The Time the Potato Festival Finally Returned to Birchmont Village Only to Nearly Be Lost Again
It was the third Saturday in August, and the Birchmont Village Potato Festival was in full swing, having been resurrected after an unimaginable seventy-year absence by Hank Walters Bryant, the ranking member of the Birchmont Village council and devotee of all things spud. Hank had happened upon a write-up touting the event in a stack of old newspapers crammed into the far corner of his attic while rummaging for items to sell at next month’s City-Wide Yard Sale. As it turned out, to Hank’s and most everyone else’s surprise — except for Old Man Williams who claimed to have won the potato derby as a youth yet there was no record of that — the land that comprised this neighborhood was once pristine farmland, with the most prevalent crop, given the soil composition and climate, being the potato, notably the Kennebec and Superior varieties (along with the occasional sweet onion).
To celebrate their harvest, the populace would gather together to hold a festival, as was their way then, and which has continued to be their way today. Sadly, a falling out amongst the town elders over whether or not the potato was properly classified as a legume led to the cancellation of this fete for one year, which became two years, and then several years, and so on and so on until it was absent for an unimaginable seventy years! But Hank Walters Bryant, with how he got whenever an idea took root in his head, was determined to once again pay homage to this often underappreciated starchy vegetable — as well as to curry favor with his constituency as he was up for re-election in November.
The Potato Festival took place, like most of these community-wide get-togethers, because of the size of the space and ease of access, at the Birchmont Village Church, primarily in the parking lot and spilling over onto the surrounding grounds. There was a plethora of activity as the Potato Festival Planning Committee, under the leadership of Millicent Milner, Young Billy’s mother and board-certified CPA who was rather proficient with spreadsheets, had gone all out. There were booths of both arts and crafts fashioned from potatoes, cooking classes on how to prepare everything from potato skins to potato salad to potato stuffed pierogi, food trucks that served nothing but potato delectables, a band called the Peelers of Strength formed on the fly (and therefore not the best name for a band) by the group of renters who shared a two-bedroom suite at the Stonemill Apartments at the end of Blanchard next to the park who performed peppy tunes with their guitars and bongo drums and tambourines, potato-themed games like potato sack races and hot potato and pin the eye on the potato and, of course, the potato derby with Old Man Williams serving as the official timekeeper since he was well beyond the age limit to participate, a pageant to crown the Queen and King of the Potato Festival, a farmers’ market of nothing but potatoes (along with the occasional sweet onion), and a bounce house for the kids, which was the only thing not potato-related, albeit not without some trying by the committee, but the youngsters didn’t seem to mind. It was, without question, as proclaimed by Hank Walters Bryant, not one to shy away from hyperbole, the single most impressive festival dedicated to the potato that Birchmont Village had seen in seventy years, and with that nary a soul could disagree.
Everyone was eager to participate. The police officer from Ridgeland who was contracted out by Birchmont Village to patrol the streets in his off-hours put on an impressive demonstration of target practice with a potato gun and a row of empty soda cans, prefacing every shot with the admonition not to try this at home, though it was unlikely any of the residents possessed a potato gun — empty soda cans, on the other hand, were fairly common, particularly every other Monday morning when recycling bins were set out at the curb for trash collection. A little further away, Harris Maggiano offered free samples of his homemade potato vodka, which he sold in mason jars for five dollars each or three for twelve, much to the consternation of Mrs. Shuttleford, an unapologetic teetotaler who was concerned that people imbibing this “hooch,” as she called it, would lead to “unbridled hooliganism” (also her words). Sarah Delahaney, the flagger for the gas and electric company road crew, got in on the action, painting an elaborate mural depicting the first potato harvest on the street at the intersection of Swan and Forest with spray paint she promised was meant to wash away after a few good rains. And Naomi Persimmon created a full-size potato head costume that Max Chetak was prepared to wear to greet festivalgoers until PJ Cross, a lawyer by trade who was reluctant to admit as such though sometimes he just couldn’t help himself, caught sight of this and vehemently argued against it, being exceedingly risk adverse, contending that the costume too closely resembled a certain trademarked potato head which was an invitation for litigation.
Aside from this slight wrinkle, merrymaking and fellowship were in high abundance — as were potatoes! — and by mid-afternoon, Hank Walters Bryant declared this to be an unmitigated success. He had already begun brainstorming ways to make this festival even bigger next year, with a spud putt tournament, a 5K fun run, and a tater tot eating contest featuring some of those famous competitive eaters he watched on TV. It was definitely a fine day to be a fan of the tuber, and a resident of Birchmont Village — that was, until Professor Porter, the erudite dean of the English department at the university, approached Hank with a shocking discovery.
Professor Porter, in addition to his acumen and accolades in the studies of literature and composition, possessed an advanced degree in historical geography (and he consistently lobbied, to no avail, to teach an elective course on the subject). He had scrutinized that newspaper article on the last Potato Festival, which was posted to the Birchmont Village neighborhood website. With the help of a couple of graduate students who were in need of extra credit, Professor Porter did some digging. Now, with an armful of maps and charts and sepia-toned aerial photographs, he presented his findings to Hank, and to all those within earshot — and with the urgency with which the professor spoke, although that was really just his way according to anyone who had ever taken his class, a curious crowd had formed to see what the hubbub was.
Professor Porter reported that what was once Birchmont Village proper seventy years ago was not necessarily so anymore. As borders in the area had shifted from erosion and weathering, and been redrawn due to annexation and advances in cartography, the true locus back then of the burgeoning crop of potatoes (along with the occasional sweet onion), and, by extension, the site of the original Potato Festival, was not, in fact, Birchmont Village as it was known today, but alas, it was modern day Ridgeland. In short (or at least as short as he was capable, according to anyone who had ever taken his class), Professor Porter concluded that this happening should rightfully be the Ridgeland Potato Festival!
A heavy hush fell over the crowd — except for Etna Pataskata who audibly gasped and had to fan herself with the palms of her hands. It was as if all of the air had been sucked out and a dense blanket of despair descended upon the denizens. Dogs barked, children cried, dark gray clouds filled the sky, and Hank Rogers Bryant quickly took a seat in the official golf cart boldly emblazoned with the letters “B.V.” lest he might lose consciousness. No one knew what to do. Even Young Billy Milner, this eternal optimist who was always ready with words of encouragement no matter the calamity, was at a loss, and merely sulked, head in his hands, where he sat on a tree stump alongside his best friend, Chubz, the Johnson family cat, who appeared equally distraught, the feline’s kinked tail firmly lodged between his legs. The overall sentiment was “anyone but Ridgeland.”
Ridgeland and Birchmont Village had a complicated relationship, to put it mildly. While the two communities maintained, on the surface, a cordial connection, Ridgeland, the next-door neighbor to Birchmont Village to the east, was, in every way possible, as Pastor Simmeons once let slip during an exceptionally lengthy and somewhat rambling sermon on humility, “full of itself.” To place this in perspective, if Ridgeland and Birchmont Village were living, breathing, human beings, they would be referred to, in the parlance, as frenemies. Ridgeland was constantly bragging about something or the other: its crack-free sidewalks, its luminescent street lights, its carefully manicured greenspace, the elaborate holiday decorations that attracted carloads of lookie-loos from across the county from when these first went up the day after Halloween until they were taken down in late January. Property values were higher in Ridgeland and houses there sold three-and-a-half times faster than in Birchmont Village. Even in contracting out their police officer, while generous, Ridgeland acted like it was being put upon, as if Birchmont Village owed it a favor in return that it could not possibly match. Thus, with the wholly unforeseen and extremely unwelcomed revelation that the Potato Festival actually belonged to Ridgeland, the Villagers feared that that might put this one-sided rivalry to an irreparable end, making Ridgeland once and for all the far superior unincorporated city.
The lull as the residents pondered this, and many other unpleasant thoughts no doubt, seemed to last forever — though, in reality, it was only about seven minutes, give or take — before folks started to stir and move and return to life. Hank Walters Bryant managed to snap to attention with a shot of Harris Maggiano’s homemade potato vodka, after which Hank insisted that Harris take his “hooch” (Hank’s word) home because, despite Harris’ protestations, Hank believed that the alcohol content had to have been decidedly greater than what was allowed by ordinance or municipal code or the like — much to the satisfaction of Mrs. Shuttleford who uttered, under her breath yet nonetheless to be heard, “I told you so.” Hank then grabbed the bullhorn that he kept in the golf cart for precisely such a crisis and, over the squeal of feedback, called an emergency session of the Birchmont Village council. Fortunately, there were enough council members in attendance at the festival to convene a quorum, which they did posthaste in the church basement, and where they remained for the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening — sending out to the food trucks for dinner and snacks — as they tried to forge a course of action.
After considerable debating, and a number of surprisingly heated exchanges, it was ultimately decided, by a unanimous vote, with Eugene Bowlering abstaining as he was notoriously noncommittal, that their only option was to come clean, and to fess up to Ridgeland, that through no malice or fraud, but just a simple oversight, they had pilfered their Potato Festival — and then allow the chips to fall where they may. Since many members of the Ridgeland council were present at the festival as well, as they too enjoyed a good shindig, and a good potato (along with the occasional sweet onion), Lilabelle Durham, who owned an upscale boutique in Poplar Square and knew just about everyone everywhere, was sent to fetch them and usher them into the church basement, which she did while also promoting her business and the upcoming fall sale. As the requisite introductions and how-ya-doings and stilted small talk — comments about the weather, local sports scores, the new restaurant that opened up where that other restaurant used to be, that sort of thing — subsided, Hank Walters Bryant, with a heavy sigh, and a heavier heart, took it upon himself to break the news, assisted by Professor Porter and his substantial supporting documentation.
To the immense relief of everyone on the Birchmont Village side, once Hank and the professor had said their piece, the Ridgeland representatives were not angered or annoyed or even the slightest bit perturbed by the notion that Birchmont Village might have expropriated Ridgeland’s Potato Festival. Nor did it seem like this would be another thing that Ridgeland would hold over Birchmont Village’s collective head. Indeed, the Ridgeland delegates were practically overjoyed, as well they should have been for it was quite the distinction. “We were thinking all along,” said one of them, Sally Jane Mulluby, DMD, a popular Ridgeland dentist who offered free teeth whitening and balloons to first-time patients, “why haven’t we done something like this before?” She added, with synchronous nods of concurrence from her colleagues, “This whole, ‘we’re better than you’ jazz needs to probably end anyways.” And in yet another unexpected move — and a show of sportsmanship that the St. Martins Dragons, the reigning regional Little League champs, who, due to their best players growing older and moving on, were mired in an unprecedented losing streak this season, could learn from — Ridgeland proposed sharing the festival equally with Birchmont Village, with each hosting it on alternate years. They even bandied about the idea of literally passing a proverbial torch from one community to the other, just as soon as someone could figure out how to make something like that out of potatoes, which Dwayne Weatherbly, who dabbled in taxidermy but was looking to expand his interests, jumped at the chance to do.
Beaming from ear to ear and feeling like he was responsible for this (and in a way, though perhaps not the way he was imagining, he was), Hank Walters Bryant escorted his counterpart from the Ridgeland council, Stan Stammerson, a middle manager who supplemented his income by running a lucrative fantasy football league “under the table” as he liked to say with a sly wink, onto the stage while the Peelers of Strength were on their break to announce their alliance. And to top off the night, and to further cement their bond, Birchmont Village and Ridgeland pooled the fireworks they had left over from their respective Fourth of July celebrations last month to produce one heck of a fireworks show, complete with strobes and spinners and parachutes and fountains. The sky above Birchmont Village and, by association, Ridgeland, exploded and crackled and flashed with vibrant colors of red and green and silver and gold, streaking and bursting through the night sky, popping and screeching and hissing, the time the Potato Festival finally returned to Birchmont Village only to nearly be lost again — only now it would be shared with Ridgeland.
This short story is based on characters from the collection, (Mostly) True Tales From Birchmont Village, available on Amazon and for Kindle Unlimited, or order from your favorite independent bookstore [ISBN: 978–1–7375801–1–9]