Watermelon held captive is frustrating slice of life

October 12, 2002|By ROB KASPER

LIKE A LOT of guys, I pride myself in having a tool for every occasion. So it came as a shock to me this week when I discovered I lacked your basic watermelon-removal implement.

The watermelon, a 10- or 15-pound Crimson Sweet, was stuck in the shell of a white 5-gallon plastic bucket. How did the watermelon get in the bucket? The short answer is it grew into it, like a cucumber in a milk bottle. The longer answer is that the stuck melon was a casualty of my war with the voles.

Voles, also called field mice, meadow mice, or those #@& cents%$#! critters, have a taste for watermelon. They are sneaky eaters: they burrow through the backside of a melon. Then, once inside, they are like robbers in a bank safe - they empty it.

I found this out the hard way. For several weeks I had been watching this promising watermelon grow into maturity in my plot at the community garden in Druid Hill Park. The melon had a gorgeous green skin, a round, Rubenesque body. Never mind that it was showing up late in the garden cycle; at pumpkin time, this beauty was gonna be delicious.

When harvest time arrived, I pulled it off the vine, only to discover that my cherished melon was hollow. Its innards were emptier than the coffers of Enron. The voles had burrowed a fist-size hole through the melon's backside and had a party.

A quick survey of the garden found further evidence of vole excursions. There were nibble marks on several smaller watermelons, and there were signs of attempted entry on the cantaloupes. Of the two main vole-battling strategies - invasion or frustration - I chose frustration. While the notion of hitting the vole homeland with search-and-destroy missions had a certain vengeful appeal, I felt this could quickly become a protracted struggle. Moreover, since voles don't honor manmade boundaries, making raids would require building a coalition with fellow gardeners, obtaining their permission to pursue any voles that took refuge in their plots. Finally, even if I did destroy the lair, the voles could simply relocate. It was a big garden.

Instead I tried to outwit them by putting up barricades between the mice and the melons. My first line of defense was a customized, 5-gallon plastic bucket. The bottom of the bucket had been removed, creating a 1-foot-tall circular tower of plastic, open at both ends.

The trick was to snuggly fit this protective tower over a promising melon, without squashing the vine, the melon's source of sustenance. I got lucky, and found a small crack in one side of the bucket, just large enough to let the vine through, but too small for a vole.

I positioned the bucket and admired my work. By my calculations, any vole working this patch of garden would run smack dab into a virtually impenetrable wall of plastic. My watermelon defense system worked on the same principle as a home security system. The bad guy would attempt to get in, would find it too difficult, then would move on to an easier target.

The melon grew. And I felt smart - until it was harvest time. Then, when I tried to yank the melon out of the bucket, the melon wouldn't move.

I ended up lugging the whole package - big, fat, green melon ensconced in dirty, white plastic shell - home to my workbench.

I asked the teen-ager, a big fan of watermelon as well as a student of high school physics, if he could apply any of his book-learning to this project. Did he have a formula that could free the melon?

First he advocated applying force - pushing the melon out of the plastic - and when that failed, he turned to a primal element, fire. He suggested melting the plastic with a soldering gun, a proposal I dismissed as too smelly.

That is when I turned to my array of tools. Out came the tin snips, but the quarter-inch plastic of the bucket was too tough for their jaws to penetrate, even after the plastic had been scored with the razor-sharp edge of a utility knife.

Next came the hacksaw, the classic escape tool, at least in jailbreak movies. The hacksaw zipped through the plastic but was stopped cold by the melon rind, which wouldn't give the tip of the saw any maneuvering room.

Finally I got a hammer and a chisel and, following the crack in the plastic made by the hacksaw, tapped away.

Wednesday night at 7:38 p.m., Eastern Daylight Time, the melon was freed. At 7:40 p.m., the melon was dessert.

The watermelon, which had been harassed by voles and held captive in a plastic prison, ended up tasting terrific.

I figured it would. The greater the struggle, the sweeter the fruit.

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