Rome was once saved by some cackling geese who honked their warnings in the nick of time and the enemy was foiled, but never before has a great nation been saved by a cantaloupe.
Is it too much to say--I think not--that the future will look back at our country and date its gorgeous centuries not from the Declaration or the War but from the lowly cantaloupe which turned the nation around and set it on the right course about 1983.
I sing, in other words, of what's right about America and after some thought have hit on the cantaloupe, which is far more luscious today than it was 40 years ago.
It used to be people went to France and came back awestruck over French cantaloupes. They have Chartres and the Pont Neuf and the Folies Bergere, they are preeminent in the world in grandeur, but what one remembered, once the dust settled, was the cantaloupes of France, and one used to moan that American melons were inferior. They were.
My hope for the nation rose along with improvement in the cantaloupe. Years ago the great Rocky Ford melon came out, not bad at all, not bad at all. But it didn't stop there. Something fermented in the soul of the West and cantaloupes got better and better. Now they are better than they ever were. One rates every melon 1 to 10. Already this year I have eaten a 9.7. This never happened before.
Even at the Swedish Embassy the other night (and what are cantaloupes to Arctic folk?) I ran into a 9.4.
Let's not go overboard. Much is still wrong. Tomatoes are a scandal, and strawberries are not much better. Our watermelons are distinctly inferior to those of Mexico, our potatoes are limited in range of texture and our American coffee has become the worst in the civilized world.
You will say we can never catch up. I am here to say we can.
Few people (other than 200 million Americans) have comprehended the blow to the nation resulting from the sudden production of terrible tomatoes conceived of mush upon pallor. Without saying anything (for we are a sturdy race not given to whining) we have all felt the chill in our souls--our greatest vegetable somehow got stolen from us. Somebody stole our summertime. The tomato went straight to hell and we began to see for the first time why it was once thought to be probably poisonous.
We have been in that depressed valley for several years. Fortunately the turnips stood fast and so did the collards. They have not deteriorated. We tried as a nation to take comfort from this, as a man with an amputated leg is supposed to be grateful he still has his arms, but it was rough going.
And then, like a little candle, somebody lit the corn. For the first time, corn that was positively edible began to be available in the grocery stores.
This gave comfort, along with the turnips. String beans fell back, but then recovered. Peas got a little better.
Cream, we now know, was a losing battle from the start. In the old days Americans ate cream like palace cats. Then we got supermarkets, where you could find everything in one place. You no longer had to get meat from Mr. Charley, greens from Mr. Will, cakes from Mrs. Fiordiligi and cream from Mr. Peyton who had the Jersey. No. All of a sudden all wonders were in one store and the food buyers of the nation were in ecstasy. And saved money in gas, and it was all just paradise.
But then, like the nagging worm inside the rose, things changed. Prices went up. Luxury food shops became far cheaper than the "efficient" supermarkets. And there was no more Mr. Charley, who sold the best beef, and it was increasingly hard to find Mr. Peyton and his cow.
We did without. We ate what we were sold. Ground cardboard with red coloring. And in this Era of Decline the tomato led the way. The reason every household in America started growing tomatoes was simply that you couldn't buy edible ones at the Safeway any more.
In silence, mind you, the nation lost ground. The character of America lost tension. Something went out of our eyes, like dogs too often beaten. We stayed alive, but the sparkle was missing. We were like them that dream.
And then, in our darkest hour, the cantaloupes began to arrive quite edible for a change. What's this, what's this, a nation thought.
We were too used to despair to be suddenly made glad. Next week, we said, the cantaloupes will be lousy as gourds again.
But no, instead they got better and better. Furthermore, the cauliflower began to improve. Mushrooms got fresher than they were a half-century ago.
And the turnips held their ground, so did the collards.
But then the peaches collapsed, like the line before Hitler. Were they taken by surprise, or did they just give up? The great American peach (and modern Americans would be astonished at the quality of the old Indian Cling of a century ago, to say nothing of Belle that is still widely grown, a gorgeous white peach, but try to find it ripe in a store) the great peach began the same decline as the tomato. Now we eat greenish Elbertas. Pablum is better.
I cannot say enough in praise of those who stood fast--the turnip and the collard--in the decades of collapsing beauty. Without them, and I do not forget the kidney bean, either, all might have been lost.
But now the tide has turned. The light is seen, however fitfully, beyond the hilltops.
And the cantaloupe has been foremost in the renaissance. At a time the tomatoes and peaches were on such a descending spiral that hell seemed the only conceivable stopping place, the cantaloupe began its upward climb.
Much lies ahead. We do not lightly dismiss the challenges before us, or the long work of repair and rebuilding that lies ahead.
But the cantaloupe, like de Gaulle when France needed him, or Churchill when in her worst hour England was safe in his arms, has given us new hope.
Not only has the cantaloupe held on to what was ever good and decent among cantaloupes, but has also bounded so far ahead of its former state in quality as to transform the American heart.
If this is possible, this transfiguration, in the cantaloupe, then perhaps all is not lost, after all. Some day even the tomato may come back and go forward. Idle dream, I know.
But what is important in the cantaloupe is not simply a breathtaking advance in flavor, texture, general ambrosiacality, but the hope it has given an entire nation that all may yet be redeemed.
Redeem the time. Never before was it spoken of the cantaloupe.
Rise, maidens of Battle Creek, and sing, sons of Pittsburgh, for the sunrise is at hand. What is this we see in the spacious sky, but the great American eagle, bald and proud, and what is this in his talon? Not the arrows that did us so little good in the long run, and not the olive branch that was never more than an affected prettiness.
But instead an ear of American corn on the left and a gorgeous American cantaloupe on the right.
Before France entered her glory King Clovis was sad and heartless by the edge of a bog. The battle lay ahead. At just this moment he saw the great wild golden swamp iris and took heart. He adopted that fleur-de-lis. It became his oriflamme. As the new and gorgeous American cantaloupe will be ours.