A Scramble for Safety

One of my old Balboa Notebooks


Back in my sixth grade classroom, after having helped out with the big Friday night dance, it was indeed a place in which I now commanded some passive attention from my classmates. As usual I still held on to my guarded, isolated status as I reached for the trusted Spanish
novela I had been reading since the beginning of class that year. Feigning to be more interested in reading than in Albina Romero, the girl at the back of the classroom who I had danced all night with, I ignored most all of my classmates.

Instead I thought about old Polly’s funeral which I had been deprived of attending or fooled, at least, into believing that I was going to attend and last minute just being left out. Fanny Reid, my grandmother had seen to that, knowing at that time that I had always been an obedient child. She thought it better not to let me go through the trauma of a graveside ceremony.

Back in the classroom before I could start to resent the fact that I had been deprived of giving my dear Polly a last farewell, I put down the book I had been reading. In fact, I had almost finished reading the novel which was a bit advanced for my primary school years. I then started writing in class for the first time that year using one of the classic Panamanian Balboa notebooks, the only school accessory one such as himself could purchase at any Chinaman’s convenience store in the neighborhood. It was a common item that could be found in any barrio neighborhood in the city. The notebook actually marked an advancement in the history of Panamanian primary education of the time. It always had, and continues to, display a multiplication table on the inside front cover, the Panamanian National Anthem on the outside back cover and on the front cover the word Balboa with some black and white design everyone educated in those times knew very well.

It surprised me to discover that I had not drawn or written anything in the wide lined pages of the well preserved notebook for quite some time. Jotting in this notebook had been my way of scrambling and seeking safety to overcome the deep feelings of boredom and loneliness I felt. But, at that particular moment I set out to write whatever I remembered someone in my family had said about my life in the year I had been born. Quietly looking at the blank pages, I calculated how I would write something I mostly knew from intuition.

Those events had taken place between 1935 and 1940, before the Great Colon Fire. I was sure about seeing the beginnings of that fire, in fact, and how those had been the years I remembered the best of all my early childhood.

I wrote “Fire” or “Fi’ya!” in Westindian, sort of remembering those years that really marked my life, before someone yelled, “¡Fuego! Fiya!,” the alarm that made my young aunts and most of the City of Colon scramble for safety. “The Green family of Colon,” I mused as I wrote what I remembered of one or the other of my aunts. “Where is Juni?!” they yelled. Then Spanish words poured from my pencil as I wrote how they had to look for Juni.

They called out but I remembered being enchanted by the mesmerizing scene I was observing and recognizing as a very strange rainbow crossing from one building to the other. I learned that where I was sitting was on the side of Third Street. They called out almost in a panic, louder and louder, as most of the people were scrambling for anything of value they could save before the fire caught their building.

While speedily writing down my memories, less I forget something important, I remembered the voice of my mother, an unmistakable voice out of my past life, yet I recalled that she had been rarely at home with the family. Then something she shouted struck me as an order to her sisters as she said, “Bring down the sewing machine!”

This story continues.

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