All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1972

Digging Ditches

Mr. Demers is a vocational counselor in Veneta, Oregon.

I first met Joe when I was about ten. My dad was foreman on a sewer job in our town and they were digging a long ditch for the pipe on the street where we lived. I was watching the men dig — no machines in those days. About midmorning a horse drawn vegetable wagon pulled up where several of the men were on the bank taking a “break.” I noticed Joe because he bought a large cabbage, cut it in half with his jack knife, and proceeded to munch on it, raw. I was watching him, wide-eyed, when he smiled, cut off a slice of the cabbage, and offered it to me. I bit into it, hesitantly, and soon found that I liked it very much. That was the first good thing I learned from Joe, the first of many things I would learn from him over a period of several years.

Joe was a short, squat man, barrel chested, short legs, and a long, powerful torso. He was already past 40 when I first met him, with a thick thatch of greying hair and a catching little accent in his voice. His father came to this country from Italy, but Joe was born in New York City and had migrated to the mountains with his wife and family. That’s when he began working for my granddad, digging ditches.

Whenever I could, through the years, I would “visit” with Joe wherever he was working. He had many interesting stories to tell a young boy, and a great pride in his work.

He taught me the proper way to use a round nosed shovel, a square nosed shovel, a longhand led and a shorthanded shovel. It was important to keep the sides of the ditch perpendicular, to keep the banks clean, to throw the dirt in a certain place and a certain distance from the edge of the ditch. The ditches varied in width, and the angles of the sides varied depending upon the condition of the soil. No facet of Joe’s digging was too insignificant to command his full interest and attention. He loved to talk about his job and to show others how to do the job “properly.”

I recall my sadness on hearing that Joe no longer dug ditches for the city. One of his daughters, in my class at school, told me her father had gone into business for himself, digging ditches. Before long, he was the most sought after ditch digger in town. Mechanical contrivances were now available, but there were still a hundred and one places where a ditch could only be dug by hand; there you’d find Joe. Most of the plumbers in town were “waiting in line” for Joe’s skills, even holding off on certain jobs until he could dig their ditch, or their hole, or whatever digging they needed.

Through the lean Depression years, Joe was one of the very, very few who found full employment. Somewhere Joe kept “digging.” His pay sometimes was a sack of beans, a chicken, or a dozen eggs, but his children, all seven of them, remained well, strong, and in school.

Few, indeed were the people in town who didn’t know Joe, who didn’t know and who didn’t tell everybody that he was “the best ditch digger ever,” and that he also built the “best stone walls and fences,” and grew the “most beautiful roses.”

Years later, on a fall day when the cabbages were ripe, I sought out Joe, where he was digging a ditch along a side hill. I was on leave for a few weeks and had learned that Joe’s son, one of my classmates, had died on the beaches at Normandy. As I walked up the hill, Joe greeted me with the same big smile. His hair was snowy white now, his back a little more hunched, his stance a bit more squat, but his arms were still sinewy, muscular and powerful, as he cupped one hand over the end of the hickory handle of his beloved shovel and extended the other warmly and affectionately in my direction.

We talked long in the warmth of the autumn sun. I learned that a job worth doing is a job that ought to be extremely well done. I learned something of the distance I must travel toward such a worthy goal. Joe was sure that most of the trouble in the world stemmed from the refusal of people to exercise to their fullest potential the talents with which they were blessed. I wish that everyone might hear the tone, the richness, the wisdom in Joe’s voice as he said: “A man ought to find out, as soon as possible, what it is that he can do, then learn and study, and do it as best he can all of his life. If a man really did this he’d have no time to drift to the right or the left, or to stumble up or down because he’d be too busy doing well what he knew best, best for himself and for all those about him; and he’d be happy and rich, both here and beyond.”