Rants & Essays
Legend of the River Pumpkins
By Robert Klose
The other day, shortly before Halloween, pumpkins were
bobbing in the river behind my house in Orono, Maine. Pumpkins on the
Penobscot! I later learned that they had fallen from a truck as it rumbled over
the small bridge just upriver.
I had gone out to the riverbank for a quiet moment before
leaving for work. The mist slowly lifted revealing the orange globes bumping
against the shore like aquatic mammals coming in to feed. I watched them for
quite a while as if there were something more they could show me. But the mere
fact of pumpkins in the river was remarkable enough. I headed for the
university yet I couldn't get them off my mind.
As I lectured on the basics of ecology my thoughts
constantly jolted back to the pumpkins. I came precariously close to giggling.
When one is teaching freshmen, however, control is everything so I persisted in
describing how animals and plants are physically and behaviorally adapted to
their environments. Then I was jolted again.
Here I was explaining why the snowshoe hare's fur turns
white in a winter landscape and I had pumpkins bobbing in the river behind my
house. I felt the strangest need to get back to them - to see what they were up
I drove home with a special urgency at the end of the
workday. Relief didn't come until I saw the pumpkins safe and sound by the
riverbank. Only they had increased from eight or so to an even dozen as an eddy
herded them against the bank.
As I turned to go into my house I was greeted by the boy
next door who had come over for a visit. Actually eight-year-old Russell had
moped over. I had never seen him so sad. The problem was that "all the kids"
had jack-o'-lanterns for Halloween. Except for him. His mother hadn't yet
bought him one.
A child's dreams are often impossible - to fly like
superman, to travel to another planet - but sometimes they are small and
manageable and the solution is foreordained.
"Russell," I said, bending low, "your friends have field
pumpkins." I could get him something far more special.
Russell screwed up his face and cocked his head to the side.
"A river pumpkin," I whispered.
After dressing up the story a bit with the growing habits of
such pumpkins and explaining why they migrate downriver in the fall, I turned
Russell toward the river and pointed. He was bug-eyed. We clambered into my
canoe and set out on the cool, leaf-littered water.
Within a couple of minutes the canoe was nosing in among the
pumpkins. Russell grabbed hold of one the size of a basketball. I steadied the
canoe as he wrestled it in.
Like the whalers of old we sailed home with our bounty. I
watched as Russell, now grinning from ear to ear, stumbled out of the canoe and
up the riverbank. I followed at a distance as he did a bandylegged two-step up
his front walk, struggling with his pumpkin. His mother came out of the house,
hands on hips, obviously building up steam for a reprimand. "Where did you get
that?" she demanded. "You didn't steal it, did you?"
Russell told the story of the river pumpkins word for word
as it had been given to him. But the part about the migratory habits was too
much for his mother. There are times when a legend related by one person must
be sworn to by another. "Mighty fine river pumpkin you've got there, Russ," I
said as I came up behind him.
The mother's eyebrows took flight. "A river pumpkin?"
"I have five myself," I said. "Easier to carve. Beats a
field pumpkin hands down." I pointed to the river, and Russell's mom dropped
her guard when she saw the remaining pumpkins bobbing for recognition.
That night a jack-o'-lantern flared in the bay window of
Russell's house. And it had stories to tell.