Vol. III, No. 3, Winter 1990


Watermelon Tastes Better If It Don't Come Easy

by Hugh Crumpler



Can anyone doubt that the sweetest watermelon, the one that splits open with a crackling sound at the touch of a knife, is the watermelon cut from the vine in the dark of the night?

George Alexander and I never doubted that wisdom. Every boy who had spent more than ten minutes outside the city limits knew it to be one of the great, uncontested facts of life. George was my uncle -- only a few years older than I -- and the leader of our midnight raid on Grandpa's watermelon patch.

Grandpa was George W. Alexander, owner of the Alexander Farm near Bourbon, Missouri. Grandpa was an old-time "family farmer," a man who could look back to several generations of other family farmers in North Carolina before moving to Missouri.

Now, to me in those long ago days Grandpa was to sweet watermelons what Babe Ruth was to home runs. Nobody grew a bigger watermelon with a sweeter taste. His favorite melon was the Kleckley Sweet, a honey-flavored, red-meated melon that he had improved. Year after year, Grandpa dried the seeds of the biggest Kleckley Sweet for the following season.

Well, that Summer of 1926 was a vintage year for watermelon. Even Grandpa was pleased with the crop, and he was a hard man to please.

So Uncle George and I laid our plans. We scouted out the watermelon patch a couple of times. We paced off the distance from a blackberry bush alongside the split-rail fence to the biggest watermelon in the patch. George said it was exactly 37 steps. Thirty-seven steps to the greatest watermelon on either side of the Mississippi River and Old George and me were going to steal it and eat it right there on Grandpa's own property in the dark of the moon.

"I could find that big old watermelon if I was blindfolded in the middle of a pitch-black night," George declared.

He was pretty proud of himself for the way he had scouted out that watermelon and fixed its location like a red-tailed hawk would have plotted an aerial raid on the chicken yard.

That night at supper, Grandpa brought up the subject of watermelons. Said he was glad to see us boys taking an interest in melon culture, for he could see no other reason why we had spent so much time in the melon patch that afternoon.

"You boys planning to go in the watermelon business?" Grandpa asked.

George said we were going out to the wood lot to look for squirrels in the shaggybark hickory trees and just happened to take a shortcut through the watermelon patch. Monstrous big red squirrels in those shaggybarks, George said.

Grandpa wanted to know why it took us so long to cross the patch and George said his shoes came untied and he had to stop and fix the laces.

Grandpa said, "Uh huh."

Grandpa dropped the subject through the fried chicken and biscuits. And gravy. Then Grandma Mary Alexander served the blackberry pie. It tolks cooked nowadays like Grandma, wouldn't be any thin people. They would never have invented Anorexia Nervosa.

Grandpa brought up the subject of watermelons again during the pie eating.

"Had some boys once from Bourbon try to steal watermelons from me," Grandpa said.

"I knew when they were coming, so I doctored up a couple of Kleckleys with croton oil. Heard later those boys couldn't pull their pants up for a week."

I sneaked a sideways look at George. He was looking at his pie.

"Nother time, Roy and I hunkered down in the watermelon patch with shotguns. Sure enough, here comes three raggety-tailed boys looking for watermelons. We waited till they bent over to pick a melon. Then we loosed off a couple of shots out of both barrels. Shot over their heads in the air."

"Didn't know boys that young could run that fast. Never before saw anybody lose their appetite for watermelon before the first bite."

Grandpa pushed back from the table. He rolled a leaf of tobacco between his palms until it was ground to his satisfaction and then stoked up his pipe. Grandpa said it was a disgrace for anybody from Carolina to buy store tobacco. He grew his own leaf tobacco and hung it to cure from rafters in the corn crib. That tobacco was as strong as Grandpa's watermelons were sweet, as me and George found out one time. But that is another story.

Grandpa looked long and hard at me and George. He took a deep, noisy draw on his corncob pipe and blew a cloud of gray smoke at the ceiling.

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"Time for you boys to go up to bed," Grandpa said about eight o'clock that evening. "1 got some chores to do at the barn."

Grandpa lit the kerosene lantern, took it by the bail and walked out the front door for the barn. Me and George went up to bed.

We snickered and giggled around some about stealing the big watermelon but not loud enough to wake up anybody. Me, I just laid back there on Grandma's blue-striped straw tick and thought about how lucky I was. Grandma always said she was "scandalized" that I would want to sleep on a straw tick when she had lots of perfectly good beds. That old tick, she said, was for use as a pallet on the floor "when folks come visiting and just plain overflow all the beds."

But if you sleep all year on a store mattress on top of bouncy coil springs like I did back home in Rolla, you'll purr like a kitten you when you lay yourself down on a straw tick. It's a bed that has got some feel to it.

I lay there and thought about how lucky I was. Every summer I got to spend a week or two on Grandpa's farm and roam around with George. George was Grandma and Grandpa's youngest child and he wasn't much older than me. I sure did worry that George got into a lot of what Grandpa called "devilment." Sometimes, he seemed to be sorta half daring Grandpa to catch him at something he shouldn't been doing. Grandpa just watched. Sometimes he smiled a little. I noticed that because nobody ordinarily looks as serious as a man with a walrus mustache.

I stopped thinking about how lucky I was and I changed over to thinking about the best way to ask Mom to make me a straw tick. Before I could work it out, George whispered real loud.

"Come, on let's go. Papa and Mama are asleep."

We stole down the stairs and out of the house. We made it out the door, but I never thought we would without getting caught. Every step on those old stairs creaked loud enough to wake the dead. But nobody stirred in the house while we were sneaking downstairs.

We got to the fence and George yelled "Ow" and said a couple of cuss words because he had located the blackberry patch by sticking his hand into a bunch of briars. We climbed over the rail fence.

George backed up against the fence and started walking and counting the steps. I was right behind him.

"One, two, three," George stepped and counted. "... thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven." George stopped.

"Here it is. Just think about us eating that big old watermelon," George said.

I could hear the snick of the blade when George opened his pocketknife to cut the melon from the vine. I could see George's outline when he bent over to cut the vine.

He froze for a second. Then be started scrabbling around with his hands. He stood up.

"Ain't no big watermelon here!" George's voice held disbelief.

"We missed it," I said. "Let's go back to the fence and count again."

"No sir," George said, "That big old watermelon has been taken already."

He felt around some more.

"By gosh, here's the end of the vine where it was cut. Why, there's still sap coming out."

Me and George figured that it was a bad night for watermelon stealing and we didn't even talk about it more than a minute before deciding not to steal some other watermelon. For one thing, we had our minds set on that big old Kleckley Sweet. For another thing, there seemed to be things going on in Grandpa's watermelon patch that we didn't rightly understand.

We sneaked back to the house without any more talking and giggling and we crept up the stairs and went to bed and slept pretty good all night.

Next day at supper time, Grandpa and Grandma told us to come on out to the table that Grandma kept under the peach trees.

That big old Kleckley Sweet watermelon was right there in the middle of the table. It looked as big as the 45-pound catfish Grandpa had caught on his trotline in the Meramec River that summer.

"Well, boys, we're going to have a watermelon feast," Grandpa said.

He picked up the butcher knife and I'll swear that big old watermelon started making a ripping noise before he even got the point of the knife past the rind. That old watermelon just rippled open and fell in two halves on the table.

You never saw such red watermelon meat. Or tasted anything more like honey in the comb. Grandpa just kept cutting slices and me and George just kept eating them.

"I declare I never saw two boys eat so much watermelon," Grandma said. "Boys have to do a lot of chores to get that hungry."

"Well, now, I don't know about doing chores," Grandpa said. "But I'll tell you what makes boys hungry for watermelon."

"Boys get real hungry for watermelon by walking around in a watermelon patch at night and looking for something that's not there."

Me and George didn't say anything. All I could hear was the slurp-slurp as we ate the heart right out of that big Kleckley Sweet watermelon. Later me and George stretched out in the hay loft and belched a lot. We allowed it would have been a world champion watermelon feast if it hadn't come so easy.

Hugh Crumpler, a displaced Ozarker, is living in San Diego. A retired newspaperman, he has written for The New York Herald Tribune and the United Press.

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