I couldn’t have been asleep for more than a couple of hours when screams of laughter made me sit up in bed. I pulled the window shade aside and saw twenty kids standing in my carport and I was so very pleased to see kids my own age.
Our family, eight kids and two adults, had just arrived on Howard Air Force Base, Canal Zone, Panama, after driving from Sacramento, California in a Dodge Monaco station wagon through Central America, for what would be my father’s Twilight Tour of duty.
Everyone moaned when he told us he had orders to Panama. We didn’t even know where this place was and was shocked to find out we were leaving the United States. Passports and inoculations for all would be in order. Dad was very humble and diplomatic when he showed up with family in tow for services like dental, passports, which required ten of everything. A brisk bit of work but Dad was accustomed to managing crowds, being an Air Policeman.
I just finished 10th grade and was day dreaming about my first car only to find my dad made arrangements to leave America a year earlier than the rest of us to wait for a house on the base to become available. He chose a house beside the base chapel and as it turns out, our house was a bus stop.
My bedroom was the “Maids” room—for families who could afford such things—and was adjacent to the carport and laundry room but separate from the rest of the house. It had a window air conditioner, bathroom, and was furnished by the Air Force with steel beds and striped mattresses covered in clear plastic. The night stand was metal covered in a wood-like plastic veneer. The room was musty and humid and no way to open a window, still I couldn’t be happier to have finally arrived at our destination. Four-thousand miles and no major car trouble.
Before heading into the carport, I slipped my shirt on and walked out holding up a smoke and asked if anyone had a match. Dawn pushed her way through the crowd with books held tightly in crossed arms and said, “My name is Dawn. You must be the new people who moved in, what’s your name.” After telling her my name and that we just drove up hours ago she looked at me funny and asked where we’re from. Before I Could finish explaining somebody yelled Bus!
I watched as each boarded the bus; a mixture of high school kids up front and middle school kids filled the back. I quickly asked, hey what about all this Panama Red I’ve heard about? Rusty said, after school man, after school. Then he shouted from the bus, you drove here? Rusty didn’t miss a thing. I knew he and I would become best friends.
The house was still asleep when I went upstairs, except mom. Dad had left early to report in with his commanding officer before making arrangements for all of our household effects to be delivered. Finally, I would be rejoined with my records and clothes; nothing like unpacking your music and clothes and shoes that had been in transit for months.
Mom was unpacking what little we brought with us on the journey. Much of what we brought was lashed to the top of the wagon and it wasn’t much. We lived on canned ham and fresh bread and market vegetables. Depending on road conditions, dad would sometimes endure marathon sessions of twenty-hours or more of driving each day. We stopped at every major metropolitan area and American embassy along the Pan-American Highway. He made the journey in less than two weeks.
The housing on Howard looked like stacked cubes on stilts. The stilts were 18-inch concrete columns and everyone parks their car in the carport under their dining room. Up a flight of stairs to the front door that opens onto the living area with the dining room looking out over the street. Tiled floors and spartan furnishings it lacked warmth but we would call it home for the next three years.
My new friends were in test week and wouldn’t finish school for another week, so I fixed up my room. It was nice to have a bathroom. It was nice to have a room to myself. Full stop. Something I was not expecting, was my birthday present had waiting for me; a beautiful Brazilian acoustic guitar. I was more blown away by the gesture, than the gift itself.
Panama was an amazing 10,000 mile journey for our family because we experienced it together, “with trunks of memories to spare”, down and back. You can imagine what we did to pass the time as our father drove. And that’s all he did, was drive. He didn’t share the driving, he didn’t participate in the singing, he would just interject at times saying,, “Don’t make me come back there.”
To be continued…