By Larry Miller
I tried, diligently I think, to shimmy up the tree. It was not as if I had never shimmied up a tree before. As a boy, while growing up I had experimented many times with that kind of endeavor, but I have to admit that those times were many years in the past.
In fact, when I get to thinking about the art of climbing trees, I have to admit that I had not used the term shimmied since I was a kid. Shimmying was something a boy was expected to learn. It was a skill that was made necessary to learn by the fact that many trees have no lower branches to help a boy to conquer the upper heights; thus the art of shimmying.
Shimmying required a certain amount of body strength, strong hands, and legs that did not mind, too much, the scrapes from the natural abrasiveness of the climb. A boy would wrap his arms and legs around the trunk, and by virtue of squeezing the heck out of the trunk, he would slowly raise his arms a little at a time, waiting long enough for his legs to push the rest of his body upwards.
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As I said, I had shimmied a lot of trees, back when I was a mere boy. Unless it was a giant redwood or sequoia, it was doable. And we had no redwoods or sequoias in our Midwest neighborhood, anyway. We had maples, and oaks, and cottonwoods.
We learned by watching the older boys in their rush through boyhood. It was one more feat that had to be learned in order to be recognized as a true boy. A boy’s first attempts were usually failures, but that is to be accepted as part of life’s progress, and no real boy gave up in the face of adversity. Falls occurred.
Falls were a part of the growing experience that marked those playful years. A real boy, or one who professed to be a real boy, merely got up from where he had fallen, brushed himself off, and gave it another try. Or he would suffer jeers of derision.
So there I was, in 1954, twenty-one years of age, holding to the idea that I was in as good a condition as I ever would be, and facing a real challenge. I had tried to get to the top of a tree that was giving me all that I could handle. And what was discouraging was the fact that I had made several attempts, only to find myself sliding down its somewhat slippery trunk, feeling the result of the burning sensation that my thin arms and legs experienced.
There were four of us there, all U. S. sailors, sweltering in the heat of the humid jungle that gave Panama a true distinction, that of being home to one of the densest jungles in the world.
The others were laughing at me and for good reason. I had boasted about how I had beaten every worthwhile tree that grew in Germantown, an ethnic community that sat in the southern part of Port Huron, Michigan. But this was not a chestnut tree, or maple, or an oak or cottonwood. I remember how proud I was, at the age of eight, to finally have conquered the giant cottonwood that stood defiantly in my neighbor’s yard. It must have been a climb of more than forty feet, a height that, I will admit, looked dangerous from an easy perch at the juncture near the top. But fear, as a boy, was something to be conquered, at the possible peril of one’s life.
But it was not Germantown. It was Panama. And I was no longer an eight-year-old boy with a vivid imagination.
There I lay, on the moist ground that gave root to a line of coconut-laden palm trees. It is hard to feel proud while lying on the ground, arms, and legs akimbo. And I assure you that my pride had been taken away.
“You can’t do it that way, Mon.”
I probably had only ascended ten or twelve feet, when I had fallen. I must have looked like a pathetic figure, lying there, on my back. About the only good thing about it all was the better view I then had, looking up at the fronds that adorned the top of the tree.
Mon was pronounced almost as a Jamaican would say it. But the speaker was not from Jamaica. He was from Columbia, and proud of it.
His name was Sam Andrew Pusee. We just called him Sam. I was stationed in Panama, on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. There were twenty-six of us sailors based there, and all of us came to know and to love Sam. He was a fixture at the base.
He was a tall, rather slender black man. In the almost two and a half years that I came to know Sam, he never had a bad thing to say about life. His smile was one that lit up his whole face, his perfect teeth revealing a joy in living. And he was at home in that wild land, as well as anyone could possibly be, and thus his ever-constant smile.
What made Sam so well received was his willingness to act, unintentionally, as father-like mentors to us all. He was always so easygoing, so likable.
I often wondered how much he missed being with his family, who lived in Columbia. Sam worked for the U.S. Navy for eleven months of the year. Each year Sam would take a one-month break to go visit his wife and family. By the time I got to know him, he had been a civilian worker for the Navy for more than twenty years. I don’t remember his exact age-even Sam claimed not to know how old he was but it was somewhere in the vicinity of sixty-five. One would not think he was that old, considering the overall physicality he displayed.
Everyone liked Sam. He whistled constantly while doing manual chores, like using a machete to cut away at the creeping jungle, or painting the facilities-this with the old Navy dictum: If it moves, salute it; if it doesn’t move, paint it.
But at that moment, with me lying on the ground, in defeat, I wanted to know what the secret was to climbing the tree.
I suppose you are curious as to why I wanted to make the climb. First, there was the challenge of backing up my boasting. Second, there were coconuts up in the tree, and one had fallen that morning, leaving us hungering for more. I always had liked coconuts, and still, do.
That reminds me of another talent that Sam had: using a machete to open a coconut. I had opened a few myself, but it was always with the mindset of never getting too careless with the machete. I valued my hands. I still remember a saying from my very early days: You can always tell which butchers were the good ones and which were the bad ones; look for the ones who had nubs for several of their fingers. Such thinking led me to be overly cautious.
I would place the coconut on the ground, and carefully hack away in an effort to get the outer shell off, all while trying not to nick the thinner nutty shell. We did not want to lose any of the precious coconut milk. My hacks were numerous, and all too often I would find that I had not been successful, for the milk would be spilling out before the whole outer shell had been hacked off.
Not so with Sam. He would hold the coconut in his left hand and proceed to neatly cut away, in only a few strokes, the outer shell, leaving in his hand the brown, succulent coconut. He seemed to display no fear about the possibility of hacking off his hand, or his fingers.
Then he would tilt the coconut on one end, and lop off a small hole, and then hold it to his mouth, and with his head leaning back, allow the sweet milk to find passage down his throat, before offering it to us to savor.
All of that swallowing was accompanied by a grateful “Ahhh. Good, Mon,” accompanied by a big grin.
I had tried several climbs that morning. Two of my shipmates-excuse the misnomer, for in my four years of service, I only spent eleven days aboard any ship-had stood by, waiting to see if the Michigan boy could prove his boasting. Neither of them made any attempt at climbing. They were satisfied with watching me fail.
“You must do it this way, Mon,” Sam said. And placing his hands around the slim trunk of the palm tree, he put both feet against the tree and, in a maneuver that defies explaining, he scampered up the tree, his hands sliding upwards, his feet pushing against the trunk.
Within seconds Sam was near what he called the nest, that place where the slim trunk branched off into several branches, a place that could be used as a resting spot, a v-like formation. It was an incredible feat, climbing that tree in seconds. I could only stand amazed.
The result? Three or four coconuts thrown down to us. And, of course, we waited for him to climb back down so that he could remove the nuts for our consumption.
Living in Panama was a wonderful experience. It was a wonderful country, a wonderland of immense, thick jungle vegetation, and small rivers, like the Chagres. Our little secret base sat at the edge of the jungle, surrounded on three sides by the Caribbean Sea, a small bay, and a tidal pool that often was inhabited by sharks, most of them of the smaller variety. We called those small ones sand sharks. Their mouths could not open as wide as those of the larger variety, and thus they were not much of a menace whenever we chose to share their pool.
I found, when I arrived at the base, that there had been a contest invented that involved trying to hit a shark over the head with an oar, all while wading in waist-high water when the tide went out. The oars were from two small motorboats that had been given to the personnel at the base. We would jump into the pool at low tide, brandishing our oars, and try our best to strike the swarming sharks.
I don’t know if it is true, or not, but some of the veterans of the base claimed that the sharks actually enjoyed the contest. They would swim swiftly to and fro, darting past our legs, trying to avoid that knock on the head, which could stun them, momentarily.
One day, while in waist-high water, I took a swing at one of the sharks, only to lose my balance when the shark brushed my leg while going by. The oar fell from my hands, a few feet out of reach. There I was, my weapon floating several feet away, and that particular shark had made a turn and was moving rapidly back toward me. It’s back was visible as it made its charge.
Fear grabbed me as it had never done before. And while I knew that the biggest bite the shark could take was one of no more than seven or eight inches in size, I did not relish losing that much of my body. Besides, I had never seen proof of the supposedly small bites, so panic ensued. Then, at the moment that I expected the bite to occur, the shark veered away from me. I was up and out of that pool in a flash, resolved never to take part in such stupid games. I was grateful to be out of the pool.
However, I did play at the game several more times during my almost two and a half years there. But, I was much more cautious, Oh yeah.
One day I remarked to Sam about the sharks of the nearby waters. I asked him if he had ever eaten shark. His answer was that he had caught many sharks, and that shark meat was delicious.
“You mean, you would cook up shark and eat it?” I asked.
“You get the shark, and I will cook it,” he replied.
And one day, one of the guys did hook one, a six-footer, using an old piece of bologna as bait. And sure enough, Sam cooked it. And we ate it. And it was incredibly delicious.
“Is there anything from the jungle that you won’t eat, Sam?” I asked one day. “Yah, Mon, no eat sloth.”
“What’s so bad about sloth?” someone chimed in.
“Sloth is a good animal. Not dangerous. Good to have around.”
Who was to question him on that? Sam was comfortable with who he was, with life, with his environment. In some ways, he was the smartest person I ever knew.
Sam and I were, sometimes, visitors at the Juan Franco Racetrack. Sam was not averse to “playing the ponies.” He loved watching the races, even when the results were disappointing. He and I would go to the edge of the track, and lean against the railing, so close to the racing nags that we sometimes were pelted with pieces of earth thrown up by the horses as they galloped by.
I made a bet, one time, taking the advice of one of the experts who made themselves available for advice. The man was wearing a straw hat, a type of hat typically worn by the better class. He seemed to be smart.
“No good, Mon,” Sam said, as the man drifted off to another spot near the rail.
“I don’t know, Sam. He sounds like he knows what’s up.”
“This race fixed,” Sam said.
“What?” I queried.
“No good, Mon. Jockeys know who wins.”
“What do you mean “the jockeys know?”
“You’ll see, Mon. You’ll see.”
But I placed two dollars on the recommended horse, and went back down to the railing, near the finish line. Sam had placed a small wager on another horse.
There were eight or nine horses in that race, that day. It was impossible to know, from where we were standing, how they were doing until they made the final turn. As they came into sight, I could hardly believe it? My horse was leading, by at least a length.
I began cheering loudly as they thundered our way. Then, about twenty yards short of the finish line, suddenly my horse veered sharply away from the inner rail, the jockey looking to be trying to get control. His whip was flashing up and down.
Then that miserable creature stopped, almost on a dime, as the saying goes, and reared up, hooves cutting the humid air. And without further ado, that horse turned and ran backward, while the other horses raced on.
After Sam collected his small winnings, he and I went for dinner at a small Panamanian restaurant, and it was then that Sam explained that horse racing at the Juan Franco was famous for unexpected entertainments involving the jockeys and their mounts. Apparently, Sam knew some of the jockeys, and a little hint had made it possible for Sam to cash in, for which Sam paid a portion of the winnings.
I never made another trip to that track.
Incidentally, it was at that race track that the president of Panama was assassinated one evening, ambushed while sitting in the President’s Pavilion. The event caused our small base, as well as all the other military bases down there, to go on alert. According to all that transpired afterward, it was discovered that the assassination was perpetrated by a cousin of the President. For the average Panamanian, it all seemed so expected. Sam seemed not bothered, at all.
There was a favorite food that I enjoyed in Colon, the city that bordered what was called the Canal Zone. The Canal Zone was U.S. Government property, and so it was that Panamanians had to have a good reason for being there, which I thought was odd. How, I wondered, could we Americans restrict Panamanians from being in a part of their own country? Yet we Americans could go anywhere we wished. Such is the world of politics. And imperialism.
Anyway, Sam introduced me to a dive named Coney Island. It became one of my all-time favorite restaurants. It was a step up from off the sidewalk of one of Colon’s streets. A rather long line of stools bellied themselves up behind a lengthy counter. There were no tables, the place being too narrow for any.
The place had nothing to do with hotdogs, which the name might have implied to us stateside boys. It was owned and run by some Chinese, and it featured only one item on its menu: fatty sirloin steaks and spaghetti. Sounds strange, doesn’t it?
One man waited on the counter, while two or three men worked the grill. Over a very hot grill, the cooks put steaks into old black iron pans, searing their sides, and then frying them. Of course, the steaks oozed their greasy juices into the pans.
Meanwhile, over the heads of the cooks was something that very much resembled a heavy curtain rod, and hanging over the rod were mounds of pre-cooked spaghetti. When the steak was deemed to be done, the cook reached for a huge handful of spaghetti, and dropped it into the juices in the pan and stirred it all, so that the spaghetti was fried with grease that must have fought a million battles with cholesterol.
It was all so delicious, spaghetti cooked in steak juice, and the steaks succulent beyond imagination, although somewhat chewy. And dinner only cost eighty-five cents. Now, you have to realize that this was in the 1950s when a dollar went a long way. Still, there had to be another reason for the reasonability of it all.
Sam told me that all of the beef came from South America, which was supposed to say it all. I suppose that the cows of the Pampas lands were cheaper to raise than imported beef from the states. Who was there to argue? It was a great meal, regardless of where the beef came from.
As we left the Coney Island one evening, we passed by another restaurant, if I may call it that. It was a sidewalk vendor who cooked, over a brazier, what was touted as Beef on a Stick. Back in America, we would call it shish kebab. The stick held pieces of beef, peppers, onions, and whatever, and I had sampled the wares many times. At thirty-five cents a stick, it was more than just palatable. I don’t remember Colon having another stand like it, which should have raised questions about its place there.
Having just gorged ourselves with the steak and spaghetti, we had gotten around to talking about the strange foods that Sam had eaten in Panama, foods that were foreign to my taste buds. For example, one day, Sam brought to the base a cut-up boa constrictor. Quite often we had driven our carryall over a boa that loved to sun itself on the dusty road that ran through the jungle adjacent to our little base. Several times the driver tried, vainly I will admit, to kill the snake. Somehow that tough snake survived our fruitless efforts. Sam reassured us that this was not the same boa; we didn’t wish to see harm come to what had almost become a part of our lives.
Before long, using the small kitchenette that we had, Sam had roasted pieces of the snake, along with several vegetables. I had never eaten snake before, but I tried it, and I admit to liking it, to a point. I suppose my natural prejudice had something to do with my not being ebullient with praise for the meal.
“Besides the sloth,” someone asked Sam, “is there anything that you won’t eat?”
“The jungle gives us much,” Sam replied. “What we see, we eat.” “Not everything,” I challenged. “You wouldn’t eat monkey.”
“Yah, Mon. Monkey good eating.”
Here was a new matter. There were a lot of things that I was willing to try, a distinction that often amused my friends back home. But my daring was not unlimited. There were some foods that were not welcome to my palate. Peas head the list, followed by the whites of eggs. But meat? I like meat. All kinds of meat. But no way would I eat monkey, I reasoned.
“Well, I ate the snake,” I said, “but I wouldn’t eat monkey.”
“Yah, Mon. You eat monkey.” A smile turned up in his face.
“You’re kidding,” I protested.” No way I would eat monkey.”
“Yah, Mon, you eat monkey. Beef on a Stick.”
“That what I say. Monkey meat. Beef on a Stick”
I looked into that smiling face, and he nodded, knowingly. One might even call it a grin.
“Yeah, Mon. That monkey meat.”
He nodded in that knowing way of his. He had lived and worked among Americans for many, many years. Thus he was aware of the prejudices that we Americans carried with us, including our eating habits.
And just in case you are interested, my knowledge of what I had been doing for quite a long time, eating meat, did not deter me from continuing the practice. However, it didn’t taste like beef. It really tasted something like chicken, as did the snake.
When one is in Rome, one does what the Romans do. When one is in Panama, well….. Go figure!
Panama ran a weekly lottery in those days. It drew numbers twice a week, four numbers, in all. The grand prize for hitting on all four numbers was $1,000. I suppose that amount seems insignificant, these days. But in the 1950s, that was a lot.
Sam had been playing the same four numbers for years. He told us that if he hit the jackpot, he would retire to his home in Columbia so that he could spend more time with family. If I recall correctly, his numbers were 1001.
There was a second part to the lottery, which involved playing two numbers. A person could buy five tickets for a dollar. The game paid out $11 for first prize, $5 for second prize, and $2 for the third prize (if my memory is good).
Sam never urged us to buy tickets. But one night, while strolling through the streets-and bars-of Colon, I happened to note several men who sat in open doorways. They were sellers of lottery tickets.
On a whim, I asked for five tickets, and I chose to play the last four numbers of my service number: 79, and 48. What the heck! I figured that I had spent money more foolishly in the past. Like that pick of a horse that went the wrong way.
Sam bought his usual four-number ticket.
Would you believe it! The next day Sam informed me that 79 and 48 were two of the three winning combinations. I not only had won, but I had won twice. And that evening I went to one of the bars and turned my winners in, collecting $80, in all.
Of course, I was jubilant and treated Sam to dinner at-you can probably guess-Coney Island.
Sam and I often went to town, to Colon. We would nurse our beers and chat with some of the girls that were…well, kind of like workers. You’ll have to choose your own idea of what the girls were hired for.
I played the lottery a few more times, since my winning. But nothing ever came of my betting. But I told Sam, one evening, that I felt that an important number in my life was a great possibility. The number was 29, the day of my birth. I told him that I thought I would play it.
“You will not find that number,” Sam said, nonchalantly.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “I’ll just go to one of the guys selling the numbers and get them.”
“Not this week,” Sam replied. “That number not there.”
“Not there? They sell any number we want.”
“Not there,” he said matter-of-factly.
Sure enough, I traipsed about from one seller to another. I must have tried five or more of them. Not one of them had the desired ticket.
And would you have guessed? That was the winning number.
Ah, I thought. The lottery was rigged. Sam explained to me that word had gotten out that the selection would have cost the lottery maker too much of a payout. Thus, the number was not available.
I was shocked. And I think it was because of that spooking that I gave up trying to get rich by gambling on Panama’s lottery.
Sam was wise, as well as smart. He went about life accepting things as they are. He was my friend. He was everyone’s friend. He was a Godsend.
The fact that he took me in, so to speak, says something important about society. I am white. Sam was black (or brown). And when out of the Canal Zone, I was in Panama, a country where a white was a minority. Yet I never felt that way when I was out and about.
I am sure that prejudice might have been a part of the dark culture, but I never felt it. And if Sam’s feelings were to be truly known, I am sure that somewhere along the way he had met some white people whom he would have had trouble with. But it never showed up in my relationship with him. In fact, I kind of have the feeling that Sam did not have an ounce of prejudice.
As for myself, I just could not conceive of a time, after being around and with Sam, during my almost two and half years in Panama, when I even gave a thought to the fact that we were of different colors. Color did not matter. Friendship did matter. He wasn’t just a black. And I was not just a white. We were friends.
Thus it was a great shock to me when I had been assigned to a new base in Alaska and I landed on American soil, heading home for two weeks before flying off to Kodiak. I found myself at the bus station in Norfolk, Virginia. There I saw a sign that spoke a horrible message: “Colored Waiting Room.” And outside its doorway stood two fountains, one anointed for us white folk and the other for black folk.
On my long journey aboard the bus that would drop me off in Detroit, I had the opportunity to wonder about life, about what it is that creates walls, like those on a piece of property, or like those that are invisible yet horribly conceived if only in our imagination. For as Robert Frost put it in his poem “Mending Wall”: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.”
Those Norfolk signs were so offensive to me, so sad.
Oh, Lord, I thought, I hope Sam never has to see this.