River Pumpkins

THE other day there were pumpkins bobbing in the river behind my house.

Pumpkins in the Penobscot!

I later learned that they had fallen from a truck as it rumbled over the small bridge just upriver.

I discovered them early in the morning. I had gone out to the riverbank for a few quiet moments before leaving for work. I watched as the mist slowly lifted from the water, 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 possibly show me. But the mere fact of pumpkins in the river was remarkable enough, and I headed off to the university.

But I couldn't get them off my mind. As I stood at the blackboard, lecturing on the basics of ecology, my thoughts were constantly jolting back to the river pumpkins. I came precariously close to giggling; but when one is teaching biology to freshman nonmajors, control is everything, and so I persisted in describing how animals and plants are physically and behaviorally adapted to their environments. And then I was jolted again.

Here I was describing why the snowshoe rabbit's fur turns white in a winter landscape, and I had pumpkins bobbing in the river behind my house - more alive than if they had been on the vine in an inland field. I felt the strangest need to get back to them. To see what they were up to.

I drove home with a special - and unprofessional - urgency at the end of the workday. Relief came only when I went out to the riverbank and saw the pumpkins. Safe and sound. Only they had increased from eight or so to an even dozen as a nearshore eddy herded them up against the bank.

As I turned to go in, I was greeted by the little boy next door who had come over for a visit. Actually, seven-year-old Russell had moped over for a visit. I had never seen him so sad. The problem was that ``all the other kids'' had jack-o'-lanterns. Except for him. His mother hadn't yet gotten around to getting him one.

A child's dreams are often impossible - to fly like Superman, to knock down a brick wall, 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. Anyone can have a field pumpkin.'' I added that I could get him something far more special.

Russell screwed up his face and cocked his head to the side. ``What?''

I whispered into his ear. ``A river pumpkin.''

AFTER dressing up the story a bit with the growing habits of such pumpkins, and explaining why they migrate down the river in the fall, I turned Russell toward the river and pointed to the harvest. He was bug-eyed. We clambered into my canoe and set out over the cool, dark, leaf-littered water. Russell perched over the bow like a figurehead.

Within a couple of minutes the canoe was nosing in among the pumpkins. As they bumped up against the sides of the boat, Russell reached down and grabbed hold of one the size of a basketball. I steadied the canoe as he wrestled it over the gunwales.

Like the whalers of old Boston, we sailed home with our bounty. I watched as Russell, now grinning from ear to ear, wrapped his arms around the pumpkin and stumbled out of the canoe and up the riverbank. I continued to watch, following at a distance, as he did a bandy-legged two-step up his front walk, struggling with his load. His mother came out of the house, hands on her hips, obviously building up steam for a reprimand. ``Where did you get that?'' she demanded. ``You didn't steal it, did you?''

Russell was nothing if not truthful. He told the story of the river pumpkin 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 moral support just isn't enough. A legend must be related by one person and then sworn to by another. I came around the corner of the house and up behind Russell. ``Mighty fine river pumpkin you got there, Russ.''

The mother's eyebrows took flight. ``A river pumpkin?''

``I have five myself,'' I said. ``Easier to carve. Beats a field pumpkin hands down.'' Then I pointed to the river, and Russell's mom dropped her guard when she saw the remaining pumpkins bobbing for recognition.

That night there was a jack-o'-lantern flaring in the bay window of Russell's house. And it had stories to tell.

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