I was stationed at Fort Sherman in Panama in the early 1970s, which was a remote Army complex on the Atlantic end of the canal. The fort was situated on a small finger of land separating the Bay of Colon and the Atlantic Ocean.
There were several barracks, and some housing for officers, but less than 30 full-time residents lived there. The soldiers worked at Battery Pratt, a communications bunker dug into a cliff at the edge of the Atlantic.
The isolation drove some of the soldiers in our barracks crazy. Most of them came from big cities, or other places surrounded by lots of people, but it suited me just fine.
The best part was that I could walk outside the barracks and throw a rock into the Bay of Colon.
Every day was sunny and the ocean was a short walk away.
Palm trees grew almost to the water’s edge, and it was not uncommon to find fresh coconuts ready to crack open with a rock. The beaches were narrow in places and the sand was brown as a lunch sack, but there were seashells as big as my hand.
It was an easy duty station and I got off at three each afternoon. Every weekend was free except for the occasional drill. So I spent of time walking on lonely beaches.
I had basic training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and my advanced electronics training station was just outside of New York City at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey.
Kentucky wasn’t too bad, but New Jersey was like an anthill, and the drone of traffic was ever present.
My time in Panama was almost like a silent retreat. I dedicated a lot of my free time to snorkeling, which is a beautiful solitary experience, or walking on the beach alone.
Most afternoons I’d sit by the ocean with waves washing my feet, thinking about my life and feeling small in comparison to the world around me.
When I got out of the Army after 18 months in the tropics, I was “as brown as a hickernut” as my father-in-law Sharkie used to say. I was glad to get home, but when my life got crazy, I missed those silent walks on lonely beaches. I still do.
This past week was my birthday and to celebrate, Jilda and I went to Gulf Shores, Alabama to spend a few days in the sun and sand.
It was beautiful all three days, but the wind off the water was as cold as a snow cone, so we bundled up each time we walked.
If you like solitude, winter is a much better time to go, but even then, the beach is a long way from being isolated.
I did a web search of Fort Sherman when I got the idea for this column, and it looks like the place changed since the early 70s. There is a hotel situated on my lonely beach. That makes sense, because I’d bet there are a lot of people like me who’d love to have a chance to walk on a lonely beach.
Rick Watson is a columnist and author. His latest book Life Happens is available on Amazon.com. You can contact him via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.