On the Semblance of Solid Ground

My mom passed away eleven years ago this April. Perhaps that’s what urges me to call my dad and ask about when he and his older brother left Panama for Brooklyn alongside his parents in 1953. To get at what he remembered. My father was almost ten, his older brother eleven. Two younger brothers were left behind with family and a promise that they would be brought along when things were settled. We had talked around all of this before, but I was younger, not yet a father myself. This time he was smiling over the phone with his beautifully big cheeks. My mom always told me he was teased for them as a kid and that was a reason he’d never more than trimmed his beard in my lifetime. When he smiles and sings, his cheeks cannot hide.

My dad is a cardiologist and founded a pretty big funk band with his brothers. That is to say, he’s had the means and opportunity to travel the world. I ask if it surprises him that neither he nor his brothers ever returned to Panama. “Tied up with life here” is the response that comes automatically. But in the pause that follows he is stuck on the boat and spits out its suddenly recalled name: the SS Ancon. This is the first I’ve heard of it, perhaps the first time he’s uttered it in more than half a century. It was a cold ten days on the Atlantic in September, he tells me, but he and his brother were treated like royalty. I ask if he remembers anything off. “It was the 50s,” I say. He laughs. He is sure they were the only kids on the boat and talks about them having the run of the swimming pool, shuffleboard, and the mechanical horse races. The royal treatment came via the ship’s maître d’, a Haitian man that was a friend of my grandfather’s since his time working on the Panama Canal. The boat even stopped in Haiti for a day, and they were given a tour of Port-au-Prince.

Three days later I find a digital copy of the ship’s manifest and stare at the detail that my grandparents were a decade younger than I am now when they made their voyage with fourteen bags. The agent might have originally miscounted the luggage, as there is a twelve that has been crossed out. Or maybe they added two bags in Haiti. Regardless, it was a six-day trip on the SS Ancon, in October not September, the temperature in the low 40s as they stepped off the boat to meet the possibility of Brooklyn.

An archive’s seduction lies in its semblance of solid ground and I find myself digging around the Internet for an image of the ship. I discover that it was first owned by the Panama Railroad Company and later reconfigured to support troops and communications for both the Army and Navy during World War II. It was back in the Panama Railroad Company’s hands seven years before my dad would swim in the pool that had been drained to make room for the troops in Morocco, Sicily, and Normandy. Its last stop was in Tokyo Bay where it carried members of the press alongside the USS Missouri as Japan formally surrendered less than a month after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

That Panama and its Canal are so entangled with the violence of war is not in any way a revelation to me. That entanglement, along with my family’s presence in it, was responsible for my interest in crafting a novella baked in its history. But I was mildly shocked to encounter this in the story of my dad’s transport to this country, though I shouldn’t have been. The figure of the ship has been there from the beginning. It was, after all, the threat of the USS Nashville, a gunboat stationed just off the Isthmus, that allowed Panama to separate from Colombia and deliver the stewardship of the Canal Zone to the U.S. for the bullied cost of ten million dollars and an annual rental fee of a quarter million.

When I call to tell my dad about the bags, the number, sure that it will be the detail to anchor him further, it is clear he has been thinking about his younger brothers. “They made their trip by plane two years later,” he tells me, and continues on about how proudly the youngest had announced that he could speak English. This was his brother’s supposed first line on the tarmac—I can speak—and my dad repeats it three times on the phone to me as if possessed by the voice of a toddler. Smiling. Talking to my sister sometime later, I learn he had felt the need to share this anecdote with her, but entirely divorced from the context of his conversations with me. Confused as to its surfacing, she’d begun to develop a scaffolding of her own to place it in. In our sibling catch-up session, neither of us can comfortably bend our minds around the gap between leaving and having been left behind, even for a brave possibility. Even as the residual of this leaving, as all things we unknowingly inherit, has been breathed into our own lives.

I have been to Panama. Years ago, when I first did research for the story I wanted to write. I scoured its archives and learned how to tie a cleat hitch from an Australian backpacker so I could offer my services to one of the small yachts crossing the Canal. I’m not sure if it’s still the case, but at the time private boats could circumvent hiring the requisite number of local deckhands by replacing them with the free and eager labor of travelers. Uneasy as I felt about this, it gave me the opportunity to see with my own eyes the improbable passage between the seas that my kinfolk had done more than their part to materialize and service. And so, I hung out in a bar at the edge of the Isthmus until I met a lovely, leather-skinned couple on their second marriage.

Approaching the Grand Canyon for the first time is the closest analogy I have to give contour to the feeling in my stomach as I stood on the bow of this speck of a boat mere feet behind a gargantuan cargo ship. But it was sailing on Gatun Lake, that body of flooded jungle and construction towns between the locks, where a sudden and sober knowing of all the Black labor and Black death that had been buried for this “engine of economic growth,” as countless U.S. politicians have called it over the years, came over me. Intellectually, I knew how in many ways the enterprise at the Isthmus was an echo of that other “engine” that undergirds so much of what we still walk on; the various and incomplete accountings of the death toll of the primarily West Indian labor force were scribbled all over my notebooks then. But as I was peeling an orange in the afternoon sun, resting on the side deck with bare feet dangling, there was no language to prepare me for or insulate me from such an overwhelm. These moments simply pass through you. And they speak, however incoherently, even if that is not your desire. In this way, it should not be at all surprising that, when I sat facing my computer over the years to flesh out the various drafts of the fiction I’d hatched during that trip, it would turn into, with an apparent mind of its own, a ghost story.

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