Words,Photographs Jay Mallin
Sunday 23 October 2011 00:24

On the first weekend after Hallowe'en, if you arrive at the fairgrounds of Lewes, Delaware, and walk past the pony rides, food vendors and games, you'll find a crowd of thousands pressed against a fence facing a long, empty field. At one end of the field is a collection of weird machines: 30-metre pipes set up like cannons, centrifuges built on to the back of 1955 pickups. There's also an enormous slingshot, its bucket dangling on elastic tubing strung between two telephone poles. At the other end of the field, nearly a kilometre away, is a church. There, on the roof, some joker has put a large bull's-eye target.

It's time for this town's annual "Punkin' Chuckin' " competition. Despite the title, the object is pumpkin throwing - first at targets (definitely not the church, although it is in the line of fire) and then for sheer distance. But the throwing is not done by hand. It's done by machine. There are many classes of competition - human-powered machines, children's devices - but the real crowd-pleasers are entered in the "ultimate" classes, where anything is legal except the use of explosives.

Nelson Pennypacker, a local mason, is an enthusiast for the human-powered class. He turned a wooden frame for pouring concrete into a pumpkin thrower. He explains the attraction of firing off a pumpkin simply: "It's the same feeling I had as a nine-year-old building a treehouse: ecstasy."

The biggest competitors today are the air cannons, built to fire pumpkins down barrels of 30m or more. According to one contestant, the pumpkins exit at speeds of more than 640kph. True or not, at their best these machines can hurl a four-kilo pumpkin almost a kilometre through the air, an awesome sight that draws cheers from the crowds.

Then there are the centrifuges, which spin the pumpkins at high speeds at the end of long counterbalanced arms until releasing them, preferably - but not always - down the firing range. Centrifuges tend to be built into the backs of old lorries and have names like "Bad to the Bone" or "Ultimate Warrior". William Bowden, an auto mechanic and captain of the "Blowing Chunks" centrifuge, says he used a Chevrolet V8 engine to power his machine, mounted in the back of a 30-year-old Ford. For him it's a family event. "It's something to do with the kids," he says, gesturing at his sons standing by the machine.

The competition, explains Chuck Burton, one of the founders, began as a fun contest between friends to pass the time after the nearby beach resort towns had quieted down for the winter. In the 11 years since then, when Burton used a 7-metre tree limb as a catapult, the competition has grown considerably. This year he captained the team building and operating "Old Glory", a huge white air cannon dedicated to the American flag. His team of 50 included a bugler to sound a warning before the machine was fired.

But Punkin' Chuckin' (there is no good explanation for the deformation of the word "pumpkin" in the official title) has lost none of its backyard flavour. Therein lies both the appeal and the danger. Early on the first day of the two-day festival this year the breech of "Universal Soldier", a cannon mounted on the back of an old car, exploded. Suddenly, not pumpkins but huge chunks of steel were spinning hundreds of meters into the air. Miraculously no one was injured, and after team-members spent a few hours welding the recovered pieces back on - acetylene torches in one hand, beer cans in the other - the device was put back in service.

But the main attraction was an "outsider" entry - the "Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator", an air cannon brought all the way from Illinois. There was very little backyard about the Nasa-like Modulator, which had a wealthy corporate sponsor, and a computer wired in. But it was only on its last shot in the best-of-three contest that it seemed to reach its full potential. Riding on a powerful blast of compressed air the pumpkin quickly dwindled to an orange speck that disappeared into a darkening sky - in fact, it seemed unlikely ever to be found. But just a few minutes later it was, at a distance of just over 826m.

The pumpkin was easily found, it turned out, because it passed over the church and landed in the church parking lot, just short of a car filled with people. Both the car and its occupants, who had the windows open, were covered in pumpkin debris. !

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