Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
Meanwhile my fellow enumerators were reporting troubles “in the bush.” I heard particularly those of two of the Marines, “Mac” and Renson, merry, good-natured, earnest-by-spurts, even modest fellows quite different from what I had hitherto pictured as an enlisted man.
“Mac” was a half and half of Scotch and Italian. Naturally he was constantly effervescing, both verbally and temperamentally, his snapping black eyes were never still, life played across his excitable, sunny boyish face like cloud shadows on a mountain landscape, whoever would speak to him at any length must catch him in a vice-like grip and hold his attention by main force. He spoke with a funny little almost-foreign accent, was touching on forty, and was the youngest man at that age in the length and breadth of the Canal Zone.
At first sight you would take “Mac” for a mere roustabout, like most who go a’soldiering. But before long you’d begin to wonder where he got his rich and fluent vocabulary and his warehouse of information. Then you’d run across the fact that he had once finished a course in a middle-western university—and forgotten it. The schools had left little of their blighting mark upon him, yet “pump” “Mac” on any subject from rapid-fire guns to grand opera and you’d get at least a reasonable answer. Though you wouldn’t guess the knowledge was there unless you did pump for it, for “Mac” was not of the type of those who overwork the first person pronoun, not because of foolish diffidence but merely because it rarely occurred to him as a subject of conversation. Seventeen years in the marine corps—you were sure he was “jollying” when he first said it—had taken “Mac” to most places where warships go, from Pekin and “the Islands” to Cape Town and Buenos Ayres, and given him not merely an acquaintance with the world but—what is far more of an acquisition—the gift of getting acquainted in almost any stratum of the world in the briefest possible space of time.
“Mac” spoke not only his English and Italian but a fluent “Islands” Spanish; he knew enough French to talk even to Martiniques, and he could moreover make two distinct sets of noises that were understood by Chinese and Japanese respectively. He was a man just reckless enough in all things to be generous and alive, yet never foolishly wasteful either of himself or his meager substance. “Mac” first rose to fame in the census department by appearing one afternoon at Empire police station dragging a “bush” native by the scruff of the neck with one hand, and carrying in the other the machete with which the bushman had tried to prove he was a Colombian and not subject to questioning by the agents of other powers.
Renson—well, Renson was in some ways “Mac’s” exact antithesis and in some his twin brother. He was one of those youths who believe in spending prodigally and in all possible haste what little nature has given them. Wherefore, though he was younger than “Mac” appeared to be, he already looked older than “Mac” was. In Zone parlance “he had already laid a good share of the road to Hell behind him.” Yet such a cheery, likable chap was Renson, so large-hearted and unassuming—that was just why you felt an itching to seize him by the collar of his olive-drab shirt and shake him till his teeth rattled for tossing himself so wantonly to the infernal bow-wows.
Renson’s “bush” troubles were legion. Not only were there the seducing brown “Spigoty” women out in the wilderness to help him on his descending trail, but when and wherever fire-water of whatever nationality or degree of voltage showed its neck—and it is to be found even in “the bush”—there was Renson sure to give battle—and fall. “It’s no use bein’ a man unless you’re a hell of a man,” was Renson’s “influenced” philosophy. How different this was from his native good sense when the influence was turned off was demonstrated when he returned from cautiously reconnoitering a cottage far back in the wilds one dark night and reported as his reason for postponing the enumerating: “If you’d butt in on one o’ them Martinique booze festivals they’d crown you with a bottle.”
Already one or two enumerators had gone back to private life—by request. Particularly sad was the case of our dainty, blue-blooded Panamanian. As with many Panamanians, and not a few of the self-exalted elsewhere, he was more burdened with blue corpuscles than with gray matter. At any rate—
On our cards, after the query “Color?” was a small space, a very small space in which was to be written quite briefly and unceremoniously “W,” “B,” or “Mx” as the case might be. Uncle Sam was in a hurry for his census. Early one afternoon our Panamanian helpmate burst upon one of his numerous aristocratic relatives in his royal thatched domains in the ancestral bush. When he had embraced him the customary fifteen times on the right side and the fifteen accustomed times on the left side, and had performed the eighty-five gestures of greeting required by the social manual of the bush, and asked the three hundred and sixty-five questions de rigueur regarding the honorable health of his honorable horde of offspring, and his eye had fallen again on the red cards in his hand, the fact struck him that the relative was of precisely the same shade of complexion as himself. Could he set him down as he had many a mere red-blooded person and thereby perhaps establish a precedent that might result in his own mortification? Yet could he stretch a shade—or several shades—and set him down as “white”? No, there was the oath of office, and the government that administered it had been found long-armed and Argus-eyed. Long he sat in deepest meditation. Being a Panamanian, he could not of course know that Uncle Sam was in a hurry for his census. Till at length, as the sun was firing the western jungle tree-tops, a scintillating idea rewarded his unwonted cogitation. He caught up the medium soft pencil and wrote in aristocratic hand down across the sheet where other information is supposed to find place:
“Color;—A very light mixture,” and taking his leave with the requisite seventy-five gestures and genuflexions, he drifted Empireward with the dozen cards the day had yielded.
Which is why I was shocked next morning by the disrespectful report of Renson that “my friend the boss had tied a can to the Spig’s tail,” and our dainty and lamented comrade went back to the more fitting blue-blood occupation of swinging a cane in the lobbies of Panama’s famous hostelries.
But what mattered such small losses? Had not “Scotty” been engaged to fill the breach—or all of them, one or two breaches more or less made small difference to “Scotty.” He was a cozy little barrel of a man, born in “Doombahrton,” and for some years past had been dispensing good old Dumbarton English in Panama’s proudest educational institution. But Panama’s school vacation is during her “summer,” her dry season from February to April. What more natural then than that “Scotty” should have concluded to pass his vacation taking census, for obviously—”a mon must pick up a wee bit o’ change wherever he can.”
I seemed to have been appointed to a purely sight-seeing job. One February noon I reported at the office to find that passes to Gatun had been issued to five of us, “Scotty,” “Mac,” Renson, and Barter among the number. The task in the “town by the dam site” it seemed, was proving too heavy for the regular enumerators of that district.
We left by the 2:10 train. Cascadas and Bas Obispo rolled away behind us, across the canal I caught a glimpse of the wilderness surrounding the abode of “Old Fritz,” then we entered a to me unknown land. I could easily have fancied myself a tourist, especially so at Matachin when “Mac” solemnly attempted to “spring” on me the old tourist hoax of suicided Chinamen as the derivation of the town’s name. Through Gorgona, the Pittsburg of the Zone with its acres of machine-shops, rumbled the train and plunged beyond into a deep, if not exactly rank, endless jungle. The stations grew small and unimportant. Bailamonos and San Pablo were withering and wasting away, “‘Orca L’garto,” or the Hanged Alligator was barely more than a memory, Tabernilla a mere heap of lumber being tumbled on flatcars bound for new service further Pacificward. Of Frijoles there remained barely enough to shudder at, with the collector’s nasal bawl of “Free Holys!” and everywhere the irrepressible tropical greenery was already rushing back to engulf the pigmy works of man. It seemed criminally wasteful to have built these entire towns with all the detail and machinery of a well governed and fully furnished city from police station to salt cellars only to tear them down again and utterly wipe them out four or five years after their founding. A forerunner of what, in a few brief years, will have happened to all the Zone—nay, is not this the way of life itself?
For soon the Spillway at Gatun is to close its gates and all this vast region will be flooded and come to be Gatun Lake. Villages that were old when Pizarro began his swine-herding will be wiped out, even this splendid double-tracked railroad goes the way of the rest, for on February fifteenth, a bare few days away, it was to be abandoned and where we were now racing northwestward through brilliant sunshine and Atlantic breezes would soon be the bottom of a lake over which great ocean steamers will glide, while far below will be tall palm-trees and the spreading mangoes, the banana, king of weeds, gigantic ferns and—well, who shall say what will become of the brilliant parrots, the monkeys and the jaguars?
For nearly an hour we had not a glimpse of the canal, lost in the jungle to the right. Then suddenly we burst out upon the growing lake, now all but licking at the rails beneath us, the Zone city of Gatun climbing up a hillside on its edge and scattering over several more. To the left I caught my first sight of the world-famous locks and dam, and at 3:30 we descended at the stone station, first mile-post of permanency, for being out of reach of the coming flood it is built to stay and shows what Canal Zone stations will be in the years to come. There remained for me but seven miles of the Isthmus still unseen.
On the cement platform was a great foregathering of the census clans from all districts, whence we climbed to the broad porch of the administration building above. There before me, for the first time in—well, many months, spread the Atlantic, the Caribbean perhaps I should say, seeming very near, so near I almost fancied I could have thrown a stone to where it began and stretched away up to the bluish horizon, while the entrance to the canal where soon great ships will enter poked its way inland to the locks beside us. Across the tree-tops of the flat jungle, also seeming close at hand though the railroad takes seven miles—and thirty-five cents if you are no employee—to reach it, was Colon, the tops of whose low buildings were plainly visible above the vegetation. Not many “Zoners,” I reflected, catch their first view of Colon from the veranda of the Administration Building at Gatun.
We had arrived with time to spare. Fully an hour we loafed and yarned and smoked before a whistle blew and long lines of little figures began to come up out of the depths and zigzag across the landscape until soon a line of laborers of every shade known to humanity began to form, pay-checks in hand; its double head at the pay-windows on the two sides of the veranda, its tail serpentining off down the hillside and away nearly to the edge of the mammoth locks. Packs of the yellow cards of Cristobal district in hand—a relief to eyes that had been staring for days at the pink ones of Empire—we lined up like birds of prey just beyond the windows. As the first laborer passed this, one—nay, several of us pounced upon him, for all plans we had laid to line up and take turns were thus quickly overthrown and wild competition soon reigned. From then on each dived in to snatch his prey and, dragging him to the nearest free space, began in some language or other: “Where d’ye live?”
That was the overwhelming problem,—in what language to address each victim. Barter, speaking only his nasal New Jersey, took to picking out negroes, and even then often turned away in disgust when he landed a Martinique or a Haytian. West Indian “English” alternated with a black patois that smelt at times faintly of French, muscular, bullet-headed negroes appeared slowly and laboriously counting their money in their hats, eagle-nosed Spaniards under the boina of the Pyrenees, Spaniards from Castile speaking like a gatling-gun in action, now and again even a snappy-eyed Andalusian with his s-less slurred speech, slow, laborious Gallegos, Italians and Portuguese in numbers, Colombians of nondescript color, a Slovak who spoke some German, a man from Palestine with a mixture of French and Arabic noises I could guess at, and scattered here and there among the others a Turk who jabbered the lingua franca of Mediterranean ports. I “got” all who fell into my hands. Once I dragged forth a Hindu, and shuddered with fear of a first failure. But he knew a bit of a strange English and I found I recalled six or seven words of my forgotten Hindustanee.
Then suddenly a flood of Greeks broke upon us, growing deeper with every moment. Above the pandemonium my companions were howling hoarsely and imploringly for the interpreter, while clutching their trembling victim by the slack of his labor-stained shirt lest he escape un-enrolled. The interpreter, in accordance with a well-known law of physics and the limitations of human nature, could not be in sixteen places at once. I crowded close, caught his words, memorized the few questions, and there was I with my “Poomaynes?” “Poseeton?” and “Padremaynos?” enrolling Greeks unassisted, not only that but haughtily acting as interpreter for my fellows—not only without having studied the tongue of Achilles but never even having graced a Greek letter fraternity.
Quick tropical twilight descended, and still the labor-smeared line wound away out of sight into the darkness, still workmen of every shade and tongue jingled their brass-checks timidly on the edge of the pay-window, from behind which came roaring noises that the Americans within fancied Spaniards, or Greeks, or Roumanians must understand because they were not English noises; still we pounced upon the paid as upon a tackling-dummy in the early days of spring practice.
The colossal wonder of it all was how these deep-chested, muscle-knotted fellows endured us, how they refrained from taking us up between a thumb and forefinger and dropping us over the veranda railing. For our attack lacked somewhat in gentle courtesy, notably so that of “the Rowdy.” He was a chestless youth of the type that has grown so painfully prevalent in our land since the soft-hearted abolishment of the beech-rod of revered memory; of that all too familiar type whose proofs of manhood are cigarettes and impudence and discordant noise, and whose national superiority is demonstrated by the maltreating of all other races. But the enrolled were all, black, white, or mixed, far more gentlemen than we. Some, of brief Zone experience, were sheepish with fear and the wonder as to what new mandate this incomprehensible U. S. was perpetrating to match its strange sanitary laws that forbade a man even to be uncleanly in his habits, after the good old sacred right of his ancestors to remotest ages. Then, too, there was a Zone policeman in dressy, new-starched khaki treading with dangling club and the icy-eye of public appearance, waiting all too eagerly for some one to “start something.” But the great percentage of the maltreated multitude were “Old Timers,” men of four or five years of digging who had learned to know this strange creature, the American, and the world, too; who smiled indulgently down upon our yelping and yanking like a St. Bernard above the snapping puppy he well knows cannot seriously bite him.
Dense black night had fallen. Here and there lanterns were hung, under one of which we dragged each captive. The last passenger back to Empire roared away into the jungle night; still we scribbled on, “backed” a yellow card and dived again into the muscular whirlpool to emerge dragging forth by the collar a Greek, a Pole, or a West Indian. It was like business competition, in which I had an unfair advantage, being able to understand any jargon in evidence. When at last the pay-windows came down with a bang and an American curse, and the serpentining tail squirmed for a time in distress and died away, as a snake’s tail dies after sundown, I turned in more than a hundred cards. To-morrow the tail would revive to form the nucleus of a new serpent, and we should return by the afternoon train to the lock city, and so on for several days to come.
It was after nine of a black pay-day night. We were hungry. “The Rowdy,” familiar with the lay of the land, volunteered to lead the foraging expedition. We stumbled down the hill and away along the railroad. A faint rumbling that grew to a confused roar fell on our ears. We climbed a bank into a wild conglomeration of wood and tin architecture, nationalities, colors, and noises, and across a dark, bottomless gully from the high street we had reached lights flashed amid a very ocean of uproar. “The Rowdy,” as if to make the campaign as real as possible, led us racing down into the black abyss, whence we charged up the further slope and came sweating and breathless into the rampant rough and tumble of pay-day night in New Gatun, the time and place that is the vortex of trouble on the Isthmus. Merely a short street of one of the half-dozen Zone towns in which liquor licenses are granted, lined with a few saloons and pool-rooms; but such a singing, howling, swarming multitude as is rivaled almost nowhere else, except it be on Broadway at the passing of the old year. But this mob, moreover, was fully seventy percent black, and rather largely French—and when black and French and strong drink mix, trouble sprouts like jungle seeds. Now and then Policeman G—— drifted by through the uproar, holding his “sap” loosely as for ready use and often half consciously hitching the heavy No. 38 “Colt” under his khaki jacket a bit nearer the grasp of his right hand. I little knew how familiar every corner of this scene would one day be to me.
A Chinese grocer sold us bread and cheese. Down on the further corner of the hubbub we entered a Spanish saloon and spread ourselves over the “white” bar, adding beer to our humble collation. Beyond the lattice-work that is the “color line” in Zone dispensaries, West Indians were dancing wild, crowded “hoe-downs” and “shuffles” amid much howling and more liquidation; on our side a few Spanish laborers quietly sipped their liquor. The Marines of course were “busted.” The rest of us scraped up a few odd “Spigoty” dimes. The Spanish bar-tender—who is never the “tough” his American counterpart strives to show himself—but merely a cheery good-fellow—drifted into our conversation, and when we found I had slept in his native village he would have it that we accept a round of Valdepenas. Which must have been potent, for it moved “Scotty” to unbutton an inner pocket and set up an entire bottle of amontillado. So midnight was no great space off when we turned out again into the howling night and, having helped Renson to reach a sleeping-place, scattered to the bachelor quarters that had been found for us and lay down for the few hours that remained before the 5:51 should carry us back to Empire.
At last I had crossed all the Isthmus and heard the wash of the Caribbean at my feet. It was the Sunday following our Gatun days, and nearly a month since my landing on the Zone. The morning train from Empire left me at the lake-side city for a run over locks and dam which the working days had not allowed, and there being no other train for hours I set off along the railroad to walk the seven miles to Colon. On either side lay hot, rampant jungle, low and almost swampy. It was noon when I reached the broad railroad yards and Zone storehouses of Mt. Hope and turned aside to Cristobal hotel.
Cristobal is built on the very fringe of the ocean with the roll of waves at the very edge of its windows, and a far-reaching view of the Caribbean where the ceaseless Zone breeze is born. There stands the famous statue of Columbus protecting the Indian maid, crude humor in bronze; for Columbus brought Indian maids anything but protection. Near at hand in the joyous tropical sunshine lay a great steamer that in another week would be back in New York tying up in sleet and ice. A western bronco and a lariat might perhaps have dragged me on board, with a struggle.
There is no more line of demarkation between Cristobal and Colon than between Ancon and Panama. A khaki-clad Zone policeman patrols one sidewalk, a black one in the sweltering dark blue uniform and heavy wintry helmet of the Republic of Panama lounges on the other side of a certain street; on one side are the “enumerated” tags of the census, on the other none. Cross the street and you feel at once a foreigner. It is distinctly unlawful to sell liquor on Sunday or to gamble at any time on the Canal Zone; it is therefore with something approaching a shock that one finds everything “wide open” and raging just across the street.
I wandered out past “Highball’s” merry-go-round, where huge negro bucks were laughing and playing and riding away their month’s pay on the wooden horses like the children they are, and so on to the edge of the sea. Unlike Panama, Colon is flat and square-blocked, as it is considerably darker in complexion with its large mixture of negroes from the Caribbean shores and islands. Uncle Sam seems to have taken the city’s fine beach away from her. But then, she probably never took any other advantage of it than to turn it into a garbage heap as bad as once was Bottle Alley. On one end is a cement swimming pool with the announcement, “Only for gold employees of the I. C. C. or P. R. R. and guests of Washington Hotel.” It is merely a softer way of saying, “Only white Americans with money can bathe here.”
Then beyond are the great hospitals, second only to those of Ancon, the “white” wards built out over the sea, and behind them the “black” where the negroes must be content with second-hand breezes. Some of the costs of the canal are here,—sturdy black men in a sort of bed-tick pajamas sitting on the verandas or in wheel chairs, some with one leg gone, some with both. One could not but wonder how it feels to be hopelessly ruined in body early in life for helping to dig a ditch for a foreign power that, however well it may treat you materially, cares not a whistle-blast more for you than for its old worn-out locomotives rusting away in the jungle.
Under the beautiful royal palms beyond, all bent inland in the constant breeze are park benches where one can sit with the Atlantic spreading away to infinity before, breaking with its ages-old, mysterious roll on the shore just as it did before the European’s white sails first broke the gleaming skyline. Out to sea runs the growing breakwater from Toro Point, the great wireless tower, yet just across the bay on a little jutting, dense-grown tongue of land is the jungle hut of a jungle family as utterly untouched by civilization as was the verdant valley of Typee on the day Melville and Toby came stumbling down into it from the hills above.
But meanwhile I was not getting the long hours of unbroken sleep the heavy mental toil of enumeration requires. Free government bachelor quarters makes strange bed-fellows—or at least room-fellows. Quartermasters, like justice, are hopelessly blind or I might have been assigned quarters upon the financial knoll where habits and hours were a bit more in keeping with my own. But a bachelor is a bachelor on the Zone, and though he be clerk to his highness “the Colonel” himself he may find himself carelessly tossed into a “rough-neck” brotherhood.
House 47 was distinctly an abode of “rough-necks.” A “rough-neck,” it may be essential to explain to those who never ate at the same table with one, is a bull-necked, whole-hearted, hard-headed, cast-iron fellow who can ride the beam of a snorting, rock-tearing steam-shovel all day, wrestle the night through with various starred Hennessey and its rivals, and continue that round indefinitely without once failing to turn up to straddle his beam in the morning. He seems to have been created without the insertion of nerves, though he is never lacking in “nerve.” He is a fine fellow in his way, but you sometimes wish his way branched off from yours for a few hours, when bed-time or a mood for quiet musing comes. He is a man you are glad to meet in a saloon—if you are in a mood to be there—or tearing away at the cliffs of Culebra; but there are other places where he does not seem exactly to fit into the landscape.
House 47, I say, was a house of “rough-necks.” That fact became particularly evident soon after supper, when the seven phonographs were striking up their seven kinds of ragtime on seven sides of us; and it was the small hours before the poker games, carried on in much the same spirit as Comanche warfare, broke up through all the house. Then, too, many a “rough-neck” is far from silent even after he has fallen asleep; and about the time complete quiet seemed to be settling down it was four-thirty; and a jarring chorus of alarm-clocks wrought new upheaval.
Then there was each individual annoyance. Let me barely mention two or three. Of my room-mates, “Mitch” had sat at a locomotive throttle fourteen years in the States and Mexico, besides the four years he had been hauling dirt out of the “cut.” Youthful ambition “Mitch” had left behind, for though he could still look forward to forty, railroad rules had so changed in the States during his absence that he would have had to learn his trade over again to be able to “run” there. Moreover four years on the Zone does not make a man look forward with pleasure to a States winter. So “Mitch,” like many another “Zoner,” was planning to buy with the savings of his $210 a month “when the job is done” a chunk of land on some sunny slope of a southern state and settle down for an easy descent through old age. There was nothing objectionable about “Mitch”—except perhaps his preference for late-hour poker. But he had a way of stopping with one leg out of his trousers when at last all the house had calmed down and cots were ceasing to creak, to make some such wholly irrelevant remark as; “By ——, that —— dispatcher give me 609 to-day and she wouldn’t pull a greased string out of a knot-hole”—and thereby always hung a tale that was sure to range over half the track mileage of the States and wander off somewhere into the sandy cactus wilderness of Chihuahua at least before “Mitch” succeeded in getting out of the other trouser leg.
The cot directly across from my own groaned—occasionally—under the coarse-grained bulk of Tom. Tom was a “rough-neck” par excellence, so much so that even in a houseful of them he was known as “Tom the Rough-neck,” which to Tom was high tribute. Some preferred to call him “Tom the Noisy.” He was built like a steam caisson, or an oil-barrel, though without fat, with a neck that reminded you of a Miura bull with his head down just before the estoque; and when he neglected to button his undershirt—a not infrequent oversight—he displayed the hairy chest of a mammoth gorilla.
Tom’s philosophy of getting through life was exactly the same as his philosophy of getting through a rocky hillside with his steam-shovel. When it came to argument Tom was invariably right; not that he was over-supplied with logic, but because he possessed a voice and the bellows to work it that could rise to the roar of his own steam-shovel on those weeks when he chose to enter the shovel competition, and would have utterly overthrown, drowned out, and annihilated James Stewart Mill himself.
Tom always should have had money, for your “rough-neck” on the Zone has decidedly the advantage over the white-collared college graduate when the pay-car comes around. But of course being a genuine “rough-neck” Tom was always deep in debt, except on the three days after pay-day, when he was rolling in wealth.
Once I fancied the bulk of my troubles was over. Tom disappeared, leaving not a trace behind—except his working-clothes tumbled on and about his cot. Then it turned out that he was not dead, but in Ancon hospital taking the Keeley cure; and one summer evening he blew in again, his “cure” effected—with a bottle in his coat pocket and two inside his vest. So the next day there was Tom celebrating his recovery all over House 47 and when next morning he did finally go back to his shovel there were scattered about the room six empty quart bottles each labeled “whiskey.” Luckily Tom ran a shovel instead of a passenger train and could claw away at his hillside as savagely as he chose without any danger whatever, beyond that of killing himself or an odd “nigger” or two.
We had other treasures on exhibition in 47. There was “Shorty,” for instance. “Shorty” was a jolly, ugly open-handed, four-eyed little snipe of a roughneck machinist who had lost “in the line of duty” two fingers highly useful in his trade. In consequence he was now, after the generous fashion of the I.C.C., on full pay for a year without work, providing he did not leave the Zone. And while “Shorty,” like the great majority of us, was a very tolerable member of society under the ordinary circumstances of having to earn his “three squares a day,” paid leisure hung most ponderously upon him.
The amusements in Empire are few—and not especially amusing. There is really only one unfailing one. That is slid in glass receptacles across a yellow varnished counter down on Railroad Avenue opposite Empire Machine Shops. So it happened that “Shorty” was gradually winning the title of a thirty-third degree “booze-fighter,” and passengers on any afternoon train who took the trouble to glance in at a wide-open door just Atlanticward of the station might have beheld him with his back to the track and one foot slightly raised and resting lightly and with the nonchalance of long practice on a gas-pipe that had missed its legitimate mission. In fact “Shorty” had come to that point where he would rather be caught in church than found dead without a bottle on him, and arriving home overflowing with joy about midnight slept away most of the day in 47 that he might spend as much of the night as the early closing laws of the Zone permitted at the amusement headquarters of Empire.
With these few hints of the life that raged beneath the roof of 47 it may perhaps be comprehensible, without going into detail, why I came to contemplate a change of quarters. I detest a kicker. I have small use for any but the man who will take his allotted share with the rest of the world without either whining or snarling. Yet when an official government census enumerator falls asleep on the edge of a tenement washtub with a question dead on his lips, or solemnly sets down a crow-black Jamaican as “white,” it is Uncle Sam who is suffering and time for correction.
But it is one thing for a Canal Zone employee to resolve to move, and quite another to carry out that resolution. Nero was a meek, unassertive, submissive, tractable little chap, keenly sensible to the sufferings of his fellows, compared with a Zone quartermaster. So the first time I ventured to push open the screen door next to the post office I was grateful to escape unmaimed. But at last, when I had done a whole month’s penance in 47, I resorted to strategy. On March first I entered the dreaded precinct shielded behind “the boss” with his contagious smile, and the musical quartermaster of Empire was overthrown and defeated, and I marched forth clutching in one hand a new “assignment to quarters.”
That night I moved. The new, or more properly the older, room was in House 35, a one-story building of the old French type, many of which the Americans revamped upon taking possession of the Isthmian junk-heap, across and a bit down the graveled street. It was a single room, with no roommate to question, which I might decorate and otherwise embellish according to my own personal idiosyncrasies. At the back, with a door between, dwelt the superintendent of the Zone telephone system, with a convenient instrument on his table. In short, fortune seemed at last to be grinning broadly upon me.
But—the sequel. I hate to mention it. I won’t. It’s absurdly commonplace. Commonplace? Not a bit of it. He was a champion, an artist in his specialty. How can I have used that word in connection with his incomparable performance? Or attempt to give a hint of life on the Canal Zone without mentioning the most conspicuous factor in it?
He lived in the next room south, a half-inch wooden partition reaching half-way to the ceiling between his pillow and mine. By day he lay on his back in the right hand seat of a locomotive cab with his hand on the throttle and the soles of his shoes on the boiler plate—he was just long enough to fit into that position without wrinkling. During the early evening he lay on his back in a stout Mission rocking-chair on the front porch of House 35, Empire, C.Z. And about 8 P. M. daily he retired within to lie on his back on a regulation I.C.C. metal cot—they are stoutly built—one pine half-inch from my own. Obviously twenty-four hours a day of such onerous occupation had left some slight effects on his figure. His shape was strikingly similar to that of a push-ball. Had he fallen down at the top of Ancon or Balboa hill it would have been an even bet whether he would have rolled down sidewise or endwise—if his general type of build and specifications will permit any such distinction.
When I first came upon him, reposing serenely in the porch rocking-chair on the cushion that upholstered his spinal column, I was pleased. Clearly he was no “rough-neck”—he couldn’t have been and kept his figure. There was no question but that he was perfectly harmless; his stories ought to prove cheerful and laugh-provoking and kindly. His very presence seemed to promise to raise several degrees the merriment in that corner of House 85.
It did. Toward eight, as I have hinted, he transferred from rocking-chair to cot. He was not afflicted with troublesome nerves. At times he was an entire minute in falling asleep. Usually, however, his time was something under the half; and he slept with the innocent, undisturbed sleep of a babe for at least twelve unbroken hours, unless the necessity of getting across the “cut” to his engine absolutely prohibited. Just there was the trouble. His first gentle, slumberous breath sounded like a small boy sliding down the sheet-iron roof of 35. His second resembled a force of carpenters tearing out the half-grown partitions. His third—but mere words are an absurdity. At times the noises from his gorilla-like throat softened down till one merely fancied himself in the hog-corral of a Chicago stockyards; at others we prayed that we might at once be transferred there. A thousand times during the night we were certain he was on the very point of choking to death, and sat up in bed praying he wouldn’t, and offering our month’s salary to charity if he would; and through all our fatiguing anguish he snorted undisturbedly on. In House 35 he was known as “the Sloth.” It was a gentle and kindly title.
There were a few inexperienced inmates who had not yet utterly given up hope. The long hours of the night were spent in solemn conference. Pounding on the walls with hammers, chairs, and shoe-heels was like singing a lullaby. One genius invented a species of foghorn which proved very effective—in waking up all Empire east of the tracks, except “the Sloth.” Some took to dropping their heavier and more dispensable possessions over the partition. One memorable night a fellow-sufferer cast over a young dry-goods box which, bouncing from the snorer’s figure to the floor, caused him to lose a beat—one; and the feat is still one of the proud memories of 35. On Sundays when all the rest of the world was up and shaved and breakfasted and off on the 8:39 of a brilliant, sunny day to Panama, “the Sloth” would be still imperturbably snorting and choking in the depths of his cot. And in the evening, as the train roamed back through the fresh cool jungle dusk and deposited us at Empire station, and we crossed the wooden bridge before the hotel and began to climb the graveled path behind, hoping against hope that we might find crape on that door, from the night ahead would break on our cars a sound as of a hippopotamus struggling wildly against going down for the third and last time.
Most annoying of all, “the Sloth” was not even a bona fide bachelor. He proudly announced that, though he was a model of marital virtue, he had not lived with his wife in many years. I never heard a man who knew him by night ask why. It was close upon criminal negligence on the part of the I.C.C. to overlook its opportunity in this matter. There were so many, many uninhabited hilltops on the Zone where a private Sloth-dwelling might have been slapped together from the remains of falling towns at Gatun end; near it a grandstand might even have been erected and admission charged. Or at least the daily climb to it would have helped to reduce a push-ball figure, and thereby have improved the general appearance of the Canal Zone force.