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ICE COLD WATERMELONS

August 13, 2022

Before the COVID pandemic, Clare and I took an afternoon to cruise the blue-line backroad highways of the Upstate. We made a special effort to find good homegrown tomatoes. We stopped at several roadside stands and found delicious heirloom tomatoes at several of our favorite places. We also found a few figs, an abundance of late summer peaches, and early fall apples. At every stand, we saw watermelons. In one place, they were advertised as ice cold.

My mother was allergic to watermelon. Even a small spill of the sticky pink juice on her kitchen counter caused her to break out in hives, so we never had watermelons in our home. You no doubt have heard the wise old saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” In our family, that was the gospel truth.

As far as I know, eating watermelon is next to impossible without the juice running down your chin and off your elbows. If we had watermelon at all, it was in the backyard where everything contaminated by watermelon drippings could be washed away with the garden hose.

My brothers and sisters and I were, of course, exposed to watermelon in other circumstances. Most of our cousins enjoyed the summertime fruit and looked forward to a big wedge of watermelon with the same anticipation as a cone of homemade peach ice cream.

Elaine was one of my classmates at Cooperative Elementary School. Her birthday was right after the beginning of the new school year. She invited every student in Mrs. Pearl Fairbetter’s fourth-grade class to her party.

Even though I was scared of girls, Mama said I had to go to Elaine’s party. She was our neighbor. Not going to her party would be rude. Reluctantly, I went. There were thirteen girls there. I was the only boy who attended.

I guess Elaine’s daddy felt sorry for me. He told me I could help him cut the watermelon. That was just fine with me. I liked watermelon, and I didn’t like girls. It turns out the girls were too prissy to eat watermelon. Elaine’s daddy said I would have to eat the whole thing by myself. I ate as much as I could. I got as sick as a dog. I developed an aversion to watermelon that day. Since then, I have learned to enjoy them again sometimes, especially if they are ice cold.

Summer is watermelon time. Watermelon season extends well into September. Roadside produce stands prominently displayed bright green melons, tempting passersby to stop. 

Charles Fredric Andrus, a horticulturist at the United States Department of Agriculture Vegetable Breeding Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina, set out to produce a watermelon resistant to disease and wilt. The result was the Charleston Gray. Its oblong shape and hard rind made it easy to stack and ship. Its adaptability meant it could be grown over a wide geographical area. It produced high yields and was impervious to the most severe watermelon diseases.

Today, farmers in approximately 44 states in the U.S. grow watermelon commercially. Almost all varieties have some Charleston Gray in their lineage.

Carolina Cross, a variety named for the state, has green skin and red flesh. About 90 days from planting seeds, fruit weighing between 65 and 150 pounds is ready to harvest. Carolina Cross is the variety of watermelon that produced an early world record weighing 262 pounds. It was grown in 1990 by Bill Carson of Arrington, Tennessee.

A cold slice of watermelon on a muggy summer day hits the spot. It is not uncommon for such an occasion to be followed by a seed-spitting contest. There are two categories of seed spitting proficiency – distance and accuracy.

 I remember a hike to Dead Horse Canyon with several of my buddies. The garden behind our house included a watermelon patch. We picked one medium-sized fruit that was ripe. We had to cross a creek on the way to the Canyon. In order to get the melon cool, we floated it in the stream. One of the guys thought it should be submerged all the way underwater. Where a wild cherry tree grew on the creek bank, we pried loose a root and pinned the watermelon under the snag beneath the surface of the water.

After a hot messy dirt clod fight in Dead Horse Canyon, we stopped by the creek to enjoy our cool watermelon. Something had eaten holes all through the ripe red fruit. Crawdads were crawling around inside the tunnels made through the flesh. My best guess is that a muskrat had his fill of our watermelon, leaving the rest to the crustacean critters. We left it floating in the stream to be devoured by hungry varmints.

Watermelon is as nutritious as it is delicious. Though it is 92% water, the red flesh is packed with vitamins and minerals. The deep red watermelon varieties are loaded with lycopene, an antioxidant that protects the heart and prostate and promotes skin health.

Citrulline is among the phytonutrients found in watermelon. It can relax blood vessels, much like Viagra does. It can help those who need increased blood flow to treat angina, high blood pressure, and other cardiovascular problems.

Red juice running down his chin, a lad took the last few bites of a piece of watermelon.

“Save me the rind!” his friend begged.

“Ain’t gonna’ be no rind!”

The inner rind of the watermelon, usually a light green or white color, is commonly pickled in the South. The rind is edible, has a unique flavor, and contains many nutrients. Sometimes used as a vegetable, the rind can be stir-fried, stewed, and pickled.

Recipe books have an interesting array of serving ideas. Watermelon salsa is a summer garnish. A carved watermelon hull can become a basket for fruit salad or a centerpiece for a party. The sweet red juice can be made into watermelon wine.

Two fellows, both unsuccessful in business, were out of work. It was early summer, and they needed to find a way to make some money.

“Let’s sell watermelons,” one suggested. “I have a pickup truck. We can go to Charleston and buy a load of early watermelons. Then we can haul them back up to Spartanburg and sell them before the grocery stores have any.”

“Great idea!” his friend said. “I have a cousin in Charleston who can tell us where to buy them.”

Off to the Lowcountry they went. They bought a truckload of watermelons at a bargain – two for a dollar.

Back in the Upstate, they sold every watermelon at fifty cents apiece.

When they tallied up, one said to the other. “Not counting the cost of gasoline, we broke exactly even.”

After a thoughtful pause, his business partner responded, “You know what? We’ve got to get a bigger truck.”

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Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please visit a local farmer’s market or certified produce stand. These are not nonprofit agencies, but buying local produce helps the local economy,

KENTUCKY FLOODS, NOAH’S ARK, AND THE CYPRESS KNEE MAN

August 7, 2022

He is like a tree planted by streams of water. (Psalm 1:3)

For several years, I served as the chaplain at Lake Cumberland State Boys Camp, an institution for juvenile delinquents near Monticello, Kentucky. The recent devastating floods in Eastern Kentucky hit close to home for me. The suffering and heartache of the good people of Appalachia remind me of the biblical story of Noah.

The Ark Encounter is a theme park in Williamston, Kentucky. In an ironic twist, the owners of the Ark Encounter have filed a claim with their insurance company after flood and storm damage. The biblical ark may have been able to withstand forty days and forty nights of flooding. When rains drenched the area of Northern Kentucky, the Ark Encounter property did not fare nearly as well as Noah’s original construction

The biblical account of the Deluge (Genesis 6:11–9:19) presents Noah as the hero of the Flood story. Noah is the patriarch who, because of his devotion and obedience, was chosen by God to reestablish the human race after his wicked contemporaries had perished in the Flood. Because he was a righteous man, Noah “found favor in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8). God gave Noah divine warning of the impending disaster and made a covenant with him, promising to save him and his family. Noah was instructed to build an ark, and according to this narrative, the entire surviving human race descended from Noah’s three sons and their wives.

The theological meaning of the Flood is revealed following Noah’s survival. After safely landing on Mount Ararat, Noah built an altar on which he offered sacrifices to God. God made a covenant and set a rainbow as a visible sign in the sky. God also renewed his intention given at Creation. Humanity is charged with the stewardship of the earth and the created order. James Baldwin summarized the covenant promise.

God gave Noah a rainbow sign.

No more water, the fire next time.

Now, to shift gears, I present a riddle. Stay with me, please.

Which resident of the Lowcountry is tall, bald, and has knobby knees?

When I first heard the riddle, my Aunt Gladys came to mind. She lived with her husband, Cecil Youngblood, and a passel of children in a humble abode on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.

Gladys’ thinning gray hair probably came from raising those children. Maybe it was the frequent visits by alligators who crawled out of the swamp into her backyard, enticed by her free-range chickens. Cecil killed the gators and sold their hides for extra grocery money.

You can probably think of several acquaintances who fit the riddle’s description. But the correct answer is not a person at all. One of Aunt Gladys’ close neighbors was the bald cypress tree.

The Good Book says that on the third day of Creation, the Almighty created all the plants and trees, everything that bears fruit with seeds. Among these was the bald cypress tree, a Lowcountry native with knobby knees. 

The South Georgia swamp behind Aunt Gladys’ home was Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Before that conservation effort in 1937, extensive logging operations had seriously depleted the boggy forest of cypress trees.

The coastal plain of the southeast is heavily populated with cypress trees. The bald cypress is closely related to the sequoias of California. This interesting evergreen grows best in the rich, wet soil along riverbanks, on the margin of wetlands, or in the middle of swamps. It can grow to a great age and large size, sometimes 150 feet high and 17 feet in diameter. Its durable wood is often called the wood eternal.

Cypress lumber resists insects and chemical corrosion as well as decay. It has a fragrance resembling that of cedar. It is a close-grained yellow or reddish wood, so resinous that it resists rotting even after prolonged submersion in water. Cypress products include coffins, acid tanks, docks, pilings, poles, and railroad ties.

Numerous interpretations of Noah’s Ark have been proposed, and a few have been built. Most were intended to be replicas, as close as possible to the Biblical Ark. The Biblical description of the ark is brief, beyond the basic measures of length, height, and width, and the exact design of any replica must be a matter of conjecture. Some imagine the ark as simply a wooden box with rectangular sides. Other reconstructions give it a rounded bow and stern.

The dimensions of Noah’s ark in Genesis, chapter 6, are given in cubits as 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide, and 30 cubits high. An Ark replica would have to be about 450 feet long, 75 feet wide, and 45 feet tall to be considered full-scale.

When my brother Bob was still running the lumber yard, I wrote these dimensions on an index card. I handed it to Bob and asked him to figure out how much lumber would be needed for the building project without telling him where I got the figures.

After doing some quick calculations, Bob asked, “Kirk, what is this thing?”

I replied, “It’s a project I have been reading about.”

“This is a mighty big building! For me to supply the lumber, I’d have to bring eighteen flatbed trucks on the yard or eight full-size boxcars in here by rail.”

“It’s not a building,” I said. “Those are the dimensions of Noah’s ark straight from the Bible.”

We were both astounded.

The measurements of the Titanic were 850 feet x 92 feet x 64 feet. That is over five million cubic feet. According to Genesis, the ark was about one and a half million cubic feet.  

Ark Encounter theme park, located on a hill in Grant County, Northern Kentucky, is 510 ft long. Johan’s Ark in Dordrecht, Netherlands, is 450 feet long and carried on a platform made up of 25 barges. It is the only full-scale Ark replica that is floating and mobile.

The King James Translation of the Bible reports that God told Noah to build the ark of gopher wood. The New International Version translates the text, “Make an ark of cypress wood.” (Genesis 6:14)

The massive trunk of the stately cypress tree tapers upward from its wide, flaring base, where roots entangle to form supporting buttresses. The roots of cypress trees form knees that protrude above the surface of the water. Scientists believe these knobs provide aeration for the roots that are otherwise entirely submerged in water. They also balance the tall trees that might topple under their weight in the soggy soil.

The tree is called bald because, though a conifer, its leaves are shed in the fall. The largest remaining old-growth stand of bald cypress is at Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, near Naples, Florida. Some of those trees are around 500 years of age.

For more than thirty years, my family and I were privileged to spend a week at Pawley’s Island each summer. One hot Saturday while on vacation there, I met Thomas, a big man, standing tall and stately like a cypress tree. He had large hands, callused from years of hard work. His skin, the color of ebony, glistened in the heat and humidity of the Lowcountry like wood with a coat of high gloss varnish. His voice was quiet and gentle, and he spoke in reverent tones with a deep Gullah accent.

Thomas began his life on a farm. Now an elderly gentleman, he still does some farming. “But,” he said, “years ago, the Lord called me into the swamp and showed me the beauty of cypress knees.” 

Several days a week, Thomas puts on a pair of high water boots and wades into the swamp, chainsaw in hand, to harvest these unusual root formations. “I cut them above the water line,” he said. “That way, the trees won’t die. They just make more knees.” Between McClellanville and Georgetown, Thomas is known as the Cypress Knee Man.

I met Thomas along Highway 17. His vintage Ford pickup was parked next to a hardware store. He displayed the fruits of his labor on a small island of grass between two palm trees. He had some cypress knees with the bark still attached and others that had been stripped and polished. Thomas had cypress knee lamps and cypress knee tables. He had a full display of walking sticks and walking canes. Many were crafted from oak, sweet gum, dogwood, or tupelo, as well as a few from cypress,

Thomas is an Associate Pastor at a Holiness Church in McClellanville. The following Sunday, he was to preach about a third of the three-hour service. The Lord who called him into the swamp also called him into the pulpit. God speaks to him, he says, nearly every day. 

“Just look at these cypress knees,” he said, motioning toward a hundred or so spread out on the grass. “You can see the hand of God in every one of them. Each one is different. I’ve seen cypress knees that look like the Lord kneeling in prayer or the Mother Mary holding baby Jesus. I’ve seen cypress knees that look like angels. Each one is different, and each one is a sermon.” 

On that hot Saturday at Pawley’s Island, I felt that I had been led to worship. The preacher was a man called Thomas. The text was cypress knees. The message was if you pay close attention, you’ll see the creative hand of God at work in the world around you, maybe in cypress knees, but especially in people like Thomas.

The scripture says, “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.”

The same could be said of the Cypress Knee Man.

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Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com.

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Noble Tree Foundation, 424 E Kennedy Street, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302.

MEMORIES OF A BEACH VACATION

July 30, 2022

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

    which teems with things innumerable,

    living things both small and great. Psalm 104:25

Claude Debussy’s composition “La Mer,” French for “The Sea,” is not a literal portrait of the ocean. Instead, “La Mer” takes us out into the waves beyond the breakers. We hear the colors of sunlight on the water and see the curl of waves crashing on the shore. In this ever-changing soundscape, as with the sea, we experience the gamut from the serene tranquility of gentle tides to the stormy ocean’s awe-inspiring power.

Debussy completed the work in March 1905 at the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne on the coast of the English Channel, but most of the composition was done far from water. He drew inspiration from depictions of the sea in paintings and literature rather than from actual salt water. For the cover of the score, he chose “The Great Wave,” a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Above all, Debussy recalled distant memories of summers spent by the Mediterranean.

For thirty-six years, the first week of August would have been the week that our family vacationed at Pawleys Island. Clare and I have not been to the coast in several years. Our mobility has been limited by age. Neither of us drives now. We both must walk with props. Clare uses a walker, and I hobble along with a cane. Like Claude Debussy, we have vivid memories of our vacations at one of our favorite places. Eight adults and six grandchildren made a full house last time we went. We still cherish the memories that we made together in that beautiful place.

A week at the beach was a close encounter with people we love and hold dear. The week together was a time for singing and storytelling in the shade, gathering around a long trestle table to feast on cold boiled shrimp, dripping popsicles licked to the stick on the back porch, and children lining up for baths, brushing teeth and hair, pajama time. The settling down to bedtime stories and prayers brings a strange quietness to the house. Then the adults might enjoy a movie or pleasant conversation.

Those days on the coast gave us the opportunity to experience the elements. We love the sunshine and were grateful for sunscreen. Rainfall was a welcomed visitor in the middle of the week. It afforded the opportunity to work a jigsaw puzzle, take a nap, or read a good book.

The wind was a steady companion, especially in the late afternoon. Capturing a gust in a kite or catching a breeze in a wind chime was sheer delight.

Observing birds riding an updraft was a lesson in aerodynamics. We took great delight in watching coastal birds. One of our grandsons has a particular interest in these feathered friends. I usually took along a bird feeder and suspended it from a pine tree in the backyard of the beach house. Several varieties were attracted to a seed feeder near the ocean just as quickly as they would be to one located hundreds of miles inland. Cardinals, chickadees, and finch were regular visitors.

Insect eaters – like swallows, purple martins, wrens, and bluebirds – are much in evidence at the coast. Scavengers – like crows and red-winged blackbirds – join their cousin gulls in an ongoing cleanup operation. The marsh offers a banquet for snowy egrets and great blue herons. The surf spreads a buffet for sandpipers and plovers.

The most magnificent of all are the birds that fish in the ocean. The ospreys that work as solitary fishers plunge talons in first to catch fish that are the envy of surf casters. Brown pelicans fly in effortless formation until food is sighted. Then they break formation and hurtle headfirst into the waves to make their catch.

Of course, the ocean is the main beach vacation attraction. Little children run into the ankle-deep tide and back again like sandpipers. Some of the adults in our family enjoyed going a little further out, just beyond the breakers, and riding up and down with the waves. We never went alone and were cautious of the undertow. For some reason, our vacation usually coincided with Shark Week on television, so we were watchful.

A vacation at the beach is an ongoing encounter with ubiquitous sand. It seemed to be everywhere, not only on the beach but also in places it does not belong – in our shoes, in our hair, in our bed, and in our laundry room when we returned to our Upstate home. Along with the blue-green Atlantic, sand was a main attraction.

Soon after we arrived at the beach, when the car was unloaded, my first impulse was to take off my watch, kick off my shoes, and walk on the wet sand where land and ocean meet. The tides mark time. Breathing the salt air, and feeling the sea breeze, are at once calming and invigorating. Before long, I alternately gazed out to the horizon and glanced down at the treasures washed up at my bare feet.

We would stand in the surf and feel the tide pull the sand from beneath our feet. It is the very definition of shifting sand. Ocean currents and the wind move the sand around to other locations. Massive dunes such as Jockey’s Ridge, North Carolina, or the dunes near the tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown, Massachusetts, are naturally occurring. These are places we have enjoyed in years past.

Most sand dunes along the coast of South Carolina have been created so the beach can be preserved. Sand dunes held in place by strategically located fences and established sea oats plantings are essential to control beach erosion. We tried to teach our younger family members to respect the fragile nature of the dunes.

Our children and grandchildren made building a sand castle a regular beach activity for our family. Perhaps you have seen some of the massive works of art rendered by professional sand castle builders. In our family, we are all amateurs. We made up the design as we went along. Maybe we were not so heavily invested because we understood the inevitable end to every sand castle.

On Easter Sunday morning in 1980, our family had a brief sunrise service alone on a large dune near the end of Cape Cod. In the first light of the morning sun, we could see a pod of thirty or forty right whales playing in the ocean.

We have yet to spot a whale off the coast at Pawleys Island. However, the sight of a group of bottle-nosed dolphins was usually a part of our vacation. The graceful creatures arching in the waves were like watching synchronized swimming.

Beach walking was a favorite activity for us, especially after supper. Whether you are an avid shell gatherer searching for a rare specimen, a fossil collector looking for a larger shark’s tooth, or just a casual stroller splashing in the surf, walking on the edge where water and sand meet is a pleasure. Once or twice during the week, at low tide, we walked to the north end of the island. To find a bleached sand dollar lying on the sand, to come upon an unbroken channeled whelk, or to watch as coquinas and mole crabs dug their way into the sand at ebb tide was to witness the wonder of creation.

Most coastal states have a state sea shell. The state shell of Georgia is the knobbed whelk. For South Carolina, it is the lettered olive. For North Carolina, it is the Scotch bonnet. To find a smooth shell, perfectly formed and intact, abandoned by the animal that called it home, is to discover a unique souvenir.

A casual walk along the coast will also reveal unsightly trash left by humans. Our more populated beaches are littered with rubbish. Fishermen report seeing floating debris many miles offshore. Sea turtles strangle to death on plastic bags because, in the water, the bags look very much like jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles. 

When I walked along the beach with a grandchild, I often took a small plastic bag to hold the treasures found along the way. I also took along a trash bag to pick up litter that we found.

For a grandfather, there is no greater joy than seeing children playing on the beach, seeing the wonder in their eyes when they find a treasured shell, or looking at the amazement in their faces when I tell them made-up stories about Green Beard, our favorite friendly pirate.

Clare and I had many marvelous weeks with our family at the beach. We were always happy to return to our home. But you know what? Our memories are lasting treasures. And who knows, there may yet be a time when we can enjoy the beach again in person. Until then, we have Debussy’s “La Mer,” our memories, and the words of the psalmist,

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!

    In wisdom hast thou made them all;

    the earth is full of thy creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

    which teems with things innumerable,

    living things both small and great.

May my meditation be pleasing to him,

    for I rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Praise the Lord!

                           (Psalm 104)

_______________________________________________________

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Ocean Conservancy. Donations are 100% tax-deductible. 800-519-1541, https://oceanconservancy.org.