You know how sometimes you anticipate something and imagine what it will be like, but when you’re actually experiencing it, it’s nothing like you thought it would be? The World Championship Punkin Chunkin was kind of like that for me.
John and I first heard about the “Chunk” some years ago, when Discovery or TLC or one of those smart cable channels ran a show about it. It looked like such wacky fun: slightly deranged people build machines designed to hurl pumpkins into a field, and the winner is the one whose pumpkin goes furthest. The field in question is out in the vicinity of Seaford, Delaware, which is only about two and a half hours from our house, but in previous years our schedules never allowed us to make the trip. This year, however, we discovered that we were free the weekend of the Chunk, so I made us a motel reservation, and on Saturday after lunch we drove north.
It was a beautiful day – warm for November, sunny and clear. On our way out of the metro area, we passed a truck with an engine fire, which was smelly, and further up the road there was a three-car fender-bender with people standing around looking perturbed, but there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic and all in all the drive was a pleasure. The further north we traveled, the less traffic there was and we had plenty of time to enjoy the sights, such as pretty trees:
and bridges and bays:
We got into the vicinity of the Chunk around 3:00, but it took us another twenty minutes to find the parking entrance and then another ten minutes to get parked. The nice Chunk people charged us $2 to park and $9 per person admission, so it was a round $20 for us to attend (I should add that the event spans three days, and you have to pay admission and parking each day). We knew that in advance so it wasn’t a surprise – however, what was surprising was the scope of the whole thing. I’d had visions of us being able to cruise up to the firing line to watch; no such luck. The parking area was huge and packed; we had to park about a quarter mile from the entrance to the event and walk through the remains of a cornfield to get there. That didn’t bother me, but having to run the gauntlet of drunken tailgate parties and clusters of inebriated college students did.
The food vendors at the Chunk don’t sell booze, but there’s no prohibition against bringing your own, and it was clear that vast amounts of beer had been consumed during the day. The parking field was awash with beer cans, piles and piles of them, drained and tossed aside. The few trash cans we passed were overflowing with more beer cans. We stopped at a port-a-potty in the field and were startled at how nasty they were. Now, a port-a-potty is unpleasant at best, but the inside of these things had been treated like extra garbage bins, with empty beer cans stacked on every available surface and even thrown down into the latrine.
You can also tote your brewskies inside the gate. Once we got inside, it seemed like everyone had a beer in their hand, and I do mean everyone. Miller Lite and Bud Lite seemed to be the booze of choice, and there was much raucous laughter and staggering going on. To their credit, the drinkers were cheerful and friendly, but it was an aspect of the Chunk that I wasn’t prepared for. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not a prude about drinking and I like a drink myself occasionally, but I don’t understand the drinking-to-get-drunk attitude (one individual was hawking t-shirts imprinted with ARE WE DRUNK YET, as if that was the purpose of attending the Chunk). I was also troubled by the hordes of what were clearly underage drinkers (the individual in this photo excepted; she couldn’t get the bottle cap off, thank goodness).
The second letdown is harder to put into words. When we saw the TV piece on the Chunk, what was most appealing to me was the amateur aspect of it, a sort of Judy and Mickey let’s-put-on-a-show attitude. There was a earnest and whimsical feel to what the Chunkers were doing. That whimsy might have been in more in evidence if the pumpkin-hurling devices hadn’t been at such a remove from the onlookers. I realize there are safety issues here and that the crowd (particularly those who had been imbibing) was better off kept at a distance, but it was still a let-down to find that we couldn’t get any closer than about twenty feet to the nearest machine. When we arrived, the day’s competition had just ended and a “free-for-all” was beginning, which meant that the various machines were firing off pumpkins for the fun of it. The big compressed-air cannons were popping out pumpkins every once in a while and they are certainly the largest and showiest (and noisiest) of the chunkers, but I had hoped to see some of the big trebuchets and catapults at work (there are 15 classes of machine; if you’re curious, you can look at the rules here). They were lined up perpendicular to the air cannons but none of them were participating in the free-for-all.
Some of the junior division machines were taking part, many of them clearly Boy Scout projects, and one or two centrifugals would let fly once in a while, but we weren’t able to see any of the big medieval-looking monsters in action.
I kept hearing that one could pay an additional fee to be allowed into the “pit” area, but we couldn’t find out how to go about doing it. So John and I wandered up and down the fence perimeter, looking at the machines, while most of the onlookers drifted off to indulge in the other attractions available. This was my third disappointment: the “carny” atmosphere surrounding the Chunk. There were midway rides and games, food vendors of every type, rock concerts at a nearby stage, a kiddie beauty pageant, cooking contests, and stalls hawking everything from Chunk souvenirs to bedsheets (I’m not kidding). And of course, many folks broke out fresh brewskies and the drinking continued apace. Hardcore Chunk fans had the closest parking spaces and had some of the most elaborate tailgating setups we’d ever seen; one included a platform with its own bar and beer taps and a flat screen TV.
In case this sounds like the day was a complete downer, it wasn’t: we bought a big bag of fresh, hot kettle corn and munched on that as we walked around; we were amused by the 800-pound Championship Trophy (the only prize the winner takes home; there is no cash award for the competition), and we got to see a rare Pumpkin Retriever at work:
By six o’clock it was getting dark and we were getting a bit tired and hungry. We decided to head into Seaford, check into our hotel and get some dinner. We threaded our way back through the denizens of the parking lot – drunks tackling each other, drunks tickling each other, drunks crying, drunks shouting and throwing footballs back and forth haphazardly, drunks toppling beer bottles and treading beer cans into the dirt – well, you get the picture. In the car, I turned to John and said, “Okay, I don’t need to see any more Punkin Chunkin,” and he agreed. We stayed the night in Seaford because it was too late to cancel our hotel reservation, and the next morning we got up early and headed back home, all Chunk’ed out.