My grandfather, undoubtedly one of the greatest watermelon pickers who ever lived, had as a friend and nemesis an old country neighbor whose name was John. John could hold his own at picking melons too, but for him it was only a sideline, whereas for my grandfather scrutinizing melons was a calling and an art.
Picking melons was something to be taken seriously. And picking the wrong melon, a melon that wasn�t fully ripe, was more than an embarrassment to be shrugged away and forgotten, it was a crime � especially if you were the farmer who happened to be paying for the picking.
My grandfather and Captain John � for that was John�s nickname � flourished in the San Joaquin Valley melon fields of the 1930s. They worked, as did their neighbors, beneath the gloriously boiling sun, struggling to make ends meet, picking melons and raising huge gardens in order to feed their growing broods.
My grandfather was born in 1896, and by the time the Great Depression rolled around he had already lost most of his hair. During the summer he�d be nearly skin and bones from hard work. His back, fortunately, was made of rubber.
Captain John, born in 1893 or 1894, was half savage and half hooligan. But his heart was in the right place and he knew how to work. He could outwork any man except perhaps my grandfather, whose work ethic was so competitive that if a machine had been invented that could pick watermelons he would have picked up his pace and left the machine behind.
Captain John was bronze, powerful, arrogant, comical, and he liked to sing. In fact, he was famous in the neighborhood for his voice, which would float across the fields on the six o�clock morning breeze.
My grandfather sang too, of course. Both men were fluent in Armenian and Turkish, which were their native languages, and so their songs were in those languages. The melodies were of places lost but still close in memory, of birds and sky and oxen and plow, and of love lost and found and lost again.
Amusingly enough, each man thought the other the most stubborn and unyielding in the world. The truth is, neither of them would ever budge an inch, whether in their method of pruning a muscat vine, building a barn, or chopping off the head of a chicken.
Moreover, each man thought the other something of a fool. My grandfather thought John was a fool because John was always drinking, fighting, and spending the night in jail. John thought my grandfather was a fool because he never touched a drop, didn�t gamble, and didn�t dance at the Armenian picnics held every summer Sunday by the Kings River.
And yet their affection for each other was, though contradictory, unbounded. In fact, it was of a very brotherly nature: they hated each other, loved each other, and needed each other. In a very real way, they were lonely together too, both having been orphaned in the old country and transplanted here as boys.
After World War II, progress came to the San Joaquin Valley as it did elsewhere, and eventually my grandfather and Captain John no longer had to pick melons and work like slaves in order to feed their families. Now they had only to contend with their stubbornness and loneliness, and, in the case of my grandfather, with the loss of a son in Europe.
They continued to express themselves through work. Captain John, for instance, once drove his caterpillar tractor ninety-six hours straight through without sleeping and only stopping long enough for diesel and meals. He did so because he had planted a huge crop of potatoes that the government had said it wanted but later had found didn�t fit in with its plans. Instead of doing whatever it was that farmers did with their potatoes every year, John went into a rage and plowed up his entire acreage.
My grandfather planted a new vineyard every year and never took more than an hour for lunch even though he was his own boss and it was a hundred and thirteen degrees in the shade. For him the best friend a man could have was neither wife nor hound, but a shovel. My grandfather wore out several shovels each year in his angry pursuit of weeds. The metal would evaporate with the passing weeks, and the handles would be worn smooth. Let the neighbors use their newfangled blades and tractor attachments, by God. My grandfather knew that the only way to get out a weed was by its roots. Those other contraptions were for people who were afraid to sweat.
And so it went. And it went that way until both men were old and had grandsons who themselves were men, and who in their laziness drove tractors, hired help, and even sprayed their weeds instead of digging them out the old-fashioned way.
The only thing that made such preposterous developments possible to swallow, of course, was stubborn, grandfatherly pride.
Then, during the 1980s, the rest of us idlers were forced to watch as men like my grandfather and Captain John quietly bid farewell to this world.
As you would expect, though, the comrades in arms conspired to let everyone else die first. They hung on until their old friends and neighbors faded and just the two of them remained.
I�ll always remember the funeral that left only the two of them. They hadn�t seen each other for perhaps a year, maybe two, and after the service they spotted each other from across the church. They met in the center aisle, both hobbled and bent with age, no longer straight, no longer singing, no longer drinking, planting, boasting, or competing. They were two very old men, both unique and beautiful works of art and time and pride and memory.
They shook hands and spoke each other�s names. And then words failed them.
I suppose some of it was due to the occasion, and some to the old pride, but I think what troubled them most of all was the painful knowledge that the other had to be next.
Also by William Michaelian
52 pages. Paper.
Another Song I Know
80 pages. Paper.
Signed copies available
A Listening Thing
Among the Living
No Time to Cut My Hair
One Hand Clapping
Songs and Letters
Early Short Stories
Cosmopsis Print Editions
News and Reviews
Favorite Books & Authors
Flippantly Answered Questions
E-mail & Parting Thoughts