DURING his 21 months in jail following a failed coup on March 16, 1988, Maj. Fernando Quezada learned 998 English idioms from a ripped-up phrase book he kept stuffed in his pants. Capt. Humberto Macea, a fellow participant in the coup attempt, spent his days in solitary confinement at the Renacer Prison, reading the Bible from cover to cover.
For these two men and 10 other imprisoned rebels, most of whom are now top officers of the newly formed Panamanian Public Force, the main source of hope and nourishment was a stream of letters from a woman they knew simply as ``Oriana.''
Nicknamed for Oriana Fallaci, the Italian journalist who wrote a book about her secret correspondence with a man in a Greek jail, the mysterious woman - an intellectual who prefers to remain anonymous - says she began writing the letters ``because I knew that they needed contact with the outside world. It was like planting seeds on fertile ground.''
The weekly missives, folded into tiny wads and smuggled in with the assistance of two sympathetic prison guards, helped keep the officers from succumbing to the psychological pressure applied by the regime of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who is said to have executed at least 10 leaders of another coup attempt, on Oct. 3, 1989.
Oriana's analysis of national and international events also contributed to the way the men now think about the Defense Forces. The officers say the letters and the time in prison helped them see more clearly the need for a military institution completely under the control of the civilian government. They became convinced that only in that way could they avoid the dictatorship of a single man like General Noriega.
``Oriana's letters were what gave us strength,'' says Captain Macea, speaking of his year in solitary confinement. ``We saw that if Noriega wasn't going to kill us after the coup, he was going to leave us worse than dead. He wanted to wear us down mentally.''
The letters ``gave us hope and encouragement,'' he says.
Macea and his cohorts found ingenious ways to pass the illegal reading material from cell to cell.
At one point, they hid the letters in a bottle of ``Wet Ones'' facial tissues, tying a 24-foot string of clear dental floss to the top of the container so they could move it around. When a prisoner finished the letter, he would say, ``Telephone,'' and the next person would gently pull the floss to get the Wet Ones - and the letter.
If the network of floss could not be laid out beforehand, the prisoners would wrap it around a tennis ball and let it unravel as they bounced the ball off the wall to the next cell.
As time went on, they ``brainwashed'' two of the guards, as one of the prisoners put it. That made it possible to sneak in a variety of items, even champagne and caviar on occasion.
The officers obtained a three-inch radio to listen to the news. The radio was flushed down the toilet one day when an officer panicked upon hearing his cell door open. Three months later, the pipes clogged and prison guards found the incriminating evidence. Fortunately, it fell into the hands of sympathetic guards.
Throughout the 16 months in which she wrote letters, Oriana told the officers not to lose faith because the political and economic crises revolving around Noriega could not last indefinitely.
She predicted that, because of the United States interest in protecting the Panama Canal, the crisis would be resolved by Dec. 31, 1989, the date that a Panamanian was scheduled under the Canal treaties to take over the post of canal administrator.
Sure enough, on the morning of Dec. 20, the prisoners awoke to the sounds of distant gunfire. The US invasion had begun.
US troops arrived within hours to free the coup attempt and political prisoners. But Major Quezada and a few others had already been rushed, hooded and handcuffed, to the mountains by resisting troops loyal to Noriega.
Quezada says the Noriega loyalists had orders to kill them in the event of a US invasion. The loyalists tried in vain to get in touch with their commander in chief for instructions on how to organize the resistance - and how to dispose of the prisoners.
But Noriega was incommunicado. He was busy eluding US troops in Panama City and made no effort to organize his forces, military experts say. His failure to communicate with his troops not only made the resistance weak and disorganized - Quezada says it may have saved his life.
Since returning a week ago, nearly all the coup-attempt prisoners from the Renacer Prison have risen to top posts in the reconstructed military.
Quezada is the new police chief for Panama City, with Macea as his top aide. Maj. Aristides Baldonedo, a US-educated soldier, is now director of intelligence and security. Others in the group occupy crucial jobs ranging from head of civic affairs to the new prisons chief to the director of logistics and finance.
Oriana, the oracle who helped give structure and meaning to their lives for more than a year, has slipped back into anonymity.