Tuesday, August 4, 2009

O F F I C E R 's C L U B S

Panama Canal Zone, 1968 April - June 1970.

I reported to duty at Ft. Amador, to find I was reassigned from HQ USARSO to the 4th Bn (Hawk - AW) 517th Artillery (web site http://home.comcast.net/~bcole3/517tharty/W_Kirbo.htm ) at Ft. Clayton where we were told by the Duty Officer there that the BN had just left that morning for their annual FTX and would be gone for five more days, so the six of us should take this time to read the SOP's and get settled in. We took the rest of the morning reading the SOP, and then walked a half block to HERTZ and rented a station wagon. From there we drove up to a huge building identified by a simple white rectangle with a black painted 519 on the corner ... "the BOQ". The street was lined with 60 foot tall Royal Palms and outside were parked two cars with red flags and the front bumper featuring stars on an equally as red tags. On going in there were potted palms and flowers ... it looked like the lobby of an old luxury hotel, lots of shiny marble, huge four bladed fans fans overhead keeping things very cool ... a sign led us to the elevator and upstairs, to the fifth floor where reality struck. We could see this was an old hospital, and they had US the new arrivals, stuck in a large room, a "ward" with a metal lockable door ... AND yes!! It was patently obvious: This BOQ was the old psychiatric ward. (You can browse Google Earth for a view of this building, go to these coordinates N 09 00 26.27 and W 79 33 56.76 or search http://www.czbrats.com/ ) Once unloaded and showered, we went joy riding in "the republic" for the rest of the afternoon as the married guys checked out the various apartment deals so they could set up house for their wives. We ate downtown that night. (A more detailed version of this day is on http://home.comcast.net/~bcole3/517tharty/W_Kirbo.htm )

The next day ... the other five were at the shittin' post --- something they ate or drank the night before made it so they could not -- and would not trust the urge to fart. I guess it was my S. Ga upbringing and all that soul food that gave me a cast-iron stomach. By default I was now the driver. Back at Battalion HQ we were told that maybe we should eaten at the Officer's Club: The food was good. And, and the booze was cheap.

The Canal Zone http://www.panamaliving.com/ (take your pick-- either site is pretty good to show what a paradise the place was.) And you guys went to DaNang. I found out except for the availability of young ladies, Panama was really more desirable than Hawaii, especially in the days of $302/month which quickly got cut to $288 when LBJ's retro-active tax increase came into play. $47.88 food allowance ... which was no good because they would not let officers eat in the battery mess unless we were on duty that day (duty officer) or in the field, at which time we had to pay C A $ H (command policy). The OFFICER's CLUB had a small fee for membership and the meals there ... buying the cheapest item on the menu each meal came out to be roughly $4.50/per day or $135.40 per month plus the $4.50 Monthly Dues (made me glad I'd bought a used car). I was also thanking the gods above for all my NGC khakis all fitted and broken in, I had a couple of afternoons "free" because of that.

At the Officer's Club, formally known as the PACIFIC AREA OFFICER'S OPEN MESS, they gave generous portions, and if you limited yourself to a few meals a week, usually lunch, where a really nice hamburger, with fries, and a coke was 90 cents, you would not perish. But the PAOOM was also the liquor store. Booze was less than $4 per half gallon IRRESPECTIVE of label, or national origin example Scotch: Chavez, Johnny Walker, Cutty Sark; Rums: Ron Cortez, Bicardi, Gordon's Gin etc.. it was all < $4/half gallon, and the beer Cervesa Balboa, Cervesa Panama or Malta Vigor were not so bad a DAMN SIGHT better than BUDWEISER, but for that matter so was a cold PBR.

The club featured a screened-in porch out back where they held the appropriate happy hours and Wednesday afternoon gatherings. Wednesdays were sort of like a R&R afternoon where you exercised your drinking arm. On Saturdays ... there was no television for football, (no early bird flying overhead) but they did have a couple of good radios, one tuned to (SCN (Southern Command Radio AFRTS) and the other, a short wave for whatever you were lucky enough to get. Late in the fall ham operators stateside would put a mike next to a radio, say in Atlanta, and we could get almost any game, and people seemed to identify with the SEC. It was funny listening to Al Ceraldo broadcasting the TECH-GEORGIA, or a much younger Larry Munson doing GEORGIA FLORIDA game complete with commercials and all for Atlanta, Athens and Jacksonville.

Those Saturday afternoons were really special. Outside of football or baseball season, January to April, Saturday afternoons were boring, so to encourage business, they had a two for one on the screened in back porch. During the winter months we had to invent our own diversions activities. We held Tarantula tournaments (gladiatorial combat to the death between five inch spiders) and fly-powered airplane (we'd bring a fly glued to a toothpick airplane in a match box) endurance contests, and from time we'd go outside for watermelon seed spitting contests.

OOH RAH pronounced in this case as Ewwww - RAW

The Clayton Club was not a pretty place. The building had a tin roof and during rainy season, the sound would roar through the building. But at least the rain usually came 30 min or so after lunch and lasted for a couple of hours at most at Fort Clayton. If you got wet, it was really your fault. The Clayton Officer's Club was not your only choice. You had access to the 15th Naval District Club adjacent to Ft. Amador, the Cocoli (USMC) Officer's Club, the Air Force O-Club (overall the best in Panama) at ALBROOK AFB, the Joint Club at Fort Kobbe and Howard AFB, Quarry Heights (if you did not mind too much Brass, it was a Joint Staf HQ), and a couple of others I can't remember.

The Military in Canal Zone was basically a Brigade and a Joint HQ for COMBINED FORCES USSOUTHCOM complete with supply and maintenance in place, all the stuff for rapid expansion to Reenforced Division strength with only a few days to a week's notice. Mr. Danforth probably knows more about that than I do, because our unit had an independent mission. DO NOT LET ANYTHING WITHOUT A FLIGHT PLAN FLY OVER THE CANAL's LOCKS. We had missiles, but the only real defense against that threat were a four dozen Dusters that could roll into position in a couple of minutes ... and be firing in five at most. Our radars reached out nearly 400 miles from their hilltop locations ( http://home.comcast.net/~bcole3/517tharty/ ). We took that seriously for the Canal was one of the three free fire zones in the army, the others being NATO HQ in Brussels, and the White-House Capital in Washington DC.

But I was the only single guy of the six, so a week later, when the battalion got back from Rio-Hato Exercises, guess where I went -- to the ATLANTIC SIDE to live at FORT GULICK -- it had an officers club that was a bit like the name, GOOLICK, well ... face it, IT SUCKED. They served DINNER only, and it was a bit on the stuffy side, like ... you wanted to wear your class-a's .... THE SCHOOL OF THE AMERICA's was down the street, and I guess they wanted to make a good impression for all the foreign cadre, and provide a dress up place for the Eighth Special Forces who ran the school, and give them an excuse to wear all their ribbons. I worked in A-Battery at Fort Davis http://www.517thartillery.org/, a duster unit about a mile away (but five to six by the road). I never found the officer's club there. They had one, 'cause I heard of it a few times, but NOBODY I knew ever went. Fort Sherman, home of JOTC had a better situation. Theirs was almost like Fort Clayton's, and they even had a beach with a shark net. OH, one more thing, the rainy season on the ATLANTIC SIDE is not like Fort Clayton's (50 miles away) ... on the Atlantic Side, from late April until the end of November with maybe six or eight dry days thrown in -- it rained ALL DAY LONG, and usually quit about dark. The Coco Solo/France Field Officers Club had a lighted -tennis court that came with five pound toads (that;s the size of an overpumped football,) that came to eat the bugs the lights attracted. You had to watch your step, and one at a time catch the boogers and put them outside the gate.

Still the best O-club in Panama (not the CZ) was run by SECOND LIEUTENANT CHARLES NORMAN CARSON, JUNIOR who labeled himself as COMMANDING, UNITED STATES FORCES, TABOGA ISLAND, REPUBLIC OF PANAMA (he liked to write it that way no abbreviations) and his hooch was according to some, the Unofficial OFFICER's CLUB for Taboga Island, as well as the NCO club, the Acey Doocey Club, the chaplain's office, and a torture chamber. Carson's Taboga was literally a paradise. He controlled the only three four wheeled motorized vehicles on the island, as well as the oldest operational radar in the United States Army, ASN-02, the mate to the Hawaiian radar that picked up the approaching Japanese on Dec 7th 1941, so secret at the time and radar itself almost unheard of, that nobody on duty on Sunday morning had the clearances or knowledge to believe the reports of numerous unidentified aircraft far out at sea and approaching Pearl Harbor. It is said that Carson had a bevy of ladies he would wine and dine at "his" club, and then spend the night with his pick at the only hotel on the island. Last I heard of Chuckie, he was back home in Las Vegas, competing with the Patel's. The 4/517th was deactivated in 1969, and the radar was removed from Taboga.

The 4/517 was overstrength in officers (by 23 O-1's and O-2's, and by August I managed to get out of being second assistant looie in charge of this or that, to be an instructor at the USSOUTHCOM CBR school under COL Fred B Parrish (Tex A&M 1952), where I did the Nuclear Weapons Briefing in the spring of 1969. Doing that got me a lot of contacts, and from there I went to G-3 USARSO as assistant training officer, and from there to Quarry Heights where I was employed by BG John March, J3 USSOUTHCOM, and we traveled a lot all over South America. The TDY was nice but even more than that pay allowance, I discovered Diplomats eat better than anybody in the army.