You’re In The Jail House Now. . .

Kunai grass grows quite tall

Our days were not spent in reading or in idleness.  Each day a dozen of us was assigned to a work detail  and  taken to various locations on Fort Clayton to do whatever needed doing.  Wherever we went, we were always accompanied by a guard with a shotgun, and this led to at least one funny incident.  The work we performed was actually relaxing, although it did lead to a certain amount of sweating.  After all, this was Panama.    We edged a lot of lawns with machetes.    We drove around Fort Clayton picking up palm fronds, we cleaned up brass on the firing range, or we cleared land of kunai grass and snakes (constrictors and  the poisonous varieties) and other beasties.

Our guards were terrified of us.  As far as they were concerned, they were guarding dangerous criminals.  Our guards were just regular soldiers who were assigned to us daily and so didn’t know us, and as mentioned, there were usually a dozen of us, and only one guard.  One day, while we were picking up brass on the firing range, the guard’s shotgun suddenly fell apart.  He’d been fiddling around with it, and suddenly he held in his hands a mess of metal parts and wood.  It doesn’t take much to disassemble a gun.  The young soldier was more terrified than ever!  What would happen to him now, with all these “dangerous” prisoners not having to fear his shotgun anymore?  Would they all take off?  And try as he would, he couldn’t figure out how to reassemble his shotgun.  So we did it for him, and all was well.  I’m sure it was an experience he never forgot.

There was also a rather interesting course in map reading which I enjoyed.  This was an important skill if you were an infantryman (or a hiker), as topographic maps have many different uses in the service, and topographic maps are not all that easy to read in all their details.  There was also a lot of an army favorite, close-order drill, which again I didn’t mind.  I know that I was supposed to be profoundly unhappy here, but except for the loss of freedom to go to the bowling alley across the street or to one of the nearby bars, the stockade wasn’t all that terrible a place, just slightly more restrictive than the regular army.

There was also a lot of physical training on our schedule, but this was not really a problem for any of us.  We had all been in the Army long enough to have been toughened up.  A usual punishment for a minor infraction was twenty push-ups, but there was no one for whom this was really difficult.

In charge of our physical training and of the whole stockade was a non-commissioned officer, the Provost Sergeant, Carl Prager.  Prager was also the only man there who had actually killed someone.  It could have been an accident, because he was sentenced to only a year for manslaughter.  He served his time at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a military jail for soldiers who had committed major infractions, and I guess killing someone came under that heading.  However, he was released from Leavenworth a month early, a reward for good behavior, after serving only eleven months.   Now he was in charge of a stockade of his own.

That's not me. That's someone else doing push-ups.

About AlexLevy

Dr. Alex Levy is a retired English teacher who survived World War II and the “Final Solution” by hiding in a Catholic orphanage for girls in Belgium for several years.

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