A lot of rain
When I was 16 my family moved to northern California. I considered myself nearly an adult. I could handle most things. Right? (I hear your doubts whispering here.) We moved into a tiny house and started our new school. California was a new experience for us. They grew peaches, plums, all sorts of fruit in our new town. Where we came from they grew wheat, barley and some sheep. Our new town was pretty much flat. Our old town had been situated in rolling hills. One was “warm” and one had winters that rivaled those South Dakota.
We spent a lot of time making comparisons. Our new schools were huge compared to the old schools. Our new house was tiny compared to the roominess of our old home. We knew everyone our age (and almost every kid) in our old town. Now we had to learn to how to choose our friends. (I think we pretty much made friends with anyone who offered to be one.)
We were accustomed to winters with lots of snow, sledding down the school hill, begging for rides to school when it was super cold. We were about to find out that northern California’s rains could be icy cold. If it was raining and the wind was blowing it felt like that wind was blowing right through to the bones. As winter came on, I had never felt so cold.
Into each new town some rain must fall. That fall it began raining day after day, week after week until it wasn’t interesting any longer. It was more than a nuisance. Our coats and shoes got wet on the way to school and stayed that way until we got home. Water began to collect in huge puddles. Overpasses got flooded and we got used to detouring around them.
My Dad began grumbling ominously: 40 days and 40 nights it rained until Noah built and peopled the arc. 40 days and 40 nights. It hadn’t yet been 40 days of rain, but it kept raining and raining.
Two rivers intersected below our town and blended to make a bigger river. We understand that. However, when we first moved to town and drove across the bridges, we learned about levees (earthwork berms to keep the river in its channel), but why were the levees so far from each other? That summer, someone told us that the river was so low that you could walk across it in places. The levees were at least a mile apart, maybe more. The bridge just went up and over them and came down the other side. Wandering somewhere in the middle was this tiny river you could walk across in summer.
Now it was raining, and my Dad kept talking about it raining 40 days and 40 nights before Noah could float the arc. That’s a lot of rain.
Now, when we crossed the bridges you could see the river getting bigger and bigger. People had built homes or set up trailers inside the levee. It began to look like those homes might get wet.
And it rained and rained. At school the sidewalks were like elevated causeways and the lawn was just water. No longer did we take short cuts across the grass. I had rain boots now and a little plastic rain hat. I thought they were ugly, but I wore them to stay dry. Our school rooms had muddy floors and smelled of wet coats and wet people. (At the time I thought you weren’t supposed to even think that it stunk.) Still it rained.
Thirty days had come and gone and still it rained. We weren’t allowed to climb up on the levees any longer and someone patrolled them day and night.
It was close to Christmas and still raining. My parents talked about whether they should put up a tree. NOT PUT UP A TREE!!!! Unheard of, but they talked about it. We wrapped our gifts for each other and put them under the tree. We sang Christmas Carols at church and talked about the rain. Had anyone seen it rain for so long?
Turns out they had. Maybe five years before it had rained and flooded the poor little across the river. It had been a great hardship for those people who had so little. People began to tell stories of floods and argue about which had been the worst. What they all agreed on was that the little town where we lived had never flooded. There was another more prosperous town across the other river. It had flooded once in a while in the area that was mostly farmland, but it hadn’t done much damage.
No, the problem was . . . that our town was surrounded by levees and the streets were lower than the bottom of the river. Our town was, in effect, like a cup with bridges going over the rim to take us other places.
They reassured us that our levees were stronger than the other levees. They hired people on our side of the levees to keep them in tip top shape. One of the key things they did was to catch and kill burrowing rodents - like gophers. They explained that if the gophers built a den in the levee, it made a weak spot in the levee. If the levee would break , the town would flood - but it never had flooded before, they said.
Well, it had flooded regularly during gold rush times when the miners in the hills were doing hydraulic mining. The wet dirt from the mining would find its way to the streams, then the little rivers, then the big rivers, and eventually to our town. When the residents got tired of being flooded during a big rain, they began to build levees, then build them higher, then even more higher. When they confined the river between the levees, the river slowed down and began to drop the dirt and mud and debris it was carrying and build up the riverbed.
Our town at that time was as far as you could go up the river with a large boat. So there were docks and landings on the river. But there was still that threat of flooding.
Eventually someone outlawed hydraulic mining and the river returned to being a clean river, but it still flooded when the snow pack melted or it rained a lot. Usually the levees below our town broke, or were deliberately broken and the water let out to nourish the farm land. Our town was now free from the yearly flooding. They thought.