Our Panama Adventure

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” Hudson Burnham,

A Panama flag flying on a cloudy day

The plan was to drive from Cleveland, Ohio to Bogota, Columbia. This would be our second attempt to get to Bogota. The first attempt ended in failure, my wheelchair damaged, and my nearly new van being written off as a total loss. Now, a year later, we were on our second attempt drive there. The fact that the Pan Am Hwy had not yet been completed seemed to be of little consequence. We had a goal, the details of which would become self evident as we went along.
We, well, that is to say, Bruce had this idea that we could drive to Panama and from there take a ferryboat to Bogota, Columbia. Though it was Bruce’s idea, I readily embraced it. His ideas always reminded me of a quote by Daniel Hudson Burnham, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized.” I always thought of his ideas as healthy diversions from an otherwise mundane routine. No matter the outcome, we were guaranteed to come home with memorable stories.
Bruce was a man’s man. Every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be like him. He had the build of a soccer player and swagger to match. You could say he was the alpha male, not because he was the biggest and strongest but because he was clever and charming. He was the consummate diplomat, the epitome of savoir-faire. He could open an oyster with a kind word, and a locked door with a gentle nudge. He did both with equal zeal.
As if not endowed with enough advantages, Bruce was known for his physical prowess as a swimmer. This was something I learned firsthand as he took me snorkeling in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park off the Florida Keys. With his beach blond hair I’m quite certain he would’ve been a surfer had he lived on the West Coast.
His well justified self-confidence was only exceeded by his humility. He never boasted nor blamed. He just shared his ever widening vision of this thing we call life.
We never discussed academics. He majored in business; I majored in science. The two fields aren’t mutually exclusive but our paths never crossed in the classroom. This motley crew of college kids that took residence in my, now cramped, near windowless van, indulged in topics of conversation far removed from campus life.
Bruce would spend much of our journey in the driver seat of my 78 Ford van. I took my usual position of riding shotgun as his co- pilot. Once out of my wheelchair, it meta-morphosized from a fully functional seat to a folded piece of luggage, depending on the needs of the group. The majority of our traveling group occupied the bench seats Bruce built and installed in the back of the van. Netting lined the inside walls of the van to hold everything that couldn’t otherwise find a home.
As we were departing the cold climes of the Rust Belt, with Kent State’s parking lot in our rear view mirror, we were swathed in our winter clothes, secure in anticipation that it would only be a matter of days before we would be enjoying the subtropical weather of Mexico and Central America.
To the untrained eye, we were all an integral part of an unfolding odyssey. To our friends, we were simply college buddies anxious to say goodbye to the Cleveland weather. Winter break gave us an excuse to close our books and exercise our collective, as well as, our individual proclivities. Our expectations were less than homogenous but certainly worthy of pursuit. To say we all had the same motivation to drive to Columbia would be a bit disingenuous. For my part, I was avoiding a holiday at home. Sure it would be filled with a loving family but it was inaccessible. I likely would have been trapped in the living room. With a fireplace and vintage wood accents it made a comfortable room, but one I would be confined in none-the-less. Our yard didn’t beckon me either when it was covered in a half a foot of snow. Even if I got out of the house, no one wanted to drive me anywhere on icy, salted streets that made any mode of transportation a fodder for rust.
It wasn’t that I wanted to go traveling either, it was that I needed to go. I had some unmet need. I was drawn like a magnet to the unknown. I didn’t know what I would find in Bogota or along the way. I DID know that the unknown was more welcome than the familiar, a fact not lost on my youngest brother Ron. One Christmas he sent me a brass plaque etched with a partial poem, The Men That Don’t Fit In, by Robert Service, often referred to as the Canadian Kipling.
“If they just went straight they might go far; They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are, And they want the strange and new. “
I can’t speak to the motivation of the others. Sure, Bruce was in it for the adventure. Perhaps the others were just looking for a break. Ultimately, we do what we do to appease our ego. The manifestation of that action is what defines us in society. Perhaps not a single action but rather like actions repeated as if a song on endless play over.
The rest of our crew was a small cross-section of Kent State. Like Bruce, Nancy was a typical high achiever. She also spoke Spanish, which would definitely be an asset on this trip. There was nothing she couldn’t do. One summer when her parents were gone, she built a big patio deck for them, on their house, and all of this while blind in one eye. She was taller than average, brunette and very buxom. I still remember a conversation we had at Ray’s Bar one night. It was more practical than amorous, compelling yet brief.
Pauline and Frannie were roommates. They were both short and strong, while soft in all the right places. Frannie was more wiry which I attribute to her Italian heritage. Bill and and I met them one night at a bar and ended up, well let’s just say we became very close friends. Their dorm was adjacent to ours. They were typical college coeds and provided the levity and comfort often lacking on long trips. Bill couldn’t make this particular trip and his absence was noticeable.
Other than having psychology class with Bill, I never shared a class with any of my traveling companions. I thought this was odd as we all needed to complete the same requisite courses. Kent State had some 18,000 students though. Perhaps it was coincidence that Bill and I did have one class together. He, like myself, used an electric wheelchair on campus and a manual chair while traveling.
When Bill and I did travel together, he sat in the front passenger position while I stayed in my wheelchair, wedged between the two front seats. He was significantly taller than me and it only made sense to have him occupy the seat with the greatest headroom. Sitting in my chair between the two front seats, the only restraint I had was the seatbelt which held me in my wheelchair. This would be of little help in a head-on collision. I had cheated death before however and assumed a sense of invulnerability. The one common thread we shared was that we had more gumption than common sense.
While Pauline and Frannie were vivacious and energetic, John was totally relaxed and calm. He was introspective and I envied the calmness he must have found. I don’t recall that he ever raised his voice other than to call our attention to something we would all enjoy. His hair, like mine, was a bit shaggy. Like Pauline and Frannie, he majored in the social sciences.
I remember one time on the road, while he was driving, I asked John what our gas situation was. He said, “We still have some.” He wasn’t trying to be funny, he just never seemed to notice the bumps in the road. That’s the kind of guy John was, always on an even keel. Once, when we were in Guatemala, we stopped at Lake Flores. Someone picked me up out of the front seat and put me in my wheelchair. They either forgot or were too fatigued to set the brakes. The wheelchair started rolling, with me in it, and I couldn’t stop it. I hit an exposed tree root. The chair fell over and I tumbled out. John, nonchalantly walked up to me, and peeling away a thin layer, separating him from a well deserved snack, and asked me if I wanted an orange.
John and I had several adventures together. He would eventually help me move to New Mexico. An act for which I’m eternally grateful. My most memorable adventure with John could well have been our last. One cold, wintery day, John and I went to a swim meet at our campus pool. With John’s help, I was able to roll through a maze of parking lots to reach our destination. Because I was in my electric wheelchair, I was presented with only one seating option, and that was poolside. I wasn’t more than a few feet from the water’s edge. John took off his heavy winter coat and tossed it on my lap. Unfortunately, part of his coat landed on my wheelchair controls. The joystick was pushed forward and I headed straight for the water. It all happened so fast I couldn’t knock the coat off the controls. As I rapidly approached a watery grave, all I could think of was hoping someone would unlock my seatbelt as I sat on the bottom of the pool.
As quickly as I was jolted forward, I came to a complete stop. My chair hit a pool ladder and I was spared a dip in the pool. John yelled,”Geno, what are you doing?” He didn’t realize it wasn’t my doing. During a frantic exchange of words John retrieved his coat.
The first several thousand miles of our Panama adventure were uneventful. With the pedal to the metal we coaxed all the speed we could out of our 300 cubic inch, straight six. It was a truck engine, built for endurance, not for speed. Mile after mile, state after state, we finally crossed into Mexico. The weather was decidedly warm now and we shed our cocoons of winter clothes.
When we got to Honduras we picked up a French-Canadian hitchhiker named Marcel. While driving under the influence he drove his Cadillac into a Church in Montreal. Since then, he’s been on the ‘run.’ He asked us to smuggle him out of Honduras. None of my friends objected and I actually enjoyed the idea of doing something outside of the law. As this story goes to print I will probably become a topic of concern by INTERPOL.
Somewhere, while driving through countries not much bigger than the state of Ohio, we picked up a German hitchhiker. I forget his name, but I remember he carried a guitar, and knew some Bob Dylan tunes. He was also a doctor, which worked out well for me. He gave me some antibiotics for my infection. He and Marcel were often at odds. I found this amusing, an endless source of entertainment.
Somewhere in Panama, our victuals having been long spent, we stopped at a fruit stand. Such respites are strategic on road trips. Not only do we get to replenish our stores, but we can learn about nearby attractions, festivities, road conditions, weather forecasts, who’s who, and what, if anything, to avoid. It’s an opportunity to switch drivers and, quite frankly, air out the van.
Bruce was pumping a vendor for local intel when a Panamanian man recognized us as Americans. He was short and rotund. His voice was commanding, which belied his caring nature. It turns out he was a doctor who went to medical school in Chicago. He told us he always enjoyed meeting Americans. I knew Bruce was sizing him up, trying to figure out his game. This was just another skill in Bruce’s bag of tricks. a skill that was as handy in a poker game as well as preventing potentially dangerous travel encounters.
I stayed in the front seat of the van while the doctor mingled with my friends. He invited us to stay at his beach house. Having nowhere else to stay, I thought it was a good idea. Besides, for some reason, he kept calling me Howard Hughes. Bruce informed us that Hughes had, at one time, been living in a hotel in Nicaragua. It is not inconceivable that Hughes and the doctor may have crossed paths.
We followed the doctor to his beach house. Along the way, I listened to the conversations in back of the van. The German was suspicious of our newfound host and urged us to be cautious. Marcel was a bit reckless and was excited about our prospects. My friends had mixed feelings, not knowing what to expect and wondered why he kept calling me Howard Hughes. I didn’t know what to expect either but I thrived on uncertainty in this type of situation. I don’t like things that are too predictable.
When we reached the beach house, everyone got out of the van. I was the last one out. Someone pulled out my wheelchair. The doctor followed the wheelchair, as it was lifted out of the van, with his eyes. My friends got ready to lift me out of the van. He gave a puzzling look at my friends and said, “Oh, I thought he was….” The German said, “He still is…Howard Hughes.” We all chuckled and the doctor said, “Yes, of course, he’s still Howard Hughes.” I don’t know what the doctor would have said if he were allowed to finish his sentence, but I like the way the German put it. I was disappointed though that this was the end of my charade.
We settled into our beach cabana. The doctor told us his brother has a restaurant/bar down the beach. He would have him bring over some beer and food for us. Just when I thought things couldn’t get better, the sun started setting. We sat around a table on the beach, having a catered dinner, watching the sunset.
In appreciation of our good fortune and overcome with the holiday spirit, we decided to sing some carols. We unanimously agreed to sing Silent Night. It was decided that Marcel would sing it in French, the German and I would sing it in German, a few of my Spanish speaking friends and our host would sing it in Spanish, and the rest in English. I’m sure the song wasn’t written to be sung that way, but I have never heard a better rendition, either before or since.