Friday, May 9, 2008

The Great Watermelon Caper

It was the summer of 1962, and I had just completed my freshman year at Purdue University in West Lafayette. I was still a somewhat immature 17 years of age, having graduated from Elmore Township High School in Elnora in May, 1961, when I was only 16. For the second consecutive summer, I was working as a clerk and bookkeeper at the Elnora Hardware Store for the magnificent sum of 50¢ per hour, forty hours per week.

As summer wore on, it would soon be time for me to return to Purdue. There wasn’t much to do on a hot, late summer night in Elnora, so as we usually did, a bunch of us guys hung around the gas station on Highway 57 across from the Midway CafĂ© trying to plan the evening’s entertainment. It was the start of ‘watermelon season’ and somebody suggested that we drive down around Plainville and confiscate some juicy melons from an unsuspecting farmer’s field. I had polio at a very early age, and because of my limited mobility, it would have been impossible for me to go out into the field to pick up and carry the contraband. Though none of us had been drinking, for the reason previously stated I was nominated to be the designated driver.

We headed down some gravel roads, the locations of which have long since been erased from my memory. When we arrived at the chosen spot, three of my buddies who shall remain nameless, hopped out of the car and started procuring as many melons as they could pile into my green and white 1956 Dodge Coronet. About the time we decided we had enough, the farmer who owned the property came out of his house and fired (presumably) a shotgun into the air and yelled a few choice words to let us know we weren’t welcome. I sped down the road with the car’s headlights off, gravel flying from behind the rear wheels.

When we got a safe distance away from the scene of the crime, I turned on my headlights and headed to the Elnora City Park where we feasted on red, ripe watermelons until we were stuffed. We still had some watermelons in the car, but for some stupid reason we decided to go get more so everyone would have plenty to ‘take home’ and enjoy later. I lived on the easternmost side of town and remembered there was an old gentleman who lived near our house who also had a very fine watermelon patch. So, in a second moment of weakness, we raided his garden and made off with another half dozen or more.

Feeling really guilty by now, I decided it was time for me to take everyone back to their cars so I could head home for the night, crawl under the covers, and pray for forgiveness. When we got over to the area of ‘downtown’ where the street that went past the Lumber Yard turned south at the Laundromat, one of the guys in the back seat who was needing more excitement, decided to toss a watermelon out of the window. It landed with a sickening ‘splat’ onto the street and then someone on the other side car threw out another one. I told them to stop, but nobody did, including my front seat passenger, and the melons kept hitting the pavement. I tried to get out of town as fast as possible to keep the watermelon carnage to a minimum, but before I could, my ‘buddies’ tossed out every melon in the car, saving the last one for the front yard of my boss and owner of the hardware store, Ray Humerickhouse.

The next morning on my way to work, I almost got sick when I saw all of the smashed watermelons littering the street and intersections in the downtown area. I parked my car and went into the store; my boss did not say a word. About 9:00 AM, a state trooper came in and talked to Mr. Humerickhouse at the front of the store. I was in the office near the back, but I could see them both very clearly. I just knew the officer was going to come back and slap the cuffs on me, but he finally turned around and left. Later that morning, Verlin Taylor (a friend who was not with me the previous night) came into the store and said everyone in town knew it was me who drove the car during the watermelon caper. My “Goody Two Shoes” image was gone forever.

Nothing more was said that summer. I can’t help but think that if my father hadn’t been in the hospital with terminal cancer and I wasn’t on leg braces and using crutches, things might have turned out much differently for me.

Epilogue: Two years later, I went into the hardware store to buy a bicycle horn as a birthday present for a young friend of our family who lived near our home. While I was paying for it, Mr. Humerickhouse said, “Well, if I hear a bicycle horn and find a watermelon in my yard the next morning, I’ll know for sure who tossed it out the next time.” I smiled, said nothing and left, flushed from embarrassment and never to reenter the store again. Years later, after I had graduated from college and moved away from Elnora, my wife, young sons, and I were visiting my mother for the weekend. I decided to have my oil changed at Daffron’s Garage diagonally across from the Methodist Church. While he was working on my car, Lester Daffron said, “Jim, you almost got yourself in a bunch of trouble over that watermelon incident a few years back.” When I asked him how they knew it was me, he said that when the watermelon was tossed into my boss’s front yard, it had a bank deposit ticket stuck to it that had my name on it. I had been to the bank that morning and, as was my custom, tossed the deposit slip into the glove box. It must have somehow fallen out of the glove box and onto the floor where it later got stuck to the infamous watermelon. Later (probably the next day or two), I remember I was looking for the slip to record my deposit and was never able to find it. Les Daffron had solved the mystery. I’ve often thought of that late summer night in 1962 and regretted that it ever happened. After 46 years, I hope the statute of limitations has run out.

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