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Geography Lesson: 1967

by Stephen John Walker

The white-green awning covered verandah of El Club de Los Extranjeros faced the harbor and provided good shade for most of the day. By late afternoon the setting sun heated up the glass-topped, white wrought-iron café tables and chairs, sending members inside to the air-conditioning. The man sat on a wicker-backed stool at the galvanized-tin covered bar. His well-tanned arms and neck showed long exposure to the tropical sun. The only concession to the loss of shade was a pair of aviator-style sunglasses. This was his favorite place to watch the sunset. He wanted to enjoy this moment as often as possible before his time was up and he had to leave Panama—maybe forever.

A pillar of rain slid in from the Caribbean and drew a brief gray curtain across the sun and the muddy green surface of Limón Bay. A freighter waited in the center of the anchorage; black smoke rose from its yellow-red-yellow striped stack, the boilers building up pressure for the transit. Squadrons of brown pelicans patrolled the harbor, and then dropped out of the sky like dive-bombers on submerged fleets of fish.

A Kuna Indian cayuco slipped by close to the town piers. Gunwales low in the water and sail furled around the boom, its outboard motor spat out tendrils of blue exhaust. The length of the dugout’s hull was filled with boxes and bundles wrapped in plastic; a half-dozen women and children huddled in and around the cargo. One man sat in the stern at the outboard. Another stood in the bow, a leg wrapped around the forestay.

From the bar, the man watched the canoe’s bow swing to the north toward the breakwater at the entrance of the harbor. They had a long coastal run back to the San Blas Islands, he thought. Brave folks, those Kunas.

He took a drink from his second Ron Cortez y Coca-Cola. Across the bar and to the right the bartender sliced lemons. They were alone.

“¿Qué pasa with your father, José?” the man said.

Malo, Jorge. Muy malo. His heart, you know, otra vez.”

“How old is he now?”

Sesenta y siete.” José stacked the lemon slices in a glass jar on the bar at the waitress station. “Muy viejo.”

A tall American walked into the bar. He wore a cowboy hat, boots, and a western-style shirt tucked into khaki trousers. A wide, finely-tooled, brown leather belt with a large silver buckle completed his outfit. Before he removed his sunglasses, he directed a loud “Howdy, y’all!” at anyone within hearing. He sat on the stool in front of the bowl of lemon slices.

Buenas tardes, señor. ¿Qué quiere?” José said.

“A beer, poor fay-vor.”

Sí, señor. Una cerveza. ¿Qué tipo?”

“What? Ya got any American beer?”

No, señor. Lo siento mucho. Cervezas de Panama solamente.”

“Well, just give me anything that’s cold, amigo.”

Sí, señor.” José took a bottle of Cerveza Balboa from the cooler under the bar, opened it and placed it in front of the American.

Ochenta y cinco centavos, señor.”

“How much is that in American?”

“Give him a dollar and he’ll give you change,” the man said.

“Thanks, friend. American, right?” The newcomer turned and extended his hand. “I’m Bill Reynolds, but my friends call me Buck. From Waco. That’s in Texas. Where ya from?”

“Washington.” They shook hands.

“Washington. You bet! I was up there once. Marched in Kennedy’s inauguration parade with my high school band. Played the bass drum. Had a great time. Got to go up in the Washington Monument.” He took a long drink from his beer. “Nothin’ like a cold beer on a hot day. This Pana-hoochie stuff ain’t half bad.”

“Washington State. Seattle.”

“Oh, never been there.” The Texan paused for a moment. He took another pull on his beer. “That’s up by New York, ain’t it?”

“No…not really.” The man placed his glass on the bar.

“What unit ya with?”

“Eighth Group.”

“Well, that explains it. You Green Beret guys git language training, right?  Over at Gulick, right? Just got here myself—Fourth of the Tenth at Fort Davis. Whatcha think about these fucked up dress codes here in the Zone—no shorts or Levi’s off post? Can’t even wear’em to the clubs and movies on post. Had to go to the PX to git these.” He looked down at his ill-fitting khaki trousers. “Let me buy y’all a drink.”

“Thanks. José, una mas, por favor.”

Sí, Jorge. ¿Y usted, señor?”

“What’d he say?”

“Do you want another beer?”

“Oh. Sí, amigo. An’ git yourself one.”

Gracias, señor, pero no se puede mientras trabajar.

“What’d he say?”

“He can’t drink while he’s working.”

“Oh, right. How long ya been in the Zone?”

“Eighteen months.”

“Been to ‘Nam?”

“Not yet.”

“Me neither. Man, I thought they’d send me right out of basic, but here I am in beautiful Panama. Really lucked out.” He took a drink from his beer. “Well, you’re a short timer, ain’t ya? When ya leavin’?”

“Next week.”

“No kiddin’? Goin’ back to git out?”

“No. To ‘Nam.”

“No shit? Ya must be Regular Army. Not me. Got drafted when I flunked out of school, but gonna git to spend what’s left of my time right here in this tropical paradise. Yep, I really lucked out. Whatcha think about ‘Nam?”

“What about it?”

“Well, ya know. Them sendin’ ya over there and all that shit.”

“I volunteered.”

“No shit? Ya must be a lifer or somethin’.”

The man didn’t answer. In the mirror behind the bar he saw the sun almost touching the jungle-covered mountains across the bay. He loved the jungle—felt completely at home there—and hoped those in Vietnam wouldn’t be too different.

“Well, that’s not for me. Didn’t lose nothin’ over there in that gawd-forsaken place, and no need to go lookin’ for trouble. Look, amigo, since ya’ve been here so long, ya should know where all the action is, right? This is my first time in town. Told the cab driver to take me to a club and he dropped me off here. No action here. Kinda dead.”

“It’s pretty early. Things don’t start happening until later.”

“This a good place to find wimmin?”

“Here? No. This is a private club, but they’ll let you have a drink if it’s not busy.”

“Well, amigo, where’s the action?”

“There’s some bars along Avenida Central. That’s two blocks east of here. Try the Florida. It’s got a good floor show, but nothing starts until after nine.”

“What about this place called the Zamba? Been there?”

“Sure. It’s a whorehouse on the alley right behind Avenida Central, but it’s off-limits. MPs check it all the time.”

“Well, amigo, what’s it like? Are the whores clean? What’s it cost?”

“There’s some decent looking girls from South America—blond and blue-eyed. It’s five-fifty US a shot. They’re only as clean as the last guy they were with. I wouldn’t go there until the MPs quit for the night—around two or three. But—this early—you might get in and out before they start checking.”

“Well, guess I’ll be movin’ along. Try to find someplace with some action.” He stood up from the bar, put on his sunglasses, and looked out toward the harbor. “That’s a mighty big lake out there.”

“Yes it is. Thanks for the drink.”

“My pleasure. Ya sure Washington ain’t up near New York? They’re both next to Canada, ain’t they?”

“Yes, that’s true. They are.”

As the Texan walked to door, José placed another drink in front of the man.

“Jorge, you must go to the war?”

Sí, es necessario.”

“¿Porque?

Mi trabajo, José. Mi trabajo.”

No me gusta, Jorge. Come back tomorrow for the sun?

Sí, viejo, por seguro. I’ll be here.” The man turned on the barstool and watched the last golden touches of the sun skip across the surface of the bay. The freighter had raised its anchor and was moving south toward Gatun Locks to begin its journey through the canal. The cayuco had cleared the breakwater and turned east, but all he could see above the huge concrete blocks was the top of its red sail. He hoped they would make it home safely.