First, you find a grandfather. That is a prerequisite for locating a perfect watermelon.

 First, you find a grandfather. That is a prerequisite for locating a perfect watermelon. If said grandfather is an old farmer type, Southern, and cantankerous, all the better. I happened to have one of those, so I didn’t have to search for him. He had many talents, but the most impressive was his ability to pick an absolutely magnificent watermelon.

This talent was displayed almost ritualistically, only on special occasions, and usually for an appreciative audience. The end result was, after all, an impressive sight.

The event usually took place on the Fourth of July. My mother and grandmother would rise as one and begin to make their plate-in-porcelain-sink noises after a large meal of ham, potato salad, fresh rolls, and all the other required feast items.

Granddaddy would then clear his throat. “Ida Pearl, is it time to pull a melon?”  

My grandmother, after hearing this question every Fourth of July for the past 40 years, would sigh and answer, “Yes, Clarence, and take the granddaughter.”

And as he did every year, he would grumble, “She’ll step on my vines with them fancy tennis shoes.”

But he’d motion to me, give a brief nod of the head, and we’d set off around to the front of the house, down the sidewalk by my grandmother’s petunias, and across the front yard to the road. The field was on the other side of the two lane—the acres where the corn threatened to turn the sky gold with fringe, where the tomatoes fairly burst from well-staked plants.

We didn’t talk much; my grandfather was never much of a talker, just a doer. I’ll never rust out, just wear out,” he’d say. So the man would stride with purpose, wearing his khaki shirt, old moth-eaten cap, and Washington Dee Cee overalls, with a Prince Albert tobacco can poking out of a front pocket. He pointed with his pipe at hose high the corn was and how his pole beans were doing. I couldn’t have cared less. I was 4 years old, and the mission—the quest—was the watermelon field.

We went over a little rise, and there it was—a child’s dream of heaven. The earth was so covered by snaking vines and emerald melons that there was scarcely a spot of bare ground as far as the eye could see.

“I’ll tote you now for a spell,” he’d say. He picked me up; held just about the waist, I dangled like a disjointed marionette. Somehow his heavy Sears work boots never stepped on a vine, never broke a twig. He was Jason searching for the fleece; he was Don Quixote veering toward the windmill. The field was magic, and he was the magician.

Finally, he set me down in a clear spot and began to look. The true test began. Leaning over, he clenched his pipe between his teeth, his gnarled, old hand caressing a melon, feeling its vine, examining its color. Then, with a smart, popping noise, he thumped it, dead center, with thumb and second finger.

“Not near ripe,” he’d say.

“How can you tell, Granddaddy?” I’d ask.

“You got to listen for that ‘thump.’ That one there made a sort of plunkin’ noise, so it ain’t ripe.”

He leaned over again and again, listening for the resounding thump. He always found it on the third or fourth try. It would be a beauty, elegantly striped and shaped. He’d pull it under one arm, me under the other, and we’d start back. He had found his prize.

The finale was yet to come, however. We would stride proudly to the sidewalk behind the house, and he’d hold up the ripe fruit.

“Ida Pearl,” he’d yell, “This is the best un.”

“Go ahead then, Clarence, and cut it,” she’d say, look out the back screen door.

Out would come the bone-handled knife with two blades. He’d pull out the longest one and stab the watermelon right in the middle, there on the sidewalk in the backyard. Such a cracking noise, the splitting open of that melon, and what a sight—a red that no color chart could ever match, dotted with exquisite, curved rows of ebony seeds that glistened. It was perfect.

Granddaddy would then cut the fruit into long slices and pass them out. Each slice would be devoured right down to the whitish inner rind, then thrown over the barbed-wire fence into the chicken yard. Soon there would be no evidence of the hunt or subsequent feast. The spectacle was over.

It was that way every year until the ritual played itself; the magic and the magician left the field. But at the famers market here in town, I still look for a grandfather, preferable one with arthritic hands and faded overalls. I get a good melon every time.