I watched my wife pick up trampled vines in our garden. A big raccoon with feet the size of baseball mitts had rummaged through it the night before, tearing up plants and otherwise sitting its large behind on cucumber and okra growth.

My wife shook her head, tossing blooms and broken plants into the yard, sweat appearing on her upper lip. I couldn't hear what she was muttering, and I was thankful our 8-year-old couldn't either.

The worst part is that the raccoon picked the small, green tomatoes dangling under the protection of leaves and just dropped them in the brown garden soil. He didn't bite them or squish them, he just picked and dropped like the jerk-mammals raccoons tend to be.

I've tried to grow tomatoes in my midtown Little Rock backyard for years. You'd think that with ample sun, regular rain, and a climate perfect for farming, I'd have some luck. Nope.

Most of my tomatoes ended up half-eaten, thanks to the rabbits. Others ended up under a large pine tree on the other side of the fence, thanks to the squirrels. Lately, I've seen chipmunks munching on ... something. I hate them. Now, an oversize raccoon made the garden a playpen of destruction, like a fat toddler with a hammer.

I've always wanted to be one of those great neighbors who share their tomatoes with others. You know, the ones that nonchalantly hand over a paper sack filled with incredibly beautiful red, pink, and green balls of deliciousness and drop a comment like, "Oh, I just have so many I absolutely must share. My plants are spitting them out like Pez dispensers. And, crazy, I barely tend to them at all. I can't keep up!" I hate them, too.

Last year I harvested exactly one heirloom from the six plants I tended. One. I took a picture of it and sent it to my kids. "Great job, Dad." It was such a cold, patronizing response after so much work went into birthing that one tomato.

Sometimes, I blame the soil. Other times, it's the level of moisture. Now, I'm full-bore blaming critters.

Growing tomatoes is an Arkansas birthright and I've failed at it. Which is one of the reasons I was really interested in attending the Bradley County Pink Tomato Festival a couple of weeks ago as guests of the Lipton family.

Warren is small-town America to the core. What a great place.

The Lipton family home is right off the square, allowing us a short walk to the tomato parade route. The old brick roads gave way to asphalt where tractors of every size rumbled by. Beauty queens from infants to older waved, most perched out of car sunroofs. The Warren High marching band and cheerleaders played and chanted, the latter on a flatbed trailer pulled by a diesel truck.

Candy was everywhere, and a beloved teacher whose name I didn't catch kept snagging it to give to my daughter. I knew she was a beloved teacher because the young and old called out to her as they passed by, making sure they made contact.

"Hey, baby!" she'd reply. "How you doing? How's your momma? You still makin' good grades?"

Small-town teachers are still heroes, and that was good to see.

Heat rose from the streets as we toured the festival. I watched several rounds of the tomato-eating contest, silently figuring how many pounds I could eat in one sitting. Our daughter played, we perused the crafts on sale, and my wife feigned a dramatic swoon when she saw a vintage "Dirty Dancing" poster.

Finally, it was time to clean up and prepare for the luncheon at the Baptist Church. My wife, feeling underdressed, popped into a Cato store and exited wearing a dress. Of course she did.

We ate the awesome luncheon BLTs and the famous tomato chocolate cake. We applauded awards and choked on barbecue potato chips when my 8-year-old daughter bid $2,000 on a box of tomatoes. The crowd's laughter encouraged another bidder, thankfully. More beauty queens graced the stage and short speeches filled the room. My wife won the small basket of reds on the table. Of course she did.

I had to leave Warren early to get back to an event in Little Rock. Later, as I changed from festival clothes to a suit and tie, I looked outside to my garden and the sad tomato plants trying to hang on. The perfect Bradley County tomatoes sat nearby, mocking me.

The older I get, the more interested I become in our backyard garden and the fruits of our labor. Kneading soil has its own rewards. I watch as my wife stakes a plant, once again tying hope to seed and dirt.

I know I'll keep trying. I'll keep trying because what you reap depends on how you choose to plant. The outcome relies on the process getting better and better.

Steve Straessle is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle. "The Strenuous Life" appears every other Saturday.

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