Off the Porch: Uncle Evander steals a watermelon
Evander Pritchert understood human nature better than anyone I’ve ever known. He was also the best liar I’ve ever known, though he didn’t believe in profiting from his lying. He saw a good lie as a work of art and, had he been an artist, he would have never sold a single painting. He believed in lying for the joy and entertainment only, as does a sidewalk artist who does beautiful chalk pictures that will be destroyed by foot traffic, or a sand sculptor who watches the waves take away his work when the tide comes in. Even as a small boy, I learned how to follow along with his games, because I knew the eventual result would be entertaining, and I could play a part, even if it was a small one.
Evander had a friend named Mike Murdoch. Mike was a bit older than Evander and sometimes he waxed romantic about adventures past. Mike had a big screened porch, and when we visited him, we always sat out on the screened porch. If the weather was cold, he built a fire in the fireplace on the porch, a feature I saw as an incredible luxury.
This particular night there was no need for a fire; it was mid-summer and Evander and Mike were smoking cigars while sitting in those aluminum lawn chairs with the nylon webbing that everyone owned in the 50s and 60s. Mike took a big draw off his cigar and said, “I wish I could steal just one more watermelon in my life. A watermelon you raise or buy just isn’t as good as one you steal.”
Evander looked at me pointedly and winked. “You know, Mike, I know a guy who’s a grouch and prides himself on his watermelons. I’d like nothing better than to steal one. Want to go steal one now?”
I was proud, as I always was when Evander allowed me in on a trick. It was his way of letting me know I could be trusted not to spoil a complicated scheme that might require quite a bit of effort to pull off. Mike blew out a cloud of smoke and sat forward. “Are you serious?” he asked.
“Of course I am. Let’s go.” Evander got up and started for the door; I got up, too, just like we stole watermelons every night. The fact was, I had never stolen a watermelon in my life, but I’d heard stories Daddy and Evander told of the adventure. Secretly, I wished we really were going to steal a watermelon, though I suspected different.
At the time, Evander owned a little white Volkswagen Bug. In the South, we called any Volkswagen a bug, the same way we called any soft drink a Coke. This little Bug would go anywhere because the engine was in the back. I learned to drive a stick shift in it, because you just let the clutch out and it took off. I climbed in the tiny back seat with Mike and Evander in front.
Mike knew Daddy, and where we lived, but he didn’t know much else about the neighborhood. Evander took us in from the opposite direction we’d normally take, even taking a couple of dirt roads for good measure. All the way, Mike expressed doubt that we were really going to steal a watermelon, but he didn’t want to back down just in case Evander was serious. When we got to Brian Criddlebaugh’s tobacco barn road, I figured out the trick. Daddy owned land on both sides of Lewis Creek and we were going in the back way instead of crossing the bridge. Daddy’s watermelon patch was only a hundred yards from the tobacco barn road and there was a little trail that led to the watermelon patch. The Bug would negotiate it with no trouble at all.
As we started down the trail, Evander cut the lights and the Bug crawled down to the watermelon patch. He warned us to be really quiet because the old man who owned the patch often shot at people who tried to steal melons. He explained we’d avoided going by the old man’s house but the patch was close to the house and the windows would be open in summer. He painted the story so well that I could imagine Daddy sitting in his recliner hearing us and coming out to investigate.
We picked a watermelon, and another for “just in case” and the Bug crawled back up the trail still running dark. Evander claimed to have seen a flashlight, and we blazed out Brian’s tobacco barn road like our tail was on fire.
Back on the porch, we ate the hearts out of both melons with reckless abandon. Excess is the way of robbers, I guess. Mike smiled the whole way, and by the time the last of the watermelon heart was gone, he was remembering seeing Daddy’s nonexistent flashlight beam, too. I was a little disappointed that we hadn’t actually stolen a melon, but I figured the best part of melon robbing was telling the story afterwards and I figured this one was an even better story to tell.