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Watermelon farming planted seeds of wisdom

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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 9, 2002

That which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Until some colleagues set me straight, I thought the person who uttered that line was a watermelon farmer.

Had to be. What else could inspire such a thought more than several thousand 30-pound watermelons needing to get from field to store?

When I was spending what I thought was too much of my youth in watermelon patches in Brooks County, Ga., I thought the same thing: These watermelons are going to kill me.
[Times photo]

Now that my youth is spent -- and most of the things I bought with it pretty much worn out -- I realize they made me stronger.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with how that overpriced slice of watermelon gets from field to grocery store will of course understand that working with watermelons has to build physical strength. Eight hours of carrying, tossing and stacking 18- to 30-pound watermelons (eight hours is the purely arbitrary measure of a farmer's workday) produces the long, hard, functional muscles that stick with you long after the work is done, not the bulging, useless, binding masses of cosmetic flesh you get at the gym, the kind that turns into sagging flab in a couple of days if not nursed with special diet and supplements. My watermelon muscles survived about 25 years of sedentary living before they finally gave up.

But muscular strength is not the reason I look for roadside vendors this time of year, especially the ones with pickup trucks loaded with watermelons. To me, they represent a dying piece of America that will be missed, and it has always seemed appropriate that watermelon season and Independence Day coincide.

In farm work, there is a practical division of labor that separates men from boys, a distinction that is often blurred for modern-day city dwellers, and nothing displays it more clearly than farming watermelons.

It begins in the field where thousands of melons at various stages of maturity wait to be carried to market. Boys can carry them; men decide which ones should be carried. Observation and experience allow a man to pick a sweet, ripe melon by the condition of its connection to the vine and the color and feel of its underside. Boys have not yet learned that art.

Boys can toss watermelons onto a truck or boxcar, but a man's patience and judgment are needed to stack them properly so they stay in place as they travel across the nation.

I was proud the first time my father allowed me to do the man's work of "picking" melons, the job of selecting the ones that would go to market, snipping them from the vine and standing them on end so they could be seen and loaded.

He didn't really allow me to do it, he told me to do it, but for me it didn't seem like work at all, but a privilege, an opportunity. I spent the earliest years of my life trying to learn the art of manhood from my father; the rest of my life has been spent trying to prove the lessons took. That was a chance for me to prove.

My father was a man who signed his name to everything he did, so his trust in me to choose a load of watermelons that would represent him to the rest of the world was a great responsibility.

He didn't tell me that. I suppose if he had felt he had to tell me that, then I wouldn't have been up to the task.

So with what was probably the best-looking, sweetest pickup truck load of watermelons that ever left our farm, he and I went to the farmer's market in nearby Thomasville. Normally, our watermelons were sold to buyers who contracted for a truck or boxcar load, and I don't remember why we were selling a pickup load this time.

The prices offered at the market insulted my father. Rather than sell at offensively low prices, he decided to stop in one of the little communities on the way home and try selling them on the street from the back of the truck. We stopped in Pavo, a little town you don't hear about unless you live there, and drove slowly through its streets, looking for buyers to hail us as we passed. No takers.

The effort by my father was at best token. We were in watermelon-growing country. Surely he didn't expect people who either grew their own or had neighbors who did to buy his watermelons. So after a half-hearted sweep through a couple of streets, we went home and threw most of the melons into the hog pen.

I didn't ask him to explain any of that. At the time, it seemed perfectly natural, and principled, to me that if we didn't get the price we deserved, we may as well not sell at all and feed them to the hogs.

Now the thought that maybe we should have accepted one of the offers and sold anyway creeps into my head. The logic of throwing the melons to the hogs does not seem as airtight as it used to. Now, the idea of something being better than nothing is hard to dismiss.

I hate that.

It makes me wonder if muscle isn't all I've lost since those days in the watermelon patch.

I stopped the other day at the edge of Gulfport where a pickup truck was half-loaded with watermelons.

"Did you grow these?" I asked the 30ish man attending it.

"Nah, I get them from Pavo, Ga. They bring a pickup load down here every week," he said.

"Pavo, huh? I'm from right down the road from there,"

"I'm from here," he said, adding, "you should talk to my brother. He has a store and all kinds of produce. He's the one that's really into watermelons."

"Okay," I said.

Then I drove away.

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