All those years in Boonville I pined for the excitement of the April storms in these here Kentuckiana hills. It's an annual reenactment of the civil war, confederate flags flapping in the balmy breath from the South, the frigid logic of the blue bellies blasting across the Great Lakes, the battles lighting up the night and shaking houses with sonic booms like bombs that wake you with a start. The rebels gradually invade the land in the spring, setting up camp.
“Bunch of racist homophobes down there,” my friend, Mary Jane, who lives up in Indianapolis said when I invited her down to see the new farm that my family is helping to purchase for my son and I to do our organic, hippie thing. “South of the Mason-Dixon line.”
We're not actually south of the Mason-Dixon line, but folks in northern Indiana judge so on account of the accents down here. The last few weeks, though, we might as well have been living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, with fourteen inches of rain falling in as many days, bogging down the local farmers who are spending May Day stoking the woodstove in the shop and swapping hunting stories or discussing what the hell happened to Osama Bin Laden's body while rain pours on the tin roof, Canada geese swim in the flooded fields. The early watermelons should have been planted around April 15, and the starts now loiter around in the greenhouses, pale as if dwelling in caves. The rainy day jobs are done and done again.
Even Grizzly and Bambi, the crazy produce growers who race around sixteen hours a day like hens with their skulls decapitated, are giving me a temporary reprieve. Hell has frozen over. These people never take time off in May. On Saturday, when the sun actually came out for a few hours and temperatures soared in the eighties outside, naturally the beer truck showed up loaded with seedless watermelon starts from the greenhouses up in Michigan, of all places. Seedless watermelons are finicky about sprouting, so the growers down here purchase all their plants from professionals with industrial-grade “germinators.” The only watermelons we actually grow from seed are the “pollenators” required to grow the seedless ones you see in the store. One in four plants in the field is a “pollenator,” basically an open-pollenated heirloom, seeded watermelon that growers like Grizzly and Bambi don't even bother to harvest. On two hundred acres, then, you're talking fifty acres of watermelons that are left to rot. Fifty tractor-trailer loads that are unsold, basically up for grabs, which is why I was calling my friend Mary Jane up in Indianapolis, hoping she will help hook me up with buyers in the inner city.
“Selling watermelons to black people, Spec,” she said. “Real cool, there.” Mary Jane is actually an attorney who makes a good living representing workers who have been sexually harassed or racially discriminated against, which is one reason she has the opinion that people down here are a bunch or racist homophobes.
“Hey, I know it's not PC, but think of it this way: have you heard the term, 'food desert’?”
“Well, say you're one of more than half a million people living in Indianapolis's poor neighborhoods, whether you're black, white, Latino, or whatever. You're like ten miles of grueling traffic from the nearest supermarket, if you're lucky. Maybe you have no car, have to bus it. You're screwed if you want a big watermelon. What we need to do is find a way to get the watermelons into the city.”
She was somewhat game to at least meet with Grizzly and Bambi and explore the idea, and, being a busy attorney, Saturday afternoon was the best time for her to drive down from the city. The hip, urban, professional woman just happened to show up at the same time as the old beer truck that had been converted to haul flats of seedless watermelon starts. A perfect opportunity to meet the local color, it turned out, as the truck driver slid open the doors on the beer truck, revealing infant watermelon plants lined up like soldiers, and who else should show up but my good friend, the jovial, red-faced, Uncle Huck who was generously donating his time--partially because Canada geese were swimming around in most of his fields and from the looks of it he was a week of hot days away from planting the first corn.
Uncle Huck is not a racist in the traditional sense. I've known him for decades, and have basically concluded that he could come across as anti-semitic, anti-gay, anti-black, anti-muslim, anti-latino, anti-white, anti-woman, anti-asian--there is nobody on earth for whom he has not come up with some reason why those people are inferior, and I also know that he would include himself in the mix. I also know that when I was an English major in college and came home to visit, bringing hindu or black friends back to this community, it was to his house that we went to visit because of all places it was there we would no doubt be welcome for dinner, and anyone who has met this fellow has come away amazed, wondering, “How does he do it?” I've met professional comedians, actors, politicians, attorneys, people paid for the gift of gab all over the country, including many of note in Mendo, and I've never swapped stories with one who was as quick on the trigger as Uncle Huck. If you put him on camera and paid him to blab he'd probably clam up like the farmer he actually is, but in his natural element this man has no equal.
That said, another legendary characteristic of Uncle Huck is that he sweats bullets, that even when we were loading cattle out one morning in January when it was five degrees outside with a stiff wind coming in from the north, and the rest of us were bundled up like Eskimos, sweat and steam were radiating from his red forehead although his noggin was protected by nothing more than a seedcorn, baseball cap. And he was managing to hurl insults at every heifer as she went up the loading chute.
“You're just in time, babe,” said Uncle Huck when he saw my friend, Mary Jane, pull up in her silver sedan. “Spec didn't tell me you was hotter than a french whore on nickel beer night. Nice legs. You might have to kick off them there high heels if you're gonna pitch in and throw these sexy little melon plants around.”
“That's Uncle Huck,” I said, quickly. “This is Mary Jane, my attorney.”
“Yeah, she's represented me more or less, pro bono.”
“You lucky devil, you.”
“Um, Mary Jane, this is Grizzly, Bambi.” That was all the time we had for introductions. Grizzly and Bambi don't fool around. Next thing you knew we were all lugging flats of watermelon starts that some thoughtful oaf had taken the time to thoroughly water before loading on the beer truck, and we grabbed two flats of 98 starts in each hand, gripping with our index fingers dug in the corners. They probably weighed ten pounds each. Due to the wet weather we were only able to pull the beer truck up to one end of the sweltering greenhouses, as the far end opened up to a veritable swamp, so we had to traverse one hundred-fifty feet across scorching concrete. Bambi and Mary Jane both took their shoes off. I joked that they ought to wear roller skates, but I was only half-kidding. Roller skates would have been just the trick. One reason Bambi and Grizzly are so successful as produce growers is they work harder than anyone else, all the time, which helps out with the morale of the migrant farm laborers from south of the border who are currently waiting down in Georgia for our weather to clear. One reason Mary Jane is such a successful attorney might be that as a college student in Iowa she spent her summers detassling corn, and even after years of desk and courtroom work she pitched right in, grinding the soles of her bare feet on that concrete. Most of us worked quietly, with the exception of Uncle Huck who soon started melting like an ice cream cone stuck on the radiator of an overheated tractor.
His face transformed from its normal tone of beet red to what he describes as “Red # 41,” which is more or less his age. Possibly the color of International Harvester tractors, as if when we painted their 1970's model, 1486 over the winter his pores absorbed too much of the toxic spray. Naturally he started lashing out like a pit viper at me, as I was a safe target. “What's the matter with you, Spec? Jill wear you out last night?”
“'Jill' is Jack's sister, a word you can spell out with your right or left hand depending on how you rotate it.
“Well, Jill ain't got much to worry about,” I confessed. “Them Dairy Queen girls might make her jealous, but they're all either married or in high school.” That was when I noticed a tomato plant in one of the flats of watermelon starts. “There's a tomato start?”
“Oh, a little baby,” said Bambi, who really belongs in Mendo. With nurturing fingers she rescued the tomato plant and, not missing a beat, planted it between her voluptuous bosoms for safe keeping until she had time to replant it.
“Good God, Bambi, are you nuts? This heat must be getting to you. Now I see why you and Grizzly hide out in the greenhouses all winter. We all know what you do in here.”
“It's Spec I'm worried about,” said Bambi. “One of these days we're gonna catch him sunbathing nude in here.”
“When hell freezes over,” I said, quickly.
The heat was getting to most of us. Pretty soon Uncle Huck was situated on a stepladder next to the beer truck, unloading flats of watermelon plants for someone else to grab. “Here's something for you to write about, Spec.” Somehow it came up that the greenhouses where these seedless watermelon starts had been planted was up in Michigan, and that got him going. His latest enemy is Michigan. The whole state is full of dumbasses who just want handouts from the government, probably referring to the automobile industry. Never mind that Uncle Huck owns three Chevy trucks. “We ought to kick them bastards out, let them become part of Canada,” he said. “Them goddam unions up there. All them people do—”
“Mary Jane represents most of the unions in Indiana.”
“Well, now, Mary Jane, Miss Hot Legs attorney in the black skirt, tell me why these unions want to shut down all our factories and send them down to the wetbacks, or across the big water where we send all the jobs, the land where they dine on rat, cat and pigeon. What the hell's up with that? What's happening here?”
Once the beer truck was relieved of its green cargo, Mary Jane and Uncle Huck and I retired to the bar in his basement where we downed a few shots of Maker's Mark and discussed global politics until it led to the possibilities for marketing these heirloom watermelons that Grizzly and Bambi were going to be throwing away, twenty-five acres of which were going to be grown on Uncle Huck's land.
“They ain't gonna be as big as you think, Spec,” he warned. “Grizzly and Wal-mart don't grow 'em like we used to. They want to irrigate them and plant 'em too close together.”
I told him about the UC Davis rootstock grapes in Anderson Valley. After that, it's hard to say what happened, except that I had one hell of a hangover in church on Sunday morning.
Mary Jane wouldn't go to church with me. “I'm not sitting next to you like some ornament.”
“It ain't like that.”
“Yeah, right. And what happens if some flamboyantly gay, black guy walks into your country church?”
“Why would he?”
“You got a point, there. Have fun in church, Spec.”