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STYLE & CULTURE

Pumpkin match rivals

A friendly contest among neighbors has become an annual rite around Lake Arrowhead.

October 30, 2002|Duane Noriyuki | Times Staff Writer

It was a season of skinny pumpkins and fat squirrels. Seemingly in conspiracy against contestants in the pumpkin-growing contest, squirrels and their pillaging ilk -- gophers, raccoons and bears -- were on the attack. Traps and chicken wire were strategically placed. One woman stood watch with a BB gun, challenging the intruders to show themselves.

Many pumpkins that were not poached merely withered on the vine without explanation. One of the contestants, Cathy Burns, accepted part of the blame herself. "Growing pumpkins is a metaphor for raising children," she said. "If I spent more time out here there would probably be fewer squirrels. I could keep the riffraff out."

By midsummer considerable damage had been done and Burns wasn't sure if she and husband Brad could make a run for October's reward -- top prize in the annual Lake Arrowhead-area competition in which they and their neighbors had been going pumpkin to pumpkin for years. The contest is friendly, as long as you're not a ground squirrel.

The pumpkins here in the San Bernardino Mountains don't grow as large as those in other parts of the country, some of which weigh more than 1,000 pounds. In this competition, the record, set last year, is 208 pounds.

Because in the heat of things contestants typically mislead each other about the size of their pumpkins -- overstating to breed consternation, understating to breed overconfidence -- they are forced to drive around sneaking peeks at others' gardens. What they found this year were fewer and smaller pumpkins, but also tales of persistence, of odds overcome. Just down the road from the Burnses, such a story unfolded.

The Dahlquists last year planted their patch in back of the house. They diligently watered and fertilized, then waited and waited and waited, but not a single pumpkin resulted. A less determined family may have held onto its $15 entry fee this year. Not the Dahlquists. They planted again, this time in front, but midway through the season, the squirrels feasted. It looked like another washout, but then they noticed something strange happening in back. They didn't plant anything there this year, but vines were growing in last year's patch.

And, alas, there grew ... something. At first they thought it was a zucchini. It was green and long, but then it started to round out. Cecile Dahlquist called Cathy Burns and told her the story.

"A miracle" was Burns' initial reaction. Then after further consideration, she surmised, a watermelon. It came to be known as a "wumpkin," part watermelon, part pumpkin.

Dahlquist had another name for it. She called it her duck. When she was pregnant with Nicolas, her oldest son, she dreamed she gave birth to a duck, and when the duck was born, she said she didn't care that it was a duck. It was a beautiful duck, and it was her duck and she loved it just the same.

The Dahlquists' wumpkin grew slowly and showed little promise of ever being big enough to compete with the others, but that didn't matter. It was theirs, and it was beautiful.

Talk of the town

By midsummer, everyone was talking about Ron Bench's pumpkins. While others were the size of golf balls or baseballs, Bench's were the size of basketballs and even beach balls.

A retired firefighter-EMT who runs a painting business his father started in 1964, Bench, 55, is a farmer at heart. On his one acre are chickens and pigeons, fruit trees, vegetables and many varieties of flowers.

For 34 years, he fought fires and helped people in emergencies. He once got a call of a woman suffering a stroke. When he heard the address, he knew it was his grandmother, and when he arrived, she was already dead.

It's nice now, he says, to no longer hear the firehouse alarms. Instead he hears the rooster's crow well before sunrise, then the silence of early morn. He gathers eggs and shares them with neighbors, sponsors a youth soccer team. Grows pumpkins.

Typically, Jerry Fulton, fellow contestant and founder of the contest 13 years ago, keeps a close eye on Bench's pumpkins. This year, however, he hasn't had much time for spying on the competition. He and wife Kay put their home of 33 years on the market, and by early August, there were buyers. The new owners were pre-qualified and wanted to move in quickly, but Fulton balked. He needed time, he said, to grow his pumpkins.

A contestant's priorities

"The agent told me I should get my priorities straight," said Fulton, 63. "He asked me, 'What do you want, your money or your pumpkins?' I told him I did have my priorities straight. That's how important my pumpkins are to me."

On a foggy day in late September, Fulton, with knife in hand, walked down to his pumpkin patch. He had been busy planning his high school reunion and getting the house ready for new owners. Harvesting his final pumpkin was one of the few remaining tasks.

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