Oral traditions and long family histories, part 2 (the James Family)

As we already saw in the previous post, in Act II of the play Threads of Silver and Gold: Women of the Panama Canal by Deborah B. Dickey, two families with multigenerational histories are sharing their experiences. In both cases a grandmother shares her recollections with a granddaughter while an older (deceased) relative supplies monologues that recount their family history from the early Construction days.

We look forward to reading your reflections on the material below and on your own family history.

(left to right) Steven H. Butler, Jamali Tyler, and Amanda Edwards

(left to right) Steven H. Butler, Jamali Tyler, and Amanda Edwards performing the parts of Henry, Abuela Eugenia, and Marcía at the debut reading of Threads of Silver and Gold: Women of the Panama Canal.

Here, we see three generations of the James Family. The grandmother is sewing in preparation for an annual ceremony to honor the workers who built the Panama Canal; while looking for some buttons, her granddaughter finds a box of family keepsakes that inspires their conversation. We are sharing a snippet of the play below, and would like to hear about the experiences of your own family or your reflections on the material presented.

Have you had similar experiences or a history of relatives who went to Panama to work on the Canal in the early days?

The character of Henry (Abuela Eugenia’s father and Marcía’s great-grandfather) is a composite drawn from various oral histories recounted by early Canal builders. How does the James family begin to fit into a collective history of the Canal Zone?

How about any reflections on the scene taking place or the manner in which Abuela Eugenia instructs her granddaughter?

The following is a short scene from the play:

(THE LIGHT CROSS FADES to the James’ home)

(Marcía is examining an old pocket watch on a gold chain with a shark’s tooth attached)

Abuela Eugenia
(Her grandmother picks up the watch from Marcía’s hand)

This was his pride and joy. He checked his watch when he arrived home and when he sat down to read his paper. When I was a little girl I would sit on his lap, and he would bring the watch out to teach me to tell time. I waited for him as long as I could, but he seldom made it home for supper and I was already in bed.

(she looks puzzled) ... and the shark’s tooth?

Abuela Eugenia
(she sits next to her granddaughter as they both examine the tooth)

That was his good luck charm. He had it for many years. I think he found it when he was working one of his first jobs in Panama.

Jamaican workers on the Panama Canal

Jamaican workers on a drilling team during Panama Canal Construction.

(THE LIGHT CROSS FADES to reveal Henry)

When I was working at Culebra Cut, I had to pass many steam shovels digging the canal and had to duck so as to get away from dynamite blasting. I witnessed men who were damaged by train accidents and many who were blasted when lighting dynamite fuses, or by the explosions of the dynamite.

Railroad men

Men standing on railroad tracks while behind them a car is loaded with earth.

Sometimes dozens of men were blown up into the air, impossible to know what arm or leg or hand belonged to what body. Both the injured and the dead were loaded on box cars and taken to Ancon hospital. So many die, there was a funeral train every day that carried them to the cemetery at Mt. Hope.

One morning I witnessed such a blast, and as we loaded the excavation onto the rail road cars, I discovered a shark’s tooth in the newly turned earth. This I know is a good omen because it comes from the time long, long ago when the ocean flowed from sea to sea across the Isthmus. I carried it with me always and thanked God for each day I came home safe without injury or illness.

Dynamite men in Culebra Cut

Dynamite team loading drill holes in Culebra Cut.

(THE LIGHT CROSS FADES to the James’ home)

Abuela Eugenia
(as she gives her granddaughter a hug)

And that is why we honor the memory of all those workers with the pilgrimage every year. We will drop a wreath of flowers from the boat, and when you wear the dress your great-grandmother made you will be honoring her memory, too.

I wish I had known them. I guess I never really thought about what their lives were like. He was a very brave man. But how could he afford to buy a gold watch on his salary?

Abuela Eugenia
Well you see he was able to get an office job when one of the timekeepers quit his job. The engineer in charge of the survey crew recommended your grandfather for the job. He was made the timekeeper in the office and later was promoted to clerk. That job gave him more responsibility and a better salary. He kept the records of the silver employees and his immediate boss kept the record of the gold employees. I think he was in charge of things like office supplies and keeping the files and he was also in charge of the messenger boys in the office. He used to love to repeat funny stories about that job. It seems his boss was the only one who knew the combination of the vault where they kept all the records. Anyway that man had a habit of gambling in the vault…


He opens the vault in the morning, and I, who uses it last, close it in the evening. One day unknown to me, they were in there playing. After getting out the mail I closed the outer door and throw off the combination. They did not make an immediate alarm, thinking I was having a joke on them. After I got home, the watchman came running out of breath to let me know there was someone in the vault. I rushed up and, luckily, the inner steel door was not closed and stands about three feet apart from the outer door. The result, he was able to stay in the inside and tell me how to open same. Imagine the fright we both had and his anger when he had to have the combination changed.

(Marcía and her grandmother share a laugh as the LIGHT FADES on Henry)

(THE LIGHT CROSS FADES to the Harrison home)