Tuesday, April 24, 2007


This is the mother of all storm drains. It runs down the centre of the main street than goes from the public road, all the way through what used to be Rodman Naval Station, Howard Air Force Base, Ft. Kobbe and down past Venado Drop Zone to the little Panamanian town of Venado.

Here in a tropical rainstorm some time in 1986 one of my soldiers, Specialist Black, a frustrated hellion and professional-grade nut, lost his shorts and much of his skin when the suddenly-raging waters of the drain flushed him into a conduit at the end of the trench that dumped him scraped and naked in the swamp near Kobbe Beach.


He was "drain-surfing" - riding the wild rain-runoff whitewater in the drainage ditch on his foam plastic sleeping map.

Yeah, I know. It didn't make sense to me, either.

The last twenty months of my active Army career were spent in Fort Kobbe, on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Panama.

This post, part of the still-immense infrastructure built to support and defend the Panama Canal, was part of a then-huge U.S. military installation that included Howard, Rodman and the U.S. Marine Barracks whose name, frankly, I forget.

The entire farrago was set like a jewel in the crown of the former Canal Zone that included the bases across the canal on the Panama City side: Fort Clayton (Army), Albrook Air Station (Air Force) and the former U.S. facilities in the Balboa neighborhood. By my time the "Canal Zone" was an official fiction, Albrook was almost deserted and the Balboa area had been turned over to the Panamanian government, which housed the widely disliked DENI (Departmento National de Investigacion), the Panamanian "FBI" which was really their secret police.

When I recall that time it was one of what I've heard described as being the epitome of the Chinese written word for "crisis" as two characters; "danger" and "opportunity". The political situation was desperately chancy.

The then-caudillo, Manuel Noriega, was widely disliked and was suspected of having played a hand in the convenient air-crash death of his predecessor, Omar Torrijos (a popular hero for his role in negotiating the return of the Canal to Panamanian control).

Meanwhile the rest of Central America was in flames. I'm not sure how well you remember the second Reagan term, but it was a rogue's delight, with Salvadorian death squads running wild, Ollie North running guns to the Iranians in return for cash for the scummy Contra guerillas fighting the brown Reds in Nicaragua, the ugly
political infighting in Honduras and Guatemala, where the "legitimate" governments turned their soldiers loose on "unreliable elements", mostly poor indios unhappy with generations of grinding poverty at the hands of "los dorados", the Golden Ones, the still-ruling descendants of the Spanish younger sons who had taken everything from them four hundred and fifty years before and left them only God and scraps of land to choke a living from.

The sad part of this story is that for a single twenty-something soldier living in Panama, it was a pretty sweet deal.

I had no clue what all the political struggles were about.

I had no bills to pay that my monthly pay voucher didn't cover, I was foolish, and strong, and having an adventure doing and seeing things that most of my peers were utterly ignorant of.

Like Balboa, I gazed on the vast Pacific from a peak in Darien; climbed the snowy hillsides of Bolivia, and slept in the fever jungle near the mouth of the Rio Chagres. The sun was warm, the beer was cold, the women round and bronze and transient.

In short, I was a young man in a place where and a time when it was good to be a young man.

And now I think back on the time, and the place, and I wonder that it ever could have been so.

What is odd now is to come across stuff like the website picture gallery, which is where I found the contemporary pictures of my old post.

The coatis on the grass outside the old post housing units really brought home the difference between the then and the now. The lights are dimmer now, the jungle a little bit closer. The streets where our deuce-and-a-halfs once bellowed and whined, where I lost the middle wheel off the HQ-52 GAMA Goat and the hustle and busy-ness of our military world made traffic an adventure look a lot slower, and a lot quieter than the ones I knew.

The present owners are presumably Panamanian, living and working in the City across the Puente de los Americas. I hope they love the big, airy tropical houses with their broad overhanging eaves. I hope they appreciate the storm-galleons that rise white with rain over the Gulf of Panama. I hope they get off the bus beside the extravagant cuna grass seedheads and marvel as I did at the wildfires that limn the hilltops to the north during the dry season.

I hope they stop and listen to the wild screeching flocks of parrots that fly around the tall palms in the evening, or watch the spiralling of the bats around the streetlights at night.

I hope they are foolish, and strong, and love the place I once passed through when I was young and the world seemed young, too.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff, brings back some old memories.
Very well written.
Looks like I was there at the same time as you. 85-86. 2/187.
Where you in HHQ.
I was B co.
Read lots of your stuff, nice gift to be able to write.
If you write any more on Panama can you let me know. Thanks

Anonymous said...

Well...this sure brought back some memories. I'm not too sure why it seemed like a good idea at the time but those thin mattress pads they issued to us certainly worked fine as a sort of makeshift body-surfing device. As you eloquently described above - I was a bit worse for wear after my "ride". I believe CWO Whitener was getting tired of patching up my all-to-frequent "surfing trauma" (his written description). Always been a fan of your prose Sarge - even your counseling reports were a treat to read. (Still have the one where you described my falling out of formation "in the manner of a Welsh Guardsman". Classic. Keep up the site and writing. Well done!

Anonymous said...

Great memories! Sgt Parr CSC 3/5 Cobras 1980-83 Scout Platoon & Tng NCO. rbparr@comcast.net

FDChief said...

Damn, guys! Here I go away and don't visit this post for, what, six years or so and come back to find y'all visited and didn't let me know so's I could buy y'all a beer!

Blackie! You madman! Trust me, the drainsurfing thing was nothing to when you took your yobo up the rappel tower. You sure helped liven up that fucking place. Glad you enjoyed your surf down memory lane...

Hooah, SGT Parr - "I'll try, sir!". I remember we still had some of the old 105mm recoilless cannons from CSC 3/5 AT Platoon in our arms room, still hadn't been turned in when I got there in '84. It was like walking into 1965...