I like to think it started with Marco Polo. His insatiable desire to travel brought people in contact with far away places and gave them a yearning to visit those places. Christopher Columbus was one of those people on whom the Marco Polo Effect was strong, but unlike Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus traveled west. This was the catalyst that began countless travels by people of all means across the ocean between Europe and America. Some of these people stayed in America and started the process of traveling to the west across the continent. Needless to say, the methods of travel were rather slow, and eventually this led to the invention of trains. (I know this is a big step forward in time, but trains are essential to this story). Traveling by train created more desire to travel and, therefore, the need for more trains.
The Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, known as the M.K.T., or just the Katy, built a small concrete dam across Fossil Creek in the early 1900’s. It was just an impoundment to provide water for the steam locomotives traveling in and out of Fort Worth, but it quickly became a swimming hole. I know this because my grandmother remembered swimming there when she was a child. Forward a few years, and my friends and I discovered it.
When Rick, Ron, Mike, and I found the dam it had long since been forgotten. To the south, about sixty yards away, the railroad tracks were still in use, but an oak woods had grown up hiding the water from view. To the north was a cane break running a mile or so to both the east and west. It was our private swimming hole.
The woods became our campground, and in the summers we would spend the night there two or three times. During the hot summer days we would play in the water for hours. We tied a rope to a big tree limb to swing out over the water and drop in just like we had seen in some movie. We tried to make a slide out of some old sheet metal, but the rust wasn’t very slippery. We had a great time there for several years. Oh, and we never brought swimsuits.
It didn’t take us long to discover that the cane break was only some ten or fifteen yards deep. We made a trail through it each year, (it grew back rather quickly), and on the far side our trail came out about ten yards from a bob-war (barbed wire) fence. On the other side of that fence was property belonging to a watermelon farmer. A swimming hole, big watermelons, and kids. It was a match made in heaven.
At first we talked about taking just one watermelon. Who was going to miss it? Who was the watermelon farmer anyway? And where was he? After we returned home a lot of questions were asked and we discovered the name of the person with the title to the watermelons. It was Farmer West! Oh, no! He was notorious for making life miserable for anyone found on his property, or so the rumors went. At the same time it was said he would give anything he owned to anyone who asked. But he lived several miles away, and who would miss one watermelon?
It was late August and hot. The four of us decided it was time to try our hand at “borrowing” a watermelon. We believed the justification for “borrowing” was in repayment by planting the remaining seeds. We arrived at the swimming hole, stripped down and swam across. On the other side we worked our way through the cane break trail and stopped in horror just as we reached the fence. The watermelons were gone! Every one had been harvested and were all now beyond reach.
We climbed through the fence and walked out to the lone big oak tree about fifty yards away looking everywhere for a forgotten melon, but Farmer West did not leave a single one behind. We went back to the swimming hole where we cooled off and made our plans for next summer.
To any kid a school year is a long time, but it didn’t compare to the following summer while we were watching the watermelons grow. School was out during the last week of May, and by June 1st, we were at the swimming hole building a new path through the cane break. We were ready to feast on our first watermelon that afternoon, but we discovered that the watermelons were not much bigger than softballs at this time.
The only distraction we had that summer was in family vacations and summer camps, otherwise the march of time would have been unbearable. By the end of July all vacations and camps were over, and the first watermelons were starting to ripen. And we were back at the swimming hole.
All four of us had a sense of adventure, and it quickly became evident that each one of us had to have our own melon. We sat at the edge of the cane break and surveyed the farm as far as we could see in every direction looking for Farmer West, and when we determined it was safe, we climbed through the fence and each picked out a melon and snapped it free from its vine. Back to the swimming hole we ran with our prizes.
We tossed the melons into the water and let them float and cool off as we did the same for about two hours. Then we each broke open our melon by whacking them with some thick oak sticks, and we feasted. Needless to say one watermelon was enough to feed all four of us, and we had considerable left over. The remains we carried away from our swimming hole to a place we would normally not visit, and this area became our compost heap.
We had about four weeks of watermelon harvesting before Farmer West began his harvest. But it was a great four weeks, and we weren’t tired of watermelon by the time the feast came to an end for the year. Again we returned to school, and again we waited for the melons to grow the following summer. And again we had a watermelon banquet. The third year started out no differently.
We were now about twelve years old, and we could now carry away the bigger melons. For three weeks we did just that. The biggest and best watermelons could be found floating in the water three or four times each week, and by now there was very little left over. Sometimes it was necessary to do a second harvest in a single day.
Farmer West wasn’t a blind man. A quick inspection of the southeast corner of his farm was all he needed to figure out what was going on with his watermelons. And anyone could follow our trail through the cane break
It was the last week of August, and we were hoping to get in one more raid on the watermelon patch before the harvest began. We started out about mid-morning riding our bicycles the two or three miles up the old gravel road to where we could turn off onto a dirt path that brought us to the railroad tracks. By the time we got to our swimming hole, we were hot and ready for watermelon.
We stripped off the shorts, t-shirts, and tennis shoes and dived into the water. Immediately we came out the other side and ran into the cane break. As usual, we stopped at the opening to our trail and examined the field for any sign of movement. When we determined the coast was clear we ran to the fence and climbed through. We each picked out our melon and were just about to head back to the swimming hole when we heard the voice.
“Boys, you know all you have to do is ask and I’d give you all the melons you could eat.”
We froze. Turning slowly towards the voice we could see the error of our surveying technique. We forgot about the lone big oak tree. And there was Farmer West stepping out from behind it with his double-barreled shotgun.
“I don’t like it when people don’t ask.”
We took off running, each of us hanging onto his watermelon. As we ran, we drew closer together as our destination was the one place where the fence was wide enough to crawl through. When we got to the fence, Farmer West fired off both barrels of the shotgun at the four shiny hineys scrambling to get away. All four of us felt the sting. I ran into the fence slicing my watermelon in half on the wire. Mike dropped his in the opening where it broke into a slippery mess for us to crawl through. Somehow both Ron and Rick got through the fence with their melons in tact. And we ran through the cane break.
We realized we weren’t dead, so we examined each other for buckshot wounds, but all we could find were whelps and blisters, mostly across the middle third of our backsides. We figured we were lucky. The two remaining watermelons were tossed into the water and we jumped in afterward. That’s when we realized we were not so lucky. The blisters and whelps were caused by rock salt, and the water did nothing to ease the pain. Salt water in a wound is not fun, especially when the wounds are located across one’s backside. We climbed out of the water on the wooded side of the swimming hole in tears but to the sound of laughter. Standing there where we had entered the water was Farmer West.
“Boys, I’m harvesting tomorrow, but next year come see me and we’ll work this out. No kid should be deprived of a watermelon.” He looked down at the melons floating in the water. “Or two.” Farmer West looked at the swimming hole for a few moments, and then he commented that it was just like he remembered it. With that he disappeared back into the cane break.
We were uncomfortable for more than a few days. It hurt to sit, stand, walk, or move in any manner, but not one of us let on to our families what had happened. We endured the pain until it went away. I had red spots for months where the rock salt had embedded under my skin, and I’m sure the others did also. But we didn’t talk about it. There wasn’t anything to say about it.
It was a normal long school year, and when it was over we weren’t in any hurry to go back to the swimming hole. About the end of July, my grandmother asked me if I wanted a ride to Farmer West’s house. I gave her a sideways glance to discover she was giving me a sideways glance. Then she told me about the swimming hole, the cane break, and stealing watermelons, but it wasn’t me she was referring to. It seems Farmer West’s grandfather was also known as Farmer West.