Ditches and canals were a big part of our farm playground. They brought irrigation water from the weir near Avocado Lake where the Kings River flowed. We were a part of the Alta Canal Irrigation District. We had our own ditch along Road 52 by our house. In the summer the ditches and canals were full of water and adventure. We swam in them and caught Polliwogs and Bluegill fish. We pried slugs off our legs when we got out. Sometimes we cut our feet on broken glass we couldn’t see. We floated home-made boats and had races. We dove from the drops that were near most of our farms to control the flow of the irrigation water. We’d mess with the boards in those drops and let the water back up, then pull the boards and cause a tidal wave to swim against. I’m sure the Ditch Tender didn’t appreciate it when we changed his flow. It was fun to drop or float things through the drops where the water levels were controlled and released. We practiced floating down stream and swimming upstream.
The Ditch Tender was the man in charge of the ditches. We never knew his name, but he drove around checking the ditches all day. We never saw him, but we knew the place over by Penner’s farm where he ate his lunch in a grove of Eucalyptus trees by the river. There was an old abandoned sofa under those trees, and that’s where he could be found over the lunch hour. He wore a khaki shirt and a tan Panama hat.
As we got older, and before we had the swimming pool, we’d jump in the ditch on our lunch breaks, especially when we were packing peaches. The fuzz was sometimes unbearable, and the water was a cool relief to our itching arms and necks.
We did much of our bug collecting on the ditch banks. There was a small ditch at the back of the LamCo vineyards. I spent many hours with my net and killing jars, hovering over that particular stretch of ditch where beautiful dragonflies and damsel flies darted over the water. Water striders skimmed on top of the water, and sunflowers grew on the ditch banks, attracting all kinds of bumble bees, fast flies, and butterflies. The summer before my junior year at Reedley High I was serious about my bug collecting. That fall, in Mr. Mitchell’s biology class, I turned in a collection of more than 150 beautifully mounted bugs. The ditches and canals were not only one of our best playgrounds, they were the place where my love for biology and anatomy began.
When the summer ended and the harvest was over, the water in the ditches would slowly empty. This was the beginning of a whole new arena of play. The lower the water got, the easier it was to catch Polliwogs, frogs, and fish. Paul, the fisherman, would sit for hours on the drop down by Grandma’s house with his fishing pole or bow and arrow, catching blue gills or sometimes carp. He always seemed to catch something. One year we found money in the ditch. Probably from some swimmer’s pockets. We’d search for coins or bills during our lunch breaks.
As the water got lower, it got stinkier. The moss would dry up on the sides of the ditches and it smelled pretty bad. Finally the last of the water would soak in or evaporate away, and the ditch banks would dry out. Then worker men would come and disc the inside banks of the ditches and canals. Then the dirt would be soft and we would use our feet to make tracks and trails in the ditches. We did this while waiting at the bus stop each morning. Up one side and down the other we would go, over and over our tracks, making trails. Then we would run on the trails faster and faster.
The ditch by our home was a smaller one, and the ups and downs were fun. The ditches by Mark’s house were bigger, and turned into canals. As we got older and had mini bikes and motorcycles, these became to us what skate parks are for kids with skateboards today. We made trails and jumps and wove in and out and up and down and had great adventures on our bikes in the ditches. Paul was the most daring, and he’d come flying out of the ditch at full speed on his Yamaha 125 dirt bike. I was more cautious on my Honda 50, and on the Honda 90s that we used on the farm to get around. We had a great time in the ditches. Mitchell Abe, another class mate of ours, lived a mile or two south of us on road 52. His driveway went right through the ditch, and in the summer, they had to drive down to the Hansen’s bridge to get home. At the end of road 52, where the canal turned, was Paul’s friend, Mike Jost’s house. At that bend in the canal grew the largest Eucalyptus tree in the state of California.
In the mid-70’s the ditch by our home was put under ground. Our stretch of road always flooded whenever it rained, the water often covering the entire road between our house and Grandma’s. Once I was walking home from the bus stop by Grandma’s house with my girl friend, Cynthia Kim, who was coming to play after school. We were probably 8 or 9 years old. The road was badly flooded, so we were walking up on the ditch bank, and a car came towards. If the car slowed enough, we would be OK, but this driver must have had a gleam in his eye, because he stepped on the gas, and drove right down the middle of the road and the 2-3″ of water covering it . Cynthia and I were completely drenched–soaked to the bone! And the car just went on it’s way, laughing at us, I’m sure. We were shocked, and came wandering home like wet puppies. I remember cleaning up and wearing my flannel nightgowns the rest of the afternoon until it was time for her to go back home in town.
Before they closed the ditch, they laid a 3 or 4 foot pipe in the ditch to cover. One night Paul and Eric decided to crawl through that pipe from our drop to the one past Grandma’s house. I’m glad I wasn’t invited.
By the time the ditch went underground, we were more grown up and had our own pool in the back yard with clean water. We were also busy with the harvest in the summers, and with swim practices each day in town. The ditch had been a big part of our childhood world. It was sad to see it go–there’s something comforting about watching the easy flow of water on a hot summer afternoon.
And no music I’ve ever heard can compare to the sound of thousands of frogs, singing to us through the night, serenading in their perfect harmonies, as we lay in our beds with the windows open.
9 January 2004