|Gentry Grays get
Max Smith carries on with the melons his grandfather grew
As I turned the key to open the front door at the office one warm morning in late July, I noticed Max the Barber, whose shop is two doors down the sidewalk from mine, had his pickup truck parked with the tailgate down, revealing a nest of really good looking watermelons. I thought I recognized those melons, so I turned and walked to Max's shop, stuck my head in the door and asked, "What you want for one of those melons?"
He walked up close to me, as he often does when about to speak seriously. "They're not for sale," he said. Well, what you gon' do with 'em? I asked. "I'll give you one." It was then that I noticed that a single melon, round, plump and delicious looking, was parked under each of the chairs down the west wall of the barber shop. Funny, I thought. Never have seen watermelons lined up like that. My mind went back to an earlier time when country families lived in un-airconditioned dwellings, and often rolled a selection of the best of a crop of melons underneath a bed in a room away from direct sunlight. That would have been the coolest spot in the house, to protect the melons until it was time to bring out a couple or so, split them and have a summertime feast out on the front porch. Still, it gave the row of barbershop chairs an eerie look, oddly like a bunch of shaved heads dismembered from their bodies and stashed on the floor staring at the well.
"Which one do you want?" Max asked, as we turned to the chair-bound lineup. "Well, that one, there. Under the second chair," I said, pointing, even though they all looked pretty much the same. Max walked over, rolled out my selection, picked it up and asked, "Where you want it?" "Bring it up to the office and put it on the counter," I said.
As we walked the few steps to my place, he called out behind me, "You do know what these melons are, don't you?" "They sure do look like those Walt Smith Gentry Grays," I said over my shoulder. "That's right," Max said, satisfied that the gift was understood and appreciated.
The late W.R. (Walt) Smith of Sikes, Max's grandfather and once upon a time my father-in-law, was famous among a clientele of watermelon fanciers for his "private brand" of Gentry Gray melons, which he cultivated with passion and sold with pride on his farm out near the old Brister schoolhouse in the woods off LA Hwy 499. Mr. Walt farmed actively until a few months shy of his 100th birthday. His father, Grandpa Bob, made in a bit past 100. (A photographic study of Grandpa Bob which I shot on his 100th birthday hangs in Max's barbersop, along with Grandpa Walt, and Max's father, Maxel.) Grandpa John, I'm told also lived into his 90s, but he was gone from the local scene before I got involved in the family. Walt and his wife, Isabelle White, had five sons and two daughters, all now gone on except Nellene, the one who was once my wife. Second from last, she seems to be the one to have inherited the "century gene," soldiering on now in her 81st year with no sign of letting up.
Max, a true son of the soil, lives on the farm place that was once tilled by his father, religiously plants his peas and other food crops each season, and raises the watermelons, as he puts it, "in my front yard," just up the country road from the Hart Church yard on LA Hwy 126 beyond Sikes. Having worked in the logging woods as a younger man, Max now a youthful 60ish, commutes four days a week to his barbering emporium in Winnfield, alternating travel between his Harley motorcycle and his spiffy black pickup truck with an official Harley orange logo front and rear.
The Gentry Gray seed are not available from commercial suppliers, according to Max, and are cherished and passed from one grower to another for private use. Being large, heavy, and thin skinned, they don't travel well commercially. They often weigh 30 pounds and better, and will break open from the weight of another melon when stacked. But if you can get your hands on one that is raised right, keep it at least as cool as the underside of your favorite bed until it's time to have a party, when you open it and dig in, you will know what watermelon is all about.
Max said his Aunt Virginia Smith was coming to pick one up. Cousin Lloyd Smith was coming from Lake Charles to get four. Max's kids, grandkids, and a few other close relatives and friends also had dibs on a real Gentry Gray, that waited underneath the barber's chair on South Main in Winnfield.
Max gave me one, so the least I could do is put his picture in the paper. That's Max, with my melon, in the photo.