by JANET GILMORE
Eleven feet six inches? A personal best? I don’t think so.
Last year at the Union Fair and Maine Wild Blueberry Festival, I was a lukewarm last-minute entry into the blueberry spitting contest. I hadn’t really thought about competing, but my husband Hugh pushed me forward.
Eleven feet, six inches. I was ashamed of myself for such a poor performance.
My childhood pal Ellie and I loved to spit, especially from high places onto the ground.
“It’s not nice,” insisted our mothers. So we stopped, reluctantly.
Back in Maine for this summer’s vacation, Hugh and I returned to the Festival with that defeat on our minds.
To prevail in the blueberry spitting contest, I would have to put aside 60 years of good manners, pucker up and spit.
The contest was to begin at noon.
We heard the announcement: “Will the contestants for the blueberry spitting contest please come to the stage in the park?”
We hurried down, filled with nervous excitement. The park is about the size of Buckley Park in Chestnut Hill and was filled with people.
The kids would compete first, then any adults who wanted to try. I eyed my competition warily.
When enough people had gathered, the Mistress of Ceremonies said hello and introduced the Maine Blueberry Queen. We were eager to see who it was since the Bangor News Union Fair supplement had run pictures of all 10 contestants.
Abigail Royer, the very pretty ex-shot putter, graduate of Waldoboro High School and Queen of the Festival, stepped up to the microphone. I could tell she was the Queen because of the giant tiara on her head, her sash and her royal air. She wished all the kids good luck and stepped back gracefully.
I suspect she was a former spitter herself.
Parents and grandparents were everywhere, coaching kids.
“Now move your jaw back and forth.”
“Drink some water to loosen up that mouth.”
“Don’t be nervous, honey; you can do it.”
“Isn’t it funny to be able to spit without getting into trouble and getting a time out?” said a mom to her daughter.
A 24-foot plastic runner pre-measured with one-foot intervals was laid down on the grass. Each kid moved up onto a step and was handed a blueberry by the emcee, who wore a plastic glove on her blueberry-dispensing hand, and spit.
Phoebe, the first 7-and-under contestant, set a mark of 6’9”. Not bad but probably beatable.
Grace, the second kid, chewed and swallowed the berry, which made everyone laugh — except herself. They gave her a second berry, which she put in her mouth, realized that a spitter’s life was not for her, and left the arena in tears. The audience applauded politely.
Jack’s blueberry landed out of bounds.
Taylor spit only 3’3.”
Thaddeus and Ryan both nailed 10’2” and had to have a spit-off to break the tie. Ryan won.
Then the 7-and-up kids stepped up. That would have been my group if they didn’t have that silly rule about mental age and chronological age having to match.
The 7-and-ups were moving along slowly until Aliya, a “wicked big” 9-year-old, stepped up, spit 14’7” and blew everyone else out of the water. She was awesome.
“Scout her,” said some in the crowd.
Then it was the grown-ups’ turn.
Now I had practiced all year, spitting blueberries into the kitchen sink. But our kitchen is only 8 feet long — much shorter than the 24-foot official blueberry course.
When the weather got warmer, I practiced in the back yard. If I didn’t have frozen blueberries around, frozen peas, corn, succotash would work almost as well. I bought packs and packs of frozen food at a time.
There’s a point in an athlete’s life at which practice and hard work combine with hustle, desire and a little luck to make a champion. I was at that point when I got in line at the Festival to spit.
Seventeen other adults lined up against me. I hesitated, and Hugh asked, “Are you going to let all that training go to waste? Come on, don’t be shy, be the champion I know you can be. Just do it!”
Unfortunately, I went first. “Heck,” I thought, “I’ll just blow something that will take the air out of their double-wide tractor tires.”
I reared back like a giant spitting cobra and let go. The berry arced into the air. Up, up and up it went. It seemed like it would never come down. In slow motion the crowd’s heads turned to watch the magical flight of my solitary, airborne-spitted blueberry. The measuring team rushed forward and marked the spot to beat.
“13’ 9”!” shouted the umpire.
The guy behind me spit 11′.
I managed not to gloat.
Then a young blonde woman spit 14’9”. Blonde, of course. Slim, too.
A huge guy holding a kid on his shoulders then stepped up and whaled 17’5”.
I couldn’t beat physics, a big guy or a blonde. I came in eighth. Hugh tried to console me by saying the other entrants were half my age and that I actually came in first in the 60-and-over category (of which I was the only entrant). Thanks, pal. I was not out to win the senior blueberry-spitting Olympics. I’d come to play on the varsity. Darn.
I was on my way to visit the prize-winning cows when Queen Abigail announced that everyone who participated should come up and get their ribbon. Ribbon? I was entitled to a ribbon?
Up I went. A little girl was handing out pale purple “Participant” ribbons, one at a time. I’m not proud of myself, but I slid through the crush of kids like a hot knife through butter, stuck my mighty left hand through the crowd and grabbed my ribbon.
I’m astonished at how much that scrap of ribbon means to me. I’d have been very disappointed if they had run out of ribbons before I got there. And you know, I’ll save it forever.
My family can tease me if they want to, but I was up there trying, and they weren’t, so nyah, nyah, nyah. I own the morally superior position, at least for the moment.
Later I spoke to the kid winner, Aliya. She told me she had come in second last year and practiced for this year.
At least for now I’ve had my fill of blueberries, so to speak, but I must say I still wonder: Do chiropractors eat backberries; do food vendors sell snackberries, and do pre-school teachers allow napberries?