RIO PRINZAPOLKA - Watermelon Capitol of the World! (Part 1 of 2)

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OK, I admit it is a brash statement. And while it is also a fact that I am an adopted Texan who has somehow found his way further south into northeastern Nicaragua, it occured to me to make this claim because of something I remember as a young boy in my birthplace of Bald Knob, Arkansas rather than my adolescent and adulthood years in ¨bigger is better¨ Texas. But, please give me a chance to explain.

A Blast from the Past

In the early fifties when I was born, Bald Knob had little to boast about. Bald Knob is a tiny northeastern Arkansas town which at that time was already shrinking in size as its population of about 2,000 poor farmers, field workers in the strawberry patches, and failing small store owners packed their belongings and moved to the cities to look for employment and a supposedly better way of life.

I barely recall my earliest years in Bald Knob when most of the storefronts in town had operating businesses in them. The thriving motion picture house presented movies nearly every night of the week with a children´s matinee on Saturdays with both Tarzan and a western. The Dairy Freeze was the place to socialize for the teenagers. And, mom or Grandnina would occasionally take us little ones to sit under the awning in front of the DF and order an ice cream cone or maybe even a milk shake for us over the intercom. The Friday night football game was the big event of the week. Our team hardly ever won. But, that didn´t seem very important to us.

The passenger train from Little Rock to Memphis actually stopped at our beautiful little railroad station to drop-off and pick-up passengers. Families would get together and dads would talk about the hunting season, a new shotgun, a bird dog, or plan a trip next weekend to the White River to catch and fry catfish. When the phone rang you had to listen for your ring pattern, because, we were on a party line with five or six other families.

Strawberry season in Bald Knob was always something to remember. Every evening for supper we would have dessert with strawberry shortcake. Sometimes the base was a soft store-bought spongecake while other times it was a flat-baked home-made pie dough with sugar sprinked on top. In a pinch, a handful of soda crackers would do the job. For us kids the whipped cream topping was essential. The homemade kind made from heavy cream was certainly the best tasting. But, we never tired of squirting the fake kind - simply called Cool Whip - right out of the can. Of course, between shortcakes we just pinched off the green leafy tops and popped the tiny vine-ripe Bald Knob berries right into our mouths! Some of the braver ones us were also known to squirt the Cool Whip right into our mouths as a chaser when mom wasn´t watching!

Somebody from the Bald Knob Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea to declare BALD KNOB, ARKANSAS - The Strawberry Capitol Of The World! I doubt that anybody actually did any research to prove that claim to be valid. Nevertheless, the Chamber of Commerce put up a banner right across the two lane state highway which ran through town to let the entire world know that little Bald Knob had something to boast about. Then, Bald Knob made the audacious gesture of enlisting the Arkansas State Highway Patrol to stop traffic going through Bald Knob during the strawberry harvest season to inform travellers that Bald Knob was The Strawberry Capitol Of The World. The courteous and uncharacteristically smiling police officers encouraged all weary - or hungry - passerbys to step out of their vehicles and rest under a huge canvas tent by the side of the highway and enjoy a delicious strawberry shortcake at the expense of the wonderful people of this fine town! To my knowledge, nobody ever declined the offer.

The members of the Chamber of Commerce were the official greeters of course, but, seemingly every family from Bald Knob showed up in their best Sunday-go-to-church clothes to take advantage of the situation, chow down on free shortcake, and shake hands with neighbors and a seemingly unending stream of travellers. I never heard anyone argue the merits of Bald Knob´s claim to fame! What had simply been an agricultural product for a tiny farming town had been transformed into a social event for the entire community intertwined with world travellers who would undoubtedly tell of their great fortune at having been stopped by the State Police at a road block in Bald Knob, Arkansas! Bald Knob was a proud place to be in strawberry season. I suspect that fresh crate sales to passerbys more than made up for the cost of the operation anyways.

Eventually, my family moved away to the city like most everyone else. A few years later the Interstate Highway System reached Arkansas and Bald Knob got its own bypass. Outsiders could no longer see the Bald Knob strawberry banner as they zipped by the offramp. Nobody stopped in Bald Knob anymore. The field workers had mostly moved away leaving noone to pick berries. And, the strawberry packing plant went out of operation as frozen strawberries lost marketshare. Everybody was buying those big, beautiful, and tasteless ¨fresh¨ strawberries from California.

Bald Knob became virtually a ghost town with boarded up stores, a movie house with blank poster boards, a Dairy Freeze with a vacant drive-through window, a railroad terminal with no passenger service, and a funeral home with a part-time undertaker. A handful of bigtime farmers took over most of the farmland and dedicated efforts to massive rice production where the strawberry vines once grew. The few folks who remained had to drive all the way to Searcy to shop at Gibsons and later Walmart.

My family continued to visit Bald Knob to celebrate Christmas and my parents always sent us kids to spend a couple of weeks during summer vacation to remain close to family and friends until Grandnina passed away. I recall now that when I visited I was truly embarrassed to hear my own Bald Knob cousins who talked with such Arkansas country bumpkin accents. It never occurred to me that each year that I was away I was getting more and more of a Texas drawl! Secretly I believe that I always resented not getting to grow up there in the country!

I can´t produce any figures to prove that giving away strawberry shortcake helped delay Bald Knob from withering away into oblivian. But, to this day my mouth still waters when I think of Bald Knob in strawberry season.

In my adolescence I worked in the summer months as a staff member at a Boy Scout camp near Athens, Texas. Athens claimed to be ATHENS, TEXAS - Black-Eyed Pea Capitol of the World! I never found any native from Athens who got excited about their claim to fame. My mouth never watered when I thought of black-eyed pea casserole either!

Has this part of my story got anything to do with Prinzapolka? Maybe not, but, I like to think so... Perhaps what we see and learn as little children follows and guides us throughout the rest of our lives. I cannot help but see similarities between what I witnessed so many years ago in Bald Knob, Arkansas and something that I experienced only a few days ago on the Rio Prinzapolka, Nicaragua.

Continued...RIO PRINZAPOLKA - Watermelon Capitol of the World! (Part 2 of 2)

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