By Elaine Rohse • Columnist • 

Watermelon feed a favorite family ritual

I was a happy kid — but I thought any kid growing up in Eastern Oregon should be happy.

And although I enjoyed having fun by myself and with other kids, I rated family fun as the best. Watermelon feeds were my favorite.

The fertile soil in our garden, never tilled before we moved to that land, and my stepfather, Lynn, a maestro of a gardener, teamed up to grow what I was sure were the best watermelons in Eastern Oregon: juicy, ruby-red flesh, piquantly sweet — with seeds that we kids rated as fine for “spitting.”

And Lynn knew exactly when a melon had reached its zenith. Whether he thumped it, or how he otherwise tested for ripeness, I never knew, but his choices were infallible.

Our family watermelon feeds were at night after chores were done: after mother mixed the sourdough for the morrow; after Lynn fed and watered the horses; after my sister and I finished supper dishes; after my little brother brought in the cook stove wood for breakfast. And then our family gathered, sitting in a row on the edge of the back porch while Lynn went to the garden to choose the ceremonial melon. Then Mother took the long butcher knife to that big glossy green orb, and it “crackled” when the blade broke open the rind exposing the ruby-red meat.

We ate the thick half-moon slices without plates, forks, napkins — holding them with both hands. Juice dribbled down our chins and every face had a “smile” from the pulp. Lynn ate his melon with a salt shaker at his side, but the rest of us took ours straight. And always, I especially enjoyed any watermelon feed where I spit watermelon seeds farther than my sister. If mother’s chickens the next day could sneak into the yard, they greatly relished our family’s seed output.

Here at our watermelon feeds, tranquility was at its best. No blare of a radio. Television screens had not yet come on the scene. Twilight, it seemed to me, was the sweetest time of an Eastern Oregon day. The turtledoves cooed from Steep Canyon. Sometimes coyotes yipped a good night from over in West Gulch. Down at the barn, a cow’s soft moo reassured her calf. A cool breeze sneaked in from the Blue Mountains and promised a good night’s sleep.

Our watermelon patch was large, so never did we worry about running out of melons. Most of the family had more than one slice but always there was another melon at the ready in the garden.

And it was not because we were hungry for desserts or sweets that I so enjoyed our watermelon feeds. Almost of a certainty mother made a dessert for every supper and dinner: brown betty, lemon pie, Boston cream pie, or on Fourth of July and other special days, mother’s reach-for-the-sky angel food cakes. But these desserts were eaten immediately after our meals. Good though they were, having them instead of watermelon at our late evening family gatherings would not have been the same.

Those watermelon feeds seemed to me to be family “molders” that brought our family all together. It was my favorite family ritual.

But there was another reason I remembered watermelons so well.

They contributed greatly to summer fun for us kids. This fun was a sort of “rite of passage” with a bit of derring-do thrown in. Our daring act was stealing watermelons — from patches not our own.

So it was on warm nights during the summer that we high school kids ganged together on horseback and it seemed a fine idea to “visit” a strange patch.

The choice did not depend on the quality of the melons in that garden. If we chose the Peterson patch it might be because they had no dogs that announced to owners that their patch was being raided. And we kids did not think genial Mr. Peterson would go to the kitchen and take the .22 rifle from the rack and come to investigate if he suspected kids in his watermelons.

We even hoped he would be inclined to not tell our parents if he should catch us taking fruit from his vines.

We in no way regarded this as thievery. Rather, we justified it as an old Eastern Oregon tradition and we kids felt it was our duty to continue it. We had no skating rink, no library, no kid’s club, no movie house — but we had something better. We had watermelon patches. And the “aura of danger” added excitement to that activity. All of us had heard the story of a tragic happening in Monument years before our time, when a young kid, stealing watermelons with friends, was shot and killed in the patch by its owner.

Nor, assuredly, did we steal melons because we believed that stolen melons would taste sweeter than those in our own garden. Often, the watermelon we triumphantly carried away turned out to be green and inedible. Choosing a ripe watermelon in a strange patch in the darkness is difficult. Even “thumping” was verboten because we were afraid that sound would be heard up at the owner’s house.

And we were honorable thieves. Never did we take more than one melon. Always we were careful not to pull up vines or walk on them. We respected our “host’s” garden — as we borrowed from it. And we would have expelled anyone from our group who suggested vandalism.

Nor did I continue the practice of thievery after I left Eastern Oregon to go to school. All I have stolen since is little bars of soap, tiny bottles of lotion, and shower caps following a stay in a motel.

In retrospect, I suffer no guilt from that career of crime — rather, I regarded it, as did all the kids, as an Eastern Oregon “right.” But, although I remember those night forays into the strange patches as fine adventures, I rate as being even more memorable the watermelon feeds when our family sat together on the back porch with watermelon juice running down our chins and I spitted watermelon seeds farther than my sister.

Elaine Rohse can be reached at

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