“The boss” and I initiated the Canal Zone Census that very night. Legally it was to begin with the dawning of February, but there were many labor camps in our district and the hours bordering on midnight the only sure time to “catch ’em in.” Up in House 47 I gathered together the legion paraphernalia of this new occupation,—some two hundred red cards a foot long and half as wide, a surveyor’s field notebook for the preservation of miscellaneous information, tags for the tagging of canvassed buildings, tacks for the tacking of the same, the necessary tack-hammer, the medium soft black pencil, above all the awesome legal “Commission,” impressively signed and sealed, wherein none other than our weighty nation’s chief himself did expressly authorize me to search out, enter, and question ad libitum. All this swung over a shoulder in a white canvas sack, that carried memory back through the long years to my newsboy days, I descended to the town.
“The boss” was ready. It was nearly eleven when we crossed the silent P. R. R. tracks and, plunging away into the night past great heaps of abandoned locomotives huddled dim and uncertain in the thin moonlight like ghosts of the French fiasco, dashed into a camp of the laborer’s village of Cunette, pitched on the very edge of the now black and silent void of the canal. Eighteen thick-necked negroes in undershirts and trousers gazed up white-eyed from a suspended card game at the long camp table. But we had no time for explanations.
“Name?” I shouted at the coal-hued Hercules nearest at hand.
“David Providence,” he bleated in trembling voice, and the great Zone questionnaire was on.
We had enrolled the group before a son of wisdom among them surmised that we were not, after all, plain-clothes men in quest of criminals; and his announcement brought visible relief. Twice as many blacks were sprawled in the two rows of double-sided, three-story bunks,—mere strips of canvas on gas-pipes that could be hung up like swinging shelves when not in use. Mere noise did not even disturb their dreams. We roused them by pencil-jabs in the ribs, and they started up with savage, animal-like grunts and murderous glares which instantly subsided to sheepish grins and voiceless astonishment at sight of a white face bending over them. Now and again open-mouthed guffaws of laughter greeted the mumbled admission of some powerful buck that he could not read, or did not know his age. But there was nothing even faintly resembling insolence, for these were all British West Indians without a corrupting “States nigger” among them. A half-hour after our arrival we had tagged the barracks and dived into the next camp, blacker and sleepier and more populous than the first. It was February morning before I climbed the steps of silent 47 and stepped under the shower-bath that is always preliminary, on the Zone, to a night’s repose.
A dream of earthquake, holocaust, and general destruction developed gradually into full consciousness at four-thirty. House 47 was in riotous uproar. No, neither conflagration nor foreign invasion was pending; it was merely the houseful of engineers in their customary daily struggle to catch the labor-train and be away to work by daylight. When the hour’s rampage had subsided I rose to switch off the light and turned in again.