the hunt for watermelon

Savannah Morning News

July 9, 2017

We did not show up with “a wagon and a horse in the summer sun.” That’s a lyric from the underrated and basically unknown songwriter extraordinaire Oscar Brown, Jr., in his classic “Watermelon Man” song on his iconic 1960 album, “Sin and Soul and Then Some.” We did not have Herbie Hancock’s piano tune – or Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria’s version – playing in our heads. We sure enough did not come back with watermelon tagged “organic.” But by golly by the end of the day – and it was a long day – we nailed our assignment. Last week, Promised Land farmer Robert Johnson and I showed up with watermelon aplenty for Deep Center’s East Side Block Party because that’s what Block Party organizer phenom Keith Miller wanted – local watermelon (not what you buy at the grocery store but melons straight outta the field) – to serve to all the young poets after they rapped and rhymed their down-and-dirty, heartfelt truths about life on the street in 2017 to family and friends and folks like former mayor Otis Johnson and Juvenile Court judge LeRoy Burke III at East Broad Elementary.

“They’re huge,” Miller said of the watermelon haul. “I was expecting those little round ones.”

No siree, Bob. We came back with the real deal. Crimson sweet, thank you very much.

It took some hunting. Driving around in Robert’s nephew’s truck (not Robert’s 1952 Mater Mobile), we tried Clyde’s in Pembroke, the Feed and Seed in Black Creek, Hodges in Newington, Ken’s IGA in Ellabell, taking the backroads all the way. “My wife sings in a church down that dirt road,” Robert said. “This here is where I grew up. That’s where I picked cotton. You do not want to pick cotton. Hard, hard work.”

There’s always Kroger, someone texted me. I was tempted. Nope, said Robert. Give me half a minute. We gonna find us some watermelon. So we kept on, windows open (swatting gnats), windows closed (too many gnats). We were hunting a watermelon patch. We wanted a u-pick-‘em field. Somewhere in these South Georgia fields we were going to find the source, the mother-lode, the beginning. But we were getting discouraged. Then we stopped at at farm stand in Brooklet, Ga. (population: 1,113) in Bulloch county, 364 people per square mile, median income $34, 438, home of the annual Brooklet Peanut Festival. Not too far from Denmark, Ga. This is our last stop, said I, the impatient one. The woman tending the stand had a lead for us. She got on her phone, punched in the numbers, called her source and gave us directions to Lloyd and Deanna Strickland’s Farm on Hwy. 67. A couple of rights, a left, another right at the old tractor across from the two-story blue house, then down a shake-and-bake road.

Bingo! Watermelons. And corn. And canary melons. And peas. And gnats, no extra charge.

We weren’t the only ones standing in the shade by our vehicles waiting for a crew to drive in from the fields. Finally, after some fancy negotiating in broken Spanish with people who know more English than I know Spanish we got back in the truck and followed a crew of six down paths through the field. We stopped. The farm workers jumped off the back of the truck, dispersed, squatted down to cut the vines, stood up, formed a line and started tossing the 35- to 40-pound melons (they might as well have been medicine balls) to the crew chief in the back of the truck.

This is not easy work. This is what you call migrant labor. This is why – or so I read – any crackdown on immigrants, which is supposed to help U.S. citizens, is managing to create a labor shortage in California, this despite a raise in pay to $16 an hour, health insurance and paid vacations. And that’s in California. No one wants to do this work. PS, it’s not hard to see why. It’s hot, it’s gnatty, it’s brutal, it’s constant. I’m glad I wasn’t out there snipping vines, hoisting the melons and passing them down the human chain.

Along the way the crew chief deliberately dropped a somewhat damaged melon for us gringo to try. Splat. Smoosh. Grab. “Go for the middle,” he said. “It’s the sweetest.” No kidding.

Back in town, we transferred the melons to my truck. Then I dipped into the garage of a neighbor overnight, squeezed out past lawn mowers, bikes, boxes. The next day I pulled my haul to East Broad elementary where Keith, the good-humored energizer bunny, had a citified crew from Dare Dukes’ Deep waiting for me to make the final transfer. They didn’t complain too much, if at all, but I wish they could have been with me the day before. I wish they could have put their poetic eyes – and imaginative words – on farm work. As articulate as they were about urban ills, urban challenges, I’d like to see what they would say about spending a day in the fields. None of it is easy.