The best thing about summer in Arkansas was that you could go fishing every day, except Sunday of course. A quick turn through the barnyard and you had all the worms and crickets you’d need for a mess of bluegills, then just pick up your pole and go. Almost everybody fished with a cane pole, and you could tell when somebody was going fishing by the cane poles sticking out of the car window.
My granddaddy cut his own poles and dried them through the winter, so they would be strong and light for summertime. He liked his pole stiff and not too long because he liked to fish the log drifts at the lower end of the lakes along the Saline River, jigging gobs of worms for goggle-eye and catfish. He had grown up poor, and sharecropped for many years before buying the farm we lived on, where he grew the best yellow-meat watermelons in Cleveland County, at least the best that I’d ever eaten.
And I had eaten lots of them, standing barefoot in the early morning dew, holding the honeycomb heart in my hands as juice dripped off my elbows. Honeycomb is not sweeter than that cool orange melonheart of my childhood. (My deeds were done and done again…)
You can’t pick watermelons early in the morning, because they are full of water and burst so easily, that needs to be done in the evening, and you have to learn how to thump a melon to tell if it is ripe. Another sure sign is if the curly tendril at the stem is dead brown, it’s probably ripe.
Kids then lived in anticipation of the first watermelon of the year. In a good year that might be the Fourth of July, and the summer I was eight we had an especially good crop. That was a long time ago, when people still broke up their spring garden with a mule and a Georgia stock.
Men like my granddaddy lived through the Depression. They didn’t trust banks, but instead carried all their money in their billfolds. Some of them, like his brother Eli, didn’t even trust money that much, preferring to depend on their skill at living off the land. Eli kept half-a-dozen coondogs, and when summer got too hot he loaded up the wagon and, like some Biblical patriarch, moved his family to the river for a month or so.
The first melon was always a seed melon, to be carried to the house and kept cool until everybody was ready to sit down in the porch swing and the big old metal lawn chairs. We had cut a seed melon, there in the shade of the post oak tree, and were eating it when a middle-aged black man drove up. He coasted the truck to a stop, careful not to raise a lot of dust. An old Ford, clean and shiny like it belonged to somebody who takes care of what he owns, and he looked like that kind of somebody, neatly dressed in well-worn but freshly laundered workclothes.
Looking over the rows of melons laid out for sale, thumping and comparing, he finally settled on one of the biggest.
He fished out his billfold and paid with a dollar, then waited for his change. Pulling out a cigarette, he lit it and stood looking around at the fields and houses. He was not in a hurry, who would be in that heat, but he had something he wanted to say and he said it to me.
“I used to live here when I was a young un’, ‘bout your age. That woulda been ’27 or ’28. We lived there in that little house where your folks used to live. Daddy was sharecroppin’ cotton for Mister Willie. It was comin’ on to Juneteenth, and Daddy had promised us kids he would take us fishin’. We was putting stuff in the car when Mister Willie come walkin’ down the road. He was a-whittlin’ on a stick.
“Mister Willie said to my Daddy, ‘Silas, where you goin’?
“Now, anybody could tell where we was goin’, with them fishin’ poles stickin’ out of the car window like that, but Daddy said, ‘Mister Willie, I done promised these kids that I’d take ‘em fishin’.”
Juneteenth is Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the date that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and back then it was celebrated as a holiday by the black people. Juneteenth was the black man’s Fourth-of-July.
The cotton had been laid by, hoed and plowed clean in preparation for the heat of summer, all that was left was to let it grow and make bolls. That depended on the weather, it needed some rain for growing, but rain when the bolls were opening would make them rot.
Man could do no more for this crop, only watch the weather and wait for picking time.
“Daddy seen where he was at all-right. He said, ‘Mister Willie, I done promised these kids that I’d take ‘em fishin’ tomorrow.
“Mister Willie, he just stood there, whittlin’ on that stick, and said, ‘Silas, I want you to plow that cotton out once more tomorrow.’
‘That cotton is done laid by, Mister Willie, there ain’t nothin’ left to do but pick it.’
‘Mister Willie turned to go, and as he walked away, he said over his shoulder, ‘Silas, you can either plow that cotton out tomorrow, or you can leave.”
The black man stood there for a minute, letting the story soak in, or maybe pondering the changes that one brief exchange had caused. He dropped the cigarette and crushed it out with his heel, looking around at our farm, then picked up his watermelon. But he still stood there, looking at me, and spoke slowly, softly, like a cotton boll opening.
“Daddy quit farmin’ that year.”
James Michael Langford