Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
“Why, the fact is,” said Corporal Macey, lighting his meerschaum pipe until the match burned down to his fingers, “several little burglary stunts have been pulling themselves off since the sergeant went on vacation. But the most aggrayvaatin’ is this new one of twinty-two quarts of good Canadian Club bein’ maliciously extracted from St. Martin’s saloon last night.”
From which important beginning I fell quickly back into the old life again, derelicting about Gatun and vicinity by day, wandering the nights away in black, noisy New Gatun and along the winding back road under the cloud-scudding sky. Yet it was a different life. Gatun had changed. Even her concrete light-house was winking all night now up among the I. C. C. dwellings. The breeze from off the Caribbean was heavy and lifeless. The landscape looked wet and lush and rampant, of a deep-seated green, and instead of the china-blue skies the dull, leaden-gray heavens seemed to hang low and heavy overhead, like a portending fate. On the winding back road the jungle trees still stood out against the night sky, at times, too, there was a moon, but only a pale silver one that peered weakly here and there through the scudding gray clouds. The air grew more thick and sultry day by day, the heat was sticky, the weather dripping, with the sun only an irregular whitish blotch in the sky. Through the open windows the heavy, damp night came miasmically floating in, the very cigarettes mildewed in my pockets. Earth and air seemed heavy and toil-bowed by comparison with other days. The jungle still hummed busily, yet, it seemed, a bit mournfully as if preparing for production and unhilarious with the task before it, like a woman first learning of her pregnancy. Life seemed to hang more heavily even on humanity; “Zoners” looked less gay and carefree than in the sunny dry season, though still far more so than in the north. One could not shake off a premonition of impending disaster in I know not what form—like that of Teufelsdroeck before he entered the “Center of Indifference.”
Dr. O—— of the Sanitary Department had gone up into the interior along the Trinidad river to hunt mosquitoes. Why he went so far away for them in this season was hard to understand. There he was, however, and the order had come to bring him back to civilization. The execution thereof fell, of course, to my friend B——, who to the world at large is merely Policeman No. ——, to the force “Admiral of the Inland Fleet,” and in the general scheme of things is a luckier man than Vanderchild to have for his task in life the patrolling of Gatun Lake. B—— invited me to go along. There was nothing particular doing in the criminal line around Gatun just then; moreover the doctor was known to be well armed and there was no telling just how much resistance he might offer a single policeman. I accepted.
I was at the appointed rendezvous promptly at seven, a pocket filled with commissary cigars. Strict truthfulness demands the admission that it was really eight, however, when B—— came wandering down the muddy steps behind the railroad station, followed by a black prisoner with a ten-gallon can of gasoline on his head. When that had been poured into the tank, we were off across the ever-rising waters of Gatun Lake. For Gatun police launch is one of those peculiar motor-boats that starts the same day you had planned to.
It was such a day as could not have been bettered had it been made to order, with a week to think out the details,—a dry-season day even to the Atlantic breeze that goes with it, a sort of Indian summer of the rainy season; though the heavy battalions of gray clouds that hung all around the horizon as if awaiting the order to charge warned the Zone to make merry while it might, for to-morrow it would surely rain—in deluges. The lake, much higher now than in my former Gatun days, was licking at the 27-foot level that morning. Under the brilliant blue sky it looked like some vast unruffled mirror—which is no figure of speech, but plain fact.
“Through a Forest in a Motor-boat” we might have dubbed the trip. We had soon crossed the unbroken expanse of the lake and were moving through a submerged forest. Splendid royal palms stood up to their necks in the water, corpulent, century-old giants of the jungle stood on tip-toe with their jagged noses just above the surface, gasping their last. Great mango-trees laden with fruit were descending into the flood. The lake was so mirror-like we could see the heads of drowning palm-trees and the blue sky with its wisps of snow-white feathery clouds as plainly below as above, so mirror-like the protruding stump of a palm looked like a piece of just double that length and exactly equal ends floating upright like a water thermometer, so reflective that the broken end of a branch showing above the surface appeared to be an acute angle of wood floating exactly at the angle in impossible equilibrium.
Our prisoner and crew were from “Bahbaydos”—only you can’t pronounce it as he did, nor make the “a” broad enough, nor show the inside of your red throat clear back to the soft palate to contrast with the glistening black skin of your carefree, grinning face. Theoretically he was being punished for assault and battery. But if this is punishment to be sentenced to cruise around on Gatun Lake I wonder crime on the Zone is so rare and unusual. This much I am sure, if I were in that particular “Badgyan’s” shoes—no, he had none; but his tracks, say—the day my time ran out I should pick a quarrel with a Jamaican and leave his countenance in such a condition that the judge could find no grounds for a reasonable doubt in the matter.
We were mounting the river Trinidad. River, yes, but we followed it only because it had kept back the jungle and left a way free of tree-tops, not because there was not water enough anywhere, in any direction, to float a boat of many times our draught. Turns so sharp we rocked in our own wake; once we passed acres upon acres of big, cod-like fish floating dead upon the water among the branches and the forest rubbish. It seems the lake in rising spread over some poisonous mineral in the soil. But life there was none, except the rampant green dying plant life in every direction to the horizon. There were not even birds, other than now and then a stray snow-white slender one of the heron species that fled majestically away across the face of the nurtureless waters as we steamed—no, gasolined down upon it. Soon after leaving Gatun we had passed a couple of jungle families on their way to market in their cayucas laden with mounds of produce,—plump mangoes with a maidenly blush on either cheek, fat yellow bananas, grass-green plantains, a duck or a chicken standing tied by one leg on top of it all and gazing complacently around at the scene with the air of an experienced tourist. It was two hours later that we sighted the next human being. He was a solitary old native paddling about at the entrance to the “grass-bird region” in a huge dugout as time-scarred as himself.
It was near here that weeks before I had turned with “Admiral” B—— up a little stream now forever gone to a knoll on which sat the thatched shelter of a negro who had “taken to the bush” and refused to move even when notified that he was living on U. S. public domain. When we had knocked from the trees a box of mangoes and turkey-red maranones, B—— touched a match to the thatch roof and almost before we could regain the launch the shack was pouring skyward in a column of smoke. Even the squatter’s old table and chair and a barrel of tumbled odds and ends entirely outside the hut—it had no walls—caught fire, and when, we lost sight of the knoll only the blazing stumps of the four poles that had supported the roof remained.
B—— had burned whole villages in this lake territory, after the owners with legal claims had been paid condemnation damages. Long ago the natives had been warned to move, and the banks of the lake-to-be specified. But many of these skeptical children of nature had taken this as a vain “yanqui” boast and either refused to move until burned out or had rebuilt their hovels on land that in a few months more would also be flooded.
The rescue expedition proceeded. Once we got caught in the top-most branches of a tree, released from which we pushed on along the sinuous river that had no banks. It was not hot, even at noonday. We sweated a bit in poling a thirty-foot boat out of a tree-top, but cooled again directly we were off. My kodak was far away at the other end of the Zone. But then, on second thought it was better for once to enjoy nature as it was without trying to carry it away. Kodaking is a species of covetousness, anyway, an attempt to bear away home with us and hoard for our own the best we come upon in our travels. Whereas here, of course, it was impossible. The greatest of artists could not have carried away a tenth of that scene, a scene so fascinating that though we had tossed into the bottom of the boat at the start a bundle of fresh New York papers—and fresh New York papers are not often scorned down on the Zone—they still lay in the bottom of the boat when the trip ended.
At length little thatched cottages began to appear on knolls along the way, and as we chugged our way around the tree-tops upon them the inhabitants slipped quickly into some clothes that were evidently kept for just such emergencies. Then we began nearing higher land, so that the upper and then the lower branches of the forest stood out of water, then only the ends of the lower limbs dipped in the rising flood, downcast, as if they knew the sentence of death was upon them also. For though there was sunk already beneath the flood a forest greater than ten Fontainebleaus, the lake was steadily rising a full two inches a day. Where it touched that morning the 27-foot level, in a few months more, says “the Colonel,” it will reach the 87-foot level and spread over one hundred and sixty-four square miles of territory—and when “the Colonel” makes an assertion wise men hesitate to put their money on the other horse. Then will all this vast area with more green than in all the state of Missouri disappear forever beneath the flood and man may dive down, down into the forest and see what the world was like in Noah’s time, and fancy the sunken cities of Holland, for many a famous route, and villages older than the days of Pizarro will be forever wiped out by the rising waters—a scene to be beheld today nowhere else, and in a few years not even here. At last we were really in a river, an overflowed river, to be sure, where it would have been hard to find a landing-place or a bank among those tree trunks knee-deep in water. We had long since crossed the Zone line, but our badges were still valid. For it has pleased the Republic of Panama, at a whispered word from “Tio Sam,” to cede to the Z. P. command over all Gatun Lake and for three miles around it, as far as ever it may spread.
Then all at once we were startled by a hearty hail from among the trees and I looked up to see Y——, of the Smithsonian, fully dressed, standing waist-deep in the water at the edge of the forest, waving an insect trap in one hand.
“What the devil are you doing there?” I gasped.
“Doing? I’m taking a walk along the old Gatun-Chorrera trail, and I fancy I ‘ll be about the last man to travel it. Come on up to camp.”
On a mango-shaped knoll thirty miles from Gatun that will also soon be lake bottom, we found a native shack transformed into the headquarters of a scientific expedition. We sat down to a frontier lunch which called for none of the excuses made for it by Y—— when he appeared in his dripping full-dress and joined us without even bothering to change his water-spurting shoes. In his boxes he had carefully stuck away side by side an untold number of members of the mosquito family. Queer vocation; but then, any vocation is good that gives an excuse to live out in this wild tropical world.
By one we had Dr. O—— aboard and were waving farewell to the camp. The return, of course, was not the equal of the outward trip; even nature cannot duplicate so perfect a thing. But two raging showers gave us views of the drowning jungle under another aspect, and between them we awakened vast rolling echoes across the silent flooded world by shooting at flocks of little birds with an army rifle that would have killed an elephant.
It is not hard to realize why the bush native does not love the American. Put yourself in his breechclout. Suppose a throng of unsympathetic foreigners suddenly appeared resolved to turn all the world you knew into a lake, just because that absurd outside world wanted to float steamers you never knew the use of, from somewhere you never heard of, to somewhere you did not know. Suppose a representative of that unsympathetic government came snorting down upon you one day in a wild fearful invention they called a motor-boat, as you were lolling under the thatch roof your grandfather built, and cried:
“Come on! Get out of here! We’re going to burn your house and turn this country into a lake.”
Flood the land which was your great-grand-father’s, the spot where you used to play leap-frog under the banana trees, the jungle lane where your mother’s courtship days were passed and the ceiga tree under which she was wedded—if matters were ever carried to that ceremonious length. What though this foreign nation gave you a bag of peculiar pieces of metal for your trouble, when you had never seen a score of such coins in your life and barely knew the use of them, being acquainted with life only as it is picked from a mango-tree? The foreigners had cried, “Take this money and go buy a farm somewhere else,” and you looked around you and saw all the world you had ever really known the existence of sinking beneath the rising waters. Where would you go, think you, to buy that new farm? Even if you fled and found another unknown land high and dry, or a town, what could you do, having not the remotest idea how to live in a town with only pieces of metal to get food out of instead of the mango-tree that had stood behind the house your grandfather built ever since you were born and dropped mangoes whenever you were hungry? To say the least you would be some peeved.
It was midafternoon when the white bulk of Gatun locks rose on the horizon. Then the lake opened out, the great dam, that is rather a connecting link between two ranges of hills, spread across all the landscape, and at four I raced up the muddy steps behind the station to a telephone. Five minutes later I was hurrying away across locks and dam to the marshland beyond the Spillway to inquire who, and wherefore, had attempted to burn up the I. C. C. launch attached to dredge No. ——.
My Canal Zone days were drawing rapidly to a close. I could have remained longer without regret, but the world is wide and life is short. Soon came the day, June seventeenth, when I must go back across the Isthmus to clear up the last threads of my existence as a “Zoner.” Chiefly for old times’ sake I dropped off at Empire. But it was not the same Empire of the census. Almost all the old crowd was gone; one by one they had “kissed the Zone good-by.” “The boss” of those days had never returned, “smiling Johnny” had been transferred, even Ben had “done quit an’ gone back to Bahbaydos.” The Zone is like a small section of life; as in other places where generations are short one catches there a hint of what old age will be. It was like wandering over the old campus when those who were freshmen in our day had hawked their gowns and mortarboards and gone their way; I felt like a man in his dotage with only the new, unknown, and indifferent generation about him.
I went down to the old suspension bridge. Far down below was the same struggling energy, the same gangs of upright human ants, the “cut” with its jangle and jar of steam-shovels and trains still stretching away endless in either direction. Here as in the world at large generations of us may come and pass away, but the tearing of the shovels at the rocky earth, the racing of dirt-laden trains for the Pacific goes unbrokenly on, as the world and its work will continue without a pause when we are gone indeed.
Soon the water will be turned in and nine-tenths of all this labor will be submerged and forever hidden from view. The swift growth of the tropics will quickly heal the scars of the steam-shovels, and palm-trees will wave the steamer on its way through what will seem almost a natural channel. Then blase travelers lolling in their deck chairs will gaze about them and snort:
“Huh! Is that all we got for nine years’ work and half a billion dollars?” They will have forgotten the scrubbing of Panama and Colon, forgotten the vast hospitals with great surgeons and graduate nurses, the building of hundreds of houses and the furnishing of them down to the last center table, they will not recall the rebuilding of the entire P. R. R., nor scores of little items like $43,000 a year merely for oil and negroes to pump it on the pestilent mosquito, the thousand and one little things so essential to the success of the enterprise yet that leave not a trace behind. Greater perhaps than the building of the canal is the accomplishment of the United States in showing the natives how life can be lived safely and healthily in tropical jungles. Yet the lesson will not be learned, and on the heels of the last canal builder will return all the old slovenliness and disease, and the native will sink back into just what he would have been had we never come.
I caught a dirt-train to Balboa. There the very town at which I had landed on the Zone five months before was being razed to give place to the permanent, reenforced-concrete city that is to be the canal headquarters. Balboa police station was only a pile of lumber, with a band of negroes drilling away the very rock on which it had stood. I took a last view of the Pacific and her islands to far Taboga, where Uncle Sam sends his recuperating children to enjoy the sea baths, hill climbs, and unrivaled pine-apples. It was never my good fortune to get to Taboga. With thirty days’ sick leave a year and countless ailments of which I might have been cured free of charge and with the best of care, I could not catch a thing. I had not even the luck of my friend—who, by dint of cross-country runs in the jungle at noonday and similar industrious efforts, worked up at last a temperature of 99 degrees and got his week at Taboga. I stuck immovable at 98.6 degrees.
Soon after five I had bidden Ancon farewell and set off on the last ride across the Isthmus. There was a memory tucked away in every corner. Corozal hotel was still rattling with dishes, Paraiso peeped out from its lap of hills, Culebra with its penitentiary where burglarizing negroes go, sunk away into the past. Railroad Avenue in Empire was still lined with my “enumerated” tags; through an open door I caught a glimpse of a familiar short figure, one foot resting lightly and familiarly on a misapplied gas-pipe, the elbow crooked as if something were held between the fingers. At Bas Obispo I strained my eyes in vain to make out a familiar face in the familiar uniform, there was a glimpse of “Old Fritz” water-gauge as we rumbled across the Chagres, and the train churned away into the heavy green uninhabited night.
Only once more was I aroused, as the lights of Gatun flashed up; then we rolled past the noisy glaring corner of New Gatun and on to Colon. In Cristobal police station I put badge and passes into a heavy envelope and dropped them into the train-guard’s box; then turned in for my last night on the Zone. For the steamer already had her fires up that would bear me, and him who was the studious corporal of Miraflores, away in the morning to South America. My police days were ended.
Then a last hand to you all, oh, Z. P. May you live long and continue to do your duty frankly and unafraid. I found you men when I expected only policemen. I reckon my days among you time well spent and I left you regretting that I could stay no longer with you—and when I leave any place with regret it must be possessed of some exceeding subtle charm. But though the world is large, it is also small.
“So I’ll meet you later on,
In the place where you have gone,
Well, say at San Francisco in 1915, anyway, Hasta luego.