Author’s note: Suikawari is the Japanese word for “watermelon splitting.” This story is based on real events, but some artistic license has been taken and names have been changed.
Kids growing up in the farming communities of America’s heartland during the last quarter of the 20th century didn’t take much for granted. Our parents were the farmers that fed America; the steelworkers that kept farm equipment running; and the civil servants who educated us, delivered our mail, and kept the peace. We worked hard at home if not at school, and we lived for summertime shenanigans.
Summer bounty was the one thing we did take for granted. Whether or not our parents farmed, midsummer meant plenty of fresh produce. In the community where I grew up, vegetable gardens in town grew nearly out of control. Different neighbors grew different produce. Everyone shared, and no one in a three-state area grew watermelons like Jack Schneider.
The elderly man had four acres just outside town, and he planted two of them with watermelon every year. He sold some—enough to supplement his social security income—and gave away most. On the last Sunday of June, he would pile the bed of his white F150 high with watermelons and drive the mile and a half to the church on the corner where, after Sunday school, every church member—from toddlers to octogenarians—would feast on the sweet red flesh.
The abundance made everyone giddy. During watermelon feeds, seed-spitting contests amused everyone. Kids under 10 years old had the opportunity to attempt eating an entire watermelon on their own. This one time a year, waste wasn’t a vice. After all, we couldn’t can, freeze or otherwise preserve the watermelon.
One summer, a friend of Jack’s who taught history at the local high school hosted a group of Japanese exchange students. Arrangements were made for the students to spend time with the kids who attended Jack’s church. We took them shopping at the local mall—a novelty to us as well as to them at that time. We took them on excursions to western Kansas to see Dodge City and the Dalton Gang hideout. We spent a few Wednesday evenings teaching them games we liked to play and learning about their culture as well. Eventually, we learned that most of our visitors came from wealthy families. We stared in amazement when one boy purchased three pairs of Air Jordans because the $120 shoes were so cheap. Then we learned that only a couple of them had ever tasted watermelon because it was so expensive in Japan. Someone called Jack.
The night before the Japanese kids were scheduled to return home, we all gathered at the history teacher’s house for a goodbye party. When Jack pulled into the driveway, the bed of his truck piled high with watermelon, our visitors gasped in amazement. We shared an American-style cookout with our new friends that night, but the watermelons were the highlight of the evening. After their first tentative bites, our guests began to devour the fruit as eagerly as the rest of us.
Someone recommended a seed-spitting contest. The Japanese kids hesitated. It seemed barbaric to them, but the high spirits of the evening overcame their reservations. By the time the sun sank below the horizon, the celebrating had grown reckless. Several watermelons remained unfinished, and a few kids started a food fight with the remaining fruit. The history teacher, feeling the revelry had gone too far, asked them to stop.
Just then, the Japanese boy who had purchased three pairs of Air Jordans grabbed a handful of ruby-colored watermelon flesh and let it fly at me. Nimbly, I jumped out of the way, and the crimson chunk hit Jack on the shoulder. The boy’s face froze in terror. Silence rang out across the moonlit backyard. Jack looked at the boy, smiled, then reached down to grab a hunk of watermelon from a nearby plate. The entire crowd dissolved into laughter as the watermelon caught the boy square in the chest, and the food fight was on once again.