The first, and perhaps trickiest, of the decoys is the mailbox on the corner of Mulberry and U.S. 90, whose nylon cover is green, red and black and arranged in a pattern more familiar to the people of Luling than most of their own children. But this is not the right house, nor is the one a few doors down with a watermelon placard centerpiece humming from the dead center of an untrimmed lawn. Discard it as another piece of subterfuge and keep driving.
The queen lives at the end of Mulberry Street, across from a football field, in a long, squat white house with blue shutters and a roundabout driveway, where her daddy’s truck is parked and more obvious paraphernalia fills out the porch. There is a painted chair and a birdbath wearing the insignia, and the mailbox doesn’t need a nylon cover: The watermelon pattern is painted on. The tip-off, though, is hanging from the porch. Her mother explains that the two watermelons are actually bird feeders, and her little brother, who jumps around in the manner of most six-year-old boys, wears an eye patch and informs us that there’s a nest and three eggs laying claim to the melon on the right.
This is not the home of Miss Texas by any stretch of the imagination, and the girl limping up to the door in one pink sock and one white is not Miss Texas. RaVana Damon has gray eyes, a freshly sunburned face, and ungodly white-blonde hair, the shade that young children have before age assigns them a more reasonable color. She’s of medium-build, maybe on the shorter side for a volleyball player; she’s sore from two-a-days in preparation for the varsity season at Luling High School, where she’s a senior.
The team practices until six or six-thirty every night, except for on Tuesday and Friday nights, when they have games. RaVana gets home late those Friday nights and wakes up early on Saturdays. She takes a shower, and her mother, Tandra, curls her hair as RaVana dozes. Then they load up the truck. RaVana doesn’t put her makeup on until the town before their destination—it could be Lubbock, San Antonio, Corpus, anywhere in the state—and doesn’t change into her dress until the float is set up.
The red and green float, with metallic fringe garland that glitters under the Texas sun, is an idol to the watermelon that would have made Aaron’s golden calf blush. RaVana sits on a throne two green fringed steps up from the base in a strapless white taffeta gown and white gloves that crawl up to her elbows. On some of the hotter days, the sun mistakes her for an egg white, and tries to cook her.
Atop her head sits a rhinestone-studded crown—a lot like the one Tandra keeps in a display cabinet in their home from her own reign in 1988—because the sunburned girl in the mismatched socks is the Watermelon Thump Queen of Luling, one of the hundreds of small-town festival pageant queens in Texas. And under her poufy white dress, she’s rocking cowboy boots.
If you miss the left onto Mulberry Street, you’ll be driving for another fifteen minutes until your next one, so try not to. There are no swimming pools or decks or another row of houses abutting the backyards of the houses on Mulberry; there are watermelon patches for acres, and twenty of those acres belong to the Damons. “My dad’s been growing watermelons ever since I can remember,” says RaVana, who has helped her father, Bubba, in the field since she was eleven. To combat mildew and bugs, they dust the melons with sulfur, leaving a trail of fingerprints on the green rinds as they move through the field. Watermelons like water and a lot of space to grow, and you have to weed them carefully: Watermelons have deep roots.
Tandra’s grandfather raised melons, back when caravans of eighteen-wheelers would run through town, loading up with melons to ship around the country. Farmers used to make their living off of cattle and watermelon, Tandra says, but that all changed with the discovery of oil. Bubba inspects vehicles and rigs for Progress Drilling in town. “This is not something you do for money,” he says, nodding toward the melon patch. They do it for fun, and it’s because that’s what their families did. And every summer in June, Bubba, Tandra, RaVana, and six-year-old James truck through the twenty acres, picking out the biggest watermelon for the auction at the Watermelon Thump Festival.
The four-day outdoor event, held on the last weekend to fully fall in June, is everything a festival should be (think carnival, arts and crafts, kiddy rides, fattening food and, heck, a fire eater). And then there’s the whole watermelon thing: a melon judging and auction, the seed spitting contest, and a melon eating contest. The festival has crowned a queen every year since 1954, and in 1988, that queen was Tandra Lewis, a sunny young blonde who would soon be exchanging vows with Bubba Damon. Tandra’s aunt, Ollie Jo, was crowned in 1968. So it wasn’t all that unusual when RaVana announced to her mother in January that she would run for Watermelon Thump Queen.
“I said, ‘Okay. If you do, it’s one hundred percent all the way once you start. We’ll do it,’” Tandra says. “I told her, ‘You’re going to hate me until June 20, and then you’re going to love me again.’”
In the following six months, many things happened. These are things that did not: plastic surgery, etiquette lessons, signing contracts with bikini companies, rehearsing a speech on world peace. And not once did RaVana walk across a room with a book delicately balanced on the crown of her head. If she wanted to be Miss USA, sure, this might be a sound strategy. But to become the Watermelon Thump Queen, well, that would have been pretty stupid.
RaVana and Tandra began designing posters in January, and RaVana had glamour shots taken in February. Only juniors at Luling High School can run for queen. “And they have to have been enrolled there for a year already,” Tandra says, dropping her voice a little. “We don’t want girls moving their families to Luling just so they can be queen.” To get on the ballot, each girl had to sell two hundred buttons—worth entrance to the Thump—for $5 apiece. From there, it was direct democracy: The girl who received the most votes at the Thump Pavilion on June 20 would be crowned queen at the festival. RaVana’s first poster went up March 18. “From March 18 to June 20, we campaigned, nothing but campaigned,” Tandra says.
There were buttons and fliers, candy buckets and drink koozies, door signs and refrigerator magnets. RaVana went door to door with her aunt Donna and she went with her friend Katelynn, and then they’d come home and make posters, while her father and some friends hammered signs into the ground. “The people in town are like, whoever asks me first, I’m going to vote for them,” RaVana says. It got to the point where she stopped everyone she saw in the supermarket, chatted them up, and asked for their vote. And usually, she got it.
“It’s community involved,” Tandra says. “The girls get out and work hard. It’s a matter of getting out and asking people. It’s a campaign.” Tandra was RaVana’s campaign manager. “It was nothing bad,” she says, regarding the fighting. “It was just me constantly nagging on her, saying ‘You got to do this, you got to do this, and candy buckets, don’t forget!’ But she did know, and she would say, ‘I already did that’ and I’d say ‘Okay, just making sure.’”
On voting day, the Damons hosted more than six hundred people at a barbecue at their home at the end of Mulberry Street—and that was fine by them, so long as it made the day go faster. Voting was open until 6 p.m., and the Damons set up two trailers, decorated from front to end in signs that politely reminded the townsfolk to “Please Vote RaVana,” that it was “My Year”—and of course, that’d she’d been “Born and Raised in Luling, TX!” Kids dived down an inflatable blue and green waterslide the Damons had rented, while others with megaphones hollered “Vote RaVana! RaVana for Thump Queen!” RaVana’s family and friends each wore cotton white T-shirts with her glamour shot silk-screened on the chest, while she raced around Luling’s one-lane streets in a borrowed silver Mustang convertible, making sure that everyone with a working set of wheels directed them toward the Thump Pavilion to vote. And for those who didn’t drive, RaVana and friends went down to the Sanguin River bridge and picked up some people and gave them a ride to town so they could vote. “It was, like, 5:55 when we got back into town with this guy. He made it in the door right before six to vote for me,” RaVana says.
Of course, RaVana won. She found out at the coronation ceremony on Thursday night of the Thump. The past queen gave a speech about honor, tradition, and the fun she’d had, and then RaVana’s name was announced. She received two hundred more votes than the runner-up. I asked RaVana how she won, what really marked her as the true queen of Luling, and she looked at me like I was a very, very strange excuse for a reporter. “Well, I don’t know,” she says. “I just talk to a lot of people. I talk to everybody I see. I’m sure the other girls talked to people too, but I really don’t know for sure,” she says, still cocking her head. “They talked to me, but I’m not sure about everyone else.”
RaVana doesn’t know if she’s typical or atypical of a pageant queen; both Tandra and she agree that there’s a difference between being, say, Miss Watermelon Thump and Miss Dallas, but they’re not really sure what that difference is. Tandra muses that, maybe, big-city queens are snootier, but then throws the idea away quickly. “It might just be that they’re shy,” she decides.
In the end, there were 2,600 votes between four candidates, and RaVana received 850 of them. Compared with last year’s 1,900 votes between twice as many girls, that’s a good number, I tell them.
“Yeah,” Tandra says, “for a small town.”
The first pageant in the United States was held very far away from Luling, in a beach town in New Jersey in the twenties. Burlesque dancers and prostitutes strutted around and danced together, like Rockettes, in bathing suits. They were trying to keep the summer vacationers in town, and their money out of their pockets, for an additional week. “Pageantry is a business in the United States,” says Richard Wilk, a professor of anthropology and gender studies at Indiana University, who points out that the big pageants are owned by Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch. “Just think about Donald Trump’s interference in the last Miss Universe—that represents very much the conflict we have in America, that we love the idea of wealth, but on the other hand, we also don’t like wealthy people and find their interference in our lives to be bothersome.”
Wilk believes that pageants are testing grounds for cultural conflicts: “Things on people’s minds and especially the things that they haven’t really agreed on tend to get into pageants and appear onstage.” Remember the first African American winner, the debate over plastic surgery as a disqualifier, and the form contestants have to sign swearing they’ve never had an abortion. The format of the Miss America, Miss USA, and Miss Universe contests, in turn, show us the values that mainstream American culture associates with the ideal woman. She has to be an eloquent speaker with career goals, and she also has to look good in an evening gown and in a bikini. She has to have a special talent, something electric. The fascination with wealth continues: glitz, glamour, and hairspray are never absent from the pageant stage. If people have lost interest in this kind of pageantry, Wilk says, it’s because the sex-object-with-career-dreams is no longer an anomaly in mainstream culture, but the expected.
Then there’s Luling, where RaVana Damon has spent the past six months running from door-to-door, chatting up everyone in the produce aisle, and cutting out construction-paper watermelons with carefully cut bites taken by an imaginary glutton. “Funny,” is what she says the ideal pageant queen is. “And she likes to talk to people and is nice.” Because after all, the queen of Luling is not Miss Texas—and why should she be?
The queen of Luling is the girl who boosts the local economy. More than 35,000 people come to Luling, a town of 5,000, for the Thump. They buy buttons to enter the festival; they fill their cars with local gas; they shop the local H.E.B. “Our sales are higher in the quarter that has June than in the quarter that has December,” says Jamie Nickells, secretary and treasurer of the Watermelon Thump Association. “There’d be no reason for it to be bigger in June than in Christmas.” The WTA also creates temporary jobs during the Thump, shelling out $20,000 for security and $12,000 for labor and cleanup. At the watermelon auction, local farmers have received as much as $10,000 for one melon.
The queen of Luling is the girl who unites and excites the community. Her parents have pulled the float at pageants across the state for the past fifteen years, and she’s helped take it down and put it together every time. She already knew you, but she met you again and asked about your family before she asked for your vote. When yard signs were only allowed to be hammered down starting June 6 at midnight, she stayed out until 4:30 a.m. pushing them into the dirt, then woke up at 6:30 a.m. to go meet the coffee drinkers for their vote. She’d be so tired that she’d brush her teeth with the wrong toothbrush, but she’d get there, her hair curled and her makeup on, and after the coronation, those coffee drinkers would suggest RaVana run for mayor.
“I think it represents that small-town values really haven’t disappeared in America,” Wilk says. “It reflects a very different kind of community, a very different notion of what is valuable—and that is not public performance, and that’s certainly not standing up in front of everybody else wearing a bathing suit.”
The queen of Luling is the girl who wears cowboy boots under her poufy white taffeta dress every weekend as she rides in some other town’s parade, where she’s the representative of Luling and the Thump. She lives at the end of Mulberry Street, across from a football field, and her backyard is a watermelon patch that stretches down U.S. 90 for miles.