Fuzzy Farewell

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 28, 2008

AHOSKIE – After more than two decades of bringing fresh produce to the Roanoke-Chowan area, the “Peach man” has bid farewell.

Recently, Vernon “Vernie” Cross sold his last bag of peaches to his ever eager customers.

Cross has been a fixture in Ahoskie for 22 years, selling bushels and bags of peaches from the back of his pick-up truck on Memorial Drive in Ahoskie and engaging his customers in stories.

Some of Cross’s long-time customers (along with their children) took photos with him, while others pleaded with him to re-think his retirement. Others even offered to continue Cross’s “peachy” tradition.

“I’ve watched so many of these kids grow up,” said Cross, who is retiring due to health reasons.

The 84 year-old Lasker resident began selling peaches after buying a bag of the fuzzy fruit at a supermarket. When he brought the peaches home, Cross forgot to take them out of the plastic bag and overnight he was disappointed to see the fruit had started to turn.

Cross did some research and discovered fruit in supermarkets are hydro cooled unripe and once the product is exposed to the atmosphere, it will begin to rot.

At first, Cross got peaches from the 1,000 peach trees from his backyard, but in the latter years of his fruit career he has relied on other growers for the produce. His last batch of peaches came from a small farming community in Moore County, a 400-mile round trip in his white Ford pick-up.

But it was worth the trip, according to Cross, because a good peach is determined on how it is picked.

“It depends on the way you pick them and who picks them,” he said. “Women make better pickers than men. Men will put a thumb print in them, women won’t.”

The peach farm where he picked up his last truck load of peaches employs female pickers for the peach orchards.

As Cross fills each bag of peaches, he is methodical and prudent, inspecting each peach for bruises. Those bruised ones he finds are gently set aside for himself, which he will later use to make peach ice cream.

When asked by the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald why he takes this approach to the produce, he replied: “I was in the automobile business for 35 years. I never had to lie or steal to sell an automobile.”

In his 22 years of selling peaches, Cross has come across his share of characters as well as had his share of experiences, each one of which he is willing to tell a listener.

From the man who took issue with his prices to the children he has seen grow up over the years, Cross can recall a story on the turn of a dime.

“One little girl came here when she was in high school,” he said. “I’ve watched her graduate from school, watched her graduate from college, watched her have two babies…she’s been teaching for 16 years. I’ve experienced a lot of things.”

One of those memorable (and nearly fatal) experiences came in 1990 and not while Cross was selling peaches, rather while telling a man how to grow a peach tree.

A pig cooker came loose from a passing truck and traveled 22 feet before it struck Cross, breaking 11 bones in his body. He spent 48 days in a hospital in Norfolk.

Cross recovered from his injuries and was soon back to selling peaches.

Many of those who came to purchase their last bag of peaches from Cross were disappointed to see him go.

Marshall Askew of Winton, who has always been fascinated by history, made it a habit to come and listen to Cross’s stories.

“You’ve been an asset to this county,” said Askew to Cross.

Mary Anne Croom of Edenton made her way across the river to bid her farewell to Cross.

Croom, originally from Ahoskie, said she has been buying peaches from Cross for a long time.

“He’s always such a caring person,” said Croom. “You get more than a bag of peaches, you get friend.”

Sheron Cherry of Ahoskie has been buying peaches from Cross for 15 to 20 years.

“They’re the best peaches I’ve ever ate,” said Cherry.

As Cross smiled to pose with children for their parent’s camera, he made sure to slip each child a peach or two.

When ask what he’ll miss the most, Cross simply stated: “The people.”

“It’s got to be one of the greatest experiences I’ve had,” he said.