The meaning of America
Nov 10th 2005 | MILLSBORO, DELAWARE
From The Economist print edition
Where men are men and pumpkins are nervous
IF THE United Nations were to send weapons inspectors to Delaware, they would find a surprising number of superguns being assembled in backyards. If interrogated, the unshaven men tinkering with these enormous weapons would say they were building devices for hurling pumpkins great distances. The men from the UN would doubtless find this hard to believe.
Every year since 1986, near Millsboro, the Punkin Chunkin has been held. Last week, 100 teams vied to see whose machine could toss an 8-10lb (3.6-4.6kg) pumpkin farthest. There were various categories: air cannons, trebuchets, pedal-powered doohickeys. No explosives are allowed—a galling rule to some contestants. But the biggest air cannons, with barrels up to 150 feet (46 metres) long, can shoot their fruit projectiles most of a mile, making each one what one spectator called “one heck of a peashooter”.
Need one spell out that virtually all the competitors are male? Dorothy Blades, a member of a rare all-female team of chunkers called the Dragon Ladies, (whose cannon, hard hats and gloves were all a tastefully matching shade of pink), thinks men crave the sense of power that only blasting a pumpkin into orbit in front of a large crowd can provide. “Plus it's a drinkathon,” she adds.
It is not just that men like shooting things. Many of them also like fiddling with big gadgets. And the Punkin Chunkin shows what can be achieved when hundreds of mechanically adept minds focus on one utterly pointless objective. The hydraulics on those air cannons must be just so, as must the springs on the catapults. The machines' names must be either macho (eg, “Second Amendment”) or crude (eg, “Chunkin Up”). Distances must be measured with a hand-held GPS system that gives readings to the nearest hundredth of a foot. After each pumpkin lands, eager men on quad bikes zoom around looking for the crater and then start triangulating.
All in all, Punkin Chunkin is a symbol of what makes America great. Only in the richest country on earth could regular guys spend tens of thousands of dollars building a pumpkin gun. Only in a nation with such a fine tradition of inventiveness, not to mention martial prowess, would so many choose to. And only in a land of wide open spaces would they be able to practise their chunkin without killing their neighbours. Alas, the 285-acre cornfield where Punkin Chunkin has been held for the past 20 years is soon to be sold and developed. But the chunkers will probably move to Maryland.
Or maybe I should have put this in the hardware forum.