Zone Policeman 88
By Harry A. Franck
One morning early in March “the boss” and I crossed the suspension bridge over the canal. A handcar and six husky negroes awaited us, and we were soon bumping away over temporary spurs through the jungle, to strike at length the “relocation” opposite the giant tree near Bas Obispo that marked the northern limit of our district.
The P.R.R., you will recall, has been operating across the Isthmus since 1855. When the United States took over the Zone in 1904 it built a new double-tracked line of five-foot gauge for nearly the whole forty-seven miles. Much of this, however, runs through territory soon to be covered by Gatun Lake, nearly all the rest of it is on the wrong side of the canal. An almost entirely new line, therefore, is being built through the virgin jungle on the South American side of the canal, which is to be the permanent line and is known in Zone parlance as the “relocation.” This is forty-nine miles in length from Panama to Colon, and is single track only, as freight traffic especially is expected, very naturally, to be lighter after the canal is opened. Already that portion from the Chagres to the Atlantic had been put in use—on February fifteenth, to be exact; and the time was not far off when the section within our district—from Gamboa to Pedro Miguel—would also be in operation.
That portion runs through the wilderness a mile or more back from the canal, through jungled hills so dense with vegetation one could only make one’s way through it with the ubiquitous machete of the native jungle-dweller, except where tiny trails appear that lead to squatters’ thatched huts thrown together of tin, dynamite and dry-goods boxes and jungle reeds in little scattered patches of clearing. Some of these hills have been cut half away for the new line—great generous “cuts,” for to the giant 90-ton steam-shovels a few hundred cubic yards of earth more or less is of slight importance. All else is virtually impenetrable jungle. Travelers by rail across the Isthmus, as no doubt many ships’ passengers will be in the years to come while their steamer is being slowly raised and lowered to and from the eighty-five-foot lake, will see little of the canal,—a glimpse of the Bas Obispo “cut” at Gamboa and little else from the time they leave Gatun till they return to the present line at Pedro Miguel station. But in compensation they will see some wondrous jungle scenery,—a tangled tropical wilderness with great masses of bush flowers of brilliant hues, gigantic ferns, countless palm and banana trees, wonderfully slender arrow-straight trees rising smooth and branchless more than a hundred feet to end in an immense bouquet of brilliant purplish-hue blossoms.
“The boss” barely noticed these things. One quickly grows accustomed to them. Why, Americans who have been down on the Zone for a year don’t know there’s a palm-tree on the Isthmus—or at least they do not remember there were no palm-trees in Keokuk, Iowa, when they left there.
Along this new-graveled line, still unused except by work-trains, we rode in our six negro-power car, dropping off in the gravel each time we caught sight of any species of human being. Every little way was a gang, averaging some thirty men, distinct in nationality,—Antiguans shoveling gravel, Martiniques snarling and quarreling as they wallowed thigh-deep in swamps and pools, a company of Greeks unloading train-loads of ties, Spaniards leisurely but steadily grading and surfacing, track bands of “Spigoties” chopping away the aggressive jungle with their machetes—the one task at which the native Panamanian (or Colombian, as many still call themselves) is worth his brass-check. Every here and there we caught labor’s odds and ends, diminutive “water-boys,” likewise of varying nationality, a negro switch-boy dozing under the bit of shelter he had rigged up of jungle ferns, frightening many a black laborer speechless as we pounced upon him emerging from his “soldiering” in the jungle; occasionally even a native bushman on his way to market from his palm-thatched home generations old back in the bush, who has scarcely noticed yet that the canal is being dug, fell into our hands and was inexorably set down in spite of all protest unless he could prove beyond question that he had already been “taken” or lived beyond the Zone line.
Thus we scribbled incessantly on, even through the noon hour, dragging gangs one by one away from their tasks, shaking laborers out of the brief after-lunch siesta in a patch of shade. “The boss” was hampered by having only two languages where ten were needed. In the early afternoon he went on to Paraiso to feed himself and the traction power, while I held the fort. Soon after rain fell, a sort of advance agent of the rainy season, a sudden tropical downpour that ran in rivulets down across the pink card-boards and my victims. Yet strange to note, the writing of the medium soft pencil remained as clear and unsmudged as in the driest weather, and so clean a rain was it that it did not even soil my white cotton shirt. I continued unheeding, only to note with surprise a few minutes later that the sun was shining on the dense green jungle about me as brilliantly as ever and that I was dry again as when I had set out in the morning.
“The boss” returned, and when I had eaten the crackers and the bottle of pink lemonade he brought, we pushed on toward the Pacific. Till at length in mid-afternoon we came to the top of the descent to Pedro Miguel and knew that the end of our district was at hand. So powerful was the breeze from the Atlantic that our six man-power engine sweated profusely as they toiled against it, even on the downgrade of the return to Empire.
To “Scotty” had been assigned my Empire “recalls” and I had been given a new and virgin territory,—namely, the town of Paraiso. It lies “somewhat back from the village street,” that is, the P.R.R. Indeed, trains do not deign to notice its existence except on Sundays. But there is the temporary bridge over the canal which few engineers venture to “snake her across” at any great speed, and the enumerator housed in Empire need not even be a graduate “hobo” to be able to drop off there a bit after seven in the morning and prance away up the chamois path into the town.
Wherever on the Zone you espy a town of two-story skeleton screened buildings scattered over hills, with winding gravel roads and trees and flowers between there you may be sure live American “gold” employees. Yet somehow the Canal Commission had dodged the monotony you expected, somehow they have broken up the grim lines that make so dismal the best-intentioned factory town. There are hints that the builders have heard somewhere of the science of landscape gardening. At times these same houses are deceiving, for all I. C. C. buildings bear a strong family resemblance, and it is only at the door that you know whether it is bachelors’ quarters, a family residence, or the supreme court.
From the outside world “P’reeso” scarcely draws a glance of attention; but once in it you find a whole Zone town with all the accustomed paraphernalia of I. C. C. hotel and commissary, hospital and police station, all ruled over and held in check by the famous “Colonel” in command of the latter. Moreover Paraiso will some day come again into her own, when the “relocation” opens and brings her back on the main line, while proud Culebra and haughty Empire, stranded on a railless shore of the canal, will wither and waste away and even their broad macadamed roads will sink beneath a second-growth jungle.
Renson had come to lend assistance. He set to work among the negro cabins, the upper gallery seats of Paraiso’s amphitheater of hills, for Renson had been a free agent for more than a month now and was not exactly in a condition to interview American housewives. My own task began down at the row of inhabited box-cars, and so on through shacks and tenements with many Spanish laborers’ wives. Then toward noon the labor-train screamed in, with two “gold” coaches and many open cattle-cars with long benches jammed with sweaty workmen, easily six hundred men in the six cars, who swept in upon the town like a flood through a suddenly opened sluiceway as the train barely paused and shrieked away again.
Renson and I dashed for the laborers’ mess-halls, where hundreds of sun-bronzed foreigners, divided only as to color, packed pell-mell around a score of wooden tables heavily stocked with rough and tumble food—yet so different from the old French catch as catch can days when each man owned his black pot and toiled all through the noon-hour to cook himself an unsanitary lunch. We jotted them down at express speed, with changes of tongue so abrupt that our heads were soon reeling, and in the place where our minds should have been sounded only a confused chaotic uproar like a wrangling within the covers of a polyglot dictionary. Then suddenly I landed a Russian! It was the final straw. I like to speak Spanish, I can endure the creaking of Turks attempting to talk Italian, I can bend an ear to the excruciating “French” of Martinique negroes, I have boldly faced sputtering Arabs, but I will NOT run the risk of talking Russian. It was the second and last case during my census days when I was forced to call for interpretative assistance.
At best we caught only a small percentage at each table before the crowd had wolfed and melted away. An odd half dozen more, perhaps, we found stretched out in the shade under the mess-hall and neighboring quarters before the imperative screech of the labor-train whistle ended a scene that must be several times repeated, and now left us silent and alone, to wander wet and weary to the nearest white bachelor quarters, there to lie on our backs an hour or more till the polyglot jumble of words in the back of our heads had each climbed again to its proper shelf.
Speaking of white bachelor quarters, therein lay the enumerator’s greatest problem. The Spaniard or the Jamaican is in nine cases out of ten fluently familiar with his companion’s antecedents and pedigree. He can generally furnish all the information the census department calls for. But it is quite otherwise with the American bachelor. He may know his room-mate’s exact degree of skill at poker, he probably knows his private opinion of “the Colonel,” he is sure to know his degree of enmity to the prohibition movement; but he is not at all certain to know his name and rarely indeed has he the shadow of a notion when and in what particular corner of the States he began the game of existence. So loose are ties down on the Zone that a man’s room-mate might go off into the jungle and die and the former not dream of inquiring for him for a week. Especially we world-wanderers, as are a large percentage of “Zoners,” with virtually no fixed roots in any soil, floating wherever the job suggests or the spirit moves, have the facts of our past in our own heads only. No wanderer of experience would dream of asking his fellow where he came from. The answer would be too apt to be, “from the last place.” So difficult did this matter become that I gave up rushing for the bus to Pedro Miguel each evening and the even more distressing necessity of catching that premature 6:30 train each morning in Empire and, packing a sheet and pillow and tooth-brush, moved down to Paraiso that I might spend the first half of the night in quest of these elusive bits of bachelor information.
Meanwhile the enrolling by day continued unabated. I had my first experience enumerating “gold” married quarters—white American families; just enough for experience and not enough to suffer severely. The enrolling of West Indians was pleasanter. The wives of locomotive engineers and steam-shovel cranemen were not infrequently supercilious ladies who resented being disturbed during their “social functions” and lacked the training in politeness of Jamaican “mammies.” Living in Paradise now under a paternal all-providing government, they seemed to have forgotten the rolling-pin days of the past. It was here in Paraiso that I first encountered that strange, that wondrous strange custom of lying about one’s age. Negro women never did. What more absurd, uncalled-for piece of dishonesty! Does Mrs. Smith fear that Mrs. Jones next door will succeed in pumping out of me that capital bit of information? Little does she know the long prison sentence at “hard labor” that stares me in the face for any such slip; to say nothing of my naturally incommunicative disposition. Or is she ashamed to let ME know the truth?—unaware that all such information goes in at my ears and down my pencil to the pink card before me like a message over the wires, leaving no more trace behind. Surely she must know that I care not a pencil-point whether she is eighteen or fifty-two, nor remember which one minute after her screen door has slammed behind me—unless she has caused me to glance up in wonder at her silvering temples of thirty-five when she simpers “twenty-two”—and to set her down as forty to be on the safe side. Oh now, please, ladies, do not understand me as accusing the American wives of Paraiso in general of this weakness. The large majority were quite pleasant, frank, and overflowing with cheery good sense. But the percentage who were not was far larger than I, who am also an American, was pleased to find it.
But doubly astonishing were the few cases of lying by proxy. A “clean-cut,” college-graduated civil engineer of thirty-two whom one would have cited as an example of the best type of American, gave all data concerning himself in an unimpeachable manner. His wife was absent. When the question of her age arose he gave it, with the slightest catch in his voice, as twenty. Now that might be all very well. Men of thirty-two are occasionally so fortunate as to marry girls of twenty. But a moment later the gentleman in question finds himself announcing that his wife has been living on the Zone with him since 1907; and that she was born in New England! Thus is he tripped over his own clothes-line. For New England girls do not marry at fifteen; mother would not let them even if they would.
I, too, had gradually worked my way high up among the nondescript cabins on the upper rim of Paraiso that seem on the very verge of pitching headlong into the noisy, smoky canal far below with the jar of the next explosion, when one sunny mid-afternoon I caught sight of Renson dejectedly trudging down across what might be called the “Maiden” of Paraiso, back of the two-story lodge-hall. I took leave of my ebony hostess and descended. Renson’s troubles were indeed disheartening. Back in the jungled fringe of the town he had fallen into a swarm of Martiniques, and Renson’s French being nothing more than an unstudied mixture of English and Spanish, he had not gathered much information. Moreover negro women from the French isles are enough to frighten any virtuous young Marine.
“What’s the sense o’ me tryin’ to chew the fat in French?” asked Renson, with tears in his voice. “I ain’t in no condition to work at this census business any longer anyway. I ain’t got to bed before three in the morning this week”—in his air was open suggestion that it was some one else’s fault—”Some day I’ll be gettin’ in bad, too. This mornin’ a fool nigger woman asked me if I didn’t want her black pickaninny I was enumeratin’, thinkin’ it was a good joke. You know how these bush kids is runnin’ around all over the country before a white man’s brat could walk on its hind legs. ‘Yes,’ I says, ‘if I was goin’ alligator huntin’ an’ needed bait!’ I come near catchin’ the brat up by the feet an’ beatin’ its can off. I’m out o’ luck any way, an’—”
The fact is Renson was aching to be “fired.” More than thirty days had he been subject only to his own will, and it was high time he returned to the nursery discipline of camp. Moreover he was out of cigarettes. I slipped him one and smoothed him down as its fumes grew—for Renson was as tractable as a child, rightly treated—and set him to taking Jamaican tenements in the center of town, while I struck off into the jungled Martinique hills myself.
There were signs abroad that the census job was drawing to a close. My first pay-day had already come and gone and I had strolled up the gravel walk one noon-day to the Disembursing Office with my yellow pay certificate duly initialed by the examiner of accounts, and was handed my first four twenty-dollar gold pieces—for hotel and commissary books sadly reduce a good paycheck. Already one evening I had entered the census office to find “the boss” just peeling off his sweat-dripping undershirt and dotted with skin-pricking jungle life after a day mule-back on the thither side of the canal; an utterly fruitless day, for not only had he failed during eight hours of plunging through the wilderness to find a single hut not already decorated with the “enumerated” tag, but not even a banana could he lay hands on when the noon-hour overhauled him far from the ministrations of “Ben” and the breeze-swept veranda of Empire hotel.
It was, I believe, the afternoon following Renson’s linguistic troubles that “the boss” came jogging into Paraiso on his sturdy mule. In his eagerness to “clean up” the territory we fell to corraling negroes everywhere, in the streets, at work, buying their supplies at the commissary, sleeping in the shade of wayside trees, anywhere and everywhere, until at last in his excitement “the boss” let his medium soft pencil slip by the column for color and dashed down the abbreviation for “mixed” after the question, “Married or Single?” Which may have been near enough the truth of the case, but suggested it was time to quit. So we marked Paraiso “finished except for recalls” and returned to Empire.
One by one our fellow-enumerators had dropped by the wayside, some by mutual agreement, some without any agreement whatever. Renson was now relieved from census duty, to his great joy, there remained but four of us,—”the boss” and “Mac” in the office, “Scotty” and I outside. A deep conference ensued and, as if I had not had good luck enough already, it was decided that we two should go through the “cut” itself. It was like offering us a salary to view all the Great Work in detail, for virtually all the excavation of any importance on the Zone lay within the confines of our district.
So one day “Scotty” and I descended at the girderless railroad bridge and, taking each one side of the canal, set out to canvass its every nook and cranny. The canal as it then stood was about the width of two city blocks, an immense chasm piled and tumbled with broken rock and earth, in the center a ditch already filled with grimy water, on either side several levels of rough rock ledges with sheer rugged stone faces; for the hills were being cut away in layers each far above the other. High above us rose the jagged walls of the “cut” with towns hanging by their fingernails all along its edge, and ahead in the abysmal, smoky distance the great channel gashed through Culebra mountain.
The different levels varied from ten to twenty feet one above the other, each with a railroad on it, back and forth along which incessantly rumbled and screeched dirt-trains full or empty, halting before the steam-shovels, that shivered and spouted thick black smoke as they ate away the rocky hills and cast them in great giant handsful on the train of one-sided flat-cars that moved forward bit by bit at the flourish of the conductor’s yellow flag. Steam-shovels that seemed human in all except their mammoth fearless strength tore up the solid rock with snorts of rage and the panting of industry, now and then flinging some troublesome, stubborn boulder angrily upon the cars. Yet they could be dainty as human fingers too, could pick up a railroad spike or push a rock gently an inch further across the car. Each was run by two white Americans, or at least what would prove such when they reached the shower-bath in their quarters—the craneman far out on the shovel arm, the engineer within the machine itself with a labyrinth of levers demanding his unbroken attention. Then there was of course a gang of negroes, firemen and the like, attached to each shovel.
All the day through I climbed and scrambled back and forth between the different levels, dodging from one track to another and along the rocky floor of the canal, needing eyes and ears both in front and behind, not merely for trains but for a hundred hidden and unknown dangers to keep the nerves taut. Now and then a palatial motorcar, like some rail-road breed of taxi, sped by with its musical insistent jingling bells, usually with one of the countless parties of government guests or tourists in spotless white which the dry season brings. Dirt-trains kept the right of way, however, for the Work always comes first at Panama. Or it might be the famous “yellow car” itself with members of the Commission. Once it came all but empty and there dropped off inconspicuously a man in baggy duck trousers, a black alpaca coat of many wrinkles; and an unassuming straw hat, a white-haired man with blue—almost babyish blue-eyes, a cigarette dangling from his lips as he strolled about with restless yet quiet energy. There has been no flash and glitter of military uniforms on the Zone since the French sailed for home, but every one knew “the Colonel” for all that, the soldier who has never “seen service,” who has never heard the shrapnel scream by overhead, yet to whom the world owes more thanks than six conquering generals rolled into one.
Scores of “trypod” and “Star” drills, whole battalions of deafening machines run by compressed air brought from miles away, are pounding and grinding and jamming holes in the living rock. After them will presently come nonchalantly strolling along gangs of the ubiquitous black “powder-men” and carelessly throw down boxes of dynamite and pound the drill-holes full thereof and tamp them down ready to “blow” at 11:30 and 5:30 when the workmen are out of range,—those mighty explosions that twelve times a week set the porch chairs of every I.C.C. house on the Isthmus to rocking, and are heard far out at sea.
Anywhere near the drills is such a roaring and jangling that I must bellow at the top of my voice to be heard at all. The entire gamut of sound-waves surrounds and enfolds me, and with it all the powerful Atlantic breeze sweeps deafeningly through the channel. Down in the bottom of the canal if one step behind anything that shuts off the breeze it is tropically hot; yet up on the edge of the chasm above, the trees are always nodding and bowing before the ceaseless wind from off the Caribbean. Scores of “switcheros” drowse under their sheet-iron wigwams, erected not so much as protection from the sun, for the drowsers are mostly negroes and immune to that, as from young rocks that the dynamite blasts frequently toss a quarter-mile. Then over it all hang heavy clouds of soft-coal dust from trains and shovels, shifting down upon the black, white and mixed, and the enumerator alike; a dirty, noisy, perilous, enjoyable job.
Everywhere are gangs of men, sometimes two or three gangs working together at the same task. Shovel gangs, track gangs, surfacing gangs, dynamite gangs, gangs doing everything imaginable with shovel and pick and crowbar, gangs down on the floor of the canal, gangs far up the steep walls of cut rock, gangs stretching away in either direction till those far off look like upright bands of the leaf-cutting ants of Panamanian jungles; gangs nearly all, whatever their nationality, in the blue shirts and khaki trousers of the Zone commissary, giving a peculiar color scheme to all the scene.
Now and then the boss is a stony-eyed American with a black cigar clamped between his teeth. More often he is of the same nationality as the workers, quite likely from the same town, who jabbers a little imitation English. Which is one of the reasons why a force of “time inspectors” is constantly dodging in and out over the job, time-book and pencil in hand, lest some fellow-townsman of the boss be earning his $1.50 a day under the shade of a tree back in the jungle. Here are Basques in their boinas, preferring their native “Euscarra” to Spanish; French “niggers” and English “niggers” whom it is to the interest of peace and order to keep as far apart as possible; occasionally a few sunburned blond men in a shovel gang, but they prove to be Teutons or Scandinavians; laborers of every color and degree—except American laborers, more than conspicuous by their absence. For the American negro is an untractable creature in large numbers, and the caste system that forbids white Americans from engaging in common labor side by side with negroes is to be expected in an enterprise of which the leaders are not only military men but largely southerners, however many may be shivering in the streets of Chicago or roaming hungrily through the byways of St. Louis. It is well so, perhaps. None of us who feels an affection for the Zone would wish to see its atmosphere lowered from what it is to the brutal depths of our railroad construction camps in the States.
The attention of certain state legislatures might advantageously be called to the Zone Spaniard’s drinking-cup. It is really a tin can on the end of a long stick, cover and all. The top is punched sieve-like that the water may enter as it is dipped in the bucket with which the water-boy strains along. In the bottom is a single small hole out of which spurts into the drinker’s mouth a little stream of water as he holds it high above his head, as once he drank wine from his leather bota in far-off Spain. Many a Spanish gang comes entirely from the same town, notably Salamanca or Avila. I set them to staring and chattering by some simple remark about their birthplace: “Fine view from the Paseo del Rastro, eh?” “Does the puente romano still cross the river?” But I had soon to cease such personalities, for picks and shovels lay idle as long as I remained in sight and Uncle Sam was the loser.
So many were the gangs that I advanced barely a half-mile during this first day and, lost in my work, forgot the hour until it was suddenly recalled by the insistent, strident tooting of whistles that forewarns the setting-off of the dynamite charges from the little red electric boxes along the edge of the “cut.” I turned back toward Paraiso and, all but stumbling over little red-wound wires everywhere on the ground, dodging in and out, running forward, halting or suddenly retreating, I worked my way gradually forward, while all the world about me was upheaving and spouting and belching forth to the heavens, as if I had been caught in the crater of a volcano as it suddenly erupted without warning. The history of Panama is strewn with “dynamite stories.” Even the French had theirs in their sixteen per cent, of the excavation of Culebra; in American annals there is one for every week. Three days before, one of my Empire friends set off one afternoon for a stroll through the “cut” he had not seen for a year. In a retired spot he came upon two negroes pounding an irregular bundle. “What you doing, boys?” he inquired with idle curiosity. “Jes’ a brealdn’ up dis yere dynamite, boss,” languidly answered one of the blacks. My friend was one of those apprehensive, over-cautious fellows so rare on the Zone. Without so much as taking his leave he set off at a run. Some two car-lengths beyond an explosion pitched him forward and all but lifted him off his feet. When he looked back the negroes had left. Indeed neither of them has reported for work since.
Then there was “Mac’s” case. In his ambition for census efficiency “Mac” was in the habit of stopping workmen wherever he met them. One day he encountered a Jamaican carrying a box of dynamite on his head and, according to his custom, shouted:
“Hey, boy! Had your census taken yet?”
“What dat, boss?” cried the Jamaican with wide-open eyes, as he threw the box at “Mac’s” feet and stood at respectful attention.
Somehow “Mac” lacked a bit of his old zealousness thereafter.
On the second day I pushed past Cucaracha, scene of the greatest “slide” in the history of the canal when forty-seven acres went into the “cut,” burying under untold tons of earth and rock steam-shovels and railroads, “Star” and “trypod” drills, and all else in sight—except the “rough-necks,” who are far too fast on their feet to be buried against their will. One by one I dragged shovel gangs away to a distance where my shouting could be heard, one by one I commanded drillmen to shut off their deafening machines, all day I dodged switching, snorting trains, clambered by steep rocky paths, or ladders from one level to another, howling above the roar of the “cut” the time-worn questions, straining my ear to catch the answer. Many a negro did not know the meaning of the word “census,” and must have it explained to him in words of one syllable. Many a time I climbed to some lofty rock ledge lined with drills and, gesticulating like a semaphore in signal practice, caught at last the wandering attention of a negro, to shout sore-throated above the incessant pounding of machines and the roaring of the Atlantic breeze:
“Hello, boy! Census taken yet?”
A long vacant stare, then at last, perhaps, the answer:
“Oh, yes sah, boss.”
“When and where?”
“In Spanish Town, Jamaica, three year ago, sah.”
Which was not an attempt to be facetious but an answer in all seriousness. Why should not one census, like one baptism, suffice for a life-time? It was fortunate that enumerators were not accustomed to carry deadly weapons.
Quick changes from negro to Spanish gangs demonstrated beyond all future question how much more native intelligence has the white man. Rarely did I need to ask a Spaniard a question twice, still less ask him to repeat the answer. His replies came back sharp and swift as a pelota from a cesta. West Indians not only must hear the question an average of three times but could seldom give the simplest information clearly enough to be intelligible, though ostensibly speaking English. A Spanish card one might fill out and be gone in less time than the negro could be roused from his racial torpor. Yet of the Spaniards on the Zone surely seventy per cent, were wholly illiterate, while the negroes from the British Weat Indies, thanks to their good fortune in being ruled over by the world’s best colonist, could almost invariably read and write; many of those shoveling in the “cut” have been trained in trigonometry.
Few are the “Zoners” now who do not consider the Spaniard the best workman ever imported in all the sixty-five years from the railroad surveying to the completion of the canal. The stocky, muscle-bound little fellows come no longer to America as conquistadores, but to shovel dirt. And yet more cheery, willing workers, more law-abiding subjects are scarcely to be found. It is unfortunate we could not have imported Spaniards for all the canal work; even they have naturally learned some “soldiering” from the example of lazy negroes who, where laborers must be had, are a bit better than no labor—though not much.
The third day came, and high above me towered the rock cliffs of Culebra’s palm-crowned hill, steam-shovels approaching the summit in echelon, here and there an incipient earth and rock “slide” dribbling warningly down. He who still fancies the digging of the canal an ordinary task should have tramped with us through just our section, halting to speak to every man in it, climbing out of this man-made canon twice a day, a strenuous climb even near its ends, while at Culebra one looks up at all but unscalable mountain walls on either side.
From time to time we hear murmurs from abroad that Americans are making light of catastrophies on the Isthmus, that they cover up their great disasters by a strict censorship of news. The latter is mere absurdity. As to catastrophies, a great “slide” or a premature dynamite explosion are serious disaster to Americans on the job just as they would be to Europeans. But whereas the continental European would sit down before the misfortune and weep, the American swears a round oath, spits on his hands, and pitches in to shovel the “slide” out again. He isn’t belittling the disasters; it is merely that he knows the canal has got to be dug and goes ahead and digs it. That is the greatest thing on the Zone. Amid all the childish snarling of “Spigoties,” the back-biting of Europe, the congressional wrangles, the Cabinet politics, the man on the job,—”the Colonel,” the average American, the “rough-neck”—goes right on digging the canal day by day as if he had never heard a rumor of all this outside noise.
Mighty is the job from one point of view; yet tiny from another. With all his enormous equipment, his peerless ingenuity, and his feverish activity all little man has succeeded in doing is to scratch a little surface wound in Mother Earth, cutting open a few superficial veins, of water, that trickle down the rocky face of the “cut.”
By March twelfth we had carried our task past and under Empire suspension bridge, and the end of the “cut” was almost in sight. That day I clawed and scrambled a score of times up the face of rock walls. I zigzagged through long rows of negroes pounding holes in rock ledges. I stumbled and splashed my way through gangs of Martinique “muckers.” I slid down the face of government-made cliffs on the seat of my commissary breeches. I fought my way up again to stalk through long lines of men picking away at the dizzy edge of sheer precipices. I rolled down in the sand and rubble of what threatened to develop into “slides.” I crawled under snorting steam-shovels to drag out besooted negroes—negroes so besooted I had to ask them their color—while dodging the gigantic swinging shovel itself, to say nothing of “dhobie” blasts and rocks of the size of drummers’ trunks that spilled from it as it swung. I climbed up into the quivering monster itself to interrupt the engineer at his levers, to shout at the craneman on his beam. I sprang aboard every train that was not running at full speed, walking along the running-board into the cab; if not to “get” the engineer at least to gain new life from his private ice-water tank. I scrambled over tenders and quarter-miles of “Lidgerwood flats” piled high with broken rock and earth, to scream at the American conductor and his black brakemen, often to find myself, by the time I had set down one of them, carried entirely out of my district, to Pedro Miguel or beyond the Chagres, and have to “hit the grit” in “hobo” fashion and catch something back to the spot where I left off. In short I poked into every corner of the “cut” known to man, bawling in the November-first voice of a presidential candidate to everything in trousers:
“Eh! ‘Ad yer census taken yet?”
And what was my reward? From the northern edge of Empire to where the “cut” sinks away into the Chagres and the low, flat country beyond, I enrolled—just thirteen persons. It was then and there, though it still lacked an hour of noon, that I ceased to be a census enumerator. With slow and deliberate step I climbed out of the canal and across a pathed field to Bas Obispo and, sitting down in the shade of her station, patiently awaited the train that would carry me back to Empire.
Four thousand, six hundred and seventy-seven Zone residents had I enrolled during those six weeks. Something over half of these were Jamaicans. Of the states Pennsylvania was best represented. Martinique negroes, Greeks, Spaniards, and Panamanians were some eighty per cent illiterate; of some three hundred of the first only a half dozen even claimed to read and write; and non-wedlock was virtually universal among them.
Rumor has it that there are seventy-two separate states and dependencies represented on the Isthmus. My own cards showed a few less. Most conspicuous absences, besides American negroes, were natives of Honduras, of four countries of South America, of most of Africa, and of entire Australia. That this was largely due to chance was shown by the fact that my fellow-enumerators found persons from all these countries.
I had enrolled persons born in the following places: All the United States except three or four states in the far northwest; Canada, Mexico, Guatemala, Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Canal Zone, Colombia, Venezuela, British Guiana (Demarara), French and Dutch Guiana, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile, Cuba, Hayti and Santo Domingo, Jamaica, Barbados, St. Vincent, Trinidad, Saint Lucia, Montserrat, Dominica, Nevis, Nassau, Eleuthera and Inagua, Martinique, Guadalupe, Saint Thomas (Danish West Indies), Curacao and Tobago, England, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, Finland, Belgium, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Russia, France, Spain, Andorra, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Servia, Turkey, Canary Islands, Syria, Palestine, Arabia, India (from Tuticorin to Lahore), China, Japan, Egypt, Sierra Leone, South Africa and—the High Seas.
“Where you born, boy?” I had run across a wrinkled old negro who had worked more than thirty years for the P.R.R.
“‘Deed ah don’ know, boss,”
“Oh, come! Don’t know where you were born?” “Fo’ Gawd, boss, ah’s tellin’ yo de truff. Ah don know, ’cause ah born to sea.”
“Well, what country are you a subject of?”
“Truly ah cahn’t say, boss.”
“Well what nationality was your father?”
“Ah neveh see him, sah.” “Well then where the devil did you first land after you were born?”
“‘Deed ah cahn’t say, boss. T’ink it were one o’ dem islands. Reckon ah’s a subjec’ o’ de’ worl’, boss.”
Weeks afterward the population of Uncle Sam’s ten by fifty-mile strip of tropics was found to have been on February first, 1912, 62,810. No, anxious reader, I am not giving away inside information; the source of my remarks is the public prints. Of these about 25,000 were British subjects (West Indian negroes with very few exceptions). Of the entire population 37,428 were employed by the U. S. government. Of white Americans, of the Brahmin caste of the “gold” roll, there were employed on the Zone but 5,228.