White-tipped but dark underneath . . .
—Gary Soto, “Saturday Night at the Canal”
My first interests were in running away . . . looking
— Charles Warrington Moulton, from Piecework
As a kid I plunged, however reluctantly, into the dark water of Modesto’s canals at the urging of my second oldest brother Jesse, a true canal aficionado. A combination of his enticing description and my own secret desire to be older and like him lured me past my fears into the rapid off-white water at a juncture of weirs near Sycamore Street known to local kids by, I think, the intentionally hyperbolic and therefore intimidating name of Hell’s Falls.
My family lived in Modesto, a city in the center of the Central Valley of California or near the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, depending on how you look at it. Or in terms more literary, the Modesto in which I grew up was south of Didion and Galarza, north of Soto and Saroyan, and hometown to, the lesser-known Charles Warrington Moulton.
Modesto is not a city built along a picturesque coastline or overlooking a bay or standing along the edge of a river or situated beside some sleepy woods. It is a city in the geographic and agricultural center of California, hub of winery, bottling, and canning industries, at a crisscrossing of railroad tracks, a juncture of highways, and a patchwork of sprawling farmland — mostly fruit, nut, and vineyard furrows. In short, Modesto is a city located in the middle of nowhere, its teenage ennui and angst popularly documented in George Lucas’s early film, American Graffiti, and representing thereby every city in America with little or nothing to do.
Looking back, I find astounding the myriad amusements we kids found in what should have otherwise been the boredom of Modesto. To the kids in my neighborhood, the canal served as a primary source of amusement.
At that time, Modesto’s population was around 60,000, a third of what it is today. Our house, in the northeast corner of Modesto, lay only a block and a half away from a canal. No simple ditch, this canal, one of a system neatly organized with sun-hardened dirt levees, concrete-lined banks, sluices, and weirs, carrying water out to farms, curves its way southwest through Modesto, intersecting the streets at bridges or converting into huge pipes beneath the avenues. In fact, from a kid’s point of view, the canal’s windings made it appear and disappear here and there so often among the crisscross of streets that it seemed as though there were many canals rather than only the one.
In late spring we seemed to see the canals empty, except for puddles and junk-piles — handle bars, shopping carts, battered trash can lids, discarded tires — and, only a little while later, we turned and found the canals brimming with swift blue-green water. By summer the water slowed and became an ugly brownish-green, like a dark beer with algae in place of foam. Kids like us, who didn’t have pools in our backyards, gathered at the levees, bridges, and weirs cooling off with inexpensive fun.
I always liked the canals. I spent many pleasant moments exploring there. I happily bicycled up down and along their dusty levees. I spent hours in the summer heat regarding the water striders scurrying about their surface. Whenever I walked by the canals I had the habit of stopping to wistfully skip stones upstream on that same surface. I browsed with Jesse in the early spring, through and between the junk at the bottom of the canal in search of polliwogs and crawdads and we made studies of their lives. And, maybe best of all, I strolled the banks with my father in the evenings listening to the canal’s gurglings or crickets creaking in the oleander along the way while we watched the moon and stars shimmer on the surface of the sluggish, sometimes smelly, current. But in spite of all of these pleasant pastimes, I never swam in the canals without misgivings. I'd earned my Red Cross intermediate-swimmer pin like my older brothers and sister, but I wasn’t a strong swimmer. I dragged my legs. I swallowed water. And the swallowing left me feeling bloated and seemed to aggravate my asthma. Besides, I'd heard stories of drownings, seen the pamphlets the schools sent out with Splasher the Frog warning of the dangers (our mother, having been a kid once and having swam in the rivers north of Modesto, never heeded those warnings much, preferring to trust to our judgment more). Yet I had seen the nasty cuts on Jesse's feet from the glass, tin, or whatever on the canal’s bottom.
Looking back I realize I was a bit priggish concerning canal water. I didn't like it murky and mysterious and dynamic; I wanted clear, candid, relatively still water like the pool at Downey High School where I'd learned to swim or in my uncle’s backyard pool: water I could swim under with my eyes open, pretending to be a scuba diver. Still, I felt drawn by the canals, their peculiar beauty, seasonal moods, constant flux. I swam at the bridge on El Vecino just up the road with my brother and sister many times. Sometimes I wore an old pair of Converse sneakers to protect my feet and to help me grip the cement so that I wouldn't be easily swept away by the current. Once when my brother wasn’t around, I got dunked repeatedly by a bully who kept insulting my sister. But on the whole I had a good time swimming at the bridge.
Yet the bridge for Jesse was nothing. He could frog kick underwater downstream beneath the bridge, through the archways that were like tunnels, feeling his way along the slimy walls until he slipped out into the daylight again. Ah, but there was so much more to do downstream at the overflowing weir, Hell’s Falls. Lewis and Clark would have stopped to swim there. Huck Finn would be ashamed of me and so on. Jesse could say things like this easily; after all, except for our cousin Curt who had won medals, he was the best swimmer in the family. I remember once — probably a few years later — my family and a friend of Jesse's, who tagged along, went to the beach at Santa Cruz. While my sister and I swam and splashed about close to the beach, he and his friend (a bit of a daredevil himself) swam way out beyond the end of the long pier and back — it seemed to me to have been miles.
Besides an affinity for swimming, Jesse had a way of telling stories and describing things and this talent had a good deal to do with convincing me to swim downstream. He told me stories at night that varied according to his moods: “The Emperor's New Clothes, “Ichabod Crane Meets Tom Sawyer,” his cruelly scary“Hand in the Tree,” invented just to be mean, and his weird tale of the boy with the clock face. Jesse could persuade me, usually in a gentle way, getting me to help him mow the lawns and enjoy it, or to stay out of our mother’s way when she was busy cooking in the kitchen. The sound of his quiet voice had a way of drawing and captivating any listener’s interest; he often spoke to me while down on one knee, excitement flashing in the liquid of his deep brown eyes.
Though I don’t remember exactly how Jesse convinced me to join him for the swim at the falls, I realize it was more than the spell of his voice or the marvelous description. It was something in our relationship, in the bond between younger brother and older, in my love for him and in my envy of him and his being older, in my following, and in his leading. His stories and the Greek mythologies that our oldest brother, Frank, loved and often told us of, became jumbled in my child's imagination along with stories of my brothers’ exploits, so that Ajax, Tom Sawyer, Frank, and Jesse (yes, they even had the names of outlaws!) were all my heroes.
But a competitiveness arose within me as well, and made its way into nearly every challenge I accepted as I was growing up. Like the walnut tree in our backyard in which Jesse, and my sister, Margaret, and I each had our own branch, I couldn’t help but desire to move up. I sat in the actual crotch of the tree, Margaret in the next branch above me, and Jesse in a far higher position on a thin limb, from where I sat, his head against the sky. I struggled alone year after year to reach Jesse's branch. Delighted in reaching my sister's branch, but not satisfied, I pushed myself to a branch between hers and Jesse’s. After many attempts and no serious injuries, I forced myself upward until I was able to grasp and hang from Jesse’s branch. Finally one day, still bent on going higher, I found myself standing on Jesse's branch — it having grown stronger over the passage of years, gazing into our neighbor's yard — across their roof top to the roof tops beyond. And so, driven by competitiveness, and love, by the special bond between us, and the specialness of Jesse himself, I was persuaded to join him for a swim at what kids called Hell’s Falls.
When I got there it didn’t seem all that bad. The kids there were older but friendlier. Jesse seemed to know everyone. Weirs on either side held the water back in a miniature reservoir: deep upstream it spilled over, downstream forming a greenish, nearly transparent bubble. A foot bridge spanned the deep side and some boys were using it as a diving platform. At first I stood intrigued watching the swimmers downstream. I remember pulling nervously at a thread unraveling from my cut-offs. I got in, squatting on the side of the concrete, half in half out of the water, and watched my brother demonstrate. He dove off the bridge and swam under water, popping up unexpectedly here and there, a grin on his face. Then he jumped off the bridge, swam downstream toward one of the weirs, the one that was low and had tons of water rushing over it, and he slipped through it and was forced a ways downstream. He did his best against the current though, and then he simply disappeared. I couldn't see where he'd gone to at first. Then I realized he'd made his way against the current underwater and I was amazed to discover him squatting in the pocket behind the overflowing water of the other weir.
After a while he vanished again, finally rising up out of the water before me, a gentle smile on his lips, droplets of water sparkling off of him in the sunlight. He shook his long brown hair back and asked me if I wanted to do that. Of course, I said yes. I asked him how it was done. He described to me the pocket of air behind the falling water. He compared it to Daniel Boone hiding, playing dead, under an overturned canoe. Best of all, he explained how we would go together, just he and I. Jesse slid back into the water. I went in after him, swimming toward the falls. My chest and face suddenly cold and wet, the current's strength surprising me, yet driving me on, I struggled after Jesse, determined. I caught up to him. We dog-paddled a moment in front of the falls before we dove in unison through the place where the falls met the water. We turned around on the other side of the spilling water squatting with our backs against the wooden weir that had all that water behind it. There I crouched with the magical, dynamic archway of water roaring in front of me, smelling wet and somehow green, shoulder to shoulder with my brother, wild-eyed, smiling his broad smile, daring life, and I tried to breathe the cool air but found it suffocating. Then it seemed I couldn't breathe. I thought I was having an asthma attack. I wanted out.
Jesse led me out of the pocket. I recall passing through the wall of water, the feel of it closing tight behind me, and the gentle way that Jesse escorted me out and on to the bank where I could catch my breath. He treated me kindly, patiently, the way our father might have on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
I never dove behind the falls again. Back then, I might have admitted that it was because I feared I'd get asthma again. Now I admit more: that the asthma followed the fear. That something in that magical place that was so much my brother’s, so close beside him in all the magnificence that an older brother could be, made me lose my breath, because this wasn't someone I could emulate or even follow, this was someone separate, whole, complete, someone I loved, someone who was so much that to get too close was to lose myself and suffocate in all that was him. It would have been like drowning in all that made the canals what they were to us as kids.