Posted by: jgurner | August 5, 2010

Thirty Years of Celebrating Huge Melons

This weekend will mark 30 years since the revival of the annual Watermelon Carnival here in the Valley.

For those who are unfamiliar with this festival, it’s a Pagan ritual undertaken by the people of this good town the first weekend of each August in order to worship the almighty Watermelon. It takes the form of your typical small town festival – arts and crafts booths, music, lots of fried, greasy food, a 5k, largest watermelon contest, etc. Over the decades it has grown from a small, Saturday only event only attended by the locals, to a moderately sized festival drawing people from around the region. It has also stretched from its original Saturday to encompass Friday and part of Thursday as well.

Though this will be the 31st festival since its rebirth – and the 41st overall – it will only be my 30th time to attend. I have always been a faithful atendee, even though I know it’s pretty much going to be the same thing year in and year out. With a few exceptions, the same booths will be set up each year offering the same items. The same food vendors will be there offering chicken on a stick, bbq, catfish plates, funnel cakes and, of course, lemonade. The music changes somewhat, or at least the performers change. The music they play will pretty much be the same year after year.

But it doesn’t really matter, because the Watermelon Carnival is about more than those things. To those of us who have grown up with the carnival or lived with it most of our lives it means even more than seeing old friends, class reunions and walking around with your lemonade cup full of a warm, highly alcoholic mix. It’s a test of character.

You see, there are two types of Watermelon Carnival weather – unbearably hot and dangerously thunderstormy. Well, technically I guess there are three, the third being a combination of unbearably hot and dangerously thunderstormy. For those of us who were raised here in the Valley or who have lived here long enough, we come to to see the carnival as less of a celebration and more of a challenge. We pit ourselves against Mother Nature. We complain about the heat, but getting out there in the park on Friday night and all day Saturday, even when the temps are above 100 and the heat index is somewhere just shy of the seventh level of Hell, is  like an annual rite of passage. It says we have not only endured, we have overcome. Sweat drenched clothing is worn like a wet badge of courage. Even when we have the other type of weather, we stand proud under the tents supported by metal poles, daring the lightning to come striking down upon us.

We also face the challenge of fading memories in trying to recognize faces and remember names of people you haven’t seen or even thought about in decades while yelling above the overwhelmingly loud music from the band playing the street dance on Friday night. We test our dexterity and visual acuity by wandering in and out of the massive throngs of people crammed into the park. The night becomes a blur of sounds and faces as they swirl about in some bizarre Brownian Motion.

Attending the carnival for us is different from those who just come in for Saturday from out of town – those who weren’t forged in the watermelon and ribbon strewn furnace. For those people, they come, they shop, they eat, they sweat, but it’s an outing, not a life event.

As I said before, I have been to 29 of the 30 previous carnivals. I feel a small tinge of regret for the one year I missed, way back in 1993. That year, in the week leading up to the carnival, I moved from Pontotoc to Amory, where I was working in my new newspaper job and had only finished bringing the last load of stuff to the new house on the Friday afternoon of the carnival. Then, heavy rains set in. Even the exhaustion of the move, the long hours of work and the prospect of setting up a new house would not have normally deterred me, but the new job had me at the high school that Saturday morning, high above the football field in a boom truck, taking pictures of the local football team. By the time I was finished, and adding the driving time to get back to the Valley, it would have been afternoon and I would have only been able to catch the waning hours of the festivities.

Dick Hagen and me performing at the 2006 carnival

Even though I have looked forward to the carnival year in and year out, my participation and attendance have waxed and waned. Six years ago, my first year back in the Valley, I barely spent any time at the park see as I was waylaid with a particularly nasty attack of gout. However, four years ago, I spent almost all my time in and around the festivities. It was the first carnival after my separation and it was the first time I was going to be performing as part of the musical line up as a member of Mississippi’s only Polka band – The Polka Medicine Show. We performed at the Thursday night music festival and again on Saturday at the park. The next year, I performed again, this time with a guitar in hand, performing a mixture of the lesser known greatest hits of the 80s and a handful of my original tunes. Hopefully, at some future carnival, I can make it back into the music lineup in some way, shape or fashion.

Today, as the mercury hovers above the 100 degree mark yet again, with no real sign of relief in sight, I’m still looking forward to the next couple of days. I have my agenda – Friday lunch with a friend, which has become an annual tradition, street dance, art show, wandering around the park looking at all the stuff I’ll never buy, sweating, meeting friends, etc. Maybe something unexpected and different will come about. I doubt it, but anything can happen.

Regardless, I’m ready and psyched up again for this annual challenge, this rite of passage.

Bring on the watermelons!

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