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TRIP TO PANAMA
For The July 1999 SCN CLOSING

By  the late Jack Essex  (CFN 1956-1957)

 

 

 

Olga and I were treated royally by the SCN team and by Panama. Waiting in line at customs and immigration at Tocumen, I inadvertently knocked our travel papers from my wife's hand. Before I could even bend to retrieve them, a sharp young Panamanian policeman did it for me. He then asked if she was a retired Panamanian. She told him that she was born in Panama but was a resident and citizen of the United States. He politely said, "permiso" and led us around the line to the window reserved for dignitaries. Under the resentful glare of our fellow travelers, our papers were perfunctorily stamped and we were out the door to be met by First Sergeant John Mings, SCN's NCOIC.

Sgt. Mings filled us in on the schedule of activities and drove us in his personal vehicle to the El Panama Hotel. At check-in I picked up a copy of the Panama Visitor newspaper and took it to the room. While Olga was unpacking I scanned the newspaper and unexpectedly discovered a very favorable comparison of her novel, "Delia's Way", to Le Carre's best selling suspense novel, "The Tailor of Panama". The reviewer said Olga's novel was more suspenseful. Well that was a nice welcome to Panama.

The next day we rested up from the trip and did a little shopping along Via Espana near the hotel. That evening we went to the restaurant above the new Seafood Market in Avenida Balboa and had a very good inexpensive dinner. With the music of Osvaldo Ayala, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra of Panama, playing in the background, Olga had a ceviche appetizer and langostinos in garlic sauce. I had grilled corvina. Both entrees were served with arroz con coco and patacones. Coffee or an after dinner liqueur were complimentary. Our total bill with tip was about $16.

On Wednesday we took a taxi to the area of Avenida De Los Martres (Fourth of July Ave.) and Calle H near radio station HOG, where I worked in Panama City, was once located. The building no longer exists. We walked by the Coca Cola Cafe where we first met only to find it boarded up and looking decrepit. From there we walked to Central Avenue which is now a pedestrian mall. We found the building where Olga lived in her youth. It was once a nice apartment with an ornate wrought iron balcony overlooking Central Ave. Where Olga's mom once hung baskets of flowers and we stood and watched parades, debris is now displayed. We continued along Central Avenue looking for places that were important to her youth only to find many of the buildings had been torn down and replaced with new commercial and apartment buildings or, in a few cases, just boarded up. Santa Ana Plaza now has a huge wrought iron fence to keep derelicts and vandals away. At La Merced Church a small shrine near the entry once held an ornately jeweled icon of the Virgin. Then the shrine was open at all hours and there was no need to protect the icon. Today, the icon is gone and the sanctuary is padlocked. That was enough depression for one day. We went back to the hotel to get ready for the SCN banquet.

By the way Olga purchased a bag of mamones, or ginnups, if you prefer. Must be an acquired taste. I tried them and just didn't like them and Olga couldn't remember why she liked them in her youth. They ended up being thrown away after a couple of days.

The banquet was held at El Panama Hotel. I had my first chance to meet several of the SCN staff that I had previously known only through e-mail. We were met at the door by Capt. Andre Gladden, the SCN Executive Officer. He introduced us to Maj. Gordon Martel, the SCN Commander, Col. Robert Gaylord, Dep. Chief of Public Affairs in Wash. DC, and most importantly, Mrs. Eleanor Johnson the retiring, knowledgeable, and patient SCN Secretary. We renewed acquaintances with T/Sgt Chris Wuerthner and Mr. Frank Pereira who had been at my home in April to videotape segments used in the final television production, "All Good Things". I also enjoyed talking to Program Director Paul Kloss and retiring Graphics Artist Mateo Simons.

Then I met Sgt. Jeff Anderson. Jeff had mentioned in a posting to the PanamaVets list that he had a cameo role in the final program. If what I saw was a cameo role, then War and Peace is a pamphlet. He dominated the program. By the way, I have already privately thanked Jeff for his very kind words about my wife and me in his PanamaVets e-mail, "Hanging out with Jack Essex". He is generous.

During dinner we watched "All Good Things". Chris Wuerthner produced and narrated the program. His work was outstanding. He used a blend of historical information and footage with current interviews and video of various Canal Zone locations to achieve a memorable program. Gerry Fry had a major role in the interviews and contributed a lot of good information. Gerry, I passed your regards on to Col. Gaylord and Mr. Simons. They appreciated them and returned them in kind.

Paul Kloss emceed the program following dinner. Awards of various types were handed out to many of SCN's personnel. I don't have a list so won't attempt to tell who received what. Three retirees, Mateo Simons, Eleanor Johnson and SCN's Budget Officer Millie Hurtado were recognized for their years of contribution to the success of SCN. Maj. Martel and Col. Gaylord delivered brief but inspiring messages to the 75-100 people in attendance. Then it was time for an old CFN relic of years gone by to give the night's featured talk.

While I wasn't totally satisfied with my talk, it was well received by an attentive audience that laughed in all the places I hoped they would and reacted appropriately when I moved on to more serious topics. Much of my time was spent on relating my numerous conflicts with the CFN Commander and a few of the less conventional things I had done on the air. I mentioned the fun I had had emceeing an Ella Fitzgerald performance, hosting a TV show with the Oscar Peterson Trio, reporting from the 1956 PGA Panama Open Golf Tournament and interviewing Arnold Palmer, Sam Sneed and other top golfers of that era. I told them of my faux pas when I was doing the color commentary for a Fort Clayton vs Fort Kobbe basketball game for CFN radio. (I explained the frequent official time outs as being necessary to allow the referees to towel off the sweaty balls. I neglected to put basket in front of the word balls. I guess you know I had to listen to the tape of that many many times.)

I encouraged the young SCN personnel to protect and save their memories of time spent at SCN, noting how important mine had become to me as I became older. Col. Gaylord had dealt with the same subject in his talk. I concluded my comments with a variation on my old CFN sign-off. "For the Caribbean Forces Network, this is Air Force Staff Sergeant Jack Essex signing off", and I added, "just one last time". Now, I'm not a very emotional person, but when I reached the words, "last time", a lump rose in my throat and I barely finished the line and a thank you. When I returned to my table, Olga had tears in her eyes, and I noticed that the whole table was standing and applauding. When I looked around the room everyone else was doing the same thing. I had not expected such a warm and apparently genuine response. I was, and still am, appreciative.

I received a silver medallion commemorating SCN/CFN's 58 years of broadcasting service and two bronze commemorative coins from the Army Broadcasting Service. But, even more importantly, I received handshakes and warm compliments from many of the people attending the banquet.

The evening was topped off with humorous television footage of current SCN personnel caught in strange activities. Some staged, others apparently not. Paul Kloss rendered one of his famous poems directing his barbs at most of us at the head tables and practically all of the SCN staff. He's getting so well known for his poems that when a dignitary in Washington is being honored, they often send Paul all the pertinent information about the person and he composes a poem for the occasion. Olga and I enjoyed the evening immensely.

On July 1, as speakers blared the theme music to what must have been every television program ever produced, we all assembled under canopies at the front of the SCN Studios in Fort Clayton to witness the formal Inactivation Ceremony. Commander Martel and his staff did a professional and emotion provoking job of putting the old girl to rest. I had never witnessed an inactivation ceremony before and was moved by the furling and casing of the SCN colors. As a lone airman marched into the distance with the sheathed colors there were many moist eyes. It was all done with such style and precision that no one would ever suspect that the people participating spend most of their time in the various chores associated with radio and television production instead of military pageantry. Speeches were delivered by Maj. Martel, Col. Gaylord, and Major General Phillip Kensinger, Commanding General of the U.S. Army South and Joint Task Force-Panama at Fort Clayton. The final speaker was the U.S. Ambassador to Panama, Mr. Simon Ferro. A pleasant reception followed the formal event.

I need to mention here the attention that Olga and I received by one of the visiting dignitaries from Washington. Sergeant Major Michael Pervel went out of his way to see to our comfort, often anticipating our needs before we realized we had them. He is one of the good guys. Also before the ceremony began, an e-mail friend, Nina Kosik, who worked for many years in the Canal Zone and now lives in Panama came up and introduced herself. It was good to meet a lady I had previously met only through e-mail. We didn't have much time to talk and, as it turned out, circumstances kept us from getting together later as we had planned.

That wrapped up our SCN activities except for getting a lift back to the hotel by Sgt. Anderson and being transported back and forth from the hotel to SCN by Capt. Gladden the following day to complete my travel related paperwork. To all of you associated with SCN, thank you for being so hospitable. Olga and I have a lot more good memories to add to our list because of you. Also a big thank you to Bill McLaughlin whose e-mail to me and to SCN's Chris Wuerthner set my return to Panama in motion.

On July 2, Olga and I attended a buffet luncheon with about twenty members of her high school graduating class at the Caesar Park Hotel. It was fun to see them again after meeting most of them at their fiftieth reunion in February. Much of the rest of that day was taken up by newspaper interviews of Olga regarding her novel, Delia's Way. The following day, was spent visiting with friends and family at our hotel. In the evening we hosted a friend at the El Panama's Seafood Buffet. The buffet was lavish and well prepared. With a bottle of good French wine, the evening was a success.

We had planned a trip to El Valle and Rio Mar on Sunday, July 4th but we had to cancel it when I began feeling the effects of a virus that had reached epidemic proportions in Panama. We opted for a short trip up Ancon Hill and were able to ride almost to the top, walking only the last 150 yards. It turned out to be an emotional adventure for Olga. She had grown up almost within the shadow of Ancon Hill with its large United States Flag dominating the view from Panama City. But, because of security restrictions, she had never been allowed to go to the top of the hill. Now, with Ancon Hill having reverted to Panama, we were able to go to the top. From the base of the flagpole, with the huge Panamanian Flag snapping in the wind, Olga was able, for the first time, to look down on the part of Panama City where she grew up. She could see the area where she lived and went to school. She could look down on the National Theater where she performed. She could see the cemetery where her ancestors were buried. The experience evoked many mixed feelings. We took several birdseye photos of the City and the Canal and returned to the El Panama.

That evening we went to Napoli's for one of their famous pizzas. While Napoli's is better than most pizzas found in the United States, it still does not compare with the pizzas produced by Napoli's forerunner, Hancock's. Hancock's was located on Central Avenue in Casco Viejo. They used wood fired, brick lined ovens and produced the best pizza I have ever eaten. Shortly after I arrived at Albrook AFB in 1955, some fellow airmen took me to Hancock's for my first pizza ever. My search will continue for one its equal.

Due to health concerns we had to cut our trip short by three days. But, we will always remember our return to Panama for the formal closing of SCN.

Jack Essex

 

 

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