A Panagringo Memorial Day

The sun comes up over the Pan-American Highway near the eastern edge of Cocle province.

A Panagringo Memorial Day

story and photos by Eric Jackson

The lifestyle excludes waking to car alarms — or to alarm clocks. Yes, there is hip hop in these boonies, but the folks who play it loud have to be up for work and they have these disciminating musical tastes that favor things creative and beautiful over shocking antisocial rants. Cumbia, its cousin vallenato, bachata and salsa also get in their mix. But none of that in the wee hours. If I get unusually conked out, I might wake to the earliest of the roosters proclaiming sovereignty over their turf in the neighborhood. But usually I am up before they crow.

This time, however, it’s after the online burnout of the Democrats Abroad global meeting, an uninspiring gathering in Tokyo dominated by the people who lost the 2016 primary 2-1. That was the weekend, though, and this is Monday. In the USA that would be part of a long holiday weekend, but in Panama May Day is the last holiday until the patriotic celebrations of November. As in, buses running like on an ordinary Monday. On a holiday there tend to be fewer.

Sometime earlier than usual on Sunday night, the words started moving around on the computer screen so I folded the laptop, retired to bed and immediately conked out. It was still dark, without any barnyard fowl noises, when I came to. Back in the computer room, the screen said quarter to four. YIKES! I had been wanting to get up around three.

I washed myself, got dressed, packed my bag, locked up and headed to the bus stop. I got there at 4:34 a.m., a half hour later than I had hoped.

When taking multiple public transportation, one must figure not only distance but frequency along the various routes. PLUS, in the boonies, not only the buses but the chivas. These latter are improvised rural buses, pickup trucks that generally have four-wheel drive and rear compartments with improvised benches, holding rails and roofs to hold off the elements. If I am at the bus stop at three or four in the morning, the buses won’t be running yet but the chivas that started up in the hills will be and I will take one of those into Anton.

At 4:48 came the San Juan de Dios – Anton Coaster bus, stopping to pick someone up at the stop ahead of me. And it whizzed right by, and by the stop behind me too. This driver would start his runs in Anton, but need to pick up his “pavo” — secretary if I want to show some more formal respect for a working person who is one of my neighbors — on the way. The Juan Diaz to Anton mini-bus came by at 4:57 and was packed by the time we got to the Pan-American Highway, when about half the people got out to head west toward Penonome.

La Caseta? El Puente? The former for me and a couple of others. I was the one guy at the bus stop who didn’t work construction. The strike is over and some of the SUNTRACS guys were waiting for their employers’ buses — a benefit to them and a better chance of a full work crew to the boss — while others were waiting for whatever bus coming down the road. This was the La Pintada bus, about half full. I got on.

A half-full bus from elsewhere in Cocle at five in the morning means a lot of local stops to pick up and discharge passengers headed into work, and at some of the other stops a wait for the bus to gather more riders. Get on a, say, Santiago or Macaracas bus and there will be less of a choice of seating but a greater chance of the driver going like a bat out of hell with few stops.

I got the more and longer stops, and not far east of La Chorrera, got the first of the traffic jams. Had I been up for the first of the chivas to come by the village, I might have missed that. Then, having been caught in the first one, from the turnoff onto the Arraijan Ensanche to the Bridge of the Americas was another long traffic jam.

(Say, didn’t Martinelli pay those Blue Apple thugs to resolve all this? What about the extra lanes on the Pan-American Highway? What about the Howard-Burunga Interchange to relieve jams on the western approaches to the two bridges? Oh, they copied US transportation planning theories that had been discredited long ago? Oh, they rushed through an interchange contract with ridiculously faulty plans, so that it could be signed and the goodies distributed before the next administration? No use arguing about planning principles with these guys. It’s about graft.)

I got to the bus terminal in Albrook at 8:45. The ceremony at the American Cemetery in Corozal started at nine.

The Corozal American Cemetery. Administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission, it’s part of the old larger Corozal Cemetery, the other part being run according to way different standards by the Panama City municipal government.

Damn! No time to use my bus and train card on a Metro Bus. I would have to spend the extra four bucks on a cab. (Yes, you can look at the ATTT fare card and argue. I had neither the time nor inclination to argue.)

The conversation with the cabbie began in Spanish, with an explanation about why gringos gather on Memorial Day. “Oh, Memorial Day! I know that.” Turns out he was a US Army veteran who decided not to go for citizenship, so he told me, like other members of his family had. He was born in the old Coco Solo Hospital, next to which I grew up.

So, he asked, what would be his chances of getting a green card now? My take was that with an honorable discharge and no criminal record, that would be likely in a normal US administration, but not this one. I am not a consul and I didn’t ask him visa type questions about his background. He left me at the cemetery gate.

Which was closed, with a Panamanian rent-a-cop hassling about ID and invitation. So things have now declined to the point that such patriotic ceremonies are not open to the entire American community? Are we that afraid? Are we that exclusionary? Some folks who knew me, who were not asked to show anything, identified me and I was let in.

The US Marine Corps color guard. If some band of people with a cause chooses the US diplomatic mission here to be its target, the marines’ job may entail taking a bullet. However, by training and instinct their job is to make the attackers take the bullets.

I got there just in time for Cemetery Superintendent Oliver Villalobos to give his welcome. The Banda Republicana first played the Panamanian national anthem, then the American one. Pastor Ryan Skinner from the nearby Crossroads Bible Church gave the invocation.

This being a strange and conflicted time among Americans and a chaotic period in the US State Department, the ranks of those making presentations and the tones of things that were said were scaled back from in years past. Also casting a shadow over the events was Ricardo Martinelli’s groveling jailhouse complaint about how during his presidency he dutifully followed CIA orders. And so it was, for example, that although Panamanian National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) officers were in the front row, there was no mention of the young officer who went down over Colombia on a US Southern Command mercenary flight out of Albrook a few years ago. Many wars were mentioned, but not The War on Drugs, not Afghanistan and not the American Civil War.

Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, to honor fallen Union soldiers in the wake of the Civil War. More than 600,000 people died in that national trauma, which along with its aftermath has been selectively remembered, forgotten, misrepresented and rediscovered. By the most common account the custom began in Michigan, where women and girls decorated the graves of Union martyrs. Another version tells of an atrocious prison camp at a horse racing track in Charleston, South Carolina, where slaves who had been pressed into service burying the imprisoned warriors of the Grand Army of Republic remembered where the mass grave was, dug up the remains to be reburied in individual graves, and held a black community parade around the racetrack in the liberation fighters’ honor.

(These days, of course, you have a young neo-confederate fanatic awaiting execution for the assassination in Charleston of a black state senator and seven other people, a guy who was on the National Rifle Association’s board of directors who blamed it on the slain senator, and a national discourse that has the alt-right claiming that the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments resulting from the Civil War are invalid, that slavery was good for black people and yadda yadda yadda. And then you have Kanye West, a sort of guy whom the White Citizens Councils used to call a “responsible negro spokesman,” nodding in agreement. It’s a mess and no one party or faction has a monopoly on concern.)

We heard Navy Captain Turner read the US president’s proclamation (mercifully not his tweet), Chargé D’Affaires Roxanne Cabral and former Panama Canal Commission board member Robert McMillan speak, laid the wreaths and stood solemnly for taps. When the benediction was over, some socializing and photography was in order. Citizens of a conflicted nation paid their respects, with reasonable respect toward one another.

Captain Turner, the senior US defense official at the embassy, reads the proclamation.


Roxanne Cabral pays a diplomat’s respects for fallen soldiers.


Republicans pay respects.


Democrats pay respects.

And back to the village. No traffic jams to give my old hippie mind ample time to wander.

But along the way, a scene to break my heart.

On the north side of the Arraijan ensanche a huge swathe of forest has been cut down. And there by the side of the road, a little anteater wandered in a state of confusion. His or her world had been destroyed. I hope that somebody came to the rescue, but whatever the case it was a refugee, a stranger in a strange land, now. 

And on past the familiar landmarks and the tell-tale signs of an economy gone soft, on to Anton. Then the local bus back to Juan Diaz, where the power was out and had been for enough hours for the fridge to be entirely warm. From accounts elsewhere it seems to have been a widespread outage, one that began about the time that the Memorial Day ceremony began. It had not been deemed worthy of mention in the rabiblanco media.

Schoolboys under the router, waiting for a bus home. Time for a mind shift from Gringo to Pana, and to notice first that kids don’t get full school days here and second that they want to read but need more and more interesting stuff to read.
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