Back in 1976, I was in the military (a MP- Military Policeman) and they decided that my services were needed in Panama. Upon arriving in Panama and getting off of the plane, the very first thing I noticed was the extreme heat that hit you instantly....like walking into a brick oven. This type of heat and humidity was something that stayed with me during my entire time in Panama. It seemed to be woven into every aspect of my stay in Panama..as I will be explaining further throughout this entry. This heat really messed my system up....how can I put it delicately....it took me 3 weeks before I took my first healthy dump...yeah I said it... a dump. The heat and humidity just sucked the life right out of a person until they got acclimated to it. I came to Panama from NJ but I had spent a lot of my time in the South, prior to getting to Panama and I had a hell of a hard time dealing with it. I could only imagine how that type of heat would impact someone who was a lifelong New Englander.
I was stationed at Ft. Clayton. The front gates of Ft. Clayton was basically across from the Mira Flores locks...the Panama Canal. There were many times where I worked the front gate and could see the masts and atenna towers of the huge Navy ships as they proceeded through the locks. They would have to actually remove portions of the big ships i order for them to be able to fit in the locks without doing damage to these ships. I went to the locks several times and watched as the "mules" or "locomotives" used to pull the ships into the locks. These vehicles were were on tracks that ran adjacent to the locks. There are only 2 seasons in Panama...the dry season and the wet season. Both seasons share one thing in common....you guessed it...the heat. During the dry season, the ground would crack open and you could see rings of fire circling on the mountains. During the wet season, we would get wild strong storms...lots of lightning and tons of torrential rains...3" in an hour if not more. Of course with all of this rain came the high humidity.
Our barracks were set up where they had screens along all sides of the building with hallways next to the screened windows. At the interior sections of the floors were "rooms" that had slanted louvers that were raised up from the floor. These slats or louvers went from about 1 foot off the floor up until about 2 foot from the ceiling. Those 2 feet to the ceiling had like chicken wire screening. All of this was done for optimal air flow. There was no air conditioning ..only small desktop fans...maybe with a 12" in diameter blade. There were 4 beds in each cubicle or rooms....4 beds and 4 upright grey in color lockers for all of our clothes and gear.
The military had something worked out with the locals as far as employment opportunities. For a set ammount of money, you could have one of the locals come in and clean you room...make the beds and wash the floors in your cubicle. They also had specific locals that handle the shining of your boots and the cleaning and ironing of yopur military clothes...fatigues. We would put our boots outside of your room at night and then pick them up after they were "spit shined" and then lined up in the hallway. Those locals who did the boots would sit in the hallway during the day and do all of the boots. You had to pay them seperately from the room cleaners and the laundry people. You put all of your fatigues in a bundle and dropped them off to the laundry people . They would remember how much starch you wanted and would return the laundered clothes to your cubicle when finished. Just a quick note....in this extreme heat, extensive starching of ones clothes was a soldiers worst nightmare...talk about serious chafing and rashes. Mine was very light on starch. The laundry people were set up in the hallways too. After washing the clothes, they had piles of pants and shirts piled up and would do the ironing right there in the hallways. Even though we each had our names put on tags inside of our shirts and pants, it was really surprising how few times the clothes were mixed up with someone elses clothes. Each group of locals were paid weekly for whatever service that they performed and we had the same locals doing the same jobs week to week. We actually got to know and become friendly with everyone.
I remember that we used to have to go into the jungle for training. One time we were digging holes for us to sleep in and there were actually monkeys in trees throwing things at us while chattering away...probably cussing us out in monkey speak for ruining their usually quiet residence. There were trips up and down rivers and many trips where we returned only to find some hitchiking scorpians intermingled with our clothes and bedding.
Payday was always a fun time for us. We usually got our paycheck a couple of days early, which meant that we had no way of cashing it on post. What we ended up doing is going into Panama City and going to one of our favorite watering holes and they would cash our checks and take 10%, which they applied as a bar tab. This worked out great for us...if we were low on cash before our next payday, we would always have a credit at a bar for some thirst quenching drinks. We would also go to one special restaurant where they made great handmade pizzas at a very cheap price and cooked them in a brick oven. Usually, after a night of drinking or sometime during the night, we would grab something to snack on. They had local with little habachi grills situated outside of the bars and along the sidewalk. On the grills they had some type of kabob...usually lower grade beef on a stick. I must say that it was tasty whatever it was. We called it monky meat on a stick. I never once got sick from eating it.
Being in Panama City was very different. Woman were not allowed to where shorts of any type. Any and all females, whether they were in the military or a deopendant of a military personel, were warned about this particular rule. You could buy all kinds of things that you could not find in the U.S. The prices were fantastic too. Brass, wood, jade....you name it and they had items made of all of them. Different brands of cameras and electronic items. It was a smorgasborg of items from all over the world...brought there by the ships that traveled the Panama Canal and stopped there. It was so very different from stateside shopping. The only thing that cost more there than here in the states, was blue jeans....not exactly sure why. Their meat markets there are rather strange.....everything is open air. Meat is left out in the open air. Another big thing there was the sale of Parrots. Parrots of all kinds....a big business there. I saw a lot of yellow headed parrots there. More so than other types. You could get a Yellow Headed Parrot for $25 there.
Getting around in Panama was different too....it could be quite an adventure. Most of us had no cars...mainly officers had vehicles. We got around by the use of taxis and buses. Panama City must have more taxis than New York City does. Taxis every where. When I was there, vehicles were taxed on their size. Because of this, most Panamanians that owned a vehicle, owned a real small one. All of the taxis were adorned with colorful paintings or the inside was all decked out with hanging fuzzy balls all over the place, lighted manual stick shifter and music, always loud music playing. Their buses were also painted up with very colorful scenes o n the outside. For a dime, I could go all over the place. They would cram people in these buses...people hanging out of the windows and standing room only. When you wanted to get off, you had to yell "Parada"..stop or bus stop.
While traveling to get into the city, we used to see a group of people called San Blas indians. I believe they have their own island and they are supposedly a wealthy "tribe". The woman would always dress in the most colorful fabrics that I have ever seen...all made by hand. The thing that I remember most about them is that they did not want their pictures taken. If anyone tried to take their picture, they would either turn away and hide their faces with a part of their clothes.
At one point in time, I actually lived in Panama City...out of the barracks. I have seen the inside of a couple of apartments in Panama City. One that i was in, was a one bedroom...very basic. The hot water heaters are run using propane fuel canisters...like what you use with a bar b que. I used to walk to the local Mercado up the street. We would go there and trade in our propane tank. We used to get sugar there too. they would scoop the sugar onto paper and then fold the paper up, holding the loose sugar inside. Things were done a lot differently than they are here in the states...even their McDonalds and their Coca Cola is different in taste. There was another apartment that i lived in. There was another military guy, his wife and kid and then a Panamanian man who sold perfume. This apartment was very nice. The building had a courtyard out front where you could drive a vehicle uo to the building. The drive/courtyard was all colorful mosiac with the tiles placed to make an ornate design. There were 3 large bedrooms inside this apartment with a large outside balcony. The military guy had a lancelot for a pet and kept it on the balcony. Like I said, living in Panama was a little different than living stateside. I forget who was the president, possibly Omar Torrijos, of Panama was at that time but the some of the people did not like the government leaders and there were problems at times between the general populous and the government. I remember one time when I was in the apartment and word had got out about some riots and some locals taking over the government run radio or tv station that was up the street from us. I was instructed to fill the bathtub up with water in case there were riots and tear gas was going to be used. The Panamanian police force was also military personal. That day I remember they were maybe 100-150 motorcycle policeman riding in formation heading towards that radio or television station. I can still here the cycles roaring as they drove by. Luckily things quieted down and we had no tear gas problems. Sometimes getting to work could be kind of scary. There were times where I had to get to work early and there were no taxis around. I got into work early because of potential problems similar to what i just talked about previously. I had to get to work as quickly as possible but i had to be very careful because I was wearing my military uniform...something frowned up and s9omething you really should not do especially if problems are brewing. If I got caught by the panamanian Police, I would have some serious problems. The police really did not like the American Military personal and they always seemed to be problems between the two. I was able to negotiate the Panamanian streets without making contact with any police, climbed up a fence that surrounded a gate shack the lead onto post. I was then able to call my military police department and got picked up and taken into work.
The Panama Canal area was divided into areas that the military ran and areas that were Panamanian run. We had all kinds of bases in all kinds of different locations...some were Air Force bases, Army bases etc. Balboa, a city, was run by American personal and they had there own police department rub by Americans. When we worked, some of us worked at gate shacks...keeping track of who came on and off of the base, while other had mobile patrols in various locations throught the countryside. From some of the gate shacks, you could see shack cities that were built in the muddy areas. These were the poorest of the poor in Panama. They had no cars nor much of anything else but many did have televisions. You could always here dogs barking and sometimes shots being fired off. There were some very wealthy people in Panama but mostly what I saw was those who did not have much of anything. it was basically a 3rd world country within another country.
There was a time where a friend of mine took a half an hour boat ride from Balboa to an island that used to have a special resort for high dignitaries and the president of the country. It had been changed over to a place for anyone who could afford it could go there. On this small island, there was a small town where everything that they needed was brought over on boats and on the other side of the island was this resort. we walked from the boat dock, up a road and through a set of big gates that were open. There in front of us was a small hotel and a big outside cafe that was covered. The hotel was almost empty. We spent the day looking at all of the colorful fish that were in the water and having a few drinks at the outdoor cafe. Aftyer spending the day there, we took the last returning boat back to Balboa and from there, back to the base.
There was a time where a couple of us had heard about a location on a beach, which was down the side of a small steep mountain and that there was a cave in the side of this mountain near the ocean watyer line. This cave could only be seen and entered when the tide was low. We had heard that there was treasure of some sort somewhere in that cave. A couple of us were bored and decided to go investigate. We obtained a flare gun and went off to find this cave. We did find it after making our way down this large and steep hill that got us to the water. The tide was out and we had to walk over this sharp coral to get to the caves entrance. We got to the opening and shot one flare inside. Bats came flying out of the cave. We tried to get into the cave but we forgot to bring a flashlight and with the tide coming in, we decided to call it quits and head back to base. Needless to say...no treasure found that day. Crazy what a couple of bored military people will do for kicks.
I took a train once...from our side of the canal, the Pacific side to the Atlantic side at Colon. The ride was long and hot but the scenery was nice to see. We spent a couple of extra dollars to get into the upgraded car where the seats recline.
Due to the constant heat and humidity and being close to the equator, Panama had many different types of animals that you can't see here in the states. They had dwarf deer, cotamundis, huge snakes, huge alligators, tons of vultures...which I believe is the Panamanian national bird, sloths, scorpians, bats and many others. Many of these animals are somewhat different from the versions here in the states. I did have the opportunity to get up close with a sloth. I was on walking patrol when I came upon this sloth that was very very slowly moving on the ground. I used my night stick to get him to grab it and hang on while I lifted him/her up. They have very strong "fingers", which is in your best interest to stay away from and they do move as slowly as people say they do. There were beaches for the military personel to go to. Actually I should say that there were sections of beaches available for swimming. Because of the enormous shark population in the area, many of the beaches had double heavy duty fences that blocked out the sharks away from the actual beach area. When the tide was low, you could actually see where the sharks had tried to bite through the fences.
My time spent in Panama was extremely interesting...the culture, the people, different types of challenges. This was a very brief overview of my time there.
I was located in this group of buildings, I believe the second or third building on the left:
Here is a great site with photos of The Panama Canal, the locks, the locomotives they use, animals of the area and more:
For more info on Fort Clayton:
Various photos of Panama including Fort Clayton:
The Panama Canal Zone: