An Irrigation Ditch Runs Through It

by | Feb 19, 2022

The following is an excerpt from the book “Desert Standard Time,” by Greg Brannan (1956-2013) available HERE on Amazon. Many thanks to the Brannan family for making these stories about growing up in the 60s and 70s in rural Arizona available to CNM-News.

Photo by Sasin Tipchai

The contributions of desert dwellers to the betterment of mankind are relatively few. They did, however, teach the world some things about water management.

That was hardly an unselfish act. It was simply a matter of self-preservation. In the desert, you either figured out how to manage water efficiently or you shriveled up like crepe paper and blew away in the first summer dust storm.

The pattern of conservation was predictable. First you secured enough water for drinking. Then you set some aside for agriculture, livestock, and light industry. Last, but certainly not least, you figured out how to play in it.

Sure, Hoover Dam slowed the mighty Colorado River to a trickle and created Lake Mead. That massive body of water spun enormous turbines and made Hoover Dam the hydro-electric wonder of the world. Those details were lost, however, on the legions of bass masters and wave crashers who planned their lives around the fishing and water skiing seasons.

This watery wanderlust must be instinctive, because without parental provocation, I was making like a miniature Aquaman before my land skills could take me from riding tricycles to bicycles.

The focus of my aquatic fascination was an irrigation ditch that ran parallel to our property. Its cool waters meandered gently beneath lush, grassy banks and over soft beds of sand. It teamed with wetland wildlife, like desert toads, top minnows, and crawdads-my personal favorite. My first right of passage was capturing one of those cantankerous crustaceans while steering clear of its death grip. I suppose that sounds like an exaggeration, but the swaying claws of a pissed off crawdad can put a nasty pinch on the tender finger of a five-year-old. Otherwise, the dirt ditch was a haven of harmless fun. That is, of course, unless you shared my capacity for the absurd.

My brothers watched in amazement one afternoon while I, inspired by Jim McKay and waxing poetic about the Acapulco cliff divers on Wide World of Sports, executed a near-perfect swan dive into thirteen inches of water. Mom spent the next hour scrubbing sand from my face before putting ice on my first broken nose.

You can imagine our horror when the tide of progress brought our dirt ditch days to an end. One winter, when the ditch saw little use, an army of construction workers swept past our remote homestead and left a cement gorge in their wake. A few weeks later, they released water into the smooth gray “V” that use to be our private water park. Mom studied the rippling current that replaced a once gentle stream and promptly declared it unsafe. My brothers and I engaged in a collective three-month pout until a warm spring afternoon when the Beckhallers came for a visit.

We didn’t really know who the Beckhallers were, but their visit so distracted my parents that my brothers and I were free to move about the family compound unnoticed. We made a beeline for the ditch where Doug, my big brother, suggested I test its waters with a firm shove in the back. I was immediately swept downstream, tumbling end over end. My panic subsided as I got my head above water and extended my feet in front of me. Suddenly, I was butt surfing-and I liked it!

I scrambled up the side of the cement ditch to my excited siblings. In short order, we were hotfooting it down the ditch road a full half-mile north of our house.

We jumped into the recreational rapids one after another, first Doug, then me, then little brother Jeff. We slid down the ditch on our butts for the next hour, winding past our house and traveling another half-mile south before stopping next to the end of our pasture. Then Doug emerged from the water to reveal an image so outrageously unexpected that Jeff and I nearly drowned in our laughter.

The gentle sanding action of the fresh cement surface had completely worn through Doug’s cut-off jeans, allowing his dimpled red butt to glow through the seat of his pants like a stoplight. Doug’s anger gave way to smug satisfaction as Jeff and I helped each other up and realized we shared our big brother’s predicament.

Our only salvation was the alfalfa growing in our pasture adjacent to the ditch. We tucked the leafy stocks in the waistbands of our cut-offs. Together, we fashioned grass skirts that would have made the wardrobe supervisor on Gilligan’s Island quite proud.

The Beckhallers were on the front porch saying goodbye to my parents as we casually strolled up the long dirt driveway like the Three Stooges in miniature. We stopped at the foot of the porch and looked up, seemingly naked but for the vegetation bunched around our waists. We offered no explanation to the four wide eyed adults, and they asked for none.