Punkin Chunkin': Gourds Gone Wild

Several hundred people were gathered in a field next to I-90, 25 miles east of Missoula. Truck-mounted cranes maneuvered three massive air cannons into place. With barrels as long as 80 feet, they shot frozen pumpkins into the brisk fall air, trying to hit a ramshackle barn a half a mile away. Or they changed their vector and tried to obliterate a couple of junked vehicles parked much closer.

They call it Punkin Chunkin’, and it’s one of the things that make people wonder why the hell anyone would move to Montana.

This event started about 15 years ago, and back then the air cannon was not the preferred method of delivery. Medieval catapults and elegant trebuchets ruled the roost, and they were a wondrous thing to watch. Pumpkin hurling enthusiasts, many wearing medieval garb and talking like they were in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, scurried around their monstrous contraptions, furiously making last-minute calculations and adjustments. Then they’d load up a whopper of a pumpkin into the payload pouch, perform a dramatic countdown, and let fly. The gourd would either travel nearly straight up, causing the crowd to scatter in terror, or would splatter ignominiously just a few yards ahead of the machine, victim of a poorly executed algorithm. Spectacular failure can be a lot more fun to watch than efficient success.

But the air cannons came into vogue, perhaps because those guys all worked at machine shops and truck garages, and didn’t get their asses kicked by football players after spending their weekends prancing around at a Renaissance Faire. These vegetable howitzers outperformed their two-by-four-based-technology counterparts to such an extent that there had to be an “open class” created to allow for the huge discrepancy in the distance they could hurl their, um, gourdnance.

A trebuchet, a clever contraption that slings its payload using a counterweight and long rope hooked to a pouch, easily outdistances a catapult, and with a well-executed shot can throw a pumpkin the length of a football field.

An air cannon, which uses an outboard diesel compressor to build up 85 psi or so of air pressure, can blast a frozen, volleyball-sized projectile close to a mile. In fact, the one-mile shot is the Holy Grail of the air cannon pumpkin shooting set, like the thirty-yard long jump, the twenty-foot pole vault, or the one-year Kardashian marriage.

On this recent frosty morn out at Ryan Creek Meadows, my kids, Rusty and Speaker, and I were disappointed to see that there was not one trebuchet or catapult to be seen. Either that faction has completely lost interest, or maybe their devices had been mysteriously destroyed the night before, blasted full of pumpkin-sized holes from a drive-by chunkin’. Who knows.

Scott Kuehn seemed to be the Punkin Chunkin’ kingpin, with not just one, but three compressed-air cannons on site. His “Gourds In Space” cannon sports an eighty-foot barrel, and was the most adept at laying waste to the pair of sad-sack vans, festooned with radio station banners, set a hundred yards from the launch point. Scott would load up a pumpkin (shaved down with a machete to ensure a snug fit in the barrel) into a cannon and fire it into the side of a van, blowing out windows, caving in the side, and totally ruining the paint job. It looked like a bad night at the Iowa State Fair, when Loverboy failed to show up for their concert and the crowd started a riot, swarming through the gourd and vegetable building, hurling home-grown produce at the panicking fair goers as they tried desperately to get to the Interstate. That’s what went through my head, anyway.

Scott’s long-suffering wife told me he’s constantly tinkering with the payload formula, trying to find the perfect way to prepare the pumpkin so it won’t disintegrate in mid-flight like a poorly-packed spitwad. Freezing has been the traditional method, and the cannon teams all had ice chests packed with frozen pumpkins and tall boys of Miller Lite. But it’s the rare gourd that can withstand the pressure and velocity of a half-mile shot without falling apart faster than Herman Cain’s presidential campaign. So Scott hollows out the pumpkins and fills them with water, then freezes them to create a pumpkin-sheathed ice ball. Most times his projectile stays intact right up to the moment when it smashes into a junked van, a far-off hillside, or some unfortunate SUV full of missionaries from Idaho Falls who took the Beavertail exit by mistake.

Last year’s trophy went to Bob Atkinson’s Bitterroot team, when their massive grey cannon with a sixty-foot barrel made of ten-inch pipe squirted one to 3800 feet. Standing behind the deafening compressors and hearing the booming reports echo off the surrounding foothills, I was taken momentarily back to the heaving deck of the USS Arizona, on that fateful December morning in 1941 when we valiantly tried to stave off the endless wave of Jap Zeros coming out of the rising sun at Pearl Harbor…

Uh, where was I? Oh yeah, these things are loud. Kids were wearing ear protection, and Tom Anthony from Z-100 made sure to broadcast a countdown before every shot so everyone had a chance to clench up. Atkinson’s team took a few practice shots, which came down with a distant poof of dirt on the hillside more than a half-mile away, behind the old barn. Their pumpkins flew impressively true, sometimes with a gracefully arcing curve, like a Pedro Martinez screwball. Then they finally hit the barn, putting a neat hole in the weathered wood just to the left of the upstairs window. Through my binoculars I could see a perfectly round hole exactly the size of a bowling ball. An orange-painted, eight-pound bowling ball. But I don’t want to give away any trade secrets about their “super-natural” pumpkins.

Scott invited me to fire off one of the cannons, and I jumped at the chance. I started walking toward “Gourds In Space,” and he said, “No, this one.” He pointed to something that looked like a stumpy WWII mortar. It was called Super Mini Me. Alarmingly, he swiveled the barrel around so it faced the crowd, and said, “Go ahead. It’s candy.” So I turned a lever and with a satisfying whoomp, a huge spray of candy splashed out over the cheering throng. I felt like Willie Wonka trying to quell an Oompa Loompa uprising. I asked Scott if he could fill it with ball bearings, but he wandered off to help a couple of kids shoot his tractor-mounted pumpkin cannon.

I rounded up my kids and we headed for our vehicle. The Punkin Chunkin’ had been an exhibition only today, no competitive shots. But I was intrigued. “Let’s head for home,” I said, putting the truck in gear. “I gotta look up some trebuchet plans on the internet. Also, which one of you wants to learn how to fly?”

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