John Ellsworth first flipped his gourd in 1986. The village smith of Lewes, Del., had spent the day forging steel when three buddies bearing brews walked into his shop and started arguing about how far a pumpkin could be pitched. One beer led to another, and pretty soon somebody snatched Ellsworth's hat. And hurled it to the floor. And stomped on it. "Ellsworth!" snarled the stomper, Trey Mel-son. "We hereby challenge you to a punkin' chunk."
Such were the beginnings of the World Championship Punkin' Chunkin' Contest, an annual rite of fall that fills the skies of southern Delaware with airborne squash. Dozens of fruit-flingers assemble every November in a field near Lewes to vie for chunkin' supremacy. Their Road Warrior-like launching contraptions range from spindly slingshots to centrifuges powered by car engines. Melson calls the sport "poetry in commotion."
A 43-year-old plumber with a headful of corrugated silver hair, Melson is the Wernher von Braun of chunkin'. His homemade catapult won the sport's maiden event with a distance of 102 feet. After victories in '87 and '88 Melson announced he was bored with gourds. "You guys are just too damn easy to beat," he said. "I'm not coming out to play no more." And he didn't. But in '93, when Ellsworth's air-powered crossbow helped him set a world record of 1,024 feet, Melson reconsidered. "Imagine, only 1,024 feet!" he snorted. "Hell, it should be up to three miles by now."
Some 20,000 fans of things-that-go-splat showed up on Nov. 5 for Melson's comeback. They lunched on fried dough and flowering onions. They held tailgate parties in tents and portable hot tubs. And they listened to the New Bethel Assembly of God Marching Tabernacle Choir and Motorcycle Club warble The Punkin' Chunkin' Ballad: "It's time to make them punkins fly..../You won't believe your eyes/There goes Billy's punkin pies/Over Sussex County skies!"
In the world championships each entrant gets three official throws. Pumpkins must weigh between eight and 10 pounds and be in one piece when they leave their machines. They can be chunked by any means short of explosives. "It's impossible to cheat," said Ellsworth. "The rules are too simple." Using the same pumpkin-colored crossbow that had won the event in 1993, Ellsworth hoped his team's first shot would break the 2,000-foot barrier. "Everybody else will break their pumpkins or their machines trying to beat us," he said. "Everybody except Trey."
Trey came to play with the Universal Soldier, a camouflage-painted 37½-foot pneumatic cannon built in just four days with parts scrounged from junkyards. "On day 1, I built the brackets," Melson said. "I spent day 2 on barrel, pop-valve and trunnion work. The rest was just company coming over and tellin' me, 'It ain't gonna work! It ain't gonna work!' "
But it did! It did! When Ellsworth's first pumpkin exploded in midair, Melson loaded a 10-pounder into his Soldier and signaled a crewman to fill the chamber with compressed air. The pressure rose from 100 pounds per square inch to 200...300...400....
An official said, "Hold your fire for five more minutes."
Melson said, "This demon's leaving the bottle whenever it wants."
Which turned out to be at 500 pounds of pressure. Ffffft! The orange blur described a lovely arc as it streaked across the clouds. It touched down an astounding 2,508 feet away, leaving a rind-ringed crater 12 inches deep. Both the crowd and the competition were blown away: No other chunker came within 1,200 feet.
Melson vowed to return in '95, perhaps with a more terrifying weapon of mash destruction. He hinted at "going nuclear" with an electromagnetic accelerator. "I won't stop until chunkin' is an Olympic sport," Melson said. "Or until the military or Hollywood gets involved."