A Return to Paradise
by Louis J. Barbier
In November of 1968, I found myself working for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service an thinking of home. I was putting in some long hours at the regional depot in Fort Worth, Texas.The Talk was that more US Troops would be going to Vietnam soon. And that meant that a PX would be there too. I had recently transferred from Fort Sill, Oklahoma where the night sky would light up with firing of all kinds of ordinance. Sometime the ground would really shake.I had been hired under the college management trainee program earning $7.00 per hour. But I was single, so my money went really far.
I was in a temporary position. The fellow I was filling in for was in the hospital undergoing major surgery. I had a one man office right next to the chiefs office. We had our morning coffee every day. It wasnt Duran but the Chief was showing me the ropes. There were other management trainees in other areas. After being there 2 months we received word that we would all be assigned overseas. It meant a complete upgrade wage package. We could go almost anywhere in the world. The last 5 guys had gone to Thailand and Vietnam. I felt that orders overseas would really be God sent! Little did I know that it would be a return to paradise.
After a really fun weekend with parties, a lot of my fellow trainees were getting orders to Vietnam.I felt my days were numbered. It was early fall and the nights were starting to get cool and I thought, wow, wouldnt it be something if I could get orders for Panama! So, when I arrived Monday morning bright eyed and bushy tail there was a notice on my desk to report to personnel.As I walked through a maze to the personnel office I thought...I guess I am going to Vietnam. Well, the Personnel Officer greeted me, Louie, I got a couple of great opportunities for you. So, after we were comfortable and having our morning coffee, he says. I have two store manger positions in Vietnam and this is really a hot one coming from our headquarters in Dallas. They want a person to go to Panama to set up a new inventory control/issue system for the stores in Panama. If you accept, you will be the project officer. I notice your personnel jacket that you went to Balboa High School. My eldest daughter graduated from BHS when I was stationed at Howard AFB. Meanwhile, I was a bit stunned by the news. I had not said a word. My mind was already in Panama.Then I heard a voice coming from a far like a freight train saying...We can give you a couple of days to think it over.But we need somebody down there right away. This is a high priority project.When would you be able to leave for Panama?I looked the Personnel Officer straight on and said, Will, after lunch, be soon enough? Needless to say he cracked up with a belly laugh and said, I can have you with orders to Panama in 5 days! Well, with that I felt I had just hit the LOTTO!I was sporting a smile from ear to ear and walking on Cloud 9. In fact, after saying thank you countless times, as I retreated from his office and I walked into a closet, thinking it was the way out. Of course, I was a bit embarrassed since here I was going to be the Big Kahuna on a most important assignment in Paradise and I couldnt find the door.
The next couple of days I got an Intel briefing, Country clearance documents, a 10 page instructional draft booklet on the computer system I would be putting in place in Panama, got a diplomat passport, renewed my US Passport, and other administrative chores that prepare a young fellow for PCS-ing overseas. Being single, I had my B-14 Bag and sea bag packed the night I got the good news. I was ready!
Of course, my last step was to get my pre-deployment physical at Carswell AFB, Texas.I had been getting blood drawn and was awaiting to get my vital signs read. I was in a chair listening to the whirl of the ceiling fan and dreaming of Panama. When I heard a cough and in entered an Air Force medical technician. After saying hello, he asked, Where you heading? I drew in a short breath and with a great deal of pride answered, Im on my way to the Canal Zone! Wow! He replied, I did a short overseas tour there at Howard AFB and really loved it. Especially hanging out a Diablo Clubhouse. It is a great place for meeting people and those delicious empanadas and that coffee.... I quickly came back with a big smile on my face, I know, I know, and that coffee is Cafe Duran, the best in all the world After he had done his thing and made the notations in my medical record he said, I sure wish I was going too...well, I am all finished here, the doctor will be in to see you in a few minutes.
The rest of the week before I boarded a plane to Charleston AFB, South Carolina was like a dream. Then the day came and I left Fort Worth, Texas about 8 AM on a bright sunny fall day.There was a slight nip in the air but all I could think about was I am going home.Back then I had not visited Panama in about 5 years. So, I was ready for an Escape to Panama Adventure. The flight to Panama was uneventful. We were provided a box lunch and I was flying Air America or some contracted airlines that provided the freedom bird flights to Panama.The flight seemed long, but most of the passengers slept. From time to time I could hear the mothers feeding the babies and the fathers in their uniforms saying, Well soon be there.
Well, about 1500 I spotted the Panama Canal waterway below.It all looked so small. Like maybe sitting in a bath tub with a bunch of little boats.The Captain came on with, Fasten your seat belts we will be making our final approach in a few minutes, local time is 1530 and the temperature is a tropical 85 in this land we call paradise the home of the United States Southern Command.We landed with a sharp thud and our aircraft taxied toward the arrival gate.My legs were a bit stiff from all the sitting. So as I went down the aircraft roll-away steps still kind of shaking the full impact of the greenhouse temperatures hit me like a Mack truck.My shirt was wet all the way through before I was half way down the ladder. Then As I took my first step on tierra firma my knees buckled and I went down on the pavement on one knee.I then recovered nicely by kissing the ground and saying, Thank you God.
Of course a lot of people stared but I didnt care, I was back home in paradise.
Well, 3 people from the main office at Fort Clayton came up and asked are you Louie from Dallas, Texas.Well, I said, That is me all right.
So, my sponsor escorted me to the baggage area were we collected my B-14 Flight bag and sea bag. Then he looked around and asked, Is this all of it?I replied, Yes, this is all my worldly possessions but a $ Million Dollars I have in an unnumbered account in Switzerland. Well, that broke he up and cut the ice big time. He then said, Louie, can I call you Louie? I replied, Yes, you can. And I asked, Can I call you Bill? Well, I met the rest of the party that had met my flight and we piled into a large woody Ford station wagon the size e of a small chiva and proceed to go toward the gate and the bridge.As we drove along Bill started to give me a full run down on the history of Panama, the customs, the places like J Street to avoid, and great shopping on La Central and so on.I being polite I never interrupted him.He then said, Louie we made reservations for you at the Tivoli Guest House. It is close to the base...is that okay? I then answered, Sure, Bill, that is great. Bill then gave me a further run down on the Tivoli Guest House saying that Teddy Roosevelt had slept here and the Cafe Duran with Panama Canal Company bread without any holes or preservatives toasted up just great in the morning and I should try some at breakfast.
Well, after I had dropped off my bags in this humungus sized room with a king size bed that looked like I would need a step ladder to get into bed we went down to the lounge.The other people in our group were some really nice ladies that I found out later loved to party.They made my return to paradise most enjoyable.As I sat there taking in the ambiance of my surroundings as parakeets flew by my window and really breathing the warmth of the setting tropical sun...I said, It doesnt get any better than this...
Soon, Bill was talking. In fact everybody was talking at the same time as the Balboa I was drinking started to kick in.........this was before Panama Beer came on the scene.Matter of fact, Panama tried go with a draft called Barrilito Tap. But it never made a dent in the Panamanian market.I finished my beer in one quick swallow.I said, Those planes really dry you out. I was still sweating some.It would take weeks before I would fully acclimate to the tropical temperatures, but I was working on it.After a few more drinks we had the native dish of Panama.....Arroz con Pollo.But of course we also had some ceviche.I had forgotten how good the food is in Panama. I had been away too long.I passed on the desert but had a cup of my favorite coffee Cafe Duran.Molly one of the ladies said, Louie, I guess you have been reading about this place.I said, Yes, I have always loved to read all I can about Panama and the Panama Canal.Well, rumor had it that I was an inspector from the headquarters sent to do a study on all current US Positions. Well, I wasnt.That night I did not say much.It is always best to leave a bit of a mystery, especially when you are entering an unfamiliar environment or situation.>Must maintain the edge, like a Ninja Warrior.I soon found out I was among friends.The headquarters would later sent their head hunters.
After coffee I was feeling no pain as we listen to the rhythms of an organ playing.I danced with all the ladies and had a really great time. About 2300, Bill said, Well, we are going to call it a night.Tomorrow Ill be back about 0800 and we can enjoy breakfast.I said, goodnight and headed for the stairs.I got to my room okay and went to the head. Wow! It was the size of a small corner office. It was all in white tile with porcelain and gold fixtures.The tub had a little step latter and it sat on some gold bear claws.I decide to pass on a shower and would do it first thing in the morning. The air conditioning was humming in the window as I turned down the covers. I got into my PJs and climbed into bed as I set my alarm clock for an early hour. About 0530 I heard a door slam down the hall, and I got up.I decided to get ready for I wanted to make a good impression on my first day at work.I put on a complete wash and wear dark blue suit. I had brought only two. I figured I would wear one and shower with the other and let it hang over the tub to dry. it was amazing these suits never needed dry cleaning or ironing.Also the trousers were pegged and everybody back then wore wing tips.I had two pair and some gym shoes.Of course I had 5 bathing suits and 5 white Panabrisas (guayaberas).My tie was the standard one inch fashion statement people wore back into those days.I slicked down my hair with Top Brass, a cousin of the little dab will do you.Made sure my duck tail was just right and dropped a big curl over my forehead.
I looked in the mirror and said, Are we ready. You bet your boots we are.
So, I went down to the dinning room where a couple of distinguish Jamaican waiters in white coats with black bow ties.One took my order.The other placed a large glass of water and said, Good morning Sir, this is the best water in the water...straight from the Chagres River.One glass and you will always come back for more.I said, Thank you. I asked for a small glass of orange juice which came freshly squeezed, 2 slices of dry toast with jelly, some figs, and a cup of cafe Duran black with fresh mount hope dairy cream on the side and a stack of white cubes of sugar, on a plate that had Tivoli on the bottom, from the Panama Canal Company Storehouse division. As I took in the scene the hunter ceiling fans slowly turned the air around me.In the distance I could hear the first morning sounds of chiva horns and parakeets singing as they flew by my screen white louver window.I pinched myself because the scene was all reminiscing of a Humphrey Bogart movie....like maybe Across the Pacific. A picture where Humphrey Bogart had portrayed a CIA Agent that stops some Chinese Sabatorers in their efforts to blow up the Panama Canal.
Soon the breakfast had come and I sat their reading the Panama-American English copy newspaper.I had about finished it when Bill came racing in with, Good morning, Louie. Sorry Im late, but the boss Mr. Smith had me putting out some fires.I see you had breakfast.Then I said, Bill have a seat. Take the load off. Have a cup of the best coffee in the world, cafe Duran.And Bill this water is really good.
We took five and then another five before I attracted the waiter attention and gave him the universal sign of writing across the palm of my hand with an imaginary pen and mouthing Check please.I was surprised at how low my bill was...so low that I was planing to live at the Tivoli Guest House forever.
As we headed out the front entrance onto the verandah there were a few old timers rocking away. They looked older than dirt.They must be the few Canal Diggers who had taken up residence in the Tivoli. Some say it was all provided free or at a reasonable cost.They would sit there and reminisce of the old days and whistle at the pretty Panamanian girls who went by on the street below.I had on a couple of occasions listen to some of the story of how it was with Gorgas and Goethals were in charge of the Panama Canal Project. By looking straight into their eyes you can see that they were reliving those wonderful hard days when they were really alive with the ground shaking from the dynamite and the steam shovels. They say that coming to Panama had been a turning point in their lives. Now with so much Chagres water over the dam it was too late go anywhere else.They would stay here living at the Tivoli Guest House until their ticket was punched.At least that is how Tommy Lonetree felt. he had worked on the Panama Railroad for over 50 years.And he had some stories to tell, but they would have to wait till another day.
We headed for Fort Clayton going passed the Ancon Laundry and going across the tracks at Balboa unto Gaillard Highway. A plane was about to land.It was a small Cessna and Bill quickly accelerated.It would not do for us having a tire mark on the roof of the US Government AFFES of Panama Ford station wagon. The plane passed harmlessly low over us but we were now doing about 50 MPH. Then all of a sudden we hit the bump and we went airborne. Wow, kind of made my stomach go up into my throatWell, when we were back on the straight away passing Albrook Air Station, Bill says, Sorry about that. That plane was really low. I answered, No problema, Bill.As we passed Corozal Army Commissary, Bill informed me that most things we purchase there were rationed and he would provide me with the latest monthly revised listing of ration items. We could also make purchases at the Panama Canal Commissary. They stayed opened late on Wednesdays and Thursdays nights till 9:00 oclock. About 0900 we were at Fort Clayton. The office was on the other end of the 193rd Infantry Brigade Headquarters building. The boss ushered us in and we talked. He knew that my mission was to put in place a Computerized Inventory/Issue System. But he said all reports back to our headquarters would go through him. I said no problem.
There began a Panama adventure that I will long remember. Sometimes as I think back now, I wish I could go into a time warp and go back to those wonderful days. Six months passed and our system was ready to go operational. So, a systems analyst from Dallas, made an inspection visit. The first morning I was to pick him up I almost left the living. I may have told this story before but it really sets the whole tone of what happen during Mr. Henleys visit. So, here goes...the day I had my close encounter with General Omar Torrijos Herrera.
Picture if you will, a sunny morning in Panama with the time almost 10 O'clock and you are running late picking up an inspector from the States. So, you are trying to make time by racing. You are in a small blue VW heading in the direction of the Metro Theater on a narrow street one over from Balboa Avenue. You are about to pass the intersecting street up from the Cafe del Boulevard. When all of a sudden out of nowhere, a monstrous green Mercedes with its engine racing cuts in front of you. You react quickly by slamming on your brakes and leaning on your horn. As your tires scream like a banshee on the plains of Zimbabwe, you notice that the back seat of the Mercedes is occupied by a man in uniform. He is smoking a large Cuban cigar. Your eyes meet his briefly and his large Mercedes accelerates. He must be late for his appointment too. The chase car has his bodyguards who at this point are just trying really hard to keep up with the general's car. The whole incident takes a few seconds, but your whole life as you know it flashes before your eyes. The bodyguards are brandishing submachine guns. So, you quickly pull over to the side of the street and stop.
As you sit there thanking your lucky stars that you stop for some chance tickets at "La Loteria" building and a "Raspado" for the road...you say softly, "Thank you God!"After a few moments you continue on to the International Hotel located on the Plaza de Cinco de Mayo. The story would end there...but no there is more.
As you all remember close parking to the International is at a premium at almost any hour of the day. As you get closer you spot a large green Mercedes in front of the entrance. The bodyguards are deployed. You go around the Plaza and notice that there is only one parking spot available, but one of the general's bodyguards is standing in it. You have already gone around twice so you beep your horn. He looks your way swings his machine pistol in your direction but does step out of the way as you ease into the parking space. You are wearing a white Panabrisa and you are sweating bullets, no pun intended. You get out of the VW which you have nicknamed 'Herbie-2' from the movie of "The Love Bug."
Some people when they are very nervous, they talk to themselves. Well, I am carrying on a full conversation. First with Herbie-2 and later with myself as I rush to meet my party staying at the International Hotel. I had tried to put him up at the Tivoli Guest House, but his stateside travel agency had made his reservations. I enter from the bright sunshine to a somewhat cooler interior of the lobby and proceed to the courtesy phone. I ring the visiting fireman's room from the main office. He picks up on the first ring and tells me that he will be right down. I walk over to the bank of elevators and notice that one is already descending. The doors open suddenly right in front of me. Guess who? No, it is not the Headquarters' Manager that I am to pick up and bus to Fort Clayton. No, it is General Omar Torrijos Herrera in the flesh. As he heads toward me, his bodyguards swarm around me like killer bees. Again my whole life flashes before me! I do what anybody else would do in such a situation and say, " Buenos Dias mi General." He grunts a greeting as he pass me and heads for the doors. And at that very moment the elevator doors open and the person I'm to pick up steps out into the lobby. He sees the general departing and says, " Louie, that is the general, did you see him?" I answered, "Yes, I know." Well, he continues with, "Now I'll have something to tell the people back at the home office." And I think, some day I'll have to tell my little story...
Well, his inspection tour of our operations goes well. He stays about a week. Then after some sightseeing and shopping I take him to the airport. And he is gone until his next visit. I never have another close encounter with the general. A year later I transfer to San Francisco, California. Sometime later in a stateside newspaper I read of the general's untimely death in an airplane crash. Over the years when I think about that close encounter, I say to myself that everything in life is a matter of timing. My being a little late at that intersection saved me from my final curtain call. I thank God that he was watching out for me that day. It could have been different and I may not be here at this keyboard relating to you an incident that when I was going through it appeared like something out of the "Twilight Zone" and in very, very slow motion. Again time marches on...
So, back to the future as we continue this back to paradise adventure. A couple of months later my boss heard that the software would be in Panama and we would soon have the new program up and running.About this time, a good friend of my Navy days who I had not seen since attending LSU arrived to work in our office. He had transferred over from the Canal Zone Police Department where he had been working vice and drugs.Yes, back then we had a problem in the Canal Zone with the evil substance called white rain.Well, Joey, and I met like lost brothers.We worked for about another year at AFFES Panama until, Joey transferred to Panama Canal Companys Storehouse Division.He ask me to hook up there, but I was getting restless again and I was ready for a transfer to San Francisco Golden Gate Army and Air Force Exchange Center. But before I left Panama there is one more little story I must tell.....and this deals with Toilet Paper.
In Panama you could run out of most things but never, never run out of toilet paper.This was a very hot item. Locally the paper one bought was like sand paper with a grit that would give you a chemical peel. Besides Panama had a long pipe line.In all orders one always projected 6 months to keep the products coming in a steady stream.Under perfect conditions this should have happen. But the war in Vietnam had really escalated.Cargo going to the far east got priority handling. We in Panama were not a priority destination. Although I would finagle sir shipments of toilet paper to get our customers off my back.I would call in favors to get toilet paper into Panama.My boss said, Louie, I dont care what you do, but get some toilet paper into Panama. Some GIs were receiving toilet paper via the Air Force Mail Service.Some families coming to Panama would bring 2 or 3 gross of toilet paper in their hold baggage or household goods.Well, the bottle neck was discovered at Bayonne, New Jersey. So, when the next manifest arrived of a shipment arriving on the next side in Cristobal it listed toilet paper. Lo and behold nobody realized that 5 of the 12 Sea-Van Containers received at the AFFES-Panama Madden Wye Warehouse Complex were loaded with toilet paper. Of course, Mr. Smith was on the telephone asking for me.He asked me to get to Madden Wye right away.Well, I asked Joey, if he wanted to take a ride so he said sure. Everything was kind of slow in vending.When we arrived there we saw another 5 Sea-Van Containers dropped at the receiving doors.I spotted Mr. Smith and after we said hello, I noticed he was a bit agitated.So, as the Toilet Paper was being unloaded, he says, Louie I said to get Toilet Paper down here pronto, but not to corner the market.Well, as the wheels turned I weathered the storm. Finally he says, Louie what do you say about all this toilet paper?Well, I took a short breath and said as I looked in straight in the eyes, The machine did it!...of course being a real experienced retailer, he followed with, You know this is a blessing for us.Now everybody in Panama will have to come to us for toilet paper. And, Louie, cancel all orders for the time being.Well, we didnt have to eat any toilet paper.When I transferred stateside to San Francisco, at my going away luncheon at the BYC, I was presented with a roll of toilet paper and a certificate to "The King of the Toilet Roll Paper" who had made a lot of people happy!
March 20, 1999
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