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Love Along The Delta Cross Channel

The Delta Cross Channel is part of the Central Valley Project, a massive federal welfare program for delivering water from the Sacramento and Trinity rivers to agricultural users in the Central Valley. The channel was dug to connect the Sacramento River to the Delta to transport more of its water, and fish, to massive pumps in the south Delta that send it south to agricultural contractors in the San Joaquin Valley. The pumping plants were referred to by fishery biologists as the black hole of death for fish, an apt description, backed up by numbers.

What brought Cal Johnson and Sally Murphy to the Cross Channel in early July 1981 was related to moving yet more water from the north state to the south. Cal was a private consultant under contract to the state to determine the effects on young fish of planned water diversion facilities associated with the proposed Peripheral Canal. To do that required fish, little fish, specifically American shad, and lots of them. To get those fish, Cal had hired a crew of twelve. Sally was one of the crew, and had been for two years. Since one of the crew had called in sick, and since more fish were needed for testing the next day, Cal and Sally found themselves operating a beach seine just before sunset at the southeast end of the channel.

Now, a beach seine is nothing complicated or fancy. It is a length of fine-meshed plastic netting tied at each end to a wooden pole. The nets Cal's crew used were about 75 feet long and four feet wide. There are various techniques for using the nets. The technique in use on the evening described involved one person standing close to shore, holding the pole upright in shallow water while the other walked out to where the water was about four feet deep, then walking in a wide arc, keeping the net tight, until the moving net operator reached the stationary operator near the shore. The operators switched positions with every other sweep. On this day, Cal made the first sweep. The uniform of the day was shorts or cutoffs, old tennis shoes and pullover tops, often tee shirts.

After the operators met, they carefully drew in the net, placing rocks on its bottom strands to lessen the number of fish that escaped. As the net grew smaller and smaller, the small fish were netted with small hand nets and any baby shad were placed in ice chests filled with water (aerated if the distance from the testing facility was more than a few miles). Other fish were released back into the channel. Once a sufficient number of shad were captured, the crew of two would return to test facility, located on the bank of the Sacramento River, and transfer them into stainless steel tanks, through which river water flowed constantly, in the "fish building", three military surplus portable storage units joined together on top of the levee at the test facility. It was not exciting work but not boring either. One simply put out of mind the fact that all those fish were doomed, even if they survived the testing. Cal rationalized it as giving (not willingly if fish have wills) their lives to save others. Whatever works for a person, he figured. And, after all, American shad weren't native to California.

Cal got lucky on that first sweep. The net held almost all the fish the facility would need for the next three or four days. If Sally's sweep produced half as many shad, he and Sally would have captured enough shad to last for a week, which is about as long as Cal preferred to hold shad at the facility prior to testing.

Sally's sweep did not go smoothly at first. As she was entering the deeper water, she stumbled slightly, lost her balance, and got soaked to her neck. She laughed and continued on, beginning her arc. Cal watched her casually as she began her sweep back to shore, then something unusual caught his attention. As Sally turned her body toward the sun, her pullover top seemed to disappear. Cal couldn't believe his eyes at first. It was as though her top was missing, or at least the front portion from her shoulders to her hips. He noted immediately that she was not wearing a bra, which did not surprise him, since it was hot.

Cal did his best not to stare, but it was hard, since Sally was easy to look at even fully clothed. She was slender and tall. He had never seen such perfect legs either, long, slender, and shaped just right. In short he had fallen for her immediately. The only trouble was that on the few occasions when they had been alone, usually seining trips, she had talked on and on about things she and her boyfriend had been doing. That made her off limits for Cal. As she drew closer, he debated with himself whether to mention her wardrobe idiosyncrasy. When she finally arrived, the sun had set lower in the sky and the top was again opaque. Cal concluded that the material from which the top was made was one of those that lost its opacity when wet and the light hit it from a certain direction. He'd heard of such materials in the late 70s either on TV or in some news story.

After the shad were safely in ice chests and in the back of the truck, Cal made up his mind.

"Sal, there's something I need to tell you."

"What? Is something wrong?"

"Well, not really wrong but more along the lines of something amiss. I want to tell you in case you didn't know so you won't get embarrassed or caught off guard."

"Come on, Cal, tell me. You're driving me crazy."

"All right. Your top was transparent while you were walking back. It's OK now, but while you were walking back, it was like ... well, like you were topless. And I don't mean to embarrass you, but that's what happened."

"You mean you could see my breasts?"

"Yes, you looked naked down to the top of your shorts. I'm not complaining, but I wanted to be sure you were aware of that."

By then Sally's face and neck were red. In Cal's experience that could mean that she was embarrassed, or angry as hell. He waited, saying nothing.

"Cal, we need to talk. Of course I knew about the blouse. I didn't know when I bought it. I just thought it looked good. Then a few weeks ago, I wore it while seining with Maria. She told me, and I just about fainted. I mean, my god, what if I had been out with Tony and he saw me half naked? He'd have told the whole crew that I was a whore. I felt like throwing it away but then decided to keep it. In my car. Maybe it was wishful thinking, but I just had a feeling that I might want to wear it again sometime. And when I knew that you were going to be my seining partner today, I decided, 'Fuck it,' and put it on – for you! And another thing, Cal, I want to you to know how pissed I was when you got together with Meg. You let that bitch throw herself at you, and she was nothing but trash, with boyfriends from one end of town to the other. You fell for her, when you could have had me. Do you remember that day when you walked out of the fish building and I was sitting on the big water intake pipe from the pump on the river?"

"Of course I remember that Sally. It was like you were posing. You looked gorgeous, like a movie star, with those short shorts and those long bare legs crossed just so, and looking cool as could be. You didn't even say hello."

"No, I didn't say hello, or anything else. I just wanted you to see what you were missing. I've never been so angry in my life as I was then. I'm glad you didn't say anything because I would probably have blown up and lost my job. You're the only man I've ever really cared for, and you fell for a slut like Meg. It really pissed me off."

"Now then, Sally slow down a minute. Every time I was alone with you, all you talked about was your boyfriend. Remember that?"

"I know. I was afraid, and it made me feel safe."

"Well, then ..."

"Well then, Cal, from what I've heard, Meg is up north working at a permanent hatchery job with Fish and Game. Are you going to trail after her? Like a good and loyal dog? I tell you that slut will bring you nothing but pain. She'll sleep with anything in pants and then come crying back to you every time. Is that what you want? I'll admit I was stupid to invent a boyfriend, and I regret doing it, but you following after her will be something you'll regret for a lifetime. I'm 26 and have never had a boyfriend. Most men make me sick with their patriarchal, bossy bullshit, their copping feels, their leering and slobbering, their general misogyny and I won't have it! I'd rather go through life a single old maid than give myself to some self-entitled pig! I don't think you're that way, hell I know you're not. I've been around you with other people enough to know that I like you. I love you and want to be with you, permanently, and if that scares you, well I'm sorry but that's how I feel. I'm not incredibly sophisticated, but I'm smart and I know what I want, and, like or not, that's YOU."

"Well, Sally, I can't give you kids. I had a vasectomy shortly after Meg and I got together and don't want to get it reversed. I also want you to know that Meg and I are finished. Your assessment was sound."

"Good! That means I won't need birth control and we can have sex whenever we want to, all we want to. And, Cal, I'm gonna want that a lot. As I said I'm 26 and still a virgin and have a lot of catching up to do. I want to do that with you, and no one else. And I don't want kids either. The fucking planet is overpopulated as it is. I just want a man I can love and depend on and trust. I consider those reasonable expectations."

"Agreed. Now, may I kiss you?"

"Of course. I'm yours."

There followed the first of many long and loving kisses shared by Cal and Sally. They spent that night and all those following together. They shared Cal's rental in Stockton for the first two years, then bought property in Amador County and built a house. By the time it was completed, Sally had established an environmental law practice and Cal's consulting business was booming thanks to jerks like Deukmejian and Wilson, who were trying to shrink government by contracting out work that could be done more cheaply by state employees. Guys like Cal were the only ones who benefitted. At 40 Cal got fed up and retired with enough for both to live on comfortably for the rest of their lives. Sally continued her active law practice for five more years, until she was 40, and retired a multimillionaire, too.

They are both proud to say that they have never spent a night apart since they got together. From what I have been told neither has been romantically involved with anyone but the other. When Cal turned 50 and Sally 45, they moved to the Rocky Mountain region. He still does a little consulting for nonprofits and she takes on immigration and environmental cases essentially pro bono. Each hates Trump, along with "both" political parties, with a passion.

They both still laugh over an incident that occurred in Sacramento's K Street Mall shortly after they were married. They were kissing in public and a cop tried to arrest Cal for assault on a minor. The cop was shocked when Sally produced her ID proving that she was 27. And she still looks good at 63. And I should know. My name is Cal. 

One Comment

  1. Harvey Reading September 26, 2018


    “… by contracting out work that could be done more cheaply than state employees.”

    In the original, reads, “… contracting out work that could be done more cheaply by state employees. I may have made the error in revision …

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