Sunday, November 15, 2009


I needed a job after I returned to Seattle from 6 months in the Antarctic.  It was early 1978.  I was staying in the spare bedroom of a Coast Guard buddy and his family.  I bought a yellow VW beetle and started my job hunt.  I went for a number of interviews, but nothing was a match.  Then I spotted an ad for a marine electronics company that was looking for people who could speak Spanish.  That peaked my interest as I spoke decent Spanish and had a experience with electronics from the USCG and from when I made short wave radio kits as a kid.  So I applied and was hired.  I entered a training program to prepare me to be the factory rep for Latin America.  Their main product was a sonar for fishing vessels.  I spent time on the assembly line, in classes, and out in the field with the Washington State rep.  I helped install a sonar on trawler in Seattle and we made visits to fishing vessels in Ilwaco and South Bend.  After a couple months they gave me a couple company credit cards, a tool kit, and I packed my bags and flew to Panama.

I was to troubleshoot both a technical and a business problem.  A Chinese Panamanian fishing captain by the name of Camilo had one of our sonars on his boat.  It wasn't working and I was there to either fix it or get it back from him since he hadn't paid for it yet.  In my baggage I was carrying a spare sonar head.  I was nervous about passing through customs with such an expensive bit of hardware.  I need not have been.  I stepped off the plane into the steamy heat of  Panama.  As I approached the customs inspection station I was spotted by Edwardo, our local dealer.  He called me over and glad handed with the customs inspector who seemed to be an old friend.  Eddie grabbed my bag and whisked me past customs like I was traveling on a diplomatic passport.  The second thing that hit me after the heat was the almost constant cacophony of horns.  The traffic headed into the city was heavy and Panamanian drivers expressed themselves with their horns, blasting and beeping and honking.  Eddie was a very friendly guy, he spoke great English and we hit it off right away.

I had expected to be able to solve the problems and be in and out of the country and on my way to Ecuador in a few days....  Crazy optimistic Gringo.  It took two weeks.  Camilo and his boat were fishing to the north and Eddie and his brother were involved in installing the first CAT scan system in Panama at the main hospital.  I tagged along with them and watched as they tested the system on a pineapple.  It worked.  They they needed a human, so after some cajoling they got me to go in the machine and they scanned my skull.

Then Eddie had to run some errands.  He was nervous.  He had to go see the colonel.  The colonel was the number two guy in Panama, the right hand man of General Omar Torrijos.  And the Colonel was unhappy with some equipment that Eddie and his brother had provided him for his business.  It struck me odd that a colonel would also be a businessman, but this was Central America in the 70's ... Military rank was for power, not for service.  While I sat out in the lobby of the Colonel's office, Eddie got chewed out and finally emerged looking stressed.

The next day was the weekend so I was on my own so I rented a car at the hotel and headed out across the Bridge of the Americas spanning the Panama Canal and headed north up the Pacific Coast. The soil was red and the jungle was a deep green.  The road was a narrow two lane affair, crossing many ravines and winding along through rolling hills.  I passed little towns but saw little of the ocean as the road ran inland parallel to the coast.  The the skies opened up and it started to pour.  Sheets of rain.  The window of my little Datsun started to steam up.  I had to roll down the window a little to increase the ventilation so I could see.  I turned south and started heading back towards the city.  In front of me a Ford Torino hit a big puddle, hydroplaned and spun out of control.  I flew backwards down the highway toward a bridge.  The trunk of the car slammed into the concrete railing of the bridge and it stopped.  A few feet more and it would have gone down into the deep ravine below where the water was raging.  I pulled over and ran up to the car.  There was a hysterical large Panamanian woman in the front passenger seat, the dashboard had come off and was laying in her lap.  The five people in the car were scared but unhurt.  I squeezed them into my little damp car and gave them a ride to the police station in the next town where they got help.

Finally after the weekend Camilo was back at the dock.  He had a smelly old seine boat.  Eddie drove me down there and I went to work on the sonar.  After hours of tracing wires, changing circuit boards and fiddling, it seemed to be working, though without going out it was hard to tell.  So we agreed to head out the next day.  It ended up being a very frustrating business.  The sonar didn't work very well and Camilo didn't pay much attention to it anyway, instead setting his nets on where the Pelicans dove into the water. 

I finally left Panama, not having fixed the sonar and not having convinced Camilo to either return the sonar or pay for it.

My next destination was Guayaquil Ecuador.  Guayaquil was a large dangerous city on the banks of the Rio Guayas, a wide, muddy river filled with floating green water hyacinths. Our local dealer dropped me off on the fishing boat Maria Elena.  A large wooden hulled seiner with a big skiff perched on the stern.  The captain welcomed me aboard and we slipped our moorings and headed down the river.  As we we pulled away from the dock we passed a half naked old man and a small boy sitting astride a log in the river, paddling through the water hyacinths with broken pieces of boards.

The sonar seemed to be working.  As we motored down the river I scanned left and right and ahead and picked up the bottom and objects in the water.  At last this was more encouraging.  We passed a few buoys as we continued down the river.  The current seemed to be running strong.  We were surrounded by jungle.  Occasionally I would see a hut built on bamboo stilts near the edge of the river.  One of the crew told me it was to keep the floods and the snakes out of the houses.

Scanning ahead I picked up a strong target.  I wondered aloud to the captain if it might be a school of fish?  He looked over with interest.  Just then the boat slammed hard aground on the river bottom, throwing all of us forward with a jolt.  The captain ran out the back door of the pilothouse screaming "Lanza la panga!  Lanza la Panga!" (Launch the skiff!).  The crew quickly launched the skiff, but the boat wasn't sinking.  I went below decks in the bow.  Water was seeping in through the hull caulking and the sonar looked like it had been sheared off in the grounding.  The captain backed the boat off the mud bank and we headed back up the river to the dock.

The next day I rented a Chevy Nova and headed out of Guayaquil for the Santa Elena Peninsula.  More houses on stilts.  Grubby, squalid little towns with naked butted children and hogs wandering in the road.  Narrow one lane bridges.  When meeting another car, whoever flashes their lights first has the right of way.  I came around the bend and there, hitchhiking, were two clean cut blond haired blue eyed young men dressed in long dark pants, short sleeved dress shirts and black ties, carrying book bags.  Mormon boys on their mission.  I pulled over picked them up and dropped them off a few miles later at a smelly oil production town.

I arrived at the port town of La Libertad and found the boat the other boat I was to service.  I worked on the sonar, but it was an older model and I didn't have all the parts I needed.  I made a note of all the parts required to be ordered and headed back to Guayaquil.  That evening as I was packing my bags to leave the following morning for Lima Peru, I tuned in the the BBC World Service on my shortwave radio and discovered that there had been an attempted coup in Peru and battle tanks were rolling through the streets of Lima.  I quickly called the airline and changed my flight to fly directly to Santiago, Chile.

In Santiago I stayed at the Hotel Crillon.  It was an eerie place to be, overlooking the machine gun bullet scarred facade of the Palacio de la Moneda, the presidential palace where President Salvador Allende died during the General Pinochet's coup d'etat of September 11th, 1973.  The Chilean air force had strafed the palace with aircraft and commandos then assaulted the building.

Now 5 years later, Pinochet still ruled with an iron fist and a nightly curfew remained in effect.  I felt the fear at night, hearing the shouts and gunshots echoing though the empty streets of Santiago, the racing military vehicles speeding off to do who knows what to whom.

Chilean society was very polarized.  The supporters of the Military had a swagger about them.  The opponents cowed in fear and sullen silence born of fear and repression.

It was sad for me to see the country like this.  As a child of 10 I had first come here with my parents.  Santiago had been my home for 3 years.  It was home to some of my happiest memories while growing up.  Now it was a dark and menacing place, where the walls had ears and people were afraid to speak their minds.

I fell into a routine.  In the mornings I would catch a cab to the offices of Don Claudio, our dealer for Chile and have coffee with him and his secretary Mirna.  Don Claudio ushered me around to meet potential clients and I would discuss the benefits of our equipment and give them brochures and we would return to the office and have lunch.

Finally I had an installation to supervise in Southern Chile.  I got a rental car, a little Honda Civic and headed south down the Panamericana.  I drove for hours through mountains and across arid rolling hilly country and through valleys with tall poplar wind breaks.  It got dark.  I continued southward.  I noticed my lights getting dim and then flickering and then the car died.  I coasted to the side of the road and got out.  I popped the hood and checked the battery as best I could without a flashlight.  Nearby I could hear a river and off in the distance the light of a dwelling.  Overhead the stars twinkled.  I had no idea where I was, nor how far the next town was.  I heard the crunch of footsteps approaching in the dark on the other side of the road.

Out of the gloom of the darkness I made out the form of a campesino carrying a shovel and a burlap sack.  I called out to him and asked him if he knew where the nearest filling station was.  He asked what was wrong.  I told him my battery had died.  He peered at the motor.  "There is a guy where I live who knows mechanics."  "Where do you live?"  "Just over there." He said, pointing at the light of the dwelling I had noticed.

I walked down the road with him and soon arrived at the workers barracks of a gravel pit.  The workers were very friendly.  They found the man who knew mechanics and fetched a spare battery and some cables and with a group of about six friendly Chilean workers we returned to the car.  Within short order they had helped me restart the car and discovered an electrical plug had come loose, which had caused the battery to discharge.  I thanked them profusely and we parted like old friends and I headed back down the dark road through the Chilean countryside, my faith in the goodness of strangers reinforced.

The next night I stayed in town of Concepcion and in the morning the fleet captain of the fishing company came and picked me up and drove me to Talcahuano where I worked on installing the new sonar on one of their boats.  On the drive back to Concepcion that evening he gave me some advice.  "If you ever hit a pedestrian, be sure to kill him."  I expressed surprise at such a statement.  He said that over the years he had hit 3 pedestrians.  Two had died and he had no trouble from them.  The one that lived, gave him all sorts of trouble with lawyers.  "So that's why I say, if you hit someone, make sure you kill them.  It will be a lot less trouble."  I concealed my shock at his attitude and just nodded silently.

After several months living in hotels in Chile and having little success in selling more sonars and having to deal with constant failures of the equipment that was already installed, I grew increasing dispirited and homesick.  The final blow came when I spoke to the guy who had trained me up in Washington State.  He said that all of the sales reps who started with me had already quit and that the equipment that the company was producing at the time was having a very high failure rate.  He said the problem was that they had not been using static free assembly stations in making the circuit boards and that the chips were very sensitive to static and were failing out in the field after a short period of service.  He was quitting and taking a job with a radar vendor.

That was it for me.  I quit and headed for home.  Within 3 weeks I was greatly relieved to be back aboard a ship, working for NOAA once again.  My adventure in working in electronics scuttled by wayward static electricity.


  1. I feel the same way sometimes.. scuttled by wayward electrons. waylaid as it were. but that is a good yarn, not the first or last time in those parts I'll wager. I liked Chile a lot in the late 70's. It was starting to mellow somewhat and we were able to move about freely as american sailors ashore. the girls were ridiculously friendly, but they insisted on bringing you home to meet their families which baffled us and their families. good times.