Hot Times in Panama: What Would You Do to Serve Your Country? by Frank Babb
Hot Times in Panamá is the story of a Missouri farm boy's journey to adulthood in the 1950s during the Korean War and the expanding Cold War with Soviet Russia and their influences on his life and the lives of those around him. .
  He is posted to the counterintelligence school in Baltimore and then on to Panamá where he meets Julia, an enigmatic Radcliffe graduate he thinks works for the embassy. When he's assigned to a team for a clandestine operation that's dependent on Julia, the war turns personal and dirty. After the mission she vanishes from his life. 
  But Frank's thoughts of the mysterious Julia linger, along with the realization he has become romantically attracted to her. Over the years Frank's efforts to find Julia or information about her are fruitless. Frank longs to see Julia again, but he won't discover why she disappeared until he receives a letter from her almost forty-five years later that answers all Frank's questions--except one.
  The young men who served as secret agents in the backwaters of Central America, away from the glare of public attention create chaos and chicanery while Cold War tensions lead to deadly consequences.  They didn't consider themselves professional soldiers, but their deep desire to perform their duties to the standards set by their Office of Strategic Services (OSS) predecessors and outperform their CIA competitors makes this a compelling first novel.​

What would you do to serve your country?
I attended college at Northwest Missouri State College, Four years later I graduated, married a college sweetheart, and headed for Columbia University in New York for a Masters and Ph.D. But fate intervened, and before classes began in September1954 Uncle Sam needed my services to finish the Korean War. Although most of my training class went to Korea, I ended up in Panama as a special agent in the Army Counterintelligence Corps (CIC. My novel Hot Times in Panamá: What would you do to serve your country? is a fictionalized story suggested by some of the things I saw or participated in during my tour of duty. 


A Night at the Hotel Central
Wednesday, February 15, 1956, 8:30 pm

I stared through the crack of the utility closet door, my eyes focused on room 313 at the end of the corridor. Our team on the third floor of the Hotel Central, Panamá City, had been in place for thirty-two minutes. No one had entered or left the room nor had there been any sounds—laughter from Julia or the Czech or bouncy Panamanian music from the radio. But we knew they were there because Fernando, another of our agents, posing as a room service waiter, had brought them a bottle of cheap Scotch at 7:41.

The previous evening, Valentine’s Day, my wife, Joan, and I drove to the Tivoli Hotel situated on a hill in the Canal Zone near the Pacific Ocean. The veranda offered guests spectacular views of both the bay and Panamá City. Joan was wearing a red satin dress she’d bought for Christmas that set off her dark hair and eyes. I was proud to have her on my arm. On our way to the bar she attracted, as usual, the gaze of the men in the lobby. As we entered, a smiling Charles, our personal barman, tall and stately in his white guayabera shirt, hurried over bringing two straight-up, icy cold, ultra dry gin martinis sporting twists of lemon peel. Just the way we liked them.

Slipping into a booth, we sipped our drinks, and I began to relax. Joan smiled and squeezed my arm. I fired our Chesterfields with the gold Dunhill lighter I’d bought at the PX a couple of days before. We each took long drags and a while to exhale.

“When we were married, Frank, we couldn’t have guessed we’d be spending a Valentine’s Day in Panamá. Our journey from Nodaway County’s been quite a trip.”

“It sure has.” I nodded my head, returning the smile. I loved this good-looking, sexy woman in the red dress who with grace and humor had shared our nearly three adventurous years traveling from Nodaway County to New York City to Baltimore to Panamá. Then my mind turned to where I’d be this time tomorrow night and the smile evaporated.

Another round appeared as soon as we emptied our glasses. Charles must have sensed my disquietude that evening because, just as we were heading for the dining room, I overheard him tell our waitress, Gabriella, “Here’s another for Mr. Blake. Take it into the dining room for him.”

He was right about my mood. As I started to thank him, he smiled and said, “It’s on us, Mr. Blake. Enjoy your dinner.”

We’d been in Panamá for over a year and had begun to think about our return to civ ilian life in Cambridge in the fall. We had never lived in New England either and were preparing for the surprises of our new lives there. We knew we’d miss a lot of Panamá’s pleasures when we were back inthe States—chief among them were Charles and Gabriella.

During the meal I was distracted and apprehensive. It had nothing to do with the succulent, rare Kansas City prime steak I was enjoying. Being in the Canal Zone the Tivoli served good American food. My thoughts were on the next night’s assignment, my first outing with the team—Luis, Jorge, Fernando, and Julia, all professionals, and Alejandro and me, apprentices. Was I up to the task or would Luis be disgusted with my performance? In basic training you spend A Night at the Hotel Central 5 a lot of time talking about killing the enemy and practicing with your weapons. I’d heard lots of talk, but this was the first time I might be involved in the doing. Noticing my lack of interest in the champagne, Joan asked a couple of times if everything was okay. Was I coming down with something?

“I’m fine,” I assured her, “and having a great time. Isn’t this our song?”

It was “Mood Indigo.” The orchestra, while not on a par with Duke Ellington’s rendition of this classic, was doing a pretty good job with it, and we got up to dance. I held Joan extra close, enjoying the scent of her perfume, and kept my mind on the beat of the music while avoiding thinking about

The utility closet was dark, stuffy, and smelled of mildew and stale cigarette butts from the trash bag in the corner. The foul odor reminded me to stop smoking when I finished the pack of Chesterfields in my pocket. A vacuum cleaner and a broom and dustpan were in the other corner. Luis was in the room across from me looking out the crack of his door. I visualized Luis’s expression, the corners of his mouth uplifted in a tight smile, his dark eyes scarcely blinking, and his body tensed like a cat waiting for its prey. Luis’s guayabera wouldn’t be soaked like mine; he didn’t sweat regardless of the temperature.

Everyone was in place. We all knew our lines and what to do. The other rooms on the third floor were unoccupied. Jorge, second in command of the Secreta, the Panamanian Secret Police, had informed the hotel the third floor was off limits for the night of February 15. When he told them the gringos would be paying for all the rooms they had to take off the market, they asked if we’d need room service during the evening, thinking we were planning a party with girls 6 Hot Times in Panamá and booze. We declined the offer. Management complained that the gringos always brought their own liquor and women o their parties and it wasn’t right not to use the hotel’s services. Jorge warned them it would be a good idea to drop the subject.

The Central had once been the main destination for important visitors to Panamá City. It was in the Casco Viejo, or Old Quarter, on the west side of the Plaza de la Independencia facing the cathedral and just off the Avenida Central. Now the grand dame was showing her age, a bit seedy with a faded gentility. 

Earlier in the day, when the Czech was out of room 313, the hotel staff had changed the bulbs in the overhead lights to lower the wattage and darken the hallway, except for the light about ten feet from the door. In that socket now controlled by a dimmer switch they installed a 250-watt bulb. When the Czech and Julia walked out of the room, it would be “Lights! Action!”

And Alejandro had the camera for the “pictures.” Shifting the weight to my right leg, I marveled at the
serpentine chain of events that had taken me from a high school Spanish classroom in Maryville, Missouri, to a utility closet in Panamá City, Panamá. I was just a bit player in the impending drama, standing by in case of unexpected trouble, along with Alejandro, another agent from my unit hiding in the room next to Luis’s, and Jorge, sequestered in the room across from Alejandro. Jorge was there because he liked a little action, and we needed his agents downstairs to control the traffic if things didn’t go as planned. Luis and Julia were the main characters, along with the Czech, the star and central figure in the play. He didn’t know it was his final performance. Based on the rehearsals, we knew the whole event would take about the same amount of time as a television commercial.

Hot times in Panama

Babb's debut novel tells of a young Missouri boy drafted during the Korean War and selected for a counterintelligence school.
.... He's sent to the CIC detachment in Panama.... His time in Panama is short but memorable, particularly the night spent at the Hotel Central with the enigmatic Julia....Chapters are so tight and self-contained they could stand alone as short stories. The author allows the mystery of Julia to drive the story home to a rewarding conclusion that is just open-ended enough, and an epilogue wraps up the specifics, historically speaking on the Korea War.
~Kirkus Reviews

The love of youth never leaves us, and the flame never dies. Hot Times in Panama: What Would You Do for Your Country? is a novel following Frank Blake, a Korean War veteran entering into a CIC unit in Panama. A chance meeting gives him a glance at a girl who he doesn't see for decades, but never forgets her. As they meet again, their romance is against a backdrop of corruption and cruelty in every direction. Hot Times in Panamais a strong addition to collections focusing on espionage and intrigue fiction.
Wisconsin Bookwatch, Midwest Book Review

. ...This is one book [Hot Times in Panama] that everyone should read and the stories related to Central America, The Cold War, WWII, the Korean and Vietnam Wars remind us of why our soldiers are so vital to our freedoms and why Americans fight so hard for our country and our freedom. Characters that are strong, straightforward and quite charismatic and as you hear the voice of our narrator, the main character, Frank Blake you will definitely understand just how far some will go to protect our country.
~Goodreads review by Fran Lewis​

The Cold War was in full swing. We fought "Commies" wherever we found them based on the information provided by the followers of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the whims of the Panamanian Policia Secreta, our close friends in the endeavor. The Communists seemed to be pushing us back everywhere: Eastern Europe, the Berlin blockade, the fall of China, and retreat from Vietnam by the French. This is I ended up running agents and dealing with Commie sympathizers in a country he'd previously known only by its canal.

On separation from the Army I decided to go to Harvard Law School instead of returning to Columbia. In June 1959 I joined a Chicago law firm where I practiced for the next thirty-two years, including an 8-year stint in Washington, D. C. to start an office for the firm. Specializing in corporate finance and governance, I worked on financings and mergers and acquisitions for banks, investment banks and public and private companies and served on the boards of several public companies. My service in the CIC provided valuable experience in dealing with people, situations and conflicts frequently encountered in the practice of law. I better understand who's lying, the real (not stated) objectives of people, how much or how little you can trust people, dealing with people who are not interested in the truth, and how it feels to have an Uzi two feet from your belly button with a thug's finger on the trigger.

Hot times in Panama