SOMEWHERE IN ILLINOIS, July 4 — Everywhere you go there is the South. The woman at the motel desk this morning in Effingham grew up in New Orleans. Her late husband was from Alabama. Her great granddad was governor of the state of Louisiana, Gov. Nicholls. Julia Street, where you find many of New Orleans’ art galleries, was named after her grandmother. (There is a Gov. Nicholls Street — and wharf — at the downriver end of the French Quarter.)
Jan Hillhouse was on duty when we, two weary travelers, checked in the night before. She’s no less cheerful now after eight hours at the desk and having made a sumptuous breakfast for the guests of this no-name inn at a cloverleaf cluttered with aging truck stops and fast-food outlets.
We’re on our way north to spend a short weekend with my sister, Tanner, and her family. Sunday, we’ll load up and drive back through the quilt of cornfields that blanket America’s heartland this time of year.
Just now, at a rest stop on I-57 between Loda and Buckley, I noticed a beat-up flat-bed truck filled with watermelons. The truck was listing to the driver’s side. The dual right rear-wheel tires were shredded.
As I admired the melons, a young man bounded across the parking lot, all smiles. “Want a watermelon?” he asked.
I asked him where they were from.
“Mississippi,” he said.
Talk about an irresistible sales pitch.
A grizzled, older man joined us.
This was the father-son team, Edrow and Kenneth Jones. They were on their way home to Gary, Indiana, where they planned to spend Independence Day selling melons on the street.
Both were in great spirits considering they had passed the night at a rest area in the middle of Illinois farm country waiting on a tow truck.
We bought four, but not before posing for Beth and her SmartPhone, laughing and carrying on like old friends.
This was Edrow and Kenneth’s second trip to Senatobia this season. By summer’s end, they’ll make 22 to 23 down-and-backs to north Mississippi. The rusting ’97 GMC they drive will carry 500 melons per load.
Our encounter was superficial, granted, but this father and son seemed to be the best of friends.
As we near Kankakee, the cornfields give way to suburbs. The Interstate here is lined with wildflowers; windmills off in the distance generate electricity.
By mid-afternoon we’ll be in the bosom of family. By nightfall, I expect we will have cut one of these Mississippi watermelons.
And, if I may dwell a moment longer on this fruit that is the food of angels, if Mark Twain is to be believed: The best watermelon I ever had was bought from a vendor years ago at a country crossroads in Illinois on the way to a storytelling festival with the same sister and kids we will be with tonight. Only now, those kids have kids.
Those two long-ago watermelons have attained mythic status in family lore.
Who knows, they might have been from Senatobia, too.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.