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The Pumpkin Files

Real Whoppers

A friendly rivalry to grow the biggest orange globe yields a few white lies

July 02, 2002|DUANE NORIYUKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A good pumpkin, like a good lie, creates wonder and, sometimes, suspicion. This time of year, in the Lake Arrowhead area in the San Bernardino Mountains, plants and lies grow bigger by the day, and growers anticipate a bumper crop of both.

Cheri Altmeyer, 37, and her 3-year-old son, Brian, kissed their seeds in early June before gently placing them into the ground like soft petals. The Altmeyers are the reigning pumpkin champs, and as they embark on this new season, they aim to keep it that way.

Between now and October, however, they and their fellow contestants must avoid or overcome a litany of potential downfalls, including gophers and thieves and bugs and bears. They will utilize secret techniques and spy on their competitors, who are doing the same. The winner, with little fanfare, will be crowned around Halloween.

The contest, sponsored by a local grocery store, is in its 13th year. To win, pumpkins need not be particularly handsome, fine skinned or well proportioned, as this is no beauty contest. There are no subjective contingencies, and merit is based on one clearly defined objective. The heaviest pumpkin wins.

The aesthetics are in the deceit. When contestants see one another at the post office or the store, lies come buzzing out of their mouths like crazed bees from a ransacked hive.

"Golf-ball size," one might say in a perfectly steady voice.

"Tennis balls," the other will say with a sly grin.

When entrants see one another at the nursery, they peer out of the corners of their eyes to see what fertilizers their competitors might reach for on the shelves.

"Should work just fine on my roses," one might say at the cash register, just loud enough for the other to hear.

And that is how the game is played. Every once in a while, just to complicate matters, someone will tell the truth. It's a dirty, lowdown trick, but no one ever said growing pumpkins was for the squeaky clean.

And since they can't trust their competitors' words, they resort to espionage. Jerry Fulton's size-9 1/2 footprints are all over the mountain, most frequently somewhere near a pumpkin patch.

"It's all part of the fun," he says.

The Altmeyers used to have a burro named Jacques that would bray whenever Fulton, founder of the contest, approached. Cheri Altmeyer would hear the commotion, step out on the deck and shout, "What's going on down there?"

And there, gazing at her pumpkins, would be Fulton and, oftentimes, Altmeyer's neighbor Ron Bench, another contestant, taking inventory.

"Oh, just poisoning your plants," Fulton would say.

"Don't you guys have anything better to do?"

Turns out they didn't. Bench, a retired firefighter, now runs his own painting business but focuses on that which brings him closer to life's truer meaning: family, friends, pumpkins.

Fulton, after graduating from the local high school in 1957 and quitting college after six years, embarked on a search for his place in life. He managed a couple of businesses in the area and, finally, a few years ago, discovered his true calling.

"Retirement," he says.

So at age 63, Fulton focuses on pumpkins, his first grandchild and "shooting the breeze" with friends. Every morning he goes to the post office to pick up the mail, and, perhaps, stop at the store to pick up a few things. It's a process that could be completed in, say, 20 minutes, but it takes him up to three hours.

All the entrants, it seems, get into the spirit of the contest. Indeed, when Fulton returns home after a pleasant afternoon of spying, he is likely to notice a few unfamiliar footprints around his own carefully raked garden.

In other parts of the country, primarily in New England, pumpkin growing is serious business, like hogs in Iowa, football in Texas or pedicures in Beverly Hills. Pumpkins the size of SUVs earn thousands of dollars in prize money. Contestants install expensive surveillance and irrigation systems. As harvest approaches, they sleep next to their pumpkins to protect them from ne'er-do-wells.

But here the competition is friendly, and no one sleeps with pumpkins. They are liars but not cheaters. They're not vying for thousands of dollars in prize money. Altmeyer last year took home a winner's check for $200, the most ever, and the honor of hosting this year's end-of-the-season barbecue.

Here they do it not for fame or fortune but for the fun and challenge, they say. If nothing else, it keeps them off the streets.

"Bragging rights is the main thing," Fulton says.

So far this year there are nine entrants, although there still may be a few latecomers. Each June they start ponying up their $15, which goes toward prize money, and setting forth on secret strategies, ranging from well-timed applications of burro manure or seaweed or fish extract to the use of gizmos and gadgets and experimental techniques.

Last year Bench, Altmeyer's neighbor, seemed a shoo-in. When his pumpkin was placed on the butcher's scale, it weighed in at 187 pounds, breaking his old record.

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