PLAYING WITH FIRE

By

Federico Smith Ellington

October 2013

 

I am Federico, Mrs. Ellington’s son. My younger brother Alberto, more known as Spooks, and I were adopted by our great aunt Maud E. Ellington, and her husband Charles W. Ellington. We called her “Auntie”, and him “Pa”. We lived in Santa Cruz, Canal Zone. They reared us according to the British adage: “Do not spare the rod, and spoil the child.”

Auntie and Pa were avid quadrille dancers. They traveled throughout the Canal Zone Latin American communities, Panama City and Colon City to practice and dance quadrille. Mrs. Ellington even taught quadrille to young people in Santa Cruz. She had such grace and energy. Like a ballerina, she would spin on her toes like a top. These quadrille aficionados were members of quadrille clubs that attended quadrille balls in the Canal Zone, Panama City and Colon City. These were big cultural, social and entertainment events.

One late evening after bathing and feeding Spooks and me, Auntie dressed us in our pajamas. She said prayers with us before sending us to bed.

She had asked our next door neighbors Mr. & Mrs. Richards to “look in” on us because Pa and she were attending a quadrille event somewhere.

I awoke in the middle of the night after Auntie and Pa had left for their quadrille dance. Shaking my brother vigorously, I whispered, “Spooks, Spooks!” I did not want the Richards to hear me because our bed was located beside a wall separating their quarters from ours, and near our unlocked common access door.

He would not budge, being an innocent and deep sleeper. I continued shaking my brother with increasing intensity, while whispering, “Spooks wake up.” “WAKE UP!”

When he finally awoke, I said to him quietly, “Come let me show you a trick.” Spooks looked at me confused and sleepy. But he followed my directions. I was his older brother. He trusted and was loyal to me.

I nimbly escorted Spooks to the center of the room which served as our bedroom and family dining room. It had a large and beautiful dark mahogany table draped with a white and colorfully embroidered table cloth and four matching mahogany chairs. Auntie had bought this expensive table cloth from an Indian store in Panama City. A large bunch of pretty artificial flowers in a big vase sat on the middle of the table. This centerpiece and a large grandfather type clock high on the wall beside it captivated the attention of anyone who entered this room. Pa stood on a chair to wind that clock weekly with relish. That table and clock were two of my parents’ most cherished possessions.

At the base of the table, I whispered to my sleepy eye brother, “Spooks, I am going to show you how John Wayne lights a lamp.” He looked at me bewildered, and made no comments. He really was not interested, and sleepy, but stood beside me with my encouragement.

I got a match from the kitchen. With it I approached
Auntie’s vase of flowers on her mahogany table, Spooks in tow reluctantly. “You see,” I whispered, “I am going to show you how John Wayne did it.”
I struck the match against the side of its match box. A sharp flame erupted. “S-h-r-e-e-e!” My heart jumped. I became nervous, and scared, but my curiosity overwhelmed my fear. Spooks really woke up then. He was alert, but again said nothing. He was a person of few words.

I nervously touched one petal of Auntie’s artificial flowers with the burning match. My expectations were that this petal would light up, and then I would snuff out its flame, just like how John Wayne did the lamp in one of his cowboy movies. But things did not work out as planned.

The lit petal burst into an unpredictable and uncontrollable flame which radiated instantly throughout Auntie’s flowers. The conflagration consumed her bunch of flowers, burned her precious table cloth, and scorched her deep blood stained color mahogany table. By the time the fire extinguished itself, a nasty black fire mark emerged on the ceiling directly above it.

Dismayed by the speed and destruction of the fire, I panicked. I had lost control of my demonstration. My experiment, which some would call “playing with fire”, had failed miserably. It was an unmitigated disaster!

Spooks asked, “Wha we gwen du?” He always got straight to the point. It jolted my mind to our parents’ West Indian admonition, “Chicken merry, hawk near.”

But it was too late for philosophical reflections now. I had committed a grave transgression for which there would be dire and painful consequences. So I entered a damage control mode.

I gathered the remnants of burned flowers and tarnished vase, and wrapped them in the singed table cloth to dispose of them. With my brother in tow, I quietly took them to a garbage can under building 281 across the street. No one saw us. My expectations were for Auntie, who was a leader, business woman, and nobody’s fool, to search the three garbage cans under our 276 quarters. She would find no incriminating evidence, and I would be exonerated. “Not guilty”, I thought.

My parents “cut to the chase”, and “go for the jugular” of a mischievous mind early, zapping it in the bud, as I painfully learned.

Having disposed of my incriminating evidence, I told my brother that we would swear to our parents that we “knew nothing”, and we returned to sleep.

Auntie and Pa returned home sometime after we had fallen asleep. Noticing and smelling the inescapable results of my fire, they called out to us, “Fred and Albert!” “Albert!” “Fred!” Neither of us responded initially.

We got up after they furiously shook us. “What happened here”, they asked sternly. Auntie and Pa had a way of demanding the truth. They would accept nothing less, and we knew it.

Spooks and I answered, “A-a-a-w-?” We were on target with my plan, I thought. But it quickly fell apart.

Auntie took control. She queried emphatically, “What happened here!” Her eyes flashed like steel that could pierce the defense of a seasoned liar.

Again, my brother and I denied any knowledge. We were going for broke because we knew what would happen to us if she proved my transgression. Her look intensified. She was going to get to the bottom of this.

Auntie left us, went to the Richards, and returned. I do not know what transpired there till this day. I am sure; however, they knew nothing about my fiasco. If they knew something, they would have disciplined us. And our parents would discipline us again upon their return, according to our people’s customs.

Auntie told us to sit on our bed, with Pa like a centurion standing guard in front of us. She left for downstairs of our quarters. I knew she was going to search the garbage cans for her flowers, vase and table cloth. I was sure she would not find them because I had dumped them in a garbage can across the street. So Spooks and I waited for a favorable resolution of this matter.

My eyes popped out my head, and my heart raced uncontrollably when Auntie returned with the evidence in her hands. I was so shocked, and afraid. She had searched the three garbage cans of our 276 quarters to no avail, and then went to those under building 281 across the street. I knew that I had been busted, and my punishment would be severe. I felt sick–a nauseating emptiness filled my stomach.

Auntie showed me the evidence, and demanded, “How this happened!” I told her the truth, hoping for some mercy or reduction in my punishment. Telling the truth after lying, however, had no mitigating influence on my parents’ disciplinary methods. Speaking truth is simply required in accepting responsibility for one’s behaviors and personal growth. It does not lessen or absolve one from the consequences of one’s misbehaviors.

Auntie and Pa severely punished my brother Spooks and me. As they whipped us, I immersed myself into my own thoughts with platitudes for mercy. My deep silent prayer for divine intervention, which is the only action that could dissuade them, was unanswered.

They also grounded us for one month. They dressed us in one of Auntie’s dresses. This embarrassed us, and ensured that we would not sneak out to play. We were allowed only to attend school and church. I welcomed these exceptions because I enjoyed and found comfort in these institutions. Their activities and personnel afforded me countless opportunities to grow academically, spiritually and personally, and meet my friends.

Upon completion of my punishment, I returned to living life more fully and responsibly–fully armed with the lessons Auntie and Pa taught me about playing with fire, never making the same mistakes again.

The end

Gamboa Bridge Poem

As we left to find our fortunes we surely heard you say

“Don’t forget the lessons you’ve been taught and don’t forget to pray”

Your red light in the distance then we saw it turn to green

Quickly you were out of sight but this is what you’ve come to mean

Fun filled walks with childhood friends as we stepped across your trestles

Young men wearing tailored slacks and girls in frilly dresses

Singing to our hearts’ content, delighting every ear

Tho the Chagres flowed beneath us, there was no hint of fear

We learned from you quite early that if we remain in lane

We need not fear life’s traffic or run away from pain

These many years away from you with stops in distant places

Allow us to retrace our steps to appreciate your graces

On our return we’ll find you there like Lady Liberty

Saying “welcome home, I’m glad you’re here” in all sincerity

by Gyambo Boy

Lens From The Bottom Of The Well

The ‘Gyambo’ “Bottom of the Well” Experience

By

Dr. Ricardo Millett

Introduction

The following essay was inspired by a poem written during a ‘racial healing workshop’ my colleagues and I managed in Mississippi some years ago. The poem came to me from experiences that marked my growing up years in Gamboa, Canal Zone. These experiences promised an intense conversation with a group of ‘multi-ethnic/racial’ Mississippians committed to building bridges to reduce the historic mistrust and unease that divided the communities where they resided. In an attempt to facilitate open conversation about race among Black, Native American and White Mississippians on such a deeply troubling topic, we called on each participant, including the facilitators, to answer the question: “Where are you from?”. This simple icebreaker provided space for each of us to briefly reflect on experiences, philosophies and beliefs that guided our life decisions and behaviors. The intensity of the setting, its purpose, and yearning of the participants gathered in a “circle of trust”, prompted me to provide an authentic platform for healing and bridging.

My answer to this reflective question, ‘Where are you from?’:

I am from my mother’s dream for my becoming,

And from my father’s anger

Of his dreams denied

I am from my Godfather’s pride

And his character and principles applied

From my grandmother’s faith in Jesus

And from my Grandfather’s abuses

I am from the yesterdays …

Yearning to give birth to the todays, tomorrows

And a better world yet to come…

I was startled by my own poetic expression. I had never before tried to put into words my growing up experiences in ‘Gyambo, Canal Zone’ and how they anchored my approach to a career in social policy research and program management. Soon thereafter, I was asked to contribute a chapter in a book entitled ‘Indigenous Pathways into Social Research’ (edited by Donna Mertens, Fiona Cram and Bagele Chilisa). This invitation was very timely as it provided me with an opportunity to flesh out the poem in a narrative of how the days in an area as racially segregated as the Panama Canal Zone influenced my social policy research methods and practices.

I hope my ‘Gyambo community’ finds this essay one of many efforts to acknowledge and pay tribute to our ability not only to survive, but to thrive and build a better future for ourselves and all of those ‘faces at the bottom of the well’ throughout the world. Equally important, I hope that it inspires you to share your own ‘story’ with us on this ‘Gyambo Reunion website’

E S S A Y

FROM WEST-INDIAN DESCENDENT TO SILVER TOWN DEPENDENT

I am a person of West-Indian/African descent, born and raised in the Republic of Panama, more specifically in Gamboa, Panama Canal Zone. My grandparents migrated from Antigua and Jamaica like thousands of other Caribbean Blacks attracted by the serene song of economic opportunities on the Panama Canal project. Their hope was to work hard for a few years and return to their West Indian homeland, purchase land, construct a home, and create a life more comfortable than any of their family had experienced since the early days of plantation farming. The Panama Canal Zone experience, however, not only ruined hopes for a successful return, but took many more Afro-Caribbean lives as a consequence of tropical diseases, construction explosives, and the reckless disregard of their humanity sanctioned by the most overtly racist government in nineteenth-century Latin America. This history would shape my dedication to providing policies and programs that would lead to ‘society betterment’.

People of African descent are aware that they live in a society where the opportunity to access resources, assets, wealth, and status grows more unequal. They fare less well than others in any index of quality of life regardless of the country—United States, Panama, Brazil, Jamaica, or any in the Western World. People of dark skin face systemic forces that limit their capacity to achieve as well as others in their communities and society-at-large.

I am one of the “faces at the “bottom of society’s well” as described by Derrick Bell (1992). Bell’s examination of racism and the victories that can be realized in the struggle to fight it, reflects my own experiences growing up in Panama as a citizen of Afro-Caribbean heritage and a resident of the Panama Canal Zone, and subsequently a citizen of the United States of America. It is an experience that threatens our right to society’s benefits, opportunities, wealth, and status. Bell describes this experience in the opening proposition that frames Faces at the Bottom of the Well:

“Black People will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than ‘temporary peaks of progress’, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt its ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard to accept fact that all history verifies. We acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.” (1992, p. 12)

Where Am I From?

I am from my mother’s dream for my becoming,

And from my father’s anger

Of his dreams denied

Silver and Gold

The U.S. Panama Canal Zone was a living, breathing, social laboratory used to reinforce white supremacy. Labor, status, privilege, and wages were based completely on race.

The system used to pay workers exemplified the gross systemic inequities between whites and blacks. American laborers’ (primarily Caucasians) salaries were paid in gold certificates and non-Americans (primarily people of African descent imported from the Caribbean) were paid in silver certificates. Over time, gold and silver became euphemisms to distinguish segregated life in the Canal Zone.

Caucasian workers enjoyed ‘Gold Standard’ privileges. Such privileges afforded the best life had to offer on the Canal Zone. Houses for the American gold workers were often located in the hills or other elevated areas where cool breezes provided comfort from the often oppressive tropical heat. Segregated gold sections of the commissary showcased prime grocery products. A Caucasian police force enforced strict separation of gold and silver residents, protecting their Caucasian brethren and keeping the silver workers ‘in their place’.

West Indian laborers were recruited from the Caribbean Islands, most of them skilled artisans. They were paid the lowest wages, lived in the worst housing, and were given the most dangerous jobs. In short, they were expendable. They died at over ten times the rate of gold, due to exposure to unsanitary conditions, lack of access to medical care, errant dynamite explosions, and landslides. The probability of an early death during canal construction, then, was highly correlated with race.

Gamboa, a small town of less than a thousand people on the banks of the canal and Panama’s lush tropical forest, was the home of the Dredging Division. This division worked to widen the narrow pathways (particularly the ‘Culebra Cut’) between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. I spent the first nineteen years of my life in Santa Cruz, the Silver Rate residential section of Gamboa. Unlike, most Canal Zone townships, Gamboa housed both American and non-American silver laborers. This exception was soon ‘corrected’ as sometime in the mid-1950s the Canal Government responded to the Gold Raters to differentiate their living spaces from that of the Silver Raters. Many of us woke up one morning to find out we were now living in Santa Cruz, not Gamboa. The residential line, Parallel as we dubbed it, became more solid as ever dividing the white and black sections of the town. The Gold Raters could not live sharing any residential commonality with Silver Raters. This separation became even more critical to Gold Raters as the civil rights struggle heralded in the threat of ‘Brown versus the School Board’ Supreme Court desegregation decision. While we already had separate housing, strict residential lines, separate school buildings, separate curriculum, and separate everything in our living amenities, it became prudent to safeguard against any possibility of succumbing to the ‘integration’ threat of the Supreme Court. Thus, the Canal Zone Government made the ‘strategic decision’ to legally separate the township not only by the traditional Gold and Silver labor personnel rationale but also by a newly added a rationale that presumably honored “Silver Rater’s Latin American Spanish speaking culture. Silver Rate workers were not English-speaking Americans, but Spanish-speaking Latin Americans and required a curriculum aligned with their cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Overnight, Santa Cruz (and all Silver Towns in the Canal Zone) was now designated part of the Canal Zone’s ‘Latin American School system’ requiring students to be taught in their ‘native language’, Spanish. The Gold Raters American School System would continue to teach in their native language ‘English’.

The Gold and Silver Canal Zone segregated system consequently added another legal layer of protection from any need to consider ‘equality’ in education, living quarters, wages or anything else among its employees. The Gamboa Gold Standard resident workers continued to live in quiet comfort along the hillsides while the Santa Cruz silver workers continued to live under the relentless gaze of their “superiors” from above.

A Face from the Bottom of the Well

Like many other faces at the bottom of the well, I am adept at applying what Richard Wright (1957) called a “frog perspective.” It is a strong metaphor, as the frog is born a tadpole at the bottom of the pond. It later surfaces as a frog. It experiences life through both perspectives in order to survive. Wright uses the frog analogy to describe people of African descent’s sense of inferiority when forced into subservient roles. This psyche remains with me, and I believe, with everyone I grew up with in the silver townships of the Canal Zone.

My grandmother, parents, godfather, brothers, sisters, and teachers—in fact, the entire black community in the Canal Zone—also had an influence on the principles that guided my development. Each life revealed the psychological impact of racism and compelled me to break the chain that legitimated and sustained our collective place as people deemed “less than”.

Family lore has it that my paternal grandfather migrated from Antigua, West Indies, to Panama. Like thousands of Caribbean males, he responded to the call of work and opportunity during the canal construction. He found temporary work unloading baggage on tourist ships. One day while working, he was accused of looking at a white woman as she disembarked. He was immediately fired. Despondent, unemployed, and disconnected in a foreign country, he eventually died destitute.

My maternal grandfather fared a little better because he was a carpenter and managed to set up shop repairing horse carriages in Panama City. He avoided the harsher treatment of black males on the Canal Zone but did not avoid the demeaning reality of competing for work as a black worker in the Latino Panamanian society where he was just another chombo (the Central American equivalent of “nigger”).

Widowed at a young age, my maternal grandmother was forced to become the “bread winner”. As she recounted to us many times, she decided to do all that she could to take care of her three children. She took a job in the famous ‘Ancon Laundry’ “hand washing and ironing clothes for “the white man,” as she would remind us of her struggle to survive and keep her dignity intact when her husband passed. Granny earned enough to pay the rent for one room in a tenement building for her and three children. She delighted us with stories of her engagement, marriage, and all-too-brief life with her beloved husband. The stories spoke of his strong moral character, dedication, and determination to make a way for their children in Panama.

As a child, my younger sisters and I spent weekends with Granny in her one-room apartment in Panama City. It was during these times that we were exposed to her strict discipline and high expectations for us. As youngsters, we looked forward to these weekend excursions to Granny’s apartment, primarily as opportunities to play with the other kids in the building when we were not being charged to sit still and listen to her legendary lessons. One such lesson was “The white man can throw you down in the gutter to work for a living, but you don’t have to live there with him.” Granny created a family philosophy that did not allow the harsh realities of life to excuse abandoning one’s family commitments and responsibilities. Another lesson she often stressed to us was that wages didn’t define one’s self-respect and dignity—these were things you earned through your actions and words. The greatest lesson she taught her children and grandchildren was the importance of education. Her philosophy was that no “…one could take away what goes into your brain”.

Joe Stone, my godfather, left me with the most enduring life lesson about pride and self-respect. He chose to unofficially adopt me since he had no children of his own. At 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, he was a legend in Panama. He represented the Republic of Panama in the Olympics and other international sporting events as a weight lifter and wrestler. Joe Stone was also a gifted scholar, high school graduate, voracious reader and had a great command of the English language. (Not speaking “good English” was considered a sign of Panamanian/West-Indian “ignorance.”)

I spent many weekends in Panama City visiting Joe Stone and my aunt, his common-law wife. At night, I often overheard him complaining to my aunt about the indignities he suffered on his job. Joe Stone’s skills and reputation had landed him an unusually well-paying job on the U.S. Naval base in Amador, Panama Canal Zone. As a warehouse supervisor, he reported to a white officer intent on keeping him “in his place.” Over time, Joe’s sense of dignity and self-respect was ground down by his boss’s constant denigration and abuse. One night, I heard him confess to my aunt that he couldn’t take it anymore and would rather walk away from his financial security than suffer another day of abuse. This was a pivotal decision for Joe. It left him without a job and subsequently resulted in a downward spiral to alcoholism and premature death.

I continued to love and respect Joe Stone as I grew up. No one was more proud of my accomplishments. Despite being ultimately defeated by the racial injustices impacting Blacks, he personified the dignity and respect that too many others were forced to trade for survival. He has been a constant reminder of the consequences people at the bottom of the well faced when challenging systemic racism.

My earliest memories of being a victim of this system surfaced as a child. To supplement my father’s wages, my mother worked as a domestic for Caucasian families in the segregated Gamboa hills. I loved going to work with her. I particularly enjoyed the cookies and sandwiches the Caucasian ladies gave me. One day as we walked down the hill to our segregated quarters, I asked my mother why the Caucasian people lived in better houses, had better clothes, ate better food, and had nicer things than we did.

My mother tried to shield us from the negative effects of segregation and strived to create an environment where we wouldn’t feel “less than.” My penetrating questions shocked and upset her. She never reconciled the inequality she faced on a daily basis, let alone figured out how to explain them to a small child. I can remember the anguish on her face when she attempted to respond to my questions. As in other aspects of her life, she depended on prayer and faith in God to provide answers and relief for what appeared to be His will.

I must have filed the memory of Joe Stone’s life and the privileged lives of the people living on the hills at the very surface of my consciousness because it has never left me. It formed the foundation of my will to prove the white man wrong. Neither science nor God justified our relegation to the ranks of the least intelligent, deserving, capable or productive. From my mother’s perspective, the only viable pathway to success was to get her children safely out of the Panama Canal Zone to greater opportunities in the United States. By the sheer force of her determination, the tides of fortune fell on me and I was able to follow the lead of my two older brothers to the “Land” (we called the United States the “land of escape and opportunities”). Moreover, I received the scholarship to attend university there—an opportunity that I would have been forced to pass up, due to my family’s financial constraints. My fortune was truly extraordinary.

Where Am I From?

I am from my Godfather’s pride

And his character and principles applied

This experience intensified my personal and professional commitment to making a difference… to act on my evolving consciousness and social activism.

Where Am I From?

From my grandmother’s faith in Jesus

And from my Grandfather’s abuses

Conclusion

I have embraced people of African descent in the United States, Panama, and worldwide as my ‘community’. My professional motivation is to capture the authentic voices of this ‘community’. As I tried to suggest throughout this essay, my orientation to social policy research and management has been significantly influenced by my “Gyambo Canal Zone experiences”. It was a race-based system that justified me as inferior to whites and less deserving of equal opportunities and privileges. However, it offers me a way to recalibrate the manner in which social issues and policies are seen, by giving priority to the first stage of research. I am convinced that this focus is critically important if we are to leverage strategies to help reverse our widening social and economic inequities. Too often the consequences of not paying attention to this focus result in missed opportunities and inappropriate outcomes that does not effectively address the inequalities we, ‘the faces at the bottom of the well’, know all too well and struggle with…every day.

.

Where Am I From?

I am from the yesterdays …

Yearning to give birth to the todays, tomorrows

And a world yet to come.

A LITTLE TOWN CALLED GAMBOA

(The following story captures the fond and memorable experiences of one of our beloved Gyambo residents, Ronaldo E. Sealey. He wrote a hand written version of this story years ago before he passed in November 2001. Before he ‘moved on’ he gave the hand written copy of the story to his sister, Olivia Sealey and made her promise to edit, type it and share it with our community. She completed this promise recently and sent the story to the ‘Gyambo Reunion Group’ in June of this year for publication in our website. By taking this action she fulfilled her promise to Ronaldo and bequeathed a gift to the entire the ‘Gyambo community’ that he loved and deeply respected. We hope that you will enjoy this trip down Ronaldo’s ‘memory lane’ and be inspired to share your memories of ‘Gyambo’ with us in the future.)

Since there’s no more Canal Zone, I would like to tell you of a place called Gamboa on the Isthmus of Panama, where I grew up. There were two sides to Gamboa, one for black people and one for whites. The blacks at that time could not venture on the white side. We, the blacks had our own school, theater, gym, clubhouse, commissary and post office. The school only went to the eight grade then we had to travel by bus to another black town called Paraiso where we attended high school.
Well, let me begin to tell you about Gamboa. This was a town where we all knew each other. There was no crime so you didn’t have to lock your doors. We had one police car, one fire engine, one doctor and one ambulance. The only doctor’s name was Dr. Senser. He was so thorough in his work that he had you take your clothes off just for a simple cough. That’s why I hated to go to him. All in all, he was the best. Everybody liked him. People who didn’t know Dr. Senser, just didn’t live in Gamboa. His secretary’s name was Doris Edgill, but I can’t recall his nurse’s name.
** There was always something to do in this town. It was one great big adventure for me, a very mischievous, active little boy. Both my parents worked so we had a little freedom. But Mrs. Headley, Butch’s mom and my sister’s godmother, was always there to keep her eyes on us and to make sure we wore the right clothes to school. If we weren’t properly dressed, she would send us back upstairs to change. She is gone now but she will surely be missed.
** You see, our houses were built on pillars so we had a downstairs, which we called the cellar, and an upstairs. Under the cellar was where we parked our cars, did laundry and played. Each apartment had its own section. Most people fenced their areas but we didn’t. In our apartment there were two bedrooms with a living room, bath and kitchen. In that little apartment my younger sister and I played hide and seek. The apartments were connected to the neighbors’ by a side door which we never opened, but we traded conversation and funny books (comics) under the door.
On our way to school I would hide my shoes and go bare feet. All I did at school was watch the clock because I couldn’t wait for the bell to ring so I could go home for lunch. Every morning my mother prepared lunch for my sister and I before she left for work. I remember this one time she made tuna fish sandwiches with onions. Let me tell you, onion was something my sister hated. Anyway, she refused to eat it and I mischievously tried to force it down her throat. If it were not for our next door neighbor Mr. Figueroa, she might have choked. I was a bad boy that day and I remember getting a good beating for that one.
** Now noontime was just as busy as the mornings. I would take my slingshot with me and after school I would go hunting. You see, our town was surrounded by water and mountains. In order to get there you had to travel via a one-way bridge to go fishing, hunting, and swimming or even go to find fruits in season. The best fruits were on the white man’s property, so we had to steal them.
Let me tell you of a little incident that happened to my friend Bobby Stultz and me. We were going for oranges this day and as we crept quietly in this man’s garden there was a bees’ nest hanging on a low branch. My head hit the nest and angry bees responded. I never ran so fast in my life. I nearly broke my leg getting out of there, but, as kids we returned to get those sweet oranges. The next day we would go for sugar cane, cashews, mangoes, and soursop. We took whatever was in season. We would hunt birds, iguanas, turtles, armadillos, and all sorts of wild animals. There was nothing better tasting than iguanas. They looked like lizards but tasted like chicken. Myself and another friend of mine, Edgar Williams would steal Arturo’s dog because he could sniff out these animals really good. The dog’s name was Gipsy. He was half beagle and half mutt and he had that hunting instinct.
** Now swimming was another of our activities. The whites had a swimming pool but we weren’t allowed to use it. We had to go to a swimming hole we called Culvert. This was located down the “New Road” that led to the banks of the Canal. That’s where we blacks all learned to swim. We had a couple guys drown down there. The two I remember are Kenneth Sealey and Myrie. We would hide our cut-offs in the bushes so we would have something to swim in. Those days we couldn’t afford swimming trunks. Our cut-offs would be some old pants, jeans or khakis – even old drawers. I got so many whippings for going down to that place. You see, whenever ships passed they created strong currents that would pull the water out of the swimming hole which, of course, was very dangerous. But as was well known, you couldn’t tell us kids anything.
** Next, there was our “clubhouse” where the best pastries anywhere in the world were sold. Our pastries came from Mount Hope Bakery which was located on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama next to our intramural sports rival, Rainbow City (formerly Silver City). Our baked goods were delivered at around noontime and you could smell the aroma a long ways off. We had meat patties that were the best, jelly doughnuts, lemon buns, cookies, apple pies, sticky buns and a wide variety of other goodies. One would eat these treats with a “Rickey” (a great tasting mixture of carbonated water and cherry syrup). The pastries only cost a nickel and the cost of a Rickey was fifteen cents.
** Our movie theater was the noisiest on the isthmus. We paid just fifteen cents for a ticket and we had great times. Everyone had his own self assigned seat. There was this guy named Gussy (or his more formal name Horace) who was the one who collected our tickets and gave us back the stubs. He was a little slow so we took advantage of that. We would try to sneak past him and when we couldn’t, we would climb the outside rafters ( this was a dangerous stunt but we called this adventure going to the movies in “Encanto”, named after a theater in Panama City) where we watched the movies through the screened openings at the top of the theater walls.
** We bought groceries at the Gamboa commissary, a two-sided structure. The “Silver” side for black patrons and the “Gold” side for white patrons. We were not allowed to shop on the white side. When and if we ever did, they would call the cop who would escort you out. There was no rampant crime activity in Gamboa, nevertheless a police presence was always there to make sure there was peace in this divided community. As I recall, there were only three policemen working three shifts. 8AM to 4PM, 4PM to 12 Midnight and 12 Midnight to 8AM.We even had nick names for these cops. I remember one cop we called Billy the Kid because he wore his gun belt low. There may have been only two shifts because, like I said, we had no crime. So it’s possible there was no 12 Midnight to 8AM shift. In any event, this cop, Billy the Kid was “a pain in the butt”. He hated black people. I recall him telling me one day: “Hey boy get down to your nigger town”. Until today those words have stuck with me.
** Our school was great. We had some very good teachers. The first principal I knew was Mr. Morgan, and then came Mr. Conliffe and then Mr. Webster. Our teachers were Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Haywood, Mr. Cragwell, Ms. Geneteau, and Mr. French, who was our Phys-ed teacher.
Elementary school was one big fun time for me. Sometimes I wonder how I made it to high school.
** We played a lot of games like the one we called “base” where you selected some object as a base and if you left it, unprotected and another player captured it, you got a whipping from all the players in the game. Then there was a similar game called “lata” or “pan”. In this game some unlucky player got assigned to be “it”. To move up the chain from being ‘it’ you had to be brave, cunning and fast. This meant that as the ‘it’ you would set a can down in the middle of the street and go looking for the other kids in hiding without straying too far from the can because someone might get to it before you could rendering you to being ‘it’ for another round of play. The challenge was to be quicker than other players at uncovering their hiding places while protecting the home based ‘can’. So, if you saw someone approaching, you had to get back to the can and hit it on the concrete (pavement) three times, saying out loud “one, two, three” and naming the player and specifying where they were hiding, for example by saying, “so and so is behind the (electric) meter or by the wash tub or anywhere else where they may have been hiding. This was our version of “Hide and Seek”.
** Another game that we played was “New Flew” where you had to dig a slanted hole in the dirt and make it slick with water then try to pitch an even amount of marbles into the hole. It could be any amount of marbles as long as you got an even amount in the hole.
I must admit that as a youngster, one of my favorite games was playing mama and papa where one would build a card board house and mess with the girls.
We also did a lot of fishing but with a white cord and hook. I would boil flour, water and sugar and roll it into dough to be used for bait. We caught only two kinds of fish in those days : Pot Cover and Tarpon. The Pot Cover was funny tasting no matter how you cooked it. The Tarpon was another story. You couldn’t eat them because there were too many bones and they grew to an enormous size. The biggest one I saw was about twenty-five feet long. I saw it under our one-way bridge (The Gamboa Bridge). My friend Edgar Williams and I would fish on the concrete blocks that held the bridge up. The train ran about a foot from our heads. Mr. Jackson, one of the adults in Gamboa who worked with the Dredging Division and at times patrolled the banks of the canal in a launch, often caught us fishing under the bridge and would chastise us and worst would report us these incidents to my dad. This was not the same as reporting it to the cops but a way of protecting me and my family from losing employment on the Canal Zone. You see…Mr. Jackson was one of my dad’s drinking buddies.
** Here are some tidbit memories of my growing up in Gamboa. Our town drunk was a guy we called “Limpy” who, on paydays, would sit in the clubhouse and drink beer until he got drunk. Then he would start to sing.
** In the evenings inside as well as outside the clubhouse was filled with people. Adults buying “night chance” (lottery) and kids buying Mrs. Sobers fried yucca, carimanolas (ground meat wrapped in a cassava mass) and meat patties to take to the movies.
** In the mornings Mr. Walters sold newspapers (The Star & Herald) and Mr. Paul sold gasoline. We also had a train station where Mr. Walters was the person in charge.
** As I said before, there was no crime in our town. The only incidents I remember were: Once while playing baseball, one boy hit another one in his head with a bat. The other incident involved me when I made a spear out of a broken machete and a tree limb. While playing with this spear, it got stuck in Rogelio Sprauve’s foot.
** There was a guy on Front Street we called “Big Man” who had a tamed deer (and other animals) inside a fence bordering his work place (the transportation division that later became the site for the skating rink). He also had a garden down the New Road, near Culvert (our swimming hole) where he grew yam, yucca, sugar cane and several other vegetables and fruit that he guarded vigilantly against young vandals.
** It didn’t seem like we lived in the Republic of Panama because Gamboa was our own little paradise isolated from everyday life and politics of the country of Panama. Our everyday language was all English. The only time I got into the city of Panama was when I had to go to buy lottery tickets for my mother, on holidays, during carnival, on Independence Day (Nov 3rd,) and on Easter to go to the movies.
** At Christmas time we had more fun because as kids we got gifts and participated with the whole family preparing for the holidays by washing our screen wires (screened windows), painting our apartments and overall cleaning. Several youth groups formed choirs that went through the town singing carols. It was the time of year that the cops relaxed their stringent vigilance and allowed us venture close to the division lines between the separated white and black sections of Gamboa during New Year’s Eve when we held hand with our girlfriends/boyfriends and walked across the bridge and slowly back to our residence. That was a big thing back then.
** These tidbits are just some of my treasured memories. I’m sure there’s a lot more to be told, but this is all I can remember for now. I’m dedicating this story to my father Mr. Christopher Sealey because without him, we would not have lived in Gamboa. You see, he worked in the Dredging Division of the Panama Canal Company.

Fly on a Mango Tree Leaf

by Federico Ellington Smith

 

A little girl name Mona and her grandmother Madeh lived in a village called Holy Cross in a land soon to be forgotten, except by the people who lived there.

Nobody knows exactly how and by whom Holy Cross was named, and exactly where this village is located. Some say that it is located on the banks of a waterway in the dense jungles of Panama. They claim that people from a continent beyond the Atlantic Ocean named this village Santa Cruz when they arrived to its location, after crossing the mighty ocean and the river Chargres.

Holy Cross is the English translation for Santa Cruz. So these people surmise Spanish speaking people must have named the village initially. English speaking people did its English translation when they came to Panama to build its great waterway.

Others maintain the people of Holy Cross were people of strong and deep faith. They were believers of a “one-god” and the right to express their beliefs freely. So they named their village Holy Cross and its center Church Square. Some say four different faith buildings (Catholic, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Seventh Day Adventist) grace this center square even today. They describe these structures as symbols and medium for the villagers’ expression of the diverse richness of their faith. Some of these devout people, they explain, even held expressive, holiness-praise services in their homes, which the village kids called “jump up church”. Others held Sunday School classes for children and adults in their homes. These classes were not only to teach the word of God; but also teach handicraft and be social gatherings for women. Some daytime religious meetings called “Cottage Meetings” held in different homes were designed basically for prayer and Bible teaching.

In addition to its Church Square, three other sections comprised this village: Front Street, Dust Bowl, and Parallel.

Holy Cross was a children’s paradise. All its adults were well versed in and practiced the African adage: “It takes a village to raise a child.” Every adult, in some way, contributed to the raising of every child. No child was orphaned. Every child, literally, had a thousand parents. So children roamed freely throughout the village—fully secure and confident that they were always protected, and under the caring supervision of adults.

One adult was called “Eagle Eyes” because children felt that he knew and saw everything they did. He would cite their behaviors to them that they felt no one knew. His stature in Holy Cross as a protector of children was sound, solid, and highly regarded by children and adults alike. Their parents never questioned or had concerns about them whenever they were in his custody. Parents even trusted him to take their children to events in other distant villages at late evening hours. All children developed into better and more complete beings as a result of their education under him.

Mona was a beautiful, curious and energetic girl about age 5. Her eyes were inviolate black like the depth of space. Their center sparkled like stars in its primary blackness. They were the centerpiece of her face, which only could have been divinely created. These precious eyes were her personal instruments for her interaction with the world.

Mona’s grandmother Madeh had similar eyes, but they were bigger and in perfect proportion to her robust body. They conveyed power, strength, knowledge and wisdom to even the most casual observer. Her silver hair reflected sunlight like a saintly crown, and a symbol of her longevity. Everyone loved and respected Madeh. Some learned not to cross her because she taught unforgettable lessons.

Mona and her grandmother Madeh were very close. Everyone felt that they loved each other so much that each could kiss the ground the other walked on. Some say that Mona was the spitting image of her grandmother. They even compared Madeh’s pictures during her youth with Mona’s current ones. Their resemblance was striking and unquestionable. Some villagers maintain that Mona will grow up to be just like her dear grandmother.

Mona and Madeh had daily routines from sunrise to sunset. At the crack of dawn, when roosters crow, Madeh would rise up, and kneel immediately at her bedside to give thanks for another day. She would make breakfast for the family after completing her personal hygiene, and wake up Mona’s older brother and sister instructing them to prepare for school. She would wake up Mona last to have breakfast with her siblings after customary thanksgiving grace.

When her siblings left for school, Mona would have the rest of the day with her grandmother until the others returned from school. This was her special time with Madeh. They would sit under the cellar of their village quarters. Her grandmother would bathe her in the wash tub, dry her body and hair, brush her teeth, rub her body with coconut oil, comb her hair and dress her in clean clothes. Mona especially liked the coconut oil fragrance, and how it made her body and face look silky black, clean and healthy. She felt fresh, vigorous, and loved. Her grooming completed, Mona always would hug and kiss Madeh, saying tenderly “Grandma, I love you.” Her grandmother gently lifting her up to where their eyes would meet always responded sweetly, “I love you too, my child.”

Mona, like all children in Holy Cross, would play under her cellar or in large and verdant open fields between the quarters, and roam freely throughout the village. She particularly enjoyed stoning mangoes from Mr. Simpson’s mango tree, way across a verdant open field from her family’s quarters.

Mr. Simpson was a blind, generous and gentle man. He maintained a quarters in Holy Cross, where he would stay at his leisure. There was a large and bountiful mango tree in the center of his yard. Some children would stone this tree for its fruits before the mangoes could be eaten safely. Their risky behaviors troubled him. He worried one could be hurt irreparably one day.

Mr. Simpson also had a small farm in a village named Frijoles. He would bring produce–yam, yucca, mangoes, tangerines, bananas, oranges, sorrel, cane and gun-gu peas– to sell at a small market under the cellar of a quarters on Front Street. He would give provisions, fruits and vegetables to anyone who had a need. Despite his quiet and benevolent demeanor, this gentle giant was a moral force to be reckoned with when one behaved in a way that could harm oneself or another.

One day, while playing near the village market, Mona saw Mr. Simpson. She quietly observed him as he walked using his walking stick. He tapped it repeatedly on the ground, swinging it from side to side, as if sensing his location and where he was going. Her curiosity intensified because she had not seen anyone like him before. She approached him quietly looking into his face. His eyes were closed. He could not see. She marveled at this man. He was dressed neatly in a jacket, which was distinctive and unusual for any of the vendors she had seen before. His hair was a nappy mix of black and white, and his body had an aroma of the woods.
“How could he be so well groomed and distinctive looking,” she thought.

As Mona curiously observed and smelled him, Mr. Simpson sensed her presence and coconut oil fragrance. It delighted him.
He gently said to her, “My name is Mr. Simpson.” “What is your name?” His inquiry surprised her. “How could he know I am here”, she thought. “He cannot see me.”

Sensing her bewilderment, Mr. Simpson explained that he is blind, but all his other senses are intact and functioning. He added some of his senses like hearing and smelling are even better than some seeing individuals, and that seeing with one’s heart is often more powerful than seeing with one’s eyes. He said, “I knew you were here because I could smell your sweet coconut oil, and hear your breathing and movement. I sensed that you are a young child because of your tender footsteps. Bless you.”

Mona felt relieved and encouraged. She thought that Mr. Simpson was not only like other adults in her village–caring and protective of children—but, he was very special, perhaps like the angels, of which her grandmother often spoke.

So she said, “My name is Mona”, took Mr. Simpson’s hand and walked with him to the market. When they arrived to his vendor’s stall, he gave her two ripe bananas, and said to her, “Go with God, my child.”

By the time Mona reached home, her contact with Mr. Simpson already had been relayed to her grandmother, perhaps by “Eagle Eyes”. Madeh asked sternly, “What were you doing with Mr. Simpson?” Mona was stunned. How could her grandmother know about her experience with Mr. Simpson–it occurred near the market on Front Street; and she lived on Church Square. Because of the distance between both locations, it would have been impossible for Madeh or anyone on Church Square to see anything near the market on Front Street.

Mona asked her grandmother, “How do you know I was with Mr. Simpson?” Madeh responded firmly, “Child, don’t let me have to scold you. Tell me the truth”. The little girl told her grandmother about her contact with Mr. Simpson. She also proudly shared the bananas with her. But Mona could never understand how her grandmother knew about this contact long before she returned home. This intrigued her.

Her next contact with Mr. Simpson occurred when she was stoning mangoes from his mango tree with a mixed group of children of different ages. When he approached them they ran, and he could not pursue them. He did, however, smell Mona’s sweet coconut oil fragrance. He did not want any of them to be harmed by throwing rocks, or getting sick with colic by eating his young unfit hairy mangoes. Some children would pick his baby hairy mangoes to make mango souse. Others would eat them with salt when the mango seeds are soft and white, and oozing a sticky milk from their stems. These children would become ill with colic. Mr. Simpson was concerned deeply about Mona because of her caring innocence with him earlier. He worried her eyes could be knocked out by the older children throwing rocks. Furthermore, he did not want her to be led astray by her older influential peers. So he told her grandmother about his impressions and concerns.

That evening as Mona and her grandmother sat underneath their cellar, Madeh said to her: “Mona, do you see the mango tree way over there in Mr. Simpson’s yard?” The child hesitated, wondering what is her grandmother upto now. It must be about my incident with Mr. Simpson earlier today, she thought.
She sheepishly responded, “Yes, grandma”, looking in the direction of the tree.

“Do you see the leaves on the mango tree?” grandmother inquired. Squinting her eyes almost shut, Mona looked at the tree. It was so far away that it was difficult, if not impossible, to see its leaves. The sunset was casting shadows that blurred her view. Yet she answered, “Yes, I see them.”

Madeh firmly lifted Mona onto her lap and pointed to Mr. Simpson’s mango tree. “Now my child, do you see the fly on the leaf at the top of the mango tree?” Mona winced at the question. She already had difficulty seeing the tree’s individual leaves. Now she is being asked to see a fly on one of those leaves at the top of this huge tree. She strained her eyes, moving her head from side to side, up and down, trying for a visual angle that would give an enhanced view of Mr. Simpson’s mango tree. After several failed attempts, Mona told her grandmother that she could not see the fly on the leaf. Madeh immediately responded emphatically, “I can” after lifting up Mona to where they looked directly into each other’s eyes.

That night as Mona prepared for bed, she prayed: “Dear God. Sorry about what I did today. Forgive me. I won’t do it again. Please show me how my Grandma Madeh can see a fly on a leaf so far away. She must be able to see everything I do. So I will do my best to be good. I love her and want to be just like her when I grow up. Take care of Mr. Simpson. He has been good to me. I will tell him I am sorry tomorrow. Amen.”

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