Latin American Adventures Part 2

Did you know they make left-handed bowling shoes?  They do.  And I found a pair on sale at the Albrook AFB Base Exchange for $1.00!  Of course I bought them as I was a fair bowler at the time.  The first time I tried to use them I fell flat on my face.  You see, one of the shoes slides and one doesn’t.  That’s why they come in left or right handedness. Well, I threw them in the back seat of our car and forgot about them until a few weeks later when our car got burglarized.  They got the shoes, which was alright, but I didn’t like the idea of people breaking into our car so I got my Louisville Slugger and told Patty that I was going to catch whoever was doing it.  I climbed up in the scaffolding of a building that was being built across the street from our apartment building in the San Francisco district of Panama City. 

 A couple of hours later, probably 8: or 9:PM, I saw Patty come out of the building and get in the car and drive off!  WTF?!  How am I going to catch the thief if she comes out and drives off in the car?  I jumped down from the building and chased her down the street waving my bat and totally blowing my cover.  She said she got worried about me and decided to come look for me.  Anyway, the point of that story is to illustrate how little control I have EVER had over Patty and how our thought processes worked at that time of our lives. 

 We were young and we had a lot of fun in Panama.   I worked in the Air Force Communications Service (AFCS) in the military’s Southern Command.  We had several Air Force and Army bases and even a Navy and Marine base in the Canal Zone.  Usually on a Friday night, someone in the squadron who lived in Panama City would have a party and we would all meet on the rooftop of their apartment house and have music and drinks.  We frequently would get coconuts and drain the liquid from them and fill them up with Ron Cortez (rum from the Panamanian distillery).  Lots of times these parties would last the weekend.   

Rooftop party

Roger Skelton, Tony Wernhardt and me on a rooftop

On one occasion, Patty and I were invited to a birthday party over near Rodman Marine Base on the north side of the canal.  We partied pretty hard and I was totally soused when we headed home so Patty was driving.  I got sick and hung my head out of the car and puked all over the side of the car.  Patty was mad and then she yelled at me that I had lost my teeth when I puked (I wear a partial that includes my four front teeth which I lost in high school).  I gave her a grin and pulled them out of my pocket so I guess I wasn’t THAT smashed.  I had to get up early to catch a plane to some place in South America, I don’t remember where.  Anyway, it was still dark the next morning when I threw my bag in the car and Patty drove me to Howard AFB to catch my plane.  On the way we had to pass a Guardia Nacionale checkpoint and as we were driving by a guard (who had a couple of buddies with him) blew his whistle.  I told Patty not to stop but she did it anyway and the guard came up to the car and told us that we were supposed to stop and didn’t and he was going to have to give us a ticket …or we could just give him the fine and go on our way.  Well, that was bullshit and we all knew it.  We drove past that checkpoint every day.  I told Patty to go ahead and give him the money so we could go and I wouldn’t miss my flight but Patty refused.  She told him to go ahead and write us a ticket and we’d go to court.  The guard made a valiant effort to convince us he meant business but Patty stood her ground and he finally let us go. 

 While in Panama, I became eligible for re-enlistment and since I didn’t really have a reason to get out (other than that I’d always thought I didn’t belong in the military) and since I was eligible, because of my career field, for a whopping re-up bonus of $7,000, I re-enlisted.  We decided to buy a car with the money and spent nearly all of it on a 1968 Chrysler 300 Convertible with leather seats and all the bells and whistles.  We ordered it direct from the factory in Antique Ivory with black trim.  Not yellow, mind you, but rather ‘not unlike a burnished walrus tusk’.  It was beautiful!  When we got it off the boat it had a dead battery since someone aboard had been playing with it and left the retractable headlights on.  The dealer downtown had it for a couple of days and Patty and I were beside ourselves with anticipation. 

Patty and Traci on the road to ColonPatty and Traci and our new car on the road to Colon

When we finally picked it up we immediately took off on the Trans-isthmus Highway on our way to Colon.  We only got a few miles when we realized that we had to stop and fill it with gas.  Wasn’t a big problem at the time because, on base, gas was as low as .12 cents a gallon.  Believe it!  We filled up and headed into the Interior and spent the day driving through the rain forest.  We stopped several times, once to see where army ants had cleared a trail through the jungle.  We had Traci with us since this was early in 1968.  As we were headed back to the Pacific side we saw a line of cars stopped coming the other way.  Patty was driving and she slowed way down to see what the problem was and just as we got to the other line of cars she saw a huge iguana crossing the road.  Well, she stopped, but not in time, and our front tire had the iguana’s tail pinned to the road.   He was flopping up and down and trying to get away and the other drivers were yelling at us and Patty was trying to figure out how to operate this new car and put it in reverse which she finally did and the iguana went lumbering away into the jungle.  When iguanas run, they get up on their tippy-toes and run like hell for 20 or 30 yards;  but that iguana was huge and when he ran he lumbered from side to side and didn’t make good time at all.  He was probably ten or twelve feet long and looked more like an alligator. 

 Shortly before we ordered the car I had requested instructor duty at Keesler AFB and we got the assignment.  We decided to drive home.   We shipped our furniture and hold baggage and loaded up the car with Traci and about 3 dozen pair (do they really come in pairs?) of cloth diapers and started out.  We had the trip planned so we could hit the border check points in the morning or afternoon and spend the night in the capital city of each country.  It’s tricky since the border closes for siesta for 2 or 3 hours every day and you have to plan for that.  

We didn’t get off to a very auspicious start.  We were happily surprised to see that they had recently opened a brand new paved highway in Northern Panama and as we whizzed along with the top down, people would shout and wave as we passed by.  We waved back and thought the people were a lot friendlier in Northern Panama than they were in Panama City.  All of a sudden, the road stopped!  It just ended.  I took a picture of it and here it is:

End of the road

 We had to backtrack quite a few miles with people laughing and grinning at us all the way to find the riverbed we were supposed to take.  Traci learned her first English word on this trip, “Assholes”!  I had to watch my language after that.  The Pan American Highway at that time was pretty rudimentary and, in anticipation of this, I had ordered the car with 8-ply tires.  By the time we got to San Antonio, Texas, we only had one of them left- the spare.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 The highest point on the Pan American Highway is “The Pass of Death” before you get to San Jose.  It’s about 10,000 feet and usually draped with clouds and it’s a steep and treacherous drive.  As we approached there was a very long line of cars all stopped in the highway with no southbound traffic at all.  We finally found out from a highway worker that the pass was closed by a landslide and we’d have to backtrack about 20 miles to the last village to spend the night.  We really didn’t want to do that and he said the only alternative would be to take the cat trail that they made when they put the highway in.  He said it was very rough and dangerous but about four of us decided to try it.  We were in the rear of this group and it’s a good thing because we had the largest car and, as we were going up this narrow track up the side of the mountain, the ground crumbled beneath our tires so we couldn’t have gone back if we’d wanted to.  When we finally got to the top of the mountain there was a meadow with a farmer and his family and some livestock staring at us like we were from Mars.  We crossed his meadow and found the track down the other side and eventually came out on the Pan American Highway again.  I was never so glad to see pavement in my life.  I was afraid I was going to lose my new car to that mountain.    

 Costa Rica and Nicaragua are beautiful countries and we really enjoyed the trip through them.  We got some great pictures of Lake Managua and spent the night in the Capitol City of Managua.  The next day we spent the night in San Salvador, El Salvador and got up early in the morning to get an early start because the one country we did not want to spend the night in was Guatemala.  At that time, Guatemala was really a hotbed of violence and anti-American sentiment.  There were frequent shootings of Americans and we didn’t want to spend any time there.  When we got to the Guatemalan border, the guards were very hostile and unfriendly.  They asked if we had any fruit and I said no so they said, “What’s the matter?  You don’t like our fruit?”  They had bandoliers and were armed to the teeth and looked like the banditos in an old Poncho Villa movie.  They asked if we wanted to hire one of them to ride with us and protect us from the banditos but we respectfully declined.  We didn’t stop for anything and went as fast as we could to make it to the Mexican Border before it closed. 

 We spent several days at the Hotel Victoria in Oaxaca Mexico resting up.  The hotel was world famous for its food and accommodations and we really enjoyed our stay there.  We had minstrels serenade us at dinner and we bought silver trinkets and swords at the market downtown.  (I just recently discovered I can’t find those swords, they’re around here somewhere.)  When we got ready to leave we got the laundry back from the hotel laundry and were stunned to see that they had charged us almost as much for the laundry as our accommodations.  Seems they had never seen the fitted diapers we had for Traci and they ironed and folded them.  Three dozen of them and they charged us like they were shirts.

 While driving through Mexico, the roads were straight and sort of oiled gravel or macadam, certainly not what we consider asphalt pavement.  There was no speed limit and you could go really fast.  Patty was driving and we were behind a greyhound-type bus and it was throwing gravel on our new car and poking along at about 70 so Patty pulled out to pass it.  Just after we got past and before we got back in our lane, we had a blowout.  We started fishtailing and were all over the road with both Patty and I fighting the wheel to keep on the road.  When we stopped we saw that the last of the 8-ply tires had found a coke bottle!  It was sticking out of the tire.  We got to Mexico City that day and, to our delight, saw a Colonel Saunders.  It was like we were home already!  We stopped and ordered a bucket of chicken and had to wait over an hour and when we got it, we couldn’t eat it.  It was undercooked, very greasy and had veins and ligaments sticking out of it.  Yecchh! 

 The next day we made it across the border to San Antonio and bought another tire and headed west.  We spent several more days getting to Fowler to see Emmy and Fred and then on up to Oregon for a week or so before getting back into the car to head east for Biloxi, Mississippi and my new assignment at Keesler AFB.  While in Oregon we put our film in for processing at The Old Mill in Springfield and never saw it again so we have no pictures of the trip at all.  Before we left, we had a big family get-together at Pietro’s Pizza in Glenwood and Traci was adorable in her little pink ruffled panties over her diapers.  She got out in the middle of the floor and had everyone’s attention with her little dance and then she bent over and filled her diapers to where it was running down her legs.  Cleared out that restaurant!  We gave her to Don and Theresa to take home as we were staying with them.  She did the same thing in a restaurant in Biloxi a little later when we got there.  Can’t take that kid anywhere!

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One Comment on “Latin American Adventures Part 2”

  1. […] Latin American Adventures Part 2  November 11, […]

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