A savage blizzard was lashing the Statue of Liberty as our troop ship crawled out of New York Harbor. Even though the Korean War was over and Vietnam hadn’t heated up, Cold War warriors in Washington had decided that the cause of American freedom depended on tearing several thousand draftees from our homes at Christmas time.
I had just spent about two months of basic training and beyond on the wind-swept wastes of Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri, but instead of enjoying the holidays with friends and family over the holidays, I had orders to move on. It could have been worse. I could be on my way to the wintry mountains of Korea like most of my mates who had just “graduated” from personnel school to be clerks in Uncle Sam’s far-flung Army empire.
I stood in the bitter cold of my base and awaited the reading of our orders. My name was called. I braced for the word” “Korea.” Instead I heard “Panama.” A tropical paradise far to the south, where no war raged and I wouldn’t need my cold-weather gear. Why the gods of war chose me I have no idea. Perhaps the same ones that drafted me instead of my twin brother, Bruce. The draft skipped him. Still, the thought of spending Christmas on a troop ship with a couple of thousand strangers instead of at home and hearth was depressing. I slung my duffel bag over the hammock that would serve as my ship bed and looked for my buddy, Max. Max was one of those people who can come out on top of any situation.
The Army is full of them. You just have to look for them and follow their lead. But Max wasn’t around. I knew he’d found a spot in the officers’ quarters on the upper deck and was probably already making friends of the wives. I spotted a sergeant making a list for KP duty so I headed for the ship’s tiny library and the sailor I figured was in charge. After I found him I volunteered to run it for the rest of the voyage. Once inside I locked myself in, emerging only to get into the chow line. I dragged my gear inside and slept there, loaning out a few books when someone banged on the door.
Deposited at Ft. Kobbe in Panama, I found myself in a deserted barracks on New Years’ Eve, all the other soldiers having headed for the pleasures of Panama City. Midnight neared, and I was sunk in gloom. Then I heard a voice echoing from the door. “Barney! Come out. I met two Panamanian teachers on the way to church.”
That is how I met Maya and Angela, who was to become my wife and mother of my children. Angela went on to teach Spanish at Dos Pueblos High School. My worst Christmas turned out to be my best.