1958 – “It was a very good year…”
Frank C. Townsend
ftown@ce.ufl.edu

The instructions seemed simple enough in the letter announcing BHS ’58 50th class reunion. Write some of your fondest class memories, it requested. Not an easy task, I thought. What memories would my mind conjure up? What could I share? I began rummaging through the hallways of my mind—searching, opening and closing various doors behind which my memories resided. No, that one is too personal; nope, not interesting enough. I keep searching, reminiscing among those hidden memories ensconced in the recesses of my memory hallway.  Alas, I realize as I open and close the doors leading to different memories, many of the memories have gathered dust and faded with the years. I realize that the memories I risk to share will be embellished, perhaps not completely accurately; but I’ll capture the essence of the moments and the meanderings of my mind in my words. I realize, in all honesty, I’m writing for me in an effort to preserve some moments of my youth—can it really be 50 years ago?

Soldier Boys: ROTC at BHS

 

It was a clear dry season night at Mt. Hope stadium. The battery of lights used to illuminate the stadium created a false daylight on the parched brown grass field, similar in color to our khaki uniforms. There we stood, ramrod straight, in our ROTC uniforms: neat military columns and rows of the various squads, platoons, and companies. It was the final assembly of ROTC field day; in a few moments the winners would be announced. It had been a long day for the Balboa High cadets. We had caught the early morning train at the Balboa train station for the cross-isthmus ride to competition. This year it was Cristobal’s turn to host Field Day. The train ride over to “the Other Side” (it was always called the other side, and I wonder why the Pacific side was not also “the other side” to those who lived on the Atlantic Side) was filled with preparations. Shoes were being spit-shined, using cotton balls and Kiwi polish. Brasso was being applied to brass belt buckles, to the brass rank insignia (I wore a single circle denoting 2nd Lt. on my collar), and to the brass breast piece on the white sash holding my officer’s saber. Our khaki shirts were on hangers, so as not to be wrinkled, as we polished away in our white T-shirts.

Personally, I was unfazed by the upcoming competition. I held the invisible position as Company A’s adjutant. Basically, as a senior I held an officer rank, but was put in a ceremonial position where as adjutant I backed up George Barbier, the company commander. I now can empathize with those subs who sit on the bench every basketball game, just waiting for a chance to play. That was I: George’s sub.

Somehow ROTC wasn’t the ego stroke I had hoped. Somehow, the stiffly starched khaki uniform just hung on my 5’6” frame.  George Barbier and John Chase, both much taller than I, now they looked sharp in the uniform. Me? Well, the uniform just wasn’t the “babe-magnet” I had hoped.  My ROTC contribution was co-captain of the rifle team. But rifle shooting is not really a spectator sport, and I’m confident not more than one or two girls at BHS even knew it existed…or cared. I remember Capt. Wheeler, the Army ROTC advisor, remarking to me once, “Townsend, you sure can shoot, but you just cannot wear a uniform.”  But never mind, my little sister and our Jamaican maid, Amy, thought I looked dashing, even regal, in my stiffly starched khaki uniform.

As the train made its way through the Miraflores tunnel, through the Gamboa cross-over, where the southbound train from the Other Side passed by, out along Gatun Lake, with a brief stop at Frijoles to let some scientists off to go to Barro Colorado, on into Gatun station (my father’s hometown) for a brief pause, and then finally arrived at Mt. Hope, I was rather unexcited, unworried.  George was the company commander, and I had little responsibility.

The competition had been all day. Those squads up for Best Squad had strutted their close-order drill formations. Those selected to compete for Best Platoon had nervously marched in front of the judges. Individual competition for Best Commander probably had raged between BHS’s Lt. Col Paul Bennet, battalion commander, and his counterpart from CHS. The only event in which all cadets competed was for Best Company.  So we all had marched. We had messed (army jargon for eating, aptly so) and reassembled under the Mt. Hope stadium lights for the announcement of the winners.

The Best Commander had been announced, as had Best Squad, followed by Best Platoon. Cheers and hats were thrown by the 7 winners of the Best Squad as their squad was announced. Likewise, the members of Best Platoon shouted and whooped was they were announced winners.

Now the stage is set, dear reader, for the BHS memory I’ve selected to share. 

“And The Best Company is ---- Company A --- BHS.”  Hear the roar of the crowd? What elation—we had won! George and I congratulated each other; the Company A cadets were cheering. But then, George turned to me and said, “Take charge, adjutant,” as he slowly began walking towards the reviewing stand to take his place and watch us march by. See: as wining company commander, he now took his place of honor on the reviewing stand. Oh my gosh! That means I must command the winning company and march us past the reviewing stand. The invisible adjutant was about to become visible. Although Company A had drilled and practiced innumerable times, never had I led them. It was always George who barked the commands. I merely tagged along, 2 steps behind. I’d never barked even one drill command to Company A.  I literally could feel my throat tighten: Would I be able to shout out the commands? Or even remember the correct sequence? Not to worry, Townsend, we’re on the Atlantic side; so no one from BHS will know if you mess up. I was trusting the cadets of Company A would know what to do—after all they had just been declared The Best. Consequently, my confidence grew –I could do this. But then I glanced to my left and saw a white skirt in the corner of my eye; and as my eye traveled higher, there was the red scarf at Sue Mable’s throat. Oh no!! I’d forgotten the ROTC sponsors.  Sue Mable, Joan Dimpfl, Jackie Dunn, Betty Crowe—these ladies were the social elite of BHS ’58; they were in the courts of all the various formals, Jackie was a cheerleader, etc.  Chuleta!  So much for my momentary confidence. This was not a good time to be uncool, not in front of the coolest gals in our class.  My reputation, my ego, my very future was on the line. If I messed up, the word would get back to BHS, probably before the returning train; and I’d never be able to go to my 50th class reunion because I’d have to commit Hari-Kari with my highly polished ceremonial officer’s saber.  At least, George had confidence in me – Thanks George.

Concentrate, Townsend!  That was something I had murmured and done 10,000 times during rifle team competitions on the shooting range in the basement of BHS. (Ha! I’ll bet some of you never realized we had a target range in the BHS basement right beneath Vosburgh’s room where we had Jr. English. So much for being in a visible, spectator sport. Not much of a babe-magnet here). For a shooter, concentration was a series of events: peer down the sights on the rifle and line up the target, breathe slowly, partially exhale, take up the slack on the trigger, time your heartbeat (because your pulse causes the sights to jump) until the lull between beats occurs, slowly take up the remaining slack on the trigger, and fire. 

So there I was—about to lead Company A.  In front me, the reviewing stand with all the Jefetones (big brass); several paces behind me, the cadets of Co. A. including Bob Priest, Norm Peterson, and guidon bearer, Willie LeBlanc. Further down to my right are fellow BHS companies B and C, and then D and E from CHS. The command is “Pass in Review.” I execute a slow “about face,” placing my right toe next to my left heel, slightly raising the ball of my left foot and spinning 180º on my heel to face the cadets of Company A.  “Right should-e-e-e-er arms!”  So far, so good -- my voice is working.  The cadets bring their M-1 rifles from their right side across their bodies, using only the right hand. Blam!  All in chorus the sound of left hands slapping the wooden stock in unison smacks across the air; right hands slide to the rifle butts as the left hands guide the M-1s up on the right shoulders. We’re good!! I slowly re-execute an “about face” so I’m now facing the reviewing stand with Sue on my left. At this moment, I’m in complete control and responsible for starting the parade.  The commander of Company A, the lead company in the formation, has the responsibility of signaling a nod to the bandleader to indicate that all is ready and he should start the music. Until my head-nod, nothing starts.  Such power—it’s all up to me.

Now marching is old hat to any CZ kid. We started marching early in Boy Scout parades. If you haven’t learned to march by high school, then join Vic Herr’s BHS marching band. While the football team practices pass routes and blocking schemes, our drum major, Don Randel, is maneuvering us through turns and formations into our signature formation, a BHS “B”, which we perform for the football half-time show. To me, a member of the infamous 3rd trumpets (Mono Jackson, Don Terry, and I), playing a trumpet, keeping time to the music, and marching a pattern is just as difficult as a foot-ball screen pass formation. Unfortunately, muddy football uniforms are a much greater babe-magnet than the red trousers with a white stripe of a band uniform.  Then too, football players always had the last laugh as we band members wore white sneakers:  after the cleats of the determined line of Roger Million, Chuck Douglas, Terry Corrigan, Bill Halvosa, and Mike Crook (we miss you Mike) churned up the field, the marching band performed in that muddy morass.  As you can well imagine, white sneakers didn’t stand a chance of remaining pristine. I often wished that Bruce Bateman just once would be tackled on an end around on the sidelines instead of running up the middle and digging up the mid-field where we soon would be marching.

Back at Mt. Hope stadium, I look to the army band director and nod my head. The band begins to play, and in my mind I synchronize the bass drum beat to issue my next command. “Forwaaaard march!” I command over my right shoulder, the “March” timed with the bass drum as I step off on my right foot. All those hours in the marching band are paying off – Thanks Mr. Herr. Company A moves forward; I see the guide marker hidden in the grass, “Column le-e-e-ft march” I command as my foot reaches the guide marker. Again the “March” command, bass drum beat and my right foot in perfect cadence. As we approach the reviewing stand on my right, I can see the dignitaries; and I have only one more command to give. “Eye-e-e-s right!” I command over my right shoulder to the Company A cadets behind me. Simultaneously, I bring my saber hilt to my chin in a salute and smartly lower it, pointing the tip off to my right. Company A’s heads snap to the right except for the reviewing stand column, and Sue executes a smart salute to her white cap, and Willie tips the Gideon flag. George is grinning; heck, even Capt. Wheeler, the Army ROTC officer, is smiling at me as we pass by. Ah – what a memory!

Several weeks later, we had the ROTC Awards Ball at the Amador Officer’s Club.  I’m not sure, but I imagine Lucho was playing.  A new “Best Company” ribbon was added to the fruit salad of ribbons I wore on my uniform that night, and my rifle team efforts were recognized. I guess my lovely date was impressed because I think we danced a little closer to R. Fabrega’s boleros “Taboga” and “Panama Viejo,” which have always been my favorites; and I’m sure I recall taking a little longer to say good night at the doorstep of her house.

Epilogue

Six years later, I would once again stand on an Atlantic-side parade field. This time it was mid-day under a hot dry-season sun at Ft. Gulick. My spit-shined ROTC shoes were replaced by paratrooper boots bloused into my khakis.  My ROTC ribbons were replaced by a Marksman’s Cross and Paratrooper Wings. The single ROTC circles denoting 2nd Lt. rank on my collar were replaced by a silver 1st Lt. bar. My headgear was not a round officer’s hat, but a green beret.  In uniform again, this time I’m a 1st Lt. in the 8th Special Forces.  At that moment, my heart swelled and my throat tightened as I heard that old command, “ Pass in Review”, and remembered “boys” playing “soldier” at Mt. Hope stadium.