When I was 5 years old my family lived in Oakland, California.
We didn’t live in Oakland anymore when I was 6, so I only have a few memories of that place, some random, disjointed mental pictures. A scary German Shepherd loose on the street. A teacher pinning a strip of green construction paper onto my t-shirt so the other kids wouldn’t pinch me on St. Patrick’s Day. A spindly-legged mosquito eater butting its head against the back wall of the house.
A kid at school had told me mosquito eaters could inflict a more painful bite than the mosquitoes themselves, so to this day I still get nervous when they are around, even though not once in my entire life has a mosquito eater ever given me any guff.
I had a friend who lived around the corner named Leo. Leo was five and a classmate of mine in the kindergarten. He also had an older sister. I don’t remember ever seeing her, but she was probably about eight, and thus much older and more worldly and experienced than Leo and I could ever hope to be.
It was from Leo’s sister, via Leo, that I first learned the f-word.
One day as Leo and I were outside running around playing the games 5 year old boys tend to play, I heard him muttering the phrase “f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch.”
I asked him what this meant, this phrase “f*** a ditch.”
“It’s when a man and a woman have sex in a ditch,” he said while running around in a circle.
Amazed to have stumbled upon such a useful piece of information, I stopped Leo and asked him how he had learned this phrase.
“From my sister. F*** a ditch, f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch.”
I was only five, and I had an inkling sex was something men and women did together, but I didn’t quite understand the mechanics of it. I hadn’t yet realized men and women have different parts, so I just assumed a woman’s parts looked much like a man’s. How they would mate up smoothly was beyond me, but I had grown used to the fact that the world was a place full of mystery.
As for the ditch part, I just took it at face value that when adults did it, they preferred to do it in a ditch.
For the next five years I figured the f-word was the abbreviated version of the full phrase “f*** a ditch.” It was not a stand-alone word for sex, and it could never be divorced from its ditch origins.
As time passed, though, the idea that adults preferred to do it in a ditch grew stranger and stranger. I started noticing men and women kissing in movies and on TV, and rarely was there a ditch nearby.
Still, I never sat down to seriously think it through. As I grew older I just picked up other pieces of the puzzle, and by the time I was ten I knew very well, thank you, that men and women had different parts, and that when they had sex, it often did not take place in ditches.
I never asked myself how ditches had entered into the picture in the first place, and then one day when I was in my mid-twenties I was at Safeway doing my weekly grocery shopping. As I reached up to pull some paper towels off the shelf a random thought came to me, “Oh, Leo’s sister heard it wrong,” and I burst out laughing right there in the aisle.
Thirty-six years after Leo taught it to me, that phrase still rolls smoothly off my tongue, because that’s how I learned the word.
F*** a ditch, f*** a ditch, f*** a ditch.