Searchlights and the Gumshoe

This is how the search lights looked to us from Central Colon.
Image thanks to a fascinating site called

“At any rate, the city-wide fire would not touch the dwelling my family and I lived in at that corner of Third Street and Melendez Avenue in the historic City of Colon. As I wrote my memoirs describing the scenes, I remembered that our Papá-abuelo (granddad) came home during the fire relieved to find the family settled across the street from the home they knew. Then, he and some of his Westindian co-workers moved us all down the street where he felt we would be safer.

We spent some days and nights there in the open. The nights offered some excitement because we could see the starlit sky and search-lights in the distance searching for I- don’t-know-what. Those were the first Colon nights I remembered experiencing as the noise of explosions heard in the distance made some neighbors comment about what the “Bomba’ros” (fire fighters) were doing to put out the fire. I wrote precisely the way I remembered how the Westindian neighbors would have sounded pronouncing the word Bombero. I then settled back to read my handy work. I read for a while ignoring the teacher as she, once again, took control of the class.

“The sun came out and I awoke to find that we had been moved into a tent and that it had been made into a whole city, or so it seemed. People caught busses to the Silver People’s Commissary from that “tent city” and I remember that we watched the chivitas come and go into the tent neighborhood. Then I thought for a while that we never would go back to live in the wooden building I loved so much at Third and Melendez.”

I stopped writing momentarily in order to pay attention to the teacher, although she ignored me, she continued with her lesson that I cared nothing about. Just to throw off the teacher, less she get curious as to what I was writing, I feigned interest in the class and the conversation she was having with the rest of my classmates. My mind, however, was on what I was writing in my Balboa notebook.

As I struggled to stay focused on the class, my mind wondered and flashed back to a time in Colon City I had almost forgotten. The memories now rushed in to fill the void left by boredom, which seemed to have settled in so long now at that school.

With the teacher at her desk I looked back at the class that surrounded me on all sides and I noticed the look of relief on their faces as they had instantly forgotten whatever it was the teacher had been discussing seconds ago. As a budding writer I remembered how long ago it had been that I had taught myself to read and write both in Spanish and English. The book I started to take out, a Pio Barroja novela entitled Sonata de Estío, had lost its charm as, on second thought, I reached for my trusted notebook now filled with interesting memories and proceeded to write, forgetting my immediate surroundings.

I took up my tale again. “Soon after the fire had been put out we were back in our apartment and again I followed Naní around all day. It seemed that our interest was focused on the evenings and nights when my Papá would get home from work with the day’s newspaper. Those evenings for the three of us would end with my grandfather reading about the ‘cussed white-man,’ as he was always referring to them, while my grandmother sat attentive in front of him and I settled between his legs, with my little arms draped over his legs listening and trying to follow his reading and comments about The War.

During the day, however, I would invariably be chosen to accompany one of my young aunts to shop at the Silver Commissary which was not far from anywhere in Colon. In fact, we had all been born in Panama and had never lived on the Black Canal Zone, but we were as much a part of the Silver People as those Westindians who lived on the Canal Zone. The trip home from the Silver Commissary would force us to pass by white people’s homes as we left that Canal Zone. In fact, I still had not encountered or caught a glimpse of any white people at all at that time in my young life. The only white person I had always been secretly afraid of was the ‘Gumshoe’ my aunts always talked about in Colon.

I was also unaware, at that time, that we had lived with my parents in Panama City, and, later on, when my mother’s sisters would come to care for us after moving back to Panama they would remember that I had been born in Casa Galvez which I passed by daily as we entered and exited the school on Avenida Central.”

This story continues.

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