I mentioned in the earlier post that to a GI in Panama most Panamanians were female; girlfriends, wives, or business girls for rent down on Calle J, "J Street", the red-light district of Panama City.
BTW, here's an interesting piece of Panamania...well, interesting to me, anyway. Technically the name for the metropolis in the country of Panama is "Panama City" just like the one in the Florida panhandle. But I never heard anyone outside of the U.S. military use the term; to the Panamanians I met the place was called "Panama". The larger entity was usually called "la pais", the country (or the nation) whenever that was needed. Panama, when you heard the term from a local, meant the city which, like a lot of other places in the world, sorta-kinda WAS the nation. In Panama you were either in Panama - the City, The Big Mango - or you were some sort of backcountry rube, barely above the level of some sort of howler monkey that could dress itself. Which reminds me - I really need to tell you my howler monkey story. Maybe later in this post)The thing is that most Yankee soldiers didn't really, well...need Panamanian men for the (ahem) sort of things they needed Panamanian women for. So me, and a lot of my fellow troopers, pretty much didn't interact with Panamanian guys outside of the brothers, fathers, and male pals of our Panamanian arm-candy.
Or as Panamanian cops and soldiers.
The cops we loathed.
To us Panamanian coppers were like nasty cartoon-version Latin American cops; cocky, impressed with their own power, brutally casual with the use of it, and always on the lookout for a little touch on the wallet. Back in 2011 I wrote a post one about the "policeman in Arrijan" about this, the tendency for the local policia to treat visiting gringos as ATMs.
For an American soldier, used to the idea that cops are public servants paid middle-class wages, the experience of being mulcted by some jumped-up hootch in a skin-tight uniform and a ridiculous pointy-ass officer's hat (the classic Panama cop wore a peaked cap with an exaggerated front and rear peak and a deep "saddle" in-between. These confections were referred to as "saddles" and were the object of intense GI ridicule) was somewhere between shocking and infuriating.
But worse than the grift was the Panamanian copper's job as enforcer of public peace in the J Street bars, which often took the form of beating up on GI heads when the boys went large a bit. The policia seemed to take a disproportionate enjoyment of these opportunities, and the experience of waking up hung-over and bruised in the Balboa DENI station was one that most American soldiers wanted to avoid like the Black Syph.
I should note here that - though, obviously, we didn't see it that way - to a certain extent the taraddidles the Panamanian cops played on our skulls were payback.
Prior to 1982 the positions were reversed, and it was the locals who got a beating from the Canal Zone cops.
Whatever the reason, the Panama cops and the GIs from Fort Kobbe cordially hated each other.
The other male Panamanians were knew were the soldiers.
In the 1980s Panama had an actual army. It wasn't called an "army", Ejercito in Spanish, it was called a "defense force". But the Fuerzas de Defensa de Panamá was an army in fact if not in name.
Even as a simple buck sergeant the PDF guys looked like a pretty sad act to me. As it turned out - when the U.S. and Panama had a little semi-war two years after I left the joint - they were a pretty sad act. The guys just sucked at soldiering, which shouldn't have been really surprising since, like most Third World "armies" a really competent army was more dangerous to the joker on the throne than to the neighbors (who, being Colombia, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua, weren't exactly the Waffen SS...) so the best idea wasn't to have a really competent army. And Panama didn't.
Their "elite" units like Battalion 2000 (pronounced "battaiyon dough-mil") looked the part. They had all the right weapons and equipment. But all you had to do was spend some time in the field with them to get the strong sense that these guys just weren't in it for the adventure, or to be good soldiers. Their field discipline was poor. They showed white lights at night and chattered to each other when they were supposed to be silent. They didn't like to dig in, and their security tended to be casual at best.
Every year we would get together with one of their infantry outfits for the "Transistmica", a cross-Panama road march along the putative-highway of the same name. This thing was an unimpressive two-lane road, sections of which would have shamed a dirt-poor Cracker County, Mississippi, road crew; gatored and rutted with ginormous potholes the size of small craters. But it was what we had, and we tromped along it with our battle-rattle on, sweating and stinking vilely in the tropical heat.
We might not have been the 3rd U.S. Infantry but the Panamanians were a fucking disaster, a straggling shit-show of bitching and moaning, dangling their steel pots off their rifles, and generally shambling along like the walking dead. You can tell a lot about soldiers by how they march, and what their marching said about the PDF was fairly uncomplimentary.
So in general the sorts of run-ins that male GIs tended to have with male Panamanians tended to reinforce the stereotypes and bad ideas each had about each other. Got it?
The only other close encounter of the Panamanian guy-kind I had was in their Airborne School, El Escuela de Paracaidismo.
First, let me explain something.
A lot of U.S. soldiers are badge-hunters.
Second, I probably need to explain that.
Soldiering is an odd "profession". Soldiers don't get things like big offices, or company cars (unless they're unit commanders and get to tool from their digs at the battalion head-shed to the O-Club in their HQ-1 quarter-ton jeep, but that's for the salaried classes, anyway). Grunt soldiers spend their twenty or thirty years out living in the woods and carrying their house on their back, like a snail.
But they do get to wear stuff on their uniforms, and the best "stuff" are various emblems of the high-speed been-there-done-that schools and qualification courses.
For example, there's an Army school that teaches you how to go into some piece of ground and set up a parachute drop zone, and (in the words of the Wiki entry):
"...learn how to navigate dismounted, establish and operate a day / night helicopter landing zone, establish and operate day / night parachute drop zones (DZs), including computed air release system (CARP) DZs, ground marked release system (GMRS) DZs and Army verbally initiated release system (VIRS) DZs, conduct sling load operations, provide air traffic control (ATC) and navigational assistance to rotary wing (RW) and fixed wing (FW) airborne operations. All training and airborne operations will be conducted in accordance with FM 3-21.220 (Static Line Parachuting Techniques and Training) and FM 3-21.38 (Pathfinder Operations)"So, pretty much, Pathfinder School lets you do all the cool shit paratroopers and helicopter infantry do AND you get the bitchin' sweet winged torch bling badge in the picture up there on the left to wear on your chest.
Back in the day you got to wear all this shit on your fatigues, too, so you could strut around every day wearing all your badass badges and devices and wings and looking...well, badass. Badges are sort of the ultimate "been-there-done-that" marker. You walk into the joint with a couple of combat badges, and an Expert Infantrymen's Badge, and a drill sergeant pumpkin patch and that's a way of announcing "Yep. Been around. Seen Stuff. Done Shit." without having to talk yourself up.
Mind you, badge-hunting can be complete bullshit, too, and often is. For example, the U.S. Army had several Jumpmaster Schools back in the 1980's, including the original one at the Benning School for Boys, one at Ft. Bragg run by XVIII Airborne Corps, as well as one run by the 7th Special Forces Group in Panama (and, I think, one run by the then-509th Infantry in Vincenza, Italy for USAREUR, but I'm not real sure about that).
(such as the SF officer who made a complete pirouette whilst making his door checks, thus routing his static line completely around his neck - the officer was so spun up that he didn't notice this error which would have, had he exited the aircraft or fallen out the open troop door that way, popped his head off like a bottlecap off a bottle of beer. The blackhat instructor gently reached up and unwrapped the yellow fabric line without his missing a single jump command and he drove on. You get the idea.)go through that would have immediately no-goed a Benning student. So the sort of jumpmaster that made it through the Benning School and the one that made it through the Panama school? Might be totally different skill levels.
I should tell you my JMPI story here.
Jumpmaster Personnel Inspection, or JMPI, is a graded task at the jumpmaster school, as well it should be. Inspecting a paratrooper's parachute, harness, and equipment is literally a life-or-death task; a small fault with that kit - a frayed static line, a mis-fastened Capewell canopy release - can kill as surely as a bullet.
The jumpmaster student is presented with three rigged jumpers; two without combat equipment (for a so-called "Hollywood" jump) and the third with full battle-rattle, rucksack, and weapons container. He (or she) has to inspect all three within a certain time limit, identifying all the faults in the equipment or rigging.
But - here's the thing. The "clock" doesn't stop until the student pats the last jumper on the butt indicating that all three have been inspected. So you can, in theory, "catch" a gig on a jumper you've already inspected providing you haven't cleared all three.
The Panama JMPI was, like the Panama course, different. You had to not just note and call out the gigs but identify them correctly by name; for example, if the jumper had a Capewell unfastened you had to tap it and announce "Canopy quick release not fastened." or if his lowering line was attached to the wrong thing you had to say "Lowering line terminal loop not connected to H-harness."
Well, the day of my JMPI I felt sharp as a knife. I flew through the first Hollywood jumper, tapping the gigs and calling them out, finishing in about a minute, well ahead of the time I'd need to get all three in five minutes fourty seconds. I got to the second guy and, working my way down, saw an obvious problem. One of the elastic bands that span the outside of the reserve parachute cover had been run over, and not under, the ripcord handle, locking it down. It was impossible to miss, and I didn't miss it.
The problem was that, to save my life (and my passing grade) I couldn't remember the technical term for the elastic-band thingie. "Elastic band"? That wasn't it. It opened the reserve 'chute cover, so..."reserve opening band"? I couldn't stop and think about it, so I hurried on, catching and calling out the rest of the second Hollywood jumper's gigs as the upstairs room in my head was frantic with a mental librarian flipping through FM 3-21.220 trying to remember the name of the goddamn elastic band. Spring opener? Springy-thingie? I knew it was something like that, my fucking brain seemed to have it right at the edge of memory, but the connection between brain and mouth wasn't working, and I was halfway through with the combat-equipment guy.But the point is that I got my jump wing star at the laziest school in the Army.
Done with the front and barking "Turn!" I ran my hands down the guy's helmet, checking that the "rabbit-ear" straps lay flat and were correctly fastened and the foam crash pad was secured to the back of the helmet. Down to the top of the main 'chute pack tray, trace the static line from the metal hook at the end down, down, down through the S-turns along the back of the 'chute pack. Elastic spring? Opening spring? Reserve opening band? What the FUCK was the name of that thing?
I was down to the end of the static line, checking that it was correctly attached to the deployment bag. All that was left were the leg straps and, goddamn it, I still couldn't remember...
"Bend!" I barked, and the combat guy bent at the waist so I could check and make sure that his leg straps weren't twisted or frayed. They weren't. I was out of options, and nearly out of time. I lifted one hand to slap him on the ass when the inside of my skull lit up like a pinball machine. I bellowed...
"PACK OPENING SPRING BAND MISROUTED OVER RESERVE RIPCORD GRIP!"
...and passed JMPI.
Now I like to think that I put the work in and that I was a good jumpmaster. The point is that, though, given the school and how it was run, I could have been a semi-lazy sorta-careless kinda-dirtbag and still passed. So just having the badge - the little star on the canopy of my jump wings - didn't mean shit, really. Context was everything and there's no way to tell from the badge what the context is.
Still...a lot of GIs love badges, and the cooler and more exotic the badge the better.
Foreign jump wings were among the coolest of the cool badges.
When I was at Bragg there were Canadian and German jump wings embroidered on many a manly chest, largely because the 82nd commonly went to Europe during the big REFORGER exercises and got to jump with the Fallschirmjäger and the Canadians were close by and liked to hunt our parachute badge, too, so we tended to have a fair number of exchanges with them.
Occasionally you'd see British wings, which were considered extra cool because you got to jump out of an actual county-fair/circus-type hot-air balloon when you went to their jump school (which may have been true back in the day but isn't now and doesn't appear to have been for some time. Might still have been around in the Eighties, though.)
The green beanies had lots of chances to roam around Central and South America going to other people's jump schools but for us line dogs, not so much. The only real option was the PDF jump school out at Fuerte Cimarron east of Panama City.
I was getting short, and my battalion was waving goodies under my nose hoping to re-enlist me (the fools, not knowing that what I mostly wanted from the Army by that time was out...). That's how I found myself on the 44-pax bus jolting down the Pan-American Highway to what was affectionately known as "Hootch Jump School".
The actual "jump school" part was kind of...no, strike that. The "jump school" part WAS a joke. It was Fort Benning's Basic Airborne Course only in Spanish. We didn't do their "Ground Week", since we were all paratroops already, but we did their "Tower Week" so we got to run through their 34-foot tower with their new meat. Their cadre were a sort of knockoff-Blackhat, complete with the pissy attitude, and all the actual training equipment was a humidity-wilted, poverty-dingy copy of the Fort Benning originals so the differences were all in the little details.
For example, the Panamanians had decided that every time a bunch of trainees moved anywhere (at the double-time, just like Back Home...) they would do so to the rapid chanting of the Spanish word for "Airborne", paracaidista. So Panamanian Tower Week was conducted to the background noise of a bunch of wanna-be Panamanian (and about twenty American) paracaidistas chanting "...paracaidistaparacaidistaparacaidista..." like some sort of sweaty Buddhist monks attending the most belligerent lamasary on Earth.
The other unique Panamanian thing was the punishment exercise.
The U.S. Army is a great believer in correction through exertion. Failure to meet the standard - ANY standard - is usually met with a demand for pushups. These, apparently, strengthen not just the arm and shoulder but the brain muscle. Punishment exercise; fuck up, pushup - got it?
But you can't do pushups in a parachute harness, the reserve 'chute gets in the way.
So when you were 'chuted up at Ft. Benning you did something called the "knee bender" which involved just that; bending and straightening the knees. It was more tiring that it sounds, and the cry of "Beat yer boots!" is one that I suspect every old jumper still despises. We had a blackhat that used to love to trick the students waiting to go up the 34-foot tower; "Hit it!" he'd shriek, and we'd all have to go into our exiting-the-aircraft tuck bouncing in place bellowing "One thousand! Two thousand! Three thousand! Four thousand!"
From there the next "point of performance" was "check canopy" - your imaginary parachute had (hopefully) opened and you raised your arms and scanned above you, checking to make sure that you had no blown panels or snapped suspension lines or - worse - a partial malfunction such as a "Mae West" double-breasted parachute caused by suspension lines looping over the 'chute.
But this character would shout "Check canopies!" and then, when we did just that, would giggle hideously and shriek "I didn't say "check canopies", you idiot legs, I said "Check can o' peas! Beat yer boots!"
"¡Noooooo! ¡Noooo!" he would croon whenever he found some reason, or no reason, to punish us and would cry "¡Dies Salto al pinos! ¡Ya!" (Ten porcupine jumps! Go!)
As noted, Salto al pino was supposed to mean "porcupine jump" though the briefest look at the Spanish-English dictionary tells us that pino means pine tree and "ten pine tree jumps" is just ridiculous, even for Smiley.
So I have no idea what the hell the name for the goofy thing was, but whatever it was, as an exercise, it sucked. Not so much because it was hard, but because it was exceptionally stupid-looking.
Whatever it meant in English a salto al pino in practice involved leaping up with your feet together and your arms extended horizontally in front of you and kicking forwards with your legs straight out whilst chanting the unbiquitous paracaidista! The idea was supposed to be to touch your toes to your palms and, frighteningly, a handful of the more flexible guys could actually do that. I couldn't so, like everybody else, I just bounced around popping my legs upwards ten times sweating and chanting "Paracaidistaparacaidistaparacaidista!" with a sort of resigned irritation.
You have to imagine this not just as someone jumping around with their arms out straight but a dozen grown men leaping about like a bunch of spastic morons with their arms and legs extended and flailing. I didn't really appreciate the humor while it was happening, but in retrospect I can get the kick Smiley and his pals got out of watching a bunch of neatly ranked soldiers dissolve into a ridiculous hopping, bouncing, paracaidista-chanting Porcupine Dance. We must have look like compete fucking nimrods.
So Panamanian Tower Week was really just a question of putting up with Smiley and his sense of humor, having to look like a dork porcupine-jumping, and running through some equipment drills we'd already done elsewhere, before, and better.
The next week, however, really was different.
First of all, Panamanian "Jump Week" involved Panamanian jumpmasters who took a casual PDF-style approach to things like JMPI. The disinterested once-over we got from the local cadre unnerved us so much that those of us who had jumpmaster qualifications took to inspecting each other on the down-low, since openly disrespecting the local JMPI earned you ten more porcupine or whatever-the-hell-pino-was-supposed-to-mean jumps.
Doing our own inspection wasn't all that difficult since the 'chutes the Panamanians had were old U.S. T-10 harnesses. We were told by our officers that the 'chutes themselves had been packed by our own riggers, which reassured us no end as you can well imagine.
Wiki entry says that
"...during the late 1960s, the Spanish Air Force was still operating the already outdated three-engined Junkers Ju 52 and two-engined Douglas C-47, unpressurized and non-turbocharged piston-powered aircraft. CASA developed the C-212 as a more modern alternative using the lighter and more reliable turboprop engine, with the first prototype flying on 26 March 1971."I'm willing to agree that it was probably better than a Ju 52 but by how much I'm not really sure. It took off OK and we were getting out halfway, so I didn't really give a shit how it landed. But the whole thing seemed to be made out of tinfoil and bailing wire after the solidity of the U.S. Air Force's C-130s and C-141 transports and frankly gave me the shivers.
We loaded up, half a dozen GIs, fifteen or so Panamanian cherries, and two "jumpmasters", whose primary duties so far as I could tell were 1) to lead the cherry jumpers in a singalong (supposedly to get their paracaidista on so they wouldn't refuse to jump), and 2) actually guiding the pilots onto the drop zone.
No pussy stuff like safety officers or wind speed indicators here, mind you, just a relatively flat cow pasture - complete with real cows - and a clear flight-path in from the Gulf of Panama at 1,500 feet AGL. With one of the jumpmasters crouching in the troop door with his head outside shouting;
"¡Derecha! (Right!) ¡Poquito mas!(A little more!) ¡No, no, izquerda! No, no, left! ¡Mas izquerda! (More left!) ¡Chingada tu madre, MAS izquerda! (Goddamn it, WAY fucking more left..!)
To an American soldier conditioned to the standard of "training safety" the whole Panamanian airborne business was more than half past weird and a quarter to scary. But a static line parachute jump is a static line parachute jump; you hook your static line up to the anchor cable overhead and step off out into the air.
Oh. Except I forgot to mention - in an Aviocar, the anchor cable? It's on the fucking floor.
This presented a very weird obstacle, specifically, the deployment bags and static lines didn't fly up out of the way of the end of the ramp (or up above the troop doors, had we been going out the side doors instead of off the ramp); instead they streamed out the back of the ramp, twisting and bobbing in the prop wash. They looked like a terrific way to get tangled up and die from a "cigarette roll", a canopy that fuses together as it slides past something abrasive.
Except, of course, that it didn't, and I didn't. I stepped off and enjoyed the strange floating drift that cushions the first three or four seconds before you reach the end of your rope, so to speak, and the 'chute pulls out of the D-bag and opens. And then it was just a matter of steering away from the largest of the bushes, and the barbed wire fences, and the cows (which stood around looking very bored suggesting that this wasn't the first time they'd been DZ support for the PDF).
I landed fairly decently and rolled out of my parachute next to the filthy hooves of a very large, very brown, very stanky cow, who greeted my arrival with a celebratory gray-green eruption of the vilest liquid cow shit you can imagine. Fortunately the nasty beast was facing towards me at that moment. But you can picture the scene.
Repeat five times and ¡Felicitaciones, Yanquis! You're now paracaidistas.
The "graduation" ceremony was held at the airfield there at Cimarron; we and the Panamanian cherries all got out of the truck and formed up. Some character in a glittery PDF outfit stood in front of us and made a brief speech, and then we all got our new wings pinned on. We later heard that old Cara de Piña himself, Manuel Noriega, the caudillo of Panama, was usually present at these jump school graduations - paratroopers being sexy and manly and all that - but that tensions being what they were in the autumn of 1987 he decided to skip playing pin-the-wings-on-the-Yanquis.
As soon as the little ceremony ended, though, Corporal Smiley and his buddies took off like they were on fire. And they were, in a sense. Because the Panamanian trainees were right behind them, jumping over bushes and through canebrakes, dragging them down and hauling them in struggling knots of a dozen or so trainees around each thrashing cadre member, down to the cow pond off the end of the runway to heave them in and get revenge for all those porcupine jumps.
I stuck around long enough to see Smiley carried past, still fighting amid the cluster of jubilant cherries, and was smiling as I headed for the 44-pax. From the direction of the pond I could hear...
...and a splash.
Anyway, today Panama has, like Costa Rica, done away with its army. Nobody earns their Alas Panamenas, their Hootch Jump Wings, from the jump school there anymore. No trainees jump out of the rickety Aviocars over cow pastures near Panama City, and Fort Cimarron itself got pasted pretty hard in the '89 invasion. It looks to me like the old Escuela de Paracaidismo was pretty well flattened.
I have no idea what happened to the guys there. Presumably some died. Some must have cut and run, others were captured, or wounded, and eventually let go as we let go all of the Panamanian guys who got caught fighting against Uncle Sammy...well, all except one. Was Smiley one of the dead? The wounded? Or did he run away? Did he end up like his old school, or did he live on to become an old soldier in the soldierless world of modern Panama?
Today, if he still lives, old Smiley must be as gray as I am; perhaps he, too, walks with a limp, only perhaps his hip is stiff from a piece of American steel still stuck in there somewhere. Who knows. Maybe he still hangs out in his little apartment in Panama Viejo, just down the road from where he was the cocky little smirking bastard who was the terror of the trainees.
I wonder if every so often - maybe when his hip is really giving him hell - old Smiley thinks back to the days when he used to make the Yanquis dance his Porcupine Dance.
I'll bet he wishes he had made us dance that dance a hell of a lot harder.