I'm excited to announce the launch of my new website, http://www.frankbabb.com! Thanks for visiting this blog. You can get a copy of my book Hot Times in Panamá on the new website.
Wednesday, August 22, 2012
Writing has always been a part of my life. As a farm kid, I was sometimes dissatisfied with the stories my parents and other family members read to me. I concluded that resetting them in modern times and changing the endings could improve the stories. During my fourth grade year at a one-room school, I read the World Book Encyclopedia. Dissatisfied with its history of Greece and the Greek write-up in my world history book, I started writing my own Greek history, abandoned when summer came and never revived. These projects were undertaken in the winter, after the cows were milked and the hogs fed, when the days were short, and sitting by the fire with a pad of paper and pencil was a pleasant way to spend the long evenings.
In college my English literature and French classes required lots of writing. I was a better writer in French than a speaker of the language. On graduation I was admitted to Columbia University for a graduate degree in history of drama to prepare for a career as a professor. The summer I graduated I went to New York City and spent time at the Columbia Library preparing for my classes in the fall.
Fate intervened, in this case my draft board, and before classes began in September 1954 Uncle Sam decided he needed my services. Thanks to a total immersion, one-year Spanish class in high school taught by a college professor, I ended up in Panama as a special agent in the Army Counterintelligence Corps. I would have preferred the station in Paris, but Panama was better than Korea where most of my training class ended up. After graduating from college I was a high school English teacher for a semester, helping create my Panamanian CIC cover story that I was an English teacher in a private school in Panama. I wasn’t a teacher, but I learned a lot about some things I couldn’t talk about.
While in Panama I abandoned teaching as a career and decided to be a lawyer. I applied to Harvard Law School and was accepted. My classes required writing, and I won first prize in a legal document-drafting program. While in law school I was also a Teaching Fellow in the English Department at Harvard College teaching grammar and writing to foreign students.
My legal career involved a constant flow of contracts and prospectuses for securities offering and the development of firm-wide training programs that included drafting and other writing projects.
When I started writing fiction is difficult to answer. The children’s stories I “modified”? The reports about Communist and other nefarious activities I wrote as a special agent in Panama? Sometimes the “facts” needed a little coloring to get attention at Headquarters, which designated my reports as the standard for good writing. Actually, my Panamanian secretary did the first drafts, she being a better speller than I, and I was the editor. The sisters at the convent school she attended were good writing teachers. Some of the prospectuses for public offerings I worked on as a lawyer may have approached fiction, although none ever landed in court.
A couple of years ago I commenced writing a fictionalized version of my tour of duty entitled Hot Times in Panamá: What Would You Do to Serve Your Country, a novel published earlier this year (frankebabb.blogspot.com). That’s when I’ll take the responsibility for writing fiction. Fiction writing isn’t easy, though. You think you’ve told the story correctly, and then a character accuses you telepathically that you’ve never understood her and demands you write another story to “get the facts right.” What does a fictional character know about “facts”? How does she know what’s “right”? Sometimes it’s like living with the enemy.
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
When I was six years old, I had the good fortune to suffer the worst year of my life. Broken romances, bad investments, divorce, deaths, professional disappointments, and embarrassing moments over the course of a lifetime do not compare with the trauma I endured and survived in 1939.
Toward the end of 1938 I glimpsed what was about to happen. One of my two adorable “maiden” aunts got married without consulting me. Aunt Dorothy, my father’s twin, taught art and English in a small-town high school on the western side of Nodaway County, Missouri. Aunt Leta taught music and English in a similar school on the eastern side of the County. Aunt Dorothy was now living with a husband who taught in yet a different high school than she did, and she stopped coming home on most weekends to visit me. To be with him, I supposed, but I felt betrayed.
The aunts influenced my young life. After my grandmother died in January of 1932, my parents continued living with my grandfather on the family farm near Maryville in the center of the County. I made my debut just before Christmas of that year on its shortest and coldest night. For six and a half years I was the only child born to the three brothers and three sisters sired by my grandfather.
From my earliest memory I was the sole object of attention and affection for the aunts and to a lesser degree my grandfather. Yes, the aunts competed for my attention, and, yes, I encouraged it. They all took turns reading to me, playing games with me and on summer evenings engaging in competitive tag and hide-and-seek matches. Some times my father joined in but never my mother who wasn’t athletic and couldn’t run as fast as the aunts. I got to be the ball boy for the aunts’ tennis games on the grass court in our side yard. I can still close my eyes and visualize the dusk of the long summer evenings the aunts–Dorothy four feet, eleven inches tall, and Leta five feet, one inch–racing across the yard determined to outrun my father.
My precious aunts were comfortable and comforting. Although small in stature, both had large bosoms into which I nestled my curly head while they read to me and told me about the places they visited, the people they met, and the sights they saw. In later years I too visited some of those places. They each owned a Model A Ford coupé. Their summer vacations provided ample time for them to travel around the country to New England, New York City, the Southwest, and Mexico. On the longer trips they sometimes traveled together or with their older sister and her husband, but they didn’t hesitate to go alone. I accompanied them on shopping trips to Maryville for art supplies, books, sheet music, and ice cream or to the tiny towns of Pumpkin Center (pronounced “Punkin” Center), Skidmore, Quitman, Hopkins, Pickering, Maitland, Burlington Junction, or Elmo where a friend or family member lived or was buried. Usually we took a picnic lunch eaten in one of the parks or wooded areas scattered around the County. These day trips during their long summer vacations on the farm were an opportunity for them to get away from each other.
Aunt Leta took a year off from teaching and went to New York City to get a masters degree at Columbia. Because of her interest in music and having extra time on her hands, she took classes at Juilliard, returning to Missouri with a limited opera repertoire. Although opera was not my favorite pastime, I humored her by letting her entertain me with these pieces and endured the endless practice sessions. In the meantime, Aunt Dorothy, who did not sing opera, would be waiting to give me drawing lessons.
In December of 1937, as though announcing a Christmas present I would enjoy, my mother confided to me that she was going to have a baby: “A little sister or brother for you to play with, Frankie. Aren’t you excited?”
My emphatic unspoken answer was, “no, No, NO!”
I had all the people I needed to play with–people who could read to me, play tag and take me with them on excursions. No baby could provide any of those things. Besides, I’d seen enough of my friends’ younger siblings to know that upon their arrival the older children were expected to help take care of these usurpers, and the newcomers also distracted the attention of parents, aunts, and uncles from the older children. It was simply unfair. The pernicious idea slithered through my mind that the aunts might like the little monster, especially if it were a GIRL. The handwriting of things to come flashed on the wall in florescent colors.
As 1938 rolled out my mother got bigger and bigger and right on schedule delivered in June the brother I was meant to enjoy. When mother came home from the hospital carrying the bundle, sure enough, the aunts were ecstatic to see “it,” cooing and poking in a disgusting manner. With their usual competitive spirit, the aunts vied to see which one could hold “it” the greater amount of time. I confided despairingly to my dog Patsy: “This is a disaster!”
During the first couple of months I spent a lot of time consulting with Patsy as to how we might get rid of this “thing” (not a person to Patsy and me) which diverted my aunts’ and parents’ attention from me–the designated object of attention for the whole family. I had worked hard and faithfully to educate them about rearing children. I let them entertain me. I felt discarded, even abused. I didn’t deserve this treatment. I couldn’t just throw a tantrum, though.
Aunts, parents and grandfather all were of one mind: “We don’t throw tantrums in this family, now do we!” They were conveniently forgetting that Leta on occasion threw spectacular tantrums.
Patsy and I planned a runaway carriage accident that would, alas, be fatal to the usurper. But there were no hills steep enough for the carriage to reach mach speed. I thought of running away, but what about my meals? This move would simply be my unconditional surrender to “it.” No plan of action came to mind that would eliminate the usurper without incriminating us. I knew Patsy would get off with a stiff warning of “bad dog” while I would bear the full rap for the crime.
So, I hunkered down and consoled myself by avoiding every possible contact with this brother. I exerted even greater effort to monopolize Aunt Leta’s time when she returned to the now expanded family.
As though the earthquake in my life were not enough and must be followed by a tsunami, at Thanksgiving, when our family gathered around to express appreciation the grasshopper plague had left a few bushels of corn in the field, came the coup de grace.
Aunt Leta calmly announced: “You remember Lawrence, he came home with me last weekend, he sings baritone in my choir at the Methodist Church, his wife died a couple of years ago and he has the two nicest daughters–who are married and live in California–well, he asked me to marry him and we’re going to, right after Christmas.”
Aunt Dorothy, Leta’s brothers and their wives, my mother in particular, covered up with smiles and congratulations their relief at this good news. The piece of meat I was chewing stuck in my throat. As quickly as possible, I excused myself from the table without taking my usual second helping of pumpkin pie and went to my room where Patsy and I could feel sorry for ourselves in private. Patsy was “good dog” about this even though she didn’t get her second piece of pie either.
The story has a happy ending. Lawrence was a nice man, like his daughters who stayed out of Aunt Leta’s way most of the time. He was delighted to delegate to her the running of his life and quickly learned to avoid vexing her. Tantrums became less and less necessary in her life. His beautiful baritone voice was much in demand for church choirs and funerals accompanied by Aunt Leta. The “kidnapper” of my wonderful Aunt Leta turned out to be my favorite uncle who never minded being monopolized by his “favorite” nephew.
Gary, the unwanted brother whose “accidental” demise Patsy and I spent hours planning, and I developed an amicable relationship–not close but respectful of each other’s accomplishments and compassionate about the vicissitudes we each encountered along life’s winding road. Strange as it may seem, we never had a fight or angry confrontation. In our twilight years we exchange phone calls several times a year and keep each other informed on events and milestones in our lives. He now lives in New York State near the Canadian border and I in Arizona near Mexico.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
When I was eleven years old in the spring of 1944, the whole world knew that the Allies were about to launch the invasion of Europe. It was only a matter of when and where. In Nodaway County, Missouri, most able-bodied men between the ages of eighteen and forty were in the armed services. Morning, noon and night we listened on our Philco radio to the news broadcasts telling us about the fighting that day. On Saturday nights the main feature at the movie theater was preceded by newsreels with pictures from the War Zones, sometimes showing our troops in England training for the invasion that was about to begin.
We knew that when the invasion started commandos would swim into the beaches from the sea and other troops would parachute behind the enemy lines. I was very interested in these new forms of attack, and hoped that I soon could join the Army to help defeat our Nazi and Jap enemies. I gave little thought to my lack of experience. I couldn’t swim, had never even been in a swimming pool or body of water larger than a bathtub and had never been higher off the ground than the roof of our barn or the top of the windmill.
Not to be frustrated by my personal limitations and lack of equipment, and in a rush of patriotic fervor, I decided to train one of our cats as a commando to experience at least vicariously the thrills and rigors of this training. But which cat? We had an army of cats of all sizes and colors living in the barns and farmyards. As I pondered this question, my father’s favorite, Joshua, a young yellow tomcat, ambled across my line of sight on his way to the barn to call on one of his many girlfriends. I immediately recruited him, gave him a few friendly stokes and pats on the head and headed for my only body of water–the water tank for livestock behind the barn.
As we approached the tank, the recruit stopped purring and came to attention with claws extended. Because of the urgency of the training mission, I immediately lowered him into the water as gently as possible, the cat clinging to my arm with all claws extended. The brave, but very wet, kitty swam a few strokes and started to sink. As encouragement, I complemented him on his fine effort and lifted him out of the water, rewarding him with a couple of pats on the head. Then back into the ocean for another lesson. With superior athleticism the cat swam a half dozen strokes before letting out a screech. I observed his fur was holding too much water causing the recruit to sink.
I had the solution. The newsreels said that commandos used grease to increase their buoyancy and keep themselves warm. I had brought a jar of Vaseline for this purpose and started to apply it generously to the cat’s fur.
Just then Father appeared, leading a team of horses to the water tank. He stared at the scene, his face reddening. It took him a full minute to comprehend that the wet creature half covered with Vaseline was his Joshua.
Outraged, he shouted: “Frankie Babb, get that cat out of the water!”
I sprang to attention, responding to the order given by my superior officer, and snagged Joshua, who by this time had taken quite a bit of water. Holding the recruit by his hindquarters, I wrung him out. Not knowing what else to do, I handed him to the commander in chief. Joshua was by this time revived enough to start spitting and sank his claws into Father’s arm. He was taking no prisoners.
“If I ever catch you putting Joshua in the water tank again, I’ll flay you alive,” Father shouted, and I knew he meant it.
Not wanting to test Father’s threat, I abandoned swimming lessons for cats. But I knew parachute training would be successful. This is another story, however, with a
happier ending. Several months passed before Joshua would let me get closer to him than fifty feet.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
March 14, 2012
Tucsonan writes spy thriller of U. S. counterintelligence in Panama.
Tucson, AZ – Hot Times in Panama features Frank Blake, once a Missouri farm boy, now a CIC agent practicing skills he hadn’t expected to learn. Buried in the novel is the story of Julia who keeps turning up when the shooting starts – a mystery that takes Blake 45 years to unravel.
Author Frank Babb spent much of his life in Chicago and Washington DC as a mergers and acquisitions corporate lawyer. But this is not the only life he has lived. Before attending Harvard Law School, he was part of the world of spies and counter-intelligence.
Babb was in Panama during the Cold War, serving with the Army Counter Intelligence Corps. This was a time when the Korean Conflict’s stand-off and the growing Cold War with the Soviets provided ample opportunities for deadly conflicts between spies and their counterintelligence enemies. Panama was a good place to settle the score with the Czechs for killing a CIC agent in Vienna, and agents hustled to complete a regime change in Guatemala in time for the six o’clock news.
Babb has written a novel of espionage and intrigue that sheds light on that deadly era and on the geopolitical forces at work in America’s backyard. This story reads true as it tells of happenings in the backwaters of Central America that seldom made the front pages.
"We were recent college graduates who didn't consider ourselves "real" soldiers," Babb says. "But we were committed to carrying out our assignments and accomplishing our missions with the same lethal competence of our Office of Strategic Services (OSS) predecessors we so admired and strove to emulate."
Hot Times in Panama is available from Ingram Book Company, Wheatmark, and online at Amazon.com.
For further information, contact:
Frank Babb at 520-250-5585
Monday, March 5, 2012
In his January 30, 2012, column “The Great Divorce” (he was not referring to matrimony but the great divide between the rich and the poor in the U S today), David Brooks said: “We need a program [National Service Program] that would force members of the upper tribe[the rich] and the lower tribe [the poor] to live together, if only for a few years. We need a program in which people from both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.” I agree with Brooks on his proposal. It’s what I was talking about in my earlier posting.
Friday, March 2, 2012
Hello everyone - I'm interested in getting your input on how I started Hot Times in Panama. The following is an excerpt of the beginning of the first chapter. Please comment on my blog (not on Facebook) and let me know what you think. Don't hesitate to be critcal.
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.