Times were when duty called me into the squalid red-lighted district of Colon and kept me there till the last train was gone. Then there was nothing left but to pick my way through the night out along the P.R.R. tracks to shout in at the yard-master’s window, “How soon y’ got anything goin’ up the line?” and, according to the answer, return to read an hour or two in Cristobal Y.M.C.A. or push on at once into the forest of box-cars to hunt out the lighted caboose. Night freights do not stop at Gatun, nor anywhere merely to let off a “gum-shoe.” But just beyond New Gatun station is a grade that sets the negro fireman to sweating even at midnight and the big Mogul to straining every nerve and sinew, and I did not meet the engineer that could drag his long load by so swiftly but that one could easily swing off on the road that leads to the police station.
Even on the rare days when “cases” gave out there was generally something to while away the monotony. As, one morning an American widely known in Gatun was arrested on a warrant and, chatting merrily with his friend, Policeman ——, strolled over to the station. There his friend Corporal Macey subdued his broad Irish smile and ordered the deskman to “book him up.” The latter was reaching for the keys to a cell when the American broke off his pleasant flow of conversation to remark;
“All right, Corporal, I’m going over to the house to get a few things and write a few letters. I’ll be back inside of an hour.”
Whereupon Corporal Macey, being a man of iron self-control, refrained from turning a double back sommersault and mildly called the prisoner’s attention to a little point of Zone police rules he had overlooked.
If every other known form of amusement absolutely failed it was still the dry, or tourist season, and poured down from the States hordes of unconscious comedians, or investigators who rushed two whole days about the Isthmus, taking care not to get into any dirty places, and rushed home again to tell an eager public all about it. Sometimes the sight-seers came from the opposite end of the earth, a little band of South Americans in tongueless awe at the undreamed monster of work about them, yet struggling to keep their fancied despite of the “yanqui,” to which the “yanqui” is so serenely indifferent. Priests from this southland were especially numerous. The week never passed that a group of them might not be seen peering over the dizzy precipice of Gatun locks and crossing themselves ostentatiously as they turned away.
One does not, at least in a few months, feel the “sameness” of climate at Panama and “long again to see spring grow out of winter.” Yet there is something, perhaps, in the popular belief that even northern energy evaporates in this tropical land. It is not exactly that; but certainly many a “Zoner” wakes up day by day with ambitious plans, and just drifts the day through with the fine weather. He fancies himself as strong and energetic as in the north, yet when the time comes for doing he is apt to say, “Oh, I guess I’ll loaf here in the shade half an hour longer,” and before he knows it another whole day is charged up against his meager credit column with Father Time.