It was midafternoon when the white bulk of Gatun locks rose on the horizon. Then the lake opened out, the great dam, that is rather a connecting link between two ranges of hills, spread across all the landscape, and at four I raced up the muddy steps behind the station to a telephone. Five minutes later I was hurrying away across locks and dam to the marshland beyond the Spillway to inquire who, and wherefore, had attempted to burn up the I. C. C. launch attached to dredge No.——.
My Canal Zone days were drawing rapidly to a close. I could have remained longer without regret, but the world is wide and life is short. Soon came the day, June seventeenth, when I must go back across the Isthmus to clear up the last threads of my existence as a “Zoner.” Chiefly for old times’ sake I dropped off at Empire. But it was not the same Empire of the census. Almost all the old crowd was gone; one by one they had “kissed the Zone good-by.” “The boss” of those days had never returned, “smiling Johnny” had been transferred, even Ben had “done quit an’ gone back to Bahbaydos.” The Zone is like a small section of life; as in other places where generations are short one catches there a hint of what old age will be. It was like wandering over the old campus when those who were freshmen in our day had hawked their gowns and mortarboards and gone their way; I felt like a man in his dotage with only the new, unknown, and indifferent generation about him.
I went down to the old suspension bridge. Far down below was the same struggling energy, the same gangs of upright human ants, the “cut” with its jangle and jar of steam-shovels and trains still stretching away endless in either direction. Here as in the world at large generations of us may come and pass away, but the tearing of the shovels at the rocky earth, the racing of dirt-laden trains for the Pacific goes unbrokenly on, as the world and its work will continue without a pause when we are gone indeed.
Soon the water will be turned in and nine-tenths of all this labor will be submerged and forever hidden from view. The swift growth of the tropics will quickly heal the scars of the steam-shovels, and palm-trees will wave the steamer on its way through what will seem almost a natural channel. Then blase travelers lolling in their deck chairs will gaze about them and snort:
“Huh! Is that all we got for nine years’ work and half a billion dollars?” They will have forgotten the scrubbing of Panama and Colon, forgotten the vast hospitals with great surgeons and graduate nurses, the building of hundreds of houses and the furnishing of them down to the last center table, they will not recall the rebuilding of the entire P. R. R., nor scores of little items like $43,000 a year merely for oil and negroes to pump it on the pestilent mosquito, the thousand and one little things so essential to the success of the enterprise yet that leave not a trace behind. Greater perhaps than the building of the canal is the accomplishment of the United States in showing the natives how life can be lived safely and healthily in tropical jungles. Yet the lesson will not be learned, and on the heels of the last canal builder will return all the old slovenliness and disease, and the native will sink back into just what he would have been had we never come.