Harry A. (Harry Alverson) Franck.

Zone policeman 88; a close range study of the Panama canal and its workers online

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he had sought employment at his trade as stationary
engineer. Besides laying in a stock for more impor-
tant writing he hoped to do in the future, he was
Zone correspondent of " El Liberal " of Madrid and
other Spanish cities. In the social life of his fellow-
countrymen on the Isthmus he had taken no part,
whatever. He was too busy. He did not drink.
He could not dance ; he saw no sense in squandering
time in such frivolities. But ever since his arrival
he had been promising himself to attend one of
these wild Saturday-night debauches in the edge of
the jungle that he might use a description of it in
some later work. So he had coaxed his one personal
friend, the boy, to go with him. It was virtually
the one thing besides work that he had ever done on
the Zone. They had stayed two hours, and had left
the moment the trouble began. Yet here he was ar-
rested.

I bade him cheer up, to consider the trip to Ancon
merely an afternoon excursion on government pass.
He remained downcast.

" But think of the experience ! " I cried. " Now



258 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

you can tell exactly how it feels to be arrested
first-hand literary material."

But he was not philosopher enough to look at it
from that point of view. To his Spanish mind arrest,
even in innocence, was a disgrace for which no
amount of " material " could compensate. It is a
common failing. How many of us set out into the
world for experience, yet growl with rage or sit
downcast and silent all the way from Pedro Miguel to
Panama if one such experience gives us a rough half-
hour, or robs us of ten minutes sleep.

At the hospital the Peruvian gurgled and spat,
beckoned for paper and wrote :

" This is the man."

"What man?" I asked.

" The man who came with that man," he scribbled,
nodding his heavy face toward the blue-eyed boy.

" But is this the man that shot you? " I demanded.

" The man who came with that man is the one," he
scrawled.

"Well, then this is the man that shot you?" I
cried.

But he would not answer definitely to that, but sat
a long time glaring out of his swollen, vindictive
countenance propped up in his pillows at the tall,
solemn correspondent. By and by he motioned again
for paper.

" I think so. I am not sure," he miswrote.

I did not think so, and as the sum total of his



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 259

descriptions of his assailant during the past several
days amounted to " a tall man, rather short, with a
face and two eyes " he was very insistent about
the eyes, which is the reason the doll-eyed boy had
fallen into the drag-net I permitted myself to ac-
cept my own opinion as evidence. The Peruvian was
in all likelihood in no condition to recognize a man
from a loup-garou by the time the fracas started.
Much ardent water had flowed that night. I took
the suspects down to Ancon station and let them
cool off in porch rocking-chairs. Then I gave them
passes back to Pedro Miguel for the evening train.
The doll-eyed boy smiled girlishly upon me as he
descended the steps, but the correspondent strode
slowly away with the downcast, cheerless countenance
of a man who has been hurt beyond recovery.

There were strangely contrasted days in the
" gum-shoe's " calendar. Two examples taken al-
most at random will give the idea. On May twen-
tieth I lolled all day in a porch rocker at Ancon
station, reading a novel. Along in the afternoon
Corporal Castillo drifted in. For a time he stood
leaning against the desk-rail, his felt hat pushed far
back on his head, his eyes fixed on some point in the
interior of China. Then suddenly he snatched up
a sheet of I. C. C. stationery, dropped down at a
typewriter, and wrote at express speed a letter in
Spanish. Next he grasped a telephone and, in the
words of the deskman, " spit Spig into the 'phone "



260 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

for several minutes. That over he caught up an
envelope, sealed the letter and addressed it. An in-
stant later the station was in an uproar looking for
a stamp. One was found, the Corporal stuck it on
the letter, fell suddenly motionless and stared for a
long time at vacancy. Then a new thought struck
him. He jerked open a drawer of the " gum-shoe "
desk, flung the letter inside where I found it acci-
dentally one day some weeks afterward and drop-
ping into the swivel-chair laid his feet on the
" gum-shoe " blotter and a moment later seemed to
have fallen asleep.

By all of which signs those of us who knew him
began to suspect that the Corporal had something
on his mind. Not a few considered him the best
detective on the force; at least he was different
enough from a printer's ink detective to be a real
one. But naturally the strain of heading a de-
tective bureau for weeks was beginning to wear upon
him.

"Damn it!" said the Corporal suddenly, opening
his eyes, " I can't be in six places at once. You '11
have to handle these cases," and he drew from a
pocket and handed me three typewritten sheets, then
drifted away into the dusk. I looked them over and
returned to the porch rocker and the last chapters
of the novel.

A meek touch on the leg awoke me at four next
morning. I looked up to see dimly a black face



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 261

under a khaki helmet bent over me whispering, " It
de time, sah," and fade noiselessly away. It was
the frontier policeman carrying out his orders of
the night before. For once there was not a carriage
in sight. I stumbled sleepily down into Panama
and for some distance along Avenida Central before
I was able to hail an all night hawk chasing a worn
little wreck of a horse along the macadam. I spread
my lanky form over the worn cushions and we
spavined along the graveled boundary line, past the
Chinese cemetery where John can preserve and burn
joss to his ancestors to the end of time, out through
East Balboa just awakening to life, and reached
Balboa docks as day was breaking. I was not long
there, and the equine caricature ambled the three
miles back to town in what seemed reasonable time,
considering. As we turned again into Avenida Cen-
tral my watch told me there was time and to spare
to catch the morning passenger. I was not a little
surprised therefore to hear just then two sharp
rings on the station gong. I dived headlong into
the station and brought up against a locked gate,
caught a glimpse of two or three ladies weeping and
the tail of the passenger disappearing under the
bridge. Americans have introduced the untropical
idea of starting their trains on time, to the disgust
of the " Spig " in general and the occasional dis-
comfiture of Americans. I dashed wildly out through
the station, across Panama's main street, down a



262 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

rugged lane to the first steps descending to the track,
and tumbled joyously onto a slowly moving train
to discover that it was the Balboa labor-train and
that the Colon passenger was already half-way to
Diablo Hill.

A Panama policeman of dusky hue, leaning against
a gate-post, eyed me drowsily as I slowly climbed
the steps, mopping my brow and staring at my watch.

"What time does that 6:35 train leave?" I de-
manded.

" Yo, senor," he said with ministerial dignity,
shifting slowly to the other shoulder, " no tengo
conocimiento de esas cosas " (I have no knowledge
of those things).

He probably did not know there is a railroad from
Panama to Colon. It has only been in operation
since 1855.

Later I found the fault lay with my brass watch.

With a perspiration up for all day I set out along
the track. Rounding Diablo Hill the realization
that I was hungry came upon me simultaneously
with the thought that unless I got through the door
of Corozal hotel by 7:30 I was likely to remain so.
Breakfast over, I caught the morning supply-train
to Miraflores, there to dash through the locks for a
five-minute interview. I walked to Pedro Miguel and,
descending from the embankment of the main line,
" nailed " a dirt-train returning empty and stood
up for a breezy ride down through the " cut." It



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 263

was the same old smoky, toilsome place, a perceptible
bit lower. As in the case of a small boy only those
can see its growth who have been away for a time.
The train stopped with a jerk at the foot of Culebra.
I walked a half-mile and caught a loaded dirt-train
to Cascadas. The matter there to be investigated
required ten minutes. That over, I " got in touch "
at the nearest telephone, and the Corporal's voice
called for my immediate presence at headquarters.
There chanced to be passing through Cascadas at
that moment a Panama-bound freight, the caboose
of which caught me up on the fly ; and forty minutes
later I was racing up the long stairs.

There I learned among other things that a man
I was anxious to have a word with was coming in
on the noon train, but would be unavailable after
arrival. I sprang into a cab and was soon rolling
away again, past the Chinese cemetery. At the com-
missary crossing in East Balboa we were held up by
an empty dirt-train returning from the dump. I
tossed a coin at the cabman and scrambled aboard.
The train raced through Corozal, down the grade
and around the curve at unslacking speed. I
dropped off in front of Miraflores police station,
keeping my feet, thanks to practice and good luck,
and dashing up through the village, dragged myself
breathlessly aboard the passenger train as its head
and shoulders had already disappeared in the tunnel.

The ticket-collector pointed out my man to me



264 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

in the first passenger coach, the " ladies' car " he
is a school-teacher and tobacco smoke distresses him
and by the time we pulled into Panama I had the
desired information. Dinner was not to be thought
of; I had barely time to dash through the second-
class gate and back along the track to Balboa labor-
train. From the docks a sand-train carried me to
Pedro Miguel.

There was a craneman in Bas Obispo " cut "
whose testimony was wanted. I reached him by
two short walks and a ride. His statements sug-
gested the advisability of questioning his room-mate,
a towerman in Miraflores freight-yards. Luck

would have it that my chauffeur friend was just

then passing with an I. C. C. motor-car and only a
photographer for a New York weekly aboard. I
found room to squeeze in. The car raced away
through the " cut," up the declivity, and dropped
me at the foot of the tower. The room-mate re-
ferred me to a locomotive engineer and, being a
towerman, gave me the exact location of his engine.
I found it at the foot of Cucaracha slide with a train
nearly loaded. By the time the engineer had added
his whit of information, we were swinging around
toward the Pacific dump. I dropped off and, climb-
ing up the flank of Ancon hill, descended through
the hospital grounds.

Where the royal palms are finest and there opens
out the broadest view of Panama, Ancon, and the



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 265

bay, I gave myself five minutes' pause, after which
a carriage bore me to a shop near Cathedral Plaza
where second-hand goods are bought and no ques-
tions asked. On the way back to Ancon station I
visited two similar establishments.

I had been lolling in the swivel-chair a full ten
minutes, perhaps, when the telephone rang. It was
*' the Captain " calling for me. When I reached the
third-story back he handed me extradition papers to
the Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Panama. A
half-hour later, wholly outstripping the manana idea,
I had signed a receipt for the Jap in question and
transferred him from Panama to Ancon jail. Where-
upon I descended to the evening passenger and rode
to Pedro Miguel for five minutes' conversa-
tion, and caught the labor-train Panamaward. At
Corozal I stepped off for a word with the officer on
the platform and the labor-train plunged on again,
after the fashion of labor-trains, spilling the last
half of its disembarking passengers along the way.
Ten minutes later the headlight of the last passenger
swung around the curve and carried me away to
Panama.

That might have done for the day, but I had
gathered a momentum it was hard to check. Not
long after returning from the police mess to the
swivel chair a slight omission in the day's program
occurred to me. I called up Corozal police sta-
tion.



266 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

" What? " said a mashed-potato voice at the other
end of the wire.

"Who's talking?"

" Policeman Green, sah."

" Station commander there ? "

" No, sah. Station commander he gone just over
to de Y. M. to play billiards, sah. Dey one big
match on to-night."

Of course I could have " got " him there. But
on second thoughts it would be better to see him in
person and clear up at the same time a little matter
in one of the labor camps, and not run the risk of
causing the loss of the billiard championship. Be-
sides Corozal is cooler to sleep in than Ancon. In
a black starry night I set out along the invisible
railroad for the first station.

An hour later, everything settled to my satisfac-
tion, I had discovered a vacant bed in Corozal bach-
elor quarters and was pulling off my coat pre-
paratory to the shower-bath and a well-earned
night's repose. Suddenly I heard a peculiar noise
in the adjoining room, much like that of a seal com-
ing to the surface after being long under water.
My curiosity awakened, I sauntered a few feet along
the veranda. Beside one of the cots stood a short,
roly-poly little man, the lower third of whom showed
rosy pink below his bell-shaped white nightie. As
he turned his face toward the light to switch it off
I swallowed the roof of my mouth and clawed at the



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 267

clap-boarding for support. It was " the Sloth ! "
He had been transferred. I slipped hastily into my
coat and, turning up the collar, plunged out into
the rain and the night and stumbled blindly away
on weary legs towards Panama.



CHAPTER IX

THERE were four of us that Sunday. " Bish "
and I always went for an afternoon swim un-
less police or mess duties forbade. Then there was
Bridgley, who had also once displayed his svelte
form in a Z. P. uniform to admiring tourists, but
was now a pursuer of " soldiering " Hindus on Naos
Island. I wish I could describe Bridgley for you.
But if you never knew him ten pages would give you
no clearer idea, and if you ever did, the mere mention
of the name Bridgley will be full and ample descrip-
tion. Still, if you must have some sort of a lay fig-
ure to hang your imaginings on, think of a man
who always reminds you of a slender, delicate porce-
lain vase of great antiquity that you know a strong
wind would smash to fragments, yet when you ac-
cidentally swat it off the mantelpiece to the floor it
bobs up without a crack. Then you grow bolder
and more curious and jump on it with both feet
in your hob-nailed boots, and to your astonishment
it not only does not break but

Well, Bridgley was one of us that Sunday after-
noon; and then there was "the Admiral," well-
dressed as always, who turned up at the last mo-
ment; for which we were glad, as any one would be

268



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 269

to have " the Admiral " along. So we descended into
Panama by the train-guard short-cut and across
the bridge that humps its back over the P. R. R.
like a cat in unsocial mood, and on through Cale-
donia out along the beach sands past the old iron
hulls about which Panamanian laborers are always
tinkering under the impression that they are work-
ing. This time we walked. I don't recall now
whether it was quarter-cracks, or the Lieutenant
had n't slept well no, it could n't have been that,
for the Lieutenant never let his personal mishaps
trample on his good nature or whether " Bish "
had decided to try to reduce weight. At any rate
we were afoot, and thereby hangs the tale or as
much of a tale as there is to tell.

We tramped resolutely on along the hard curving
beach past the disheveled bath-houses before which
ladies from the Zone gather in some force of a Sun-
day afternoon. For this time we were really out
for a swim rather than to display our figures. On
past the light-brown bathers, and the chocolate-
colored bathers, and the jet black bathers who
seemed to consider that color covering enough, till
we came to the big silent saw-mill at the edge of the
cocoanut grove that we had been invited long since
to make a Z. P. dressing-room.

Before us spread the reposing, powerful, sun-
shimmering Pacific. Across the bay, clear as an
etching, lay Panama backed by Ancon hill. In



270 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

regular cadence the ocean swept in with a hoarse,
resistless roll on the sands.

We dived in, keeping an eye out for the sharks we
knew never come so far in and probably would n't
bite if they did. The sun blazed down white hot
from a cloudless sky. This time the Lieutenant and
Sergeant Jack had not been able to come, but we
arranged the races and jumps on the sand for all
that, and went into them with a will and

A rain-drop fell. Nor was it long lonesome. Be-
fore we had finished the hundred-yard dash we were

in the midst of it was undeniably raining.

Half a moment later " bucketsful " would have been
a weak simile. All the pent up four months of an
extra long rainy season seemed to have been loosed
without warning. The blanket of water blotted out
Panama and Ancon hill across the bay, blotted out
the distant American bathers, then the light-brown
ones, then the chocolate-tinted, then even the jet
black ones close at hand.

We remained under water for a time to keep dry.
But the rain whipped our faces as with thousands
of stinging lashes. We crawled out and dashed
blindly up the bank toward the saw-mill, the rain
beating on our all but bare skins, feeling as it might
to stand naked in Miraflores locks and let the sand
pour down upon us from sixty feet above. When
at last we stumbled under cover and up the
stairs to where our clothing hung, it was as if a



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 273

weight of many tons had been lifted from our
shoulders.

The saw-mill was without side-walls ; consisted
only of a sheet-iron roof and floors, on the former
of which the storm pounded with a roar that made
only the sign language feasible. It was now as if
we were surrounded on all sides by solid walls of
water and forever shut off from the outer world
if indeed that had survived. Sheets of water
slashed in further and further across the floor. We
took to huddling behind beams and under saw-benches
the militant storm hunted us out and wetted us
bit by bit. " The Admiral " and I tucked ourselves
away on the 45-degree eye-beams up under the roar-
ing roof. The angry water gathered together in
columns and swept in and up to soak us.

At the end of an hour the downpour had increased
some hundred per cent. It was as if an express
train going at full speed had gradually doubled its
rapidity. That was the day when little harmless
streams tore themselves apart into great gorges and
left their pathetic little bridges alone and deserted
out in the middle of the gulf. That was the famous
May twelfth, 1912, when Ancon recorded the greatest
rainfall in her history, 7.23 inches, virtually all
within three hours. Three of us were ready to sur-
render and swim home through it. But there was
" the Admiral " to consider. He was dressed clear
to his scarf-pin and Panama tailors tear horrible



274 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

holes in a police salary. So we waited and dodged
and squirmed into closer holes for another hour;
and grew steadily- wetter.

Then at length dusk began to fall, and instead of
slacking with the day the fury of the storm increased.
It was then that " the Admiral " capitulated, seeing
fate plainly in league with his tailor; and wigwag-
ging the decision to us beside him, he led the
way down the stairs and dived into the world
awash.

Wet? We had not taken the third step before
we were streaming like fire hose. There was nearly
an hour of it, splashing knee-deep through what had
been when we came out little dry sandy hollows ;
steering by guess, for the eye could make out nothing
fifty yards ahead, even before the cheese-thick dark-
ness fell ; bowed like nonogenarians under the burden
of water; staggering back and forth as the storm
caught us crosswise or the earth gave way under
us. " The Admiral's " patent-leather shoes but
why go into painful details? Those who were in
Panama on that memorable afternoon can picture
it all for themselves, and the others will never know.
The wall of water was as thick as ever when we fought
our bowed and weary way up over the railroad
bridge and, summoning up the last strength, splurged
tottering into " Angelinas."

When our streaming had so far subsided that
they recognised us for solvent human beings, cncour-



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 275

aging concoctions were set before us. Bridgley,
fearing the after effects, acquired a further quart
bottle of protection, and when we had gathered
force for the last dash we plunged out once more
toward our several goals. As the door of 111
slammed behind me, the downpour suddenly slack-
ened. As I paused before my room to drain, it
stopped raining.

I supped on bread, beer, and cheese from over the
frontier we had arrived thirty seconds too late
for Ancon police mess. Then when I had saved
what was salvable from the wreckage and reclad in
such wardrobe as had luckily remained at home, I
strolled over toward the police station to put in a
serene and quiet evening.

But it has long since been established that troubles
flock together. As I crunched up the gravel walk
between the hedge-rows, wild riot broke on my ear.
Ancon police station was in eruption. From the
Lieutenant to the newest uniformless " rookie " every
member of the force was swarming in and out of the
building. The Zone and Panama telephones were
ringing in their two opposing dialects, the deskman
was shouting his own peculiar brand of Spanish into
one receiver and bawling English at the other, all
hands were diving into old clothes, the most apa-
thetic of the force were girding up their loins with
the adventurous fire of the old Moro-hunting days
in their eyes, and all, some ahorse, more afoot, were



276 ZONE POLICEMAN 88

dashing one by one out into the night and the
jungle.

It was several minutes before I could catch the
news. At last it was shouted at me over a telephone.
Murder ! A white Greek who ever heard of a col-
ored Greek ? with a white shirt on had shot a man
at Pedro Miguel at 6:35. Every road and bypath
of escape to Panama was already blocked, armed
men would meet the assassin whatever way he might
take. I went down to meet the evening train, re-
solved after that to strike out into the night in the
random hope of having my share in the chase. It
had begun to rain again, but only moderately, as
if it realized it could never again equal the afternoon
record.

Then suddenly the excitement exploded. It was
only a near-murder. Two Colombians had been shot,
but would in all probability recover. The news
reached me as I stood at the second-class gate scan-
ning the faces of the great multicolored river of
passengers that poured out into the city. For two
hours, one by one with crestfallen mien, the man-
hunters leaked back into Ancon station and, the case
having dwindled to one of regular daily routine, by
eleven we were all abed.

In the morning the " Greek chase " fell to me.
More detailed description of the culprit had come
in during the night, including the bit of information
that he was a bad man from the Isle of Crete.



ZONE POLICEMAN 88 277

The belt-straining No. 38 oiled and loaded, I set off
on an assignment that was at least a relief after
pursuing stolen necklaces for negro women, or crow-
bars lost by the I. C. C.

By nine I was climbing to Pedro Miguel police
station on its knoll with the young Greek who had
exchanged hats with the assassin after the crime.
That afternoon a volunteer joined me. He was a
friend of the wounded men, a Peruvian black as jade,
but without a suggestion of the negro in anything
but his outward appearance. He was of the size
and build of a Sampson in his prime, spoke a Spanish
so clear-cut it seemed to belie his African blood, and
had the restless vigor acquired in a youth of tramping
over the Andine ranges.

I piled him into a cab and we rolled away to East
Balboa, to climb upon an empty dirt-train and drop
off as it raced through Miraflores, the sturdy legs
of the Peruvian saving him where his practice would
not have. Up in the bush between Pedro Miguel
and Paraiso we found a hut where the Greek had
stopped for water and gone on up a gully. We set
out to follow, mounting partly on hands and knees,


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Online LibraryHarry A. (Harry Alverson) FranckZone policeman 88; a close range study of the Panama canal and its workers → online text (page 13 of 15)