Truck’s roar fitting tribute to job well done

Published 10:04 am Wednesday, November 14, 2012

by Clarence Foster

It was right off the edge of the old Dole’s/Crocker estates (vestiges of the old Freetown) about 4 miles south of Ivor.

A bright sunny day in late July of the summer of 1964. I had reached my 19th year and didn’t smoke or drink or very little else objectionable to my Aunt Maggie and Uncle Herbert.

All the same, I walked around in a semi-fog looking for myself. A curious state of mind that most older folks (including me, now) find tiresome; evoking snorts of derision and amused suggestions of flashlights and mirrors.

Uncle Rubdell and I were less than a week back from our Deep South seasonal adventures. He, the “watermelon broker” and I, his “watermelon packer.” This particular sunny day, brightened by inspirational people, stayed with me, a trusty companion through that early fog.

By ’64, Uncle Rubdell, a local farmer, a hog breeder of some renown, had been a watermelon broker, shipping to Pennsylvania and New York for about 10 years. I had honed my skills for three summers, up through mid-Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, from early June until our mid-July return. The adventuresome job and the $15 per truck was as fine an experience as I could imagine.

A skilled watermelon packer was a sort of magician.

The farmer brought his cartloads of melons from his field to his yard, where the long-distance truck would be waiting. His helpers would pass the melons to me as I stacked them in rows and tiers to ride.

They would have to endure hundreds of miles without any loss of perfection. More than that, was the process of grading.

Melons flowed at a steady pace of about three-second intervals. A habitual three seconds meant that a capable packer could load as many as four trucks per day (at about 35,000 pounds each) while limiting a farmer’s loading expenses.

I had to use those three seconds to determine possible rot, ripeness, acceptable appearance, weight to within three pounds, and hollowing while keeping a count and packing the melons with a care that would guarantee the same orderly view hundreds of miles later. The broker was responsible all the way to the destination.

A lot to go wrong — or right. At 19, I was a skilled professional with a lot riding on my judgment. Taking control of the problem and owning the job instead of it owning me.

It was the yard and home of Mr. Joseph Harris, a tenant farmer and part-time barber, the father of six children, who was as much a gentleman as you would ever see.

Then there was Martha Harris, a formidable country mother with a voice that carried, a quick infectious laugh, easily transitioning between cheerleader and disciplinarian.

The two youngest children — The witty, impish Mary, an alum of Elizabeth City State, had been teaching school for three or four years, and the voluble, precocious Eloise had just graduated from Virginia State College.

These people were quite ordinary in our community. We went off to college in impressive numbers. We would travel great distances for job opportunities.

The Civil Rights movement and desegregation, for all that was eventually accomplished in job opportunities, was nowhere near as effective in schools. Two legendary teacher corps lost much of their mojo in the ensuing hostilities. What went without saying, now had to be said — without fear or favor.

The truck and its driver suited each other. He was a soft-spoken, balding, smallish white fellow, slightly beyond middle age. The truck was a faded burgundy B-61 Mack diesel that was a few models behind the times, yet capable enough with its modern-day five axles.

I pronounced it loaded (another arcane skill) around 3 p.m. The truck would leave the yard for the local scales on Route 460. I would race to the road. I knew that when it would make the turn and climb the hill toward Doles Crossroad, it would let out a mighty roar that could be heard halfway to Ivor.

I had loaded this truck a few times and delighted in its comings and goings. Its familiar roar was a fitting tribute to a job well done. But there would be more.

Uncle Rubdell, in a final inspection, viewing the load (The loaded melons, totaling just over a thousand, would scale out at 35 pounds each, the largest average weight that I could remember.) from the rear doors, noticed that I had left off a half-dozen melons from the final tier — a visual imperfection in an otherwise exceptional load. Although I warned him that it would be overloaded, he was unable to resist this final touch.

He brought them back from the scales in the trunk of his car. His sheepish grin was as fine a tribute as I’ve ever gotten. I told you — just like magic.

CLARENCE FOSTER is a resident of Southampton County and a 1963 graduate of Hayden High School.