Bringing on back that halcyon Summer of '83

RILKOFF FILES

MATT RILKOFF
Last updated 11:10 15/03/2014

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Events, once set in motion, tend to build a frightening independence of momentum that makes the outcome impossible to predict. The end result and its initial seed may seem obvious in hindsight, but is largely unknowable until it is far too late to avoid. That is why it is difficult to blame my father for the lapse of community spirit he caused within me buying a watermelon from the side of the road in Waikato 1983.

Back then watermelons were in abundance and were often the size of small cars. Because of this, making a mess of your T-shirt and dignity by burying your face in an obscenely large slice of watermelon was completely acceptable as the only way to deal with such a wealth of fruit.

It really was a dream come true for a kid because Waikato Watermelon 1983 was sweeter, juicer and redder than it had ever been at any other point in history. So, despite being a fruit, which automatically put it in the yucky category, it tasted like a lolly, which put it in the yummy category. And because parents are only happy when their children are eating "yucky" food and children are only happy eating things that are "yummy", it was a glorious confluence of mutual joy.

Except it could never last. The summer ended, then 1983 became 1984 and we moved home to Taranaki. Despite many slices of watermelon passing through my grubby mitts over the ensuing summers of my childhood, I never had a piece as delectable as I did in 1983. I couldn't figure out why.

Then, some time between that fateful Waikato afternoon and my 13th year or so, I watched a documentary on Ukrainian watermelon farmers. They were a despondent lot too because their watermelons were also not the watermelons of their childhood. Communism, they said, and its ridiculous mechanisms for collecting and allocating goods, was forcing them to grow tasteless, watery melons so they could meet the tonnage the central plan required them to supply.

"I bet that's what happened here," I thought, except I replaced "ridiculous mechanism" with "unscrupulous farmers".

Once that self propagated and almost certainly false belief became firmly entrenched I realised the only way to re-create Waikato Watermelon 1983 was to grow it myself. It took me quite some time to turn this epiphany into action and it was not until 2008 that I gave watermelons a go.

Believing they would grow with a fecundity equal to my innermost desires, I did not plant them in my garden, where I reasoned they would quickly take over the whole patch. Instead I jumped the fence to the spare section next door and dug up a large circle of dirt there, believing this would give the watermelons the freedom to grow without restriction.

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Which it did. What is also meant was they were out of range of my hose and so watering them became a bucket hauling job. Inevitably, being a busy and self- justifying man, the watermelon seedlings died through no fault of my own within a few weeks.

In 2012 I tried again. This time I took my experience and some advice and was confident of success. The confidence was misplaced because, though I had done everything right, the weather did not co-operate and the six watermelon plants remained stunted and mean.

In December my spirits were refreshed enough to make another attempt and I put four watermelon plants in a specially prepared bed of compost and chicken manure. I even installed an irrigation system to ensure the bucket debacle was not repeated. This time I knew I would get it right and when I came back from holiday in the middle of February it certainly looked like I had.

Okay, so I was down to one plant by then but on that plant was a perfect melon orb about the size of a tennis ball. It really was exciting stuff and in a fit of enthusiastic weeding I managed to break its stem and though it didn't look dead right then, that was the way it was going.

I wasn't inconsolable. It was only a melon after all. Yet it was carrying my 31-year burden of expectation and so its loss was a heavy blow and I began to think of giving up. Then, two weeks ago I found another orb, another tennis ball.

I would like to think the care I have lavished on it since then is a subconscious dry-run for the arrival of my first child in June because otherwise the amount of time I have spent on that melon would just be plain weird.

It has literally been put on a pedestal, I've used scissors to trim the grass threatening to creep in around it and every night, while the rest of the garden dries out to a crisp, I take the hose and quietly feed my melon the water it needs to grow big and strong.

Yes, I have to admit, some of those times have meant I have broken the current water restrictions and used the hose when it wasn't my turn and for that communal disregard I am truly remorseful. But those who spent the Summer of 1983 eating watermelon would agree, there was probably no way to avoid it.

- Taranaki Daily News

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