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A yarn for y'all, perfect for fall...

The Real Winner in the Shikellamy County Pumpkin Contest

by Gale Martin 

Ask anybody in these parts, and they’ll tell you nobody grows a finer pumpkin than Walt Spitzel. People surely tried. Can’t be done. Walt took the blue ribbon in the pumpkin division at the county fair for the last nine years running.

Now, it’s no cakewalk growing pumpkins in the Adirondacks. We have fewer frost free days than pumpkins need to mature, especially the Big Max and Atlantic Giant varieties—two of Walt’s favorites. Up here, we just don’t have enough heat and sun for the really big boys.

Lack of a decent growing season never deters Walt. He starts his pumpkins indoors, waiting for the spring rains to taper off.  Unlike yours and mine, each of his seedlings takes, too, pushing themselves up out of the soil like baby butterflies winging toward the sunlight. He calls the sprouts “his babies.” His neighbor, old Mrs. Ringle, will testify that she’s heard Walt singing to ’em.

One time we were sitting at the Saranac Diner having some apple pie when Mrs. Ringle remembered one of Walt’s songs. “He only sings homemaders,” she explained. “Like this one: ‘Little seed, little seed, where’s your sprouty head? Little seed, little seed, push up through your bed.’”

Of course we chuckled, especially over the ‘sprouty head’ part. But mostly because Mrs. Ringle has a wobbly church voice. You never know where a note’s going to land until she’s done singing it.

“Sounds like Roger Miller,” Mrs. Ringle said, fingering a hair protruding from her chin. “S’pose it’d be better if he wrote songs like Roger Miller, too.”

Walt already had a special talent—pumpkin growing. Soon as the temperature hit seventy degrees by noon, Walt transferred all his babies to a sprawling patch on the sunniest side of the Spitzel family farm, each to its own mound, digging a moat around every one to thoroughly water the roots. All of the things Walt did for his pumpkins, just about anyone could do, except maybe singing ’em dippy songs. We tried crooning and in much better voice than old Mrs. Ringle, but our pumpkins never even placed, not one time.

We suspected it was Walt’s special fertilizer that made him a perennial winner. Once the pumpkin plants were in the field, he sprinkled them with this concoction every three weeks. An old Spitzel family secret that worked better than anything you could buy anywhere. The base was some fishy smelling powder. Then he’d add a few glug-glugs of water and mix it using a paint stirrer from Treacle’s True-Value Hardware on Loden Street. If Treacle’s ever went belly up, who knows? Maybe Walt’s pumpkins would slip to second, even third place.

Even though it was a recession, we bought from Treacle’s until their shelves were bare, just to keep them in business one more year. We’d all try to beat the pants off him—next year. Because this year’s blue ribbon belonged to Walt. It was his destiny to be the first ten-time consecutive winner.

Every year, Walt’s pumpkins had plenty of running room. Each one prettier than the next, with a vine like a green carpet. All his pumpkins were always exceptional. But this season, Walt had a favorite. A little guy who sparkled from the day he sprouted leaves. He glistened like hard coal. This plant—he named it Junie, short for Junior—would sway as Walt walked by. Other times it shrugged its leaves if he asked him a question like, “Junie, are you getting enough water?” Junie would jostle up and down as if saying yes. “Junie, getting plenty of sun, are ya?” Junie would shrug his stem at that. Sun was never plentiful in the Adirondacks. 

As the summer wore on, Junie got bigger and bigger and sparklier and sparklier.

One day, when Walt was hoeing weeds, the neighbor widow who lived up the hill strolled past. A frail thing with a sad story, a couple years ago her husband died in a farming accident. All during the growing season, she took long walks. Never said a word to Walt in two years. Today, she stopped.

“Excuse me,” she called until Walt looked up from his work. “Sorry to bother you, but do you hear singing?”

Walt cracked a nervous smile. All the singing he’d done for Junie? Well, sometime in July, Junie began singing back. “I sing—while I weed.”

“Sounds like a child’s voice,” she said, and you could hear her heart thump when she said child. “You didn’t hear it?”

Walt shrugged. He wasn’t about to tell the widow he had a singing pumpkin.

All we knew was that Walt had a spectacular pumpkin—the best pumpkin he’d grown in twenty years. We hiked on out there to see it. “A beauty!” we said. “A ten-time winner. Yessiree, that ribbon’s in the bag, Walt.”

Since Walt was a pumpkin man, he knew Junie’d take him right to the top this year. But he had other plans for Junie.

“Junie,” he said, a few days before the county fair. “You’re special—no doubt. I know you’re a winner. That’s why you need to do something for me that you got in you.” When he was done whispering, Junie bobbed up and down, from stem to stern. Walt plucked Junie from the vine, wrapped him in a blue blanket, and nestled him in an old basket he’d found in the root cellar. That night, during full moon, he put the basket on the neighbor widow’s door step.

Walt had a fine pumpkin in the fair that year but not the best in the county, which disappointed everybody but Walt. He barely recognized the happy woman pushing a stroller around the fairgrounds. But the sparkling baby boy who swayed right and left and bobbed up and down as the neighbor widow wheeled him by Walt’s second place pumpkin? That boy he knew in an instant.



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