It’s around 4:30 p.m., and I’m sitting around a table chatting with once and future MythBusters team members. Former featured players Kari Byron and Tory Belleci, along with upcoming MythBusters: The Search host Kyle Hill, are holding court on the topic that has brought us all to a tiny hamlet in the middle of Delaware (really, walk about 50 yards past the state line and you’re technically already in “the middle” of Delaware): The annual World Champion Punkin Chunkin Festival, now well into its second decade of existence, and the best place to see gourds get shot so far into the distance, you lose visual of their flying orange presence. Byron and Belleci, who have hosted TV coverage of the event for eight years now, chat along with Hill and myself about the history of the event, their favorite divisions, interacting with the same people year after year, but we share a similar perspective. Namely, that our conversation is all well and good—and the three of them are very nice—but we all know they’re not the stars here. The stars are the massive pieces of machinery a quarter mile east of us, busily flinging its vegetable ammunition into the sky. (Yes, technically it is also a fruit; don’t get me started.)
“It’s getting bigger and bigger, and they’re throwing further and further,” Byron says. “We keep thinking they can’t throw much further, but no.” Hill chimes in, “Everyone’s pushing themselves.” Belleci agrees: “By day three, everyone’s thinking they’re either gonna break the machines, or break the record. It gets a little dicey.” Everyone expresses enthusiasm about various teams and talks about which division they’d want to compete in. I idly wonder if there’s a handheld division, which I guess would technically fall under the “human-powered” category. That seems more my speed.
I am here to cover the event, because it sounded weird and fascinating, and also because The Science Channel is eager to promote its Thanksgiving programming, the international competition back on the air after a two-year hiatus from pumpkin chucking, thanks to legal issues mainly involving insurance. (A volunteer sued after he was hurt when a four-wheeler ran into a ditch.) Or rather, it was: By the end of the festival weekend, tragedy will have struck, and less than a week later I’ll get a call informing me TV coverage of this year’s event has been canceled. On Sunday afternoon—the day after my visit—one of the air cannons will explode, sending debris everywhere and resulting in two people injured, one in critical condition, putting an end to the festivities and settling a dark cloud over the whole event. So you won’t get to see any of the moments I describe here on television, or catch a glimpse of me in the background, standing slack-jawed, like a caveman who was just shown an IMAX screen, after yet another Rube Goldberg-like contraption sends a gourd into orbit. Instead, you’ll have to take my word for it that seeing some of these machines in person is both a little silly and also incredibly impressive, which is an apt description of many geeky American subcultures.
But none of that has happened yet, and for now, these myth busters and I are all just happy to be there and startled by the nice weather, another of the 60-degree-plus November days that convince me buying property in a future post-climate-change oceanfront Indiana will be a sound investment. We are here not to bust myths, but pumpkins—and then some ghosts, when I get back to my hotel room later that night and convince myself that my shower head is haunted. (If you must know, it involved noisy pipes and my general fear of scalding hot water.)
Getting to the event takes some doing. I fly into Baltimore, because that’s about as close as you’re going to get to the event on a major domestic flight. My driver tells me it’ll take a little under two hours to get to Milford, the neighboring town where I’m staying the night. I ask him if that’s a little annoyingly lengthy for a usual day of work for him. He says he drove 13 straight hours to Florida one day the previous week. I shut the hell up.
The car is a black Yukon XL SLT, and has copies of a magazine called Capitol File in the passenger seat pouches, which boasts stories with headlines like, “Scoop: Inauguration, VIPStyle.” The driver is clearly used to a higher class of passenger. Taking out my notes, I begin thinking of ways to talk to participants at the event, outside of, “So, have you always been a fan of launching pumpkins into the air?” Instead, I immediately fall asleep, and when I come to, we’re pulling up to the hotel.
Milford, Delaware, is a small ramshackle town, the kind of place journalists like to travel to when they’re doing pieces about white working-class life. The only large building looks to be the church, and unsurprisingly, this is Trump territory. His signs litter the landscape, albeit a flat landscape that resembles stepped-on corrugated cardboard, with wind-ruffled grasses threading between the railroad-style houses. Political ads aside, it’s warm and inviting, if also the kind of place where, were you to see a pumpkin go sailing by overhead, your first thought wouldn’t be how strange a sight it was, but rather wonder which neighbor kid built the massive slingshot.
I’m met at the hotel by Russ, a very friendly publicist who is also experiencing his first Punkin Chunkin, as part of the group hired by the Science Channel to promote the event. He’s full of informational tidbits about the festival, and manages to make these attempts at peppering our initial conversation with grabby details regarding his event feel organic, not forced, as we drive to the farmland that plays host to the Punkin Chunkin and its tailgating denizens. He recites the various divisions—air cannon, torsion, trebuchet, human-powered, and so on—and remarks that there’s also an “all-female division.”
“Wait,” I say. “There’s air cannon, trebuchet, torsion, and… women?”
He pauses. “Yeah.” This turns out to be true, but is less weird than it sounds at first. There’s a women’s division of air cannon, is all. When I interview Michelle from Bad Hair Day, the women’s air team, she informs me she used to just support her husband’s team, but was stopped some years back and told “non-essential personnel” couldn’t come near the machines. Screw that, was her response, so yeah: all-women’s division.
Russ usually works on documentary films, serious issue-oriented stuff, so this is a bit outside his comfort zone. He tells me they had to attend a 6 a.m. safety meeting on Friday morning, because especially in the wake of the lawsuit, the Punkin Chunkin takes preventive measures very seriously. (No more Drunkin Chunkin, for example.) Apparently, one of the trebuchets already misfired and heaved a pumpkin at high speed over the head of the crowd. I begin to worry I will die by pumpkin. (This sounded like a silly bit of neurotic color at the time, but now is just depressing in the wake of the accident on Sunday.)
Russ turns down a small but still paved road. We pass by a house with an unfortunate but symbolically placed apostrophe on its front sign welcoming you to “The White’s.” While Russ either expresses enthusiasm about seeing someone break the world chunking record or portrays a reasonable facsimile of such a mindset, I note the local political signs, more pervasive than the presidential ones. Everyone seems to have a three-letter nickname, presumably to play up their folksy bona fides: Sussex “Sam” Wilson, Norman “Jay” Jones. The event takes place in a massive field, just pass a road sign touting “Shea D Ln” (well done). Russ warns me: “You may see a few Confederate flags around here.” And I do, multiple times over the next six hours. I suspect several of the locals of possessing a kind of Terminator-like sensor system, their eyes flashing red when they size me up, as “MARRIED TO JEW” materializes on the inside of their retinas. Or maybe that was just my imagination when talking to the Boy Scout Troop marching around with a massive Confederate flag with “TRUMP” scrawled across the top. I guess defacing a flag is cool with them, as long as it’s for your chosen candidate.
“Trust me, you don’t want pie”
The festival is a three-day event that runs the gamut from the usual (live bands, small carnival rides, food trucks, and funnel cake vendors) to the highly singular (duh). There’s a campground on the opposite side of a dirt road demarcating the festival area, where visitors can park their vehicles and grill out under the stars. The event takes the entire time, with each contestant allowed one official shot (a chance to “fly” in the parlance of the competition) per round (three rounds total), but a furthest-shot-wins mentality. It’s got a festive, state-fair atmosphere, and the crowd of people standing behind the security fence to watch the competitors ranges from several hundred to several thousand at any given moment. Having grown up in the midwest, I’m well acquainted with this kind of crowd, as it’s generally the same throughout the country. Good-natured and family-friendly, with a separate beer garden area (“Jeff’s Taproom & Grille,” in this case) in which a wholly different crowd is bound and determined to get absolutely obliterated. I never enter the alcohol section, but when I walk past it, there’s a woman loudly saying, “So that’s when I told him his balls looked even stupider than he knew.” It gives me the general tenor of the room.
When I first arrive, the torsion division has already begun, so we head out to the field. I hear the announcer utter the phrase “adult catapult,” which isn’t a bad way of describing the torsion machines, really. They’re machines that use torque to fling pumpkins into the air—halfway between a crossbow and an old-timey catapult. As Russ drives me up in a golf cart to where yellow lines demarcate the current firing zone, a team called Shenanigans fires. I look up in time to see a pumpkin shatter into pieces as it leaves the machine. “We have pie!” the announcer says, which is how I learn that “pie” is the term for an exploding pumpkin, an automatic disqualification from consideration that round. (Pumpkins must weigh between 8-10 pounds and stay whole until they hit the ground.) Following that is a machine called Sir Chunks-A-Lot—basically everyone has a cutesy title or pun for a name—and while there are multiple teams that wear costumes, someone in the Chunks-A-Lot crew stands out. He’s wearing an inflatable tube man costume, which I can only surmise was developed as some sort of horrific punishment for a transgression on his part, because during the entire roughly five minutes that I watch him, he never stops flailing his arms, in character. He does it so long, I begin to suspect he’s simply severed the arms of another person, and is comfortably waving them around, foam hand-style, from within the safety of his costume.
After Chunks-A-Lot launches a pumpkin into the air, further than I thought possible (I severely underestimated the capabilities of your average punkin chunkin apparatus in person, as it travels 2,600-plus feet (just under half a mile), which is further than I’m willing to walk to sustain my basic life functions), I look back to inflatable tube man, who is finally winding down, perhaps having served the duration of his sentence for armed burglary, or whatever. I start to head over in order to speak to him, when I’m interrupted by the announcer, declaiming the next competitor, Chunk Norris, is “on the clock.” To prevent excessive tinkering, once a team is “on the clock,” it means they have two minutes to fire their pumpkin. I decide to film it, which means I immediately lose sight of it through my screen. Ten seconds later, it’s still in the air, which is impressive. You’re welcome to take a look for yourself and see if the velocity is simply beyond the abilities of my iPhone to capture.
Chunk Norris, it turns out, just set a record: More than 3,500 feet (two-thirds of a mile), which, to give you a sense of how impressive that is, beats many of the air cannons for that day. Understandably, the team goes nuts. They just heaved a pumpkin very, very far, after all. It would be easy to be snarky, but it’s kind of a miracle of engineering, so far beyond the horizon of standard gourd-throwing torsion technology that it achieves a kind of Euclidean perfection. Russ tells me he’s bringing me over to Mike Powers, from the Chunk Norris crew, for an interview. ”This seems like maybe a private time for celebration,” I start to say, before I realize Tory and the Science Channel are already talking to him. It seems hard to imagine the guy could string sentences together at present—if my mind is a little blown at what he just pulled off, surely his own brain is busy doing backflips within his skull. I am not wrong. When I play back the recording later on, he sounds like someone having trouble remembering his own name, let alone details of his backstory. Still, he beat his own record by more than 400 feet, and the previous world record by something like 700 feet. When his team returns to New Hampshire, the bragging rights they’ve earned among fellow chunkers promise to be truly voluminous. Surely there’s a pumpkin ale on the house, in a bar somewhere, with his name all over it.
Once the glut of people clears, I see the inflatable tube man, and head over. His name is Brendan, and he decided at the last minute to bring along this costume, a remnant from Halloween. I ask him if he’s just slowly dying inside there. “A good breeze helps,” he wheezes. Also, the sun is cooking him like a rotisserie chicken. “This is comin’ off as soon as I’m done talkin’ to you, bro,” Brendan assures me.
It’s A Big Fucking Pumpkin Gun, Charlie Brown
After a while, Russ plunks me back on the golf cart and we head back to the press tent to grab some lunch. One on hand, this is great, because I’m starving, but on the other, I’m told I’ll be talking to people from the Punkin Chunkin Association while there, which sounds like death. I begin considering fleeing my handlers. Still, there’s pasta salad to eat. So I accede, and soon, Frank, the festival organizer, arrives. I needn’t have worried about boredom—Frank is garrulous and engaging in the way that only older men who have lived in rural areas and developed very strong opinions on just about every topic imaginable are, and his energy prevents me from sinking into a coma from the four cookies I smuggled onto my plate. He’s been involved with the festival from the beginning, was chair of the organization for several years (turns out this whole thing is a lot more rigorously structured than you would first assume; the religion of punkin chunkin has quite the orthodoxy), and now runs media operations. It’s because of Frank that I learn people in the air cannon division are looked down upon by many of the torsion and trebuchet folks—because it’s not “pure” chunking. It’s as though he’s accused a Firefly fan of not being a real browncoat just because they haven’t attended an academic conference on the works of Joss Whedon, and I suddenly get it.
After lunch, we head out to see the air cannons. A band is getting started on the stage just to the left of the beer garden, and I hear the opening strains of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Sex Type Thing” echo through the air as I pass by, watching several preschool-age girls dancing guilelessly in the grass just off the front of the stage. I casually mention to Russ that I’m interested in just spending a little time by myself, soaking in the atmosphere of the crowd, an ask to which he readily agrees.
The sound of oxygen blasting through compressors fills the air, which is how you know it’s cannon time. (Have I mentioned that every team is required to sound an air horn right before they launch? I hear this sound hundreds of times over the course of the day, and it makes me jump every goddamn time.) The announcer, whose voice provides a rumbling contrapuntal commentary to the startling sounds of the machines, wanders by me. He’s basically just having a running conversation with himself all day long, peppered with the odd interview or interjection by one of his slightly looser cohorts. The air cannon teams continue the sassy name tradition, with the women’s team, Bad Hair Day, seated right next door to the classiest-sounding team, Big 10 Inch. (Brought to you by KAD—“Kompressed Air Of Delaware.”) The Science Channel is fielding a small army of personnel, dedicated to following the cameras prior to every launch, where they hold a short interview, Kari, Tory, or Kyle says something pithy, and they head to the next team. It looks exhausting.
I get to see recent world champions, the aptly named Second Amendment Too, fire off a pumpkin that goes spectacularly into the air. Last year’s victor, American Chunker, farts out a tremendous pumpkin throw. They end up leading the day with a shot of 4,318 feet, which is getting insanely close to a mile. After a while, it becomes hard to distinguish a great air cannon shot from a so-so one, because they all just immediately fly out of my visual field, off into the distance, like little Kobe Bryants with an especially good hang time. I hear a lot of concerned discussion about whether the high temperatures are adversely affecting the pumpkins, softening them up and making them more likely to “pie.” I check my phone: 63 degrees. Happy Thanksgiving!
Another air cannon team, The Great Emancipator, has its own hype man. Standing in a cherry picker that’s been parked immediately in front of the crowd, he leads some “hip-hip hooray” cheers and tries to fire everyone up for a machine that ends up delivering a decent shot, though nowhere near American Chunker’s distance. With each launch, the crowd amiably shuffles on down to the next machine, as though they were standing in line at Six Flags Great America.
By now, Russ has vanished, so I make a beeline for the opposite side of the safety fence, where the crowd freely mingles. It has a vibe akin to a tailgating party, with people sitting on hay bales under tents, laughing and giving the occasional whoop after an especially good shot. For being the weekend before the election, the event seems blissfully free of too many political T-shirts or signs—aside from the big honking Confederate flag flying over the “Dixie Store,” which is unavoidably political no matter how the Dixie folks try to spin it. Mostly, it’s just a bunch of people—kids, adults, and those weirdly ageless farmer types—all appreciating watching pumpkins go sailing through the air. My favorite store is the one touting “Long Range Marshmallow Shooters $5.00,” which I briefly consider trying to expense, before realizing I have literally no reason to fire marshmallows at anyone not currently being held hostage until they present the perfect cup of hot chocolate. Were I with friends or family, this would be an enjoyable day standing in a field, hooting at flying gourds.
For the love of the chunk
Around 4:45 p.m., the sun is starting to get lower in the sky, so Russ—who has miraculously reappeared, probably because he sensed I was about to do something dumb, like ask the band on stage if they had practiced much before coming out here today—takes me out to the far end of the field, where the human-powered machines are set up. These are the trebuchets, powered by the things like hand cranks, bicycles, and so on. But there’s a clear aesthetic winner among these contenders. The hamster-wheel trebuchet takes the prize for most engaging design.
As we walk down the line, taking note of the various machines, there’s a real homespun feel to these machines. There are a lot more families, boy scout troops, and small groups of friends in this section, possibly because these cost a hell of a lot less than an air cannon to build. (The new owner of cannon American Chunker spent somewhere in the vicinity of more than $300,000.) There’s a good-natured vibe to these proceedings that is more genial, less high pressure, than over by the big machines. While prepping the hamster wheel, one of the team says to the guy climbing it, “Do good, and there’s a Dr Pepper in it for ya.” “There’s a Dr Pepper in it either way,” he shouts back. Hamster wheel trebuchets: Powered by carbonated sugar water.
I briefly chat with James, his son Matthias, and Jennifer. James mans the Chunka From Down Unda, while Jennifer reps Team Ethos. These are the hardcore science nerds. James tells me his interest in the event was piqued by the captain of Team Ethos giving a presentation at college, leading him to come check it out. They speak with the easy familiarity of people who treat this as a fun experiment, rather than a raucous competition. Matthias, of course, is just excited to heave pumpkins sky high. We’re in the “free toss” phase of the evening, meaning anyone is now free to launch a pumpkin at any time. (In practice, this means continuous air horns giving me freaking heart attacks left and right.) One of the kids’ teams is working diligently, and after eyeing them for a while, I can report that seeing a bunch of kids earnestly working on a trebuchet is super crazy boring.
My time at the Punkin Chunkin is at an end. Happily ignorant of what will happen the following day, I take a few last looks around. Despite the thinned-out crowd, there’s still one area packed: the booze garden. As we drive out, teenagers are running around in the perpetual hurry-up-and-wait frenzy that defines adolescent socializing. They hoot and tease each other, and it all feels very Norman Rockwell. This is an exceptionally normal sight at a very unusual event. It’s a familiar ritual of Saturday night freedom for kids born well outside of big cities—we can make anything feel like home. Even an event dedicated to the world’s greatest launchers of gourds holds no meaning for hormones, outside of being a staging ground for the ebb and flow of teenage wanderlust. Heave ho, indeed.
Then our golf cart passes right by them, and I realize these kids are actually really drunk grown-ups.