The Panamanian Truth

Photo by Kent Rebman on Unsplash

I don’t know why I went in there. It’s not like I ever knew him anyway, but I guess that is not the point. After all those years — mom wanted answers, wanted peace. I convinced myself I had to do it, no matter the outcome, at least for mom, and selfishly for me too. There was no backing out.

As I hid, waiting in the dusk island light, I checked my watch: it read 20:30; she would be at her post by then.

Jania and I knew each other from the bars we frequented. With not much else to do on the island after work hours, there was no shortage of alcohol.

It’s not like we ever hooked up, but when the bar stool next to hers was empty, we always hung out together. An empty bar stool meant Carlos, her long-time (cartel-having) boyfriend, was probably somewhere doing someone or something he shouldn’t.

Her shift at the gate began at 20:00. By then, she had settled in, flipping through pages of her magazine or reading one of her favorite Scarpetta novels.

She lusted over Patricia Cornwell’s lead character. Jania always dreamed of getting off this island, being more, doing more than local military police work. When she joined the Army six years ago, she had dreamed of traveling the globe; she never expected that her furthest journey would lead her only 70 miles from where she was raised.

I told myself it was time, glimpsed at my watch once more to see 20 minutes had passed and stepped out behind the dense wall of bamboo stalks that lined the gate. As I strolled toward the building, I deciphered the scripted letters over the facility area sign where I stood: Jose Dominador Bazan. The area, renamed in honor of the late President, used to be a part of Fort Davis. In more recent years, one building served as an MAO (military assistance office). I peered in the guard window, and Jania was as I envisioned — poised with a Scarpetta novel in hand.

When she glanced up and recognized me, she flashed that charismatic smile of hers, the one that always made me long to kiss her.

Looking sheepishly at her, attempting to hide my angst, I said, “Hey, Jania! They got you working tonight… I was hoping you would be off so we could grab a few cervezas later.”

She didn’t even hesitate to respond: “How about tomorrow? I am free and Carlos will be off doing God only knows what, so he won’t be a problem.”

My brain stalled and resisted to reply as I hated lying to her, but I could never tell her the truth. It’s not that I didn’t trust her, but I didn’t want her to be liable. If anything happened to her, I could not live with the guilt.

“Um, yeah… tomorrow. That should, I mean, that sounds… good,” I muttered while digging the heel of my dusty boot into the pebbles, wishing I could dig my way out of this.

Feeling heat from her gaze upon me, I cast my eyes back to her, still trying to seem as normal as possible. I offered an empty-hearted grin and begun to question my own motives. I had to pull it together and fast!

“Yeah, tomorrow night. You wanna meet at La Rana’s?” I asked with my usual coyness. “Wednesdays are always quiet. Hey, we can grab our usual seats at the end of the bar and that chicken taco pizza-thing you like. I still cannot fathom why you love it so much. Those ingredients shouldn’t legally be allowed to intermix as one.”

By then, my mind was temporarily alleviated of the stress as I gazed at her, waiting for her response. Even in her military uniform, she was gorgeous — plump in all the right places! Her lips were always painted the coral color of the hibiscus flowers scattered throughout the island. Her shiny, black hair, a waterfall of cascading tendrils, fell halfway down her back. At that moment, I realized she was speaking to me and snapped to reality. If everything went according to plan, lusting over her would be postponed till the next evening at the bar.

“Hey, are you alright tonight?” she asked with concern.

“Oh, yeah. I am good — a lot on my mind. I wish you weren’t working tonight.” She laughed and said, “Yeah, you already mentioned that.”

Letting my focus fall back to her, I took my hand and laid it upon hers and said, “You’ve got a job to do, and I need to meet with the Sergeant. Until tomorrow at La Rana’s,” pulling my hand away, I blew her a kiss.

With her affable voice, she said, “Adrian, I am not supposed to let you in that building. You don’t have authorization.” She looked apologetic with those big brown eyes of hers.

I flashed her one more tender smile and said, “Tonight is a unique circumstance; I am meeting First Sergeant Dunford for a briefing. Did he not mention it when he arrived?”

“Oh! Well, I haven’t seen him tonight; he may have already arrived before I got here,” she explained. “But, I guess it’s okay this once if you are meeting First Sergeant D. Go in when you hear the buzzer.”

“Jania, thank you! Pizza and cervezas are on me tomorrow,” I said, giving a head nod, as I began to stroll toward the main entrance, meanwhile reeling with guilt.

After accessing the building, I continued through the long, musty corridor. My thoughts kept drifting back to the conversation I had with mom prior to deployment. My entire life she never mentioned dad; it was always too painful for her to speak of. Since I was being sent to her motherland, she thought I could find answers. She never stopped loving him, even twenty-four years later when she disclosed the truth, or what she thought to be the truth.

In 1973, dad had been a U.S. Army soldier deployed to Panama. During his stint, he met mom; they quickly began dating and married only a few short months later.

While on night watches at his post, he noticed business dealings on base by Manuel Noriega: A man who was not only the Chief of Military Intel for Panama but also valued by the U.S. as a special agent for the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) in the war on drugs.

Noriega’s business dealings, as dad had told mom, seemed to be partnered with shady men. Dad tried to keep a low profile, staying out of their business, but Noriega was aware that dad knew too much because of his military position.

Three years later, by 1976, mom found out she was pregnant and dad had been promoted to an E5 Sergeant. While dad ascended military ranks, he privately began tracking and cataloging Noriega’s meetings and associates. As soon as he realized there was enough information to prove Noriega was not helping the U.S. in the war on drugs but was fostering the war, dad planned on delivering it to his Master Sergeant.

Dad was not the only one tailing movements; Noriega had been tracing dad’s actions for three years. It was time to make a move.

One night while dad was off duty, he made sure mom was comfortable, kissed her on the cheek, and headed out the door for his usual run. She ever saw him again, and they never recovered his body.

It was doubtful that dad shared all the details with her, but she was certain Noriega had a part in his disappearance. She feared what would happen if she stayed in Panama.

In despair, mom — seven-months pregnant with me — fled to California with several cousins as a temporary respite before permanently relocating to New York, the place I called home until leaving for the Army.

Mom mentioned potential records that contained information on my father’s disappearance, so I remembered the MAO, which stored files in the warehouse-like setting. I was unsure how, after three decades, such information could have survived on that island in a box, but my junior NCO (non-commissioned officer) said the Army often forgets whatever is located three-thousand miles away from U.S. soil.

After several wrong turns, passing through one metal door after another, I found the room. I invaded the dimly lit room with apprehension, scanned one box after the next, reading old worn away lettering on labels that were yellowed and peeling. It was obvious where the musty odor had emerged — that room! From the humid island weather to tropical storms and flooding, the paper in that room seemed to have absorbed the moisture over time, yet the mold turned out to be the least of my concerns that night.

While sifting through a box dated 1976, I heard the doorknob jangle. With nowhere to hide among the rows and rows of boxes, my heart barrelled into my stomach, and I was flooded with panic.

At first, the footsteps were distant, faint but grew louder as they continued in my direction. With each step, the fear grew more intense as I contemplated fight or flight. Only one choice existed, I was not going to run. This was for mom!

“Hey, what are you doing in here?” the guard barked. A native, tall and lanky, with gangly limbs that seemed to extend far beyond the norm. His pristine uniform contrasted his awkward body.

“Oh, my Sergeant sent me here to retrieve files for his office. You know they don’t give us any details, Priave — only when and where,” I offered.

He studied me with disbelief and picked up his radio to call his NCO, so I tried to distract him quickly before he found out that I did not have permission to be in that room, before he ruined it, before Jania found out.

Trying to stall him, I asked, “Private, do you happen to know where boxes are stored for ’67 through ‘68?” Rambling, I continued: “I thought I had the right box till I opened it and seen the years were marked incorrectly. The lettering is hard to read on these old labels.” He proceeded as though I was not even speaking. Even in the darkened space, his hand visibly trembled as he fumbled to operate his radio.

“Hey, I will go ahead and clean up the mess I have made here. I probably have everything I need, and if not, I will come back another time to sort through the rest. Don’t want to keep you from doing your job; we all have our duties to perform,” I chattered. However, he had already hit the call button on his radio, a voice came over a tiny speaker, calling out an unfamiliar codename.

What came next was reflex, not intelligence: I yanked the radio from his fist with one hand and landed him a blow to his nose with my other — foolish and unexpected, he did not even have time to respond.

With two red rivers of blood flowing out of his nostrils, he grabbed the sweat rag in his pocket to cradle his nose. I took one more quick draw, hitting him between his eyes. My fist thudded against his hollow sounding forehead, but that sound paled in comparison to the one of his head when it cracked on the concrete floor.

Stuffing the needed files, ones marked with dad’s last name (my last name), in my waistband, I shoved the remaining scattered files back into the box and jammed it back where I had retrieved it. With the box back in place, the Private passed out, I heard a voice resound over the radio, so I picked it up and pressed the orange button.

Reading the Private’s name badge on his uniform, I called out, “Private Jurado, on-site in the MAO, everything checks out.” I dropped the radio next to the pool of blood and fled out the door.

Once I reached the main corridor, I turned into a back hallway that led to a southbound exit. I kept my head down, hoping my beret was enough to deceive my appearance for the security cameras. Standing in front of the metal door, I gave it a forceful shove and was relieved by the crisp night air. I eased the door shut behind me, secured the files once more within my waistband, and trudged my way through the dense, dark forest.

From the woods, I estimated the main road was approximately three-thousand feet, which bought me plenty of time to lose anyone who might have come looking for Private Jurado. Escaping without drawing attention, I was elated to have made it out of that building with a piece of the past — answers for mom.




Aspiring for greatness by my own accord. Mindfulness / Minimalism / Money

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Sue Shartzer

Sue Shartzer

Aspiring for greatness by my own accord. Mindfulness / Minimalism / Money

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