Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Watermelon worth the price

The billboard has been taunting me for weeks. "Look for the sticker" the large sign implores along my daily route home from work.

But it's not the words they got to me. Not those words anyway. It was the image of a ripe, juicy piece of fruit that has been as much a part of summer in my family as the Fourth of July and long, hot sunny days.


And not just any watermelon. Hermiston watermelon.
My mouth waters every time I drive past the billboard. But I can't just blame the clever marketing campaign for being possessed by the imagery on the sign. No the real blame goes to my grandfather and my father.

My grandfather, my mom's father, introduced me to watermelon when I was very young. Every summer, for as long as the succulent fruit lasted each season, Grandpa Leis had watermelon for lunch and dinner. Or maybe I should say dinner and supper as the midday and evening meals were known by those names respectively in the Nebraska panhandle community where I was born.

Fresh fruit and vegetable, usually from my grandmother's garden, but sometimes from neighboring farms, were part of every summer meal. The canned versions, home-canned mind you, were part of every winter meal too. But you can't can watermelon. It just wound't be right to each watermelon out of a pressure-cooled Bell or Mason jar. You have to sink a knife right into the melon's heart and let the red blood spill out on the counter, your plate and your chin.

Grandpa would cut off a big slice of watermelon and eat it down to the rind, with an occasional shake of salty to add a little zip to the sweet fruit flavor. Then the rind itself was fed to the chickens. Nothing went to waste from a watermelon, well, except maybe those pesky black seeds. But even those could be a source of amusement for a young grandchild enjoying a slice of melon with his granddad.

One year after a summer of meals featuring watermelon, sweet corn, cucumbers and countless other harvest treasures, my dad packed me up, along with my mom, young brother Ron, newborn brother Dean and moved us to Oregon -- smack dab in the middle of a watermelon country. Hermiston watermelon country that is, in Umatilla County in Eastern Oregon.

Every summer, when watermelons turned ripe, there were always plenty of melons at our house. my dad, being an ag pilot, or what folks often refer to as a "crop duster," did work for many of the farmers in and around our area. No one from our family, or anyone on my dad's work crew, could drive a pickup (or any rig for that matter) past one of the farms dad did business with without getting loaded down with food at harvest time. Onions, potatoes, asparagus, sweet corn and of course watermelon. Hermiston watermelon.

A few years after I graduated from college I was back in Hermiston working as the editor for a small weekly paper when then-mayor Frank Harkenrider guilted me in to making a trip to Portland one summer. Harkie -- everyone who know Mayor Harkenrider called him Harkie -- was leading a contingents of local dignitaries delivering a ceremonial first load of melons for the season to Portland. It was 1992 and only the second year of what has now become an annual pilgrimage of produce to Portland that celebrated its 16th anniversary this year. Harkie may have been a small town mayor, but he was a bit flamboyant and knew a publicity opportunity when he saw one.

He was taking the melons straight to Portland City Hall and dropping them, figuratively at least, into the lap of the even more flamboyant Portland mayor, J.E. "Bud" Clark.
Clark and his trademark "Whoop, whoop" became nationally, even globally, known as the tavern keeper who upset an incumbent mayor and took over leadership of Oregon's largest city. Clark was also known for posing for a famous poster in the 1980s with the slogan "expose yourself to art" while wearing a trench coat and seemingly flashing a sculpture of a woman in downtown Portland. Clark, who sold autographed copies of the poster to help pay off his campaign debt, signed several copies of his poster for the Hermiston delegation on that summer day back in 1992. It was his last year in office. He even signed one for a certain young journalist, who still has it hanging on a wall in his home.

But perhaps I digress. Needless to say, watermelons, and Hermiston watermelons in particular have long been a summer favorite. But during 10 years I spent in California, they were impossible to find. And California melons, though most of them were seedless and tasted fine, just didn't taste the same. Anyone who has had a Hermiston watermelon will tell you they are special. And if they people are from the Hermiston area, they'll tell you Hermiston melons are the best.

So over the weekend I had the opportunity to take my daughter back to visit family in Eastern Oregon and we stopped to visit Grandma Leis, who is now living in my parents' home. Grandpa Leis, who would have celebated his 92nd birthday Aug. 21, has been gone 23 years now. But Grandma is still here, and celebrates her 92nd birthday on Wednesday, Aug 23. And that baby brother, just a newborn on that trek West by air over the Oregon Trail, turns 33 on Friday, Aug. 25.

And in the fridge during that visit there was a big, ripe Hermiston watermelon in the fridge, and two more in the utility room by the back door. The one in the fridge tasted great, I can assure you, and one of the ones in the utility room was liberated. It made the trip back to Salem with me. Complete with its "A Product of Oregon" sticker, attesting to the fact that it is indeed a Hermiston watermelon, "Grown & Distributed by Walchli Farms."
And all it cost me was $60 worth of gas and seven hours on the road to get it.

I hope everyone is enjoying some fresh "locally grown" produce this summer and making some lifelong memories with their family and friends too. Thanks for going along on the ride with me Suzanna. And thanks from teaching me how to eat watermelon, Grandpa. Oh, and happy birthday Grandma. And yea, you too Dean. Thanks for the melon, Mom and Dad. And thank the Walchli's for me too.

That billboard isn't haunting or taunting me any more.

(Read a related post about the 2007 watermelon giveaway: Blogriculture: Former melon thief now gives 'em away


Rachelle Walchli said...

I loved this article! Was it also in the Capital Press? If so, what issue and page?
I stumbled onto this through a google search. I am printing it and hanging it in our melon shed. Thanks for sharing your story and educating people on our sweet Hermiston Walchli Melons!!

Rachelle Walchli
Hermiston Melon Co.

Gary L. West said...

For what it's worth, this piece did not run in the print editions of Capital Press. It only appears here on our blog site. Thanks for your nice note Rachelle.


Anonymous said...

I live in Hermiston for 18 years and the watermelons there are the absolute best I have ever had! I live in NC now but I cannot find them anywhere!

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