My close encounter with 
General Omar Torrijos Herrera
by Louis J. Barbier (BHS 57’)

First a little bit of history about the General:
General Omar Torrijos Herrera (1929-1981), was born in the province of Santiago. He took part in the coup that deposed Presidente Arnulfo Arias in 1968. He became commander of the National Guard and soon emerge as the strongman of the new regime. He exercised full control, ruling by decree an imprisoning or exiling all his opponents until his untimely death in an airplane crash in 1981.

My little story:

Now, picture if you will a sunny morning in Panama with the time almost 10 O'clock and you are running late in picking up an inspector from the States. So, you are trying to make make time by racing. You are in a small blue VW heading in the direction of the Metro Theater on a narrow street one over from Balboa Avenue. You are about to pass the intersecting street up from the Cafe del Boulevard. When all of a sudden out of nowhere a monstrous green Mercedes with its engine racing cuts in front of you. You react quickly by slamming on your brakes and leaning on your horn. As your tires scream like a banshee on the plains of Zimbabwe, you notice that the back seat of the Mercedes is occupied  by a man in uniform. He is smoking a large Cuban cigar. Your eyes meet his briefly and his large Mercedes accelerates. He must be late for his appointment too. The chase car has his bodyguards who at this point are just trying really hard to keep up with the general's car. The whole incident takes a few seconds, but your whole life as you know it flashes before your eyes. The bodyguards are brandishing submachine guns. So, you quickly pullover to the side of the street and stop.

As you sit there thanking your lucky stars that you stop for some chance tickets at "La Loteria" building and a "Raspado" for the say softly, "Thank you God!"

After a few moments you continue on to the International Hotel located on the Plaza de Cinco de Mayo. The story would end there.....but no there is more.

As you all remember close parking to the International is at a premium at almost any hour of the day. As you get closer you spot a large green Mercedes in front of the entrance. The bodyguards are deployed. You go around the Plaza and notice that there is only one parking spot available but one of the general's bodyguards is standing in it. You have already gone around twice so you beep your horn. He looks your way swings his machine pistol in your direction but steps out of the way as you ease into the parking space. You are wearing a white Panabrisa and your are sweating bullets, no pun intended. You get out of the VW which you have nicknamed 'Herbie-2' from the movie of "The Love Bug."

Some people when they are very nervous, they talk to themselves. Well, I am carrying on a full conversation. First with Herbie-2 and later with myself as I rush to meet my party staying at the International Hotel. I had tried to put him up at the Tivoli Guest House but his stateside travel agency had made his reservations. I enter from the bright sunshine to a somewhat cooler interior of the lobby and proceed to the courtesy phone. I ring the visiting fireman's room from the main office. He picks up on the first ring and tells me that he will be right down. I walk over to the bank of elevators and notice that one is already descending. The doors open suddenly right in front of me. Guess who? No, it is not the Headquarters' Manager that I am to pick up and bus to Fort Clayton. No, it is General Omar Torrijos Herrera in the flesh. As he heads toward me, his bodyguards swarm around me like killer bees. Again my whole life flashes before me! I do what anybody else would do in such a situation and say, " Buenos Dias mi General." He grunts a greeting as he pass me and heads for the doors. And at that very moment the elevator doors open and the person I'm to pick up steps out into the lobby. He sees the general departing and says, " Louie, that is the general, did you see him?" I answered, "Yes, I know." Well, he continues with, "Now I'll have something to tell the people back at the home office." And I think, some day I'll have to tell my little story..........

Well, his inspection tour of our operations goes well. He stays about a week. Then after some sightseeing and shopping I take him to the airport. And he is gone until his next visit. I never have another close encounter with the general. A year later I transfer to San Francisco, California. Sometime later in a stateside newspaper I read of the general's untimely death in an airplane crash. Over the years when I think about that close encounter, I say to myself that everything in life is a matter of timing. My being a little late at that intersection saved me from my final curtain call. I thank God that he was watching out for me that day. It could have been different and I may not be here at this keyboard relating to you an incident that when I was going through it appeared like something out of the "Twilight Zone" and in very, very slow motion. Again time marches with that I'll say goodnight. Goodnight, everybody.

God Bless all who read these tracks.

Hasta la vista y Buena Suerte!

Louis J. Barbier, BHS Class of 1957