Thursday, 3 April 2014

Lost in the Pacific (II)

This is just one of a series of around fifty old newspaper articles that I have been reading. I have been researching from old newspapers and magazines. Covering the last 200 years or so of life on the inland waterways. With particular interest in the major issues of the day that were effecting the canals. The most active periods for evaluation and change, has always been just prior, during and shortly after the two world wars. It should be remembered that between the wars the ownership of some of the canals changed hands as the railway companies bought up the waterways to get reduce competition. What is not clear is the effect this early form of asset stripping had on the viability of the inland waterways. Its good to take a look back at what people were saying and doing in the past. Most surprising of all are some of the problems that beset the canals back then - are still prevalent today. Reading old newspapers can throw up some rather interesting stories. Here is what we would call today a public interest story.

Caveat: Some of the articles are difficult to read and even using modern electronic  scanning and text conversion methods. The odd punctuation, word or character may have been transcribed in error. 



As I came to the camp and dismounted from my horse I saw Mr. Hutchinson standing there with an expression on his face which caused me to think he was sorely troubled. We exchanged greetings, then he came closer and said I'm awfully sorry, old man; but I've got some bad news for you. Well, Mr. Hutchinson, I said I don't enjoy receiving bad news, but if you're got some, please tell me quickly, there's nothing wrong at home, I hope? No, replied the engineer, to be explicit, you're marooned on these islands for two weeks. I tried to avoid it, but couldn't, so you'll just have to make the best or a bad situation. The Invernada came in yesterday, and today five men who have been seriously ill in the camp hospital for the past week seemed likely to die. The doctor here could do nothing more for them, their lives depended upon their being rushed to proper hospital facilities at Balboa. So we put them aboard the yacht, and she sailed this morning. Before I let her go, I sent six scouting parties into the jungle to try' to find you and bring you back, but they returned this morning reporting they could get no trace of you. In the emergency there was nothing else to do. I'm awfully sorry to upset your plans, but it scorned to be a case of inconveniencing you or letting five men die, so I chose the lesser I evil. You can make yourself at home here and it won't cost you a penny. You can, fish, ride horseback enjoy yourself just as you see fit but you will be unable to leave the islands until the Invernada comes back. which will not be before another fortnight.

This piece of news, unwelcome as it was, was not quite as bad as I had expected. Nevertheless, I felt pretty sorry for myself when I thought upon what an enforced stay of a fortnight in the Pearl Islands meant for me. However. I managed to conceal my true feelings and smile a rather sickly smile. Well, Mr Hutchinson, I said, being left here certainly does throw a bombshell into my carefully laid plans, but it I can't be helped, I suppose. It leaves me in an awful pickle, but I shall have to make the best of it. I would not care much if it were not for just one thing. I have my return passage from Panama to the United States booked on a steamer that is to sail from Balboa for San Francisco just ten days from today. It is the last ship on which I can get home in time to be with my wife when our first baby is born. I came to South America, leaving my wife with her brother in Los Angeles, only upon the strict understanding that I would be home again before the baby arrived. Now, after all my careful planning, it appears that I've set a trap for myself which has dumped all my schemes into the sea. That is why I feel that I ought to get to Balboa to catch that steamer even if I have to paddle on a log. Haven't you got some sort of a boat here that I can get to the mainland on. Or can't we get a message ashore to bring out a boat, or a seaplane any blessed thing that can take me off these islands? I don't care twopence what it costs. I'll draw a thousand dollars, if necessary, from the bank when I get to Balboa for the man who can get me there before my ship sails! 

The engineer listened intently, puffing somewhat nervously at his pipe. He was silent for a moment as if in deep thought. Then he replied, I have no words to tell you how sorry I am that all this has occurred, but that doesn't change the situation one bit. There isn't a boat on this island, nor do I know of one on any neighbouring island, that is fit to make the trip to Balboa with any degree of safety. We have no radio equipment or any other means of getting a message ashore. There is just a possibility that we might be able to signal some passing tramp steamer to stop and take you off, but we have no assurance of such a thing. A steamer might pass to morrow that would stop and pick you up. On the other hand, no vessel may come within sight of the island until it's too late for you to make connections with your ship at Balboa. Fishermen occasionally I come here with yachts or sea-going motor launches from the Panama Canal zone and if one comes you could undoubtedly get them to take you back. But they too are quite uncertain. Just as Hutchinson finished the mess call was sounded at the camp, and the engineer bade me defer further discussion of the subject until after the meal. We adjourned to the mess tent, and I purposely took a seat where I could be as far as possible away from everybody else I wanted to be alone, because I was anxious to think over a plan of escape from my predicament. 

After the violent outdoor exercise I had indulged in that day I should have been ravenously hungry, but I found myself merely picking at my food, my half formed plan, however, took definite shape as I picked up my coffee cup. Simultaneously, a heavy masculine paw slapped me roughly on the shoulder and a voice from behind said "Come now, old man, buck up! It might be worse." The hand and the voice were those of Mr Hutchinson. He sat down at the table beside me, most of the other engineers having gone. Forthwith I began to unfold my scheme to him. Mr. Hutchinson, I said, have you got plenty of gasoline at this camp? Yes, he replied. "Why?" "Well," I responded, "if you've got plenty of gasoline, I want about ten gallons of it. I also want that boat I've been fishing with, the sail that goes with it. A couple of beakers of water, and some food. I'm going to Balboa tomorrow if I have to swim part of the way!

At this the engineer was apparently nonplussed, his eyebrows arched, he looked at me over his spectacles, and then whistled a long drawn note of surprise, "Great Scot!" he cried. "You newspaper reporters arc never irked, are you? So you're going to Balboa in that cockleshell, with a jib-sail and tiny stern winding engine of yours? Well if that's your decision, you're welcome to the boat. I'll give you every possible help, and I reckon you'll either get to balboa or Davy Jones locker! I know I'm contemplating a dangerous trip," I told him. But I can't let my wife think I've deserted her at a time such as she is facing. I'm going to be in Los Angeles by the 15th of April or drown in, the attempt! If I had any way to get word to her it wouldn't be so had but  since that can't be done I'm going to her!

For the next half hour the engineer endeavoured  to argue me out of my determination. He assured me that under normal weather conditions I might be able to get to the Canal zone with the eighteen fool boat, my "vest-pocket" motor, as he called it, and a jib-sail. But, just as emphatically, he declared that if I got caught out in the Gulf of Panama in a 'Papagayo' the sudden wind storms that frequently sweep these tropical seas. I should most certainly be "sunk without trace." Finally, seeing that his arguments were of no avail. Mr. Hutchinson once more promised to give me every assistance in the project. I'll send one of my men with you, he said, but this offer I declined, saying I could see no logical reason for risking a second man's life. If I'm going to get to Balboa at all, I assured him, I can do it by myself quite as well as with another man. On the other hand, if I'm to drowned, I'd better drown alone." 

Ten gallons of gasoline an ample supply for the Evinrude were loaded into the little boat. The twenty-gallon breakers of fresh water were also put aboard, and then a water-tight box of food, sufficient to last me for five days, if necessary, for a much longer period if carefully rationed. That completed the outfit in addition to the personal luggage that I had brought to the islands in the Invernada. With everything ready for the voyage, the boat was anchored out in the bay, ready for me to set off at daylight. 

(Continued in part III) 

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