written by: Jim Bates
Dad said that because Grandpa fought in the war we should always cut him some slack. I mentioned this to Grandpa once and he said, “Damn, no way, my boy. I don’t need anybody looking out for me. I can take care of myself.”
Now, I know my dad talked to him about it more than once, but Dad had his way of looking at things and Grandpa had his. Like the time he went over to the Freeman’s place one afternoon to try and get sixteen-year-old Billy to stop racing his souped Mustang up on down the dirt road in front of our farm.
When Grandpa came home later he had a smile on his face. “How’d it go?” I asked.
“Fine,” he chuckled.
“Is Billy going to quite speeding?”
He burst out laughing, “For a little while at least.”
Turns out that Old man Freeman wouldn’t listen to a thing Grandpa was saying and ran him off his property with a shotgun. Not to be intimidated, Grandpa snuck back and let the air of out the tires of Billy’s car.
“That’ll teach that little so-and-so a lesson,” he laughed, even after both Billy and his dad, Old Stinky Feet Freeman, came back to our farm just before suppertime. Grandpa just grinned at them. “Prove it,” was all he said, and they left in a huff.
Later that night Grandpa said, “Those two are a couple of world’s all time jerks. I don’t know why in god’s good green acre they were put on this earth. All they do is take up space for someone else more deserving.” Grandpa wasn’t religious, but he had a point. The Freemans were the kind of people no one much carried for. I know I probably shouldn’t be talking like that, but I can’t help it, it’s the truth.
Their family went way back and had always been unlikeable. Billy’s great grandfather ran a moonshine still during prohibition and his son, Billy’s grandfather, was a notorious bank robber. You might have heard of him, Five Finger Freeman. He was shot to death by a sheriff’s posse the next county over after a twenty-four hour standoff in a cave along the Paddlefish river.
Billy’s dad wasn’t much better, but at least he pretended to be law-biding. He ran the Rawhide Saloon on the outskirts of town, a rough and tumble roadhouse bar if there ever was one. The cops mostly looked the other way when it came to the shenanigans that went on there. At least that’s what grandpa told me.
“Son, it’s a bad place. No good can come of it.”
“Come from what, Grandpa?”
“All that boozing and wildness. It’s just not a good way to live.”
Grandpa was a tee-totaling man but hadn’t always been that way. My dad told me that when he’d gotten back from Vietnam he’d been pretty wild.
“Tore up stuff pretty regular. Had a temper, too, and whiskey didn’t help.”
“Well, your granddad meet your grandma and that pretty much sealed his fate.” Dad, chuckled and added, “In a good way.”
He was right. If Grandpa was a force of nature, Grandma was a force of the universe. She kept him under a tight reign.
Granddad and Grandma married a year after they met and had my dad and my Aunt Betty and Aunt Janice. He bought forty acres of land near Willow Creek and started growing vegetables that he sold in town and later trucked to a huge farmers market in the big city two hours away. He made a name for himself because his vegetables were not only good tasting but were organic and healthy to eat. Back then it was the beginning of the natural foods movement and Grandpa was at the forefront. He made money, saved it and paid off all his bills.
Not only was Grandpa a hard working vegetable farmer, he was fun to be with. He taught me nearly everything a kid could want to know: how to whittle a boat so it’d float, how to catch and clean a fish, how to find the direction north by looking at the moss on a tree and how to shoot a hook-shot in basketball, plus tons of other things. In a way, he was my best friend, so when he asked me that spring to help him with his garden I was more than happy to help out.
We’d been sitting on the front porch after dinner. “What do you want me to do, Grandpa?” I asked him. “Hoeing? Planting? Cultivating? What?”
I was excited, talking a mile a minute, and he calmed me down by saying, “Yes, yes and yes, Freddie, we’ll do all of those things, but what I really need is for you to help with a plan I’ve been working on.”
“Yep. It has to do with pumpkins.”
“Yeah, you know how Stinky Feet Freeman has won the award for biggest pumpkin at the State Fair for the last nine years?”
Not really. Vegetable growing contests weren’t something I normally paid much attention to. Well, any attention to, to be honest, but I played along. “Sure.”
“It’s time to teach him a lesson. This year I’ve figured out a way to get back at him for all the crap he’s pulled over the years.
I was excited for grandpa. “What are you going to do?”
“What we are going to do,” he said, emphasizing “we” which made me feel good. Then he stood up and motioned, “Come along and I’ll show you.”
He lead me to the barn where there was a workbench along the far wall. We crossed the hay strewn floor. The stalls were empty, but chickens ran around squawking and trying to stay away from Larry, the testy old black barn cat. I stopped to try and pet him but he arched his back and hissed, apparently not in a good mood that day. I’d bring him a treat later on.
Grandpa called to me, “Hey, there, you coming or not?”
“Coming!” I hurried along. I’d have to work on being less distracted now that I’d be working closely with Grandpa. He was fun to be with, but he didn’t tolerate any foolishness, something both my mom and Grandma said I had plenty of.
Grandpa opened a drawer and pointed, “Here, look at this.”
I looked. Displayed on top of a clean rag was a seed packet with a pumpkin on it. “What’s this, Grandpa? It just looks like some crummy old seeds.”
“Well, yes, Freddie, they are seeds. That’s very observant of you, but they’re not just regular seeds,” he grinned and opened package poured a few into his hand. “These are magic seeds. They’ll grow the biggest pumpkins you’ll ever see.”
“What? Like Jack and the Beanstalk,” I said, trying to make a joke. Magic seeds? I wasn’t a little kid anymore, for Pete’s sake. They looked like regular old seeds like you’d pull out of a pumpkin on Halloween. “You sure, Grandpa?”
“I’m sure,” he said. “We’re going to use these to kick old Stinky Feet Freeman’s butt.”
The image that popped into my mind of my skinny old grandfather putting his dusty work boot to Stinky’s fat rear end made me laugh. No matter what happened, it was going to be a fun summer.
A few days later after dinner the two of us went for a walk down to the vegetable field on the other side of the barn. “Old man Freeman is the greediest man in these parts,” he told me that evening. “I’m looking forward to teaching him a lesson.”
I didn’t get what he was saying so I asked, “How?”
“Do you know what greed is, son?” he asked.
“Kinda,” I stammered, not really sure when it came to concepts bigger than what was for dessert after my grandma’s tasty meals.
“Here.” He gave me a sheet of paper. “I copied this out of the dictionary for you. Read it.”
It read, Greed is an uncontrolled longing for increase in the acquisition or use of material gain, or social value, such as status, or power.
I read it twice and then told him, “I’m still not sure I get it.”
He pulled out an old pipe, scratched a stick match with his thumbnail and lit up. Apple scented tobacco filled the air and it smelled so good it made my mouth water. Grandpa reached into the top pocket of his overalls handed me an orange flavored tootsie roll pop, my favorite. We sat in the grass our backs up against the rough siding of the barn looking out over the vegetable field and he said, “You know about the State Fair, right?”
“Yeah, we always go. I like the rides.”
He laughed. “Well, while you’re wasting your dad’s good money on those rides, you’re missing the biggest show around.”
“Show? Like a movie?” I was confused.
He puffed some and then said, “The show I’m talking about is the Willow County Pumpkin Growing contest. Every year they give out an award for the biggest pumpkin and Stinky Feet has won it nine years in a row. If he wins this year it will be an all time record stretching back to the very beginning of the State Fair. Back to the 1890’s.”
“Wow. That’s a long time.” I was impressed.
“Yeah, and we’re going to beat him this year and teach him a lesson.”
I didn’t know what to say. I’d never heard Grandpa so fired up. “Sounds like fun,” I said, just to go along with him.
“It’ll be a lot of work, that’s for sure,” Grandpa said, “But I do know one thing, if we win, it’ll be fun to see the expression on Stinky’s face.” We both laughed, our imaginations running wild.
A few weeks later, at the end of April, we planted a dozen seeds from the magic seed packet in a special plot me and Grandpa had prepared between the old shed and the vegetable field. It was a spot with rich, fertile soil that got a lot of sun and we watered those seeds and cared for them like they were real live creatures, which in way there were. Under our diligence, all the seeds sprouted and soon we had twelve pumpkins growing like gang busters. By Memorial Day, Grandpa selected four of the biggest for our extra special attention. We watered them and fed them religiously, getting them ready for the pumpkin contest at the end of August at the State Fair.
One of my jobs was to ride my bike past Old Man Freeman’s place and spy on his pumpkin patch. I used my dad’s binoculars and went over there about once a week. When I was done checking out his pumpkins I’d report back.
Around the Fourth of July I sped home as fast as I could pedal and said, unable to hide the concern in my voice, “Grandpa, he’s got one that’s huge.”
“Like the size of Buzz Saw over there,” I pointed.
Grandpa looked. Buzz Saw was Grandma’s prize hog. He must have sired over a hundred piglets in the last five years and he was a big boy. Lazy, but big.
“Hmm,” Grandpa said. “We need to start feeding our pumpkins more.”
“What are you going to use?”
“Something special. Follow me.”
We went into the barn to Ronny’s stall. He was the family horse, an eight year old Tennessee Walker Grandpa bought because, as he told me, “His owners didn’t want him anymore and were going to put him down. We live on a farm. It makes sense to have a horse.” Plus, I think he just liked the high spirited animal. Grandpa had a small pasture he let him run around in. We even got to ride him sometimes. It was fun.
“Grab a shovel.”
We scooped out manure into a wheel barrel and hauled it outside to the spigot. We filled the wheel barrel with water and mixed up the manure.
“What are we doing?”
“We’re making horse-poop tea,” he said, grinning. “This’ll get those four pumpkins growing.”
And it did, too. They nearly doubled in size in a week. I made up a wheel barrel full of the tea every day. Sometimes more. By the end, I was watering them three times a day.
By the end of July one of the pumpkins was by far and away the biggest. “We’ll concentrate on taking really good care of this one, Freddie,” he told me.
I ran my hand over the orange, gently furrowed rind. “She’s a beauty,” I said.
“Yes, she is,” Grandpa said proudly, caressing its skin. “She needs a name. What should we call her?”
I blurted out the first name that came to mind. “How about Bertha?” To this day I have no idea where it came from, but Grandpa liked it.
“It’s perfect,” he said, grinning. “Bertha it is.”
I found out later that Bertha was the name of Grandpa’s grade school teacher back in the olden days. I think he even might have had a crush on her, but, of course, he never told me one way or the other. By the time the State Fair came around, she was huge. I couldn’t even put my arms around her.
“We’ll win for sure,” I said one evening when we were hosing her down and cleaning her up.
“How’s that big pumpkin of Stinky’s looking?”
“Buzz Saw Two?” That was the name we’d given it as kind of a nod to Grandma’s hog.
“I was over there yesterday. It’s about the size of Bertha,” I told him. “It’s going to be close.”
“Well,” he spoke philosophically, “We did the best we could.” He quiet for a moment, looking reverently at our big pumpkin. “But I’d sure like to teach old Stinky a lesson.”
“Me, too. What’s next?”
He winked at me and patted Bertha, “Tomorrow we load her up.”
Early in the summer we’d placed Bertha on a wooden pallet to keep her off the ground and keep her rind from rotting. The pallet also served another function; it made it easier to lift the huge pumpkin onto the back of Grandpa’s pickup. Around sundown the next day he attached a forklift to the front of the tractor and we carefully lifted the pallet and got Bertha settled in the bed of the truck. Then we covered her with a tarp and strapped it down.
“Okay, we’re all set,” he told me, taking out an old bandana and wiping his brow, “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.”
I was so excited I don’t think I slept at all that night.
The next day we trucked Bertha to the fair. There was a lot of fanfare in the morning with people walking around checking out the huge pumpkins. Finally, at noon, the entries were weighed and the results posted on a big chalkboard. It was pretty exciting and we did pretty good. Stinky came in third. We came in second. A guy with long hair and a beard who looked like a wizard or something won first place. He came up and talked to me and Grandpa afterward and we all had a nice chat. He told me his nick-name was Zeus and he was really nice. Different, but nice.
Later that night back at the farm Grandpa and I were sitting out back by the barn. He was smoking his pipe and I was sucking on a tootsie roll pop, cherry this time, and we were talking.
“You know,” he said, puffing away, the clouds of smoke billowing around, keeping the mosquitoes away, “At least Stinky’s record was broken.”
“You aren’t sad we lost?”
He laughed, “Not really. I just wanted to teach him a lesson. As long as he didn’t win, that was good enough for me.”
“Do you think he learned a lesson?”
He was quiet for a moment and then shook his head in the negative, “For a greedy SOB like him, no, probably not. That family has a lot of bad blood in it, that’s for sure.”
“Do you think they could ever change?”
He was quiet again, puffing away. Then he said, “Who knows? You can never tell with people. I hope so.”
We watched the sun go down and then we went inside. But before we did, grandpa said, “Say, do you want to enter the contest again next year? It was kind of fun, wasn’t it?”
I didn’t have to think. “Sure, grandpa. I’d love to.”
“All right then,” he said and put his arm around my shoulder. “Let’s plan on it.”
We went inside and had some of grandma’s apple pie. I was already looking forward to the next year’s State Fair. It’d be fun to enter with Grandpa and you know what? As much as I’d like to win, it wouldn’t matter at all if we didn’t.
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