Pollywogs And Muddy Water

When I was a kid, I loved catching tadpoles.  Back then I called them pollywogs, which led to disagreements with my friends, over what to call them.  When somebody’s parents informed us that both words were correct, realized I needed to make a choice.  Would it be pollywog or tadpole?  I began to feel ambivalent.

I secretly held on to my preference for pollywog, until we studied amphibians in high school biology class.  I learned that tadpole was the “educated” term.  The last time I caught tadpoles was for a class project.  I offered to catch some and bring them in when they had started developing legs, so the class could see them.  The teacher helped me set up a terrarium with a little pond in it, so the tadpoles with legs could either swim or walk.

As it turned out, only one tadpole survived to make the complete transition.  I fed it with flies I caught in jars, which was no easy task.  I had to slowly creep up on them as they hovered over animal droppings — usually dog poop — then deftly bring the jar down and cover it with the lid … all without getting “messy”.  It actually took a lot of skill.  Once I had collected 2 or 3 flies, I would then have to open the jar in the covered terrarium and let them fly out of the jar, but not out of the terrarium… not an easy task.

The frog was still quite small on the last day of class.  But the teacher asked me if he could keep it for the next semester’s class.  I was happy to let him have it.  I was no longer a kid with a thing for catching pollywogs.  I was growing up.  But when I was younger, pollywog hunting was my call of the wild.  There was no discomfort I wouldn’t endure, no danger I wouldn’t face for the thrill of capturing those tiny creatures.

I lived on a hill in the semi-arid climate of San Diego.  Below the hill, alongside University Ave, which was the main drag, was a drainage ditch, which was dry most of the year.  But every rainy season it became a stream.  When I heard the frogs croaking at night I knew that pollywog season was right around the corner.

One Saturday I went down to the drainage ditch with one of my friends to see if we could catch some pollywogs.  We had jars with us and had poked holes in the lids, using a hammer and nail.  But we didn’t find any pollywogs.  Apparently we had gotten there too late.  The standing water was really muddy and there were boards and pieces of cardboard all over.  That meant other kids had already been there.

We kept walking downstream, hoping to find some undisturbed or undiscovered puddle, until we came to a large, concrete culvert that allowed the runoff to pass beneath Rolando Blvd., a short block from where it crosses University Ave.  I Googled that location, and now it’s all fenced in and concrete is all around.  But  57 years ago (if I was 10 at the time), it was wide open spaces.

The palm trees hadn't even started to grow here, when I was a kid.  And there weren't any buildings around.  But this is the road today, and below it, the culvert.

The palm trees hadn’t even started to grow here, when I was a kid. And there weren’t any buildings around. But this is the road today, and below it, the culvert.

Back then, the only concrete was the culvert itself.  Narrow ledges along the sides of the angled concrete retaining walls led to the “tunnel” part of the culvert.  Running water had eroded the adjacent soil, creating a fairly deep pond.  It must have been four feet deep.

Just then, It started to rain.  Two older boys, who we didn’t know, had already gotten into the tunnel.  They encouraged us, saying, “Come on in!  You can get in on the ledge.  It’s easy, but don’t fall, that water’s full of sewage.”  Of course, that wasn’t true.  It was just muddy water.  My friend had no problem navigating the ledge, but I was so nervous, thinking that the water was sewage that, sure enough, I slipped off the ledge, into the murky water.

As they all helped pull me out, the older boys were quick to tell me they were just kidding about the sewage, and did their best to cheer me up.  One of them said, “You know what Bing Crosby said when he fell in the sewer?”  (He then sang the answer.) “A lot o’ doo doo!”  And that became our mantra, as we trekked back home.  Since it was raining, I didn’t need to explain to my mother how I got wet.  Although, I did brag about it later, thinking I was pretty tough for surviving a fall into the muddy water.

The biggest pollywogs I ever caught were baby bullfrogs.  They were four times the size of the ones I usually found, and real easy to scoop up in a jar.  I found them in a rain puddle in an open field.  Bringing them back home, I felt proud like a warrior, returning from a successful hunt.

I held the jar up for anyone who wanted to see them.  They would peer through the muddy water and say something like, “Wow!  They sure are big!”  I got all excited as I anticipated watching them lose their tails and grow up into huge bullfrogs.  After a while, it was time to come in for dinner, so I left the jar of pollywogs on the back porch and went in the house to get cleaned up.

Bright and early the next morning, I went out to the back porch to check on my pollywogs.  My eyes were met with something totally unexpected.  The water in the jar was clear, but on the bottom of the jar was a thick layer of silt.  The muddy water had settled during the night.  Not one pollywog could be seen!  Where did they go?  Did someone steal them?

Lifting up the jar for a closer examination, I discovered the pollywogs lying on the bottom of the jar, buried under the silt.  I dug them out with a stick, but it was too late.  They were flattened by the weight of the mud.

It troubled my childish mind that they hadn’t kept swimming, to keep from being buried.  My older brother explained that pollywogs were designed to live in the natural condition of pond water.  When kids go stomping through puddles and stirring up the water into a big muddy mess, it’s no longer fit for pollywogs to live in.  That was the first time I learned about respecting wildlife habitat.  But also, it taught me that if you want to appreciate anything, be careful not to stir up the mud.

ⓒ Michael D. Day  2012

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