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DOWNEY – On the first weekend of October, 34-year Downey resident Bob McFall and his 21-year old son, Bryant, traveled for 6-1/2 hours to Elk Grove, a small city just to the southeast of Sacramento, to participate in the city’s annual Giant Pumpkin Festival. Aboard their borrowed ¬æ-ton Dodge pickup truck were their two giant pumpkin entries, one weighing 895.5 lbs. and the other one 736 lbs.
In addition, with probably even less expectation of winning any prize of significance, they also entered the long (elongated) gourd and water melon contests.
To no one’s surprise, their 895.5-pounder took 20th place; the winner, Leonardo Urena of Napa, forklifted his 1,685-lb. monster pumpkin to the weigh-off site and, some 200 entrants later, took home the $250 first prize. Urena, in fact, proceeded to garner the top prize at the biggest giant pumpkin weigh-off of them all in the state, at Half Moon Bay, on Columbus Day. His entry this time weighed all of 1,704 lbs. He earned at least $6 per pound of the giant pumpkin.
The world’s record is 1,810 pounds for an Atlantic giant pumpkin (the species favored by many) grown by Chris Stevens of Wisconsin. The record, all agree, is sure to be broken next year.
Meanwhile, McFall’s 81-inch gourd landed in third place, while his 66-lb. water melon placed fifth, enough to inspire him to think of additionally entering the festival’s squash and sunflower events next year
But McFall was not prepared for what transpired the following day. Bryant was one of seven guys who entered the regatta competition, where they carve out enough of the inside of a giant pumpkin which can then be used as a boat. The contestants were to row and race 100 yards each way across the pond-like Strauss Lake. By Bob’s reckoning, it took the winner six minutes to negotiate the 200 yards.
Bryant, as green as the first shoots in spring, in his 700-plus pound “boat”, finished dead last, crossing the finish line in 22 minutes. The difference between his time and that of the penultimate finisher was eight minutes.
The story doesn’t end there. To the visitors and spectators of the regatta, what began as a fun event to watch turned into something thrilling, something ineffable.
As Bryant made the turn, his boat began to sink! But he fiercely, furiously paddled on. Miraculously, he was able to finish the race all wet, barely afloat, with waves and waves of rousing cheers from an appreciative crowd of onlookers engulfing him.
Seeing how his son, a graduate a year removed from Warren High and still undecided on his future course, paddled on as if pursued by a bunch of bad dudes, proud dad Bob confided to this reporter afterwards: “It brought tears to my eyes.”
Pumpkins and pumpkin patches are, of course, commonly identified with fairy tales (Cinderella, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Alice in Wonderland), with Peanuts and other lovable TV cartoon characters, and with Halloween. The prognosis this year is that a bumper crop is to be expected, and so there’ll be an abundance of pumpkin pies in the stores, pumpkin soup in the house, and in all probability a few pumpkin patches keeping watch on Halloween. For Bob, though, pumpkin growing has become a serious hobby, for health reasons and for fulfillment. If he can somehow grow the first 2,000-lb. pumpkin-the Holy Grail of giant pumpkin growers-the feat will enter the Guinness Book of World Records. There is a reward of $5,000 offered to the first one to break the 2,000-lb. mark.
If, by deepened knowledge of and expertise in gardening methods and such foundational matters as fungus and moisture control, grafting, cross pollination, etc., he can develop into one of the accomplished and respected pumpkin growers around, and he can’t be above such deserved fame.
There are already important side benefits. Pumpkin growers, especially of the giant kind, are linked to one another (via exchange of seeds and horticulture tips, e-mails, other information through books and pamphlets, etc.) and have become a fraternity of sorts, a “commonwealth of growers.”
“The organizers at Elk Grove were very friendly and went out of their way to follow up on procedures and other stuff,” says Bob.
But the real reason Bob took the hobby up in the first place can be explained by his determined effort to lose weight, on his doctor’s advice. He has always indulged in food, and had bulked up to a hefty 265 pounds. As early as 2008, when the economy started to deteriorate, Bob had sought fit to turn the backyard of his ¬æ-acre property on Brookmill Road into “more productive use.” He uprooted the prevalent grass and began planting corn, vegetables, peppers and tomatoes. He likes to eat salsas anyway, so it was a good step. Then almost a year ago came the unpleasant diagnosis of Type II diabetes. Because of a regimen of diet and exercise, he has since lost 30 pounds.
Bob is 53 and manages 26 people at an auto body shop in Harbor City. Eldest daughter Megan is a fashion institute graduate, 24-year old Brendan is pursuing a pharmacy degree (and has been helpful in matters of fertilizers, chemistry of plants and the like), and the youngest,19-year old daughter Bryce, is a freshman at Golden West College. All the kids are graduates of Warren High. Wife Jill is a Downey High alum. You can just imagine there’s potential chaos right there. Their house is guarded by four pugs and a huge police dog in the backyard.
Greater recognition is in the cards for Bryant. On Halloween Night (time slot as yet unspecified) he will be featured in a documentary, “Pumpkin Palooza,” about things one can do with pumpkins. Bryant was interviewed for the feature, about his inspiring performance on the pond, and will be shown on the Weather Channel.
And the real reason why Bryant did what he did that memorable day? He told his dad afterwards that he loathed the idea of falling into the slimy green water that passes for a pond.
Published: October 13, 2011 – Volume 10 – Issue 26