Lucy's Newspaper Columns

Common Ground is a monthly newspaper column appearing in the New Hampshire Seacoast Newspapers.  Professional photographer Lucy also does the accompanying photographs.


Each year, creative types come up with a variety of unusual methods to get pumpkins from one place to another.  The annual Punkin Chunkin' contest has also turned into quite a spectator sport, with 30,000 people attending this year.

Having a Blast

This column appeared on January 14, 2000

Punkin Chunkers let off a little steam in very inventive ways

It's not about vegetables going through the air;  it's about people," said Sam, of Atlanta.  "It's about what intelligence can do." "It's different generations of people working together," added  Rich, of Avon, Indiana.

"You ran out of nitrogen?" one contestant said to another.  "Here, I have an extra Chicago fitting and you can use my gas-powered air compressor."

We were in southeastern Delaware, on a farmer's field in the bright November sun.  My husband and I were at the 14th Annual Punkin Chunkin' Contest.  30,000 people attended the two-day event.

Our engineering-student son,  Randy,  was participating with the 2000-lb. liquid-nitrogen-powered air cannon he had designed and built.  The event resembles a combination of county fair and ingenuity contest, but it's more.

Punkin Chunkin' began in the mid-'80s with a group of men anvil-tossing leftover Halloween  pumpkins to distances up to 50 feet.  Then they began using catapults, slingshots, and other non-explosive devices.  Now the biggest devices, all non-explosive and using pumpkins of uniform weight,  hurl these vegetables over 4000 feet.

Who takes part?  Participants included:
-A team operating a 30-foot slingshot called Loaded Boing;
-Costumed historical reenactors with a painted bus and a high wooden catapult;
-A Natick, Mass., group with their trebuchet (a kind of catapult), Juggernaut;
-Chemical engineers from Du Pont with a slender 100-foot air cannon, The Big Ten Inch;
-A group of Washington, D.C.-area professionals with their Pumpkin Exporter involving a car pulling a chain activating a series of levers lifting a hurler arm;
-An all-women's team with their black, sewer-truck-operated, air cannon, Bad Hair Day;
-Children and adolescents competing in the youth divisions; 
-Centrifugal devices that look like high-speed windmills;
-The enormous white air cannon "Old Glory," decorated with American-flag paintings;
-Human-powered" catapults on which cyclists pedal to wind springs retracting hurler arms; 
-The immense, cement-mixer-based, often- prizewinning Illinois entry the Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator.

Humor is pervasive yet this is a contest, with division winners and a grand prize going to one of the huge air cannons, this year the Big Ten Inch.  However, devices in the Unlimited Division, which encompasses most of the entries, vary so much in size and type that most participants aim for personal bests and compete only with entries much like their own.

Participants encourage and help each other and create an atmosphere of friendliness and of people working together.  Randy observes, "It's a group of people, many of them using recycled parts and borrowed parts.  A group uses a borrowed cherry picker to get their cannon pointing at the sky.  Some people are welding pieces of fencepost to a tank.  People lend scrap metal to each other."  Randy towed his device there on a flatbed trailer lent by friend Ray Labelle of Newton.  When Randy ran out of liquid nitrogen on the second day another chunker lent him the above-mentioned Chicago fitting and air compressor so that Randy and his team, a small group of enthusiastic friends, could continue in the event.

Randy's air cannon hurls a pumpkin through a 40-foot barrel made of turquoise-colored sewer pipe.  The impetus is a sudden 700-fold volume change behind a rupture disk behind the pumpkin.  This occurs in a fraction of a second as liquid nitrogen, at minus 265 degrees Fahrenheit, is injected into a cylinder of boiling water.

Design and development often take months.  One of the D.C.-area creators of the Pumpkin Exporter said, "We've enjoyed obsessing on this in our quiet moments on the commuter train,  thinking about different ways to get energy transferred into pumpkins without hitting anyone with a pumpkin.  And so far we've been more successful in not bopping anyone than in getting energy into pumpkins, but it's all part of the fun here."

When components break and devices fail, ingenuity is the order of the day as people make quick repairs with available materials and parts.  One spectator, watching a team, said, "It's like a dance, like a ballet, each person doing something different but all of it making something work."  Sam and Rich said that the annual trip to Punkin Chunkin' counters the stresses of their professional lives.

With all the  high-tech devices we  have in the year 2000, successful endeavors still come down to ingenuity and people working together.  What better model than Punkin Chunkin'?

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