They jealousy guarded their secrets of growing prize-winning watermelons, my father and his brothers did.
From finding the perfect soil mixture of sand and loam to the watering and fertilizer schedule, they made melon raising a mixture of science and art with a little voodoo magic sprinkled around the vines. I am not saying they made sacrifices at midnight in the watermelon rows, but I don’t know for sure that they didn’t.
They prayed a lot for the winning edge in their annual competition. And each of them had dedicated followers. Our Appalachian community knew of the contest and kept the buzz at high pitch. Garden visitation was a regular occurrence, with spies sent for the express purpose of scouting the sibling opposition.
Thus came the day when a visitor to the local beauty shop spread the rumor that her husband had seen and thumped a 100-lb. watermelon in Uncle Doug’s patch – and it was only July 15!
Dust clouds rose on the gravel roads as cars and pickup trucks fanned out to spread the news. The community was in an uproar. It was Saturday, and the Baptist preacher later told me he wrote a new Sunday sermon entitled, “Covet Not Thy Neighbor’s Harvest.”
A delegation turned up at our house and met my father in the hay field.
“Arthur, you’re beat! Doug’s been keeping a secret. Folks said he started a Georgia Whopper in a 10-gallon fish tank filled with secret soil from Lousiana.
"Brought a load back from that vacation trip to New Orleans last summer and started the seeds on Super Bowl weekend,” said a neighbor, mopping sweat from his forehead.
“Yep,” said another. “They say the durned thing is gonna top three-hunnerd pounds by August.”
The passel of them trooped to Dad’s patch and looked down at a healthy fat melon with potential but still well shy of the sought-after century mark.
Dad took out his pocket knife, stropped the blade on a flat rock and cut his prize melon, sharing out pieces to everyone present.
“You can’t say Arthur Oden is a sore loser,” conceded one of the group as he spit seeds and wiped juice off his chin.
At the end of August when the official weighing took place, Uncle Doug’s melon barely tipped the scales at 60 lbs., but he was the winner because both my father and Uncle Graham had dropped out.
The giant watermelon the man had seen who started the rumor -- and was responsible for the cascade of events that followed -- was from a farmer’s market near Panama City, Fla. It was strategically placed in Uncle Doug’s garden where spies could see it and marvel. The actual contest melon – a pip squeak -- stayed on the vine, trying to put on weight.
Revenge is best served with a box of salt for flavoring. Next summer, when the competiton had started anew, there was another flustered group that arrived at our farm.
“Doug has gone crazy! You gotta do something, Arthur. He’s got a roto-tiller an’ he’s a-digging up his watermelon patch!”
Someone hollered, “An’ he had some nice-uns growin’, too!”
A cavalcade of beater cars and trucks, led by my father, drove to Uncle Doug’s farm.
There he was in the destroyed melon patch, on his hands and knees, sifting through the dirt.
”Looky here what I found this morning when I was hoeing out the watermelons,” said Uncle Doug as he produced a handful of arrowheads.
“Never know’d there was an Injun camp ‘round here! I hoed up the first one, then found anuther. I ran to get the tiller and turned up all these…”
My uncle was fanatic about arrowhead collecting and would spend hours every spring trekking across muddy fields after rains, looking for flint points.
Dad shook his head in amazement. He held out a hand and said, “Them arrowheads look anything like this one I found in my garden?”
In fact, the similarity was eerie, and Uncle Doug began to sniff a skunk.
Under the cover of night, we had salted the melon patch with arrowheads from my collection.
Uncle Doug was right in one way. An Indian camp had never been within 10 miles of his farm, but watermelon pranksters were only a stone’s throw away -- and related by blood. It was a miracle that some wasn’t spilled that day as Uncle Doug surveyed his dead vines.
■ Steve Oden is an award-winning columnist and former newspaper editor in Tennessee and Alabama.