Of Snakes and Watermelons

Of Snakes and Watermelons


By Elton Camp


(This is another of the series about life in the rural South during the early 20th Century.)

            As Milas’ family picked cotton, they discovered and killed a snake. Albert gingerly worked the limp snake around the blade of his hoe and took it to a ditch for disposal. He used the occasion to educate his younger brother.

            “Hit wuz a snake thet fooled Eve ’n thet garden, warn’t hit? Thet’s how sly they is. Al’ays stay ’way from ’em. Last week, I seed a hoop snake. Hit tuk hits tail ’n hits mouth an’ rolled down th’ hill t’ward the creek. Hit wuz outter site afore I kud blink twiste.” 

            Absurd myths about snakes were common among rural people who should’ve known better. To many of them, snakes had slimy skin, milked cows, chased people, and one, the coach whip, might beat to death an unwary victim. To persuade them otherwise was impossible. They either claimed to have seen it happen or knew somebody who had. Testimony of that type couldn’t be refuted.

            “I ’onst seed a glass snake.”Albert continued the error-filled education of his big-eyed smaller brother who hung on every word. “I slammed hit wif a stick ’n’ hit broke inta three pieces. Afore I kewd do no more, hit went back togither ’n’ off hit went fer th’ bushes.”  

            About ten thirty, Miranda took her baby and went to the house to fix dinner. Alabama people always called the middle meal “dinner,” never lunch. The evening meal was designated “supper.”  The family had started early and so ate only a light breakfast. They were hungry, tired, and thirsty. She prepared a simple, but nourishing, spread of vegetables and ham.

            “Dinner,” she hollered loudly from the side yard when the meal was ready. Uncertain whether anyone in the cotton patch could hear, she accompanied the call with loud ringing of the dinner bell mounted on a wooden post. The loud clangs immediately caught the attention of the weary workers. After eating, the family rested for nearly an hour before returning to the field to resume the all-important harvest.

            “I’d of hired som’ pickers, if I could of fount any,” Milas remarked to his wife. “Wif’ all th’ crops comin’ ’n at th’ same time, help’s sca’ce at best.”  How hard he’d tried, nobody but he knew. Milas found it hard to pay for work that could be done free.

            “Well, looky hear,” Albert exclaimed when he made an exciting discovery near the end of the row he was picking. “This’ll taste powerf’l good middl’ o’ th’ afternoon.” A watermelon vine had “volunteered” and bore a good size melon. The elongated shell of green with yellow flecks produced a hollow sound that announced it as ripe.

            Around three o’clock, the pickers gathered to share the welcome bonus. Albert used his pocketknife to make a split down the length of the melon. With a ripping sound, it broke into two pieces. The meat was bright red and heavily-studded with black seed. He divided the fruit into as many sections as people in the field. In the absence of utensils, each had to choose between biting directly into the juicy slice and breaking out hunks with unwashed fingers.

            The best part of the melon was the “heart” near the center. It had no seed and was the sweetest and juiciest. Below that was the section crowded with seed. Eaters had to take bites and spit out the hard, inedible seed. It was still good, but less so than the heart.

            Toward the rind was the least desirable part of the melon. It wasn’t as ripe and not as sweet. It was also harder to get without a spoon. Most of it they tossed aside to be enjoyed by honeybees and yellow jackets. Only so much watermelon could be eaten at once, and besides, Milas might appear at any moment to chastise them for wasting valuable picking time.

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The cotton pickers found both danger and a treat in the field.
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