The time my grandfather taught me how to build a dam

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When we were kids, and we were lucky, it would rain. And the parking area of my grandfather’s mountain farm would fill up with streams and rivulets. The farm house was in a small valley, near the top of one of the mountains in the chain. So, after a hard rain, the water would pour through from the forest above us.

We knew my grandfather built dams for a living. Maybe we didn’t know, at the time, it was a job. Maybe to an eight-year old it was just something he did. But never talked about. It was always other people who talked about the massive hydroelectric projects he worked on as an engineer.

But my little brother and I would go out after the rain had stopped, sometimes while it was still coming down, and make little dams in the little streams. Pretending to be our grandfather.

We would squat, like only children can, out in the yard molding the wet dirt and clay into six-inch high blockades that were quickly overrun by the water.

They always failed — water over the top of our dam, water around our dam… mostly they collapsed, but always they eventually turned into islands.

I don’t know why he did it, I know he almost immediately regretted doing it, but one afternoon my grandfather stopped and watched my brother and I creating islands in his yard.

I can’t remember what he said, but basically it sounded like “…no. You’re doing it wrong.”. And he bent over to pick up a stick before walking towards us.

“First,” he said, “you need to find a better place to start.”

And he brought us to a spot where several of the rivulets came together to form a larger stream.

“Then,” he said, “you’ll need a reservoir.”

And he used the stick to sketch out an area we needed to dig out.

“And,” he said, “you’ll need to reinforce the dam.”

And he taught us how to weave sticks together to use like steel reinforcement bars.

Then he left us, walking to his machine shed to continue working.

So we dug a reservoir, as deep as we could before hitting the bare mountain. Then we made it as wide and long as the length of my arm. And, as the rivulets filled the reservoir, we found sticks and wove them together. And we used clay instead of dirt, and built the dam up around the sticks.

But we didn’t stop there. We built the dam long and high. We extended the reservoir. We built smaller dams further out to channel the water from other rivulets to the reservoir. Once we knew how, everything just made sense.

When we were done we stood up and looked at our dam, and were so proud to have flooded out a third of my grandfather’s parking area.

And then we realized we had flooded a third of our grandfather’s parking area. So we drilled holes at the base of our dam to let the water out. And then we built channels around the dam, and the engorged reservoir gradually emptied.

And then we left, as children do, to find something else to do.

And our clay, stick reinforced dam dried into a concrete, stick reinforced foot-high wall.

For us the hardest part wasn’t being forced to take the dam apart with hammers and a shovel. The hardest part was never being able to build another one.


YouTube Alert: The driveway to his farm house, mostly we talk about the 20,000 trees we planted…


YouTube Alert: The road back, we stop so he can look at an epic engineering project…


My grandfather turned 90-years old just a few weeks ago. His health has been… poor since fire nearly destroyed the retirement home he was staying in. Two of his close friends died, but he and my grandmother made it out. Unfortunately he was injured in a way, a pinched nerve in his thigh, that makes it almost impossible to walk.

Something else went wrong on Friday afternoon, and he has been in the hospital ever since. It’ll be at least another three to four days until they let him out.

If that happens, if he can get out of the hospital. The painkillers, and the intestinal problems, are causing him to lightly hallucinate. He has lost his days. He’s convinced he’s been the hospital for days. That the nurses are conspiring against him. I think most of us are just waiting for something inevitable to happen.

Healthy people recover from what he has. But the chances get a lot slimmer when the patient is frail, and old, and breaking down.

There’s just a feeling that he might have gone as far as he can go.




About Gabriel...

...diagnosed with manic depression when I was nineteen, for the next 14-years I lived without treatment or a recovery plan. I've been homeless, one time I graduated college, I've won awards for reporting on Internet privacy issues, and a weekly humour column. In 2002 I finally hit bottom and found help. It's now 2022, and I have an 8-year old son, and a 12-year old son... I’m usually about six feet tall, and I'm pretty sure I screwed up my book deal. I mostly blog at
This entry was posted in Bud, Clinical Depression, crazy people with no pants, Depression, Father, Health, Living With Depression, Living With Manic Depression, Mental Health, No Post Day and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The time my grandfather taught me how to build a dam

  1. PiedType says:

    I hope your grandfather lives long enough to get out of the hospital, No one should have to die in a hospital surrounded by strangers.

    • Gabriel... says:

      …we’re trying to make sure someone from the family is there for him. Mostly, at least for the past 30 hours, he’s been sleeping. We’re not sure at this point where he’ll end up once he’s out. The level of care we’re up to is basically Nursing Home, but my mother is trying to work something out with the retirement home he’s currently in, so that maybe we can get a day nurse in there. Or something.

      He just got his own room again as well. My mother negotiated two separate rooms so my grandfather could get away from my grandmother.

  2. Heather says:

    good luck to you and your family Gabe. You’ve already been through a LOT this past year, it would be awful to lose him as well. the dam sounds awesome!! it’s a shame you didn’t have a picture of it.. he was probably proud of you, but like adults, who have to deal with the creativity and no-foresight that only children seem to be capable of, he just saw the aftermath and thought “OMG! What a MESS”. It’s actually awe inspiring to be copied.. it’s one of the sincerest forms.
    My thoughts are with you.

  3. nursemyra says:

    I love the story about you and your brother building dams, nice memory of your grandfather too.

  4. Gabriel... says:

    …I thought things were getting better, turns out I was wrong. The retirement homes around here won’t take him in if he’s incontinent, which means if he’s discharged from the hospital without getting things fixed he’ll be forced to live in a nursing home. Which isn’t possible right now because the local ones are full.

    If they can’t figure out how to fix what’s wrong, the hospital will ‘let’ him stay there for up to three months.

    He’s mostly confused most of the time. He’s convinced the doctors never stop by, but everyday he sees the primary doctor, a surgeon, a physiotherapist, a bunch of nurses, the x-ray and CAT scan techs… they all take time to explain to him what’s happening, but when I ask him who was in to visit, or what the doctor’s have told him, he kind of pouts and says “I don’t see anybody, and nobody tells me anything”.

    He looks good, he’s asking for books and his eye drops ,which is a big change. He’s eating like a healthy person, and is interested in the outside world.

    So… things are getting better, just not the right things.

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