Jul 17, 2007


I have been slacking.

I've been unable to get to my garden for most of a week now, because of rain and standing water, but tonight, tonight I fought my way out there, past legions of weeds and ankle deep mud, and harvested.

And harvested.

And harvested some more.

I lost my squash plants, too much rain. The tomatoes which I thought were dying gave one last gasp, and some even have flowers again. The Kentucky Wonder beans are as good as dead, killed by mosaic but the cukes are showing all sorts of promise. And I've even got a bottle gourd that is about the size of my two fists stacked one above the other.

There is a joy that comes of working in the earth. I wonder if perhaps the big farmers, the ones who farm thousands of acres to feed hundreds of thousands of people at a time still remember the simple joy of watching a cucumber grow from a tiny, fuzzy little bean to a healthy, green treat, or remember what it was like when they plucked their first home-grown tomato from the branches of a laden plant.

This is a small portion of what I harvested tonight.

And that's Penny the Dirt Papilion, always ready to ham a little bit for the camera. And this isn't nearly it. There is still a sack-full of banana peppers out there, and another full sack of bell peppers that will be ripe in just a day or so. And there are tomatoes on the way, and cucumbers aplenty, and spears of okra and cucuzzi gourds but my one most fierce joy is that watermelon.

When my brother and I were very young, our parents would load us up in the old brown station wagon and we would go to Mississippi to see our grandparents, my father's parents, once every other weekend. And in summer we'd have fireworks, and we'd chase lightning bugs, and we'd pretend hike in the pine forest around the property. And there were three men we looked up to: my father, my grandfather, and my father's best friend, Mr. Clem Steele.

Mr. Clem chewed tobacco, wore an old denim ball cap to keep the sun off his bald head, worked in a mill grinding corn and other grains, and knew where all the best fields were for finding the finest Indian arrowheads. And somewhere in between all this other work he raised yellow-meat watermelons. And when deep summer came us boys would arrive with whoops and shouts and pile out of the station wagon, hug the grandparents, roam around the house and the yard, see what was new and what hadn't changed since the last trio, and start asking about the creek and arrowheads and Mr. Clem.

But first we'd help my father cut the one acre of grass, stumbling gamely along behind the ancient Yazoo big-wheel lawnmowers with their battered red steel bodies and their dingy yellow spoked wheels, and afterwards we'd swing on the old chain swing hanging off a limb of the huge pecan tree out front. But in between it all I'd be praying my little heart out that Mr. Clem would be arriving soon. My mother always bought him a box of Red Man chewing tobacco at the Base Exchange Commisary because it was cheaper than anywhere else, and without seeming to ever touch the phone my father always managed to let him know we had arrived.

We boys would never know when he'd show up, but there was no mistaking that faded blue Ford pickup truck driving slowly up the highway, turning with a crunch of tires on gravel into the big half-circle drive in front of my grandparent's house. If we were on the swing out front he'd already be waving, and we could see him smile from the highway. He'd greet us with smiles and pats on the head, and he'd walk slowly up to the house to greet the family, and my father would bring out the green and white and red cardboard box of Red Man. And in exchange he'd give my father a few folded up bills, and stories. Stories of deer hunts and wasp nests batted down out of trees, of arrow heads found and happenings at the millhouse.

And if we were terribly wonderfully lucky, he'd bring us out to his field to pick a yellow meat watermelon.

I had never seen a yellow watermelon before those heady days, but when I discovered them I never looked back at plain old red again. Sweeter than sin, lighter than air, and possessed of pale tan seeds that you could, it seemed, spit a mile. Juice all down our chins, fingers sticky from pinching seeds, it was heaven on earth.

This spring, a single watermelon plant survived out of the six that were planted. It was a tiny green sprig in a big open patch of brown, but with patience it soon bloomed and grew into a twenty-foot monster, sending out seeking tendrils in every direction. And then tiny green striped fingerlings appeared, tiny watermelons the size of your thumb, perfect in every way.

They sat in the summer heat and grew.

They drank deeply of the rain and the waterhose sprinkles and grew.

And this evening, turning the four and five pound lumps to keep them from rotting, I saw one that was ready. I thumped it gently not because I know what to listen for, I just remember Mr. Clem thumping those sun-basking melons. He'd carefully walk along the rows, dust stirring up from his battered old boots, stepping over vines without ever seeming to look, and thumping gently here and gently there with one thick finger, head cocked, and following some secret lore he'd stoop, thump, reach into his overalls and pull out his pocket knife and in one smooth motion efficiently clip a curled vine and scoop the sun-warmed melon into our waiting arms.

This evening I waded carefully into the mingled vines. I thumped, I drew the little sharp kitchen knife I had across the vine with a quick motion, and hefted the melon into my arms and brought it inside. When I first laid the big knife into it's rind it hesitated, and my heart sank, certain it wasn't ripe yet, sure that I had made a terrible mistake. After a moment's hesitation though it almost fell through the soft pulp inside, and I heard that distinct, quiet 'cccrrack' as the rind split just ahead of the knife, and that scent, that heavenly rich sweet perfume hit me.

It was ripe.

It IS ripe. And incredible. It tastes warm, like the sun beating down on it's thick green rind, and it tastes like rain water perfumed by bees. It smells like life, that thick, heady smell of living plants, and it melts on the tongue.

I wish I could share it with you all, hand you each a slice like a broad yellow smile and tell you about Mr. Clem, and my grandfather, and my father; the men who planted the seed in my heart a long, long time ago.


Bob said...

you did share it, I can feel the juice running down my chin!

meno said...


It's kind of sad that most store bought watermelon no longer have real seeds. Yeah, they were a pain to eat around, but they were so fun to spit and pinch between your fingers and watch them shoot out, preferably into your brother's face.

Richard said...

I tried emailing you but it got bounced back. Please email me as soon as you get this.
You can delete this comment if you like. Just needed to get your attention...


Schmoopie said...

What a great story. And the watermelon looks divine! I've never had yellow watermelon before. I'll have to find some at the (Market if I can!) Happy eating!

Scott from Oregon said...

My oh my!

You bring back childhood days out at my Aunt Sissy's farm outside of Jackson...

Irrelephant said...

Bob, I'm so glad you enjoyed it! There are times when writing, for me at least, can be a struggle, but when I have an access to my childhood memories that easy it's just THERE, and all I have to do is speed my fingers up enough to keep up with the flood. *s*

Meno, I always wonder exactly HOW they plant more seedless plants. I mean, isn't that a little self-defeating? *lol* And heck, I learned how to spit with deadly accuracy and surprising speed eating watermelons, I can't imagine depriving people of such a valuable learning experience!

Richard, gotcha covered! Can't wait to see you and the Missus!

Schmoop dear, you really need to treat yourself if you can. The yellows have the same exact texture as the reds but there's a lightness to the meat, and they're SO much sweeter when they're good and ripe...OH! To die for. *s*

Scott, you say Jackson? Jackson Mississippi? My grandparents lived in Smithdale, right on Hwy 98.

Scott from Oregon said...

My grandparents lived on Ellis Avenue for 35 years.

Ma and Pa both attended Jackson High School.

Rayne said...

This is a wonderful memory, I really enjoyed reading it. I remembered my parents garden and working in it and how important it was for everything to grow because those were our vegetables for the year. Sometimes all we had to eat when times were bad. I've never, ever, seen or heard of a yellow meat watermelon. Now I have to hunt down a real garden grown one and try it out.

Irrelephant said...

Thank you, Rayne! Being my own harshest critic I find that the only pieces I really like are the ones where I've been able to go wayyy back and bring something forward.

And definitely, if you can, treat yourself. This one was grown from a heritage seed, the species was "Orange Glow."

Cheesy said...

mmmmm yummy..... I need to start thinking pickles soon!!!

Irrelephant said...

Cheesy, have you any recipes for pepper jelly? I've got like a trashbag FULL of various peppers, and have fond remembrances of a jar of pepper jelly that went well with EVERYTHING....