I live in Wheaton, Illinois, the same town my grandpa moved to in the mid-1950’s after increasing hearing loss cut short his career as a pastor. He worked several more years until retirement as a carpenter and custodian at Wheaton College, where two of his four daughters (including my mom) earned diplomas. After living in a few rented houses for several years, he and my grandma were finally able to buy a modest house on Indiana St., a few blocks south of the college.
I actually grew up 70 miles away in Rockford, though, the youngest of four children (we go boy, boy, girl, boy–the same as my own family of four). We would drive “in” to Wheaton fairly often to visit my grandparents, and also to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins. (My uncle, who married my mom’s sister, ended up teaching at Wheaton for 45 years as a professor in the communications department.)
One humid July morning last summer I was out for a run heading down President St. and passed the ranch house (THAT ranch house) on the corner of President and Indiana. My grandpa had lived just a few houses up the block (though his modest home has since been razed in favor of something worth a lot more money).
That rather nondescript ranch house on the corner down from my Grandpa’s evidently still held a powerful sway in my primitive childhood memory, as the humid air and brilliant sunshine that morning seemed to trigger the resurgence of a powerful image as I ran by the house: a ferocious, axe-wielding giant watermelon.
I saw that giant watermelon clear as day in my mind’s eye. He was about 30 feet tall, with little stubby legs (white socks, brown shoes) and carried a giant axe in one of its skinny arms. His fierce face was much like a jack-o-lantern’s, carved into the green rind. I was terrified of that watermelon.
Why should I, a middle-aged PhD scientist, suddenly have shivers run up my spine by the appearance in my imagination of an angry, anthropomorphic watermelon? Well, it’s all my brothers’ fault, as is often the case in childhood.
You see, one hot summer night in the early 1970’s, that same ranch house was chopped to pieces by a freak tornado that did not damage any other structure in the neighborhood. My grandparents had awoken to the sound of a train (as the sound of tornadoes are often described), but given that they lived just blocks from the ever-active Union-Pacific train tracks, they thought nothing of it and went back to sleep. Our family happened to visit my grandparents just a day or two later, so the four of us kids walked down the block and had an eyeful of the freak disaster.
I was only about three years old and was rather shocked by the shattered house. But I had no idea what a “tornado” was that I heard others talking about; I could not imagine what could do such terrible damage. In hindsight, I should have asked my parents or sister what it was, but I asked my two older brothers instead: “What’s a tornado?” I’m not sure how my brothers came up with their answer–they are both rather clever individuals–but my memory is that they both told me rather quickly that a tornado was a giant watermelon with an axe.
It made complete sense to me that something with an axe had done the damage to the wood roof and walls of that unfortunate ranch house. The notion that it was a watermelon….I don’t know. I can’t account for why a human being, even if he was only three, would think there is such a thing as a giant watermelon creature with an axe that walks around randomly destroying houses. But I believed it. I’m sure I probably did have questions, but undoubtedly my brothers lovingly helped me understand this important concept.
Our minds are wonderfully weird things! I forget a lot of things, and a lot of memories from childhood are fuzzy, gone, or even just wrong at this point. But that giant watermelon with its little legs and arms and axe persists in my mind’s eye, as vivid and powerful as ever, prowling the dark and stormy streets in search of its next victim.