by Ray Allen
Part 1 - Mama and Papa
Chapter 7: The Inventor
As the years went by at the Old Nest, Papa became famous for his "experiments" out in the big side yard. He was always involved in some grand project, some of which went on for months.
One we always talk about is when he decided to create hybrid cantaloupes. This happened because two of Papa's favorite things in the world were cantaloupe melons and rum. He saw no reason the two could not be combined.
His partner in this project was the family's one-armed yard man, Lee, a very short, old Bahamian man who worked for the Dillons for years. Papa and Lee dug out a good plot for a cantaloupe patch right in the middle of the lawn. Seeds were planted, Lee watered, and the vines grew beautifully.
Once the vines had set little green cantaloupes, Papa's grand plan was put into action. He talked to someone he knew at nearby Jackson Memorial Hospital, and came home with a car full of plasma bottles, surgical tubing, hypodermic needles and the racks nurses use to hang bottles upside down for intravenous feeding.
The racks were stuck into the ground beside the cantaloupe vines, the plasma bottles were hung on them, filled with Cuban rum, and surgical tubing led from each of the upside down bottles to a hypodermic needle. And of course, the needles were plunged into the unripe cantaloupes. The creation of the Great Dillon Rum Cantaloupe had begun.
As the weeks went by, the cantaloupes grew and the rum levels went down. The strange garden that looked more like a mad scientist's lab also attracted attention. My aunt has told me all her friends from school asked her about it, and of course, she tried to explain, but nobody really understood. She says it always embarrassed her since nobody else's father had crazy bottles hanging up in their gardens.
All the neighbors were curious, and as the cantaloupes grew, Papa told everybody about his experiment. In awhile, the whole neighborhood was interested, and he began inviting them to the tasting, which was to be soon, after the first melons ripened.
When the big day arrived, I've been told, the house was full of neighbors and friends, and Papa staged a big presentation, since he was positive it had worked. He was convinced that since the rum had disappeared into the cantaloupes, these cantaloupes would have hybrid seeds influenced by the alcohol, and a whole new strain of rum-flavored cantaloupe would be born.
Papa went out and picked a few of the ripest melons, and set them on the table with one of Mama's big knives. Lee helped, and sort of lurked in the background as the neighbors crowded around for the ceremonial cutting and tasting.
When the moment arrived, Papa picked up the knife and made the first cut. The cantaloupe was beautifully ripe, with delicious-looking orange flesh. But everyone knew that was only the beginning. The taste would tell the story. Papa carefully cut some slices, and put them on a plate. He then lifted one to his mouth and tasted. He didn't smile. He then cut another cantaloupe and did the same thing. He was not happy. They were good, but there was no taste of rum.
Then he called to Lee and asked him what had happened. Lee, who was shy anyway, was mortified, and stammered that he was to blame. He admitted he had been sucking on the needles enjoying the rum, all along. So all the rum had gone into Lee instead of the melons. The neighbors all laughed and laughed and there was some talk about trying it again in a locked garden.
Another botanical fantasy Papa dreamed up involved the similarities between the root system and branch system of a tree. Looking at botanical drawings showing roots underground, he reasoned that a tree is really a trunk with a spreading root system at the bottom, and a spreading branch system at the top. He decided there was a direct relationship between the two, and maybe they could be reversed.
So another grand project was launched in the side yard with Lee. Papa had Lee dig a huge crater in the lawn-big, round, and deep. He then chose a mid-size guava tree growing over by the wall to be the experiment's subject. The two men then began the laborious work of digging up the unsuspecting guava tree very very carefully, preserving even the smallest feeder roots.
Once the tree was out of the ground, Papa and Lee lugged it over to the waiting hole, turned it upside down, and buried the branches. The elaborate root system sat at the "top" of the trunk, with clods of dirt adhering to the roots. They filled in the hole carefully until no branches or leaves were to be seen. Then Lee was instructed to water the upside down tree every day regularly. In other words, he watered the branches. The roots remained up in the air and Miami's hot sun.
My aunt tells me that this time, there was no stopping her school friends from giggling. They all talked about Capt. Dillon's "upside down tree", and poked fun at her for having such a strange father. And of course, she had no defense. She has told me how totally crazy it looked from the street. A good-sized tree with its roots up in the air, being carefully tended each day.
All the neighbors talked about this botanical experiment, too. But there was no great event at the end of the work. Because of course, the tree simply died, the roots shriveled and drooped. It was a total failure, but Papa enjoyed it anyway.
We always joke that these "experiments" were the result of his childhood meeting with Thomas Edison, which he never forgot. He would always say that Mr. Edison did "crazy" things too, and even his inventions didn't all work. No one would add that, of course, many of them did.
An actual invention he tried, also out in the side yard, was his idea of a mulching machine. In this case, his knowledge of boats and water came into play. He would create instant mulch with the aid of an outboard motor.
It began with an oil drum being dragged into the center of the yard. Then Lee was directed to rake all the leaves under the avocado trees. Papa loved mangoes and avocados, and had planted several trees of each when the house was new. Avocados have large leaves, and when they drop, they're dark brown with good substance. Papa was sure they were perfect for the mulch machine, since everybody used them for mulch anyway.
This experiment was another public event, since it was outside, made a lot of noise, and attracted all the neighbors. First, Papa filled the oil drum with water so he could test his old outboard motor. He put the motor in, clamped it to the sided of the drum, pulled the starting rope, and it started with a big roar, creating a big whirlpool in the oil drum. After several tests with the water, when he was satisfied the motor was working well, he dumped the water out of the drum, and had Lee begin packing the leaves in.
By the time the oil drum was full of leaves, and they were packed tightly around the motor, a crowd had gathered gawking over the wall, ready to see this marvelous invention come to life. Once the moment had arrived. Papa gripped the starting cord tightly, looked up at the crowd, and started the motor. As my aunt tells it, suddenly the bright day was cloudy. Everyone's clothes instantly had tiny brown spots all over them. And the laundry on lines for blocks around was ruined. Papa's mulch was not in the oil drum, it had been spread over a 5 or 6 block area. I can see him just smiling, and dragging the motor and oil drum back into the garage. Something like this never depressed or disappointed Papa. He always had another ten or twelve other ideas he wanted to try.
I'll never forget one time when I saw him sitting on his bed with a brace and bit sticking into his mouth. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied, simply "Filling my teeth." It turned out he had decided he had a cavity, and rather than going to a dentist, he drilled and filled it himself. He simply used a small drill he had, and what did he use for the filling? Cement. It must have hurt, but it worked.
In later years, Papa always had neck pain. The doctors told him if he could hang from a neck brace, it would help. So he created a sling that he nailed to the ceiling out on the back porch. It was an elaborate stitched-together basket-looking affair made of one-inch white cotton webbing, the kind of material upholsterers use. It looked like something from Dr. Frankenstein's laboratory.
To treat his neck pain, he would go out to the back porch, stick his head somehow into the sling, close the hooks, and then just hang there, usually reading a book.
All his inventions were not as funny as some, and one was very successful. He invented a hoist system for lifeboats. We don't know if he tested it in the side yard, but we do know that it's in use on almost every ship sailing today. It was a series of swing-out davits with special pulleys which he reasoned was really needed. The U. S. Patent Office agreed, and Papa was issued a patent for his improved lifeboat launching system. He was obviously not very savvy about the financial value of his invention, since he sold the patent soon after it was issued. We don't know the story, but surely someone offered Papa $200 or so for the patent, and he was delighted. That was big bucks to him at the time. My cousin, Hal Corson, has the official measured drawings from the Patent Office issued to "Raymond M Dillon" for the lifeboat system. Today, they're a fascinating framed display in Hal's home.