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Photograph by E. Carlson

In Search of the Cantaloupe Queen

By Eric A. Carlson

"Tough as nails, thick as bricks, we're the class of '76."

--Ronnie Cooper, a golfing truck driver

GRACIELA PERKED UP when I asked her if she had heard of the Button- willow truck stop. "Oh yes, they have the best truck drivers there, little Yosemite Sams stepping out of big rigs, flat-assed Slims wearing big belt buckles, you name it." She is confident of her observations and judgments. "Everything I've told you is the truth, and it's not even exaggerated," she says.

Graciela has lived in the Bay Area for years, but has roots in California far afield from The Valley of Greed. In 1974 she was crowned Cantaloupe Queen of Mendota. The "Welcome to Mendota" sign indicates it is the Cantaloupe Center of the World--and nothing in the town will lead you to believe otherwise. Grace was 17 when she moved there, and speaks with pride of the consternation she evoked in the male population. "I was big news in Mendota. I couldn't walk down the street without getting proposals."

I asked Graciela what the criteria was for becoming Cantaloupe Queen, and was surprised to find it was not based on beauty or talent. In fact, whoever sold the most tickets to the festival got to be queen. As our maiden worked in a men's clothing store, the opportunity for ticket sales was potent, and she prevailed. Graciela would later be crowned ROTC Military Queen of El Paso, Texas. I believe this ended her run of queenships.

Having long dreamed of vacationing in Bakersfield or Fresno, I decided on Mendota as a superior alternative. In addition to the Queen Grace connection, I had recently met a former sheriff of Mendota at the Coyote Inn on the Monterey Highway. Destiny was pointing my skinny butt toward Mendota. And I would oblige her.

The most onerous leg of any journey involving San Jose ... is San Jose. Driving south on Highway 101, on most days, would make a Buddhist out of Jesus. Traffic was backed up for miles on the day of my pilgrimage, perhaps a result of someone pulling off to the side of the road to adjust a mirror. I diverted to Monterey Highway; passed a ghost truck-stop (15 Mile Stop Cafe) before heading inland on Highway 152 over Pacheco Pass, past the San Luis Reservoir ... into the Central Valley.

About five miles out of Los Banos, fat bugs began smashing into my windshield. Dragonflies and white butterflies for the most part. By the time I crossed Badger Flat Road, visibility was severely compromised. And it was getting hotter. Firebaugh went by like a dream. I rocketed into a shimmering mirage of heat waves and endless fields. Men huddled under machinery to escape the sun. I pulled into Cielito Lindo for lunch. I was in Mendota, and it was 95 degrees.

Cielito Lindo was a delight. Albondigas (Meatball) Soup arrived with the combination plate. My server told me she was the Cantaloupe Queen of 1986 (the first person I talk to in Mendota--amazing). I later struck up a conversation with a good-natured Texas truck driver (hauling cantaloupes). Ronnie Cooper calls himself a "golfing truck driver." He carries his clubs in his rig, and stops to play whenever the spirit moves him. He enjoys nothing more than "putting a whuppin'" on links competitors. No pun intended.

Walking out of Cielito Lindo, I almost swooned from the heat. Brown dust-devils swirled everywhere. On the way home, just past Firebaugh, I saw an entire field of old Porta-Potties, abandoned and fading in the sun. And then an elephant's graveyard of dusty cars.

I had intended to look for a bowling alley in Firebaugh. I will save that for the next trip. And I will ask Graciela along to show me the hot spots. I motored home. When I smelled garlic I knew I was close to Gilroy. The Valley of Greed lay just beyond.

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From the September 28-October 4, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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