“How are we going to pay the mortgage, buy more seeds and fertilizer if the temperature dips into the 20's tonight?” Lillian wailed to her husband.
Ben’s shoulders drooped as his calloused hand reached for the plastic “off” knob on the old Zenith radio. The weather report was worse than he had feared.
All of central Florida was in a freeze warning for the coming night. Without a miracle, Ben knew the small watermelon plants on their ten acre farm wouldn’t survive...without this crop, the family’s survival on the home-place would be in doubt.
“Lillian, the only thing I know to do is cover each plant,” Ben declared, rubbing his hands together before the warmth of the fireplace. “And, I don’t know if that will work.”
“Cover the plants with what?” Lillian asked, wringing her hands in dismay.
“With the only thing we have plenty of—dirt,” Ben uttered, his voice barely above a whisper.
The Tupperware bowl Lillian was drying slipped from her hands. She watched as it bounced across the wood floor halting only when it met the heel of Ben’s scuffed boots.
“Lillian, call Samuel. He has Friday afternoons off from the hardware store. Maybe he’ll help,” Ben said hopefully.
As she picked up the phone, Lillian heard Cora Lee talking to her sister, Alma, on the party-line.
“Miss Cora, this is Lillian, can I use the phone for a moment? It’s an emergency.”
“Lillian, you know me and Alma always talk to one another at noon everyday. You can have the line in a minute. We’re purt’ near finished.”
Shaking her head, Lillian placed the receiver back in its cradle.
Trace, at 15 years old, was the oldest of their three children. He worked feverishly alongside Ben and Lillian dragging dirt from the edge of the rows with a hoe to cover the tender watermelon plants.
The ten-year-old twins, Jason and Jonathan, were on their hands and knees mimicking their parents’ and older brother’s efforts—except the twins were using their sock-covered hands.
The bitter cold wind had dried the top layer of dirt to a fine dust that penetrated their nostrils with every breath and stung their eyes to tears.
At dusk, when the temperature had plummeted into the 30's, Ben sent Lillian and the twins back to the warmth of the house.
Leaning on his hoe handle and looking back over the mounds of dirt covering the plants, Trace chuckled, “You know, Dad, our watermelon field now looks like a giant litter box for cats.” It felt good to hear his Dad laugh.
As the copper sky turned a deep indigo, the wind ceased its attack. The temperature was edging toward freezing as Ben and Trace donned elastic-band headlamps on their foreheads. When the six-volt batteries lost strength around midnight, they lit kerosene lanterns to finish the back-breaking task.
Walking back to the house with their lantern in one hand and dragging their hoe behind them, Ben and Trace left the field. The thermometer attached to the barn read 28 degrees.
The next morning at breakfast, the twins picked at the ham and eggs without their usual back and forth badgering. Ben and Lillian seemed to notice at the same moment Trace’s blistered hands. Looking out the kitchen window the family waited for sunrise.
The day was beginning to warm as the sun climbed above the moss-laden oaks on the farm. Ben walked to the first row of watermelon plants they had covered the night before. With his hands, he gently searched the small mound of dirt for the plant. As his fingers brushed the last of the dirt away from the plant, tears burned his eyes and his heart broke. The plant had not survived. Unearthing the next plant, it too was dead. And, so was the next.
Lillian could feel the pulse of her heart beating in her throat as she saw her husband uncover one plant after another. She watched him slowly walk farther into the field where the ground was slightly higher, she turned from the window, unable to watch.
She heard the familiar sound of her husband’s boots as he walked up the steps of the back porch. Dropping into a chair, she began to sob. When Lillian felt Ben’s presence in the doorway, she looked up into his face. For a second, their eyes locked.
Raising his hands toward Heaven, Ben shouted, “THANK GOD, the plants on high ground are alive.”
Based on a true story.
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