Building the Panama Canal
1907 - The White House.
Theodore Roosevelt scowled. His pince-nez scowled too. He hammered his manly fist on the desk beside a plate of biscuits.
‘Make the dirt fly, I said, did I not Aiden? '
‘Yes Mr President, you did, ' replied the aide.
‘Then what's the hold-up this time? '
‘The chief engineer quit again Sir.'
‘Who's that then? '
‘Wallace and Stevens Sir, '
‘Wallace Stevens? You mean we hired a poetaster to build the canal? '
‘Ooh, that's a bit harsh Mr President. If you'll allow me to quote:
…She loves me or loves me not
…What care I? -
…The depth of the fields is just as sweet,
…And sweet the sky.*
‘That's lovely don't you think Sir? I think it's lovely.'
‘Never mind that Aiden, answer the question.'
‘Sorry Sir, I meant Wallace AND Stevens. Two years ago John Findlay Wallace quit and now John Frank Stevens has too.'
‘Oh….okay. Have a biscuit Aiden, I made them myself.'
‘Thank you Sir, ' said Aiden, taking one and cupping his hand beneath his chin to catch the crumbs.
‘What do you think - do you like it? '
‘Mmmm….it's yummy Mr President.'
‘They're light and fluffy aren't they? '
‘Remarkably fluffy Sir.'
‘I'm a fluffy kind of guy Aiden.'
‘So, why did Wallace quit? '
‘I'm not sure Sir - possibly he found the mosquitoes tiresome.'
‘And Stevens? '
‘Um…I think it was too hot.'
‘Civilians are mollycoddles! Get me the army on the phone Aiden.'
‘The army, Sir? '
‘Yeah, the guy in charge.'
‘Er… that would be you Mr President.'
‘I know that. Alright, go round there yourself then and….'
‘Round where Sir? '
‘Wherever it is the army hang out Aiden. Knock on the door, say I sent you and ask if we can borrow an engineer.'
‘Yes Mr President.'
‘Here, have another biscuit before you go and take one for the army guys.'
‘Thank you Sir.'
‘Remember what Sir? '
‘Speak up and carry a biscuit.'
‘If you'll forgive me Mr President, I think you've misquoted yourself. I believe you meant to say -Speak softly and carry a big stick.'
‘That'd never work Aiden - not with the army - they'd shoot you. No, you're better off with a biscuit.'
‘One more thing before you go Aiden.'
‘Yes Sir? '
‘Army deserters get shot, don't they? '
‘Oooh……not in peacetime Sir. There're um.…procedures like er…. pay administrative JAG custody correctional thingamy OTHC forfeiture Martial discharge Court Summery something General……'
‘Don't try to impress me with big words Aiden.'
‘No Sir, sorry Sir.'
‘I'm the guy in charge of the whole army - you said so, right? '
‘You are Mr President - yes.'
‘The government is me; I am the government, not you me.'
‘If I may be so bold Sir, I believe you meant to say - The government is us; we are the government, you and I.'
‘Not this time Aiden'
‘So, tell the army engineer I'll shoot him if he doesn't make the dirt fly.'
‘One last thing Aiden.'
‘Yes Mr President? '
‘Buy the man a Panama hat.'
Diane Hine's Other Poems
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Poet's Notes about The Poem
Aiden is fictional, as is this conversation.
*The Harvard Advocate March 13 1899
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