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Let's Go Punkin Chunkin

Lewes, Delaware; a quiet agricultural town located on the eastern seaboard. Not much happens in Lewes. Sunday dinner at the local steak house qualifies as a night on the town. But The Savvy Traveler's Susan Butler found that for two days each November the gentle sounds of braying cattle and the comforting whir of far-away tractors give way to the bone-jarring thud of giant air cannons.

Let's Go Punkin' Chunkin'
By Susan Butler

Listen with RealAudio: Punkin' Chunkin'

MALE ANNOUNCER: "There she goes, drifting to the left. Way, way, still flying, still flying. I can see it's coming down, coming down. We lost it. It's in the trees."

Lewes is home to the annual Punkin' Chunkin' Festival, where every year for the past twelve years, self-proclaimed "high-tech rednecks" fire, hurl, sling and heave their gourds to glory.

FEMALE ANNOUNCER: "...the twelfth annual Punkin' Chunkin' Festival, I'd like to thank everybody for joining us."

Punkin' Chunkers It began in 1986 as a group of men sat in a local blacksmith shop arguing over who could throw an anvil farthest. Anvils turned to pumpkins and Punkin' Chunkin' was born. Three teams competed at that first event, where only a handful of onlookers watched as the victory throw measured an impressive 50 feet. Over the years, the event evolved from human chunkin' into oversized slingshots, venerated catapults and air cannons with names such as Bad to the Bone, The Terminator, Mellow Yellow, Poor & Hungry and The Aludium Q36 Pumpkin Modulator, named after a weapon used by Marvin the Martian, the pint-sized, high-strung alien from the Warner Brothers cartoon.

CHUCK HEARLY: "Well, we got a two-thousand gallon tank in the back with a valve in front of that and then a big, long barrel. You fill the tank up with air, put a pumpkin in the barrel and you just wick the air to it and watch her go."

Today, more than 25,000 spectators from all over the world attend the Punkin' Chunkin' Festival to find out who will be the next "high-tech redneck" to claim the $1500 grand prize. And last November, I too joined in the fun.

Once settled in my room at the New Devon Inn, a local B&B, I walked downstairs to the adjoining restaurant called the Buttery, where I did what every person who dines alone does. I eavesdropped.

MALE DINER: "The guy with the catapult fired the catapult and it landed five feet in front of him."

FEMALE DINER: "Then there was the bicycle one. It just kept spinning around. The guy's peddling and peddling and it never went anywhere. It just kind of...the arm came up and went smash five feet in front of him."

The next morning brought storm clouds and sheets of rain, typically the type of day I like to avoid. But I did manage to tear myself away from the warm bed and slog through acres of mud in bright yellow golashes--fresh from the local Kmart--to watch as Trey Melson and his teammates piloted the Universal Soldier into Punkin' Chunkin' history.

SUSAN: "You're pretty confident you're going to win?"

TREY: "I think so. We've been fooled before."

CHILD SPECTATOR: "It's really loud, I had to cover my ears."

Worshipers at the nearby Church of Christ have to cover their ears too. But noise pollution isn't the only factor. The church, festooned with a banner that reads 'Aim Here for God,' stands directly in the line of fire. And although the front door is a few thousand feet away, that's not much comfort when you consider the Universal Soldier's winning chunk measured a staggering 3700 feet and that every year, these machines get larger and more powerful.

ANNOUNCER: "That's about in the side door of the church. I hope the minister's not getting ready for service."

But the pumpkin did clear and the church was spared yet again. I then asked what I considered to be the most important question of my career: Did I really want to be standing here on the side of the church that's in the line of fire?

REGGIE: "We're under the best protection of the Lord, per se. This would be the place to be, you know? I mean, the roof would fall down if I went inside. I feel pretty safe outside right here."

SUSAN: "How fast are the pumpkins going by the time they reach the church here?"

REGGIE: "I'd say about 600 miles an hour. Wouldn't you? Yeah, six hundred..."

SUSAN: "And we're standing right in the line of fire?"

REGGIE: "Fifteen seconds at the max in the air. Yeah, and divide that up at eight pounds and you got six hundred miles an hour. I ain't no rocket scientist, but I'll be you it's going that fast. I wouldn't want to be hit by it."

SUSAN: "You know what? I'm going to go behind the church. I'm not that brave!"

Six hundred miles an hour--literally faster than some speeding bullets. My tour guide and one of the event's original "high-tech rednecks" was Reggie Jackson (not the baseball player).

REGGIE: "You can't really see them until they're within maybe 100 feet from you. And then pay a lot of attention because they're there and if you can't see them you can hear them hit. A lot of times you go with the sound more than the visual. You can actually hear the percussion when it hits the ground. Then you know where it's at. It's a whole different look from this end.

VARIOUS SPECTATORS: "That's it! Heads up! Fire in the hole!"


MALE SPECTATOR: "Awesome! Awesome! Way to go!"

At the end of the day, covered in mud and proud of the bravery I'd sort of shown, I headed back to the parking lot with Reggie to collect my rented vehicle from the mud pit that had become its home. I bid farewell to my new friends and asked Reggie about his plans for the future.

REGGIE: "We don't know what's in the future `cause we all have twisted minds in this part of Delaware. We do."


For More Information:

World Champion Punkin' Chunkin' with links to other sites, world records and info on the competition in Deleware
Punkin' Chunkin' festival in Morton, Illinois
Discovery Channel Online covers the basics of punkin' chunkin'


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