Ready for a trip down my memory lane?
This picture posted on FaceBook reminds me of my first job. It was a summer student assistant job while I was at Balboa High School, in the former Canal Zone of the Republic of Panamá. This was 1983 or 84. I was 16 or 17.
The rest of my family was on vacation stateside. I had wanted to stay home. Let’s just say that being cooped up with my parents and teenage sister and all our dysfunctional drama for several weeks sounded like hell, not an enjoyable vacation.
Mom agreed and had my Panamanian grandparents come stay with me.
So it was just me and my grandparents when I received notice that I’d gotten the student assistant position I had applied for.
My grandmother encouraged me to go for it and helped me hire a driver to take me to work and bring me back home each day. We lived in La Alameda, a neighborhood in Panama City and outside the Canal Zone area. And I didn’t have a drivers license.
It was my first taste of independently managing my life. And I loved it.
I did clerical office work, answering phones, typing stuff up, etc. I had my own desk in the open space of the office – there was no privacy. All incoming calls came through me and I’d transfer or take messages as needed.
Here’s how I’d answer the phone: “Headquarters Commandant, this is Paul Minor, we are speaking on an unsecured line, may I help you?”
The office was US Southern Command, the nerve center for all deployed military personnel in Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. At the time there were probably about 40,000 military personnel stationed in Panamá along with their dependents. All branches of service had bases or stations in the country. The USA was responsible for defending the canal and had been since the first years of the century.
USSOUTHCOM operated out of the small military post of Quarry Heights which sat on a terrace carved into Ancon Hill (being struck by lightning in the FB picture).
Ancon Hill overlooks the Canal Zone on the Pacific side and is visible from a big swath of Panamá City.
Cigarette smoke hung in the air in that office. Everyone smoked. Ashtrays were standard equipment on every desk.
My immediate boss was Sergeant Cook. He worked his butt off and kept the circus going, never pausing as he rushed back and forth handling calls and who-knows-what. Some days he was gone. Sometimes he’d show up in camouflage BDU.
And I had a crush on him.
Not that this required a lot of preconditions given the teenager hormones galloping through my body. Proximity was probably the main criterion for a crush. That and having a male gender.
The guy was old enough to be my father. Perhaps even grandfather. But he had a nice, muscular body (I imagined him in a Batman costume) and a kind smile. And he made me laugh with occasional “big brother” teasing.
I found out he was single so perhaps I unconsciously connected with a fellow member of a rainbow tribe I didn’t even know existed at the time.
I admired his work ethic. A Lieutenant would come in occasionally to throw his feet up on his desk and lounge for a few hours before taking off. He’d make a big show of touching base with the Sergeant, but it was clear who really ran the operation.
Sergeant Cook also let me take on as much work as I wanted. So I threw myself into it, inspired by the character Radar in the M*A*S*H television series that was popular at the time and just coming to the end of a long run.
Whenever one of the muckity-muck superiors showed up, everyone had to stand up and snap to attention. Which irritated the hell out of me that they’d expect civilians to do the same.
I didn’t know what the different ranks meant or how to identify these. Dad had long retired from his Air Force career and my parents worked as civilians, civil servants for the US Department of Defense.
So I was pretty much the last one to follow suit after everyone else had dropped whatever they were doing to stand at attention.
This was very similar to how my sister and I begrudgingly complied with seemingly endless standing up, sitting down, kneeling during Catholic mass that Mom would drag us to every Sunday morning. As she’d prod us to get ready for church, Mom would say “it’s an obligation!”
During mass my sister and I would play a game to see who could sigh the loudest or generate some other vocalization of discontent at having to go from seated to standing. Or worse, from seated to kneeling. And who could do this without convulsing into a stifled laughing fit sure to look like sobbing from the perspective of someone behind us. And, even more importantly, who could do this without drawing Mom’s attention.
The standing at attention seemed like a weird dominance ritual to me. And from a practical sense, what if I was in the midst of taking a message from a high-ranking official? Someone from the US Embassy or the Pentagon? Did they still want me to ignore them to snap to attention? WTF?!
I had a rebellious streak when it came to authority figures – a trait that probably kept me alive through my coming out process in the years that followed. An era that could, in many places, be perilously hostile to anyone perceived to deviate from hetero-normative sexuality.
I also smoked cigarettes at my desk. At 16 or 17. Nobody in that office said a thing to me about that.
You get the picture about my rebellious streak.
The most practical class I had taken in my high school career so far was typing. I was good at it. When I cut loose on the typewriter, the rapid-fire clacking was like a machine gun that reloaded with a satisfying slam of the carriage return after each line.
I’d spend hours typing up personnel reports, on triplicate forms, and reading all sorts of juicy stories contained within.
I learned that if you tell your commanding officer to “fuck off,” you’re likely to have the entire sordid episode written up in your permanent record.
And I learned that if you’ve been treated for a venereal disease a dozen times, you should probably consider rubbers and a proper brothel instead of doing business with the hookers hanging at the bus stop outside the gates of Fort Clayton Army Base.
Those summer days passed in a blur of activity. I’d get home wiped out, have dinner with my grandparents, watch Luke and Laura on General Hospital, set my alarm, read until I passed out in bed, and wake up to do it all over again.
One day, Sergeant Cook approached me with a critical assignment. Probably not the sort of thing you’d normally give to a skinny teenage boy with bangs down to his eyes, wearing an Atari T-shirt, and likely not even shaving yet.
He held a yellow shotgun envelope – a big inter-office envelope with holes punched in it (for ventilation?) and a string that secured the flap. It had to be hand delivered to another building on the other side of the hill. Sarge had to be somewhere else and there was nobody left in the office to deliver it.
Oh, and this was during a thundering tropical rainstorm. It was rainy season in Panamá.
“Can you drive a stick?” Sergeant Cook asked me.
“Yes”. I had a learners permit, which meant I needed an adult with me but I had learned to operate the manual transmission on Mom’s red Ford Fairmont.
My practice sessions were usually in Sunday morning Panamanian traffic. Not as chaotic as weekday traffic, but it gave me a lot of confidence because compared to Panamá City, driving in the Canal Zone was like a stroll in a park.
“Ok. We need to get this envelope to building ####, they’re waiting for it”. He pulled out a 1-page map of Quarry Heights, showing me the location. It wasn’t far.
He handed me keys, envelope, and map and said I could take the truck parked outside. The only vehicle available.
The object of my infatuation was entrusting me to help him with a critical mission.
“No problem,” I said.
He squeezed my shoulder and bolted out the door into the raging downpour.
I headed out the door, sticking the envelope and map under my shirt. When I saw the truck, I felt panic surge.
I’m not talking about an Amazon delivery van type of vehicle. This was an Army truck. A Mack truck you had to pull yourself high off the ground to get into. A far cry from a Ford sedan. It scared the crap out of me.
I ran through the pouring rain, climbing into the cab of this monstrous vehicle. Thoroughly soaked but with the manila envelope safely tucked under my shirt.
I turned on the engine and got the windshield wipers working. My heart raced as I put the truck in reverse and managed to get out of the parking lot with only a couple stalls and restarts.
The rain came down so hard I could barely see where I was going. I was high off the ground and the street runoff obscured the dividing line for the lanes.
I drove real slow with a white-knuckled death grip on the steering wheel. I don’t think I ever got out of first gear. But I delivered the envelope and made it back with no mishap, leaving the keys on Sergeant Cook’s desk and sparking a cigarette as soon as I got back to my station.
Mission accomplished. It was my moment of triumph that summer.
Ancon Hill has become a tourist site with great views of the city. As soon as the territory changed hands into Panamanian sovereignty and control, a flagpole was erected on top to fly a huge Panamanian flag.
I’m sad that I’ll probably not get to visit Mom and friends in Panamá this year. The country’s pandemic response will make a visit problematic at the moment. And we don’t want to risk being a vector.
Mom is aging in place in her home. According to her caretaker, Mom’s physical health seems ok but she’s depressed and not eating much. I know many of my peers are dealing with not being able to visit family in nursing homes and other separations due to the pandemic. It’s sad.
Beyond family and friends, I feel a connection to Panamá.
If it can be said (to paraphrase Charlemagne) that for every language you know, you gain an additional soul, then this is doubly true for every country you fall in love with.
I don’t know when I’ll be back. But I know that despite all the changes I notice in Panamá on every visit, it only takes the 30-45 minute taxi ride from the airport to La Alameda (while chatting up the taxi driver in Spanish) before I have the odd sensation of not just being “home,” but of never having left.