Goodbye to Baseline

Image is of the Mechanics Lodge posing for a group picture with their families.  About 1912 at Isla Colon.  Just as in Colon and Panama City the Lodges made up a very important part of the life of the West Indian Panamanian society.  Image thanks to Sr. José Price.

Image is of the Mechanics Lodge posing for a group picture with their families. About 1912 at Isla Colon. Just as in Colon and Panama City the Lodges made up a very important part of the life of the West Indian Panamanian society. Image thanks to Sr. José Price.

These were the times of the Panamanian presidency of Ernesto de la Guardia, Jr., while we remained in Baseline, today known as the area of Changuinola in Bocas del Toro Province. However, today I would probably not recognize that same Changinola River area I got to know the first day I ventured up there to seek work back in 1956. But, it was an area that my co-workers and I would get to know as home and we shared many adventures together as plantation laborers just as my West Indian forefathers had done years before. At this point in my life, now with a new baby and a wife in tow, I was ready to depart from this tainted land for me, swearing that I would never go back. Nevertheless, I started meeting new friends.

In reality, it was through my friend Bobby that I got to meet all sorts of new people. I knew Bobby from our San Miguel neighborhood in Panama and I wound up relieving him temporarily in the office in Baseline. I figured that he must have had a boring life since, on many occasions, shortly after I’d arrive home from work, he would show up at my home inviting me to come with him and some other friends, usually new people. They usually assembled at the local Cantina on the main street of the town.

Now, I had always tried to avoid the main drag. I wanted to steer clear of the gambling, swearing and heavy drinking that I could hear from my bunk in the old, railroad box car when I used to bunk in the single men’s quarters. For friendships’ sake, however, I would agree to show up at the bar where I’d meet two other guys who were also Bobby’s friends back at the office. Bobby usually showed up minutes after I arrived at the bar. The bar itself was owned and run by Chinese people.

The conversation between these old office workers usually centered around things like local history of, for instance, the dominance of the Masons’ Lodge in the area of Baseline. I often felt kind left out of the conversation since everything was still new to me then. But then, I was also new to them and we waited at the bar in Almirante until it was time to go to the dance hall near by. One of the guys in our party, in fact, wore his Lodge membership ring on his ring finger like a valuable trophy, admiring it often as he spoke. It wouldn’t be too long before the dance band would strike up the dance music while those guys sat around chatting like old matrons watching me do what I did best- dance with the women at a nearby table.

I really couldn’t understand how they could sit around and not jump at the chance to dance with such an excellent dance band playing this great music. They just seemed delighted in me and quite content with watching as they bought small bottles of beer for me, kind of hoping that I would get drunk. But, since I really disliked drinking beer I would avoid them all night dancing with the women, only to return to their table periodically to hear them repeating the same stories about who got a good job because he had been accepted into the Black Mason Lodge, which seemed to dominate the whole of Bocas Province.

This went on many times when we’d all go out on weekends to Almirante. It was a rather obscure and strange tradition to me, of trying to recruit young intelligent Westindian boys like me into the Masons but, since they never did come up with a permanent job for me, I figured it was time for me to leave.

The baby, being more than three months old now, was fit to travel out of Baseline. By his fourth month I made arrangements for workers of the company to help me pack my belongings and place them on the train to be stored in a Bocas Town warehouse. And so we left the Baseline station one morning drawing a small crowd of Westindian girls who hadn’t seen the baby boy. We boarded the train and waited until the conductor signaled us to get on board with the small crowd of young girls still giving us the sendoff. I figured that they had seen the agricultural tractor from the company’s railroad office loading our belongings and taking off to never see us again, so they decided to take a peek at the unusual couple and their half Chinese baby one more time.

This story continues.

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