The Noriega story we still crow about

My husband and I live in a remote corner of Costa Rica, a few miles from Panama. Much of the rugged terrain here is covered by dense jungle. Until recently, our area lacked basic services such as electricity, a road that was passable all year, and police. If a crisis occurred, we took care of it ourselves. We had a radiotelephone for communication with the outside world.

We also used a radio to keep in touch with "neighbors" who lived within a 20-mile radius. Some we'd met, some we hadn't. Radio conversations varied from sharing recipes, to livestock advice, to calls for help about emergencies.

Certain neighbors occupied their time by eavesdropping on other people's radio conversations.

While General Noriega was the strong man of Panama, his military ignored the border between Panama and Costa Rica. Panamanian Air Force pilots sometimes flew their planes across the border and entertained themselves by stampeding our neighbor's cattle and buzzing surfers. Once, two Panamanian Army helicopters landed next to our property and unloaded troops. They camped there that night and flew off the next day.

Under Noriega, Panama's armed forces believed they could operate with impunity.

Our prize pet at the time was a big red rooster who considered himself nature's finest creation. He trumpeted his supremacy with a strident crow at every opportunity.

We named him Noriega.

Voices coming over the radio annoyed Noriega. He crowed in frustration at not being able to confront these disembodied beings.

This made it hard for us to hear the other person. Sometimes we'd have to interrupt a radio conversation with "Just a minute; Noriega's upset," or "I'll call you right back - I have to give Noriega something to eat."

People who had visited us understood. They'd met Noriega the rooster, and knew that, aside from his extra-loud crow, he had the personality of a kitten. He'd come when called, hop into your lap, and go to sleep. Those acquainted with the bird waited for me to distract him with a handful of rice and return to the radio.

GENERAL NORIEGA (the person) often visited Chiriqu, the province of Panama nearest us. He owned land there, and he also had supporters with country estates in the area. From time to time he would disappear from public life and retreat to one of these estates for a vacation.

During the United States invasion of Panama on Dec. 20, 1989, General Noriega vanished. An all-out search was launched. Rumors abounded as to his whereabouts. One strong rumor held that he had fled to Chiriqu and gone into hiding at some isolated farm.

One of our distant neighbors was Mr. P. He had never visited our house. But when this rumor surfaced, he thought he had the scoop of the century.

He contacted his congressman (I'll call him Congressman A.) in the Costa Rican legislature. Mr. P. informed Congressman A. that he had reason to believe his neighbors - my husband and I - had information that would enable the authorities to locate the general.

Fortunately, we had a friend who was also a congressman (Congressman D.). Costa Rica is a small country. The legislature has only 50-some members. When Congressman A. heard that a constituent claimed to have solved the greatest mystery in current world affairs, he wisely remarked on it to his colleagues before taking any action.

Our friend Congressman D. called us via radiotelephone. "Where did Mr. P. get this idea that you are harboring General Noriega?" he asked.

It took only a moment of thought, helped by a timely crow from the general's namesake, for us to realize the cause of Mr. P.'s confusion. We reminded Congressman D. of our rooster's name, and suggested that Mr. P. had "accidentally" overheard us refer to him in radio conversations.

And so Congressman A. -and Mr. P. - were spared the humiliation of announcing to world media that the missing international fugitive had been located, only to have the villain unmasked as a large red rooster.

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