A Digger’s Story


Contractor's Hill about 1910.  The breaking down of this massive piece of solid rock was a tremendous and dangerous undertaking and the black, West Indian Silvermen met the challenge.  The image is thanks to the Library of Congress.

Contractor’s Hill about 1910. The breaking down of this massive piece of solid rock was a tremendous and dangerous undertaking and the black, West Indian Silvermen met the challenge. The image is thanks to the Library of Congress.

The poem we are honored to post today is about the memories that many of the Silvermen preferred not to remember, much less recount. But, Louis Emanuel, our friend and resident poet – and chronicler- has a sharp recall for the accounts his grandfather rendered of the perils he and his companions encountered as part of the digging backbone of the Silver Roll work crews in the early construction days of the Panama Canal. 

A Digger’s Story
by Louis Emanuel

My Grandfather the digger, a leader in his group
Related sometimes, few passages of his youth
He left Barbados in 04′ being an able seaman
Whom traded the seas, for a foreign solid land.

Arrived to Panama, when massive cleanup began
To eliminate the mosquitoes, a well conceived plan
Tons of insecticide, controlled the pest whose bite
Killed thousands of men, at the planned canal site.

When work resumed, I worked at Contractor Hill
To bring that giant down, many good men killed
We lived in rustic shacks, it rained outside and in.
Comforts were absent, survival an acquired skill.

Forget about showers, they nowhere to be seen
Latrines, pit toilets used, for unruly bowels relief
In a hurry use bush, always snakes in the grass
Be mindful while squatting, it could be your last.

Scorpions, spiders, vipers, forever there to bite
Coral snakes very deadly, a lovely beauty at sight
A fer-de-lance on the trail, bared fangs as to fight
The venomous snake killed, shot by a passerby.

One night on the trail to our shack, a place of gloom
With my protege Frenchie, a beastly growl ensued
Then a silhouette with slits for eyes, bright as noon
He cried tig-ere run, said no that could be our doom.

We hollered, barked loudly, the jaguar hied instead
Told the young man, be brave or else you will
Be on the funerary train, final journey of the dead
That rumbles nearby daily, in route to Monkey Hill.

He related that during that era, equipment and men
Were subjected to their limits, performing to the end
Living conditions, laboring, with specters of the dead
Whilst serving a harsh sentence, in a virtual earthly hell.

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