Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Past and Present Friends

The actual date, 4 July, has passed, but the thoughts associated with it have remained for years. Those great men who made a change in the world will be remembered. I never knew them, but I have known some great men who kept the change, but will only be remembered by me, and a few others.

4th of July weekend was not a time of writing. It was a time to be outdoors and enjoying the fellowship of newer people.

On 3 July, I received the following message from one of those people.

Want to thank you. The other day my mind was wandering around and settled upon your military experience with the sloth in Central America. That thought about your experience helped me along that day.
A worldwide sir you are--and I at least have benefited immensely from your past and present experiences!
With high regards, thanks and Happy Fourth.

Quentin is Quentin Kujala, long-time friend and also a wildlife biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Quentin is one of those friends that is always positive and usually gives people a positive “push” with his words. On this occasion, his words brought back memories of those great men who have been lost though my day-to-day activities: Mullen, Gordon, Padilla, Cordova. All were members of Company A (Airborne), Third Battalion, Fifth Infantry, Fort Kobbe, Canal Zone, the only paratroop outfit in the Canal Zone, at the time.

Company A (Airborne), 3rd Battalion, 5th Infantry during Independence Day parade, Balboa Avenue, Balboa, Canal Zone, 4 July 1978. This photo was taken by a member of A 3/5. I don't recall his name, but nearly everyone in the company bought a copy of this photo.

Mullen had lived in Tehran, Iran where his dad was some sort of spook working for the Shah. Gordon was the son of Richard F. Gordon, Jr., an Apollo astronaut. Padilla was a man of Hispanic descent who lived, and lives in Denver. He was also the Best Man at my wedding. Cordova was also Hispanic, and lived in Longmont, Colorado. The four of us spent two years together in Panama. Mullen, Padilla, Cordova and I spent another hitch in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Cordova and I were the inseparable Army buddies lamented in 1940s and 1950s war movies.

Every few months in Panama, A 3/5 came up for guard duty. One of the locations guarded was Rodman Ammunition Storage Area—a naval base with Marine gate guards, but the Army provided roving patrols. Rodman was a series of single-lane, rotted asphalt roads weaving through the jungle. Every two, three or four hundred yards, on either side of the road, were bunkers.

Guard duty at Rodman consisted of four or five two-man teams walking the roads, physically checking each bunker. Each team carried one AN/PRC-77 radio, a clipboard, a flashlight, two M16s and 10 rounds of 5.56. We always hoped we never encountered more than 10 thieves on our rounds.

Teams were replaced every four to eight hours, by jeep. (This was a decade before the Humvee appeared.) The jeep and Sergeant-of-the-Guard made random checks on the teams.

Late one night, or early one morning—still dark—Cordova and I were making our rounds. Nearly shoulder-to-shoulder we saw a dark mound in the road ahead. Neither of us acknowledged anything. As we approached, we slowly moved apart, but our pace quickened until we were speed marching past the bump. About twenty-yards passed the object, we slowed, and without a word finally stopped, searched out each other’s eyes in the starlit jungle.

The conversation went like this.

“Did you see that?”


“What was it?”

“I don’t know. What was it?”

“We better check.”

The flashlight flicked on. Even though we had passed within two feet of the thing moments ago, we both flipped rifle-safeties off and approached the mass.

Sloths are one of the ugliest creatures on earth. Smashed-up faces, brown hair that grows the wrong way and containing enough algae and bacteria that they have a greenish-yellow camouflage, with Jurassic hooks for claws. They live in trees their entire lives, except for trips to the ground to defecate. (Information on sloths can be found at Wikipedia sloths and National Geographic two-toed sloths.)

Because they live in trees, they don’t motate very well on ground. This sloth couldn’t get any traction and had spun-out on the slick asphalt. Cordova and I were going to leave it, but we thought the jeep might fly around the corner and make road pizza. About the only thing more disgusting than a sloth is probably two-toed sloth road pizza. Anyway, we decided to move it off the road, but we didn’t want to touch it—it hissed and swung it arms and prehistoric hooks at us, and we had no implements.

Sloths only weigh about 20 pounds. We started pushing it across the road with our M16 muzzles. In the process, the sloth swung his claw and arm through the sling on Cordova’s rifle. It was hard to tell who the M16 belonged to. Cordova finally drug the sloth off the road, unhooked the sling at the butt, and we continued on our way.

Thirty years later we have all continued on our way. Mullen lives in Indiana and owns a restaurant. Gordon was a HALO instructor for Special Forces and now lives in Alabama. Padilla retired from a National Guard SF unit. Cordova was killed in Longmont, Colorado less than a year after his discharge.

Quentin’s 4th of July email brought back some important memories. Hopefully, you can find something of an Aesop’s fable or humor in this story.

Happy Independence Day To All.

Me or Cordova over Venado Drop Zone, Panama Canal Zone. Although blurry, in the distance there are ships waiting to transit the canal. Around Christmas 1978, our company had several "fun" jumps. They were made higher than normal. On one day, I used my Olympus OM-1 with a 200mm lense to take a picture of Cordova. The next day, he returned the favor. When we got the photos back it was impossible to tell who was who. This is a tribute to my lost friend Cordova--either the paratrooper or the photographer. Who knows?


wandering owl said...

I love reading Army buddy stories. I spent 3 years in the 7th ID, 9th Infantry Regiment at Ft. Ord ,CA. Used to fix Operator Headspace, I mean Prick-77's, and road march nearly every day of the week. Never seen action, but our unit did get alerted once. We were supposed to go to Honduras, but we got called off. That alert was still damn exciting.

Editor said...

good story
and just for your information
I am reading.
glad you are on my blogroll and hope to meet you someday.
Keep writing.

Dennis A Carroll said...

Thank you both.

Editor, It is good to see someone has read my rants at OBS.

Everyone have a great day.

Doihaveto? said...

Well, as the "Mullen" mentioned as having served with Dennis and the others he writes about, I never would have thought this would happen.
I was thinking today of Panama and those funky designations given to the companies, brigades, and battalions,(they all come from something ya' know). I couldn't quite remember exactly the Company's complete designation, so I googled it.
About the fourth mention down is this funky post from my good friend Dennis.
Can you imagine? I sure never would have. It's true what he wrote, 'cept my dad was working for the US, not the Shah, but I imagine at the time, it probably didn't really matter, but being the patriot he was, I'm sure Dad would take exception to the wording. Semantics anyway huh?
Big Fun, thank you Dennis, now I have some memories stirred up too.
Love ya' buddy!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, went through JOTC in early '79. Seems maybe Gatun drop zone rings a bell?
No one I miss more than lost Army buddies.