Those big Hope melons

September has arrived.

Football season has started.

Another Hope Watermelon Festival came and went last month.

But the big melons — the really big ones — often stay in the fields into September and even October.

The reason I know a little bit about big watermelons is because my high school biology teacher at Arkadelphia High School was Lloyd Bright of the famous Bright family of Hope. He would tell us stories of spending the night with giant watermelons in the field, making sure they stayed warm as the cooler fall temperatures kicked in.

On Aug. 18, The New York Times led its Dining section with a lengthy story from Hope by Kim Severson.

The story began this way: “In this dusty field filled with experimental watermelons off Highway 174, there is but one sound that matters. It’s a deep, soft pop, like a cork slipping free from a wine bottle. You hear it when a pocketknife cracks the green rind on a watermelon so full of wet fruit that the outside can barely contain the inside. Terry Kirkpatrick, a professor of plant pathology at the University of Arkansas, spends a lot of time here popping open watermelons. He’s searching for deeply colored flesh that is crisp but not crunchy and so juicy that pools fill the divots left by a spoon. The taste has to be exceptionally sweet but just slightly vegetal, so you know it came from the earth and not from the candy counter.”

Severson goes on to explain that for a watermelon producer to have a commercially viable operation, that farmer must grow melons with a thick rind and a uniform shape. That allows the melons to ship well.

“It has to be small enough so people pushing grocery carts in big-city stores will buy it,” Severson writes. “And it can’t have seeds.”

The Times story says that while small hybrid watermelons are the future of the industry they are “also heartbreakers for a lot of people around southwest Arkansas who miss the old-fashioned seeded melons that now grow in only a few fields. In many ways, Hope, a town known for both President Bill Clinton and the giant melons that were celebrated at its annual Watermelon Festival, is a microcosm of the watermelon world these days. Around Hope, people still talk with fondness about heavy, oblong watermelons with names like Jubilee, Black Diamond, Georgia Rattlesnake or even the Charleston Gray, a relative newcomer from the 1950s and the first watermelon bred to have a tougher rind for shipping.

“All of them can grow bigger than most kitchens can handle, some stretching over 2 feet long and weighing more than 50 pounds. They’re the ones just right for greasing up and throwing in a pool for the kids to chase. You eat them ice cold, spitting the big black seeds at your brother. And they are delicious, the kind of perfect watermelon an eater of grocery store melons can only fantasize about.”

Bright and a few others still go for the really big melons. The world record melon was, in fact, produced by my old teacher five years ago. Now 67 and retired from working in the public schools, Bright has a family farm that has grown six world champion melons through the years.

“When I was growing up, the guys were always talking big melons,” he told the reporter for the New York newspaper.

Carolina Cross melons can add three to four pounds a day. Bright sells big melons for $75 to $80, and you can buy seeds from him by going to www.giantwatermelons.com. Bright says he makes just enough “to pay for the gas and fertilizer.”

While market conditions have changed, there will always be a place for those really big melons around Hope. It is, quite simply, a part of the culture.

On Jan. 17, 2001, Bill Clinton made his final out-of-state trip as president. He came home to Arkansas aboard Air Force One to address a joint session of the Arkansas Legislature. Prior to that session, Clinton dropped by the office of Gov. Mike Huckabee for a visit.

Unlike Clinton, Huckabee actually finished grade school, junior high school and high school at Hope. Everybody in Arkansas considered Bill Clinton to be a Hot Springs product until Harry Thomason came out with his “man from Hope” film for the 1992 Democratic National Convention at New York. You have to admit that “I still believe in a place called Hot Springs” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

At any rate, no one can take away from Clinton the fact that he was born in Hope and spent his first few years there.

During his governorship, Huckabee kept a large Bowie knife in a glass case atop a table in his office. I had never seen anyone actually open the case until the president popped it open that day and picked up the knife (no doubt startling the Secret Service agents in the room).

I’ll never forget what he said: “It doesn’t matter what Huckabee and I accomplish in life, we’ll always rate third at best in Hope behind watermelons and Bowie knives.”

I can’t think of big Hope melons without thinking about the late C.M. “Pod” Rogers Jr., the circulation director at the Hope Star for many years. Pod, who later was one of the paper’s owners, was one of those unforgettable Arkansas characters. He would carry with him stacks of postcards featuring a photo of buxom girls in bathing suits sitting atop giant Hope watermelons.

“I wish you would take a look at those melons!” Pod would exclaim as he handed out the postcards.

Pod, who died in 1998, went all over the world to promote Hope watermelons, even appearing on national television shows hosted by fellow Arkansans Glen Campbell and Johnny Cash.

I was attending the Republican National Convention in Dallas late in the summer of 1984, staying at a dilapidated Holiday Inn just off Central Expressway where the Arkansas delegation was housed. I was sleeping soundly when my phone began to ring at 4 a.m.

I thrashed about trying to find the phone in the dark and finally answered.

“Nelson!” the voice on the other end of the line commanded. “This is Rogers. I’ve got one of those big Hope watermelons down here in the lobby. I need you to come down and help me load it so we can take it over to Willard Scott.”

NBC’s “Today Show” was broadcasting live the week of the convention from the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Dallas. No, Pod didn’t have an invitation to appear on the show. But he figured that if he showed up in the lobby with that watermelon and hollered at Willard Scott, they would put him on national television.

I had my doubts. But I got out of bed and accompanied Pod to the Hyatt Regency.

The parking attendant there was amazed when he saw the size of the watermelon.

“My goodness, what a watermelon,” he said.

Without missing a beat, Pod responded: “That’s no watermelon. We’re from Arkansas. Our melons are much bigger than that. That’s a cucumber.”

Charmed by Pod, the hotel staff helped us take the giant melon inside the hotel. You’ve no doubt figured out the rest of the story by now: Pod screamed at Willard Scott as the weatherman was walking to the set; Willard walked over and admired the melon; and in the final hour of the show, Pod Rogers of Hope found himself on nationwide television.

In the 1920s, the Hope Chamber of Commerce would hold a one-day festival each year to celebrate the local watermelon crop. Slices would be served to the passengers on the many trains that passed through town. The Watermelon Queen would be crowned, and a parade would be held. By 1931, however, the Great Depression had forced an end to the festival.

In 1975, Hope celebrated its centennial. Pod saw what a success it was and decided he would organize a new Watermelon Festival. He did just that in 1977. Hope hasn’t missed a festival since then. It’s now a four-day event that brings almost 50,000 people to town each August.

Pod’s son, Brad Rogers, told the Hope Star last year: “The first year I know we did absolutely everything from the pocket. We got posters and took our own personal vehicles and put up posters all over Arkansas. It was a lot of hard work. … Dad would be absolutely proud of the way things have turned out.”

I’ll be watching the news closely the next few weeks to see if Lloyd Bright, my old biology teacher, weighs in some huge melons.

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