2011-05-14

Reëvaluating near-death experiences on the ol' irrigation ditch

I think back upon the time that a bunch of families from Countryside Lane all went to the Big Canal out back to have a picnic and to "surf" on the canal. 'Twas a singular gathering, as I recall -- we didn't all get together, young and old, for group activities that often. I for one have never "canal-surfed" before or since. The modus operandi was to attach a flat board to one of the bridges across the canal with a long rope, and hang on and steer with another bit of rope tied into holes in the front two corners. This way you could put your weight on the back of the board, hanging onto the loop in front, and shift your weight from side to side and thereby surf back and forth across the canal. It was more like a kind of waterskiing, in which the skier held still and the water moved, than actual surfing, but I digress.

Jimmy Onderchek, who was older and bigger than me and my friends, and had the reputation of being something of a bully, decided that it would be a pretty neat idea to climb up and straddle the rope, legs dangling off the edge of the bridge, and draw up a length of it while I was doing my canal-surfing at the other end. Now I, reckoning that Jimmy did not have my own best interests at heart, began to holler to him to turn loose of that rope. After having pulled in quite a few feet of rope, he did eventually comply with my request, and turned loose of it all at once. I shot backwards quickly, until the rope snapped taut and I was thrown off the back of the board and into the canal.

Now the canal at this particular time was only about shoulder deep, but the waters were moving quickly and the bottom was covered with small, slippery pebbles. So although I could keep my head above the water, I could not get a foothold or make any progress towards the edge, some twenty feet away. I was fairly stunned and dazzled, canal water in my eyes, plus I think I managed to suck in a fair amount of it during my probably less-than-acrobatic dismount-and-entry, but it did occur to me to yell for help at this point, which eventually roused the hitherto anti-interventionist grown-ups standing about on the bank. Mr. Benedetti dove in and pulled me to safety. Or so I surmise, because although I vaguely recollect the splash sound of somebody leaping in, I don't remember much detail until the point when I was being pulled out through the grasses and weeds at the edge. If he hadn't jumped in when he did, I would have been swept over the submerged control dam downstream and likely drowned in some underwater backcurrent, outflow pipe grating, or other similar modern agricultural terror.

Drowning in irrigation ditches is, I gather, a fairly common form of fatality among youngsters in the area where I grew up (although it may have been supplanted by AIDS or drive-by shootings since I was a boy). I suspect that quite a few, although I don't know how many, are lost each year in circumstances similar to mine. It leaves one to wonder how many are semi-dramatically rescued at the last minute in the way in which I was. Around the time that I came to Japan, a friend told me about how a family he knew had just lost a boy who had fallen into an irrigation ditch and drowned, and how the father of another family had also been lost trying to rescue him. The water was too fast, the edges too steep and slippery, and they were both swept under a debris-choked grating and couldn't be gotten out. This took place just a few hours' drive south of where I grew up.

Now, I'm not sure I can say I've ever "stared grim Mr. Death in the face", but through this and other experiences I know a feeling similar to one you might have a few days after a late-night party when a friend tells you that somebody you know showed up after you left. Sometimes I find myself almost paralized in the contemplation of what could have happened if things had gone just a little bit differently, one way or the other. I wonder how I get myself into such situations, and what does it mean that I.....survived.


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