Hot Times in Panama: What would you do to serve your country?

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Press: Wheatmark (March 15, 2012)
Author Name:Babb, Frank


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 persons he came to know and work with. 
He was too young to serve in World War II but just the right age for the Korean War.            When on the first day of his high school senior year in 1949 Frank Blake chose a Spanish class instead of a French class, he didn't know his choice would take him as a secret agent to the backwaters of Central America.
There Cold War tensions had deadly consequences hidden from the public attention Americans regularly gave to events in Europe and Asia.
The following year Frank passes the deferment test that enables him to stay in college until graduation in 1954, upon which he joins the army.            After basic training he is posted to the counterintelligence school in Baltimore and then 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 persist, along with the realization he had become romantically attracted to her. Over the years Frank's efforts to find Julia or information about her are fruitless--until years later when he encounters at an American Alpine Club dinner a person he had once met over drinks and cigars in Panamá.
His dinner companion had known Julia in Cambridge and had worked with her on a secret assignment in Guatemala but had also lost track of her.
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.            Interwoven with the Julia mystery are M*A*S*H-like stories of the lives, on duty and off, of the young men who temporarily served serve as secret agents in the backwaters of Central America, where outside the glare of public attention, Cold War tensions lead to deadly consequences. They came from colleges and universities across the country with degrees in various subjects.
They didn't consider themselves professional soldiers, but they desired to perform their duties to the standards set by their Office of Strategic Services (OSS) predecessors and outperform their CIA competitors.

From the Author

I grew up during the Great Depression on a 140-acre farm about seven miles northwest of Maryville, a county seat town of 5,000 inhabitants in northwest Missouri. 
 We lived with my paternal grandfather and my father's schoolteacher sisters spent the summer months with us.
  I was blessed with books and magazines and a grandfather, mother, and aunts to read them to me.  Whether inherited or a habit, I've continued to read fiction and nonfiction on a daily basis even when I'd spent the day reading law books or legal documents as a lawyer.
 During World War II, our Philco radio, books, magazines, and newsreels at the Saturday night movies provided our information and entertainment.

From the Back Cover

Shortly after the end of the Korean War, Missouri farm boy Frank Blake is drafted and posted to the Army Counterintelligence School. 
He expects to go to Korea with the rest of his classmates, but because his high school girlfriend convinced him to take a Spanish class with her instead of French, he's sent to Panamá, assigned to a CIC unit that engages in clandestine operations.
At a party he meets Julia, an attractive young woman he thinks works for the Embassy.
When Frank's team is assigned an operation that depends on her, his war gets personal and dirty.
After their mission, however, she vanishes.
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.
Interwoven with this mystery are the stories of the civilian soldiers who temporarily serve as secret agents in the backwaters of Central America, where outside the glare of public attention, Cold War tensions lead to deadly consequences.

About the Author

I served for two years as a special agent in the Army Counter Intelligence Corps in Panamá in the 1950s. 
While in the Army I decided to pursue a legal career instead of becoming an English professor as I originally planned.
On graduation from Harvard Law School I joined a large Chicago law firm, specializing in mergers and acquisitions, corporate finance transactions, and general corporate law for thirty-two years.
For the next ten years I was a venture capital investor, a field I had enjoyed while practicing law.
Events in my life and the lives of persons I've known or learned about have inspired the fictional stories I now enjoy writing.
Upon reflecting on the "stories" told by the elders in my family, I've come to realize that, as one ages, "fact" and "fiction" become harder to distinguish.


Travel,Central America,Panama,Politics & Social Sciences,Politics & Government,Specific Topics,Intelligence & Espionage

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Comment List (Total:7)

  •     very interesting, indeed. Every sentence rings true. An unusual and useful insight to a little known part of the Cold War.
  •     If you want to get the flavor of a setting and 'career' that is unlike the average middle-class American, pick up Hot Times in Panama.
  •     Frank Babb has written a most interesting story. One part is the journey of a young man from Missouri to Maryland to Panama to Harvard to Chicago to Washington, through education, marriage, career selection and government service. Another part is an intriguing inside look at the US intelligence operations, particularly the Army's Counterintelligence Corps, the CIC. I can testify that the author's descriptions of the CIC training at Fort Holabird are accurate and well detailed. Babb is a very good writer, sounds like a historian. The book is fun and picturesque.
  •     This book is a must read for people who want to know more about the kind of secret operations our government was involved in during the Cold War. Although listed as 'fiction', this book is packed with intimate details of counter intelligence operations. I had no idea Panama was even a hot seat during the cold war, and that 'ordinary' Americans could be trained for such dangerous undercover operations! Frank Babb draws on his real life experiences in Panama to lend authenticity to his tale of intrigue and danger. The main character, Frank Blake, has a cool demeanor and a level head in the most unnerving situations--a true James Bond of sorts! The Panama of the 1950s is laid out in all its steamy details and its political uncertainty by this author who writes what he knows, and knows what he writes.
  •     Frank Babb has turned the role of memoirist on its ear with this thinly disguised collection of autobiographical sketches. Set in Panama during the 1950's when the Cold War was at its hottest and even the most inconsequential crossroads was fraught with geopolitical significance, "Hot Times in Panama," can be read as either a novel or a short story collection.There is something languid in Babb's tone which suggests the sultry climate of Panama. His prose is simplicity itself, which evokes the innocence not just of the protagonist, Frank Blake, but also of a nation trying on the new clothes of "the defender of the free world." The contrast between the natives and the expats, the diplomatic community, the white people who come alive with ice-clinking cocktails as the sun goes down and the heat and humidity drift away on the pacific ocean breezes, suggests something of Graham Greene at his most cynically amusing.Intertwined with the skullduggery of Blake's work as a military intelligence officer are a series of missions. They start out as larks, obscure projects which whose purpose is unfathomable, seemingly assigned only to justify his superiors' salaries, but eventually they arrive at the crux, the meat of the matter, of murder and betrayal, and all the while lurking in the background or gliding elegantly, sensuously across the stage, is the mysterious Julia. She plays a crucial role in the most challenging event of Frank's young life, then vanishes from the scene, as if she had only been a figure in a dream.Her enigmatic presence remains a mystery to Frank for the rest of his life until, after retirement he finds an answer to the questions he had asked of himself time and again."Hot Times in Panama" is a good read. The writing, never overly daring, is sufficient to the task at hand. Babb is very good at setting a scene, and at capturing the climate of a certain place and time. If I say it seems more Graham Greene than John LeCarre, I mean that as a compliment. There is none of Le Carre's arrogance in Frank Babb's writing. I recommend this book. You won't go wrong.
  •     As both a cold war and hot war veteran, I really enjoyed this story. Frank Babb put together a good readable and enjoyable yarn focusing on the events taking place in Central and South America during the Cold War period. I also liked the prologue very well since I was involved in that time frame in the military. I think Frank Babb answered the question of "what would you do for your country."I also liked the title and the cover art; that's what grabbed me.
  •     Hot Times in PanamaFrank BabbLife has a way of bringing about changes that you often do not expect. Sometimes the predictable becomes the unexpected as Frank Blake and two other young men find out when the army decides to send this Missouri boy drafted during the Korean War into a job that would change his life forever. Starting out going for French and winding up in Spanish because of his girlfriend, Katie, Frank never knew that this one decision would change everything. Friendships solder then gone after high school. Worrying about his number in the draft and hoping to finish school Frank forges ahead but not before encountering several bumps in the road. Meeting Katie then finally Joan, his wife he winds up not in Korea but Panama and not in the military the way he thought but chosen with two other for counterintelligence school. As the book opens we read the prologue and we hear Frank's voice as he and several others are handling a mission that places him in a storage closet along with a woman named Julia and several other enlisted men. Teasing the reader from the start we learn little about her and wonder what happens to hear when the mission is completed. Send to the CIC detachment in Panama. His wife Joan at his side his job to get Intel to get around what the communists are doing. We forward to the evening before this mission and we hear both Joan and Frank enjoying an evening out but you can free the tension rising within him as the new guy on the block and fearful of what might happen. Added in his short time and one night with Julia.From Fort Bliss where his training began to Fort Holabrid where you hear more about his new assignment the voice of Frank Blake is heard describing the rules, protocol and what is expected of him in his job and personal life. The counter intelligence school changed their dress requirements making it mandatory for CIC agents to wear uniforms and not civilian clothes at all times. These agents, secret or special were college graduates and often had graduate degrees. As the narrator describes the intense training and the off-base exercises and the surveillance techniques the reader begins to learn more about counterintelligence and what the training and job entails. Included in his training and that of the other agents was knowledge of the Cold War politics and learning about traitorous activities including the Rosenbergs and other spies.Next the character and the author shares his initial experiences in Panama, meeting with the man whose place he might take, learning about the two he would be reporting to and the many important things he needs to survive in this country. It is during this time and you might say initial briefing that one of the men, Herb, brings up Julia. The description of the hotel, the lack of cleanliness and the move to his permanent quarters gives the reader a sense of what he and Joan will have to endure during his time in Panama.The author describes the many missions, operations and the end result of what it takes to go into a country, find out what you need about the Communists, spies and many others in order to protect our freedoms. Included his the night he spent in Room 113 in the Hotel Central and Julia who seemed to have disappeared. The extensive training he and many others receives, the many sections of his unit, some involved in positive intelligence operations and sometimes counterintelligence investigations. His unit working together with the Policia Secreta Nacional de Panama. The author graphically describes the history of the country, its government, the politics and how his unit and others are run. The reasons they often went after the Chinese, how they took down a Czech and why and the men that he reported to, the trust he had in some and the skepticism in others keeps the reader interested and wanting to learn more. Information, handlers, informants and more are what keeps these spies alive and in good favor with those above as Frank learns during his time in Panama waiting to be released to go back to school. Luis is his immediate supervisor and while he is forthcoming with much of the information needed to complete an operation at times he holds back. The camaraderie among the men is often infectious, the tension before and during a mission palpable at times but Frank is sharp, honest and definitely can read the locals and understands that a smile does not mean that you are home free or the person " likes you."Jorge is an integral part of his team and when he decides that someone needs to be eliminate in order to avenge another death what happens is a well orchestrated operation that not only keeps Frank in check, his heart racing and palms sweaty, but will raise you blood pressure too until you find out the conclusion. The politics, the many presidents and the allegiances follow and then the author tells something about Julia to remind the reader that she was an integral part of the main operation where the book begins and in the prologue but what did happen to her still remains to be seen and why is Frank so taken with her? Jorge, Luis, Ruby, Alejandro and Frank make up most of their team with a man named Herb introduced at the beginning whose place Frank is taking. But, there is much more he will accomplish and endure before leaving.The women that he meets, the secretaries and their functions, the jobs he had as a cover for his real vocation and the support he received from his wife Joan are only a fraction of what happens during his time in Panama. Just how far will you go to protect your country? Interesting question! Hot Times In Panama has multiple meanings in my mind. It could refer to having fun at a bar with tons of women and drinking, or it can mean missions that ignite your energy and create tension and fear. The General's shoeshine man seemed to have Communist connections and agents were assigned to follow him and find out. But, what happens you have to read for yourself and the final conclusion will make you wonder just how paranoid these people were and whether it was worth sending so many agents to follow one shoeshine man that well I won't tell you what happens this one you have to read for youself.Friendships that turned tragic, overthrowing governments, informants that gave him information and one chapter titled playtime I will leave to the reader to enjoy, author Frank Babb allows the reader to go along with Frank on his journeys in Panama, the missions, operations and bullfights to make your feel as if you are experiencing the events along with Frank. Imagine meeting a famous bullfighter and having your own barman! But, will he be discharged and will he get to leave?Going through life as if he was an actor in a play or movie is how the author describes Frank's perceptions of what he left and did in the army when you read the chapter titled Will Won't I Be Discharged or I you will understand more and then we learn the truth about Julia. The Epilogue ties it all together as the author gives the reader a brief history about the United States, the end of WWII and Korean War, the role of the CIA and the final outcome for Paco. But the chapter that will bring tears to your eyes and is quite enlightening is the one where you will meet the real Julia titled: Julia Postscript. Find out who she was, what really happened and her tie to someone close to Frank/Paco. This is one book 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.

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