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Warren Walling recounts true boyhood tales of the Ceres Main Canal
Ceres canal colorized.tif
In the 1930s through the 1960s, before kids were urged not to swim in canals, the Ceres Main Canal provided summer fun for Ceres area youth. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

South of Ceres there is a canal that runs under the 99 highway. We called it the Ceres Main. Next to the highway are two sets of railroad tracks; one is a side track so one train could pull on and another train could pass by. When there was a train on the side track, some of my buddies and I would walk down a short distance to get on a flat car. When the train started moving, we would wait until it got right at the canal then run and jump off into the water.

Carried off to Stockton by rail

Three of my friends and I had been working in the fields all week. We had gotten paid that day and headed for the Ceres Main to swim before our hot dates that night. We noticed a train on the side track, so we stripped down, put on our cutoffs, left our shirts, money and shoes in the car, and walked down a ways to get on a flat car. This is where stupid comes into play. By the time the train got to the canal we were going too fast to get off so we just stood there watching our car, shirts and money go by. We spent the next 10 minutes arguing whose idea it was to get on the train in the first place. We didn't know where the train was going - maybe to Oregon. It finally stopped in Stockton. It was over 90 degrees that day and we had no shirts, shoes nor money. I was the only one who was wearing a pair of thongs. Back down 99 we went. The ground was so hot my three buddies were jumping from one grass heap to the next. Some were actually goat head sticker patches; some of the grass heaps were so small that my friends could only stand on one leg. By this time we were really sunburned. This guy in a pickup truck stopped and said he had to hear this story. He said we look like pink flamingo standing there a one leg. When we told him what had happened, he said he was going to Merced and would drop us off at our car. He laughed almost all the way to Ceres and said this was a story he would be telling for years.

When we got back to Ceres, we couldn't believe our eyes - the car was still there and our money. The first thing we did was to dive in the Ceres Main to cool down. It was the last time we ever did that stupid thing.

Car into canal

Downstream a short distance is a small wooden pedestrian bridge at the end of Redwood Road. I lived on Redwood Road across from the Tuckers. A girl named Sandy lived two or three doors up for me. Her dad ran a donut shop in Ceres. I would walk to the end of Redwood to the little bridge and swim downstream. One day a friend of mine, Gary Bashers, ran his car off into the canal. His brother Poncho try to climb out through the window but the car floated up against the bridge and pinned Poncho between the car and the bridge. Gary got out and ran around to sit on the bridge and push the car back with his legs just enough to keep it from crushing his brother. I don't know how long he had been there holding that car back until someone came along to help, but I know it was a very long time. After they got Poncho out and Gary let go of the car, his leg cramped up so bad he couldn't walk. They both ended up in the hospital but came out of it okay.

Never pull in a non-swimmer

On another occasion, I was swimming downstream from the little wooden bridge when I saw this guy I went to school with, Danny Walker, sitting on the bank. I asked him to come and swim; he said he couldn't swim. I thought he was kidding because he was sitting there with cutoffs on. So I asked him to "help" me out and this is where stupid came into play again. When he reached down to pull me out, I pulled him in. He came right down on top of my shoulders riding me like a bull. The water was over six feet deep and I was six feet tall. I had to push off the bottom to come up for air. It seemed like forever before someone got him off of me. I crawled out of the water and lay there on the bank for a while thinking there was another life's lessons learned.

Dog gone near tragedy

Farther downstream is an irrigation valve. It has a wheel like a steering wheel on a car. When it is opened the water irrigates the field. I just got out of the canal when I saw this guy swimming with his dog. I yelled at him that the valve was open, but it was too late. His dog got too close and was pulled down into the pipe. This guy and I ran into the field where the outlet was. I couldn't believe my eyes; his dog popped out of the valve and crawled out onto the ground unhurt. The guy was really upset for he thought he had lost the dog he had owned for 11 years; he got the dog when he was nine years old. I'm glad things turned out okay.

Just past the irrigation valve, the Ceres Main Canal widens out on one side and a smaller canal branches off. We called it the Bradbury drop. The Ceres Main had two sets of waterfalls, two on each side; in the middle is a wide area that goes to two more falls. When the water was running fast, we would shoot the falls; it was a blast.

Dead body -- or not

One day I went to shoot the falls and the water was running slow so instead of going straight out it took me to the bottom. I put my hands out to push off the bottom and my hands touch something mushy. When I opened my eyes there was a dead body on the bottom. I almost drowned myself screaming underwater. When I came up I told the guys there was a dead body down there. One of the guys dove down and came out yelling there was a dead person on the bottom; two more guys dove down and came up saying the same thing. Someone went and called the sheriff. He got ahold of the ditch tender to shut the water off that set of falls, and then you could see it down deep. They brought in a sheriff's diver; he came up with a tan leather car seat and threw it on the bank. All the guys turned on me, saying they never said it was a dead person; they said it was me who said it. The sheriff's deputies laughed and said they could see how it would look like a dead person underwater and said there was no harm done.

The true hero gets no credit

The smaller canal that branches off westward we called the Bradbury was a real good place to swim. There was a bridge over the canal with four waterfalls under it, two on each side of a concrete pylon in the middle. There was a cement wall between each of the waterfalls. I had just dived into the water when I saw a girl I went to school with named Linda Horn. She was a very pretty girl but didn't know I existed, even though I had a class or two with her. She was swimming under the bridge and having a hard time trying to swim out. All of a sudden she went under and didn't come back up. I swam back to the cement wall, dove down to the bottom holding onto the cement wall. There I saw her being held facedown by the waterfall; it was hitting her in the middle of her back. I knew there wasn't much time. I reached down and grabbed her under her right armpit then reached around, got a hold of her swimsuit top under her other arm, put my feet against the wall and pushed with my legs and pulled her to the surface. She was coughing up water from her lungs and throwing up water from her stomach.

I knew I had to get her out and get her help. As I started swimming out with her I felt like some evil force tried to pull us back. The harder I swam the more ground we lost. I was a real good swimmer, second to none, so I just put everything I had in it and swam out with her to a flat spot up against the bank and held her up and told her to cough as much as she could. There was a guy I knew named Fred Myers standing on the bridge. I knew him because his sister Shirley Kenner and I were childhood friends. I asked him to come help me get her out of the canal. I picked her up and handed her to him. He took her by the hand and she walked up the bank. She lay down on the ground where I yelled for someone to go get her parents. By this time there were a half dozen people around her so I just started for home. About halfway home I got real weak and had to sit down for a while together myself and take in what had just happened.

The next day I read in the Ceres Courier that Fred Myers had saved a girl from drowning. I couldn't believe it! I went to the Richland Market where he worked and said, "Hey Fred, I read where you saved Linda from drowning." He said, "Well I didn't tell them that." I guess it doesn't matter who got the credit for it. At least I got to hold her in my arms for a short time.

Close call at bus stop

The smaller canal we called the Bradbury headed west, down about a mile and a half before it turned to the right a short distance, then turn back west and ran along Redwood Road for a few feet. At the corner of Central and Redwood is where we all caught the school bus. One morning, my three sisters and I and the five McCurry boys - Thornton, Danny, George, Forrest and Mitchell - and some of the neighborhood kids were waiting for the bus. We were all standing by the bridge and then we had to walk down Redwood to make room for the bus. Two of the the McCurry boys were standing by the bridge when at that moment a car coming down Central at high-speed left the road and jumped the canal right where we had all been standing just 30 seconds before. The car landed next to Mr. O'Neal's house. Bill O'Neal was a good guy but I remember he broke horses and was a pretty rough guide and was one of those men you just didn't mess with. Mr. O'Neal came out of his house, dragged this guy out of his car and held him for the police to come and get him. You could tell he was holding back his anger on the guy. If we hadn't moved when we did, we would have all been killed or badly hurt. About that time parents started showing up; most were crying and very upset, but things turned out okay that day for all of us.

More than a half century has passed and sometimes I feel like I'm still under that bridge trying to swim out and being pulled back by some evil force. The Ceres Main holds many stories for so many of us who spent our youth and many summers there.

Warren Walling lived in Ceres for many years of his life. He attended Ceres and Turlock high schools, lived in Keyes for a time and also ran an auto repair business in Modesto for many years before moving to Branson, Mo. in 1988. He still has a sister who lives in the Ceres.