FROM JULY 19, 2010
What began as a simple tomato war between brothers decades ago has now come to this. Harassing emails from the son of one of those brothers who rather subtly accused me of neglect. Well, I stood up to that son. “Patience is a virtue,” is what I wrote him back. I guess I told him!
Joseph, or “Big Coon” as they called him, left Graham, North Carolina in 1956. In 1962, he found his way to Florida, hundreds of miles from the nearest North Carolina homegrown German Johnson tomato.
Eugene, “Little Coon” stayed behind. The lure of the Carolina German Johnson was just too great, I suppose.
Big Coon relied on Little Coon for a number of years. Little Coon was Big’s best tomato connection. “Maters,” they call them in Graham. You say “mater” around those two, and you knew what was meant: homegrown German Johnsons.
Little was a good brother to Big. He used to visit Big in Florida during July. For several years he did this. And he always brought maters. Big was in heaven. Big was big. A big man. The maters Little always brought were big enough to, once sliced, cover an entire Miracle Whip coated slice of white bread. One good slice, Miracle Whip, salt and pepper was all Big needed to do one of his patented inhale whistles. An inhale whistle is when one breaths in while whistling. Not out like normal whistles. The inhale was Big’s indication of total satisfaction. He always did that just before taking the first bite of his “mater sandwich.”
There was another brother, Garland. They called him “Goosey.” He was the oldest. One summer, somehow, Goosey got involved. I do not recall his exact involvement, but I do believe it ultimately led to the mater war. Maybe he sent Big an unscheduled shipment. Maybe the maters he sent were bigger than the ones Little always sent. I really do not recall. All I know is, the war began when Little brought his family to Jacksonville Beach, Florida, along with a supply of maters for Big.
When Big visited Little’s beachfront motel room for the first time on that trip, he walked right by his brother, his brother’s wife and their two children. He went right for the maters. At least this is how I remember the original recollection of the story. Big bent down and opened the refrigerator where he saw a huge platter of the largest most beautiful display of Carolina German Johnsons he had ever seen. The wire rack of the refrigerator shelf was sagging from the weight of that incredible harvest. The inhale whistle was blowing full steam ahead. Little quickly reacted to this sort of refrigerator invasion. “No, no, Sonny,” Little barked. “Those are mine. Here are the ones Goosey sent you.” Little gave Big the sack. The paper sack. The rather small paper sack. With three of the smallest non-Roman, non-Cherry tomatoes Big ever saw. Big stood straight up. His eyebrows almost reached his hairline. And his mouth popped open so wide the cigar that lived in the right corner of his lips hit the floor.
“What?” Big asked. Little just gritted his teeth tightly, trying to hold them inside his amazing and sinister grin and rubbed his hands together fast and furious like he was trying to start a fire. The others in the room just laughed. Big laughs. The war had begun.
It wasn’t a real war, of course. It was all in fun. Occasionally Little Coon would mail Big Coon a photograph of a mater the size of Big’s head. One time Big used Carolina mater seeds in Florida soil, trying to grow his own. It didn’t work. But Little always made good on the maters. Big was never hurting for a good Carolina German Johnson. Not as long as Little had anything to say about it.
Big Coon died in the fall of 1992. He was buried back in Graham a couple of months after the last German Johnson was harvested in Alamance County that year. The following summer and a few summers after that, on July 16 of each of those years, I took a single German Johnson tomato and placed it on Big Coon’s grave. The sixth year, I took two maters. Been doing two ever since. Little Coon died July 4, 1998 and is buried right next to Big. I just can’t take one for Big and leave nothing for Little.
One year, though, probably in ’99, I left a really large German Johnson for Big. And I left a scrawny little one for Little. I hope Big and Little both saw the humor in that. Like all the other years, those maters were placed there in love and amazing fondness of those two and of the relationship they had.
So, the latest in the mater war? The email. From Little Coon’s son. I got this last Sunday.
“I was hankering for some free German Johnsons, but the tomato fairies have not left any at the cemetery yet.”
My reply? “Patience is a virtue, Cuz. Friday is ‘Mater Day!’”
“Mater Day” was last Friday. July 16. My Dad’s birthday.
I left three this year.
Peace at last.