What Do You Do with an Old Pumpkin?

 Vol. 9, No. 46
November 15-21, 2001 
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Happy Thanksgiving!Launch a Dream
story & photos by Christopher Heagy

The competitors are here in search of the elusive perfect chunk, the singular moment when the right amount of power is mixed with a solid ‘punkin’ and released at the precise point where it will float across a sunny sky on a crisp November day until, for just a second, you believe that a pumpkin does have wings and could fly forever.

Maybe you’ve seen the Maryland Lottery commercial featuring punkin chunkin machines at the 2000 World Championship. Maybe you’ve been driving through Ocean City, Dewey, Rehoboth or Lewes, Delaware, and heard a radio commercial warning, “Beware of falling pumpkins.” Maybe you’ve read a local newspaper and seen a picture of a chunker heading off to Delaware.

Each November the event pops up, turns a few heads and as quickly disappears. On our short attention-span radar, punkin chunkin is just a blip; it’s a whisper in the wind floating at the edge of our range of hearing.

Except for the men and women who compete. For them, punkin chunkin is an addiction. It’s the event they look forward to and plan for all year long. For 12 months, the chunkers draw, build and tinker with machines they hope can throw a pumpkin a little bit farther than the year before. On the first weekend after Halloween, punkin chunkers rally on a soybean field. When they put their elaborate chunking machines to work in the annual world championship, pumpkins really do fall through the southern Delaware sky.

Bay Weekly caught up with two teams from Annapolis and one from Calvert County among the 81 teams on that Millsboro, Delaware, soybean field.

Like many others, their addiction began as a chance encounter with chunkin — through a country fair or a friend of a friend — so inspiring that it lead them to build a machine to launch an eight- to 10-pound pumpkin through the sky.

With a turned head here, a curiosity there, the chunkin addiction spreads.

A Short History of Punkin Chunkin
The light bulb of punkin chunkin popped on among a group of friends in the fall of 1986. By the end of that conversation, a man named Broaddog issued a challenge:

“On the first Saturday after Halloween, we’re going to have a duel at high noon. We’re going to see who can throw a punkin the farthest.”

Would you climb Mt. Everest if there were no mountain? Would you chunk a pumpkin if there were no contest?

With a challenge, the event that is punkin chunkin was born.

On that first Saturday, Broaddog and teammate Trey Melson defeated two other teams with a machine made of auto springs welded to a car frame. With a toss of 128 feet, they became the first Punkin Chunkin Champions.

Early Chunkin Championships were won on Broaddog’s farm near Gravel Hill, Delaware. As years passed, longer tosses headed into the woods and distances were difficult to measure. The number of spectators grew. The event was bursting at the seams.

Punkin Chunkin moved to Eagle Crest Airdome on Highway 1. During the contest in 1997, the highway was shut down whenever a pumpkin was launched. The power of the machines forced the Chunk to move again.

In 1998 the championship moved to its current location, a soybean field at the intersection of Hollyville and Harmony Cemetery roads in Sussex County, Delaware, a place where if you didn’t come for the chunkin, you wouldn’t be.

In 2001, 81 teams and 25,000 spectators made the journey to throw pumpkins and watch the spectacle. Five teams — among them Feats Don’t Fail Me Now and Del’s Destroyer, from Annapolis, and Hypertension, from Prince Frederick — left the Western Shore, rode over the big bridge and launched their pumpkins in the 2001 World Championship.

Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, above, relies in part on a sailboat mast to chunk punkins.
Feats Don’t Fail Me Now
The weekend Jim Hyde, captain of Feats Don’t Fail Me Now, found Punkin Chunkin, friend Chris Shainoff stayed home in bed with the flu.

Hyde went to the Sussex County Fair to see the band Little Feat. In between the music and beer and friends and fun, he saw a machine launching pumpkins. With the sun low over the horizon, the machine’s owner let Hyde launch a two-liter bottle of Sprite, with a glow stick stuck in the mouth, into the dimming twilight.

“I watched that bottle fly, and I said, ‘I can build one of these.’ The guy was like, ‘yeah right.’ I looked at that guy and I said ‘I’ll be back,’” Hyde recalls with a sly grin and devilish laugh.

When Shainoff went back to work on Monday, Hyde told him what he saw and what they were going to do.

“We’re building what?” Shainoff recalls saying when his friend told him about the pumpkin launcher.

They built a model of their machine, launched a croquet ball 600 feet and figured they were in business.

In their first trip to the Punkin Chunkin World Championship in 1999, team Feats Don’t Fail Me Now placed third.

The boys from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now tweaked their prototype machine. The large a-frame still supported a sailboat mast, but the Home Depot springs were replaced with custom-made hydraulically stretched springs.

On the first throw of the 2000 Championship, a transport problem snapped the mast and threw its top half, along with their pumpkin, into the field. The rest of the weekend went to repairing the machine. Even with all the problems, the team’s longest official throw, 970.02 feet, was good enough for fifth place.

The boys came back in 2001 planning to win. The second of their first two throws Saturday afternoon sailed just over 1,200 feet, leaving them sitting in third place. One final toss awaited them Sunday morning.

For their last chunk, Hyde, Shainoff and teammates John and Dick Vosbury add extra springs before loading the machine up. After a few tense moments of stretching, everything is in place. The trigger is pulled, the mast swings and the pumpkin shoots forward. The pumpkin explodes, raining small orange particles down on the crowd. The second toss will have to stand.

“I don’t know if it was a bad pumpkin or we had too much energy on the pumpkin,” says a disappointed Hyde. “The machine was working fine. We didn’t break anything. Well not yet, anyway.”

The team is frustrated, but the teammates still share a Bud Light toast.

“You guys worked your asses off,” Hyde says. “It’s been fun. It’s a shame we gotta wait a whole ’nother year before we do this again.”

A medieval-style trebuchet, Del’s Destroyer catapults punkins airborne.
Del’s Destroyer
Larry Webber, sporting a well-worn third-place hat from the 2000 Punkin Chunkin Championship, is staring at his trebuchet, the punkin-chunkin machine called Del’s Destroyer. Webber and his teammates have loaded their weapon of medieval warfare with 1,325 pounds of lead and cobblestone. Mike Baldwin and George McFadden slowly crank the counterweight into place.

“Who’d build a trebuchet? That’s what I said when Larry introduced me to this,” said friend, co-worker and teammate Gary Wolford.

Webber was with Jim Hyde when they both saw the chunkin machine at the Sussex County Fair. He helped Hyde in the 1999 competition, but at that event he saw the machine he wanted to build.

“There were just a few trebuchets in 1999, but I knew that was what I wanted to do. The idea is a traditional medieval design. It’s made out of wood, that’s the big thing. I really wanted to work with wood.”

Searching on the Internet and just tinkering, Webber came up with a plan.

“Larry used to talk about building a machine and calling it Del’s Destroyer,” teammate Mike Baldwin recalls. “His middle name is Delbert, so we call him that now and then. But then he built the damn machine.”

With a chunk of 396 feet, Del’s Destroyer came in third place in the trebuchet division, winning its creator his coveted hat. This year the team’s goal was a throw of over 500 feet.

After two tosses on Saturday, Del’s Destroyer’s longest throw was 439 feet. With one heave left, the boys decided to load the counterweight up, which brings us back to Webber staring at his machine, listening for creaks or cracks. For the moment, the sturdy wooden chunker seems up to the challenge.

Using a metal pole and small hammer, Webber clicks the trigger. The counterweight swings toward the ground, and the wooden boom flies to the sky. The pumpkin follows, lofted through the air to land 526 feet away, launching the team to a fourth-place finish.

The counterweight of Del’s Destroyer hangs to the left, and, when released, flings its punkin, at the opposite end of the cantilever, skyward.
“The competition is getting better and better,” says Webber. “Last year the first place throw was 450 feet. This year the winner threw 643 feet. We need a more modern design to compete. We’re going to have to add a little more steel to add some strength.”

Webber and his teammates have some work to do in the off season, but they got what they came for. They reached a new personal goal and had a good time. Webber and his teammates shared a beer, congratulated the winners, lightened the counterweight and launched a few pumpkins just for fun.

“I don’t mind losing to any one of these guys,” says Webber. “They’re all good people. We came down here, got a personal best, got to give the other teams some shit. I’m happy.”

Like so many others, John Huber had a chance encounter with punkin chunkin.

“I had a friend whose brother was working for Delaware Cedar,” Huber recalls. “He was making bleachers for punkin chunkin in 1994. He told me I had to check it out.”

In 1994, Huber headed down to “slower lower” Delaware to do just that. After watching that first year, Huber went in 1995 as a spectator again. This time, he was invited inside the fence.

“When I came down the next year, a guy from one of the teams asked me if I wanted to help out,” Huber says. “He got me into the pits, and I got hooked.”

The two lures that attracted Huber to the sport of punkin chunkin were the competitiveness and the oddity of the event.

“Driving down the road, pulling a chunker, people are just looking at you like ‘what the hell are you doing?’”

In 1996, Huber built his first machine on the back of a boat trailer. That year he launched his pumpkin all of 56 feet.

“Even the Boy Scouts kicked our ass,” Huber says with a laugh.

Huber, an engineer at Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, went back to the drawing board and built a new machine.

“This is one of those things you sit down and draw out on a napkin. You build it and then you come out here and see if it works.”

Huber’s three-year-old Hypertension machine has been working. In 2000, he came in second place in the unlimited catapult division with a throw of 1,361 feet. He also traveled to six competitions throughout the eastern United States, winning the Punkin Chunkin State Championship in New York.

Huber plans to build a new machine next year, so with one final toss he loads Hypertension up with 15 springs to “see what it could do.”

The springs are slowly stretched and Huber carefully places his pumpkin on a white plastic plant pot. In an instant, with a pull of a switch and a yanking of springs, the pumpkin whips over the top of the machine and floats up, up and away into the air.

The pumpkin lands 1,578.21 feet away. Huber and Hypertension take first place in the unlimited catapult division. After six years and three machines, Huber has finally won the world championship in his division.

“For me, this is way past addiction. All these guys make this happen because they’re good friends,” Huber says. “It’s impossible to guess how much work we’ve done, how many man hours have gone into this. It took us five years of work to get to this distance.”

Five years to go from losing to the Boy Scouts to winning the world championship.

The first year John Huber, center, chunked with Hypertension, the punkin soared all of 56 feet. By last year he had so improved the design that his machine won second place in the unlimited catapult division with a throw of 1,361 feet.
The Spirit of the Chunk
On Saturday night, the sun sets on a portable village built on a soybean field at the intersections of Routes 305 and 306 in Millsboro, Delaware. Settling in the cool night air is all the dust kicked up by the 3,000 cars pulling in and out, the 10,000 spectators tramping across the grounds and the hundreds of pumpkins landing hundreds and thousands of feet across the field.

The dust and the oncoming dew lit by floodlights and a low, almost full, fall moon give the field a spooky post-Halloween glow. Fireworks explode; random pumpkins carrying glow sticks float across the night sky, illuminating the true spirit of punkin chunkin.

It’s in the families looking together at fireworks over a soybean field. It’s about friends talking about their machine and what they need to do to make the pumpkin go a little bit farther. It’s in celebrating winning your division or in reaching a personal best. It’s in talking about what went wrong, what needs to be fixed and what a shame it is we have to wait another year to do it again.

Yes, the competitors are all here in search of the elusive perfect chunk, the singular moment when the right amount of power is mixed with a solid pumpkin and released at the precise point where it will float across a sunny sky on a crisp November day until, for just a second, you believe that a pumpkin does have wings and could fly forever.

The chance for that moment will bring these competitors back. But for now, they will keep searching, keep tinkering, keep hoping because this is what they do, these engineers, mechanics, architects and technicians.

“We like to make things work,” says John Vosbury of Feats Don’t Fail Me Now. “We get to create the problem and build the solution.”

There’s more at work than the quest for chunking perfection. There’s a spirit that goes into an event like this.

It’s in this shared experience. The neighbors and co-workers, family and friends old and new — all together sharing this moment, this time that will be relived until next year when they will see each other and build this village again.

It’s like John Huber of Hypertension says: “I’ve never met a chunker that wasn’t a great person to be around.”

Yes, it’s the spirit of American ingenuity. The drive to make a better mouse trap, to throw a pumpkin farther — because Broaddog’s challenge is still out there, Everest is standing in front of them and they are all trying to meet the challenge.

It’s also the spirit of cooperation and community. The spirit that has competitors giving each other tools, supplies, a cold beer and support because it’s the right thing to do and they would hope for the same.

“This morning we needed some lumber and were looking for wrenches,” Jim Hyde explains. “The guys from Loaded Boing, the team right next to us said, ‘fellas take whatever you need.’ The event is a lot of fun, nice people that will help you out in any way they can. That’s how it spreads. Chunkin is passed on from group to group, from one person to another.”

Next year, the competition will be bigger, the village will be stronger, the spirit will grow, it will be passed on and more people will join the Chunk.

This is how punkin c hunkin grows, on the fringes, just out of reach, on the tip of your tongue and out of your mind, somehow everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly