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Panama Fever

When the Army sends a young doctor to Panama, his adventures- and misadventures- with the natives, the Army and his wife come fast and furious.

Medical Corps Captain Robert Taylor’s residency training at Walter Reed is interrupted when the Army calls him to field duty. He’s told it will be overseas. His wife Pam loves Italy- and there’s a base, Leghorn, on the Italian Riviera near Livorno. “Get Livorno!” she says.

No dice. He’s offered Korea. All he can see is icicles hanging from his eyebrows. West Berlin- all he can see is icicles hanging from a Stasi soldier’s eyebrows. Last choice: Panama, Fort Clayton, the Canal Zone.

“Canal Zone?! Where the hell’s that?” Pam says. “They said it was the garden spot of the Army,” he replies. “Well, it ain’t the Italian Riviera or I’d have heard of it!”

Robert’s worried he’ll be going there cold, knowing nothing about tropical diseases. He puts in for a tropical medicine course before going, even though his prospective commander calls to tell him not to bother: “There’s no tropical disease here!” He signs up anyway thinking ”he must be kidding.”

Trouble starts the moment he arrives. After being chewed out by Colonel Davidson, MEDDAC commander( We’ve got VD here, not yellow fever!”), he learns his car has been shipped from D.C. right through the Canal on to Oakland, CA, and no telling when it will arrive. Because he has refused to extend his hitch beyond the two years remaining, he is denied family housing and forced to live “on the economy.” The colonel advises against living in Panama City as treaty negotiations to turn the Canal Zone back to Panama are in progress and the natives are ill-disposed toward U.S. military in their midst ever since the fatal riots in the 60’s. But housing in the Canal Zone is restricted to employees- he is forced to find a series of sub-leases from workers on sabbatical.

Pam doesn’t like the climate or the culture- nothing but Spanish TV stations (except for Armed Forces TV), and she keeps stalling the rent-a-car out on the steep hills (one with a stick shift was the only one available.) Their house, on Ancon Hill abuts the jungle and Pam is regularly scared by snakes, strange animals and turkey vultures flying overhead 24/7.

Robert gets on the other foot wrong when, at the quartermasters for new uniforms he sees a pith helmet on the shelf and sees himself as Cary Grant, in the Gunga Din movie poster, defiantly waving a sword on one hand, pistol in the other, pith helmet on his head. “Is that standard issue?” he asks? “Technically...” the supply Sergeant says, and he goes off with shorts, knee socks and his pith helmet, “But you’ll be back in two weeks for the trousers.”

And so the queer duck goes off on duty at Building 519, a massive four story former Army hospital converted to admin offices and outpatient clinics. He makes friends with Gil, another Army doc, and Dan Fenton, a Medical Service Corps major and amateur gemologist/jeweler with contacts in Columbia. Gil gets him interested in scuba, and he becomes certified taking a course at the Fort Clayton Pool and in the ocean off Portobello.

But he can’t get Pam interested: “I don’t even like to get my face wet.” Dan suggests bribing her with the promise of an emerald necklace: “I’ll set the stones but you’ve got to get them yourself” and hands him the name of his man in Bogota. “Hell, you can fly there Space-A” (free, on a space-available basis on military transport flights, though Pam is not entitled, not being Command-sponsored).

Pam takes the bait, but winds up in a class run by Marine drill sergeant Quint Beaufort, who treats everyone (but her, the officer’s wife) like a new recruit. On top of everything else, he makes them all swim a mile to qualify, and she can barely swim. During the deep ocean dive, she hyperventilates, and sitting with her buddy Pvt. Kowalsky on the bottom completely runs out of air. Beaufort, distracted by another student’s problem does not notice, and when Pam gives Kowalsky the wrong hand signals, he doesn’t get it either until she wrestles his mouthpiece away from him. Beaufort belatedly comes to the rescue. Back in the dive boat, Beaufort, who has regularly chewed out everyone taking a smoke break(except Pam), hands a butt to the shivering Pam as her teeth chatter: “Why did you have to be the one with a jammed J-valve!” Graduation day turns into another Marine affair. Robert, Gil, wife Leigh and friend Julie, all certified divers, watch as Beaufort has everyone march in full dive kit complete with weight belt and scuba tank to the high diving board where one by one they climb to the top. “That’s not part of the program!” Gil says. Robert can’t believe it when Pam starts up the ladder: “You’ve got to be shitting me, she’s never been on a high diving board!” But Pam gamely goes up, and without hesitation steps off hollering “GERONIMO!” Robert apologizes, “I never meant for you to do that!” but Pam squints back “It’s a Marine thing- you get used to it.”

The four join the Balboa Dive club in a dive trip to the San Blas Islands where they stay in bamboo huts on stilts around a saltwater pool filled with lobsters: “dinner.” The Cuna Indians provide entertainment and operate dug-out canoe dive boats. In the middle of nowhere they point to a spot. “This is it?!” and they go down to an underwater wonderland. Robert drifts by himself down an underwater cliff to the bottom and finds himself face to face with a nurse shark lying in a crevasse. Terrified, he races to the surface and screams for help, but the others, back in the boat in the distance seem to ignore him. His life passes before him- and also the image of his friends back in the states reading the Inquirer “DOCTOR’S WIFE WATCHES IN HORROR AS HE IS DEVOURED BY SHARK” and laughing hysterically: “Eaten by a shark!” It turns out the boatman couldn’t get the motor started. “We weren’t ignoring you, Robert,” a miffed Pam says.

Pam meets Robert in Bogota where they have an adventure fetching her emerald from the gem dealer.

Life becomes routine. He starts wearing trousers like everyone else. He’s saddled with a bunch of useless duties: Chairman, Rabies Advisory Board A, Chairman Medical Audit Committee, and even Nuclear Surety Officer, 193d Infantry Brigade. (“We’ve got nuclear weapons here?” “You don’t have a need to know. You just examine the guys on the bomb squad and make sure they’re sober.” One of them, Sergeant Shaw is also a diver who invites him to join the Bottle Club and look for old bottles in the Panama Canal He’s ordered to escort Colonel Barrett, visiting from Ft. Meade stateside, on a sightseeing tour that goes from comedy to nightmare and a black eye for him when the colonel, who insists on wearing his uniform, is attacked in the Panama marketplace Sees plenty of VD, going as far as to track down the prostitute who gave the clap to one of the men, but no tropical disease. He asks permission to attend grand rounds at Panama’s Social Security Hospital downtown to see some real disease including a man dying from tetanus. The U.S. Navy doctor assisting on rounds invites him on a trip to Chiriqui province where the Navy helps staff and equip a primitive clinic run by a missionary nurse. It’s a big day for the locals who show up in their finery with infants and children to get worm medicine, vaccines, exams, treatment, and some treats as well. They bring back a seriously ill man with them.

Robert gets the idea for a Panama Gothic photographic Christmas card him in his pith helmet, holding a rifle next to Pam, in peasant garb, grinding corn. He asks her to borrow Colonel Davidson’s wife’s parrot Miranda to complete the shot, with disastrous results when Miranda gets away leading them on a merry chase. “I’m gonna get court-martialed yet!” he exclaims. Robert, Pam and friends watch a parade led by charismatic Panamanian leader General Omar Torrijos. Back in the Canal Zone, the Zonians are in protest mode, seeing the end of their own culture coming and give reporter Geraldo Rivera, on assignment, a hard time.

Halloween comes, and at the after-hours party in the 519 basement, Robert finds soldiers taking Polaroid group shots around an anatomical skeleton discovered in a dusty locker. They've have painted it Day-glo pink and dressed in a General’s uniform. He chews them out for desecration, and ruining a perfectly good teaching skeleton. They are non-plussed and a bit disrespectful to him as well:”They were just gonna throw it out.” He takes it home where Pam is not thrilled to see it, and proceeds to “restore his dignity...or her dignity,” spray-painting it white, and mounting it on a pole set in a concrete filled Bertoli olive oil can, where it graces his clinic.

Sergeant Shaw invites Robert to be expedition doctor on a trek through the jungle to an abandoned British mine where the Club thinks there might be rare old ceramic beer bottles . Out of shape, he is in agony as they hack their way there. His only duty amounts to adding iodine tablets to the drinking water, which he has never tried before. He spits it out. Forced to sleep out in the open (he’s odd man out with just one tent-half), he’s eaten alive by mosquitoes. As the others break camp in the morning, he wanders off and finds a small waterfall emptying into a pool. Cool and crystal clear- it must be safe. He guzzles a bucketful and staggers back with the very fit troopers, comes home to Pam grimy, unshaved, sweaty and full of bites. “Welcome the weary warrior.” She promises to restore him to health before the upcoming World Cup in Buenos Aires, near the end of his tour of duty where they plan to go to via a series of Space-A flights.

In Lima, Peru, where they have a four day layover, they dine at the best restaurant but when they order steaks, are told it’s the Year of Austerity and no meat the first two weeks of the month. They wind up eating a mystery meal that turns out to be giant guinea pig (“cuy”), something they only learn later when a vendor in the market tries to sell them one, causing Pam to barf. They stay in a Miraflores district pension, the Hotel Ovalo, packed with visitors and neighbors who don’t have TV’s but watch the Cup in the living room. The Peruvian team, whose players earn peanuts, has just tied favored Holland, and everyone goes nuts.

But Robert comes down with fever and chills the first night during lovemaking. “Baby, you’re hot” Pam says, and he replies “You’re hot too, baby,”but she says, “No, really.” He soaks the bed with sweat, but protests when Pam wants to call a doctor- “It’s just the flu.” She persists and finds Dr. Calderone, a kindly old American-trained doctor who makes the diagnosis: Malaria plus typhoid fever. “Does he need to be in the hospital? Pam asks.” “No, he’s better off here, but just don’t tell anyone anything” Dr. Calderone replies, and brings him his shots and medicines twice a day. Having not shown his face in days, everyone thinks he has come there to die. Pam comes in fresh from the beauty parlor and tells him Dr. Calderone has sent her to the U.S. embassy to call MEDDAC to alert the other Bottle Club guys, who are amused that only the doctor has gotten sick. “They sucked up their iodine.”

Finally well enough to get up and no longer contagious, he goes to the living room with a face full of stubble, having been too exhausted to even shave. Shocked by his appearance, people clear off the front couch. They have dinner in the communal dining room under watchful eyes. Later, Robert asks Pam if the beautician could give him a hot shave- his idea of ultimate luxury at this point. She checks and Carlotta says yes. He flops in her chair with the last of his strength after the four block walk uphill to the salon, but all she has to offer is shave cream whipped up in a mug of cold water and a rusty razor to boot, which brings tears to his eyes. He escapes half-shaved and staggers home bitterly complaining “Carlotta doesn’t belong in a salon- she belongs in front of a tribunal- for war crimes!”

Pam, meanwhile has been busy shopping and gets to know the locals. Dr. Calderone finally releases Robert from his care, having refused to accept a dime from a fellow doctor, and Pam bids him a tearful farewell, forcing an envelope full of cash in his hand. He accepts it reluctantly only when Robert insists the Army will reimburse him fully- “Just send me a bill and say it was for hospital care.” Pam points out a shop specializing in brass signs, and with civilian life just ahead, he orders one: Robert Taylor, M.D. Family and General Medicine.” But when they come back an hour before their flight home, it’s not right- there is an accent mark carved over the “a” in General. “I never get away unscathed, Robert grumbles- ”Even the sign guy leaves a black mark on my name.”

Back at Fort Clayton, Gil and Dan can’t resist ribbing him. “You really drank untreated water?!”

His tour ends, movers show up and pack his goods, paying special respect and making a cardboard coffin for the skeleton. Pam, who leaves first to catch a civilian flight from Tocumen is given a tearful farewell by her friends. “Just keep an eye on Robert and make sure he doesn’t drink anything funny” are her final words.

Script Excerpt
Written by:
Format:
Screenplay
Budget:
Modest
Starring Roles For:
20s white male
20’s Female- Vibrant
20s white male
In the Vein Of:
M.A.S.H
No Time for Sergeants
based on, inspired by true events
Posted:
01/22/2020
Updated:
01/22/2020
Author Bio:
A native of Johnstown, NY, Robert Tartell has been everything from a factory worker to a pilot, U.S. Army officer and practicing Family Physician and brings a wealth of experience to his creative writing. His recent awards include: 2019: Winner Houston Comedy Film Festival Best Short Screenplay THE KID 2019: Silver Remi Award, Houston Worldfest Screenplay Competition, HARD-HEARTED HANNAH 2019: Semifinalist, Flickers Rhode Island International Film Festival Screenplay Competition, TURTLE EGGS FOR AGASSIZ 2019: Semifinalist SoCreate Screenplay Competition, ONE STEP AT A TIME 2019: Quarterfinalist, Scriptapalooza Screenplay Competition, FUNNY BONEYARD 2018: Quarterfinalist, Scriptapalooza Screenplay Competition, PANAMA FEVER

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Contest Results:
Scriptapalooza Features/Shorts (Semifinalist) [2018]