married for a passport, a ticket to the Land of the Big PX, an escape from the grinding poverty that was life for most Panamanians.

The one of these peace-brides I knew well during my time in Panama was engaged one of my medics, a very sweet kid we nicknamed "Diesel" because he forgot that the M151 quarter-ton jeep ran on Mogas, the Army's version of gasoline, unlike the M792 GAMA Goat ambulance that ran on diesel fuel. He put the latter into the former with predictable results.
(This is the cartoon version of the two of them from something called "Raiders of the Lost Parts" that I drew when I was station in Panama. Have I posted this yet? No? I should; it's very strange.)
Diesel was a sweet, kind of simple kid from rural North Carolina; Panama was the furthest he'd ever traveled outside the town of his birth. He was decent, kind, and not especially clever - as you can imagine from the whole diesel-in-the-jeep thing - and he was completely enthralled by his unparalleled romantic good-luck.

This luck consisted of a drop-dead gorgeous Panameña named Noris; I kidded her by calling her General Norisiega after the pock-marked caudillo of Panama of the time, and she was also razor-sharp, witty, ingenious, and intelligent.

I could no more see her as the wife of a small-town kid from Cornhole, North Carolina than I could see her as the Dragon Queen of Bhutan.

Their entire relationship seemed founded on the fact that they could barely speak to and, thus, get to know each other.

She spoke no more than scattershot English and Diesel spoke no more Spanish than a GI could; cerveza, por favor, gracias, but the two of them rubbed along in their fashion. She was affectionate, and attentive when he needed attention, and whatever they needed and couldn't get from each other they seemed to find amongst their several friends; his platoon buddies and her local pals.

I liked them both dearly but, frankly, didn't think that they had a hope in hell of making it to their tin anniversary.

The few times I spent alone with her General Norisiega seemed to be aware of the the unspannable gap between the two and slightly apologetic about it. But she also seemed determined to make them work and I don't know, or know if she knew, whether this was because of Diesel himself or the opportunity he presented her, or perhaps even a little of both.

The one little vignette of them I still remember, and the one that I want to leave you with, is of Noris driving around Panama in Diesel's Subaru.

This rig was one of those ridiculous early-Eighties "Brat" things that always seemed to me to symbolize the most gooberish qualities of the cars of the time, right up there with the AMC Gremlin and the Ford Pinto.

Apparently her driving combined all the caution of a demolition derby competitor with the sedate pace of a carjacking.

Poor Diesel, strapped into the passenger seat as his novia seemed determined to see how far she could bury a utility pole between the front seats, would bark with fear as she feathered around the trench-like streets of Panama Viejo at speed.

He didn't know how to tell her to suave - "slow down" - or frenos - "brake" - and what little more of her language he knew had been driven completely out of his head by sheer terror.

All he could do was every so often punctuate his panic with screams of BREQUES! BREQUES! - pronounced "bray-kays" - which, so far as I know, in Spanish means absolutely nothing.

Next: The Men of Panama, or, Salto al Pino!


Brian said...

Heh heh heh!

Awaiting the next instalment.

Lisa said...

I enjoyed this take on female - male consortium in the 3rd world.

I especially like "his special catch-and-release methods" and the Subaru mention; I remember thinking them ugly-cute in high school. And yes, Gremlins were horrid, as were most AMC productions (Matador, Pacer, Ambassador, etc.).

...Men of Panama, next!

Big Daddy said...

Random gearhead trivia,in a typically Japanese combination of loving acronyms and not quite fully grasping English idiom, BRAT stood for Bi-drive Recreational Activity Transport. Also on the subject of pollo, the bucket seats in the back of the US market BRAT were Subaru's way of dodging the "chicken tax" on imported trucks.
I love the Army of the 80s stories so please keep them coming.

FDChief said...

Brian: Soon. I want to put the next installment up this week.

Lisa: Ta. I'm always glad to entertain you...

BD: I've heard both of those, yes, and also that apparently the original rear seats were atrocious and killed several people in rollover accidents before the vehicle was redesigned...

And no fear; I've got a bunch more stories from Panama, and then after that it'll be the Army Reserves of the late Eighties and early Nineties, when I got to see the dark underbelly of the "preparedness" crisis of the pre-GWOT USAR.

Ted said...

I was assigned to the 210th Avn Bn, which was later redesignated 1/228th Avn Regt, from Oct 84 to Jan 89. I remember all these places.... fondly! Ancon Inn, Ovalo, Gruta Azul! Ahhh the memories!

Edward Yaekle said...

So, I was stationed in Panama (1984-87) with the US Army (193d Inf Bde, 549th MP Co. STRAF/CS Ft Gulick/Ft.Davis on the Atlantic side). My first or second night in country (during the inprocessing week) found a few guys (with whom I had went through basic/mp school) and I at the Blue Goose. The day leading up to that evening is long forgotten, but the night still stays with me! THERE is a near pornographic and very humorous story! :D

tyounginwv said...

I was also stationed there 2/187th ABN HHC BN Commo '84-'86. Fond memories of that place. We had 1st SGT Willie Williams. Damn good man and dedicated soldier. Thanks for bringing out the memories.

Tom Kratman said...

I was a PL in and XO of B Co-3/5, and Support Platoon Leader for the battalion, Jan 81-Dec 83. Diesel...oh, diesel.

We had a Battalion XO who is dead now so I won't mention an actual name; "nisi bonum," and all. His nickname among the company grades was "Ricochet" or, sometime, "Ricochet Rabbit." I have no fear of correction from anyone in the battalion at the time when I say that he was the most unutterably fucking stupid major in American military history. Example: Ever notice that Building 806 was a little swaybacked? Yeah, the moron ordered a load bearing wall knocked out in the basement to put in a chapel. You can't make this shit up: A LOAD BEARING WALL. Moreover, the spoil was dumped into a dumpster which made it so heavy it destroyed the hydraulics of the dumpster truck that tried to pick it up.

This guy also detested the jungle so would avoid it like the plague. Moreover, he insisted on gravel on the ground under the ALOC tent so his spitshined boots wouldn't get muddy on the rare occasions he came out. Once I recall that he had a Sergeant Dearborn, IIRC, from the -4 shop go to a civilian construction site to steal a 1/2 ton trailer load of gravel for that, after I flat refused to or to let any of my men steal it. Yeah, he wasn't great on ethics, either. Still, the really big thing was his world class level of stupidity.

So, as much as possible, I ignored and avoided the son of a bitch. One time he came out to the trains and wanted fuel. "Let me get the fuel guy, sir." "No time; my driver can fill it up." I shrugged. Then my driver pointed out, "He's about to fill his jeep from the diesel tank." I looked, smiled, and said, "Right. Get in the jeep. Let's go." "Where, sir?" "Wherever he can't find us. The Atlantic side, I think, since C Company's over there and their chain of command is no great shakes at the moment." And I got to listen to the weasel scream and cry into the radio for well over an hour trying to get me to come back so he could commandeer MY 151. Wasn't happening. Moving more ammunition 4.2" and below, for just that one battalion, than the entire 82d used annually meant I and my job mattered to 3/5 in a way that he did not. "So fuck him."

Couple of points:

School of the Americas, now WHINSEC, wasn't especially recent, having been founded in 1946. They didn't teach torture there, though they did teach a not especially heinous interrogation course. If you think about it, what about torture was the US Army likely to know that any given Latin officer didn't already know? No, they taught each other, I am sure, informally (which is to say they traded tips) but we had nothing to teach them. I recall a conversation with Noam Chompsky, circa 2000 (he's a really nice guy and, in his own kind-of-odd way, something of a patriot), concerning School of the Americas and torture. Noam had written somewhere, more technically quoted somebody, that SOA taught the use of the "electric needle." "Um, no, Noam, your informant is ignorant and just making a guess without any actual knowledge. How do I know this? Because there are no "electric needles" in the inventory; I've looked; and because if the US Army were to teach torture with electricity we'd do what we've always done, improvise, which is to say we use field telephones."

Tom Kratman said...


Hookers. In the brothels they're not mostly Colombian; they're hugely and overwhelmingly Colombian, to the tune of more than 90% and maybe more than 95%. Oh, there will be the occasional Mexican, or Bolivian, and there is a sprinkling of Argentines. But Latin girls intending to hook know better, generally, than to shit in their own nests. Panamanian girls will go to Costa Rica or some other place.

The US getting the Canal Zone. No, we didn't strong arm _Panama_. There was a civil war in Colombia, which included Panama, the "Guerra de mil dias." The conservatives won in Colombia. The Liberals won in Panama. This mattered because as a practical matter, Panama and Colombia were not connected. Oh, sure, there was theoretical passage through the Darien; lotsa luck with that one. In fact, communication was by sea. We interfered with that, such that Colombia couldn't reassert sovereignty over Panama, which declared independence, quite likely with a little suggesting from us.

The thing we normally get accused of strong arming was the original Treaty. That wasn't actually our doing either. A frog named Phillipe Bunau-Varilla had worked on the French attempt and made it his life's work to see a canal built through Panama by _somebody_. He wrote the treaty and convinced the Panamanians that it was necessary to ensure that the US would ratify it and thereby undertake to protect Panama from Colombia. It was so unfair that the US senate was originally inclined to reject it. However, since no one offered a better or fairer treaty, and since we did want to build the Canal, we ratified. That's a long way from strong arming. Unfortunately, because the treaty was so bloody unfair we never felt right about it, hence renegotiated it several times until we were finally gone.

Should we have given the Canal up? No, it was the strategic prize of the world. At the time of the treaty, only 3-4 CVs couldn't get through it. Now, as soon as the new locks come on line, they'll all be able to get through it, again. Even if none could, the ability to cut off or disadvantage others' trade at will and enhance our own was worth it. Similarly, logistic support of a deployed fleet or army is much easier with it than without it.