Latin American Adventures

Patty and I spent 1965 to 1968 in Panama and it was a particularly interesting and exciting time in our lives.  Patty was 21 and I was 24 when we got there and Traci would be born there in 1967 at Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone (just like John McCain).  Most of the time that we were in Panama; we lived in or near Panama City, not in the CZ.  Our first apartment was in San Francisco, a heavily commercial area, and was right behind a Sears store.  I picked it for that reason but when Patty arrived a few months after me, she pointed out that, though she was used to working at Sears in Eugene, OR and Gulfport, MS, at THIS store everyone spoke Spanish and she wouldn’t be able to work there.  She instead worked at the Balboa Shoe Store and then at the Army Commissary at Corozal.  After about a year, we moved to El Congrejo, an upscale residential neighborhood.  Panama City at that time was nothing like it is today.  I doubt that there were any skyscrapers there at that time; at least I don’t remember them.  If you look at the city now, it looks like Miami or Rio

 We spent time exploring the country and took trips on the weekends to Fort Sherman on the Atlantic side of the isthmus and to the interior to pick orchids in the jungle and to Pina Beach to go body-surfing.  We were very fortunate that I befriended Terry Fuqua when he arrived at my shop.  Terry was tall and thin with curly red hair and a constant grin or laugh. Terry was a native zonian so when he was stationed there he was not considered to be overseas.  His family lived in Curundu and he had grown up there.  He knew all the neat places to go and things to do and we spent a lot of time together.  He took us to a creek in the jungle that, when it rained, turned into an E-ride and you could slide through holes and grooves in the rocks.  He also took us fishing for corbina in the canal.  This was during the time Patty was pregnant with Traci and had a cast on her leg and the cast had to be replaced many times because it would get wet or damaged during our adventures. Patty had a little trouble keeping up.  Anyway, Terry was a lot of fun and we enjoyed our time in Panama and a big reason was because of him. 

 We frequently worked together in a Blue Baron communications van that had never worked from the time we arrived.  The squadron had two of them and Terry and I eventually got them working with some help of a tech-rep from Collins Radio who came down from Cedar Falls, IA from time to time.  The van had HF, VHF and UHF capabilities and was about 25 feet long.  Terry would sometimes spend the evening at Curundu Heights at the Beer garden drinking beer and eating pickled boiled eggs and the next day he would have a gas problem that would peel the paint off the van and send me coughing and gagging outside. 

78-Volcano 2

 Once we took off for a week and went to San Jose, Costa Rica and Patty went on a tour of an active volcano there.  We stayed at a pension run by American expatriates and they were very friendly and it was like staying with family.  We fell in love with the country with its gaily colored ox-carts and the beautiful opera house.  This was fifty years ago so I’m sure it’s nothing like it was now.  The climate was great and we had a wonderful time.  On the way back to Panama City we spent a night or two at Boquete, a resort in the mountains of Western Panama north of  the city of David.  That was a wonderful place with a creek running right through the rooms and very cool and spring like weather- unlike the rest of Panama which was always warm and usually sultry. 

 A lot of the gringos we knew wouldn’t even go downtown because it was a time of some unrest.  In fact, Patty got caught in a riot once where people tried to tip over her car but it was mostly kids and they weren’t really organized that well.  They were on their way to the Presidential Palace to give El Presidente a piece of their minds and Patty was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It was common for activists to encourage hostility toward the government and the Canal Zone by telling people that, after the revolution, they would be able to have their pick of homes in the Zone and would make a lot of money owning all the commercial and industrial property there. 

 I was gone a lot of the time on trips to almost all the countries in Central and South America.  The U.S. government was involved in providing assistance through what was known as Military Assistance Groups (MAGs) which were attached to embassies in all the countries.  I was primarily helping to install communications systems which would typically be HF single-sideband radios, teletypes or facsimile machines, and the power stations and antennas that made it all work.  I would be working with the military at each country and we would install the stations and then test the network with Washington D.C. and the other countries on the network.  I traveled on the Andes Run which was a weekly trip from Howard AFB in the Canal Zone that went to each country in South America.  The flights to Central America were just as frequent and were all on military aircraft from Howard AFB.   When I traveled, I would frequently go in civilian clothes and the Air Force gave me a clothing allowance to buy suitable clothing for these trips.  Looking back on this now, I see how infuriating this must have been for Patty since she loves to travel and nobody ever gave her a clothing allowance. 

 On one trip to Chile, I was gone for about three months.  This was when Traci was a baby and Patty was left at home with Traci and Josephina, our live-in maid.  (Josephina was wonderful with Traci and had her speaking Spanish before she learned English).  I was working with a group of technicians that were at a secret installation in Vina del Mar, which is very near Valparaiso on the Central Chilean coast.  Think of Chile being a mirror image of California, which it is, with Santiago being Sacramento and Valparaiso being San Francisco and the Andes being the Sierra Nevada.  Even the climate and the crops they grow are analogous.  The site that I was at had very high-tech equipment and a group of technicians that had Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs) that no one had ever heard of before.  I was there to work on their communications systems so they could communicate with Washington D.C.  They were spying on the French who were testing atomic weapons in French Polynesia and part of their group was stationed on Easter Island, which is a possession of Chile even though it’s thousands of miles away.  They would monitor the ionosphere for Super High Frequency emissions that accompanied any nuclear detonation with a huge dish antenna.  The Russians had a trawler a few miles off the coast monitoring us.  One of my main problems was with cows getting into the field and using our dipole antenna to scratch their backs on.  They also tripped over and broke our landline which was just lying across the field.   Another problem I had was wiring the M-19 teletype to the Sideband radio and the Crypto equipment so we could communicate with Washington.  I had to get on the line with technicians at Albrook AFB in Panama to talk me through it since the teletype technician assigned at the site was of little or no help.  Teletypes are weird for an electronics guy. 

I found myself with too much time on my hands and so I volunteered to take communications watches with the station personnel.  The other communications technicians assigned there on a permanent basis took issue with that because they didn’t want to have to stand watches after I left.  I did it anyway and they complained to the Captain in charge of the installation who then pulled my security clearance.  I was fine with that until I got a message from the embassy in Santiago that Patty was there on an unannounced surprise visit.  I also got a telephone call from Major Hollis at Howard AFB and he told me that if  I would agree not to make any more trouble, he’d tell the Captain to re-instate me and I could go get Patty.  I agreed.   I rushed to Santiago and found Patty at a restaurant having lunch with the Attaché, Maj. Burris, a David Niven type in a three piece suit and a pencil mustache.  I guess I got there just in time.  Patty had flown in on Lan Chile Airlines and was planning to spend a week with me in Vina del Mar.  She said that on the flight in, just before landing, some of the passengers were passing out ammunition and gave her some but took it back when they realized that she was a gringo.  This was about the time the leftist Salvador Allende was gaining in popularity.  He would eventually win the Presidency but be murdered within a week of taking office with the military seizing power.  This was a time of great concern over Cuban influence in Latin America.  That’s what the MAG teams at the embassies were all about. 


Anyway, Patty and I had a wonderful week together in Vina del Mar and when it came time for her to return I found out that a C-130 with some of our guys that had been at Easter Island was stopping there on it’s way back to Panama.  Major Hollis was aboard but he had contracted yellow jaundice on the island and was pretty sick.  Patty and I found a taxi to take us to Santiago for an exorbitant price and I talked to the flight crew of the C-130 who agreed to take Patty back to Panama.  As the flight took off, Maj. Burris showed up hopping mad.  He was upset because I had put Patty on the plane without clearing customs and said I had put him in a very bad position.  As far as I know, Chile may still think Patty is there since she never left officially.  On the flight home, the flight crew let Patty stay up front in the cockpit with them since there were 30 or so guys in the back that had been on an island for a year and the toilet facilities were pretty basic.  They offered to RON (Remain Overnight) in Lima, Peru since Patty said she’d never been there but Major Hollis put his foot down since he was very sick and wanted to get home.  Patty got some great pictures of the Andes from 30,000 feet as they were flying over since the C-130 had the windows all around the nose and she could lay down on the flight deck and take pictures.   When the flight landed at Howard AFB, Maj. Hollis’s wife was there to meet him and was very mad about Patty being on the flight since Maj. Hollis had told her that dependents weren’t allowed on the flight.  I guess the flight crew saw that differently. 

This is turning into quite a chapter so I’m going to break it here and continue with a Part 2.

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One Comment on “Latin American Adventures”

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

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