Go on Red; Stop on Green
The great watermelon heist of 1964
Growing up on a small farm in the country ensures lots of opportunity for hard work during daylight hours. But once darkness comes, it is time to rest up for tomorrow. Or so you might think! My older brother and I regularly devised different ways to side-step the potential boredom, some of which I will elaborate elsewhere and some that should probably remain a memory that hopefully will just be forgotten with time. This particular story is not one of those extracurricular, planned and plotted activities, but simply a stroll after dark to get a soft drink.
A little over a mile from our house sat a small country store offering the basic essentials you would expect in a rural community. In fact, there were two country stores less than a half mile apart serving a sparse population with the next closest merchant of any type more than five miles in any direction. The roads near our house were not completely paved until years later after I finished high school and while certainly passable, did not draw a conveniently straight line between our house and the store. What lay between was the Baptist church where my Grandaddy tugged a rope to ring a bell housed in the church steeple every Sunday morning to announce the day, some oak and pine woods, fields of peas or beans or other veggies during their season and a few neighbor houses. Once in a while, my brother and I would walk to the store after dusk, sometimes after the store was closed, to get a coke (small "c" because all bottled soft drinks were referred to as 'coke') from the machine that sat outside the storefront. For a dime we could get an orange Crush, a grape Nehi or some other less inspiring but equally cold drink. During one summer, the store proprietor had planted watermelons on a plot of ground on a hill just behind the store and that watermelon patch was on the direct and most convenient path from our house. One night, while walking to the store, it became apparent to us that the reason we were on this jaunt was to get a drink and that we were walking thru a patch of ripe melons, any one of which under just about any circumstance would provide more refreshment than several cokes of any hue. We discussed this conundrum in depth and at some length like, ('hey, you want a coke?'; 'sure' and 'what about watermelon?'; 'okay') while strolling in darkness lit only by a few thousand visible stars. Did I mention that our roads had no ‘street lights’?
So fresh watermelon or grape Nehi? We decided to ask the storeowner if we might pick a ripe melon and give him the dime for that rather than buying a coke. However, upon arriving at the store, obvious clues suggested that it was closed for the night: no cars out front except the rusty-green ford pickup with three flat tires and a missing headlight and only one dim light inside the locked doors of the store. We settled for a grape Nehi, dropping the dime in a slot and listening to the slide-bump-clang of the heavy glass bottle maneuvering its way toward the flap opening. The old coke machine had a bottle-opener conveniently built into its front so that one didn't have to carry that sort of hardware with them, although we both always had a handy pocketknife which works pretty well for numerous different tasks if needed. After a quick sip, we started back over the hill toward home, the watermelon-alternative almost forgotten. While strolling back thru the watermelon patch, we heard a distant, but loud voice shouting ‘leave my melons alone’ or something similar. My first thought might have been something like, 'let's go back and see if he wants to sell a melon' even though we had already disposed of the dime, but since my brother immediately started running, so of course, did I. As we stumbled along in the almost total darkness we heard more yelling and then BANG! BANG! We both knew exactly what a 22 rifle firing long points sounded like and there was no question, at least in our minds that we were under some serious artillery fire from an irate melon farmer. So we ran down the hill, out of the watermelon patch, and around the church to finally hide in dark shadows underneath the concrete picnic tables which had been, sometime in the distant past, constructed along with a whole new wing of the church when a dead member willed almost twenty thousand dollars to give future parishioners reason to bring casseroles, fried chicken, over-cooked vegetables and pies for a day of singing preaching, eating and communing. While huddled behind a concrete block table leg in the near darkness for what was probably a few minutes, but which felt like hours, I scribbled in my little black book which Dad had given me to ‘keep your thoughts’, by which he may have meant ‘to yourself’, but not sure. Those few, almost unreadable scrawls more than fifty years later remind me of that long ago adventure.
The one light in parking lot gave us a strategic view of both sides of the church where an indignant farmer might appear with his squirrel gun ready to avenge what he likely thought was the great watermelon heist. But he never appeared at least that we could see and finally we moved, slowly at first and then at a dead run back to our house. Not sure what went with the grape Nehi but archeologists might one day find a glass bottle in the middle of a weed and brush-covered land that was once a watermelon patch and record a historical note relating their interpretation of that epic treasure: “A crystallized silicon- based container likely used to distribute a sacramental liquid used in the solemn practices by monks who inhabited the ancient monastery which once stood near the location of this find as evidenced by the cast-iron bell recently unearthed at that site. The purple-colored remnants of the liquid strongly suggest this sacred container was used by important and possibly aristocratic individuals in a rare and significant ceremony.”
The next morning my brother and I visited the store with the thought to talk to the storeowner about the night before. I knew that if we told our Daddy about the incident, he would likely whip us for messing around at night and then he would give the store owner an ear full for shooting off his gun around young kids, particularly at night. So we figured we would explain to the storeowner that we were walking thru the melon patch, but had not meant to bother the melons without asking permission.
We hung around in the store listening to the locals’ chat and it wasn’t long before I heard someone mention “…watermelon…” which certainly perked my ears up and made me want to run again but I didn’t. I eased closer to the chatters while trying to act as if I was looking for something that Momma had asked me to pick up at the store but just couldn’t seem to find a bag of corn meal on the cookie shelf. The storeowner was telling his tale to four or five rapt listeners. “Yeah, they was about four of ‘em, maybe half-a-dozen, I guess and big ‘ol boys too they was. I knew they‘as gittin’ ready to grab a bunch o’ my melons so’s I yelled at ‘em that I’as gonna shoot and then I did! I laid a couple just over’n they heads and they lit out like a bunch o’ white tails. Hehehe! Them boys scattered like chicken's from a chicken hawk! This mornin’ I checked the patch and you never see’d so many tracks in yore life! They musta been a whole heard of ‘em and if I aint seen ‘em they’da took ever' melon I had.”
I decided then that his story was a lot better than ours, so we should probably just let him keep that one. My brother, being bold as he was, asked the store owner how much he wanted for a watermelon and without any hesitation the fella said “they’s plenty of ’em in the patch up behind the store. Git all ye want!” That was that and we didn't have a night-time Nehi for the rest of watermelon season.
I mentioned Grandaddy earlier in relation to the Sunday church bell. He also always had a wonderful vegetable garden and was rightly proud of that fact. We were working in his garden one time, and I guess we were discussing garden related stuff because he told me that eating watermelons made for bad car drivers. Grandaddy was known in the community for driving his light green '39 Chevrolet to and from town while never going over about 35 miles per hour and so surely had something to say about driving. Now at the time I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old and while driving tractors, bicycles and homemade down hill race carts was common, I probably did not catch his meaning relative to driving a car and he knew that so he explained further. 'You see, when you eat watermelons you go on red and stop on green but when you drive in town you got to remember it's just the opposite.'