The Observer 

The Emancipation Proclamation is a few faded sheets with barely legible writing on them, but several thousands of people stood in line last weekend at the Clinton Center to see it. We spent our allocated seconds in front of President Lincoln's fine work trying to read the document (a couple of real pages and facsimiles of the versos) in the dim light and get as close to Lincoln as we could in this life. Then we crept along the exhibit walls, densely packed with information and photographs tracing the struggle of black Americans to have the same rights as white Americans: the racism that defied the spirit of the proclamation, the creation of Jim Crow laws, the debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois on the black man's place in white society, James Meredith's typewritten plea to the government to clear the way for his entrance to the University of Mississippi in 1962 — 99 years after Lincoln issued the proclamation.

Newspaper clippings recalled when, in 1961, Duke Ellington canceled an appearance at Robinson Auditorium because of its segregated seating. Jim Porter Jr. had booked the show as part of his Modern Music of Little Rock series. The music may have been modern, but Little Rock wasn't.

(In 1966, Porter's website notes, a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, Porter was able to book Louis Armstrong. When the musician was presented an Arkansas Traveler's certificate, Porter writes, Armstrong said said, “Thank you very much. I'm going to do just what it says. As soon as I finish this show I'm traveling out of Arkansas.”

Though The Observer's mammy and pappy used to put in a garden, The Observer is no son of the soil, our thumb being more black-tinged than green. We've killed more vegetation than Round Up.

So we were perplexed by a story related to us by a friend of a friend we visited over the weekend. The F.O.A.F., who keeps house in the shadow of Mount Magazine, has long planted a garden. This year, though, something unexpected sprung from her postage stamp of earth: a vine full of melons, each with the skin of a cantaloupe but the shape of a small pumpkin. What's more, when she sliced the melons open, the flesh inside was bright green, and smelled and tasted like cucumber. Old-timers in the area soon told her that she had planted her cantaloupes and cukes too close together, and they had cross-pollinated. The result: Attack of the Mushmelons!

Oh come now, The Observer scoffed. Surely Yahweh wouldn't allow such an unholy union to exist: the round, sweet cantaloupe; the long urpsome cucumber — a veritable vegetable Romeo and Juliet. Two so different couldn't find love in the Arkansas moonlight, could they?

Finally, we decided: No way. Must be a legend; a veggie version of the jackalope. Chalk up another one to backwater superstition, along with the Fouke Monster, the hoop snake and mustard poultices. Ha-ha! They do know how to spin a yarn out in the hinterlands, don't they?

Imagine our surprise when a call to Janet Carson, Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service Horticulturalist Extraordinare, found that The Old Farts of Magazine Mountain knew what they were talking about. According to Carson, even though cukes and cantaloupes don't look the same lying there all scrubbed up in your grocer's produce section, they — along with pumpkins, squash, watermelons, gourds and others — are all cucurbits (in our understanding, that's pretty much a fancy name for any plant that produces roundish veggies on a vine). If you plant two varieties of cucurbits in your garden, you'll get no surprises the first year. Barring problems at the seed company, the resulting first-generation fruits are likely to be normal. If, however, you allow those cross-pollinated fruits to decay in your garden or compost pile and go to seed, the next spring: Horrific Mutants, with the resulting offspring often displaying the dominant traits of the cucurbit family (like the flavor of cucumber).

For the record, Carson said that there's nothing wrong with eating a hybrid mushmelon, if you don't mind your melons tasting like cukes. That, and a dense covering of warts on your face.

Just kidding about that last one.


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