NOTE: “The Story Of The Month” changes every month OR bi-monthly and might also have been featured in my collection DOWN INDEPENDENCE BOULEVARD published by MiddleRoad Publishers in 2017 and available on Amazon, or might be an Extract from my two novels RACING WITH THE RAIN and JUNTA or my collection UNFATHOMABLE AND OTHER POEMS
ACROSS THE GREAT DIVIDE BOOK 1 CHAPTER 1
Excerpt work-in-progress from an upcoming novel.
By Ken Puddicombe
The inundation had stopped. For the moment it seemed—there being no sign of the sun—it hadn’t made its appearance all morning since Francois Benoit had awakened and heard that the lake had swollen by three feet overnight. He hadn’t seen a deluge like this from as far back as he could remember, not even when he worked for the French administration.
Black umbrella in hand—just in case—Benoit tried to keep up with Wallace, on this, the man’s maiden familiarization tour of the complex to assess the status of the Canal Project.
They made their way down the steep, wooden staircase to the bottom of the hill, leaving head office—a two storied structure completely refurbished as one of the first acts to greet the new Chief Engineer. Built back in the French era, the building had been outstanding, the site on a hill chosen for its lofty height to withstand the ravages of Panama’s deluge during the rainy season.
Walker and Gorgas were waiting for them at the bottom of the stairs. Walker was the chair of the ICC—the Isthmian Canal Commission, recently appointed by President Roosevelt. Gorgas, a renowned specialist in tropical diseases, had been appointed as Head of Sanitation just six months prior. His reputation in fighting tropical diseases had been cemented in Cuba where he was the driving force in eradicating Malaria and Yellow Fever. One man entrusted with political powers and a drive to save taxpayer money, the other backed by science in the battle against tropical diseases. Benoit could see a battle of wills coming soon and it was difficult to predict who would win out.
A fine drizzle had started. Benoit opened up the umbrella and held it over Wallace.
“Is it always like this?” Wallace said.
Benoit didn’t know if the question was directed at him. Under the French, he’d learnt a long time ago that the role of an underling, someone of mixed heritage like him, was to speak only when spoken to, and even then, to temper the response with a degree of diplomacy and tact demanded by someone in his position. He didn’t think it would be any different under his American masters.
Wallace paused before he stepped over a puddle and looked at Benoit with raised eyebrows.
Benoit said, “We are in the middle of the rainy season, Monsieur.”
“How long does the rainy season last, then?”
Gorgas had paused at a pool of stagnant water in a ditch. He said, “The rainy season runs from May until October, John. Things will only get worse before they get better.” Implicit in his statement: You’d better get used to it.
Walker sighed and shook his head. “Rain or no rain, the work must go on. There is a great deal of capital invested here, both political and economic and we have to succeed. The President himself guaranteed that to Congress and I am here to ensure his goals are achieved.”
“Christ,” Wallace said, “how can anything be worse than this? But I agree. The work must go on, regardless.”
You’d be surprised Monsieur. When the rains come, you will never see the sun, for days on end. It will make you wish you were anywhere but here. I know. I have seen the sky open. I have heard thunder and seen lightning light up the dark sky and turn it into daylight at night. All before the rains come.
They walked to the train station. Gorgas skipped over a pool of water, shrugged and said, “I think we need to pause and evaluate the sanitary conditions as a first step, John. All this water lying around is perfect breeding grounds for mosquitoes. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but there’s thousands of mosquito larvae incubating and waiting to hatch, looking for fresh blood to spread the disease. I know what I’m saying. I saw the worst of it in Havana and—”
“Mosquitoes have no connection with what we are here for, Gorgas,” Walker said. “Our mission is to build the canal. Let’s keep that in mind.”
Wallace paused before stepping over a puddle. “I understand about the mosquitoes, George. I honestly do, and I know what a damn nuisance they must be and how they can hold up the work. But, I agree with Walker. We must see the project off the ground, and completed within the time frame. That’s the mandate from the President. We have five years to do it. The other members of the commission agree with this approach, so there’s no choice in the matter.”
“Mosquitoes only attack at night, anyhow,” Walker said. “The bulk of the work will be done during the daytime.”
Fool! Mosquitoes only attack at night? Just you wait and see. They come in swarms, filling the air like a dark cloud of pestilence, getting into your nose and ear hole. But, most likely, you will be back in Washington, safe and sound, away from it all.
The goal of creating the long-desired route across the great divide, linking the Atlantic and Pacific through the Isthmus of Panama was an ambition of imperial powers for centuries, the objective being to gain both economic and military dominance over the region. Benoit’s French heritage had made him proud when the canal was started under De Lesseps, who planned on transferring his expertise in the building of the Suez Canal to Panama. But one of the many failings of the old aristocrat was his approach and lack of recognition that Egypt was not Panama. Building a canal in a sand-based region was not the same as going through tropical, dense jungle. French engineers trained at the Ecole Polytechnique and used in the building of Suez were not accustomed to working in hot, steamy conditions. The result: Benoit had seen them drop like flies, many of them lasting mere weeks into their tenure, returning home broken in spirt and body.
When the project faltered, Francois always hoped, beyond hope at times, that a way would be found to reverse the disappointment and turn disaster into success. It was not to be.
Gorgas pointed to the pool of water they’d just passed. “There are hundreds, if not thousands of pools like that all over the site—perfect conditions for breeding mosquitoes. I’m telling you, John, if we start out making the same mistakes like the French it will all end up in disaster, the way it did for them.”
Wallace threw up his hands. “I understand that, Gorgas. I do. But give it time, we will try to find a way around it. I promise you.”
“Nonsense,” Walker said. “We have the know-how and the equipment, and the money. Don’t compare us with the feeble effort of the French. They lost control of the spending—that was their biggest problem! Add the corruption that beset the entire project and the fact that it didn’t have the clout of the French government, it was doomed to failure.”
The area they were passing through—Culebra, was the densest section of the Isthmus, towering Ficus and Jacaranda trees dominating the landscape, pink Cannonball flowers in thick vines clinging to the trunks. The battle between the railroad and the jungle was an unceasing one in which the authorities had to constantly prune, slash and deliver the tracks from the incursion of the jungle and tall trees reaching to the sky. In some areas, the jungle was mere inches away from the windows of the carriage. By simply stretching his hand out the window, Benoit was able to touch the greenery and marvel at nature’s unrelenting quest to reclaim its lost domain.
They passed a clearing in the jungle and came to the town of Empire, where the French had built a maintenance shop for the equipment to be used in the project. Now, only skeleton remains occupied it—an area where the French had made their greatest progress in the excavation of the great divide, carving close to ten feet off the surface layer of Culebra Hill. But ten feet was comparable to an inch of rain falling in Panama, and the total rainfall for the year in the region was over seventy inches.
The greenery surrounding The Dig had been scaled back during the French era to almost twenty feet away from the railroad track, and yet the jungle was back, with a vengeance, it seemed. Two French steam shovels towered above the landscape and creeping Cannonball vine had reached the top, strangling the machinery. Bushes surrounded the entire setting. Birds squawked at the intrusion and insects invaded the carriage.
Wallace shook his head. “Is it like this all down the track?”
Gorgas nodded. “I took a trip earlier this week. It’s as thick and impenetrable, almost right up to Colon. And there’s equipment like this all along the track.”
Walker said, “Maltby has submitted his report. He thinks most of the French equipment can be salvaged.”
Wallace said, “Salvaged, yes, but can they stand up to the task at hand?”
“I dare say it will take a great deal of work to bring the equipment up to speed.”
“We have to work on that,” Wallace said.
Walker snorted. “If we can’t use them, we paid forty million good Yankee dollars for a pig in the poke. Congress won’t be happy over that. Neither will the President.”
Wallace didn’t have to say it, but Francois could tell. The Chief Engineer was wondering if they were throwing good money after bad, in attempting to continue what the French had started. Wallace was now one of the highest paid men in America, his salary being second only to Roosevelt who had offered the man the high remuneration to encourage him to tackle the project in Panama. Francois thought that Wallace would have to earn every dollar of his inflated salary, if the building of the canal ever came to realization.
December –The Touch Of Peace
Jan – The Interview
Feb – The Underground [2nd Prize Polaris Magazine]
Mar –Welcome To Punta Canada
APR – Return Of The Prodigal [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
MAY- No Thank You
JUNE – The Shoplifter
JULY/ AUGUST: The Last Straw [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
SEPTEMBER/ OCTOBER: Relics In The Attic [from Down Independence Boulevard and Other Stories]
NOVEMBER: The Day Queen Victoria Lost Her head [Published in The Caribbean Writer]
DECEMBER— The Touch Of Peace
JANUARY/ FEBRUARY –The Effect Of Light Rays On The Milky Way and Minor Constellations
APRIL/MAY: The Other Side
JULY/AUG: Love Through The Ages
OCT: Don’t Cry For Me
MAR: Going Back
JULY: Unfathomable And Other Poems
SEP: Tropical Rain (poem)
OCT: The Conversation
NOV: Visions and Tropical Night
DEC: The Touch Of Peace
FEB: Objects In The Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear
MAR: Riding The J Train
APR: Skin Deep
JUNE: You Can Never Go Home
JULY: I Hardly Knew You
AUG: Welcome To Punta Cana-da
SEP: Across the Great Divide: Book 1/ Chapter 1